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April 17, 2009
Tamil diaspora rises in protest of Sri Lanka conflict

Tamils protesting in Brussels.

The United Nations has warned of a possible “blood bath” as the Sri Lankan military encroaches on the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who are now cornered in a small piece of coastal territory — along with up to 150,000 civilians.

The Tamil Tigers have long fought for an independent state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil ethnic minority. The civil war is one of Asia’s longest-running conflicts, and the U.N. estimates that more than 60 civilians are killed every day — caused by firing on both sides. Human Rights Watch reports that both sides are violating the laws of war, with the Tamil Tigers preventing civilians from leaving as the government fires indiscriminantly.

Against this backdrop, protests are rising up around the world — from London to Oslo to Ottawa — as Tamils living abroad demonstrate against the Sri Lankan offensive.

Nirmala Rajasingam is a Sri Lankan Tamil activist who lives in exile in London. She is a member of the steering committee of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum (SLDF), an international network of progressive diaspora voices. Her younger sister, Rajani Thiranagama, was murdered after she broke with the Tamil Tigers and criticized their violent tactics.

She writes at “OpenDemocracy” to argue that Tamil protesters abroad need to face difficult truths about the Tamil Tigers and their tactics.

The Tamil diaspora: solidarities and realities

The Sri Lankan Tamil community may not be the largest of the diaspora communities represented in London or other such greatly diverse cities around the world, but the numbers and conviction they have mobilised in recent days to highlight the plight of their brethren at home have been exceptional. The demonstrations by Tamils in the centres of London, Toronto and other cities have been spectacular, defiant and spirited displays of grief and anger: men, women, and many young people have gathered with colourful flags and banners, staged sit-ins, and chanted slogans, while several of their number have promised to fast unto death.

Their slogans are simple: “Genocide!”, “Pirapaharan is our leader!”, and “We want Tamil Eelam!”. These references to the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the aspiration to an independent state in northern Sri Lanka are accompanied by the touting of images of this figure and the waving of flags showing the Tiger emblem. Several parliamentarians in Britain and Canada have voiced support for the demonstrators.

The humanitarian situation in parts of northern Sri Lanka – especially in the narrow strip of land around Mullaitivu – is indeed desperate, as the Sri Lankan army’s advances have continued and as they lay siege to LTTE redoubts where approximately 100,000 civilians are confined – the latest stage of a long war that has persisted since 1983 (see “Sri Lanka’s displaced: the political vice”, 8 April 2009).

The cries of genocide have risen with the intensification of the military campaign and a sharp turn for the worse in the fortunes of the Tamil Tigers. They have spread too beyond the official Tiger propaganda stream (radio, TV and newspapers); the blood-splattered images and messages have inundated cyberspace: via Facebook and YouTube and other cyberspace outlets, via a torrent of emails, the drenching claim is simple, direct and frightening: genocide. This campaign has mobilised even those who had never been politically involved before.

The genocide alert is at heart about the trapped civilians in Mullaitivu. But the truth about the horrific circumstances in which civilians are stranded there is not stated in full. They are caught between two armies, each of which seeks to use them as pawns in this war. The government forces have shown no inhibition in bombing and shelling indiscriminately into crowded civilian areas, schools and hospitals as long as their military objective of crushing the Tigers is achieved. But the civilians are dying not only as a result of such bombardments or in crossfire; for credible reports indicate that Tigers are not allowing civilians to move out of the line of fire and escape to government-controlled areas, and may be going further to prevent attempts to flee.

It is striking, however, that in all the demonstrations not a single cry, slogan or placard seems to demand that the Tigers should let the civilians go or cease their own assaults on them. The silence of the diaspora community on this issue is deafening. The general support for the Tamils’ cause has in the public arena collapsed into one soundbite. There is no recognition in these demonstrations of the fact that the military objectives of the LTTE are no longer reconcilable with the safety of the trapped civilians. There is a disjunction between propaganda and reality here that reflects the way the logic of Tamil Tiger propaganda has become internalised by much of the diaspora. This does nothing to help Sri Lankan Tamils.

