The World's Regulator

The news at the moment pendulums between the troubles Pakistan and Kenya, and the 24 hour news channels are in their element.

After reading that Britain is sending a team from Scotland Yard to investigate Bhutto’s death, I wondered if we could also send some posse of experts to Kenya, to provide an impartial ruling on whether their elections were fair.

America: the World’s Policeman. Britain: the World’s Independent Regulator! It has nice ring to it, don’t you think?

The Deposed Prime Minister

So it seems Pakistan’s elections will be postponed after all. On the surface, this is another depressing development following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. However, after watching the TV footage of burnt out vehicles littering the streets, I wonder if a short period to restore calm could make for ‘better’ elections in the long run. Clearly Pervez Musharraf will remain under pressure to deliver order, and elections, very soon.

One bug-bear of mine is the way Nawaz Sharif is referred to by the media. He is typically referred to as “opposition leader” or “former Prime Minister”. He is both those things, but he is also the deposed Prime Minister of Pakistan, the last person to win a democratic election. An incumbent of sorts!

The circumstances of President Musharraf’s rise to power, while never forgotten, have been given the sheen of legitimacy after his assistance with the War On Terror. However, the primary issue in Pakistani politics is now the restoration of democracy. I am no fan of Sharif’s political record and I hope he loses the elections when they are held. But it is well worth emphasising just who is the deposer, and who is the deposee in this dynamic.

Afterthought

Interestingly, Nawaz Sharif’s statement today called for a restoration of the constitution to its 1973 version. This despite his attempts, some successful, to amend that constitution!

Bhutto

I did not write about the death of Benazir Bhutto when it happened yesterday, because I did not feel I had anything interesting to say. I still don’t, but it is without a doubt one of the defining moments of this year, and thus deserves a mention. The posts on my front page are beginning to look a little stale, like the left-over turkey in our fridge.

Deaths and disasters are always discordant, inconvenient things, which disrupt the normal order of one’s day. But this is more so at Christmas time, which should be characterized by lighter emotions. You’re surrounded by torn wrapping paper and chocolate papers, and suddenly Huw Edwards is telling you that James Brown or Gerald Ford is dead, or that earthquakes and tsunamis have ripped apart other people’s homes, or that another nameless teenager has been stabbed in our capital. There is nothing to do but continue with Christmas, but now you know that somewhere, people are mourning. The next tangerine is more sour than the last.

Most depressing, in this case, is to watch the optimism die along with the woman. Political momentum takes years, or even generations to build. It colours the air slowly, like a smog, slowly pressurizing a government and a people into action. And then some cretin comes along and blows it all away. The clock is reset, and we start all over again. The last time I felt like this was after the London bombings.

The Bhuttos, Zulfikar and Benazir, took two generations to build a following and a reputation that could hold a military dictator to account, in the way Benazir did with General Musharaff earlier this year. Her death now, at the moment of a new victory, is a waste, the classic ‘tale told by an idiot’. She is suddenly gone, and in place of the political pressure, there is a vacuum, and no-one is optimistic about what will fill it.

Benazir Bhutto

Shilpa's Shoddy Show

Sam Marlowe is scathing about Shilpa’s new show:

Given the anguish and humiliation that Shilpa Shetty suffered in the Celebrity Big Brother house this year, the British public are probably prepared to forgive her almost anything. Even so, she is pushing her luck with this shoddy piece of opportunism.

She should have taken my advice and gone for a six-part drama.

The Contradictions of Beauty

Pickled Politics has a 100 comment debate on the politics of skin whitening, after Bollywood superstar Shakrukh Khan endorsed a product (h/t Tyra). The paradox is that white people spend money getting a tan to make them look browner, while brown people buy these creams to make themselves whiter. The grass is always greener, yet equally cancerous, on the other side of the fence…

Other beauty paradoxes I have noticed: Hair straighteners for those with curly locks, sold next to hair curlers/rollers for the straight locked.

Oh yes, and of course: Women in the supermarket who put make-up, and make-up remover, into their basket… without so much as a bat of an eyelid to disturb their mascara. I’ve always liked this verse from the London-Brazilian slam-poet Hoberto Afiado:

This is the girl who is under age
So she works at the shop for a minimum wage
Who took the job to earn some cash
So she could buy a makeup stash
Who smears the lipstick on her face
So she can go to the drinking place
And when each night is at an end
She’ll rub the make-up off again

Critical Mass

Rangoon monksGood luck, of course, to the Buddhist monks, nuns, and the growning number of Burmese citizens who are protesting against their excessive junta.

Last month, OpenDemocracy published an article by Yury Drakakhrust on the Algebra of Revolution:

How many protesters in the streets does it take to bring an authoritarian government down? … The model comprises two elements: the level of popular support for the opposition (dissidents) and the number of people who can be mobilised for action (activists).

The Burmese situation seems quite positive, since as a religious group the Buddhists can mobilise a great deal of ‘activists’. But unlike the weak governments of Eastern Europe (which Drakakhrust uses as examples), the junta in Burma is much more entrenched. This would presumably alter the equation.

