Friday, 19 December 2008

Balkan ignorance

The history of the countries of the former Yugoslavia is a fascinating case study into so many areas of inquiry that we should have a far greater understanding and knowledge of the area than all but the most specialised scholars do.

Studying the Balkans tells us about modern warfare; statecraft; ethnic, racial and religious tensions and hatred; the rights of minorities; the rights of majorities; the nature of democracy; the arbitrariness of borders; post-communist conflict; Eastern and Western spheres of influence; the effectiveness of the United Nations, Europe and the international community in stopping genocide; international law; self-determination; liberal Western interventionism and the absurdity of nationalism. All this, and so much more, can be evidenced in the Balkans and just since 1991.

And yet, the averagely intelligent WATM reader will, like the WATM duo ourselves, be painfully ignorant of the causes and course of conflict in that region.

The topic is, of course, too gigantic to say anything intelligent at all in one blog post but more on this issue, like m'colleague's second post on moral relativism, will be coming soon.

One particular oddity of the situation in that region remains the naming of the Republic of Macedonia (sic). In respect of this naming 'dispute' Greece has acted like a petulant child. The Hellenic Republic objects to the term 'Republic of Macedonia' because it apparently implies territorial ambitions. What rot! Therefore, thanks to the Greeks, in international diplomacy the country is invariably referred to as, wait for it, 'The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia'.

This issue has been escalated to the highest levels of international diplomacy, without, so far, any firm result.

The Balkans have enough problems of their own making without these being compounded by a supposedly respectable Western, European Union democracy acting up. Greece should be a stabilising actor in a region with far to few hitherto stable neighbours.

In the coming weeks and months we hope to provide more posts on the Balkans because, we believe, that they are fascinating and important, especially for those of us with an internationalist outlook.

In the meantime, given the festive season, it seems appropriate to thank our handful of readers for sticking with us. To be honest, we could probably ring all of you personally to do so, but it would seem somewhat not in the spirit of blogging to do so. To all and sundry, then, WATM wishes you a very merry Christmas-time. We'll catch you in the New Year!

Friday, 12 December 2008

A case for intervention

Zimbabwe long ago became that most tragic of things - a country where the expectations are so low that each week's latest disaster fails to rouse much interest. The suffering of its inhabitants becomes less shocking. The economic collapse becomes a joke, with the currency as its butt.

It is simplistic to believe Zimbabwe was a shining beacon of excellence once. However the UN Food Programme was not feeding over half the country's population ten years ago. Through fear of being branded neo-colonialists, lack of interest and the worse form of moral relativism (see the second part of our moral relativism piece soon) the rest of the world sat back and did nothing. In 1990 the writing was very much on the wall - Mr Mugabe attempted to move the country to a one party state. In 2000 the land reform programme took to violently purloining land from farmers - obviously repellent behaviour, but the relativists wondered if past injustices made this more acceptable.

This week the disassociation with reality has continued. A cholera outbreak is taking lives near the capital and on the border with South Africa. Cholera sounds an antiquated disease, and it is. There is no reason for anyone in Zimbabwe to die of this disease, but we are barely surprised after the country's past, that another tragedy has befallen the nation.

It is time for the world to act. A force comprised of EU or NATO troops (the UK alone would play into Mr Mugabe's hand) is required to remove Mr Mugabe and support the transition to a government with an MDC presidency. The hand-wringing will, of course, commence. No amount of worry over the sovereignty of the country will change two facts. Firstly, the power-sharing deal is failing, and failing pitifully. Secondly there is a 2005 UN mandate that requires the world to protect people from crimes against humanity. When half a country is starving through the corrupt policies of a violently-preserved president the crime is all too plain to see.

Do not wait for the UN security council to act. The morally-bankrupt actions of China and Russia lead to a veto on any attempt to hold Mr Mugabe to account. The people of Zimbabwe cannot wait any longer for the UN to reform its decision making bodies. The senseless deaths through politically-inspired violence, starvation and disease have to stop. It's time to get a plan in place, to make an ultimatum and, if then required, forge an international force to depose Mr Mugabe permanently. The UN grants clear moral authority to do this. If China and Russia won't step up to the plate, then the rest of the world must.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Grow up Tories, would you please?

I think we need to settle down a little. And the Tories in Parliament need to get a grip.

While it is depressingly expected for assorted wrong-mos (© Sadie of the Tavern) on the blogosphere to self-combust in an explosion of indignation any time the Government does something they don't like and start shouting words like NAZI!!!!!! and POLICE STATE!!!!!!!!!!! it really has come to something when the official opposition start to react the same way.

