April 18, 2012

Malaysia: Bersih 3.0 democracy movement plans mass sit-in on April 28

Bersih 2.0 in Melbourne July 9

The Global Bersih 2.0 rally in Melbourne, Australia, on July 9, 2011. Photo by Sean Seymour-Jones/GLW.

The Bersih 2.0 mobilisation was banned by the government which set up roadblocks around the capital Kuala Lumpur, carried out pre-emptive arrests of activists and tried to ban the wearing of yellow clothes, the colour code used by the movement. Yet on the July 9 some 50,000 defied the riot squad, tear gas attacks and 1600 arrests and took to the streets… It became the “Malaysian Spring” and stories, photos and amateur video footage of great bravery and perseverance of the “rakyat”, the ordinary folk of Malaysia, went viral in the social media…

The Coalition of Free and Fair Elections (called Bersih – meaning “clean” in Malay), a civil society movement for free and fair elections in Malaysia, called for a mass sit in on April 28 because it suspected that the country’s entrenched Barisan Nasional (BN) government was about to call a general election before addressing widespread electoral irregularities confirmed by a review forced on the government by the previous Bersih 2.0 mass mobilisation on July 9, 2011.

The Bersih 2.0 mobilisation was banned by the government which set up roadblocks around the capital Kuala Lumpur, carried out pre-emptive arrests of activists and tried to ban the wearing of yellow clothes, the colour code used by the movement. Yet on the July 9 some 50,000 defied the riot squad, tear gas attacks and 1600 arrests and took to the streets.

It became the “Malaysian Spring”. Stories, photos and amateur video footage of great bravery and perseverance of the “rakyat”, the ordinary folk of Malaysia, went viral in the social media. One image that was etched in the hearts of millions of Malaysian democracy activists was that of tear-gassed 65-year old retired teacher Annie Ooi Siew Lan — later popularly dubbed “Auntie Bersih” — walking away from riot police line, wearing her “banned” yellow t-shirt and clutching a water bottle and a small bunch of flowers.

Auntie Bersih

Tear-gassed: A 65-year-old retired teacher Annie Ooi Siew Lan, subsequently popularly dubbed "Auntie Bersih", walking away from riot police line. Photo by Malaysian blogger "As I See It".

Bersih 3.0 organisers hope to at least double the numbers coming out in the capital and have planned more than 70 actions in  29 countries.

The movement is making three demands:

1. The Election Commission must resign, as it has failed in its responsibility and has lost the confidence of the public.

2. The electoral process must be cleaned before the [next] 13th General Elections.

3. Invite international observers to observe the 13th General Elections.

If these conditions are not met, the movement fears the next election results will be rigged by the BN government.

“More than 50% of the urban population, maybe as high as 70% in certain areas, supports the opposition Pakatan Rakyat front,” Malysian Socialist Party (PSM) MP Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj explained to Green Left Weekly.

“Many of these supporters are deeply suspicious of the BN. They feel that the BN regularly cheats in the elections, and that this time they are packing the electoral roll with foreign workers. Information recently received by the Electoral Commission seems to indicate that there is hanky-panky going on.

“Let me give some examples. The parliamentary seat of Kota Raja has had a huge increase of voters – an increase of 32% over the number on the roll in March 2008. The overall increase for the country as a whole is about 10%, and the neighbouring parliamentary constituency of Klang had an increase of about 13%. Similarly, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s daughter Nurul Izzah’s seat of Lembah Pantai witnessed an increase in voters of 26% since March 2008 while the neighbouring seat of Siputeh only experienced a 5% increase.

“The rumour mills are working overtime. People allege that thousands of foreign workers have been given identification papers and that they have been asked to vote for the ruling coalition. Something like this did actually occur in the state of Sabah, so it is not a totally outlandish suspicion.

“There is a perception that massive cheating is going to take place,” Dr Jeyakumar added .

“Then we have the open warning by the prime minister that the ruling coalition will hold on to power whatever happens. He now says that it was just rhetoric to motivate his party members, but people are worried that he would hang on to power by extra-parliamentary means.

“The BN has gone on an open vote-buying spree. RM 500 [approximatelyA$160] has been given out as cash handouts to around 70% of Malaysian families. RM 100 has been given to all school children. This is significant because around 35% of Malaysian families earn a monthly income below RM2000.

“All this is unprecedented, and underlines the fact that the ruling coalition feels itself under threat! Meanwhile, BN politicians and their proxies are trying to stir up ethnic-religious anxieties.

