Saturday, 1 November 2014
Since the Ebola disease was first detected in West Africa in March, it has claimed in excess of 4,800 lives (and rising), among them over 120 frontline medical staff tending to the ill. Double that number are infected. Thousands of children have been orphaned.
The virus is communicated through direct contact with bodily fluids such as blood, saliva and possibly sweat; and excreta (faeces and vomit), which accounts for its rapid growth and speedy spread over the past few months. However, it is not as contagious as say the common flu (influenza) that is transmitted through the air.
Usually the lives and sufferings of the poor in countries peripheral within the global economy are of little consequence in the capitalist core.
But in the epoch of increased mobility of persons across continents, a virus has no respect for race or colour or nationality; crossing international borders with its human carriers. Around 200 Sri Lankans are migrant workers in Liberia, and perhaps smaller numbers in Sierra Leone.
Panic in Western countries set in, particularly with no vaccine for its treatment currently licensed, when two US and Spanish nationals (and health workers) were diagnosed with the virus on return to their home countries.
Adding to the hysteria, US lawmakers have demanded a ban on all travel between that country and the entire West African region.
In another illustration of the new imperialism of ‘humanitarian intervention’, a number of voices have been raised for western troops to be deployed in the affected countries.
The international charity Oxfam, for example, has argued that the troops are needed for logistical support including to fly in supplies and aid workers, and to build treatment centres. Why these necessary roles are beyond the capacity or competence of African civilians or technical units of African militaries is unstated.
French troops are already on the ground in its former colony of Guinea; there are 750 British troops in its previous colony of Sierra Leone; and the US plans to have 4000 military personnel in its one-time protectorate of Liberia within weeks.
The Ebola crisis is an opportunity for the US to create the permanent security hub in West Africa it has desired. President Barack Obama pronounced Ebola to be a “global security threat”. Significantly, the US government has committed US$1 billion to support its military deployment, in comparison to US$350 million for humanitarian assistance.
While Oxfam has urged that Western troops should be under “civilian administration”, it is implausible that they will be under the command and control of African governments.
On the other hand, it is possible that their mission will expand to include Western security (Islamist militancy and narcotics trafficking) and economic agendas (including land-grabs for agro-exports, mineral extraction including oil and natural gas, and markets for western goods and services).
China has committed 200 medical personnel and pledged US$35 million in medical aid in a region where it has major commercial interests and over 10,000 nationals.
Cuba, on the other hand, has demonstrated its internationalism in practice by airlifting 165 medical personnel to the region, soon to be followed by 300 more, and with no economic or strategic interests in the region.
Why is there no vaccine for a disease known for almost 40 years?
Simple. There was no commercial value in producing one. It has only killed black people too poor to afford it by themselves. Poor people living in poor countries where the public healthcare, education and welfare system has been gutted by World Bank and International Monetary Fund ‘structural adjustment’ policies that slash social spending.
More money has been spent researching the conversion of the Ebola virus into a biological weapon than on developing drugs for its treatment.
Now, western governments are pledging funds to stem the spread of the disease, having poached scientists, doctors, nurses and technicians from West Africa to work for more money and in better conditions in western hospitals.
Ebola is as dangerous as it is because the people infected by it are poor, and live in poor countries.
If the victims were better nourished, better educated, with good water and sanitation, and access to primary healthcare and medicine, then the virus would have been easily managed.
Instead, they live in countries ruined by decades of neoliberal economic policies (interlinked with conflicts and ecological damage), and the consequences of this are clear to see in deaths that are preventable in the 21st century.
Meanwhile, the human toll from Sub-Saharan Africa’s three main diseases – malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS – will be in the hundreds of thousands this year alone; and with no hope of their eradication, in the near future.
For Publication in the November 2014 issue of Vame Handa
Monday, 22 September 2014
US President Barack Obama’s speech on 10 September in which he vowed to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the forces of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ signals a fresh imperialist military offensive in the Middle East.