Such spectacular demonstrations have the potential to send a powerful message to the international community about the true nature of the predicament of the trapped civilians. Why then do the demonstrators fail to highlight this. Why have they not also raised their voices against Tiger atrocities as well as the government’s? Why do they elide the horrifying predicament of the civilians with the political interest of the Tigers?

What makes these questions even more pertinent is that the huge demonstrations in the west that endorse the LTTE are in direct opposition to the waning popular support for the LTTE amongst Tamils in Sri Lanka itself.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user quarsan under a Creative Commons license.

April 16, 2009
“Cabbage protests” wilt for Georgia’s opposition

Demonstrators in front of the parliament building during a protest rally in Tbilisi.

Mass protests against Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili have failed to gain traction, unlike the “Rose Revolution” of 2003 that put Saakashvili in power. Back then, Saakashvili’s supporters carried flowers — today, his opponents throw cabbages and carrots.

Matthew Collin reports for Al Jazeera from Georgia, and writes in the “Frontline Club” blog to explore why the protesters’ message is not resonating this time.

‘Cabbage Revolution’ Wilts

Under stony skies, a dirge-like ballad droned from the speakers outside the Georgian parliament: an appropriate soundtrack for the seventh day of opposition protests in Tbilisi. A series of opposition leaders was greeted by polite applause as they raged against Mikheil Saakashvili, the president who has refused to offer them his head on a pike. It started to drizzle; those who had umbrellas raised them. “All Georgia is here!” declared one optimist from the stage. It was not. These few thousand, or a good proportion of them, were the opposition’s hardcore perennials; the people we’ve become accustomed to seeing time and again at protests here down the years – the unemployed, the pensioners, the dispossessed and the desperate, chewing on sunflower seeds, spitting the husks, and smoking.

Despite what the Moscow propaganda channel Russia Today is saying today (“Sleepless nights for Mikheil Saakashvili”), the president has weathered the initial threat of political destabilisation, although – this being Georgia, where politics is often like theatre, played out on the street – there will undoubtedly be more to come in the future. In a small country with big problems, the next crisis is always around the corner…

Why has the opposition so far failed to rock the Saakashvili regime to its foundations, to send him running like the ‘scared rabbit’ they accused him of being as they lobbed carrots and cabbages over the gates of his presidential palace? Many analysts are marking this failure down to superior state strategy and cunning – the decision to let the demonstrators rally wherever they wanted, and not send in the riot police to crack heads, as Saakashvili did in November 2007, shattering his Western media image as democracy’s US-educated honour student.

The low-key policing massively reduced the chance of violent confrontation; a brief late-night altercation at the weekend showed how quickly tempers could flare. The president and his advisers seemed to be hoping that people would simply get bored and go home if there were no ‘provocations’ to stoke their ire and passion, and so far, that is exactly what seems to have happened.

Some correspondents have also suggested that a significant number of Georgians simply don’t trust the opposition – a fragile and sometimes fractious alliance of liberal democrats, belligerent nationalists, conservatives and street-corner populists – to do any better at running Georgia than Saakashvili. Some of the current opposition alliance are former regime insiders who’ve defected and now despise their former boss and all his works (which of course they once praised); others are the kind of veteran authority-baiters who would probably demonstrate against themselves if they ever came to power.

But that’s not the whole story; there is significant level of discontent here, as a Gallup opinion poll today suggests, but there’s also a sense of fatigue; weariness with the constant political turmoil of the past couple of years – street rallies, then elections; street rallies, then more elections; more street rallies, then the war with Russia, and now street rallies again… For some people, even if they have grievances with this regime, there has simply been too much politics recently.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user gipajournos under a Creative Commons license.

April 15, 2009
Thais skip New Year celebration, head straight for hangover

“Red Shirt” protesters in Thailand.

Thailand rang in its New Year to the sounds of protest, as thousands of troops fired warning shots and tear gas at anti-government protesters.

The four days of protests ended Tuesday and several demonstrators surrendered to security forces. The protesters, called “Red Shirts,” support former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and want his successor, Abhisit Vejjajiva, out.

