Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Little Town of Tawang: the Dalai Lama’s Headache

I have an article up at Asia Times, China yearns for peace on southern flank, that covers China’s efforts at the BRICS conference in Hainan to rebrand itself as “regional leader” (instead of the contentious “***hole of Asia”) as it hunkers down for a politically difficult and dangerous summer of simmering discontent in Tibet and in the Han areas.

Part of this effort appears to involve making nice with India on the issues of trade and the perennial border disputes in the Aksai Chin region of Kashmir in the west and Arunachal Pradesh in the east.

In the article, I tweak the Dalai Lama for the Tibetan government’s century-long gyration over the town of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh.

Arunachal Pradesh is a mixed bag of ethnicities and confessions: Burmese to the east, local animists/Buddhists in the center, and, on the western boundary, Tibetan Buddhist.  The major market town in the Tibetan region is Tawang.

You might call Tawang triple-Tibetan: it’s in a Tibetan cultural area, it has been a major center of Gelugpa Tibetan Buddhist practice for centuries (the 6th Dalai Lama was reincarnated there; the town hosts a large monastery); and it holds a special place in the history of the modern Tibetan resistance.  The Dalai Lama entered India from the PRC at Tawang in 1959, and actively patronizes the monastery and the town.  In addition to its ethnically Tibetan residents, Tawang also hosts a considerable number of Tibetan refugees.

In 1914, at Simla, the Tibetan government acquiesced to the inclusion of Tawang into British India by endorsing the McMahon Line.  The British wanted to alienate a piece of Tibet from China to create a buffer zone; the Tibetan government wanted to gain international recognition by treating directly with Great Britain, and apparently decided that giving up Tawang was an acceptable price to pay.

The Chinese government never accepted the Simla accord or the McMahon Line, and that rejection forms the basis of the PRC’s outstanding claim on Arunachal Pradesh—which it calls South Tibet.

It appears that, regardless of who was claiming what, governance in the remote town was in the hands of the Tawang monastery.

Anyway, in 1947, India achieved independence and the Tibetan government in Lhasa decided to try its luck with the new administration.  It wrote a letter asserting that Tawang should be administered by Lhasa.

India had other ideas.

An article in the Guardian indicates that the Tibetan government flip-flopped on Tawang again in 1950, while in the process providing an interesting picture of the dismal governance record of Tibetan elites before the Dalai Lama fled to India and was recognized as humanity’s shining light:

Pema Gombu says he has lived under three flags: Tibetan, Chinese and Indian. Although his living room is decked with pictures of the current Dalai Lama, the 81-year-old says the Tibetan administration in the early 20th century was the worst.

"The [Tibetan] officials in that time were corrupt and cruel. I am sure his holiness did not know this. In those days if a Tibetan stopped you they could ask you to work for them like a slave. They forced us to pay taxes. Poor farmers like me had to give over a quarter of our crops to them. We had to carry the loads 40km [25 miles] to a Tibetan town as tribute every year."

It was this treatment that turned Tawang away from Tibet. Mr Gombu said he helped guide Indian soldiers into the town in 1950 who carried papers signed by the Tibetan government which transferred Arunachal's 35,000 square miles to India. "It was the happiest day of my life."

Judging from Pema Gombu’s references to Tibetans, he’s probably ethnic Monpa.  Monpa are an ethnic group that adopted Gelugpa Tibetan Buddhism in the 17th century and center their religious practices on Tawang.  They form the demographic backbone of Tawang.

Although they are “Tibetan Buddhists” i.e. followers of the Gelugpa sect, they aren’t Tibetans, as the history of Tawang makes clear.

The India-friendly Wikipedia entry on Tawang states:

[Tawang] came under effective Indian administration on February 12, 1951, when Major R Khating led Indian Army troops to relocate Chinese squatters. India assumed control and sovereignty of the area and established democratic rule therein to end the oppression of the Monpa.

It would appear that the Indian government used the same justification to take control of its Tibetan areas as Beijing did: to rescue the local inhabitants from the corrupt and brutal rule of their Tibetan overlords—possibly the government in Lhasa, but more likely the overbearing bosses of the monastery in Tawang.

In best divide-and-conquer fashion, I suspect the Indian occupiers aligned themselves with the disenfranchised Manpo majority in order to erode the local standing of the Tibetan elites—and Tibet’s claim on the area.

Which makes it pretty clear that the the Dalai Lama is now called upon to confirm Indian rule over a place his people used to run until the Indian government kicked them out until 1951, and which the Indian government has been working actively to alienate from Tibetan influence ever since then.


Anyway, in 1986, the territory—previously the North East Frontier Authority-- was organized as the state of Arunachal Pradesh.

In 2003, as the Times of India tells us, HHDL went “off the res” and once again asserted that Tawang was part of Tibet, but later back-pedaled:

NEW DELHI: For the first-time, Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama has said that Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, a territory that's still claimed by China, is part of India.

Acknowledging the validity of the MacMohan Line as per the 1914 Simla Agreement in an interview to Navbharat Times , he said that Arunchal Pradesh was a part of India under the agreement signed by Tibetan and British representatives.