Triggered by the ‘Islamic State’ (IS) rapid conquest of territory in recent months, including significant oil fields and refineries in Eastern Syria and Northern Iraq, capture of banks, and beheadings of three Westerners (two journalists and an aid-worker), US forces have begun air strikes on IS targets in Iraq.
The Obama Administration is also supplying arms to the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Northern Iraq, and will send thousands of ‘military advisers’ and ‘trainers’ to support the Iraqi Armed Forces.
The withdrawal of US forces from Iraq as of December 2011 is being reversed. In fact, some hope that the US will now be directly drawn into the conflict in Syria through aerial bombing of forces loyal to the dictator Bashar Al-Assad and direct support to Syrian rebel militias.
"[Obama] needs to demonstrate the potency of American firepower – to give countries pause before turning their backs on him", declared The Economist newspaper. The corporate media has been beating the drum for “American leadership”, amidst the ‘chaos’ in the Middle East constructed and projected on our televisions screens.
By "American leadership" is meant that that the US should use its military might to substitute for its political and economic failures at home and abroad; so as to preserve its hegemony in the post-cold war international order.
However, a clear-headed assessment of the historical record and current motivations of the US and its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies, is no defence or justification for the ‘Islamic State’.
Its ruthlessness is illustrated by the systematic rape and sexual slavery of women by its fighters; mass executions and beheadings of prisoners-of-war and civilians; and forcible conversion of non-Muslims on point of death; as well as expulsion of Shiite Muslims, Christians, Yazidis (Kurdish-speakers), and other religious, ethnic and cultural minorities from their homes.
Its proclaimed goal is to create a new state or caliphate (khilafah) unifying Muslims now divided across states and nationalities, but based upon its fundamentalist brand of Sunni Islam, and under the tyranny of its leader and self-proclaimed ‘Caliph’, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The IS strategy has been to conquer as much territory as it can, especially of areas where oil can be mined and sold for its self-financing; and to equate its struggle for power with a ‘global jihad’ against the West through recruitment of disaffected Muslim youth born and raised in those countries.
Of course, the IS did not spring from nowhere.
It is born of the desperation and humiliation of a people who suffered the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq, that caused 114,000 direct deaths and indirectly more than 1 million others and displaced more than 3 million civilians; and who have been politically marginalised because of their Sunni faith in the sectarian Shiite-dominated Iraqi state constructed by the US after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Like Al-Qaida and other terror organisations, the IS feeds off and grows from the fall-out of US foreign policy in the Middle East, including the unconditional support for Israel, and the devastation in Syria where over 191,000 people have died in just three years.
The IS ranks are renewed by Muslims from the West who endure greater racist violence and discrimination since the rise of Islamo-phobia following the September 11 2001 abomination by Al-Qaida, and the ‘war on terror’ unleashed by the US and its allies thereafter.
Until very recently the IS received funding from sources in Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, anxious to contain the rise of Shiite regimes in the region, and to support the IS military campaign in Syria against the Assad regime.
While Western governments stoke up public opinion by describing the IS as the greatest threat to human civilisation, at least since Al-Qaida, imperialist allies in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait also practise public beheadings, and amputations of limbs; lawfully discriminate against women and religious minorities; and treat foreign migrant labour as virtual slaves. Such is their shamelessness.
Imperialism is not a Conspiracy
It is one thing to (correctly) identify that imperialism is one of the parents of Islamist militias, as has been clear at least from western funding and other support for the Mujahideen in their war against Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
It is another thing to (falsely) argue that the ‘Islamic State’ is a drama being staged in the Middle East following the script of the US-NATO-Israel combine.
Imperialism is not some ‘conspiracy’ in which every move on the chessboard is known in advance and executed to plan by an all-knowing and all-seeing power.
This method of analysis is based on mystical and irrational analyses of social phenomena, unfortunately commonplace in the Sri Lankan Left.
Let us admit that whatever strengths the Marxist analysis of imperialism may have, there are no easy solutions to the humanitarian catastrophe that is taking place in that region and elsewhere, as millions of people are engulfed in brutal wars
We know that imperialist intervention will bring no long-lasting relief to the masses, and is shoring up the dictatorships of sultans and emirs in states that were created by colonialism and imperialism in the 20th century.
