Domingo, 17 de Maio de 2009
The upcoming Moroccan municipal elections scheduled for next June face a big challenge. The latter does not only have to do with the competition among the political partners to win the largest number of seats possible, but also with securing a broad participation that befits an event directly related to running public affairs.
Despite forecasts of a 50% turnout rate in social strata of more than 13 million voters, a previous experience of abstention during the 2007 parliamentary elections dominated the political scene, at least as some political groups - to whom the low turnout participation was a punishment - embarked on self-criticism.
The method [of conducting elections] was not very palatable. Failure to conduct fair and transparent elections reflective of the true partisan and political maps dominated the struggle for power, a period during which the political elites were tamed and their projects undermined. In the meantime, and given the numerous setbacks, the gap widened between the government and the opposition. However, ever since these relations, marred by precaution and lack of trust, were redressed when the political transition took shape in 1998, hopes were revived and assessments diverged, with political realism gaining upper hand and coexistence endorsed as an alternative to time-consuming struggles in the framework of an imposed pluralism.
Succumbing to the de facto situation was a consensual choice dictated by data of future dimensions. The political forces that barricaded behind the wall of the opposition mustered a courage no less aggressive than conjuring up the missing understandings between the palace and the opposition. However, this belated attempt did not help answer all the questions. Nor did it meet all aspirations. Hence, the huge abstention was a mere spontaneous expression of a different kind of chasm that was getting deeper between the street and the political elites.
Between the boycotted practices that have proven their inability to absorb the genuine concerns related to the present challenges - with the emergence of many demands and aspirations tailored to the measure of the prevailing social, economic and cultural developments - and the ongoing behaviors and mentalities that overlooked these developments, the political scene stood at a standstill. After all, the reforms, regardless of their legal, political and procedural importance, are measured by how likely they are to bring about realistic approaches to change the prevailing structures, whether at the level of determining the role of the state, activating the political parties and benefiting from the experiences and aspirations of the civil society, or in terms of addressing and promoting reality. The coming municipal elections will be a mere test for willpower and capacity.
In such competitions that focus on running public affairs, political backgrounds will certainly come into play. Bygone is the time when the state was an economic actor and a key driver of the development cycles. However, to lift the burdens off the concept of the central state does not necessarily mean absolving it from its responsibilities in comprehensive rehabilitation which gives a space for the private sector and local producers and consecrates the decentralization of administrative decisions. Nevertheless, the global economic and financial crisis can not be overcome if roles are not redistributed. In this sense, new lessons must be learnt vis-à-vis the challenges of local development.
Just like other emerging democracies, Morocco has tried many recipes for state welfare and role of parties. It has also tried to reconcile economic and commercial privatization, benefiting from its revenues. This had taken place to the rhythm of questioned new developments. The importance of the forthcoming elections does not lie in their competitive aspect which is likely to redraw a semi-fixed map, but rather in the opportunity they present for contemplation and revision. Measured by the momentum of popular participation, advanced democracies gain their credibility first and foremost from renewing the ideas and elites and leading change.
The invaluably irreverent gossip-machine that is Bakchich has an interesting article in its No. 31:
A few days before the publication of Ban Ki Moon's piece of prose, the [Moroccan] interior ministry, locked down by Fouad Ali El Himma, proceeded to create a Sahrawi unit. This will operate in the shadows of the aforementioned ministry, which, eight years after the dismissal of Driss Basri, remains in control of the Saharan dossier. The exact task of this unit remains a mystery, but looking at its composition, one may fear the worst...