In 2003, while touring Tawang, the Dalai Lama had been asked to comment on the issue, but had refused to give a direct answer, saying that Arunachal was actually part of Tibet. China doesn't recognize the MacMohan Line and claims that Tawang and Arunachal Pradesh are part of its territory.

The statement is bound to impact the India-China dialogue, as Beijing has already stated that if Tawang is handed to it, it will rescind claim on the rest of Arunachal Pradesh. The Chinese proposal is strategically unacceptable to India, as Tawang is close not just to the northeastern states but also to Bhutan.

After the Dalai Lama’s 2009 trips to Japan and Arunachal Pradesh, the Indian press reported that he had stated categorically that Arunachal Pradesh and Tawang are part of India.

I suspect that his statements are really more nuanced.  Tawang is obviously part of the traditional Tibetan cultural and administrative sphere, and the Dalai Lama’s preferred position, I think, would be that the Tibetan government and people agree that India administers the area at present, while implying that the issue would merit revisiting at a future date.

As I say in the article, going along with Indian claims to Arunachal Pradesh are simply the cost of doing business for the Tibetan government-in-exile, reliant as it is upon Indian good offices for a haven in northern India.

The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government have been given a home in Himachal Pradesh, which shares a boundary with the Tibetan Autonomous Region but way out west and remote from the heartland of the Lhasa and the Tibetan plateau.  Himachal Pradesh itself is 95% Hindu and no hotbed of Tibetan independence sentiment.

The emigres are thereby quarantined, appeasing Beijing and also making sure that the Dalai Lama’s leadership of the emigre community does not translate into incitement of Tibetan nationalism vis a vis China or the Manpo—and the Manpo’s patron, India--as it might in Arunachal Pradesh.

The Indian government keeps the Dalai Lama on a tight leash concerning Arunachal Pradesh, rarely allowing him to travel there—except apparently, when the Indian government wants to tweak China, and when it feels confident that the Dalai Lama will not assert Tawang’s Tibetan character in an inconvenient fashion.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

North Korea, America, and the Lure of Food Aid

Virtue is its own reward, intransigence is infinitely satisfying, and masturbation is an end in itself.

That’s my feeling about the “three stage” negotiation process for North Korea, that requires a meeting of the minds between Lee Myung-bak and Kim Jung-Il.

Going nowhere, is my prognosis.

And that’s why my piece for Asia Times is titled, America’s Plan B for North Korea...Track II

My basic thesis:  Lee Myung-bak’s hardline policy has led Western North Korea policy into a cul-de-sac.  North Korea, backed by China, is simply running out the clock until the ROK presidential election and a hopefully more favorable constellation of forces.  The United States discretely pursues Track II (non-government engagement) with North Korea to wean Pyongyang from Beijing.

What are they going to talk about?

Nukes are off the table as a serious topic of discussion.  Even pre-Libya, US policy was based on the idea that North Korea would never give up its nukes.  Post-Libya, even the most gullible dictatorship realizes that a nuclear weapons program is an indispensable insurance policy.

Food aid is apparently the preferred currency of discourse.

North Korean food aid is an interesting, politicized issue.

North Korea’s current difficulties in providing adequate nutrition to its population are a matter of widespread agreement, although Andrey Lankov harrumphed a couple years ago that the FAO had been overly pessimistic in its assessment of North Korean agriculture.

At one time, North Korea’s agriculture was highly collectivized, input and technology intensive, reliant on irrigation and mechanization, employing only 25% of the population, and successful in feeding its people.

Although natural disasters and soil exhaustion from decades of multi-cropping and extension of farming into marginal lands have played their role in depressing production, the day of reckoning for North Korean agriculture clearly came with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the evaporation of the low-cost energy, fertilizer, and mechanical inputs that the North Korean agricultural system depended on.

By the mid-90s, fertilizer usage, previously among the highest per-hectare in the world, fell to 23% of previous levels as crude oil imports fell to 40% of their peak.  Almost 60% of the tractors and trucks were sitting around idle for want of fuel or parts, and mechanical degradation and power shortages sent the elaborate irrigation system straight to hell.

GDP was halved, agricultural output crashed, from a surplus-generating 8 million tons per year to dearth levels of less than 6 million tons per year.  Perhaps two to three million people died in the resultant famine.

Ever since North Korea has limped along, tilling, harvesting, threshing (and losing production) with an decreased mechanical and petrochemical/increased human and draught animal component, short of irrigation and fertilizer, lacking a grain reserve, and pummeled by a series of floods and other disasters, with a grain shortfall of somewhere between 800,000 and 1,000,000 tons per annum

From the perspective of the North Korean leaders, the fundamental problem is probably not viewed as one of agricultural reform or managerial incompetence by government apparatchiks (though those these factors probably exacerbated the crisis), it is one of inputs.

The DPRK is not interested in responding to its difficulties by abandoning the agricultural and industrial model that served it quite well until the late 1980s and sending its urbanized proletariat back to the countryside to labor in the fields like beasts.

