Newsnotes 2008 12

Notes On The News

by Gwydion M Williams

Army of Islam, Army of Shiva

Thailand breaks the rules.


Yielding to China [About Tibet]

Somalia [Piracy]

The United States of Uncertainty [Obama]

NATO Halts Its ‘March To The East’

Superorganisms [Ant Nests and Human Religions]


Army of Islam, Army of Shiva

‘Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return’. That was W H Auden’s 1930s comment on the Nazis – in those days it was generally accepted that the Versailles Peace had been monstrously unjust. It also fits the recent massacres in Mumbai, formerly Bombay. Whether local Muslims were involved remains obscure, but there was certainly communal tension.

Back in the 1970s I heard vaguely about the rise of a Mumbai-based movement called Shiv Sena, Army of Shiva. That it was a sectarian Hindu organisation representing the specific interests of the Marathis, a mostly-Hindu language group with its own distinct identity. There are maybe 70 million of them, mostly in the state of Maharashtra, where they are nearly 70% of the population. Shiv Sena has managed to make itself their champion, I’ve no idea how. It’s not the worship of Shiva as such: about half of all Hindus are worshipers of Shiva and it’s normally a tolerant creed.

I’ve never followed Indian politics very closely, but I knew that over the years the sectarian Shiv Sena kept on growing. They were allies in the central government of the BJP, who tapped the same feelings for a much wider range of Hindu language-groups. Both the BJP and Shiv Sena have been accused of involvement in sectarian attacks on Muslims.

The BJP are one of those movements that combine religious intensity on some issues with an ‘open legs’ attitude towards a global commercial system dominated by the USA. Saudi Arabia are another, and so are the main Muslim opposition in Malaya and the Christian Right in the USA itself. As far as I can make out, Shiv Sena go along with it. The two parties get about a third of the votes in Maharashtra: 20% for Shiv Sena and 13.7% BJP.[A] The state government is currently run by an alliance of the Indian National Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party, which split from Congress in 1999. The same two alliances compete in Mumbai, but in the city the Shiv Sena / BPJ alliance dominate. Shiv Sena have run the city for the last 20 years and the mayor is Shubha Raul, a lady doctor from Shiv Sena:

“The municipal corporation of Mumbai and nine other cities had gone to poll on February 1 to elect 227 members. The Shiv Sena got 83 seats and its ally — the BJP — 28… The Congress has 71 members and the NCP 14 members.”[B]

Communism is a strong force in some parts of India, the state government in Bengal and Kerala. In Maharashtra, sadly, it is insignificant. There is also no significant Muslim party. Apart from Kashmir, Muslims in the Republic of India are a dispersed minority and tend to vote for Congress and other secular parties. They are 13.4% of the population, but different Muslim groups may have little in common and there are anyway no territories outside Kashmir that they could plausibly claim as their own independent states. They’re wise to stick to Congress, whose secular traditions offer the best chance.

Mumbai being India’s commercial heart and also a stronghold of sectarianism is nothing odd. More like the norm when societies are being changed quickly.


Thailand breaks the rules.

A ‘crusade for democracy’ was announced by the West when the Cold War ended. People were going to chose their own government from now on. Or that was the rhetoric, which I never believed.

Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was no racial, he just had some modest measures for the rural poor. This was too much for the Thai elite, which got him overthrown in a coup. But military juntas are out of fashion now, so they had a new election, which Thaksin’s people won. The elite wouldn’t accept it and switched to harassment, culminating in the blockade of the main airport. It used the language of democracy, but the real protest was that the elite was less powerful than it had been;

“The elites’ main difference with Mr Thaksin, and the proxies that have followed his removal in a 2006 coup, is that he robbed them of power. Coups have come and gone with alarming frequency in Thailand’s 76 years as a constitutional monarchy. But its governing elites have remained largely unaffected.[J]

“A loose grouping, the PAD has yet to define fully how it would achieve its aim of reducing political corruption. It has backed away from its first idea of a parliament in which 70 per cent of members would be appointed. Instead it is proposing a voting system with indirect elections based on occupational groups…