John Brandon is The Asia Foundation’s director for international relations programs. He discusses what is in store for Thailand, stating that with competing groups still vying for power, the new year may bring little relief to the country.

Thailand: Skip the New Year and go straight to the hangover

This is normally a time of celebration in Thailand. This week is Thailand’s New Year, known as “Songkran.” The holiday falls during the hottest time of the year, where people celebrate the spiritual aspects of water and renewal, but it is also a time to visit family and friends. Some people make New Year resolutions, such as doing good deeds or refraining from bad behavior. Unfortunately for Thailand, the supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra and the Democratic Alliance against Dictatorship (DAAD), also known as the “red shirts,” elected to do neither.

On April 11 thousands of red-shirted protesters broke through a wall of riot police and soldiers and entered the Royal Cliff Hotel on Pattaya Beach, where Thailand was serving as host of the East Asia Summit: a 16-member association that includes the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), plus China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand. The summit’s agenda was to address the global financial crisis, China and ASEAN were to sign an investment pact, and China, Japan, and South Korea were to brief the other members on North Korea’s recent missile test. Instead, protesters wreaked such havoc that the East Asia Summit was unceremoniously cut short. […]

Although order has been restored, and the protests have ended for now, deep divisions that exist in Thai society remain. The country is at a difficult impasse. Thaksin’s “red shirts” want nothing less than to bring down the Abhisit government. They believe the government led by Abhisit has no legitimacy because of how it came to power. This is not correct. During the blockade of Bangkok’s international airport last November, Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled that the People’s Power Party (PPP) was guilty of electoral fraud. Because of the political stalemate, a faction of the PPP jumped ship and gave its support to the Democrat Party, which enabled Abhisit to become prime minister without calling for elections.

Conversely, if the “red shirts” were to be successful in bringing down Abhisit, and a government loyal to Thaksin was to come to power, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) — the “yellow shirts” — would revive their mass protest movement. The PAD believes Thaksin and his supporters are illegitimate, due to their governments’ election irregularities, abuse of power, and corruption. As each side views the other as illegitimate, mob protests have only served to exacerbate the division in Thailand’s body politic. Except for the possibility of Thailand’s revered King Bhumipol Adulyadej, it is unclear what person in Thailand can bridge these divisions and promote reconciliation.

Events of the past week show that there are no winners in Thailand. Tourism remains in the doldrums as events continue to damage the country’s attractiveness as a tourist destination. Thirty percent of the country’s air traffic that was rerouted as a consequence of the November airport closures has not returned. Many of these flights have elected now to operate from Singapore, Malaysia, or Hong Kong. Exports have dropped by 25 percent. Even before the most recent round of protests, the World Bank predicted that Thailand’s GDP will drop by 2.7 percent in 2009. Growth may decline further as a result of the recent chaos.[…]

There appears to be a strong misconception in Thailand these days that democracy equals intimidation.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user adaptorplug under a Creative Commons license.

April 14, 2009
U.S. and Egypt must mend ailing relationship

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

U.S. special envoy George Mitchell has begun a two-week trip to a number of Middle East and north African countries, including Egypt.

Jon Alterman is director and senior fellow of the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. He writes at “World Politics Review” about the changing relationship between the United States and Egypt, arguing that relations have been damaged over the past several years and need rebuilding.

U.S.-Egypt: The Magic is Gone

It’s no secret that the U.S.-Egyptian relationship is ailing. As his term went on, President George W. Bush seemed to go to Egypt principally to deliver stern lectures. After years of visiting Washington every spring, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stopped coming to Washington at all. Despite — or perhaps because of — $2 billion per year changing hands, the mutual resentment has become palpable.

The hostility among the two leaders reflects a deeper divide between their governments and even among peoples. More than three decades after U.S. and Egyptian presidents together changed the landscape of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the U.S.-Egyptian relationship has grown stale. Egyptians feel unappreciated, and they complain that they have sold off their foreign policy for meager reward. Americans feel that their aid has been taken for granted, and they are embarrassed that so close an ally has such a checkered record in treating its own people. Although the two sides continue to cooperate on a wide array of shared interests, the amount that is done out of goodwill continues to dwindle.