Instead, Pyongyang  is simply trying to keep things together, starving its population, mooching food aid, engaging in risky proliferation, arms sales, and other criminal economic stunts to earn forex for grain (and nuclear technology) imports, hoping and working for a change in the political climate that will allow it to acquire once again the relatively modest foreign energy inputs that underpinned its economy during its halcyon days.

In absolute, global terms-- even in regional and national terms-- fixing North Korea does not involve huge numbers.

The FAO estimates that in 2010-2011 North Korea will be short 867,000 tons of grain.  It has the wherewithal to import 325,000 tons itself.  The shortfall to be covered by food aid is 542,000 tons.  Even when the recent spike in rice prices to $600/ton is taken into account, covering this requirement would require less than $350 million dollars.

Agricultural experts estimate that $1 worth of fertilizer would produce $8 worth of rice, which implies that less than $100 million in fertilizer assistance would go a long way in alleviating North Korea’s food problems.

One study ballparked that undoing the ravages to North Korea’s agricultural infrastructure might be undone at a cost of under US$1 billion in capital and equipment programs over four or five years.

By contrast, the first 17 days of the Libyan no-fly mission cost the Pentagon $608 million dollars.

Of course, the United States is not the only power that could solve North Korea’s problems “easy as kiss my hand”. 

South Korea could do it, although it is anathema to the current regime.

And there is China, though Pyongyang is loathe to sacrifice its independence and economic assets in return for Chinese aid.

And there is—counterintuitively--North Korea.

Looking at the structure of North Korea’s economic difficulties and the mindset of its leaders, it would appear that the preferred route for Pyongyang would be to regain unfettered access to the world trade and financial system—especially its markets in Japan and South Korea—so it could satisfy the relatively modest import demands of its admittedly third-rate economy.

In the current environment, having elicited entrenched, politically self-reinforcing hostility in South Korea and Japan, and with China sidelined in Asian councils as a disturbingly destabilizing authoritarian economic and military force, North Korea’s best chance for a breakout is the United States.

And that may be why North Korea is talking.

And that’s why its talking about food.

Because talking about nukes is, by mutual understanding, off the table for the near future.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Does Abdul Halim Khaddam Have Anything to Do with What's Going on in Syria?

Is Saudi Arabia Showing George W. Bush How to Run the Regime-Change Table in the Middle East?

Saudi Arabia has engaged in some extremely public and forceful pushback against Middle East unrest in general and Iran in particular.  In some quarters, it’s being called the Saudi counter-revolution.

Is the pro-Iran/pro-Hezbollah Assad government in Syria the next Shi'a domino?

Iran’s Press TV certainly thinks so.

In an op-ed entitled Saudi Arabia, Jordan Behind Syria Unrest, the authors write:

Saudi Arabia, which often bows to US and Israel's policies in the region, tried to destabilize Bashar al-Assad's government by undermining his rule.

To this end, Saudi Arabia paid 30 million dollars to former vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam to quit Assad's government.

Khaddam sought asylum in France in 2005 with the aid of Saudi Arabia and began to plot against the Syrian government with the exiled leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Khaddam, who is a relative of Saudi King Abdullah and former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri, used his great wealth to form a political group with the aim of toppling Bashar al-Assad.

The triangle of Khaddam-Abdullah-Hariri is well-known in the region as their wives are sisters.

Khaddam's entire family enjoys Saudi citizenship and the value investment by his sons, Jamal and Jihad, in Saudi Arabia is estimated at more than USD 3 billion.

Therefore, with the start of popular protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, the Saudi regime saw an opportunity to drive a wedge between Tehran, Damascus and Beirut axis.

Due to the direct influence of the Saudi Wahhabis on Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, the people of the cities of Daraa and Homs, following Saudi incitement and using popular demands as an excuse began resorting to violence.

It is reported that the United States, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia formed joint operational headquarters in the Saudi Embassy in Belgium to direct the riots in southern Syria. Abdul Halim Khaddam, who held the highest political, executive and information posts in the Syrian government for more than 30 years, is said to have been transferred from Paris to Belgium to direct the unrest.

The reason for this was that based on French law, political asylum seekers cannot work against their countries of origin in France and therefore Khaddam was transferred to Brussels to guide the riots.

Jordan equipped the Muslim Brotherhood in the two cities with logistical facilities and personal weapons.

Although, Bashar al-Assad promised implementation of fundamental changes and reforms after the bloody riot in the country, the Brotherhood followed continued to incite protesters against him.

The Syrian state television recently broadcast footage of armed activity in the border city of Daraa by a guerilla group, which opened fire on the people and government forces. It is said that the group, which is affiliated to Salafi movements, obtained its weapons from Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Because Syria's ruling party is from the Alevi tribes associated with the Shias, the Brotherhood, due to its anti-Shia ideas, has tried for three decades to topple the Alevi establishment of the country.

Hence, the recent riots in Syria are not just rooted in popular demands and harbor a tribal aspect and Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the US are directing the unrest for their future purposes.

