Sunday, 27 January 2013

Asia Times: No easy choice for Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR - Animosity between Malaysia's two leading political coalitions - the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) and opposition Pakatan Rakyat - has run high following the opposition-led Himpunan Kebangkitan Rakyat mass rally held earlier this month in the capital's iconic Merdeka Stadium.

Many argue that the political climate has never been so polarized ahead of the country's 13th general elections, democratic polls that have the potential to bring enormous political, economic and social change.

BN, led by the United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO), has held power consecutively since Malaysia achieved independence from colonial Britain in 1957. Pakatan Rakyat - a coalition of the People's Justice Party (PKR), Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) - looks to build on the historic gains it made at the 2008 polls, where it initially won control of five out of 13 state assemblies.

Since then, few have acknowledged the emphasis that Prime Minister Najib Razak has put on deconstructing draconian legislation that once allowed for indefinite detention without trial and scoop arrests of government critics. Clearly, there is a vocal and undeterred segment of the population which values civil liberties, freedom of expression, and free assembly to whom he is bidding to appeal.

The fact that this month's political rally occurred without incident is a sign that his administration is more comfortable with liberalization than previous UMNO-led administrations. While Najib has eased rules regarding the publication of books and newspapers, the next administration would gain enormous public support by relaxing controls on grass roots political expression, including allowances for greater citizen participation in checking and balancing alternative media.

At the same time, many of the states under Paktan Rakyat's control have experienced administrative mismanagement, including cases of water shortages that have left people without basic utilities. Despite claims that it would reduce water tariffs, the PAS-led administration in Kedah State has instead increased them.

In Selangor, reserve levels of treated water neared zero because of prolonged spells of hot and dry weather. Nonetheless, budget restructuring and tight conditions introduced under the watch of the Selangor government have halted the construction of needed water treatment plants, despite the current plants running at near maximum operating and distribution capacity.

Institutions such as the Malaysian Water Association (MWA) and Syabas (the water concessionaire in Selangor State) have criticized the Paktan Rakyat-controlled Selangor government for mismanaging the state's water resources, stating, "either they don't understand water management or they just refuse to understand. They are just politicizing it".

The fact that these untested state governments have mismanaged state resources to the point where people lose access to necessities like water will not be forgotten among many Malaysian voters. BN is not a perfect coalition, but its component parties have over the years demonstrated their capacity to agree on political programs.

The opposition, on the other hand, is marred not only by disagreements between their component parties but also with inner party disputes. Though ideologically incompatible, Pakatan Rakyat's component parties have allied through political necessity to further their own individual programs and agendas.

Tensions are emerging, however. PAS members, such as Shahnon Ahmad, have cast doubt on the party for no longer adhering to the needs of Islam by working together with the DAP. In response, PAS spiritual leader and veteran politician Nik Aziz referenced how the Prophet Muhammad cooperated with Jews and non-Muslims in ancient Mecca by signing the Treaty of Hudaibiya, which was negatively perceived by the Prophet's followers as a concession to non-Muslim enemies. Aziz was quoted saying, "however, the Muslims managed to capture the city after that".

To some, Aziz's comments insinuated that PAS is only cooperating with Paktan Rakyat's component parties to further its own program of founding an Islamic state governed under hudud law. PAS has advocated gender segregation, dress code requirements, a crackdown on high heels and lipstick, banning movie cinemas, and a ban on Valentine's Day, all of which the party views as immoral.

Such a political program only appeals to a limited demographic of the Malaysian population, and imposing the will of Islamists onto non-Muslims would undermine religious freedoms and civil liberties. The introduction of such laws in a country like Malaysia would thus represent a dictatorship of a theocratic minority over the multi-faith majority.

The focus of the next administration should arguably instead be centered on safeguarding the religious and cultural freedoms that binds together Malaysian society. Yet there are questions emerging about Pakatan Rakyat leader Anwar Ibrahim's liberal credentials, including on issues of dissent and political expression.

The recent lawsuit filed by Anwar against political scientist Chandra Muzaffar provides one such insight. Anwar pressed charges against Chandra for saying that his hypothetical tenure as prime minister after the upcoming polls would be "an unmitigated disaster for Malaysia".

As deputy prime minister and finance minister under former authoritarian leader Mahathir Mohamad, Anwar's economic policies were aligned with international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Both have historically dictated structural adjustment policies that cut social services and dismantle social safety nets in favor of central bankers and private lending institutions.

Some analysts believe that if elected Anwar would again align his policies with the IMF, which has called for the dismantling of Malaysia's subsidy regime. If those policies are pursued in haste, some believe the nation could face the type of fuel riots that have rocked Nigeria and Indonesia in recent times, and the vicious anti-austerity protests that have become commonplace in the European Union members states such as Greece, Spain, and Portugal.

For all the opposition criticism, BN has delivered a laudable measure of economic growth and stability. The ruling coalition's legitimacy is based largely on its ability to deliver economic development with some of the lowest inflation rates in the world, unemployment at a meager 2.9%, and steady economic growth of around 5%. Under Najib's watch, Malaysia has enjoyed a relatively healthy economy in a time of great global economic uncertainty.

The next administration will need to find innovative ways to reduce increasing public debt levels, bolster programs aimed at increasing incomes, and strengthen populist policies and the social safety net. It will also need to steadfastly maintain the capital controls imposed under Mahathir that have allowed the nation to navigate through global economic and financial uncertainty.

The next government will also need to respond to outside calls for subsidy reform by balancing its budget wisely while retaining beneficial protectionist measures as it embarks on sweeping infrastructural projects throughout the country. The bottom line is that many Malaysians do not feel like the government is listening to their voices, and that it is more interested in appeasing foreign investors than grassroots communities.

Amendments such as 114A, which has been widely perceived to obstruct Internet freedoms, remain highly unpopular, as does recent news of Malaysia signing onto the controversial United States-led Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement.

The election, which must be held by June, is expected to be a tight race, the results of which may drastically alter the direction of the nation. If Najib is re-elected, his BN-led administration would capture enormous public confidence if it continued liberalizing political expression, squashed capital punishment penalties, and oversaw genuine reform of the police by addressing their spotty custodial death figures.

To uproot and prevent corruption, the next government will need to mandate that all contracts be awarded through open tenders. In that direction, politicians, ministers, and civil society members should be required to declare their assets, disclose their sources of political donations, and declare any foreign assistance and bank accounts.

There is a popular call for the next administration to take a progressive line on past unpopular policies, whichever coalition is next elected at the ballot box.

This article originally appeared in the Asia Times Online

Nile Bowie is an independent political commentator and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Target US: N. Korea warns of new nuclear missile launch




North Korea has warned of 'a full-fledged confrontation' with Washington, promising to conduct a rocket launch and a nuclear test targeting the US. The threats come a day after the UN Security Council expanded US-backed sanctions against Pyongyang for its rocket launch in December. Political analyst Nile Bowie says Washington is keeping up pressure because North Korea's isolation benefits Barack Obama's Asia policy.