By royal decree of Mohammed VI, three Sahrawi walis -- Mohamed Ali El Admi, Mohamed Rachid Duihi and Khalil Dkhil - have been promoted to the rank of extraordinary walis ["walis détachés"] within the concerned minstry. With respect to the origins of the three men, the tribal balance has certainly been respected, but ... because there's always a but with the Makhzen: one of the men, Mohamed Ali El Admi, is a horrible torturer who served in the 80s in the refugee camps of Tindouf before joining Morocco. Known under the name of Omar Hadrami, he has savagely tortured both Moroccan soldiers who had been taken prisoners by the Polisario Front (who would be happy to do him in today) and Sahrawi prisoners of opinon, for whom he built a torture centre in Tindouf. In short, a reprehensible person who's got a CV just as reprehensible and who figures in the "best of" of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
[shoddy translation from french by western sahara info]
What Mr. Hadrami did between 1972 and 1990
The Omar Hadrami case always was something of a litmus test for both Polisario's and Morocco's propaganda. For Polisario, because they pretended that all was well within the refugee camps during the 1980s, while in fact unsavory characters such as Hadrami ran amok amassing personal power and silencing opposition. He was by all accounts widely feared in the camps, by supporters and detractors alike, and his stature was such that the relationship with secretary-general Muhammad Abdelaziz grew increasingly uneasy. He didn't lose power until the late 1980s, after he faced off with Abdelaziz in an attempt to grab power. The coup attempt led to traumatic disturbances in the camps -- of which Sahrawis are still reluctant to speak -- and in the end Hadrami and his collaborators were defeated and thrown in prison. He was however released relatively quickly, and named representative to Washington; still a very prestigeous post, but far from the centre of power in Rabouni camp. From there, he defected to Morocco. He was immediately promoted to governor and lavished with attention by the court and king Hassan II, and has appeared as its loyal Sahrawi face ever since, meeting with countless visiting delegations to tell his ghastly stories about what he saw happen in the Tindouf refugee camps.
But, thing is, as head of Polisario's military security apparatus, he was himself responsible for most of that abuse. This is rarely mentioned in the Moroccan press, just as Polisario would never have mentioned it while he was on their side. In the MAP's official CV, his Polisario years are left out entirely -- there's a curious gap between his 1972 graduation from a Moroccan university and his 1990 installation as wali. Amnesty International's reports on the conflict regularly feature this sour little line:
Those responsible for human rights abuses in the [Tindouf] camps in previous years continued to enjoy impunity. The Polisario authorities failed to hand over perpetrators still resident in the camps to the Algerian authorities to be brought to justice, and the Moroccan government failed to bring to justice the perpetrators of abuses in the Polisario camps present on its territory.
That's a not-too-veiled reference to Hadrami, and the AI has been even clearer:
"In the Polisario camps there was repression until 1992, says [Amnesty International's Donatella] Rovera." "It improved a lot after 1988 when they recognized this and asked forgiveness of their people." Amnesty maintains that Omar Hadrami, chief of internal security in the Polasario camps, actually was given a job at the interior ministry in Morocco after 1988. "If the Moroccans are serious about cracking down on torture, they should bring Hadrami to trial," Rovera says.
Human rights under Polisario
As for the human rights situation in the Tindouf refugee camps, some serious question marks remain. Most observers seem to agree that the repressive structures that were in place under Hadrami have been considerably liberalized by the 1991 structural reforms of Polisario, where the Front also expressly committed itself to multipartyism and other democratic treats -- after independence. A major Human Rights Watch mission that toured the camps extensively in 1995 -- just a couple of years after Hadrami was purged -- found that despite some problems, the situation was now "satisfactory" (the main exception being abuse of Moroccan POWs). The recent UN fact finding mission stated that there were no complaints of human rights abuse in Tindouf, even if a more thorough look at the situation would be necessary. Amnesty now refers to abuse in the camp almost exclusively in the past tense, noting that the Polisario has not -- contrary to Moroccan allegations -- tried to restrict investigations in camps (rather, "they went out of their way to assist us").
Even so, the clique around Muhammad Abdelaziz remains reluctant to share power, and while dissident voices are tolerated, they are neither encouraged nor given any serious chance to affect decision-making. On the grass-roots level in the camps, there is a decently democratic structure of local councils that run day-to-day business, but the sensitive political, military and economic decisions seem to rest in the hands of a select few. This is hardly out of the ordinary in the Maghreb, and by the standards of both liberation movements and refugee camps, the Tindouf exile republic comes off as positively ultraliberal. But nevertheless, the situation on the ground clashes with Polisario's attempts to construct a media image of itself as a shining beacon of uncorrupted desert democracy, and an increasing number of Sahrawi youths are fed up with the stagnated ruling elite.