Press TV aside, Abdul Halim Khaddam--who used to be Hafez al-Assad's right hand man/fixer before coming up short in the succession struggle--is insisting he’s just letting human nature and pent-up demands for freedom drive events in Syria without any help from him. 

In this recent picture, Khaddam looks quite comfortable in his plush Parisian digs, purportedly purchased through the generosity of his brother-in-law, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and/or acquired as the result of his own billionaire-level business acumen, so maybe he’s just kicking back and letting politics take its course inside Syria.

Of course, in his own words he’s “working around the clock to set an executable plan to achieve [his] targets”, but we’re led to believe that relates to the political struggle after popular unrest has kicked the props out from under the Assad regime.

He’s also willing to foment anti-Iranian and anti-Shi’a sentiment, something that would please his alleged patrons in Riyadh.

In 2006, Khaddam told had this exchange with an interviewer:

Q: What are you current priorities? Do you want to reform the regime, reform it, or topple it?

A: This regime cannot be reformed so there is nothing left but to oust it.

Q: But how will you oust it?

A: The Syrian people will topple the regime. There is a rapidly growing current in the country. Opposition is growing fast. I do not want to oust the regime by military coup. A coup is the most dangerous type of reform. I am working to create the right atmosphere for the Syrian people to topple the regime.

In another interview in 2006—the year he optimistically expected the Assad regime to fall-- Khaddam elaborated on the theme:

Gulf News: On January 14, you announced you would form a government-in-exile that would take over power when the government of President Bashar Al Assad collapsed, but nothing has happened since then. I have contacted opposition forces in London and Washington who welcomed your move but said they have not heard from you. What happened to the government-in-exile idea and are you going to cooperate with the existing opposition forces or form a government of your own supporters?

Abdul Halim Khaddam: I am working with different opposition forces which exist inside Syria and in exile. We are discussing the formation of a government-in-exile. Its main task will be to fill the power vacuum in the country and be in action after the collapse of the regime in Damascus.

I am discussing my proposal directly with the leaders of opposition factions or through mediators. We are looking to foster and strengthen cooperation among different opposition factions, including Muslim Brotherhood, which are banned by law in Syria since 1980. We will announce a programme for a democratic change in Syria that will include all the topics and the issues to be handled by the opposition in the next stage.

We are working round-the-clock to set an executable plan to achieve our targets and to benefit from the blunders committed by the regime in recent years. The regime has handcuffed itself through a chain of fatal mistakes which will help the opposition overthrow the totalitarian regime and launch a democratic era.

Khaddam also beat the anti-Iran and anti-Shi’a drum in 2007—a worrisome combination for Assad, who as a member of a small Shi’a-esque minority sect, the Alawites, reigns over a Sunni majority (an interesting inversion of the situation in Bahrain--Sunni sheiks lording it over disgruntled Shi'a majority):

Khaddam speculated that Assad's regime was being infiltrated by Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps with Iranian intelligence agents having penetrated the Syrian political and security circles. He pointed to an agreement between Syrian and Iranian security organs, a mutual defence agreement signed in 2006 between Tehran and Damascus and a "broad co-ordination between the security organs in the two countries which covers Lebanon and Syria".

Khaddam accused the Iranian ambassador to Damascus of leading the Shi'itisation process in Syria, saying: "Shi'itisation is a political phenomenon carried out by the Iranian ambassador to Damascus with the objective of creating a political situation that is tied to Iran, and this activity is dangerous as it lays the ground for sectarian strife in Syria".

At the very least, Khaddam showed more message discipline that an organization called the Reform Party of Syria.  The only conspicuous achievement of the group mentioned on its Wikipedia page was an endorsement of Nicolas Sarkozy for President (of France).

The RPS, although referred to by the World Tribune (itself the perhaps less than authoritative mouthpiece of the politically-wired Soka Gakkai cult in Japan) as "authoritative", appears to have jumped the shark with its recent backgrounder.  It stated:

Iran has deployed its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria to bolster Syria's defense. The Washington-based opposition group said the IRGC contingent in Syria includes 10,000 troops, with headquarters in the northern province of Homs. 

"In essence, the IRGC now occupies Syria and has become its de facto ruler," RPS spokesman Farid Ghadry said. "Syria has become the 32nd province of Iran." 

Leaving levity aside, the references to Abdul Halim Khaddam caught my eye because of a sad, sober post by Josh Landis, one of America’s premier Syria-watchers, on his blog, Syria Comment:

The Syrian revolution struck home yesterday. My wife, Manar Qash`ur [Kachour], burst into tears last night as she read the Facebook page that has kept her updated on events in her hometown, Latakia. Lt. Colonel Yasir Qash`ur, who was Manar’s cousin and 40 years old, was shot in Banyas on Sunday. He was one of two Lt. Colonels and 10 military personnel killed – more were wounded. Yasir’s funeral was held in the village this morning – Monday. My brother-in-law, Firas, and father-in-law, Shaaban, both attended.