“So people feel that we need to mobilise peoples’ power to make sure that the peoples’ will as expressed by the polls is respected.”

Dr Jeyakumar noted the BN government’s “marked departure from their aggressive authoritarian stance over Bersih 2.0. The government is playing it cautiously now.”

Malaysian students occupy Dataran Merdeka

Students have occupied Dataran Merdeka ahead of the Bersih 3.0 mass sit-in planned for April 28. Photo by Choo Chon Kai/PSM.

Global Bersih

David Teoh, a Malaysian currently working in Australia , was one of the organisers of a very successful global component to the Bersih 2.0 action last July. He played a direct role in organising actions in Australia, the biggest drew about 1000 Malaysians and their supporters in Melbourne’s Federation Square.

This year, Teoh told Green Left Weekly, that he expects even bigger global Bersih mobilisation.

“We had Malaysians in 38 cities supporting Bersih 2.0. This time around, we have banded together to increase the number of global locations and to get the message out there to Malaysians and non-Malaysians alike in support of Bersih 3.0. The Global Bersih website will serve as a one stop centre for all Global-related Bersih news.

“Juxtaposed with the police violence against Bersih 2.0 in Kuala Lumpur, the Global Bersih movement proved to be highly embarrassing on the government as Malaysians abroad assembled peacefully under the protection of the police at their respective locations.

“Since Bersih 2.0, the Malaysian government has commendably responded by setting up a Parliamentary Select Committee which has come up with 22 recommendations for electoral reforms, most of which have to be responded to by the Electoral Commission (EC). However in that same period, we have witnessed the total inability of the EC to address the fundamental issue of cleansing the electoral roll which is mired with irregularities.

“At present, the Malaysian government has given the undertaking that they will not crack down on the main Bersih 3.0 sit-down rally to be held in Kuala Lumpur. However there is some disagreement with the venue chosen, Independence Square (Dataran Merdeka) in Kuala Lumpur. We will have to wait on how this will play out in the coming days ahead.”

Students march for free education

"Students are not Robots! Stop fooling students," says placard at student march in Kuala Lumpur on April 14. Photo by Choo Chon Kai/PSM.

Students occupy Independence Square

Since July 14, students demanding free education and protesting the government’s education loan system have been peacefully occupying Independence Square.

A number of tents have been set up, tapping the symbolism of the global Occupy movement, and student activists say they will stay there to welcome the Bersih 3.0 protesters on April 28.

However in the early hours of the morning of April 19 a group of 50-70 thugs attacked the students’ camp, smashing up their tents and smashing some of their equipment. Police nearby allowed the attack to proceed and only intervened later after students demanded  they act against this criminal activity.

The students have vowed to continue their protest camp until April 28.

Meanwhile, the right-wing Perkasa militia group (which the BN government allows to operate as a counterforce to the democratic and progressive movements) has threatened to hold a counter-mobilisation at Independence Square on April 29. However, a similar right-wing counter-mobilsation to Bersih 2.0 drew very small numbers on July 9 last year.

April 17, 2012

Sri Lanka: New left party launched while secret death and torture squads rampage

Some 5000 attended the launch of the Frontline Socialist Party at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium in Colombo on April 9.

The Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) was launched in Colombo, Sri Lanka, amidst international media outcry about the illegal abduction of four of its activists in the lead up to the launch by security forces. Two of these abductees, Premakumar Gunaratnam (an Australian citizen) and Dimuth Atygalle (a prominent woman leader of the group) have since been released. Gunaratnam, who has been deported to Australia, says he was tortured before being released. Two other FSP activists are still being illegally detained. The FSP comes from a major split from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (Peoples’ Liberation Front – JVP), a group which lead two bloodily repressed insurrections in 1971 and 1987. PETER BOYLE interviewed LIONEL BOPAGE, a former general secretary the JVP (1979-1984) who left that party because of its opposition to the Tamil minority’s right to national self-determination.

* * *

Lionel Bopage, former JVP general secretary.

As a former general secretary of the JVP you are familiar with the type of repression being used by the Sri Lankan state against leftists, Tamil nationalists and other dissidents, but are you surprised at the continuing operation of secret death and torture squads after the total suppression of all armed oppositions?

No. I am not surprised at the continuing operation of death and torture squads by the state. Several major factors have contributed to this situation.