“The PAD also appears to have strong financial support – and protection – from elite forces. Not only has the military refused to remove the protesters from Government House by force, or even to put pressure on them by restricting the flow of food and people into the compound, but serving officers have been training PAD guards on how to resist any eviction effort.” [K]

“The PAD, which represents the urban elite, has a genuine distaste for the former prime minister’s populist, authoritarian ways. But more fundamentally, its supporters cannot stand ceding power to people they regard as ignorant peasants, fit to clean their apartments and drive their taxis, but not to help shape their political landscape. Many of its supporters advocate a limited democracy with a partially nominated parliament.” [L]

Real democracy involves two things. A government that actually does what the majority want. And social mobility, so that people are able to rise if they are talented. To actually establish these things where they do not exist needs some authoritarianism. Multi-party democracy is very often a meaningless game. But in Thailand a mildly reforming government won a solid victory in a Western election and threatened real change.

Mass protests by an urban minority covertly supported by the police closed down the airports, but the government had won a recent election and refused to go. I’d also guess that it is the PAD’s people who have more to lose from damage to tourism. The deadlock was broken when a Thai court conveniently found a pretext to disqualify the members of the elected government and dissolve the ruling party. Except that the MPs are still there and may well form a new ruling party later on this month.

Britain and the USA have been notably silent through all of this. Britain has even aided the harassment, revoking Thaksin’s visa.[C] Very much in line with what Britain has always done when an election gave the ‘wrong’ result.



“Members of the Afghan government, European diplomats, and Nato military officials are pushing to delay, or even scrap, next year’s presidential election. They argue that the poll could dangerously aggravate political ­tensions.

“The contest, in which Hamid Karzai is expected to seek re-election as president, is critical to attempts to ­stabilise Afghanistan.

“But with large parts of the south and east essentially under Taliban control, and many other areas racked by insecurity, it may be impossible to hold a contest in which all Afghans can vote. The lack of security was underlined last week when a suicide bomber entered the information and culture ministry and killed at least five people.”[D]

If Afghans can’t be trusted either to vote sensibly or to do their own fighting, just what are Western forces doing there?

Of course it was always about creating a base for Western power. This has now failed, but the leaders who made the error are very reluctant to admit it. Ordinary Britons now feel otherwise: 68 per cent say the UK should withdraw within 12 months.[E]


Yielding to China [About Tibet]

“It was an early-21st-century solution to an early-20th-century problem. On October 29th, at the end of a short statement published on his ministry’s website, Britain’s foreign secretary, David Miliband, quietly junked his country’s long-standing position on Tibet. Uniquely among the world’s countries, Britain had not explicitly recognised Chinese sovereignty over the region. Rather it acknowledged its ‘suzerainty’.

“Quite what the term means has been obscure even to British diplomats. But what it does not mean—that China enjoys full sovereignty over China and has done so for centuries—has been enough to irk Chinese officials. It bolstered claims that Tibet was not part of China until its troops occupied it in 1951.

“Mr Miliband describes Britain’s old position as ‘based on the geopolitics of the time’—i.e., the early 1900s, when British adventurers were entering Tibet from India and the Qing empire was disintegrating in China. He says this ‘anachronism’ has ‘clouded’ Britain’s ability to get its points across on Tibet: on the importance of respect for human rights and of greater Tibetan autonomy.” [E]

To say ‘adventurers’ is misleading: it was a long-term aim of the British Raj in India to get control of Western Tibet, the territory ruled by the Dalai Lama, or more often by a regent acting for him. Britain and other European powers kicked China around a great deal in the 110 years between the First Opium War and Mao’s liberation of China in 1949. One of the last acts was the British warship Amethyst making a difficult get-away from the Yangtze River in the heart of China. It’s not mentioned much nowadays because foreign warships on a Chinese river make it clear how weak China was before Mao, and how little respected, though not totally insignificant. The British Raj wanted to grab Western Tibet, but much more powerful British interests in Shanghai and the Han core of China thought it was unwise to offend Chinese nationalist feeling any further.