Nile Bowie is an independent political commentator and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The Race to Putrajaya: Malaysia’s 13th General Elections (Op-Ed)

Distrust and animosity between Malaysia’s two leading political coalitions has run high following the Himpunan Kebangkitan Rakyat (HKR) rally held in the iconic Stadium Merdeka. As the authorities concerned argue with each other over which attendance figures are more accurate, it cannot be denied that Pakatan Rakyat, especially PAS, has the ability to mobilize. Leaders of the opposition coalition addressed the crowd with fiery rhetoric, with PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang calling on the people to “declare a second independence.” Anwar Ibrahim took the stage and demanding that the government stop stealing from its citizens. The HKR rally follows November’s UMNO General Assembly – both key events in the buildup to elections – where Prime Minister Najib Razak apologized for the government’s shortcomings and called on Malaysians to be wary of experimenting with changes in leadership, emphasizing the economic stability brought in under the ruling party. Many would argue that Malaysia’s political climate has never been so polarized. Indeed, the outcome of the 13th general election has the capacity to bring enormous changes to the country.

Hardliners accuse of Najib reforming too much, while others feel he hasn’t reformed enough. Can one imagine the opposition holding a rally in Stadium Merdeka 10 years ago? In stark contrast to former leaders, few acknowledge the emphasis that Najib has put on deconstructing draconian legislation that once allowed for indefinite detention and scoop arrests. Clearly, there is a vocal and undeterred segment of the population which values civil liberties, freedom of expression, and free assembly, rightfully so. The fact that HKR went on without incident is a sign that the administration is getting more comfortable liberalizing. Another issue is the mainstream media, which many feel fails to present balanced stories that reflect both the ruling party and the opposition, and one cannot ignore the open mudslinging so evident in the political mouthpieces of both parties, which often times leave readers in search of media with more substance. While Najib has liberalized rules regarding the publication of books and newspapers, the next administration would gain enormous public support by relaxing controls on political expression and encouraging citizen participation in alternative media.

Protestors climb for high angle view inside the historical Stadium Merdeka (Independence Stadium) as they take part in an opposition rally ahead of looming elections in Kuala Lumpur.(AFP Photo / Mohd Rasfan)
Protestors climb for high angle view inside the historical Stadium Merdeka (Independence Stadium) as they take part in an opposition rally ahead of looming elections in Kuala Lumpur.(AFP Photo / Mohd Rasfan)


Members of the opposition and civil society are also to blame, as they have disproportionately cast doubt on the government’s legitimacy and ability to lead. Take the issue of electoral discrepancies, which have been misrepresented and sloganized ad nauseam by the Bersih Coalition. It was claimed by civil society groups that the electoral roll had major incongruities which prevented the Election Commission from ensuring clean elections, due to around “400,000” doubtful voters on the electoral roll. EC Chairman Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof challenged Bersih to legitimize their claims by offering substantial proof of electoral fraud, which they have not made available. The EC published a little-noticed report that refuted allegations of vote rigging; the commission did confirm that 42,051 voter names with no valid and verifiable information were indeed on the role. Because removing registered voters from the electoral roll is unconstitutional without the EC first getting approval from the National Registration Department, the EC displayed the names of the doubtful voters for a three month period, allowing those voters to either come forward or be removed from the roll after a death certificate was presented by the person’s family members.

The EC provided logical and consistent refutations to the allegations made against the electoral system, though it was open to taking the demands of civil society on board. Despite this, Anwar Ibrahim appealed to the Australian government to interfere in Malaysia’s electoral process in an attempt to ensure their legitimate conduct. Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr has said that Australia cannot and will not influence how Malaysia’s elections are run, inciting harsh criticism of Anwar, who was thought to be falsely equating Malaysia’s electoral standards with that of Afghanistan, Iraq, or the Congo. Many cast doubt over the electoral system for its past blemishes; the Project IC in Sabah sparked much controversy, promoting allegations of the state’s electoral demography being manipulated in favor of the ruling party. In 2012, the parliamentary select committee agreed upon implementing recommended electoral reforms addressed by civil society groups, prompting statements from the United Nations confirming that Malaysia was completely in-line with international norms and electoral standards.

Civil society groups and members of the opposition are not wrong in bringing discrepancies to the forefront, but they have disproportionately pushed allegations of “election-rigging” as their main talking point, without any definitive evidence that an election had been stolen, all while the opposition itself democratically took power in key states following the 2008 elections. Bersih coalition leader Ambiga Sreenavasan is already dubbing GE13 as “the dirtiest elections ever seen” – this isn’t really fair statement, considering that the new legislature in place would mandate Malaysia to hold what would be its most regulated election yet. Since Pakatan Rakyat took power of four state governments, those states have experienced administrative mismanagement, resulting in water shortage issues that have left people without basic necessities. Despite claims that it would reduce water tariffs, the PAS administration in Kedah increased them with the expectation that the DAP-led Penang government would fork over RM20 million for water being channeled to the state, which naturally created tensions between the two parties.

Institutions such as the Malaysian Water Association (MWA) and Syabas (the water concessionaire in Selangor) have criticized the Selangor government for mismanaging the state’s water resources, stating, “either they don't understand water management or they just refuse to understand. They are just politicizing it.” Pakatan Rakyat Selangor has pointed fingers at Syabas and Barisan Nasional for contributing to the crisis, claiming that “[Syabas] does not manage the water well… we have enough raw water supplies that can last beyond year 2015.” MWA President Ahmad Zahdi Jamil struck back stating, “Selangor may have enough raw water but it is either polluted, scattered all over or not enough to cater for future demand. Even it is enough now but it is depleting. But remember those are raw water not treated.” Budget restructuring and tight conditions introduced under the watch of the PR Selangor government have halted the construction of needed water treatment plants, despite the current plants running at near maximum operating and distribution capacity.

A protestor waves flag during a grand gathering at the historical Medeka Stadium (Independence Stadium) during a rally for electorial reforms in Kuala Lumpur.(AFP Photo / Saeed Khan)
A protestor waves flag during a grand gathering at the historical Medeka Stadium (Independence Stadium) during a rally for electorial reforms in Kuala Lumpur.(AFP Photo / Saeed Khan)


The fact that these untested state governments have mismanaged state resources to the point where people lose access to necessities like water should not be forgotten by the Malaysian voter. Barisan Nasional is not a perfect coalition, but its component parties have at least demonstrated their capacity to agree on political programs; the opposition is not only marred by disagreements between their component parties, but also with inner party disputes. Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has taken much heat from members of his coalition. Penang’s Deputy Chief Minister Mansor Othman is on record ridiculing Guan Eng, while DAP assemblyman Teh Yee Cheu has called out the state government for overriding local authorities in favor of ‘mafia property developers.' On the other hand, PAS has been accused by many of dividing Malay Muslim communities by labeling UMNO and their supporters as “infidels” for cooperating with non-Muslim parties.

By means of necessity, PR’s component parties – though ideologically incompatible – have allied to further their own individual programs. PAS members, such as Shahnon Ahmad, have cast doubt on the party for no longer adhering to the needs of Islam by working together with the DAP. A closer examination of rebuttal comments presented by Spiritual Leader Nik Aziz offers something telling; Aziz cites how the Prophet Muhammad cooperated with the Jews in Medinah and the non-Muslims in Mecca to strengthen the ancient city’s defenses, adding, “however, the Muslims managed to capture the city after that." Can one then derive the notion that PAS is only cooperating with PR’s component parties to further it’s own program of founding an Islamic state governed under hudud law? Splits in PAS’s leadership over the word “Allah” being using by non-Muslims illustrates not only disunity, but also an overly disproportionate emphasis given to an issue that does nothing to improve the livelihoods or well being of the individuals they seek to govern.