My father-in-law said on the phone this morning that it seemed that supporters of ex-Vice President Khaddam, who was from Banyas, were behind the attack. It is said that they had set a trap for the military unit. All this is speculation, however. We know precious little about who is killing whom in Syria. Allegations are numerous. Real knowledge is scarce.

There is a widespread enthusiasm for acknowledging the popular character of the demonstrations against Assad.

There is intense unease about exploring the role of armed provocateurs in trying to foment more extreme anti-government unrest.

Al Jazeera—which appears an enthusiastic cheerleader for the Syrian protests, even as it seems to show a willingness to hew to the Saudi line in downplaying reporting on the anti-Shi'a crackdown in Bahrain—did run a video segment on Inside Story Syria: Conspiracies and Condemnation.

Judging from the version on Youtube, it was originally called Conspiracy over Syria Protests; perhaps that title was considered to give excessive credence to the government’s claims.

To an almost ludicrous extent, the moderator, Nick Clark, tried to get his three panelists to comment on video footage aired on Syrian state TV that showed a white Honda riding down a street in some Syrian town with guys firing automatic weapons out the window.

The panelists admitted in passing that it was plausible that gunmen had joined the anti-government protests.

Nobody was willing to discuss the implications, preferring to treat the footage of gunmen—true or not—as simply an attempt by the government to misdirect attention away from the genuine protests.  The panelists critiqued the lack of evidentiary meat on the reportorial bones, and used their lack of interest in the clip to emphasize that the Syrian state media—and by implication, the government—had lost credibility.

That white car, with “a chap hanging out firing a machine gun”, as Clark put traction.

The possibility that the gunmen were pro-government irregulars has subsequently been floated in the media courtesy of pro-demonstrator spokespeople.

A similar vow of omerta seems to apply to the ambush of the Syrian Army patrol that killed Josh Landis's in-law. 

One would think the death of nearly a dozen soldiers in an ambush would be considered a remarkable development, considering that the death of equivalent numbers of demonstrators is a world media event. 

It’s also rather shocking that, in an acknowledged authoritarian state like Syria, somebody could come up with the wherewithal to mount a successful attack on a rather sizable military patrol.

But even in news for Banyas, the reports of an ambush are virtually a non-story, as the media concentrates on the crackdown instead.

On Josh Landis’ site, a pro-demonstrator commenter advanced the story that one member of the unit had killed the rest of the soldiers in a fit of patriotism, rather than fire on demonstrators.

If reports in Syrian media are truthful, this would have been a remarkable display of determination and marksmanship.  In addition to nine dead, twenty three were wounded.  Admittedly, Nidal Malik Hasan killed and wounded more at Fort Hood, but those victims were on base and unarmed; the Syrian soldiers were on patrol and presumably within reach of their weapons.

The pro-democracy slaughter line seems less likely than the story of one of the survivors:

Mazin Fittimi reported that he was sitting in the front part of the convey when armed men ambushed and rained them with bullets and grenades from nearby buildings and water sewage canals at 'Al-Qwz Bridage'.

In the Arab press, Khaddam asserted that his home town of Banyas had a long history of repression, persecution, discrimination and marginalization and “don’t need anyone to guide them”.

We’ll see.

Whether or not Khaddam is Saudi Arabia’s Chalabi for Syria doesn’t get a lot of airing in the regional press. 

Whether or not he has assets in his home town that would mount an attack on a government convoy is apparently not a matter of widespread interest.

And that doesn’t even go into the matter of Rifaat Assad, Hafez Assad’s brother—and Bashar Assad’s uncle—who tried to take over in a coup and was exiled to France.  Rifaat is also married to one of King Abdullah’s sisters.

So that means that the former Number 2 and Number 3 in the Syrian regime are both eager to see Bashar fall on his behind; and both are close to Saudi Arabia, which now appears to be, more than ever, willing to take positive action to sideline its enemies.

Of course, the Assad regime, as the al Jazeera panel pointed out, has been counterproductively coy and vague about the conspirators it claims are dead-set on undermining the government.

Is the Syrian government just blowing smoke?  Trying to build a persuasive case before they name names?  Afraid to provoke an open breach with the Saudi and Jordanian governments by publicly accusing Khaddam and Rifaat Assad?

Is Syria trying to get the word out indirectly through the willing, eager, but less than respectable outlet of Iran and Press TV instead?

These questions might be worthy of some more media attention.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Tibetan Refugees and the Gentleman's Agreement in Nepal

I wrote a piece entitled China tests Nepal's loyalty over Tibet for Asia Times.  The article’s hook is that hundreds of Tibetans make the dangerous, arduous, and expensive trek from the TAR through Nepal to Dharamsala every year...and over half of them go right back to the PRC after a short visit.

"Returning to oppression" doesn't quite fit the refugee profile of "fleeing oppression".

You’re curious, I’m curious, the Chinese are more than curious as to the motivations and, more importantly, the identities, of these ostensible religious tourists. 

It’s an interesting article about an interesting subject: the “gentleman’s agreement”, enabled by US government financial and diplomatic support,  which allows the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to shelter Tibetan "transit" refugees in Nepal and facilitate their circular trek to and from India and back to the PRC.

