Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Geneva II, Syria and building for the future

Two days ago, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon announced that he was inviting the Iranian government to send representatives to the preliminary rounds of the peace conference in Geneva, dubbed 'Geneva II' which has been organised to try and find a negotiated end to the civil war in Syria. The surprise move was met with condemnation from the United States and with the threat of a walkout of the Syrian opposition, who only very recently managed to agree among themselves to actually attend the conference. The controversy is  symptom of a deeper problem with the Geneva talks. The different sides in the talks, the rebels, the USA, the Russians and the government of Bashir al Assad all have different and conflicting agendas and goals. Fundamentally however, the problem is one of aspirations not matching reality for the Western powers and their allies among the Syrian rebels.

The West and the Syrian National Council (SNC) are going into these talks determined to find a future for Syria that does not involve Assad, Iran or Hezbollah, to say nothing of the more radical elements among the Syrian rebels linked to Al Qaeda. Assad, and his backers in Tehran, Moscow, Beirut and probably Baghdad know that his regime is going to stay in place no matter what is agreed at the conference. Assad has a loyal army, Russian and Iranian money and weapons and a large number of Hezbollah fighters on his side. The SNC and its affiliated armed groups are too busy fighting their more radical colleagues and are too outmatched by Assad's firepower to change this dynamic. The West has rightly agreed not to get involved in the conflict, as this would only accomplish the death of more Syrians and possibly draw in Iran and maybe even Russia to the conflict. Armed intervention is a truly woeful idea on all fronts. And yet western governments persist in fanning the flames of opinion that "Assad must go". Assad is going nowhere, and the military and strategic calculus is in his favour.

For some, this is reason to up western military aid and get dug into the conflict in order to change this balance. This is insanity. Far from "failing" the people of Syria by not getting involved, by staying out the West is helping to prevent bloodshed on a greater scale. The obvious comparison to make is to America's entry into World War II. But Assad, for all his brutality is not even in the same universe as Adolf Hitler. There is no justification for unleashing the incredible power and appalling destructive force of America's military in Syria. The collateral damage would far outweigh the benefits of toppling Assad, and that's assuming the Russians and Iranians don't get involved.

A far better comparison is to America's involvement in Europe after the end of the second world war. Through the Marshall Plan, America helped to rebuild Europe's shattered nations and peoples. Instead of the all too common historical precedent of violence, we should look to America's unique and wonderful contribution to a broken continent. Through aid and economic assistance of many different kinds, and through the sheer act of stepping in to help, America helped to rebuild Europe, house its refugees, feed its hungry and make it prosper again. The same needs to be done for Syria. Two million Syrians are currently refugees in neighbouring countries. In many cases these neighbours are under incredible strain to help the new arrivals. It is here that the West can most effectively help Syria. These refugees, whose numbers will only continue to grow as the conflict drags on, are the future of Syria. When this war is over they will be the ones who will return to Syria, to rebuild their homes and their country. The West will play an important role then as well, but the refugees need help now. They need clean water, food, hospitals, schools, durable shelter and housing. Their host countries need help keeping basic amenities and services going for both the refugees and their own people.

This is a real, concrete way of helping Syria. Better by far that the Syrians currently fled from their homes should return in good health, maybe even with education and skills that they can use to help rebuild. Better that instability stemming from a huge influx of people does not destabilise other countries in the region. All this can be accomplished without recourse to violence. And equally important are the internally displaced people within Syria itself. Helping them is a far riskier prospect, but it is a task being undertaken with great courage by many different people and agencies. These groups need help to carry out their task. They need supplies, well stocked bases in neighbouring countries to operate from and adequate transportation in and out of Syria. Again, no force is needed or called for, just aid. Simple, human aid. A helping hand, not a gun. Whatever happens in Geneva, and it is unlikely to be heartwarming, the world can start to build a better future for Syria now, by helping some of her most vulnerable people. This is a worthy goal that everyone can support. We can only hope that it is the goal the West chooses to pursue.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

In defence of Yingluck Shinawatra

The continuing political unrest in Thailand, directed by the "Yellow Shirt" movement against the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is a very good example of the changeable and volatile nature of protest movements, particularly those inspired by the Arab Spring of the last few years. Ostensibly the protesters, drawn from the wealthy, educated and privileged elite of Thailand's larger cities, especially Bangkok, are attempting to topple the Shinawatra administration because of its corruption, the influence of the PM's brother Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted as Prime Minister by the Thai military in 2006 and what they claim is her political party's stranglehold on power achieved through populist policies. Looked at one way, the protests pit a westernising, educated protest movement against a corrupt and semi-authoritarian regime. In this view, there are good guys and bad guys, with Shinawatra's government playing the role of villainous oppressors, with Thaksin Shinawatra as the malevolent guiding intelligence. Against her are ranged the forces of righteousness in the form of university graduates with Twitter accounts and eloquent descriptions of their grievances.

Looked at another way however, and the protests take on a more mixed appearance. The Shinawatra party, Pheu Thai has won every election since 2001 in various guises. The Shinawatra's have received large mandates every time they have gone to the people. The protesters claim that their supporters, largely drawn from less well off Thai's living in rural areas, especially the north of the country, have been bribed by Pheu Thai's populist policies and are by implication too stupid or too greedy to be trusted with their choice. Of course, the privileged, urban, middle class members of the protest movement would never subject their own electoral choices to the same scrutiny. The protests racking Bangkok are not driven by a widespread sense of oppression by some dictatorial power, they are been driven by a wealthy elite trying to derail the redistributionist policies of the elected government. The real opponents of democracy are the protesters, who are demanding that parliament be dissolved and an unelected "people's council" take its place. Of course, they probably have some very particular ideas about who should be on the "people's council", and they probably don't involve any supporters of the Shinawatra's.

Thaksin Shinawatra may well have been guilty of the corruption charges which the military used as its excuse to oust him in 2006, and from which he remains in self-imposed exile. His guilt is also irrelevant. The Thai military conducted a coup, another in a very very long line of coups they have attempted or carried out over the last few decades. Yingluck Shinawatra, has taken her brothers place at the head of their political party and also as the leading political figure in opposition to the politicised military. By attempting to get rid of her and her party, and replace Pheu Thai's democratic mandate with an elitist undemocratic regime, the protesters are effectively destroying the foundations of Thailand's fragile democracy. The military has already said it may intervene in yet anther coup if the situation does not improve, i.e. if Pheu Thai is not removed from politics. And yet Pheu Thai and the Shinawatra's are the only people in Thailand with a mandate from the Thai people themselves. The protest movement, for all its noise and flash, represents an elite, privileged minority.

The deepest irony is that the Shinawatra's allegedly populist policies they have used to "bribe" their mostly rural supporters are the kinds of redistributionist policies that many in the west are calling for. Debt relief, food subsidies and increased development funds for farmers, all practical applications of the welfare state and social justice. And yet, where is the outcry in the west as a powerful, entrenched elite uses the positive publicity generated by the Arab Spring to try and take down a government that is actually enacting policies to help the majority of Thai's and alleviate rural poverty? Wherever you stand on the welfare state and redistributionist politics, having middle class university graduates out protesting about the injustice of poor farmers receiving help from the government is a little bit disturbing. What would the reaction be if graduates in Ireland or Britain came onto the streets, complaining that people on social welfare are paid too much, or that social housing and school meals are being used to bribe the less well off members of society? Western governments were disturbingly silent when a secular, wealthy minority in Egypt involved the military in their struggles, thereby overthrowing the democratic government the rest of their countrymen had voted for. Will they now stand by as the same grim acts occur in Thailand? Surely the Thai people deserve better.