The Ould man out
However, there's more in the Bakchich article. It goes on to note that, while we don't know who is behind the appointment of the group -- the inner workings of the Makhzen are no less obscure than, say, the legendarily intransparent Algerian military elite -- it's easy to tell who the move has been directed against. Because there is a name missing from the list: the monarchy's all-time palace Sahrawi, Khelli Henna Ould Errachid.
Now, this could perhaps be because he already has a platform -- the CORCAS council, of which he is the formal head. But, honestly, Khelli Henna never was the one to shy away from salaried titles, was he? No. As Bakchich points out, all three interior ministry Sahrawis are long-standing enemies of Ould Errachid, and this must be interpreted as a move to directly undermine him. Omar Hadrami in particular has long been seen as his main rival, and the two men are said to absolutely loathe each other.
In favor of the favored
A peculiar twist is added by the fact that both Duihi and Dkhil are former members of PUNS, an organization set up by Franco to act as the territory's only legal party in the dying days of Spanish fascist rule. Established essentially to draw support from Polisario, the PUNS faithfully advocated Spain's line down to the letter: it demanded the independence of Western Sahara under Spanish guidance, longed for "privileged relations" with Madrid, and most of all, it hotly contested any Moroccan or Mauritanian ties to the territory -- for such was Spanish policy right up until the Madrid Agreement. As the Green March approached, the PUNS leadership even declared itself ready to fight a Moroccan entry with arms in hand to preserve Sahrawi independence hand in hand with Spain. Who the leader of the party was? Why, a certain Khelli Henna Ould Errachid -- then the most outspoken defender of a Sahrawi-Spanish alliance against the machinations of both "expansionist" Morocco and "communist" Polisario. Once again something that will not figure in the official biographies.
As Spain began to withdraw -- and made clear to Khelli Henna that he was no longer slated to become Western Sahara's first president -- all three of Franco's Sahrawis suddenly discovered their Moroccan roots. And ever since 1975, they've been paraded as proof that the Sahara always was and always will be Moroccan.
However, as the case of Mr. Hadrami makes abundantly clear, a shared past doesn't necessarily mean a shared future. The palace Sahrawis have been at each others throats ever since, competing for power and privilege. Morocco has always had a policy of encouraging Sahrawi tribalism -- divide and rule -- and the fortunes of its Sahrawi finger puppets have shifted with the mood of the Makhzen, not to mention with the fortunes of competing clans within the Moroccan power structure. For long, Khelli Henna appeared to be the king's go-to-guy, and he has been allowed to amass a huge fortune through semi-legit businesses in El Aaiún (he and his brother -- who formally runs the business empire -- are sometimes called the richest men in the Sahara). But given his less than impressive performance as head of CORCAS, perhaps the monarchy has decided it is time for another spin on the wheel of Sahrawi fortune?
But don't worry. Some things never change -- and should Western Sahara one day become independent, there will be few Sahrawis who will celebrate as loudly as these three. By then with a fresh set of inexplicable gaps in their CV:s.
In the last couple of weeks, infighting within the palace-friendly elite in Morocco’s majority slice of Western Sahara seems to have reached boiling point. At the heart of it lies the continual squabbling within CORCAS, which, as you know, is short for the Royal Consultative Council for Saharan Affairs, but it seems mainly to serve as cover for a set of political, financial and personal rivalries which run all the way into the Moroccan regime elite, the makhzen.
CORCAS, you may recall, was (re-)established in 2006 to provide a reliably controllable voice for pro-Moroccan Sahrawis in the state’s campaign to promote autonomy as an alternative to a referendum. “Here,” the palace would say, “is the legitimate voice of the Sahrawis — it’s not the separatists.” Pretty good idea, if not always a convincing act, given how transparently obvious it is that the group is run on remote control from Rabat. (POLISARIO, which has its own embarrassing credibility issues with regards to its ties to the Algerian deep state, seems like a jolly band of maverick independents in comparison.)