But other factors should tip the balance in the other direction. This BBC quote gives some hope:

Aung Naing Oo, a former student leader in Burma who was involved in the 1988 uprising and who now lives in exile in the UK, believes the junta cannot stop the 2007 protesters. “Nobody knew what was happening in 1988,” he told the Today programme on BBC Radio Four.

“There was only very little information about the killings. Now with the internet and the whole world watching I think its a totally different story now…”

Chinese Reincarnation

This caption, from BBC News early on Saturday morning, caught my eye:

Chinese release new regulations for reincarnation

China Buddhism
New Regulations on Reincarnation

There is plenty of debate in the UK (and in Europe) about the parameters of political discourse, and the role played by religion. Our governments are accused of disingenuous behaviour and doublespeak. But let us be thankful that we do not have to deal with dictats so utterly senseless and evil as those reported here.

The move by the Chinese is another depressing chapter in their suppression of Tibet. My interview with the Dalai Lama is here.

We can’t turn them away

This time, I am behind the blog cycle, rather than the mainstream news cycle! Many others have already linked to Dan Hardie’s campaign to ensure that all Iraqis who have worked for British forces are given asylum if they ask for it.

There is now considerable evidence that their lives, and the lives of their families, are at risk: some former workers for the British have been murdered, and many others have fled to neighbouring countries or gone into hiding in Basra. The British Government, for whom they were ultimately working, has not offered them the right of asylum in the UK. This is morally unacceptable.

The most detailed recent report, by Jonathan Miller of Channel Four news, notes the murder of 17 translators in one single incident in Basra.

Dan suggests we write to our MPs, and even provides some handy text that you can paste into a letter or e-mail.

I recall that the plight of Iraqis was one of the first arguments against Tony Blair’s account of the war. When the WMDs failed to appear, the reasons for war quickly shifted to the brutality of the Saddam regime. While this might have been a convincing argument for many, it was certainly not a convincing reason for the government, who had denied many asylum applications from Iraqi before the war. It was therefore misleading and duplicitous for Blair to cite this as a reason post hoc.

However, the current British policy towards foreign nationals who help the armed services is unsurprising. The Ghurka regiment has for many years been mistreated by the government, with former soldiers denied citizenship, or even a pension on equal terms with other British servicemen.

Interestingly, the recent successful campaign to allow one former ghurka (a holder of the Victoria Cross, no less) to be given UK citizenship was also propagated online. The VC Hero site was set up by Tul Bahadur Pun’s solicitors, and a online campaign added political pressure. So Dan Hardie’s initiative stands a good chance of success.

Rushdie diplomatic row escalates

Salman Rushdie, author

Salman Rushdie has been given a knighthood, causing much offence and effigy burining in Pakistan. Now the diplomatic row has intensified, with British ambassadors in Tehran and Islamabad receiving offical complaints. I am confident that the British Establishment won’t back down on this issue, and that Sir Salman will recieve his daubing from the Queen sometime soon. Proof that we are not sacrificing our values to an intolerant minority.

It seems to be fashionable to complain about what a smug bore Rushdie is. I can’t speak for the man himself, but I’ve always enjoyed reading his iconoclastic prose, his unreliable narrators. Midnight’s Children is very rewarding, as is Shame and even Grimus. I never really related to the satire in The Satanic Verses, although I might do now I appreciate just how stratospheric Bollywood actors can be.

However, I was not impressed when he turned out to be one of the few authors on OpenDemocracy.net who refused to let his work be licenced under the Creative Commons agreement. He did apologise though: “Sorry to be old-fashioned,” he said.

Journalists in Trouble

Two journalists find themselves without liberty, in two very different situations.

First, via Mash at the Dr Strangelove Blog, we hear that prominent journalist Tasneem Khalil arrested by military police in Bangladesh. Khalil is only 26, and works for the Dhaka-based Daily Star newspaper. He also campaigns for Human Rights Watch, who have issued a statement regarding his detention.

There are rumours that this detention will be shortlived, and that he might be released by the weekend. Regardless, the Internet is already being used to co-ordinate a campaign for his release: There is a possibility of a protest outside the Bangladeshi embassy in London, and campaigners will be raising awareness within the Bangladeshi community in the UK, at the Brick Lane Mela this weekend. Pickled Politics has more information.

Meanwhile, BBC reporter Alan Johnston has been missing for 60 days. In his case, his captors are a local militia group in Gaza.

An online petitions has been created for Alan Johnston, with another planned for Tasneem Khalil. However, I wonder whether this is as important as simply spreading awareness on a word-of-mouth (or word-of-blog) basis throughout the relevant communities. In neither case are the captors (The Bangladeshi ‘caretaker government’; and the Jaish al-Islam group in Gaza) directly accountable to the populations they pretend to serve. But one hopes that a rising wave of discontent coming from within those populations will eventually persuade those who make the decisions, that releasing their prisoners is the best course of action. By contrast, disapproval from outside these ‘constituencies’ – say, from the BBC or the British Government – might not be as persuasive.

Good luck Alan and Tasneem.

Alan Johnston banner

Tasneem Khalil has now been released. Worryingly, his detention was apparently “not due to his journalistic work and had nothing to do with his functions at The Daily Star … In fact, it was because of the contents of his personal blog and some SMSs he had sent recently…” Hmmm.