It is less well known that death and torture squads were originally formed during the 1988-89 period, when about 60,000 people were said to have been killed. Death and torture squads continued to operate during the war against the Tamil militancy. These squads are currently being used to suppress any active political opposition to the state. Opposition and human rights organisations allege that during the past six months at least 56 political activists and journalists have been abducted by armed men mainly in ‘white’ vans; 29 of them occurred during February and March 2012. It is an open secret that these squads operate hand in glove with the government security forces. In addition, a huge military machine is being maintained and expanded. One cannot challenge the selective and discriminatory application of law according to the regime’s whims and fancies.

The main challenge facing sovereignty of developing countries such as Sri Lanka is neoliberalism.  Neoliberal forces are waging a ruthless war on resource-rich countries the world under the pretext of combating terrorism and promoting democracy and human rights. In this environment, the Sri Lankan government received the full political, economic and military backing of almost the entire world. Apparently, the United States (which recently sponsored the UNHRC resolution) and India (which voted for the US resolution) provided their political and military backing on the understanding that at the end of the war, structural reforms will be made for addressing the political roots of the conflict.

The economic growth rate has declined. The Gini coefficient indicates that income disparities have grown significantly in the urban and estate sector and income has remained relatively static in the rural sector. The increase in consumption and service provision distribution is skewed in favour of the affluent in the land, in particular, geographically towards the western province. The burden of the current economic crisis is being placed on the shoulders of working people with public services being gradually cut down through privatisation policies following demands of the IMF to reduce the budget deficit. Recently, to avert the balance of payments crisis in Sri Lanka, the IMF released a loan instalment of about US$0.5 billion (as part of its US$2.6 billion standby loan). As a result of the loan, there has been an 18% cap on credit growth, electricity and petroleum price hikes, devaluation of the rupee and a pledge to cut this year’s budget deficit to 6.2% of GDP. In addition to the recent tax increases made on alcohol, cigarettes and all imported vehicles, social services and jobs are expected to be axed, and fuel prices are to be raised once again.

The war has created additional disadvantages in the region of the North and East in terms of economic infrastructure, livelihood, health and education. The state’s cultural policies towards non-Sinhala people are designed and implemented to build the majoritarian support for discrimination and exclusion of non-Sinhala people so that the attention of the working people can be diverted from the significant socio-economic issues that prevail at the time.

It is in the best interests of the ruling elites for Lankan society to remain fragmented so that no united effort on the people’s part will threaten their power, control, interests and privileges of the regime. When a crisis looms, as our own historical experiences indicate, such layers and individuals will do everything at whatever cost to safeguard their regime.

Therefore, the Sri Lanka regime needs to have a public enemy both locally and internationally to divert the attention of the working people. The syndrome of a ‘new public enemy’ that needs suppressing through a new insurgency seems to have been created soon after the termination of armed conflict in May 2009. In 2010, the state, its intelligence services and the government declared that they were aware of another insurgency to be launched soon using university students. This declaration was made in an environment of a crackdown targeting the university students across the country, aimed at suppressing opposition to its planned measures for privatisation of education.

It will be interesting to compare the repression the state launched in the 1988-89 period, which developed into a massive spiral of violence leading to the insurgency, killing about 60,000 people. Incidentally, several political and military personalities, who had been involved in serious human rights abuses such as disappearances, death and destruction on their political opponents at the time, continue to hold responsible positions under the current status quo.

It is in this light that one can understand the process of autocratic militarisation of all sectors of the island, heavy-handed measures used against the working people and the rural poor, and the dogmatically chauvinist ideological campaign carried out against the non-Sinhala people. So any protest against the government would become unpatriotic and traitorous based on the claim that there is a so-called western conspiracy against Sri Lanka.

So, the continuing operation of secret death and torture squads after the total suppression of the progressive forces in the country will continue.

What do you think brought about the release of Sri Lankan-born Australian citizen Premakumar Gunaratnam and his  comrade from the newly formed Frontline Socialist Party? What is the fate of the two still in detention?

As far as I know, two out of the four persons of the newly formed FSP abducted are still in detention. FSP full-time political activists, Lalith Weeraraj and Kugan Muruganandan were abducted on December 9, 2011. Despite the Sri Lankan state denying having anything to do with their abductions, certain news reports allege that they are being held and tortured on the 6th floor of the Police Welfare building, located opposite the Manning Market in Colombo. This abduction, torture and disappearance phenomenon is allegedly implemented under the supervision of a certain Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police in-charge of Colombo. It is also alleged that this torture chamber is being managed by a police inspector loyal to this DIG, who enjoys special privileges under the current defence establishment.