Most problematic, however, is that they are a quarrelsome bunch, this motley of tribal sheikhs, businessmen, go-betweens, POLISARIO defectors, and makhzen clients. It worked for a while, just paying them a fat salary to toe the line, but in the past year or two, rivalries within CORCAS has rendered the group nearly inoperable, with constant bickering and large parts of the membership sometimes boycotting sessions. Far be it from me to claim any deeper insights into Saharo-makhzenite clan politics, but at the core of it all seems to be the hostile relations between CORCAS chairman Khellihenna ould el-Rachid and his brother Hamdi, on the one hand, and the group gathered around another southern strongman, Hassan Derham, on the other.
Khellihenna ould el-Rachid
Khellihenna ould el-Rachid
Khellihenna is a native to the territory, and a veteran politician. He started out as chairman of the PUNS, a Spanish marionette organization which demanded “privileged ties” with Franco’s Madrid; later moved towards demanding independence when that seemed to be the winning bet; only to end up by discovering the Sahara’s eternal Moroccanity in 1975, as the Kingdom’s troops began pulling up on the border. Ever since, he’s been the most well-known Sahrawi face for Moroccan rule, although his fortunes temporarily dipped with the loss of support from regime pillar Driss Basri, who was cast out of power when Mohammed VI took the throne. He then returned in grand style in 2006, as M6’s anointed chairman of the CORCAS, and has since been back in business. In business, incidentally, is also his brother Hamdi, who aside from politics (multiple stints in parliament) acts as the family cashier, and whose privileged ties to the country’s political and military elite has allegedly made him the richest man in the Sahara.
The other gentleman involved, Hassan Derham, is also a politician-businessman, and also firmly implanted in Morocco’s Saharan patronage and clientèle system* However, he is not himself Sahrawi, but rather of the Aït Ba Amran, a south-Moroccan Berber tribe (with their own grievances against the state). Unlike the el-Rachid brothers, who are aligned with the Moroccan Istiqlal party, Derham now works with its rival leftist offshoot, the USFP, having previously been involved with pro-palace parties MP and RNI. Given the way their respective party affiliates faced off in the 2007 parliamentary elections, it’s obvious there’s little love between them.
It now seems that Derham’s supporters have withdrawn from some CORCAS sessions of late, joining protests against Khellihenna’s impopular and autocratic style of management and his refusal to inform council members of what’s going on (in reality, it may be that he isn’t himself very well informed, since decisions are taken not in CORCAS meetings, but in Rabat; CORCAS serves to provide media and local Big Man endorsement). I wouldn’t be too surprised if it transpires that Khellihenna’s comments about Moroccan mass killings of Sahrawis in 1975, which were published to his great embarrassment and presumably to no help in relations with the government, were also strategically leaked in this context. But what do I know.
The most recent development is that local USFP politicians have complained to Interior Minister Chakib Benmoussa about how some El Aaiún land lots were granted by the municipality to private individuals — in effect, they’re saying that state resources were used for a vote buying scam (which, given the way the Moroccan part of the Sahara is run, appears plausible to the point of goddamn obvious). Hamdi ould el-Rachid is apparently the one targeted, and he promptly shot back through Istiqlal papers with accusations of corruption in the local USFP (meaning Derham’s men). However, it seems the Ministry has decided to start an investigation of the matter. If so, that’s bad news for the el-Rachid brothers, since regime corruption in the Sahara is not something a minor clerk will decide to start digging in on his own — he’d be digging his own grave, more likely. If the courts and the government follow through with this affair, it must presumably mean that Derham has some serious backers for a push to clip the wings of Hamdi and Khellihenna, whose star has for some time been fading again.
At least that’s my guess. To add a note of caution, all of the above is my own interpretation of what I’ve gleaned through the press, not necessarily as accurate and detailed as I’d like, and I’m sure there are all kinds of nuances to add. Obviously, neither CORCAS nor other Saharan politics can or should be reduced to a rivalry between two clear-cut teams, given the vast complexities of tribal and other politics in these areas, and that’s not the impression I want to give either. So, you’re all most welcome to chime in with both comments and corrections.