The relationship has been drifting downward for years, and it can drift downward still. Yet the way in which the relationship continues to disappoint expectations is corrosive. It makes even things that Americans and Egyptians agree upon harder to accomplish, and that exacerbates differences. Both countries have an interest in redefining the relationship, in one of two ways.

One option is to reinvigorate the relationship by giving it a renewed sense of purpose. The modern Egyptian-American relationship was forged in the depths of the Cold War when Egypt pivoted out of the Soviet embrace, aligned itself with the United States, and defied the Arab consensus by making peace with Israel. The consequences of Egyptian policy were truly strategic not only for Egypt, but also for the United States. Egypt was a clear regional leader, and its actions helped reshape the Middle East.

Now, there is no grand project that the two countries share. With no Cold War, a much less defiant Arab consensus, and Arab governments’ grudging acceptance of Israel in the Middle East, Egypt is harder pressed to play the role of a vanguard, while the United States is less in need of one. Today’s geopolitics lend themselves to small and incremental moves rather than bold strokes. Egypt’s help fighting the “small wars” of the twenty-first century, for example, is important but probably insufficient to be truly strategic. In other areas where the United States has an interest, Egypt is not the most likely agent of change. It is hard to imagine Egypt leading an economic transition in the Middle East, and its political culture does not lend itself toward dramatic shifts in politics and governance.

None of this is to suggest that a grand project cannot be found, only that one is not evident. But what is clear is that the current relationship is predicated on having a grand project, and the absence of such a project makes the relationship hollow.

The other option is for both Egypt and the United States to agree that the current relationship has outlived its usefulness, and the time has come for both countries to invest in diversifying their relationships in the Middle East and around the world.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user World Economic Forum under a Creative Commons license.

April 13, 2009
Small parties are big players in India’s upcoming elections

India is scheduled to hold elections on April 16.

India, the world’s largest democracy, is scheduled to begin its multi-stage parliamentary elections on April 16. Neither of the country’s two major parties, the Congress party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are expected to gain a majority, meaning India is likely headed for another coalition government.

Mahima Kaul is a freelance reporter based in Delhi who has written for The Indian Express. She explains how India’s political landscape has changed over the past several decades, as political support has fragmented and smaller parties have become more influential.

Election fever has peaked here in India. You cannot escape it — even local pastry shops are baking goodies in the form of party symbols. This is typical of the fanfare and celebrations that engulf the country as political parties, their numbers increasing every day, chase the Indian voter.

But to understand the real significance of how India votes, one needs turn back the clock a little. India’s particular brand of democracy has gone through many changes over the past 60 years. It is a parliamentary system, much like the British, and every five years national elections are held and the party with the most seats forms the government.

Simple enough. And it was, when the Congress party was the single largest party in the country. But in the 1970s, the political landscape of the country started to change. Smaller political players began to move to the center stage, and by the 1990s, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in particular had grown in stature. Regional players began to flex their electoral muscles. This led to the system of government India has today — grand coalitions forming the government, with either the Congress party or the BJP leading it.

Over the years, the Congress party has steadily been losing ground in individual states, with regionalism trumping national concerns. Small state parties can hold the national government ransom because of the need for coalitions.

Political scientists have tried to decipher the mind of the Indian voter over the years. Overwhelmingly, votes are cast on the basis of identity; along religious or caste lines. That is why many members of parliament — and even chief ministers — have been voted back to power despite their obvious corruption and non-performance. Indian elections must be viewed through this prism.

This brings us to 2009. It is an enormous task to explain the internal dynamics of Indian politics because the number of players keep increasing by the day.

Some basics: The Congress leads the UPA  (United Progressive Alliance) government, backed by smaller players that once included the Left (Indian communists). When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed a nuclear deal with President Bush, the Left objected very strongly, and ultimately withdrew support from the government. This led to a “trust vote” in parliament where the UPA had to prove its majority.