In assessing what PAS would bring to the table, Malaysians should examine the Egyptian scenario, where non-Muslims find themselves in an increasingly marginalized position under the incumbent Muslim Brotherhood administration, which has attempted to introduce Sharia Law in the Egyptian draft constitution. PAS has advocated gender segregation, dress code requirements, a crackdown on high heels and lipstick, banning movie cinemas, and a ban on Valentine’s Day (which is viewed as immoral). Such a political program only appeals to a limited demographic of the Malaysian population, and imposing the will of Islamists unto the non-Muslim population obstructs religious freedom and civil liberties. The introduction of such laws in a country like Malaysia would be nothing less than a dictatorship of a theocratic minority over the multi-faith majority. The focus of the next administration should be centered on safeguarding the religious and cultural freedom that binds together the vibrant fabric of Malaysian society – be it those who individually choose to live by hudud law, those who choose not to pursue religion, and everything in between.

Malaysia opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim (C) shouts alogans during a grand gathering at the historical Medeka Stadium during a rally for electorial reforms in Kuala Lumpur.(AFP Photo / Saeed Khan)
Malaysia opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim (C) shouts alogans during a grand gathering at the historical Medeka Stadium during a rally for electorial reforms in Kuala Lumpur.(AFP Photo / Saeed Khan)


And where would Malaysia be with Anwar at the helm? The recent lawsuit filed by Ibrahim against Political Scientist Dr. Chandra Muzaffar provides telling insight. Anwar pressed charges against Chandra for simply saying that his hypothetical tenure as Prime Minister would be “an unmitigated disaster for Malaysia.” This case should be nothing short of alarming to those who value dissent and political expression – what would the status of such things be under an Anwar-led administration? As Deputy PM under Mahathir, Anwar’s economic policies have always been aligned with international financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, which have historically dictated structural adjustment policies that cut social services and dismantle social safety nets in favor of gluttonous central bankers and lending institutions. One can surmise Anwar bending over backwards to please IMF head Christine Lagarde, who has called for the dismantling of Malaysia’s subsidy regime. If those policies are pursued in haste, the nation could one day find itself marred with fuel-riots that have rocked Nigeria and Indonesia in recent times, and vicious anti-austerity protests that have become commonplace in the EU members states, such as Greece, Spain, and Portugal.

And how would Malaysia’s foreign policy be shaped under an Anwar administration? Members of civil society and the opposition have openly received funding and leadership training from institutions such as the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republic Institute (IRI), both component organizations of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). In addition to senior US officials such as Colin Powell, John McCain, and Madeline Albright lining key positions in both the IRI and NDI, the NED receives its funding directly from the US government. PR’s policies would likely align Malaysia’s economic and defense priorities much closer to the United States, one could foresee a PR-government investing in American armaments, and potentially even approving a larger American military role in line with Obama’s pivot to East Asia policy. The American taxpayer in the end foots the bill for the NED’s overseas political meddling, at the expense of needed social, medical, and infrastructural needs of American people – Malaysian civil society groups have knowingly or unknowingly taken funding from NED-component organizations in bad faith.

Barisan Nasional, for all the negative things said about it, has delivered a laudable measure of economic development and stability. According to studies, 21.6 percent of Malaysian households live below the poverty line*, a far slimmer demographic than the equivalent seen in neighboring countries in the region. BN’s legitimacy is most garnered from its ability to deliver economic growth, and with some of the lowest inflation rates in the world, unemployment at a meager 2.9 percent, and steady economic growth figures at around 5 percent, Malaysia enjoys a relatively healthy economy in a time of global economic uncertainty. The next administration must find innovative ways to reduce the increasing public debt levels, bolster its program to increase incomes, strengthen populist policies and the social safety net, all while steadfastly maintaining capital controls that have allowed the nation to navigate through economic uncertainty. Malaysia must respond to calls for subsidy reform by balancing its budget wisely while retaining beneficial protectionist measures as it embarks on sweeping infrastructural projects throughout the country.

The bottom line is that many in Malaysia do not feel like the government is listening, and that it is more interested in appeasing foreign investors. Amendments such as 114A, which is perceived to obstruct Internet freedom, remains highly unpopular, as does news of Malaysia signing onto the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement. The looming GE13 will be a tight race, the results of which may drastically alter the direction of the nation. If Najib finds himself back in power, his administration would capture enormous public confidence if it continued liberalizing political expression, in addition to squashing capital punishment and overseeing reform of the Royal Police Commission by putting the spotlight on their spotty custodial death figures. More regulations must be put into place to prevent corruption, mandating that contracts be awarded through open tenders. Politicians, ministers, and civil society members should declare their assets, disclose sources of political donations, and declare any foreign assistance. There is now a new precedent for the next administration to take a progressive line on unpopular policies, whoever makes it to Putrajaya must not waste that opportunity.


* Note: According to official statistics, the poverty rate in Malaysia is 3.8%, based on “absolute poverty measurements” that differ from region to region. According to Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia (SABM) representative A Jayanath, the absolute poverty line measurement system uses the bare minimum World Bank standard of US$2 per capita per day, and does not address several factors, such as the differences in cost of living in urban and rural areas, and the annual increase in the consumer price index. Jayanath argues that if poverty levels are measured using a “relative” poverty measurement system that uses 50% of monthly household median income as a benchmark to measure poverty (which would be around RM1500 per household), it would show that about 21.6% of total households in Malaysia are currently below the poverty threshold.


Nile Bowie is an independent political commentator and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com

Monday, 14 January 2013

Congo’s M23 conflict: Rebellion or Resource War? (Op-Ed)

M23 rebels in DR Congo have threatened to march to the capital and depose the government. UN reports confirm that rebels receive support from key US allies in the region, and Washington's role in the conflict has become difficult to ignore. Instability, lawlessness and violence are nothing new to those who live in the troubled eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. An estimated 6.9 million Congolese have perished since 1996 in a spate of ceaseless military conflicts that have long gripped this severely-overlooked and underreported region. In late November 2012, members of the M23 rebel group invaded and took control of Goma, a strategic provincial capital in North Kivu state with a population of 1 million people, with the declared purpose of marching to the nation’s capital, Kinshasa, to depose the ruling government. M23's president, Jean Marie Runiga, later agreed to withdraw only if the ruling President Joseph Kabila listened to the group's grievances and adhered to their demands. Rebel leaders have threatened to abandon peace talks unless Kinshasa signs an official ceasefire, a demand the government dismissed as unnecessary. 