Finally, a couple of closing thoughts:
* Where is POLISARIO in all this? I’m sure they’re doing their very best to fan the flames of discontent, but it seems unlikely they could even hope to rally the losers in this battle, given the extraordinarily strong ties of both factions to Morocco. So maybe Chairman Abdelaziz will just sit back with a bowl of popcorn to watch how the game plays out, casually giving the rumor mill an occasional spin to keep things going?
* And do the Saharan elite scuffles have any relation to the election of another influential pro-palace Sahrawi, Sheikh Biadillah, as leader of the PAM, Morocco’s soon-to-be dominant political party, run behind the scenes by royal confidant Fouad Ali el-Himma? It’s sure to affect the center of gravity in Moroccan Sahrawi politics, wherever that actually lies.
— — —
*) Curiously, he was accused a few years back of double-dealing with Sahrawi nationalists, allegedly having links to a Mauritanian businessman involved with something concerning the POLISARIO oil sales campaign. But since nothing ever came of it, I assume it might have been just political slander, although these kinds of ties across the Berm are probably a lot more common than either side would want to acknowledge.
CAIRO, Al-Qaida in North Africa said Sunday it would kill a British hostage if London does not release an imprisoned radical preacher .
The group said in a statement posted on an Islamist Web site that it will execute a British tourist held by the group since late January if the extremist Muslim preacher Abu Qatada is not freed in 20 days.
Abu Qatada, a Palestinian-Jordanian, was jailed in Britain in 2002 for links with militant groups but was released in 2005. He was re-arrested and is pending deportation to Jordan where he was sentenced to life in prison in absentia.
Britain's lower courts said he couldn't be deported because of his fears he would likely be tortured but the Law Lords ruled there was no proof of a real risk to him.
Four tourists, including two Swiss, a German woman and a British man, were kidnapped by gunmen Jan. 22 in Niger, their tour operator said.
Two of the tourists, a Swiss and German woman, were subsequently released on Wednesday along with a kidnapped Canadian diplomat and his assistant. The kidnappers said they were exchanged for four of their imprisoned fighters.
In addition to the British man, another Swiss tourist remains with the kidnappers.
Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa, known by the French language acronym AQMI, is an Algeria-based group that joined Osama bin Laden's terrorist network in 2006 and conducts dozens of bombings or ambushes each month. It operates mainly in Algeria but is suspected of crossing the country's porous desert borders to spread violence in the rest of northwestern Africa.
After the recent hostage release by the southern/Saharan wing of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), there has been much political and military movement in Algeria, Mali and the surrounding countries. According to numerous press rumors, a major joint operation in the border areas is about to go into action any day now.
The political arguments have centered around vague but barely concealed insinuations of state support for AQIM’s southern wing, although there’s precious little proof offered by anyone involved. Libya is the state most in the crosshairs, for allegedly funding or/and facilitating the payment of fat ransoms to AQIM, in a deal also involving the Malian state releasing AQIM members in return for someone’s thick wad of cash. Algeria is livid over this, and parts of the éradicateur press is so upset as to appear slightly deranged in its accusations against all and sundry for conspiring to undermine state security.
However, in fact Algeria has good reason to be upset, if one disregards the hyperbole. The government quite rightly believes that ransom payments encourages new kidnappings, and that this — not to mention the prisoners releases — is what keeps the southern AQIM networks running. Algeria also worries, again rightly, that such money will filter up to AQIM’s northern strongholds in the Kabylie, from where the group continues to inflict damage on the Algerian state and military. However, European governments do not seem to give a damn about this, as long as they can bring back their citizens safe and sound; while the poorer local governments are fine with whatever they’re paid most to be fine with, since they don’t stand a chance of securing these areas alone anyway. So the kidnapping circus continues.