What happened then was shocking and revealed the underbelly of Indian politics. The Congress-led government, allegedly, began to buy votes. BJP members brought, on live television, suitcases filled with wads of cash as “proof” that the Congress party had tried to buy support. The nation was disgusted with the blatant display of corruption.

Not much later, the terror attacks in Mumbai revealed that while Indian politicians had been horse-trading and making money, the real work of a government — for instance, securing the borders — had been woefully neglected. Anger against the entire political establishment only grew, because successive governments — be they Congress or BJP-led — have not taken these concerns seriously.

With polling beginning in only a few days, it is widely believed in the country that no party, including the Congress, will get a majority. Another coalition will be formed after the numbers are crunched. Opportunistic alliances will be made. Some of the larger regional players have also formed the Third Front; a credible threat to the UPA and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Bookies all over the country seem to think that the present government, under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will continue. However, if that happens, the Congress will undoubtedly need the support of smaller parties to prove a majority in the house.

The refreshing electoral trend this time is that a number of urban professionals have decided to contest key metropolitan seats as independents, signaling that perhaps urban India is done voting for morally bankrupt political parties. Right now, democracy is a numbers game. Parties with no common ideology will come together to form a coalition if it means sharing power at the center. Then comes governance.

The hope young India has for itself is that it can change the country’s priorities by greater participation. Let us see how it votes.

– Mahima Kaul

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user hunger artist under a Creative Commons license.

April 10, 2009
China rapidly reduces poverty; 60 percent decline in 25 years

China’s share of population living below the poverty line declined from 65 percent at the beginning of economic reform in 1981 to 4 percent in 2007.

A new World Bank report calls China’s progress in reducing poverty “enviable” and shows that the percent of the Chinese population living below the poverty line declined from 65 percent in 1981 to 4 percent in 2007.

David Dollar is based in Beijing and is the World Bank’s country director for China and Mongolia. He writes at the “East Asia & Pacific on the Rise” blog to explain the report’s findings and explore the challenges still facing China.

Remarkable progress, remaining vulnerability among China’s poor

At the height of the recent boom the U.S. household savings rate dropped to zero: the average American family saved nothing from its annual income of more than $38,000 per person. In China, by contrast, poor rural families earning less than $200 per person save 18 percent of their meager income. This is one of the striking findings of the World Bank poverty assessment released today.

The poverty study uses a wealth of household survey and village-level data to tell a fascinating story of progress and vulnerability. The progress is remarkable: the share of the population living below the World Bank’s consumption poverty line for China declined from 65 percent at the beginning of economic reform (1981) to 4 percent in 2007. The pace of poverty reduction varied over these 26 years. One of the periods of most rapid poverty reduction has been the boom time since China joined the World Trade Organization. Poverty declined from 16 percent in 2001 to 4 percent in just six years.

But the analysis also shows remaining vulnerability. A data-set that follows households over three years finds that while the poverty rate in each year is relatively low, over the three years nearly one-third of rural households were poor in one of the years. It used to be the case that there were large concentrations of chronically poor people in particular locations. Much of China’s poverty reduction effort has been aimed at helping those locations grow through infrastructure investments. These efforts have been successful, but the remaining poor are now quite dispersed. More than half of the poor now do not live in officially designated poor villages. So, while helping poor villages remains important, that work needs to be supplemented by programs that reach the poor households living elsewhere (hence the report’s title: “From poor areas to poor people: China’s evolving poverty reduction agenda”).

Households move in and out of poverty primarily because of different kinds of shocks: poor weather and crops; sickness or injury; loss of job for the migrant worker in the family. Protecting against this kind of vulnerability requires strengthened social protection. The international team that wrote this report has been working together with the Chinese statistical bureau and the poverty alleviation leading group for years, and many of the findings have already influenced policy. The report documents how in recent years China has introduced an impressive array of programs to address vulnerability: medical assistance for the rural poor, rural medical cooperative scheme, free basic education, and minimum income support in urban and rural areas (dibao).