Kinshasa called on M23 to respect previous agreements to withdraw 20km outside of Goma in a move to prevent the region falling back into war after two decades of conflict, fought largely over the DRC’s vast wealth of copper, cobalt diamonds, gold and coltan. The United Nation’s peacekeeping mission in DR Congo has come under fire for allowing M23 to take Goma without firing a single shot, despite the presence of 19,000 UN troops in the country. The UN’s Congo mission is its largest and most expensive peacekeeping operation, costing over US$1 billion a year. UN forces recently announced they would introduce the use of surveillance drones over the DRC, in addition to imposing a travel ban and asset freeze on M23 leader Jean-Marie Runiga and Lt. Col. Eric Badege. A confidential 44-page report issued by a United Nations panel accused the governments of neighboring Rwanda and Uganda of supporting M23 with weapons, ammunition and Rwandan military personnel. Despite both nations denying these accusations, the governments of the United States, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands have publicly suspended military aid and developmental assistance to Rwanda. The governments of both Rwanda and Uganda, led by President Paul Kagame and President Yoweri Museveni respectively, have long been staunch American allies and the recipients of millions in military aid.
M23 President Jean-Marie Runiga (2nd R) arrives to address the media in Bunagana in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.(Reuters / James Akena)
M23 President Jean-Marie Runiga (2nd R) arrives to address the media in Bunagana in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.(Reuters / James Akena)

Historical precedent


The DRC has suffered immensely during its history of foreign plunder and colonial occupation; it maintains the second-lowest GDP per capita despite possessingan estimated $24 trillion in untapped raw minerals deposits. During the Congo Wars of the 1996 to 2003, the United States provided training and arms to Rwandan and Ugandan militias who later invaded the Congo’s eastern provinces where M23 are currently active. In addition to enriching various Western multinational corporations, the regimes of Kagame in Rwanda and Museveni in Uganda both profited immensely from the plunder of Congolese conflict minerals such as cassiterite, wolframite, coltan (from which niobium and tantalum are derived) and gold; the DRC holds more than 30 per cent of the world's diamond reserves and 80 per cent of the world's coltan.

In 1990, civil war raged between Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups in neighboring Rwanda; Washington sought to overthrow the 20-year reign of then-President Juvénal Habyarimana (a Hutu) by installing a Tutsi client regime. At the time, prior to the outbreak of the Rwandan civil war, the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), led by the current president, was part of Uganda’s United People's Defense Forces (UPDF). Kagame, who received training at the US Army Command and Staff College in Leavenworth, Kansas, invaded Rwanda in 1990 from Uganda under the pretext of liberating the Tutsi population from Hutu subjugation. Kagame’s forces defeated the Hutu government in Kigali and installed himself as head of a minority Tutsi regime in Rwanda, prompting the exodus of 2 million Hutu refugees (many of whom took part in the genocide) to UN-run camps in Congo’s North and South Kivu provinces.

Following Kagame’s consolidation of power in Rwanda, a large invasion force of Rwandan Tutsis arrived in North and South Kivu in 1996 under the pretext of pursuing Hutu militant groups, such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). Under the banner of safeguarding Rwandan national security, troops from Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi invaded Congo and ripped through Hutu refugee camps, slaughtering thousands of Rwandan and Congolese Hutu civilians, including many women and children. US Special Forces trained Rwandan and Ugandan troops at Fort Bragg in the United States and supported Congolese rebels, who brought down Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko – they claimed he was giving refuge to the leaders of the genocide.

After deposing Mobutu and seizing control in Kinshasa, a new regime led by Laurent Kabila, father of the current president, was installed. Kabila was quickly regarded as an equally despotic leader, eradicating all opposition to his rule; he turned away from his Rwandan backers and called on Congolese civilians to violently purge the nation of Rwandans, prompting Rwandan forces to regroup in Goma. Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001 at the hands of a member of his security staff, allowing his son, Joseph, to usurp the presidency. The younger Kabila derives his legitimacy from the support of foreign heads of state and the international business community, primarily for his ability to comply with foreign plunder.

During the Congo’s general elections in November 2011, the international community and the UN remained silent regarding the mass irregularities observed by the electoral committee. The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) has faced frequent allegations of corruption, prompting opposition leader Étienne Tshisikedi, who is currently under house arrest, to call for the UN mission to end its deliberate efforts to maintain the system of international plundering and to appoint someone “less corrupt and more credible” to head UN operations. MONUSCO has been plagued with frequent cases of peacekeeping troops caught smuggling minerals such as cassiterite and dealing weapons to militia groups. Kabila is seen by many to be self-serving in his weak oversight of the central government in Kinshasa. M23 rebels have demanded the liberation of all political prisoners, including opposition leader Étienne Tshisikedi, and the dissolution of the current electoral commission that was in charge 2011’s elections, widely perceived to be fraudulent.

Displaced civilians from Walikale arrive at Magunga III camp outside of the eastern Congolese city of Goma.(Reuters / Alissa Everett)
Displaced civilians from Walikale arrive at Magunga III camp outside of the eastern Congolese city of Goma.(Reuters / Alissa Everett)

Role of US in Rwanda’s M23 backing


M23, or The March 23 Movement, takes its name from peace accords held on March 23, 2009, which allowed members of the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), an earlier incarnation of today’s M23, to integrate into the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) and be recognized as an official political party. The CNDP was an entirely Rwandan creation, and was led by figures such as Bosco Ntaganda. In accordance to the deal reached in 2009, the Congolese government agreed to integrate 6,000 CNDP combatants into the FARDC, giving Ntaganda, a Rwandan Tutsi and former member of the Rwandan Patriotic Army, a senior position in the integrated force. The current M23 offensive began in April 2012, when around 300 former CNDP personnel led by Ntaganda defected from FARDC, citing poor working conditions and the government's unwillingness to meaningfully implement the 23 March 2009 peace deal.

According to UN reports, Ntaganda controls several mining operations in the region and has derived enormous profits from mineral exploitation in eastern Congo, in addition to gaining large revenues from taxation levied by Rwandan-backed “mining police.” Bosco Ntaganda appears to be assisting Rwanda’s Tutsi government in plundering eastern Congo’s natural resources, which has gone on since Kagame came to power in 1994; M23 is basically paid for with the money from tin, tungsten and tantalum smuggled from Congolese mines. UN reports detail Rwanda's deep involvement by even naming Rwandan personnel involved; Ntaganda takes direct military orders from Rwandan Chief of Defense Staff General Charles Kayonga, who in turn acts on instructions from Minster of Defense General James Kabarebe. Both Britain and France reportedly found the UN report to be "credible and compelling."

Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the United Nations, finds herself mired in scandal yet again; Rice has come under fire for suppressing information on Rwanda’s role in the ongoing resource looting and rebellion in eastern Congo. Rice delayed the publication of a UN Group of Experts report detailing Rwandan and Ugandan depredations in Congo, while simultaneously subverting efforts within the State Department to rein in Kagame and Museveni. Rice, in her role as assistant secretary of state for African affairs in 1997 under the Clinton administration, tacitly approved Rwanda and Uganda’s invasion of the Democratic Republic of Congo and was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “…they [Kagame & Museveni] know how to deal with that, the only thing we have to do is look the other way.” Another article published in the New York Times by Helen Cooper detailed Rice’s business connections to the Rwandan government:

“Ms. Rice has been at the forefront of trying to shield the Rwandan government, and Mr. Kagame in particular, from international censure, even as several United Nations reports have laid the blame for the violence in Congo at Mr. Kagame’s door… Aides to Ms. Rice acknowledge that she is close to Mr. Kagame and that Mr. Kagame’s government was her client when she worked at Intellibridge, a strategic analysis firm in Washington… After delaying for weeks the publication of a United Nations report denouncing Rwanda’s support for the M23 and opposing any direct references to Rwanda in United Nations statements and resolutions on the crisis, Ms. Rice intervened to water down a Security Council resolution that strongly condemned the M23 for widespread rape, summary executions and recruitment of child soldiers. The resolution expressed ‘deep concern’ about external actors supporting the M23. But Ms. Rice prevailed in preventing the resolution from explicitly naming Rwanda when it was passed on Nov. 20.”
M23 rebel fighters walk as they withdraw near the town of Sake, some 42 km (26 miles) west of Goma.(Reuters / Goran Tomasevic)
M23 rebel fighters walk as they withdraw near the town of Sake, some 42 km (26 miles) west of Goma.(Reuters / Goran Tomasevic)