Let us be clear, the police's searching of Damien Green MP's office may (let me emphasise may) have been badly handled, poorly judged and ill-conceived. It may have contravened important parliamentary privileges. But it is not, under any circumstances, whatsoever, evidence of a "surveillance state", "police state" or an "authoritarian government".

I think those who start bleating along those lines make themselves look foolish and diminish their own arguments, but that is not my concern. It is, however, my concern that that kind of language is extraordinarily offensive.

Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Cuba are authoritarian, surveillance and police states. The Soviet Union, East Germany and Afghanistan under the Taliban were and for those who live and lived under those regimes their life and the minute scrutiny and rigid conformism that they endured really cannot be compared to the inconvenience Mr Green has suffered. There are honest to goodness examples of police states in the world right now and they are each of them despicable and the rulers of them deserve nothing but contempt and the citizens of which deserve nothing but our help and admiration. The UK is not one.

So this approved message to the Tory Party is grow up. This kind of hysteria does nobody any good at all and diminishes the language which we dearly need to describe the kinds of regimes under which my writing this post would not be allowed.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Bad for the constitutions

One could be forgiven for seeing the recent protests in Bangkok heralded the coming of an South East Asian analogue of the Colour Revolutions. After Rose, Orange and Tulip (Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan respectively) which plucky group of democratic protesters would save Thailand from its government.

If only it were so simple. The airport demonstrators were almost entirely aligned to The Democrat Party, a somewhat ironically-named opposition party. They are democratic in the sense that, in the 2006 coup d'état, they supported the army. In this coup Thaksin Shinawatra was overthrown, and he, along with his party of Thai Rak Thai (TRT), are key to the story that has developed ever since.

Mr Thaksin is not an easy figure to summarise. He is, in his own words, 'not a perfect man'. This is a man who was condemned, famously, as 'a human rights abuser of the worst kind'. These comments stem from concerns that Human Rights Watch (HRW) have over the campaign Mr Thaksin led against the narcotics trade in Thailand's south. It is not to condone any wrongdoing that may have occurred if it is stated that HRW show something of lack of proportion in this statement.

For a Prime Minister who was dogged with these claims, and those of corruption, it was perhaps surprising how slowly the opposition could provide any evidence to the courts after the coup. In the evidence the charge was lamentable: that his wife had, in a sealed bidding process for a piece of land, put in the highest bid. Mr Thaksin was convicted on an anti-corruption law that prevents spouses of the government doing business with the state - hardly a ringing endorsement of the need for a coup. Earlier this year the erstwhile Prime Minster jumped bail and fled to the UK.

The coup replaced Mr Thaksin with the militarily-appointed Surayud Chulanont. Given the justification for the coup it surprising that Transparency International, and NGO that seeks to expose corruption, stated that Thailand had a "significant worsening in perceived levels of corruption in 2007".

Once the coup was over Thai Rak Thai morphed into the People's Power Party (PPP) and the impressively unpalatable Samak Sundaravej took over as Prime Minster, a man who helped incite violence at the 1976 student protests that led to 46 deaths. Not to be outdone the courts struck Mr Samak's premiership down on the grounds that he appeared as a TV chef, something apparently not compatible with his day job.

It is Mr Samak's successor, Somchai Wongsawat that this week's protesters have (successfully) sought to depose. In reality they have done so not because of the corruption allegations against him. The Democratic Party are loathsome, something well summarised by their comment that the PPP's power base, the rural poor (who Mr Thaksin championed improved health care for), are 'too ill-educated'. On numerous occasions the Democratic Party has accused the PPP or its precursor of being anti-royal. In the UK this may seem trivial, but in Thailand, with its surprisingly backward lèse-majesté laws, it is all to easy to paint an enemy as a denigrater of the King and thus influence the opinion of a public that is hugely fond of its monarch.

The king is not the cause of this trouble - he has indicated the importance of him being open to criticism. Unfortunately the farcical constitutional ban on criticism of the monarch allows the Democratic Party to act as the King's saviour. The protests are not about the forces of good democracy overthrowing a corrupt regime. They are about little more than the elite of Bangkok, who are shocked by the power the rural poor are able to wield by electing the TRT/PPP, seeking to redress the balance in their favour.

Accordingly the fall of Mr Somchai is a tragedy for Thailand's democracy, and could spell the beginning of yet another constitution for Thailand (this would be number 18), one that sought to limit the power of the rural poor and cement the influence of Bangkok elite.