There is considerable scope to improve and expand these programs. While this analysis was done before the global economic crisis hit, the crisis makes the agenda all the more important. As estimated 20 million migrant workers have lost their jobs, reducing the important remittances that they send to family in the countryside. Most of those unemployed will remain in cities looking for work. Thus, it is important to ensure that they are covered by the urban safety net. The report makes practical recommendations for expanding social protection: the price tag is less than 1 percent of GDP – a small amount compared to the country’s massive stimulus spending on infrastructure.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Rivard under a Creative Commons license.

April 9, 2009
Sri Lanka’s long battle with rebels may be in last throes

Tamil civilians fleeing the conflict. Photo: United Nations/IRIN

Fighting is heating up in Sri Lanka as the government wages what the U.N. says may be a “final confrontation” with the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who are now cornered in a small piece of coastal territory — along with 100,000 civilians.

The Tamil Tigers have long fought for an independent state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil ethnic minority.

Maura R. O’Connor of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting writes that regardless of the outcome of the battle with the Tigers, peace may not be in Sri Lanka’s future. She explains the tensions between Sri Lanka’s various paramilitary groups and the impact of military operations in the north.

Sri Lanka: Paramilitary Politics

Driving through the narrow streets of towns in the east it begins to seem like every concrete surface, telephone pole, or fence is plastered with political posters or covered in spray painted acronyms: “TMVP,” “SLFP,” “UNP,” “SLMC,” “TURLF,” “EROS,” “UPFA,” “TDNA,” “TELO.”

To an outsider, some of the graffiti is just cryptic code. No one except a local who lived through last May’s volatile elections would know that the image of an apple followed by an “X” is the faded remnant of a political alliance between the Ealam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), Ealam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), and the People’s Liberation Organization for Tamil Ealam (PLOTE).

These last three political parties have also acted as paramilitary forces in the north and east of the country for decades.

PLOTE, for instance, split with the LTTE in the early 1980s and aligned itself with government security forces who gave them weapons, and helped to run counter-insurgency operations by identifying and targeting LTTE members and sympathizers within the Tamil community. By many accounts, their practices were horrendous, especially in the northern town of Vavuniya. Throughout the 1990s and until a few years ago, they were accused of running torture camps, committing abductions, and conscripting children, much like the LTTE forces they claimed to be an alternative to.[…]

Today, PLOTE has about 1,500 permanent cadres in the north and east. But the group fervently denies being a government paramilitary organization and instead argues that it is a pro-democratic, independent political party, which, as reported in Sri Lanka’s government owned newspaper The Daily News, “entered mainstream politics over two decades ago and are presently involved in helping people overcome problems through accepted democratic norms.” […]

I went to a PLOTE office a few days ago to meet with a member of their political wing. The only guns to be seen were those held by two government army soldiers who reclined in chairs within the perimeter of the compound. But inside, the group’s violent history was on display in the form of walls covered by dozens of photographs of slain PLOTE leaders. Garlands of marigolds were carefully strung across some of the photographs and electric “candles” attached to the walls burned in silent memorial. Most of the men in the pictures had been killed by LTTE bombs or assassins bullets.

My conversation with the PLOTE member took on an unexpected turn within minutes. I had fully prepared myself to listen to extensive hyperbole about the political aims of the group, the many ways in which they were benefiting the community, and future plans to win the hearts and minds of the people in alliance with the Sri Lankan government. Instead, he laid out a picture of the current situation in the east that was so despairing I left an hour and a half later with an unshakeable sense of gloom.

He began by saying that things are “almost worse than they were before” when the LTTE controlled the east. Today, he said, there is a feeling of absolute censorship and fear among political leaders and community members and even local police who are terrified of crossing Eastern Province Chief Minister Pillayan’s forces or his rival Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan (alias: Karuna). Both Pillayan and Karuna were former LTTE members but split from the group in 2004 to create the government backed party called the TMVP.

“If we want to even travel somewhere, than the TMVP cadres will ask us, ‘Why are you coming here?’” he said. “We will have the police with us and they ask the police also! ‘Why are you coming here?’ A lot of people are missing, it’s still happening. Last week, a six-year-old child was kidnapped and murdered… Everyone knows it was TMVP. But those accused in the case were killed right away. These people were killed because if they are alive, a lot of people will be implicated if the inquiry went anywhere. This is the example of what is happening.”