However, we cannot be indifferent to the real and ongoing sufferings of the people from forces such as the ‘Islamic State’; or tell them from our zones of comfort that this suffering must be borne in the name of standing against the primary enemy of imperialism.
Therefore, our political criticisms notwithstanding, we should support the armed resistance of the Kurdish Regional Government and of Kurdish militias from Turkey, Syria and Iran, who are now the only shield of defence for the unarmed civilian population from the marauding hordes of the IS; whereas the Iraqi Armed Forces that were trained and armed by the US with billions of dollars simply dropped their weapons at first sight of the IS.
At time of writing, the IS has been advancing on Kurdish villages on the Syrian border, leading more than 130,000 to flee their homes, legitimately believing that they will be massacred if they stay.
The Kurdish resistance including the Syrian YPG (Peoples Defence Force) and the Turkish PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) has the right to demand and receive support from any quarter, including western governments, especially of humanitarian aid such as tents and blankets, food and medicine.
As the editor of the Beirut-based Al-Akhbar newspaper recently commented, the peoples of the region face a triple threat: that of western ‘colonialism’ (or what we would call imperialism); of the tyranny of its local rulers (whether clients or opponents of the West); and of religious obscurantism (including Islamic fundamentalism).
The challenge for any democratic and socialist project in the Middle East is that all three threats have to be taken up together and at once.
For publication in the October 2014 issue of Vame Handa.
Monday, 15 September 2014
The horror and inhumanity of Israel’s latest military offensive on Gaza, beginning on 8 July, has shocked and outraged people all over the world.
More than 5000 air strikes on the besieged Gaza strip have left more than 2,090 dead; tens of thousands injured and disabled; and more than 100,000 displaced, as of late August.
500 children have been among the unarmed civilians killed as Israeli rockets targeted homes, refugee centres, schools and hospitals.
The western powers have unsurprisingly lined up behind the Zionist state, blaming Hamas for firing rockets and mortars into Israel, which have killed 64 soldiers and 4 civilians including a child and a Thai migrant worker.
“Israel has the right to defend itself”, said the US Senate, as it voted unanimously to increase military aid to Israel in 2015 to US$621 million.
To borrow from Raji Sourani of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, this argument equates “an occupier and the occupied, the oppressed and the oppressor and ... plays down the Palestinian people’s right to defend themselves”.
The Arab states, in an unspoken pact with Israel, back attempts at smashing Hamas through assassinations, aerial bombardment, and mass arrests. In the grip of despots, solidarity with Palestinians is secondary to safeguarding their own regimes from radical Islamists.
The Gaza strip has been under economic blockade by Israel since Hamas fairly won elections there in 2007. Since then, the people of Gaza are under ‘collective punishment’ for making the ‘wrong’ choice. Liberal and neo-liberal democracy is only supported when it produces the result desired by imperialism and its local allies.
Israel controls all movement of persons and goods into and out of the territory; as the Government of Sri Lanka did in its blockade of the LTTE-controlled northern peninsula. Short of food and medicines, basic consumer goods and building materials, and denied the opportunity to earn their livelihoods outside of Gaza including to fish more than 3km off its coast; Israel seeks the surrender of the people of Gaza by turning them against Hamas.
This strategy has failed; forcing the corrupt and submissive West Bank leadership of Mahmoud Abbas to sign a unity agreement with Hamas earlier this year. The Israeli assault on Gaza is a naked attempt to weaken if not destroy Hamas, which would also benefit the Abbas-led Palestinian Authority.
While Hamas is no friend of the working class and poor peasantry and deeply hostile to the Left, its violence against Israel has to be recognised as a reaction to the strangulation of economic and social life in Gaza; targeted assassinations of its leadership; the detention of hundreds of Hamas members and supporters in Israeli prisons; and the failure of international diplomacy and constitutional politics.