The unspoken quid pro quo appears to be that, in return for Nepal's acquiescence to the "gentleman's agreement", the West turns a blind eye toward the Nepalese government's efforts to please Beijing by vigorously thumping the "resident" refugee Tibetans who live in Nepal and demonstrate against China.

How long the gentleman's agreement will continue as emigre Tibetans become more militant and China becomes more entrenched in Nepal's politics interesting question.

Shi’ites Increasingly Beyond the Sunni Pale in Bahrain

Great minds—or at least the editors and writers of Asia Times—think alike, in this case agreeing that there is something fundamentally creepy about the crackdown on Shi’a demonstrators in Bahrain.

Ever since the Peninsula Shield Force moved over the King Fahd Causeway, the Sunni hardliners have asserted that the Shi’a demonstrators are fundamentally disloyal, stirring up trouble on behalf of Tehran and, in the most extreme formulation, should “go back to Iran”.

I characterized the Bahrain action as part of a Saudi-led counter-revolution, meant to shift the framing from democratic agitation to the Iranian threat in order to give the authoritarian Sunni regimes greater freedom of action.

Pepe Escobar sounded the same theme in his AT article, The sweet smell of counter-revolution.

In particular, the Bahrain government has gone out of its way to depict the unrest as a “sectarian” conflict between Sunni and Shi’a, not a political dispute between the authoritarian government and a disenfranchised group.

No appeals to patriotism or patience or moderation; just a brutal, pervasive crackdown against Shi’a politicians, Shi’a media, Shi’a human rights activists...

It’s an odd formulation for Bahrain, where Shi’a account for more than 50% of the population and, indeed, were the original inhabitants of the island before the Sunni sheiks showed up.

On the other hand, if one looks at Bahrain as little more than another province of Saudi Arabia—the Gulf states’ version of Nevada, the one with the drinking and whoring and gambling concession (it came it at No. 8 in the world ranking of Sin Cities, according to one unscientific poll )—maybe it’s more feasible to depict the Shi’a as a detestable and disloyal minority afflicting the Arabian peninsula.

In any case, to me the effort to smear the Shi’a as a despised underclass for the purpose of constructing Sunni superiority reeks of racial politics in the South and anti-Jewish policies in Germany in the 1930s.

In these cases, the ostracization of a marginalized group was used to assert the supremacy of the dominant class, while claiming that the underclass was fundamentally disloyal and an existential threat to the system.

For the Gulf Co-operation Council bloc led by Saudi Arabia, it seems the anti-Shi’a line in Bahrain is part of an effort to set up a clear antithesis between the Gulf states and Iran.

Saudi Arabian outrage runs the full gamut from subversion by Republican Guard agent to Shi’a domination of the grocery trade.

Here’s a taste, from a fireeating backgrounder—Persian conspiracy seen to target GCC countries-- given to Arab Times on the occasion of a GCC summit devoted to trumpeting the Iranian threat:

Sources affirmed all the GCC countries is currently headed towards reducing the Iranian workforce, especially those employed in the distribution of food products, due to the pressure they have put on the Bahraini government by closing their shops and refusing to sell food items to people in line with the evil plan, which poses a grave threat to social security.

In my piece, China under pressure over Saudi rise, I quote from another Asia Times writer, Derek Henry Flood, titled Dangerous change rattles Bahrain.  He entered Bahrain during the crackdown and reported:

Asia Times Online spoke with Nabeel Rajab, the outspoken director of Bahrain's Center for Human Rights. Rajab candidly outlined the outbreak of gross human-rights violations directed against the island state's Shi'ite majority population in recent weeks.

"It is intimidation ... every Shi'ite [Muslim] is a target," Rajab said of the overall climate of fear gripping the kingdom. Rajab described in detail a campaign of a fear being waged not only in villages in the shadow of the once glittering capital but now in downtown Manama itself.

He said the appearance of graffiti supporting King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, desecration of traditional food offerings left outside husseiniyas (Shi'ite religious halls), and a plethora of humiliating checkpoints where being caught with any imagery related to the uprising or bans on photography can lead to a severe beating coupled with interrogation.
During a recent visit to a local hospital, Rajab noticed posters of King Hamad and other leading members of the al-Khalifa dynasty that low-level hospital workers of suspect allegiance were apparently urged to kiss in a display of coerced allegiance.
According to a Western diplomat who spoke to Asia Times Online, the active placement of foreign Sunni soldiers in Bahrain's military was an effort to firmly consolidate the kingdom's place as a Sunni power, however minor.
Rajab, who was detained on March 20 in a night raid that terrified his family, depicts what amounts to a policy of collective punishment being deployed against the monarchy's now possibly irreconcilable subjects along with an economic implosion that is shaking the nation to its core.
As I said, creepy.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s Rulers Goose-Step to the Brink of the Abyss

Update: Justin Gengler, a University of Michigan graduate student, did demographic work in Bahrain and is blogging on his findings at Religion and Politics in Bahrain.  According to Gengler, the government of Bahrain has been engaged in stealth naturalization of Sunni immigrants (and, if I read the article correctly, naturalization of Sunnis resident in the Saudi city of Dammam) in order to dilute the Shi'a majority.  He takes issue with the commonly reported 70/30 Shi'a/Sunni split that I used in this post.  According to his research, conducted in 2009, the population of Bahrain is now on the order of 58% Shi'a and 42% Sunni. CH, 4/5/11

While we are diverted by the opera-bouffe spectacle of the civil war in Libya’s desert, a genuine tragedy—and potential geopolitical trainwreck—is unfolding in Bahrain.