Did he think that Pillayan had genuinely given up his arms, as reported in the newspapers last month? “Officially, they say they have handed some weapons,” he said. “But if you go to a camp anywhere, still they have weapons. There are all sorts of things going on. We cannot express ourselves openly because there is no security.”

He went on to describe the widespread helplessness the community in the east is experiencing as they hear about thousands of fellow Tamils being killed from the current military operations in the north. “Our people are all tired, they are fed up,” he said. “They need a peaceful life. Ok, you have to defeat terrorists. We accept that. We will help to defeat the LTTE. But people who are suffering wounds, people who are in camps in Vavuniya, we have to help them too. These people lived under LTTE because they didn’t have any choice, if they didn’t they wouldn’t have survived.”

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

April 8, 2009
Déjà vu as Thai protesters demand govt’s resignation

Protests in Thailand.

Tens of thousands of protesters massed in Bangkok Wednesday, demanding the government’s resignation.

Thailand’s political situation remains tenuous and the country has seen a string of prime ministers come and go in recent years. Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat resigned as a result of demonstrations.

Though current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was elected by parliament just five months ago, he faces lingering public discontent, largely from Thailand’s rural poor.

Andy Scott is the managing editor for Asia Briefing and has lived and worked in Asia since 2002. He writes at “2point6billion” about the reasons for the current protests.

Protests Grind Bangkok to a Halt Again

In what might appear to be déjà vu except for the color of their shirts, thousands of red-shirted anti-government protestors descended on Government House in Bangkok today, signaling yet the beginning of yet another round of destabilizing protests that threaten to again bring government and commerce to a halt again.

The protestors have declared that Wednesday was D-Day for their cause, claiming that they will draw up to 3000,000 people from the eastern and northern parts of Thailand, the traditional stronghold of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin lost power in a bloodless coup in 2006 while traveling abroad.

The red shirts, formally known as the National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship, aim to topple current Prime Minster Abhisit Vejjajiva. According to Bangkok police, about 30,000 protestors gathered outside the main government offices in the capital, where demonstrators have been staging a sit-in for the past two weeks. The Bangkok Post reports that the protests come a day after the red shirts attacked Abhisit’s motorcade following a cabinet meeting in Pattaya.

The prime minister warned that crowd dispersal could be used if the protests spiraled out of control. “’If it [the protests] develops into mayhem, we may have to do that,” he said on Wednesday morning.

Thaksin, living in exile in an undisclosed location to avoid a Thai jail term for corruption, said that the protests would be a “historic day for Thailand.”

“We will come peacefully but we need as many people as possible to show that the Thai people will not tolerate these politics anymore,” he said in a video that was played for supported outside Government House on Tuesday night.

Thailand has seen wave after wave of protests following the 2006 coup as the country is now deeply divided between the red shirts, Thaksin’s supporters among the urban and rural poor, and the yellow shirts, the traditional power cliques of the palace, military and bureaucracy.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user adaptorplug under a Creative Commons license.

April 7, 2009
Brazilian scrap collectors scrounge for income

Scrap collectors are common in Brazil. 

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva made headlines recently when he blamed “white people with blue eyes” for the world financial crisis, which has undercut Brazil’s economic gains.

Brazil’s economy — Latin America’s largest — has seen slipping industrial production and will take a hit this year. Though it will likely weather the global financial storm, Brazil’s gross domestic product may shrink for the first time in 17 years

Natalia Viana is an investigative journalist who lives in São Paulo, Brazil. She writes at the “Frontline Club” about the fate of Brazil’s scrap collectors as prices for recyclable materials drop. 

Scrap collectors and the crisis

The current financial crisis has found its way to unimaginable places. While most Brazilians remain optimistic – after all the crisis was created far, far away from here by economies much more dependant on the financial markets – but the fact is that it has brought consequences to many people who don’t even know what the financial market is and who have never heard of subprime mortgages and foreclosures (and never will). 