Tibet then became a useful irritant at a time when it was unclear how long Red China would last. (An immanent collapse has been predicted pretty well every year from 1949 down to the present: it would be nice to do a book that collected them.) Western Tibet was encouraged to claim independence, even though the Dalai Lama’s enthronement in 1940 had been closely supervised by Chiang Kai-shek’s government, who helped ensure that the present incumbent was recognised as the one and only Dalai Lama, avoiding the sort of splits that other lines of ‘incarnate lamas’ have suffered from. No one actually recognised Tibet as independent, but the ambiguity remains. The Dalai Lama says he is not seeking independence, but he has never done what Beijing requires of him, he has not admitted that Western Tibet never was independent under international law. Instead he and his follows claim a Greater Tibet that also includes regions with a mixed population – territories unambiguously included in Chinese provinces well before Mao.

Irritating China has its limits, especially when there is a global financial crisis. I said that back in March, after the ethnic riots and racist attacks on Han and Chinese Muslims in Lhasa. It applies much more strongly now, with the West slipping into recession while China tries to reduce its dependence on exports. So it wasn’t surprising to see Britain discard the last remaining ambiguity about Tibet’s status.

Meantime the Tibetan exiles continue to show a lack of realism that has been noticed by pretty well everyone who has had contact with them:

“The Dalai Lama appeared to be attempting to reach out over the heads of the Beijing leadership, saying he supported ‘democracy in China’ and the failure of authoritarian states in the 20th century was a lesson of history Beijing should learn.” [G]

They’ve learned, all right. The way Russia was treated after abolishing the Soviet Union is taken by China as clear evidence that the West cannot be trusted, is either incompetent or hostile. Russia saw its economy shrink and a class of unproductive oligarchs emerge from the privatisations that were carried out on Western advice. Putin saved a disintegrating state and is hated by the West because he has re-asserted Russia’s rights. Meantime not a single Leninist state outside of Europe has collapsed. The closest is Mongolia, where the ruling Communist Party remains in power after winning multi-party elections.

The Dalai Lama is also looking to an alliance with Chinese dissidents. A policy that might possibly have worked in the early 1990s, if he had made peace then and been allowed back on the best terms he could get. A lot has changed since the early 1990s, with the Internet being a vehicle for a popular nationalism. And at all times, most Chinese dissidents have seen Tibet as part of China and the Tibetan exiles as something alien. The Dalai Lama does not help matters when he ignores the racist element among his supporters:

“In March this year, Tibetans from the whole of Tibet known as Cholka-Sum (U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo), regardless of whether they were young or old, male or female, monastic or lay-people, believers or non-believers, including students, risked their lives by courageously expressing their long-felt dissatisfaction with PRC policies in a peaceful and lawful way.”[H]

The initial protests – mostly by monks – were indeed peaceful. They were not lawful, or not if you accept that Chinese law applies in Tibet. Most countries have some sort of law against unauthorised demonstration, though most will also allow anti-government demonstrations, which China never would. There are strict limits in most Asian countries: the Republic of India does not allow anyone to campaign for separation from India, no matter how peacefully.

What followed from the initial peaceful Tibetan protests was a wave of riots and also ethnic attacks on ordinary Chinese. These were witnessed by foreign residents and the world media. The Dalai Lama was lukewarm in his remarks at the time. He is acting now as if it never happened, which is stupid.

There has meantime been a gathering of the Tibetan exiles, with the Dalai Lama staying away but the leaders of the Tibetan exiles prostrating themselves before a large photograph of him. There was loose talk of returning to the demand for independence, which would have been senseless since no one looks inclined to fight for it. The small bands of Khampa fighters sponsored by the CIA in the 1950s and 1960s achieved very little and were kicked out of Nepal back in the days when Nepal was royalist

China has kept its currency non-convertible, and so is safe from the sort of damage that was inflicted on Japan and the Asian Tigers in the 1990s. If the West stops being able to consume cheap Chinese goods, China can consume them itself. Having kept agricultural land as public property, surplus workers can be re-absorbed into agriculture. China looks better placed to ride out the economic storm than most places.


Somalia [Piracy]

The Reagan / Thatcher notion was that governments were the problem. In that spirit, they deregulated finance, with results we are now seeing. In the wider world, their instinct was to create chaos whenever there was a government that didn’t suit them.

Somalia’s collapse was mostly due to internal forces, but the US has certainly been ready to attack anyone who looked like being a coherent new leader. No new government has been allowed to emerge, and the Ethiopian army was sent in when one looked like emerging around the ‘Islamic Courts’.