Those plucky demonstrators we saw occupying the Pearl Square roundabout in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, have been swept away by government security forces—together with the 300 foot monument at the roundabout, which came to symbolize the aspirations of the protesters and was therefore demolished by the government in a representative display of heavy-handedness.

The Bahraini government received an important assist from Saudi Arabia, which dispatched troops and tanks under a mutual security pact of the Gulf Co-Operation Council called Peninsula Shield.

The government has gone to great and dangerous lengths to paint the democratic aspirations of the peaceful, largely Shi’a demonstrators for democracy as a sectarian assault on the emirate backed by that Gulf boogeyman, Iran.

The repression has turned into an operation of conspicuous bigotry, brutality, and mendacity that does not bode well for the future of the emirate, political liberalization inside Saudi Arabia, or peaceful coexistence between Iran and the Gulf states.

In recent days, Bahrain has used live ammunition—shotguns—against demonstrators and blanketed Manama with checkpoints, some manned by personnel masked with sinister black balaclavas. After a group of Shia legislators resigned in protest, the government officially accepted their resignations—so they could strip the legislators of their immunity and render them liable to criminal charges. Main opposition newspaper—shut down. Only hospital in Manama—occupied by security forces so that wounded demonstrators can be apprehended, abused, and/or disappeared.

In classic Orwellian doublespeak, the government declared that the hospital had been “liberated”. “Liberating” the hospital apparently involved beating at least one male nurse senseless in the parking lot.

Beneath it all, a dangerous undercurrent of government fear and rage.

It looks like the Bahrain and Saudi security forces are utterly out of their depth. Their state of reference is pursuing and suppressing terrorists. By treating these peaceful, non-sectarian demonstrators as sectarian terrorists, they seem to be sowing the seeds of the emirate’s eventual destruction.

The expected outcome of systematic government-directed hatred would be ethnic cleansing, but there’s one problem with that. Shi’a are not a marginalized and easily purged minority; they are the majority, accounting for about 70% of the native population. The Sunni—who dominate the island in cooperation with their Saudi allies—are the minority. If one counts the large army of foreign workers in the emirate, the Sunni bosses account for less than 10% of the population.

No wonder the Sunni emir felt he needed some Saudi muscle.

The prognosis seems to be embittered Shi’a majority and paranoid Sunni rulers in Bahrain. Even under ordinary circumstances, Shi’a are inclined to a lively sense of grievance concerning historical and current Sunni persecution, raising the prospect of security problems for Saudi Arabia in handling its own Shi’a minority (about 15%) even after the stompings and beatings quiet things in Manama.

The big story in the Gulf appears to be that many of the governments, with weak to non-existent popular bases, vulnerability to democratic agitation, an inability to accommodate dissent (unless “accommodation” means bouncing a nightstick off somebody’s head and hauling them away), and an uncertain sense of where the Obama administration stands on the whole "democratic values vs. strategic interests" conundrum, are panicking and in need of a scapegoat to justify heavy-handed security measures that will otherwise alienate significant (ironically, significant moderate) sections of their populace.

The spooked regimes are justifying their disproportionate reaction by claiming the demonstrations are part of a seditious scheme sponsored by Iran and Hezbollah. A war of words has already broken out between Iran and Bahrain and Saudi Arabia over the issue. Turning the Gulf states’ rhetoric against them, Iran declared that Bahrain has forfeited its legitimacy, implying that Iran can do an R2P intervention on behalf of the embattled Shi’a of Bahrain like the humanitarian intervention the Gulf Co-operation Council incited in Libya.

The clownish nature of reporting on Bahrain was revealed when a leader declared he wanted the emirate to solve its problems without outside interference, Iranian or Saudi. This was of course headlined in the Saudi-owned al Arabiya as Bahrain’s Shiite opposition asks Iran not to meddle.

The seemingly suicidal line of framing the issue as Iran-fueled sectarian jealousy instead of legitimate democratic agitation was carried on in the article by a Bahraini official:

"We want to affirm to the world that we don't have a problem between the government and the opposition ... There is a clear sectarian problem in Bahrain. There is division within society," Sheikh Khaled said.

Don’t forget Kuwait, which is about to execute two Iranians and a Kuwaiti for spying, is expelling three Iranian diplomats from Kuwait, and has withdrawn its ambassador from Tehran.

An informative article on the Kuwait affair in Arab Times quotes an analyst in Dubai as saying that “the Kuwaiti government was ‘under huge pressure from Sunni MPs ... and the media to take action, not to let this go without proving their displeasure.’”