The man who told me their story is not an economist, or a journalist. He is João Câmara, a cab driver who drove me home some days ago. He started by complaining that he did not know his way around: he’d been out of the taxi business for 15 years. What had happened, I asked. I had opened my own business, he replied.
He ran a centre for selection of recyclable materials in São Paulo. Scrap collectors would come with their wooden carts and sell the stuff they’d gathered –- paper, plastic bottles, aluminium cans –- to be cleaned, selected and then sold to major recycling companies. In other words, he was a middleman. 

In Brazil, 90% of the materials recycled go though the hands of a scrap collector. It’s hard to know precisely how many they are. Figures vary between 800,000 and 1.5 million. These are workers who walk around all day going from trash can to trash can to collect, organize and clean everything that no-one wants anymore. And they have been deeply affected by the crisis. 

João Câmara told me that prices of used plastic slumped so much he had to give up his job and go back to being a cab driver. Many scrap collectors are seeing their earning cut by almost half, he said. 

He is right. According to the National Movement of Recyclable Materials Collectors, a collector who used to earn up to 350 dollars per month are now unable to make more than 200 dollars. Prices paid for the materials have dropped by 60% in some cases. In September 2008, a kilo of cardboard was about 0.22 dollars. Now the price is 0.06 dollars. The price of plastic fell from 0.50 dollars to 0.30 dollars. 

Being a middle-man, João Câmara had the opportunity to drop the industry and go cab driving. He’s starting anew, and faces the future in a very Brazilian way. What can one do, he said, that’s life. But for most scrap collectors, there is no other choice –- they will have to work harder, maybe twice as much as they did before, to afford food for their tables. 

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April 6, 2009
Rural Africans may see a bright side to financial crisis

Money changes hands at a market in Africa.

The global recession may cost the African continent billions in aid, and African leaders have acknowledged that they underestimated the effects of the financial crisis — sliding commodity prices and less remittances. 

G. Pascal Zachary is a journalist, author and teacher who writes frequently about African affairs. He writes at the “African Arguments” blog that there is still a bright side for rural Africans. 

Is Africa Immune to the Financial Crisis?

Everyday life in a major African city, such as Kampala or Accra, provides evidence for the pay-as-you character of African life, both for consumers and for owners of business. Because credit is hard to obtain, “leverage,” or the role of borrowed money in household expenditures and business operations, is far less than elsewhere in the world. So Africans are indeed much better prepared to survive a global “credit squeeze” than others.

The benefits of pay-as-you-go, during a credit crisis, would have to be undeniable even to the many professional pessimists on the subject of African development. The broader question is whether the slump in global demand will harm African economies. […]The answer isn’t surprising.


African countries who produce industrial materials will especially be hurt. So will oil producers of course. But producers of food and farm products should fare better, since demand for certain crops – rice, coffee, cocoa, maize and others – should not see price and demand declines in any way approaching those happening in, say, the diamond (Botswana), copper (Zambia) or oil (Nigeria, Angola) sectors.

My hypothesis, then, is that the heavily rural character of most African countries provides another ballast against any prolonged global downturn. The insight isn’t as prosaic as insisting that most African families, even those who live in cities, have a plot of land somewhere on which they can grow food for themselves.

The upside for rural Africans, who already earning more money in areas without a civil war since any time since the 1960s, is bright. Even in a period of stagnant global industrial demand, the appetite for foodstuffs will not stagnate. The middle classes of India and China remain on a trajectory towards higher-value foods, a growing percentage of which will come from Africa. European consumption of African farm output has also grown sharply in recent years – and that trend should continue. Finally, the economic downturn may compel Western governments, and even China, to begin withdrawing the cash and service subsidies to some of their own agriculture sectors. China, for instance, heavily subsidizes its cotton producers, who consume valuable and water that might go to higher-value activities. That Africa will grab a greater share of global agricultural output seems inevitable.

In the short run, African economies -– individual consumers and business alike — will benefit from their relative independence from debt. How costly will the commodities bust be for Africa remains an open question.

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