Geopolitics of plunder


It must be recognized that Kagame controls a vastly wealthy and mineral-rich area of eastern Congo – an area that has long been integrated into Rwanda’s economy – with total complicity from the United States. As Washington prepares to escalate its military presence throughout the African continent with AFRICOM, the United States Africa Command, what long-term objectives does Uncle Sam have in the Congo, considered the world’s most resource-rich nation? Washington is crusading against China's export restrictions on minerals that are crucial components in the production of consumer electronics such as flat-screen televisions, smart phones, laptop batteries, and a host of other products. The US sees these Chinese export policies as a means of Beijing attempting to monopolize the mineral and rare earth market.

In a 2010 white paper entitled “Critical Raw Materials for the EU,” the European Commission cites the immediate need for reserve supplies of tantalum, cobalt, niobium, and tungsten among others; the US Department of Energy 2010 white paper “Critical Mineral Strategy” also acknowledged the strategic importance of these key components. In 1980, Pentagon documents acknowledged shortages of cobalt, titanium, chromium, tantalum, beryllium, and nickel. The US Congressional Budget Office’s 1982 report “Cobalt: Policy Options for a Strategic Mineral” notes that cobalt alloys are critical to the aerospace and weapons industries and that 64 per cent of the world’s cobalt reserves lay in the Katanga Copper Belt, running from southeastern Congo into northern Zambia.

Additionally, the sole piece of legislation authored by President Obama during his time as a Senator was SB 2125, the“Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act of 2006”. In the legislation, Obama acknowledges Congo as a long-term interest to the United States and further alludes to the threat of Hutu militias as an apparent pretext for continued interference in the region; Section 201(6) of the bill specifically calls for the protection of natural resources in the eastern DRC. The United States does not like the fact that President Kabila in Kinshasa has become very comfortable with Beijing, and worries that Congo will drift into Chinese economic orbit. Under the current regime in Congo, Chinese commercial activities have significantly increased not only in the mining sector, but also considerably in the telecommunications field.

In 2000, the Chinese ZTE Corporation finalized a $12.6 million deal with the Congolese government to establish the first Sino-Congolese telecommunications company; furthermore, the DRC exported $1.4 billion worth of cobalt between 2007 and 2008. The majority of Congolese raw materials like cobalt, copper ore and a variety of hardwoodsare exported to China for further processing and 90 per cent of the processing plants in resource rich southeastern Katanga province are owned by Chinese nationals. In 2008, a consortium of Chinese companies were granted the rights to mining operations in Katanga in exchange for US$6 billion in infrastructure investments, including the construction of two hospitals, four universities and a hydroelectric power project. In 2009, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) demanded renegotiation of the deal, arguing that the agreement between China and the DRC violated the foreign debt relief program for so-called HIPC (Highly Indebted Poor Countries) nations. The IMF successfully blocked the deal in May 2009, calling for a more feasibility study of the DRCs mineral concessions. An article published by Shamus Cooke of Workers Action explains:

“This act instantly transformed Kabila from an unreliable friend to an enemy. The US and China have been madly scrambling for Africa’s immense wealth of raw materials, and Kabila’s new alliance with China was too much for the US to bear. Kabila further inflamed his former allies by demanding that the international corporations exploiting the Congo’s precious metals have their super-profit contracts re-negotiated, so that the country might actually receive some benefit from its riches.”
During a diplomatic tour of Africa in 2011, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton herself has irresponsibly insinuatedChina’s guilt in perpetuating a creeping “new colonialism.” China annually invests an estimated $5.5 billion in Africa, with only 29 per cent of direct investment in the mining sector in 2009 – while more than half was directed toward domestic manufacturing, finance, and construction industries. China has further committed $10 billion in concessional loans to Africa between 2009 and 2012. As Africa’s largest trading partner, China imports 1.5 million barrels of oil from Africa per day, accounting for approximately 30 per cent of its total imports. Over the past decade, 750,000 Chinese nationals have settled in Africa; China’s deepening economic engagement in Africa and its crucial role in developing the mineral sector, telecommunications industry and much needed infrastructural projects is creating "deep nervousness" in the West, according to David Shinn, the former US ambassador to Burkina Faso and Ethiopia.

Too big to fail, or too big to succeed?


In December 2012, Dr J Peter Pham published a bizarre Op-Ed in the New York Times titled, “To Save Congo, Let It Fall Apart.” Pham is the director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center and is a frequent guest lecturer on the US Army War College, the Joint Special Operations University, and other US Government affiliated educational institutions; he is a Washington insider, and understanding his rationale is important, as his opinion may very well shape US policy in Congo. Pham argues that Congo is an “artificial entity” that is “too big to succeed,” and therefore, the policy direction taken by the US should be one of promoting balkanization:

“Rather than nation-building, what is needed to end Congo’s violence is the opposite: breaking up a chronically failed state into smaller organic units whose members share broad agreement or at least have common interests in personal and community security… If Congo were permitted to break up into smaller entities, the international community could devote its increasingly scarce resources to humanitarian relief and development, rather than trying, as the United Nations Security Council has pledged, to preserve the ‘sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity’ of a fictional state that is of value only to the political elites who have clawed their way to the top in order to plunder Congo’s resources and fund the patronage networks that ensure that they will remain in power.”
What Pham is suggesting is policy to bring out the collapse of the Congolese nation by creating tiny ethno-nationalist entities too small to stand up to multinational corporations. The success of M23 must surely have shaken President Kabila, whose father came to power with the backing of the Ugandan and Rwandan regimes in 1996, employing the same strategies that M23 is using today. If Kabila wants to stay in power, he needs the capability of exercising authority over the entire country. Sanctions should be imposed on top-level Rwandan and Ugandan officials and all military aid should be withheld; additionally, Rwandan strongman Paul Kagame should be investigated and removed from his position. Kambale Musavuli, of the Washington DC-based NGO, Friends of Congo, has it right when he says:
“People need to be clear who we are fighting in the Congo… We are fighting Western powers, the United States and the United Kingdom, who are arming, training and equipping the Rwandan and Ugandan militaries.”
M23 military leader General Sultani Makenga attend press conference in Bunagana in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.(Reuters / James Akena)
M23 military leader General Sultani Makenga attend press conference in Bunagana in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.(Reuters / James Akena)
This article originally appeared on Russia Today

Nile Bowie is an independent political commentator and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com 

Friday, 4 January 2013

Oligarchy Island: Behind the Hong Kong Protests (Op-Ed)