Bouteflika has for some time, after offering amnesty upon amnesty, shown signs of exasperation with this whole AQIM business, and the Algerian army appears to be slowly reverting into extermination mode in its treatment of insurgent holdouts. Presently, then, the country is spearheding efforts to pull together a major pan-Saharan/Sahelian coalition to hit AQIM hard, either to cripple it militarily or to at least establish a steep deterrent cost for fucking with Algeria’s south. Among the other nations coming along for the ride, convinced by a mixture of stick and carrot from Algiers, are of course Mali, but also Niger and Mauritania, the two remaining neighbors to the area of concern. You can count on the US to cheer them on and supply whatever is available of satellite imagery and other expertise. However, it seems that Algeria is steering the bandwagon, quite in line with how it has been asserting itself as the maker-or-breaker of regional security in the last few years, and perhaps also for honestly feeling there’s nothing left to do but shoot its way out of this painful deadlock.
Militarily, things have been progressing quickly. A bunch of army units were just pulled down from the Algerian north towards the border, and high-level military coordination between the countries concerned is proceeding apace. For example, Niger’s chief-of-staff flew up to meet with the Algerian top brass (Gaid Saleh and Guenaizia), and Mali’s defense minister did the same some days ago. At the same time, Algiers has started airlifting military supplies to the Malian army in preparation for the expected assault, and minor manhunts are already running, with claims of an important kill just the other day.
How big this will be is impossible to tell: perhaps just a quick crackdown on the areas under suspicion, and brush-up of border security through reinforcements and coordination? But it seems like bigger things are in the making. In so far as the press can be trusted (a big if, admittedly), a large-scale sweep is more likely, although I guess the key to it all is not scale per se, but rather how long it will go on and what it will leave behind. In any case, one should remember that while the Touareg rebellion in Mali’s north just quieted down, the situation remains unstable and is liable to be affected in some way by any major military offensive. On the other hand, there’s no better time to go at it than now, when there’s no hot war complicating matters; and in fact, decisively settling the Touareg conflict may well be one of the unspoken motives for the push.
Also worth bearing in mind is that two European hostages remain in the hands of AQIM. It has demanded that Britain release Abu Qatada, a Jordanian-Palestinian preacher with longstanding ties to al-Qaida’s core leadership as well as to the Algerian Jihadi movements (he used to be sort of a chief Mufti for the GIA back in the day, and later encouraged the GSPC split which evolved into AQIM). That could turn into some nasty headlines.
Algeria’s El Khabar reports that the Sahel countries* are “temporarily” postponing their offensive against al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) for two weeks. The reason is said to be that unnamed European countries have pressured Algiers to wait until they can get the remaining two AQIM hostages (from the UK & Switzerland) released.
This supposed to happen “within weeks”, and hopefully no later than July, after negotiations with the AQIM group of Yahia Djouadi (Abu Ammar) have “made great progress without substantial concessions to the group holding them”. The negotiations are said to involve tribal mediators and “Salafists from Europe”. Worth recalling, then, that AQIM had demanded the release of Abu Qatada al-Filastini from British jails.
*) Algeria, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso. Oh, and who’s missing?
Morocco has decided to open diplomatic relations on the level of ambassador with the Republic of Palau, a Micronesian island-state with a population of 21,000 souls.
Will this not be a strain on foreign ministry resources? Not at all, since Morocco recently severed ambassadorial ties with Venezuela and Iran, freeing up two experienced ambassadors for this important mission. Clearly, the men in Rabat are planning ahead.
Previous game-changing diplomatic moves in the region: the Sahrawi Republic establishes relations with Vanuatu.
In his latest column for the New Statesman, John Pilger describes the catastrophe facing the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, whose distant voices have appealed to the world for almost as long as the Palestinians.
In the early 1960s, it was the Irish of Derry who would phone late at night, speaking in a single breath, spilling out stories of discrimination and injustice. Who listened to their truth until the violence began? Bengalis from what was then East Pakistan did much the same. Their urgent whispers described terrible state crimes that the news ignored, and they implored us reporters to “let the world know”. Palestinians speaking above the din of crowded rooms in Bethlehem and Beirut asked no more. For me, the most tenacious distant voices have been the Tamils of Sri Lanka, to whom we ought to have listened a very long time ago.