Piracy does not exist in a social vacuum. It flourishes when there is no government that can either restrain its own people or protect them from foreigners. As one pirate put it:

“I am 42 years old and have nine children. I am a boss with boats operating in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.

“I finished high school and wanted to go to university but there was no money. So I became a fisherman in Eyl in Puntland like my father, even though I still dreamed of working for a company. That never happened as the Somali government was destroyed [in 1991] and the country became unstable.

“At sea foreign fishing vessels often confronted us. Some had no licence, others had permission from the Puntland authorities but did not want us there to compete. They would destroy our boats and force us to flee for our lives.

“I started to hijack these fishing boats in 1998. I did not have any special training but was not afraid. For our first captured ship we got $300,000. With the money we bought AK-47s and small speedboats. I don’t know exactly how many ships I have captured since then but I think it is about 60. Sometimes when we are going to hijack a ship we face rough winds, and some of us get sick and some die.

“We give priority to ships from Europe because we get bigger ransoms.” (‘We consider ourselves heroes’ – a Somali pirate speaks. [M] ‘Puntland’ is one of several unofficial quasi-governments that have emerged within the chaos.

Illegal fishing has been an issue. So has the dumping of toxic waste in Somali waters. All of this has flourished in the general atmosphere of lawlessness that the USA has encouraged since the end of the Cold War. When the USA ignores existing international law when they see an advantage, what do they expect others to do?

Though ransoms are for both crew and ship, no one would pay the sort of sums quoted for a few ordinary seamen, often from very poor backgrounds. It makes sense for any individual ship-owner to pay ransom, but of course the ransoms encourage more piracy. The classic clash between group interests and individual welfare, the sort of things that states and international organisations were created to handle. Offering a modest ransom for the crew and nothing for the ship would have made it an unprofitable enterprise: a few ships might have been blown up or sunk, but then the process would have ended. Instead they have fed it and there is no easy answer.


The United States of Uncertainty [Obama]

It’s easy to say what Obama is not. To say what he is remains very difficult. To date he seems intent on running the Federal Government much as Bill Clinton did. Clinton helped deregulate finance, helped trash Yugoslavia, harassed Iraq in the hope it would collapse without a war. Ignored the suffering of the Iraqi people and gave no thought as to what might emerge if Saddam were not there

The self-confident pattern that the USA had in the 1950s broke down in the 1960s. In the 1970s there were moved to change to something new. In the 1980s, Reagan said that all was well and put the social problems into cold storage. He helped generate a selfish social outlook that kept the majority happy. But since he didn’t fix very much, the overall decline of the USA continued. The collapse of the Soviet Union masked this decline and made them look like winners, but that opportunity has been squandered. This year, it has become clear that the old order is no longer in control:

“Until this year, Missouri had voted for the winning candidate every year since 1956 – and, if you disregard 1956, from as far back as 1904.

“So the Show-Me state is no longer America’s bellwether – the state that reflects the views of the nation as a whole.

“Demographically, Missouri used to be a microcosm of America.

“With its identical combination of urban centres and rural areas, and a similar racial mix to America as a whole, it was little surprise that Missouri voted along the same lines as the nation.

“But America’s racial mix is changing – and Missouri is not keeping up with the changes.

“African-Americans make up 11.3% of Missouri’s population, similar to the 12.3% of African-Americans nationwide.

“But the fastest-growing ethnic group in America is Hispanic – and Missouri’s Hispanic population is just 3%, compared to the 12.5% national average.

“Hispanic voters backed Barack Obama nationally by a ratio of two to one – so Missouri’s relative lack of Hispanics may well have made a difference.

“Missouri also has a greater share of evangelical Christian voters than America as a whole, a group that tends to vote Republican.” [N]

Missouri first became famous when it ignited the dispute about slavery. It emergence as a slave state on newly settled territory showed that negro slavery was not going to quietly vanish. That it could spread north into new lands, if not restrained by law. The ‘Missouri Compromise of 1820 held things together till 1861, when further compromise became impossible. Missouri itself was no solid Slave State: it was mixed in the Civil War. But after the war it opted for a moderate version of the southern identity and was indeed typical of the rest of the USA.