The recent wave of protest in Hong Kong may herald bigger problems. Economic woes may escalate the already-rampant acrimony between middle-class islanders and rich mainlanders, unless painful and politically sensitive reforms are taken. Since its transition from British colonial leadership to Chinese Special Administrative Region (SAR) status in 1997, street protests have become an increasingly common feature in post-handover Hong Kong. While mainland Chinese citizens lack civil liberties and adhere to strict limitations on personal political expression, residents of the semi-autonomous island enjoy a freer press and often stage mass demonstrations.
Though unthinkable in the mainland, many protestors in Hong Kong provocatively wear t-shirts depicting the iconic image of a lone man standing before People’s Liberation Army tanks in Tiananmen Square during the failed 1989 uprising. Since the handover, the island has boasted huge GDP figures and economic growth due to an influx of trade and tourism from mainland China, yet public disenfranchisement has reached record levels in recent times. Many Hong Kong residents have become angry with Beijing over their lack of participation in the hopelessly non-representative political machinery so characteristic of the 'one country, two systems' policy.
In July 2012, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying was inaugurated to lead the island to the dismay of tens of thousands of protesters, who called for universal suffrage and for Leung's post to be filled by direct elections. Leung was elected by a few hundred members of an elite electoral college, a 1,200-member committee dominated by Hong Kong’s oligarchical property tycoons and their close business associates.
Space is a precious commodity in densely populated Hong Kong, which has a population density of nearly 16,500 people per square mile. The local government is the sole landowner, and derives a great deal of income from land premiums and property modification fees. Calls for Leung’s resignation came even before he entered office, as a scandal over unauthorized additions to his home led many to question his personal integrity.
While simply expanding one's living quarters by adding storage room and other facilities seems innocuous and unlikely to trigger public uproar, Leung compounded his win against his campaign opponent, Henry Tang, by grilling him for skirting land laws and adding extensive illegal additions to his home, despite Leung having apparently committed the same offense.
A protester dressed as a cultural revolution red guard wearing a wolf mask gestures during a protest urging Hong Kong′s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to step down in Hong Kong January 1, 2013. (Reuters / Siu Chiu)
A protester dressed as a cultural revolution red guard wearing a wolf mask gestures during a protest urging Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to step down in Hong Kong January 1, 2013. (Reuters / Siu Chiu)

Beijing-ophobia

To make matters worse for Leung, he is widely viewed as a lackey for the Chinese Communist Party, and an enabler of the collusion and corruption between the government and the island’s property cartels. Those calling for his resignation tend to be part of a university-educated middle class increasingly pinched by soaring inflation and property rates, unable to envision ever being able to afford their own property and getting a piece of the 'Hong Kong dream.'
These protestors have pushed for more democratic freedoms and civil liberties, in addition to adamantly opposing mainland-Chinese encroachment and championing Hong Kong’s distinct historical identity. Negative stereotypes of mainland Chinese have prevailed in Hong Kong, as residents often characterize their migration into the island as a 'locust infestation,' turned off by what they perceive to be a lack of sophistication in mainlanders and their contempt for sanitary regulations. Some, mostly the working class and seniors, engage in counter protests with the view that closer integration with Beijing falls within their long-term economic and democratic interests.
In September 2012, the demands of tens of thousands of protestors were heeded with the scrapping of a controversial plan to implement Communist Party doctrine into mandatory national educational curriculum. In an attempt to bolster Chinese patriotism, Beijing’s proposed curriculum lauded China’s one-party rule over the "inefficient" and inconsistent multi-party democracies of the West. Protests were led by the Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union and concerned parents, who likened the program to brainwashing their children with Communist Party dogma.
Fung Wai-Wah, chief of the teachers’ union, claimed that the proposed curriculum contained “biased and untruthful information about the mainland aimed at sycophancy and singing Communist China's praises and is completely discordant with education's aim to foster independent and critical thinking." Indeed, education is not the only area in which Hong Kong residents are feeling the burn of what they perceive to be an oppressive 'sino-fication.'
The face of the city is changing; mom-and-pop shops selling wonton noodles and local sweets are unable to meet the demands of landlords asking for ever-increasing rents and are forced to close. They are often swallowed by a sea of brand-name shops selling obscenely expensive and unnecessary luxury goods that cater to mainland tourists with bottomless pockets.
The rise of new money in China has left the people of Hong Kong feeling displaced in their own community, crediting mainlanders with raising consumer prices, contributing to overcrowding and weeding out local enterprises by spoiling the island’s big businesses, not to mention the enormous animosity stemming from mainlanders being given higher priority in Hong Kong’s universities.
While the increased economic engagement with mainland China after the handover has brought much prosperity to the island, the stampeding inflow of mainland mothers seeking to give birth in Hong Kong to secure residency permits for their offspring has become such a problem that Leung introduced a policy banning their deliveries in Hong Kong hospitals unless they were wed to a local, which many interpreted as a bid to boost his paltry 35 percent approval rating. Despite this legislation, property investment is the most reliable means for mainlanders to obtain residency permits, and they tend purchase at least 40 percent of new home sales.
Protesters shout as they display a paper cutout of Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong. (Reuters / Bobby Yip)
Protesters shout as they display a paper cutout of Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong. (Reuters / Bobby Yip)

Special Plutocratic Region?

While few disagree that Leung’s tenure has kicked off in a weaker position than either of the two CEs before him, political issues are only one factor in the equation. The Heritage Foundation, a US-based thinktank that claims to author “conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise,” has dubbed Hong Kong as one of the world’s freest economies for its “small government, low taxes, and light regulation.”
Despite this praise, the inherent flaws of island’s economic structure has caused many Hong Kong residents to note that only a handful of the richest families hold monopolies and duopolies on everything from supermarket chains and property developments to public transportation systems, electricity providers and public service companies.
Monolithic cross-sector corporate entities such as Cheung Kong Holdings, Sun Hung Kai Properties, and New World Development mostly started as property development firms, but incrementally expanded and began usurping public services. Legal provisions in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, negotiated and agreed upon in 1984 to prepare for the handover in 1997, stipulated that only 50 hectares of land were to be granted in any one year, guaranteeing that property would remain scarce, and consequently unaffordable for most.
Despite being lauded by the researchers at the Heritage Foundation, wealth disparity has become such an issue in Hong Kong that the city now has the biggest wealth gap in Asia. Although its economy has grown 62 percent since the handover, the median monthly household income – around $2,500 – has remained essentially unchanged since the transition. Li Ka-Shing, a philanthropist native to Guangdong province, is the world’s 16th wealthiest individual with a net worth of $21.3 billion. (Perhaps calling him Li Cha-Ching would be more suitable!)
Li’s family controls Cheung Kong Holdings, Hong Kong Electric, Cheung Kong Infrastructure and several other companies that account for around 5 percent of the total capitalization of the Hong Kong stock exchange. Another tycoon, Lee Shau-Kee, runs Henderson Land, Henderson Investment and the Hong Kong and China Gas Company, and has an estimated $19 billion in the bank. Recent demonstrations in Hong Kong must be seen not only as a political outcry, but also as an economic one, as the island’s 7.1 million people live in captivity under the thumb of a few monopoly men who control politics and markets, and set pricing through short supplying.
Attempts to liberate the economy by shaking off the monopolies have come in the form of several bills; the Competition Bill has been negotiated since 2006 and calls for “prohibition on the abuse of a substantial degree of market power,”and the formation of a judicial enforcement model, where a competition tribunal would have the mandate to sanction offenders. The bill's provisions are scheduled to fully come into force in 2013 or 2014.
Lawmakers haven’t had much success in passing meaningful anti-monopoly legislation. Figures such as Albert Chan Wai-Yip, a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, has cast doubt of the impact of “toothless” anti-monopoly bills and the local government’s commitment to genuine reform.
“The scope of exemption of the bill is too large to be effective,” he said. “First of all, the government or statutory bodies are granted full exemption of the law. More seriously, there is no legal limitation of market share to prohibit monopolistic control of the market. On the other hand, it will be very hard to collect evidence of price-rigging between oligarchic coalitions, which frequently happens in Hong Kong now."
China′s leader Xi Jinping. (Reuters)
China's leader Xi Jinping. (Reuters)

Which way will Xi Jinping swing?