It is only now, as they take to the streets of western cities, and the persecution of their compatriots reaches a crescendo, that we listen, though not intently enough to understand and act. The Sri Lankan government has learned an old lesson from, I suspect, a modern master: Israel. In order to conduct a slaughter, you ensure the pornography is unseen, illicit at best. You ban foreigners and their cameras from Tamil towns like Mulliavaikal, which was bombarded recently by the Sri Lankan army, and you lie that the 75 people killed in the hospital were blown up quite wilfully by a Tamil suicide bomber. You then give reporters a ride into the jungle, providing what in the news business is called a dateline, which suggests an eyewitness account, and you encourage the gullible to disseminate only your version and its lies. Gaza is the model.
From the same masterclass you learn to manipulate the definition of terrorism as a universal menace, thus ingratiating yourself with the “international community” (Washington) as a noble sovereign state blighted by an “insurgency” of mindless fanaticism. The truth and lessons of the past are irrelevant. And having succeeded in persuading the United States and Britain to proscribe your insurgents as terrorists, you affirm you are on the right side of history, regardless of the fact that your government has one of the world’s worst human rights records and practises terrorism by another name. Such is Sri Lanka.
This is not to suggest that those who resist attempts to obliterate them culturally if not actually are innocent in their methods. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have spilt their share of blood and perpetrated their own atrocities. But they are the product, not the cause, of an injustice and a war that long predate them. Neither is Sri Lanka’s civil strife as unfathomable as it is often presented: an ancient religious-ethnic rivalry between the Hindu Tamils and the Buddhist Sinhalese government.
Sri Lanka as British-ruled Ceylon was subjected to a classic divide-and-rule. The British brought Tamils from India as virtual slave labour while building an educated Tamil middle class to run the colony. At independence in 1948, the new political elite, in its rush for power, cultivated ethnic support in a society whose real imperative should have been the eradication of poverty. Language became the spark. The election of a government pledging to replace English, the lingua franca, with Sinhalese was a declaration of war on the Tamils. The new law meant that Tamils almost disappeared from the civil service by 1970; and as “nationalism” seduced parties of both the left and right, discrimination and anti-Tamil riots followed.
The formation of a Tamil resistance, notably the LTTE, the Tamil Tigers, included a demand for a state in the north of the country. The response of the government was judicial killing, torture, disappearances, and more recently, the reported use of cluster bombs and chemical weapons. The Tigers responded with their own crimes, including suicide bombing and kidnapping. In 2002, a ceasefire was agreed, and was held until last year, when the government decided to finish off the Tigers. Tamil civilians were urged to flee to military-run “welfare camps”, which have become the symbol of an entire people under vicious detention, and worse, with nowhere to escape the army’s fury. This is Gaza again, although the historical parallel is the British treatment of Boer women and children more than a century ago, who “died like flies”, as a witness wrote.
Foreign aid workers have been banned from Sri Lanka’s camps, except the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has described a catastrophe in the making. The United Nations says that 60 Tamils a day are being killed in the shelling of a government-declared “no-fire zone”.
In 2003, the Tigers proposed a devolved Interim Self-Governing Authority that included real possibilities for negotiation. Today, the government gives the impression it will use its imminent “victory” to “permanently solve” the “Tamil minority problem”, as many of its more rabid supporters threaten. The army commander says all of Sri Lanka “belongs” to the Sinhalese majority. The word “genocide” is used by Tamil expatriots, perhaps loosely; but the fear is true.
India could play a critical part. The south Indian state of Tamil Nadu has a Tamil-speaking population with centuries of ties with the Tamils of Sri Lanka. In the current Indian election campaign, anger over the siege of Tamils in Sri Lanka has brought hundreds of thousands to rallies. Having initially helped to arm the Tigers, Indian governments sent “peacekeeping” troops to disarm them. Delhi now appears to be allowing the Sinhalese supremacists in Colombo to “stabilise” its troubled neighbour. In a responsible regional role, India could stop the killing and begin to broker a solution.
The great moral citadels in London and Washington offer merely silent approval of the violence and tragedy. No appeals are heard in the United Nations from them. David Miliband has called for a “ceasefire”, as he tends to do in places where British “interests” are served, such as the 14 impoverished countries racked by armed conflict where the British government licenses arms shipments. In 2005, British arms exports to Sri Lanka rose by 60 per cent. The distant voices from there should be heard, urgently.