The change in voting in 2008 is part of a much bigger trend, the loss of power by the former White-Protestant majority. Nothing coherent has yet replaced it. Obama has a chance to be a new Theodore Roosevelt, introduce some sort of New Deal. But it looks strongly as if he is a brilliant orator with no strong understanding. I’d expect him to try for a patched-up version of the Old Deal, and to confirm the USA’s decline.

The most deregulated financial markets that have existed since the 1920s produced the biggest crash since the 1920s. Why are they so surprised? The market does not know how to run the economy without the state controlling it. But it may take one more crash or maybe more before that lesson is accepted.

[Sadly, Obama did turn out to be just the Clinton-clone I’d been fearing. Except that he did manage to get basic healthcare established. His critics have attached the name ‘Obamacare’ to it, which may give him a better historic legacy than he deserves.]


NATO Halts Its ‘March To The East’

During the Cold War, NATO could justify itself as a defence against a huge Soviet army that had never gone home after World War Two. There was some justification then. But when the Cold War ended, NATO had no legitimate role left. Instead it’s been an alliance trying to dominate the rest of the world, taking in new members and getting involved in overseas ventures.

The Ossetia War changed that. It has become obvious that Georgia was guilty. Most Europeans no longer want them in.

“Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, on Wednesday pulled back from the country’s goal of putting Georgia and Ukraine in Nato’s membership action plan (MAP) after opposition from some of the alliance’s European members.

“MAP status for Georgia and Ukraine – often seen as a staging post to joining the alliance – was a high-profile goal for President George W. Bush at Nato’s Bucharest summit in April, but the US was unable to win the backing of some countries, such as France and Germany.

“Instead, the summit made a broader, less specific declaration that ‘these countries will become members of Nato’ and gave foreign ministers the authority to decide on the two countries’ MAP applications at a meeting next week.

“However, US officials have recently conceded that they had no hope of winning consensus support for giving Kiev and Tbilisi the green light at next week’s meeting.”[P]

[Georgia is still left out in the cold. But in Ukraine, the USA was almost certainly behind the second Orange Revolution that may win NATO a chunk of a fragmented county.]


Superorganisms [Ant Nests and Human Religions]

“Worker ants of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your fertility. The highly specialized worker castes in ants represent the pinnacle of social organization in the insect world. As in any society, however, ant colonies are filled with internal strife and conflict. So what binds them together? More than 150 years ago, Charles Darwin had an idea and now he’s been proven right…

“The existence of sterile castes of ants tormented Charles Darwin as he was formulating his Theory of Natural Selection, and he described them as the ‘one special difficulty, which at first appeared to me insuperable, and actually fatal to my theory.’ If adaptive evolution unfolds by differential survival of individuals, how can individuals incapable of passing on their genes possibly evolve and persist?

“Darwin proposed that in the case of ant societies natural selection applies not only to the individual, because the individual would never benefit by cutting its own reproduction, but also to the family or group. This study supports Darwin’s prescient ideas, and provides a molecular measure of how an entire colony can be viewed as a single or ‘superorganism.'” [Q]

“A study published by researchers at Yeshiva University and its medical school, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, strongly suggests that regular attendance at religious services reduces the risk of death by approximately 20 percent…

“The protection against mortality provided by religion cannot be entirely explained by expected factors that include enhanced social support of friends or family, lifestyle choices and reduced smoking and alcohol consumption.”[R]

These two examples show how the crude Darwinism of characters like Professor Dawkins is simply wrong. We do not exist just as individuals. Nor are human societies ‘superorganism’ in the way ant colonies probably are. Humans are exceptional among mammals in forming permanent communities in which most adults have children: the norm is for breeding to be confined to a dominant pair or one or more dominant males. And yet the ‘alpha male’ impulses are still part of our make-up.

Religion is one way of balancing the conflicting impulses. Socialism has acted as a viable alternative, but hasn’t sufficiently understood the needs of a ‘super-organism’ that is also composed of individuals who might do OK on their own. Religion was viewed just as superstition, rather than one of humanity’s basic needs.



[A] [,_2004]

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