China’s next president, Xi Jinping, will formally take the top spot in the Communist Party in March 2013. During November 2012’s Communist Party Congress, incumbent President Hu spoke of continuing reforms of the political structure of the party by making “people's democracy more extensive, fuller in scope and sounder in practice,” though he warned that China would never copy a Western political system.
It’s becoming more apparent that China’s leadership recognizes the need to address the complete lack of public participation in the political direction of the country. Hu also spoke of “diversifying the forms of democracy” and“democratic elections.” Could he be foreshadowing an incremental relaxation on political expression and dissent?
And what of Hong Kong? Beijing has promised to allow the island’s chief executive to be directly elected by 2017 at the earliest, with Hong Kong's Legislative Council elected by universal suffrage in 2020, but many doubt the overall framework of the system and its ability to be representative of common people. Plato once alluded to the purpose of the oligarch, which was to simply perpetuate the oligarchy – in modern-day Hong Kong’s case, there is very little to indicate otherwise.
It is in this context that we must interpret the recent trend of protestors carrying colonial Hong Kong flags depicting the Union Jack, a move that has certainly caught the ire of officials in Hong Kong and Beijing alike. The unfurling of the colonial flag in present times carries with it the distinction of Hong Kong being an altogether separate entity from China – culturally, politically, economically – in the minds of protestors. Strangely enough, a protestor was quoted during theNew Year’s Day 2013 march as saying, “We have the same blood but not the same values. That’s why we aren’t Chinese. Even though this is a colonial flag, it represents freedom.”
While President Hu speaks of never copying a Western political system, it should be noted that Hong Kong’s administrative system is essentially a direct copy of the imperial British economic system; today’s local government is the sole distributor of property, much like how all land was once under the Crown. Indeed, Hong Kong was the model for the first Special Economic Zones introduced under Deng Xiaoping once China began its shift toward market reform.
Just as China has learned a thing or two from Hong Kong, it’s very plausible that Beijing fears China’s mainlanders will learn a thing or two from Hong Kong – particularly, a proclivity for holding mass anti-government demonstrations. Beijing will be making all efforts to ensure that Xi’s transition process is smooth and unhindered. Certainly, any civil disobedience and calls for universal suffrage emanating from Hong Kong will be perceived as a nuisance. 
Xi Jinping will become China’s first leader to enter office with firsthand experience in dealing with the affairs of Hong Kong and Macau; additionally, two of the six other members of the Politburo Standing Committee have also regularly met with Hong Kong officials and dealt with the island’s affairs throughout their careers. Despite this, Xi will be eyeing stability, and is not expected to immediately change his tune on allowing more political freedoms in Hong Kong. Xi may find himself in a sticky situation if China’s economy continues to slow – rising unemployment and calls for greater representation are not the Communist Party’s cocktail of choice.

No Confidence

Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying finds himself in a tough position: He has very little public confidence, and although he has appeased some by cracking down on the influx of mainlanders, he is viewed by many as being incapable of acknowledging the root causes of discontent. Namely, the economic system and the political structure. It should be pointed out that if these demonstrations continue and talk of independence finds its way into the dominant discourse, Beijing has a legal mandate to intervene with force if the local authorities are not able to control the situation.
Residents of Hong Kong have a history of having their demands acknowledged; in 2003, former CE Tung Chee Hwa was compelled to shelve national security legislation after hundreds of thousands rallied against it in fear of the bill curbing their freedom of speech. Tung later resigned in 2005 over mass dissatisfaction; this should make Leung sweat a little bit, especially considering that discontent has become alarmingly high in the earliest stages of his leadership.
For now, it’s worth keeping a focus on developments in Hong Kong to see what kind reverberations, if any, reach the mainland approaching Xi’s ascendancy. If anything, the preeminence of the colonial-era flag over 15 years after the handover is indicative of policy that needs some reexamining.

This article originally appeared on Russia Today


Nile Bowie is an independent political commentator and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com

GRTV: Syria and the Gateway to WWIII




Now entering its second year, the foreign-funded civil war in Syria continues to drag on, destabilizing the country and causing widespread violence and bloodshed.
In their newly-released free online e-book, "War on Syria: Gateway to WWIII", Global Research contributors Nile Bowie and Tony Cartalucci examine the roots of this conflict and its potential consequences.
Find out more in this week's GRTV Feature Interview with our special guest, Nile Bowie
This video originally appeared on Global Research TV
Interview conducted by independent journalist James Corbett

Nile Bowie is an independent political commentator and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com

‘Average American knows very little about daily life in Iran’

U.S. political analyst and photographer Nile Bowie says U.S. citizens know very little about daily life in Iran, adding that the realities on the ground in the country are different than what is being presented by Western media outlets. “Keeping American society fearful of Iran is key to manipulating the general public into accepting the immoral barrage of economic sanctions and possible military operations taken against the country in the future,” Nile Bowie said in a recent interview with the Tehran Times. He is based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and writes for the Canadian Center for Research on Globalization. Last week, Bowie and a group of American tourists traveled to Iran to visit the country's different cities, historical villages and cultural sites. He took numerous pictures of Iran and provided us with some of them for publication.

Following is the text of the interview:


Decorative capitals of Persepolis columns
Decorative capitals of Persepolis columns
Q: Nile, it's the first time that you're visiting Iran. What's your impression of the country and its people?



A: I've lived in Southeast Asia for the past several years, and upon arriving to Iran, I found the country be very similar to Europe in its design and infrastructure. Just as one would expect to find in Europe, Iran has successfully integrated its rich historical heritage into a modern metropolitan environment. What I found fascinating is that villages in Iran's countryside have managed to reap the benefits of economic development, but still carry the picturesque beauty and charm of centuries ago. For those interested in history, Iran is an essential destination – the country has done well to preserve its ancient sites and diverse places of worship, from Islamic mosques to Armenian churches and Zoroastrian temples. From what I've seen, practitioners of various religious groups treat each other with respect and are able to peacefully coexist together.

Lifestyle and fashion in Iran is in keeping with Islamic values. While traveling through the country, I thought to myself that the average conservative American family would likely find an environment based on such values a far more appropriate place to raise children than within the hyper-sexualized culture of the United States, where sex appeal is overtly used to sell products and build brands. Anyone who has come across Iranian people knows that their hospitality and generosity is unmatched. While the society is conservative, average people are more than willing to strike up conversations and invite foreign guests into their homes for lavishly prepared meals. The sentiments of other foreign visitors I've come across have been generally positive, especially reflecting on visiting sites such as Persepolis. 