An April 3 article in Arab Times, Persian Conspiracy seen to target GCC countries, gives another hint of where things are going, along the line of runaway paranoia, scaremongering, and propaganda overreach, courtesy of that ubiquitous government mouthpiece, "Sources say":

KUWAIT CITY, April 3: The Iranian plan includes dangerous plots against the Gulf nations, not just Bahrain. Kuwait, in particular, is one of the targets and the spy network is only a tip of the iceberg, because the main objective is for the Iranian Naval Forces to invade some islands in the country and other Gulf nations under the pretext of protecting Shiites in Bahrain, say security sources in the Gulf.

Sources disclosed the Bahraini and Kuwaiti foreign ministers revealed the conspiracy uncovered by the security departments in both countries in the recently-concluded meeting of the GCC foreign ministers in Riyadh. After hearing the report, the GCC foreign ministers presented recommendations, which will be implemented soon, because the GCC nations are keen on revealing the truth to the international community.

Sources said the implementation of the Iranian plan started several months ago, claiming the chaos and conflicts in Bahrain are just the beginning of an attempt to disrupt peace in the Kingdom. Sources revealed the initial plan was for the unrest to continue for two to three weeks in order to give the Iranian, other Arab and international satellite stations enough time to extensively cover the massacre of Shiites in the country.  

Consider that plot to have the international media to "extensively cover the massacre of Shiites" pretty much foiled.

One doesn’t hear much about the brutal suppression of dissent in Bahrain in the Western media.

Ssome say the Libyan adventure was part of a plan to distract the West with a lovely little war against a crazy dictator so the journos wouldn’t be out covering the over-the-top suppression of a bona fide democracy movement by Saudi Arabia’s BFF (and host to Commander, United States Naval Forces Central Command (COMUSNAVCENT) / United States Fifth Fleet and 1500 US personnel) Bahrain.

Credit where credit is due: Newsmax, which often traffics in eye-rolling right-wing paranoia, had a good article on Bahrain by Ken Timmerman. When Newsmax has to carry the load for American news organizations, you know the situation is pretty grim.

Iran’s PressTV has tried to make Bahrain their CNN/Al Jazeera moment.

There is a sizable void to fill, since CNN has reported very little on Bahrain (four of their correspondents were detained and released only after signing "an undertaking not to exceed the limits of their mission"--they ostensibly entered Bahrain to report on "social media" but instead tried to report on the disturbances).

I didn't find any signs that the U.S. State Department stood up for America's press freedom agenda in this particular case.

Al Jazeera, owned by Qatar, has no interest in airing the dirty and/or bloody linen of the emir next door.

Bahraini hospitality toward news-gatherers of the Persian menace obviously has its limits.

Press TV's most recent report featured its Bahrain correspondent, Aris Roussinos, pushing a luggage cart through Heathrow Airport while giving an informative and thoughtful interview on the kinds of things that the Bahrain government was apparently not at all keen on him seeing as he spent a week in Bahrain evading the authorities and observing the crackdown.

If freedom-loving consumers of global media find Iranian reporting intolerable, however, here’s a 17-minute clip from an Australian investigative show called Dateline. It features nervy reporting by reporter Yaara Bou Melhem from inside Bahrain, and a stark picture of the hidden war that we’re not supposed to see.

The report can be viewed in its entirety at Dateline's website.

The reporting is deliberately low-key, a welcome contrast to the hyperventilating outrage needed to keep the humanitarian intervention balloon inflated in Libya (or the anti-Iranian jihad barreling along in the Gulf states, for that matter).

In one sequence, a Human Rights Watch representative directs the reporter’s attention to a crime scene that has come to symbolize the worst excesses of Bahrain’s riot police: the place where a young man, Hani Jumah, was beaten. Apparently, he was not a demonstrator; he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time as riot police swept the area. The camera pans on the bloodstained floor of a deserted construction site as the HRW staffer relates with forensic detachment: “We found fragments of his kneecap...we also found one of his teeth.” And you’re left to wonder: how does someone get beaten so severely a piece of his kneecap is dislodged from his body? The young man was taken to the hospital for treatment, then got disappeared from the hospital. His family was summoned to retrieve his body four days later.

I originally found the Dateline clip on the Facebook page of Bahrain’s leading human rights activist, Nabeel Rajab. He’s featured in the report, describing how 25 masked security personnel paid him a night visit to object to his activities with a three-hour session of interrogation and verbal and physical abuse.

A consistent theme is the persistent efforts of the regime and its personnel to characterize opposition as “sectarian”. One wounded protester described being beaten in the hospital (before he was transported to a police station for further beatings) and being told that he had ruined the country and would be “sent back to Iran.”

Nabeel’s site is mostly in Arabic. But if you open Google translator in a separate tab, you can cut and paste the text and a surprisingly good English translation floats onto the screen like a message from another world—which, if you think in terms of the media blackout in Bahrain, is exactly where it’s coming from.

Before and after pictures of the Pearl Monument from the Happy Arab blog.