Meanwhile, Israel continues to build its ‘wall’ in the occupied West Bank, stealing Palestinian farmland and water resources, destroying homes and communities and creating Palestinian reservations as the US did with Native Americans and Apartheid South Africa did with Africans. The colonisation of Palestinian lands by Jewish settlers becomes the justification for militarisation and occupation by Israeli armed forces.
Government of Sri Lanka
What has the response of the government of the recipient of the ‘Star of Palestine’ award, and patron of the Sri Lanka Committee for Solidarity with Palestine, been?
An official statement piously said: “We are convinced that dialogue remains the only viable option that can effectively address the issues confronting the region and reaffirm our commitment to a peaceful solution.” Good advice for the Middle East but not apparently for Sri Lanka!
President Rajapakse recently announced the gift of US$1 million to the Palestinian Authority as humanitarian assistance. Likewise the European Union, who do nothing now to stop Israel from levelling Gaza into the ground, promise to give loans and grants once this round of conflict ends; rebuilding tomorrow what Israel has destroyed and will destroy again.
As a mark of protest, the principled approach would have been at the very least, to recall the Sri Lankan ambassador in Tel Aviv. But of course the Rajapakse government can do nothing more.
The close military ties that JR Jayewardene’s government established with Israel have deepened under this regime. Israel has been an important source of arms and equipment to the Sri Lankan armed forces during its military campaigns including in its final phase.
Israel has become a favoured non-traditional destination for Sri Lankan migrant workers. At least 7,000 of whom, mainly women, are contracted as care-givers to the elderly and the disabled and unofficially as domestic servants within the household. Men are employed largely as farm labour in harsh and exploitative working conditions without legal rights and protection of Israeli nationals.
In fact, there is a powerful pro-Israel lobby within the defence establishment led by Gotabaya Rajapakse; and within the political establishment led by Champika Ranawake. The admiration and support for a rogue state that officially practises ethnic cleansing, military occupation, and racist treatment of Arabs, is echoed in Bodu Bala Sena leader Galagodaatte Gnanassara’s threat to act like Israel, if Muslims in Sri Lanka challenge his movement.
Both Sinhala and Tamil nationalists have sympathised with Israel and not Palestine. Each identifies itself with Zionist ideology: believing themselves to be ‘chosen people’, inhabiting their traditional homeland, and encircled by hostile and alien forces. Both nationalisms have also been influenced by the global wave of Islamo-phobia, which each has connected with historical inter-ethnic conflicts and tensions with local Muslims.
Public action and protest against the Israeli bombardment has been disappointing. The official Committee for Solidarity with Palestine met with its patron, and organised a media conference of political party representatives on 22 July.
The Islamist Thowheed Jamath organisation organised a demonstration on 13 August, which the police tried to ban to prevent clashes with the Bodu Bala Sena’s rival protest. The limits of the Thowheed Jamath is reflected in its disinterest in mobilising outside of the Muslim community and in fact, its own supporters, for the protest. However, its courage in challenging the court order and holding its protest in Maligawatte should be recognised.
However, the first public protest in solidarity with the people of Gaza was organised on the initiative of several Left organisations, including the Nava Sama Samaja Party and Frontline Socialist Party on 31 July in front of Fort Railway Station. Its numbers were small and confined to its own circle of activists.
Solidarity with the Palestinian struggle in Sri Lanka has to break free from all three methods above: that is, elite politics; communal mobilisation of Muslims; and self-activity of Left radicals.
The global Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (‘BDS’) campaign should be taken up as the strategy for supporting the Palestinian resistance.
As its name indicates, the objective of the campaign is to treat Israel as the pariah state that it is, by boycotting Israeli goods and services; by removing investments in Israeli companies; and by using economic and other sanctions to isolate Israel.
Only a movement that mobilises large sections of society, cutting across ethnic and religious identities, will have the social and political weight to resist Israel and its imperialist allies, starting within Sri Lanka itself.
Stop the Bombing! Reopen the borders! Rebuild Gaza under democratic control of its people! Indict and Convict the Israeli war criminals!
Colombo -- 23 August 2014. Published in Sinhala in Vame Handa ('Left Voice'), Vol. 1, No. 3 (September 2014)