The Imam Mosque in Isfahan
The Imam Mosque in Isfahan
Q: How much different was Iran from what the mainstream media portray of it? How much have your perceptions of Iran changed since you entered the country? The Western media depict Iran as a deserted, isolated and uncivilized country, but many of those who visit Iran come to realize that the reality is quite different. What's your viewpoint?


A: The average American knows very little about daily life in Iran, and what they imagine it to be more closely resembles that of rural Afghanistan under the Taliban. Keeping American society fearful of Iran is key to manipulating the general public into accepting the immoral barrage of economic sanctions and possible military operations taken against the country in the future. Iran has always been an island of stability in the Middle East; it is a regional leader with developed infrastructure and world-class universities, in addition to emerging as a major player in developing pharmaceuticals and new technologies. The reality is that the average American would find it infinitely more comfortable to spend time in Iran rather than in Saudi Arabia, the biggest American ally in the region, a nation that represents the antithesis of “American values.”

A bas-relief in Persepolis
A bas-relief in Persepolis
Q: Which cities and provinces have you visited? Which of the tourist attractions and cultural sites fascinated you the most?


A: I had the pleasure to visit Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, Yazd, Abyaneh, and several smaller villages between these locations. Although we cannot deny that Iran has some of the best tourist attractions and ancient sites in the world, I find myself more interested to observe people in their environment in each country I go to. Personally, I found the old desert city of Yazd and the mountain village of Abyaneh to be the most memorable places – both of these locations had incredible rustic architecture and villagers with very unique eye color and physical attributes not often seen in the West. I was amazed that lifestyles and fashion in these places are relatively very similar to that of historical times, and these places exist only a few hours drive from the bustling modern metropolises of Tehran and Isfahan.

Q: What do you think about the Iranian people? Of course you have had the opportunity to interact with Iranians during your trips to different cities. What kind of people they are? How did they receive you when realizing that you are Americans visiting Iran as tourists?

A: There is a large community of students and Iranian entrepreneurs where I live in Malaysia, and I have experienced the hospitality of Iranian people long before coming to the country. Since coming to Iran, the initial reaction I get when telling people that I am an American is one of surprise and disbelief. I imagine that many Iranians don't realize that Americans can legally visit the country due to the political situation. The response has been very warm and friendly, and of course the average Iranian is quite curious about American people and their customs, values, ideas, and perceptions of Iran. Politics rarely comes up in conversation.

Palestine Square in Tehran
Palestine Square in Tehran
Q: Despite having unpleasant memories of the U.S. government meddling in the internal affairs of their country or supporting dictators in the Pahlavi era, backing Saddam Hussein during the 8-year war of 1980s and funding terrorist groups such as MKO or Jundallah to create unrest and instability in the country, Iranians have always welcomed opportunities to interact with the American people. Is this something that you could witness and acknowledge?


A: Absolutely, and I think this can be attributable to several factors. The older generations of Iranians have very positive sentiments toward American people because so many American citizens lived in Iran prior to the Islamic Revolution in 1979 – they established close friendships with American people at that time and still generally hold Americans in high regard. American media and popular culture have heavily influenced the younger generations, and they've accepted this idea that the United States is place where everything is so free and wonderful, a place with bountiful wealth and unparalleled opportunities. Of course, this perception is just as inaccurate as the way in which the average American views Iran today.

Either way, I don't think this is an inherently negative thing – promoting understanding and reconciliation between Iran and the United States needs to start by citizens of those countries exchanging ideas and getting familiar with each other. If the average American had the correct information and knew what the situation was like in Iran, I don't think they could ever support a war against such a nation. Likewise, if the average Iranian took the time to examine the full extent of what the United States has done around the world – engaging in wars that have killed millions of civilians, plundering resources in Iraq and Afghanistan, and enabling terrorism in places like Syria and Libya – I think it would be unlikely that they would continue viewing the United States in the same way. Either way, there is no reason like-minded Iranians and Americans cannot befriend each other because of a conflict between their governments.

Q: What do you think about the economic sanctions imposed by the United States and its European allies against Iran? These sanctions are taking a toll on the ordinary citizens by denying them access to medicine, foodstuff and other humanitarian goods. Don't these sanctions violate the principles of human rights? What's your take on that?

A: The sanctions imposed on Iran by the West are completely unjustified and illegal. Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and has complied with international norms and inspections of its nuclear energy facilities. It does not have nuclear weapons. Israel on the other hand is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has between 200 - 400 nuclear weapons. Iran has received harsh criticism for threatening to destroy the Israeli regime, and many argue that this is evidence of ill intent behind Tehran's nuclear program. When Israel calls Iran a “fascist …regime” and makes similar comments about attacking the country, there is little objection to these statements in the Western media. 
I believe that Israel under Netanyahu is the biggest threat to peace and stability in the Middle East; the belligerence of his administration is unparalleled. The economic sanctions placed on Iran reflect the institutional hypocrisy of international bodies like the United Nations, which turns a blind eye to the Israeli regime employing apartheid policies against Palestinians, and allows the people of Iran to be collectively punished for possessing a weapon they don't actually possess. The purpose of these sanctions is to create social unrest and erode public confidence in the Iranian government, to target people's livelihoods to the point where they are no longer comfortable, with the hope that they would take to the streets in protest, the West is aiming to revive the kind of unrest that took place in 2009.

Although these sanctions claim to target Iran's oil export industry, the real victims are the country's factory workers, merchants, shopkeepers, students, and local manufacturers. During my stay, the rial fell 40% against the dollar. Washington and Tel Aviv are fully committed to preventing Tehran's independent technological, economic and political development. The Iranian government must be diligent in finding ways to manage its currency devaluation and economy – because of its natural resources and abundant energy wealth, the country is in a unique position to deflect international sanctions and use them to its advantage by increasing cooperation with neighboring countries through mutually beneficial economic development and securing international markets for Iranian goods and energy exports. Ultimately, other nations must defy the illegitimate sanctions against Iran and normalize relations – that is already beginning to happen.

An alleyway in Yazd
An alleyway in Yazd
Q: What will you tell your readers about Iran when you return home?


A: I would stress that Iran is an extremely safe country to travel through, and anyone who visits will certainly leave with more accurate perceptions than what Western media attempts to depict. Iran is the only country where a clerical official established power through a popular revolution, as someone who is deeply interested in various models of governance and social organization, I feel compelled to improve my understanding of the country and its transformation into an Islamic Republic – perhaps others feel the same. Everyone has different objectives when they travel, most people would visit to simply admire Iran's rich historical contributions to the world.

Q: And, finally, how is it possible for Iran to introduce its culture, civilization and people to the world? How effective are such initiatives like bringing tourists from around the world to Iran?

A: Every visitor who leaves the country with positive perceptions represents a step in the right direction toward improving Iran's image abroad. As I mentioned, I think creating understanding at the civilian level is a crucially important step that can be taken at this point. Winning the hearts of minds of Americans is a difficult thing to do, especially when the average American is xenophobic and endorses a view of the world shaped by bias media outlets and Hollywood movies. An astounding amount of tourists from East Asia visit Iran, and I think at this point it is in Iran's best interest to develop ties and cultural exchange with friendly nations throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

This article originally appeared in the Tehran Times
Interview conducted by Iranian journalist Kourosh Ziabari

Nile Bowie is an independent political commentator and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com