As usual, the state and the government immediately denied any role in the abductions of Premakumar Gunaratnam and Dimithu Attygalle. The Inspector General of Police claimed that the police had deployed several teams to investigate. The Foreign Minister issued a statement after Gunaratnam’s release, saying the disappearances had occurred with the deliberate intention of causing embarrassment to the government and it was grossly unfair to point the finger at the state.

The debut of the new party, FSP was to be held on April 9, two days after the abduction of Gunaratnam and Attygalle.

This new party emerged out of the old JVP and it seems to have wanted to make Gunaratnam, its leader. The state was aware of his involvement with the group and wanted to stop this new group from coming out. Last December, when his wife was visiting Sri Lanka, she had been followed by the state agents, and when she was leaving Sri Lanka, she was arrested, detained and questioned at the airport about her husband. Therefore, there is nothing surprising that he had to work clandestinely and under different names. Rohana Wijeweera, Podi Athula and Wimal Weerawansa are such well-known acquired names, while, internationally, Ho Chi Min, Lenin, Mao are also well-known acquired names.

Apparently, Gunaratnam fled to Australia in the 1990s and became an Australian citizen. It seems that he changed his name and returned to Sri Lanka in late 2011 to participate in FSP activities. Having heard of the abduction of their son, his parents requested the Australian High Commission to intervene. According to Gunaratnam, following the intervention by the Australian government, his abductors dumped him near a Colombo police station and told him to go there and surrender. The police then informed the Australian High Commission in Sri Lanka, which supervised Gunaratnam’s deportation.

Gunaratnam and Attygale seem to have been detained at separate covert locations in Kiribathgoda (close to Colombo), they have been brought together for questioning and collaborating each of their responses by the abductors. Hence Gunaratnam knew that Attygale was held by the same agents that abducted him. The questioning was about if the FSP had any links with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) remnants, and if the FSP was readying itself for an armed struggle. As such, to deport Gunaratnam and to make Attygalle disappear would have been a political and diplomatic risk that the Sri Lankan state wanted to avoid at any cost, in particular, after the recent UN Human Rights Council Resolution. This may explain the release of Attygale, after deporting Gunaratnam.

In my opinion, the first factor that led to their release was the urgent international publicity that the abduction of Premakumar Gunaratnam and Dimuthu Attygalle received. Particularly, in the current international environment Sri Lankan state has encountered, the Australian High Commission’s intervention would have placed the Sri Lanka state in an awkward position. Thus, the course of action taken by the Sri Lankan state would have been to avoid a diplomatic embarrassment.

The second factor is that there was information leaked regarding where Gunaratnam had been detained taken after kidnapping. Such information would have come from certain individuals in the ranks, who either would have really been concerned of what the regime is doing in terms of kidnapping people violating their rights to freely engage in conducting their political activities democratically, or would have been disgruntled by the undemocratic behaviours of politicians and the top brass of the security forces.

The exact nature of what happened leading to their release is not clear. I believe it will take some time and those reasons will become known in due course.

For a certain time, after you left the JVP, that party was supporting the Sri Lankan government’s war against the Tamil independence movement but now it is seen as an opposition party. Why is this? And what is the politics of the FSP split off from the JVP?

Though I can express my opinion regarding this situation, the best person to respond to this question would be Premkumar Gunaratnam himself.

In fairness to the newly emerging FSP, I need to say that at their first congress, they have issued a new policy declaration and a self-criticism of the JVP past, which is not yet available here in Australia, so it is too early to make a critical assessment of their current political positions.

Gunaratnam’s visit to Sri Lanka has been to work with his former colleagues in the JVP who thought that the party’s strategic political approach needed a complete overhaul: mainly, regarding the use of violence as a means of social change, to actively engage in changing the authoritarian rule in Sri Lanka through democratic means, and changing its previous chauvinistic approach towards the national question.

I would characterise the JVP as a semi-proletarian movement of the rural youth, landless peasants, the unemployed and other oppressed sections of the Sri Lankan society. The main aim of the JVP was achieving social justice for the oppressed and equitable resource and income distributions. However, petty-bourgeois thinking, vacillation and opportunism have prevailed in its ideological positions.

In its history, the JVP has gone through several different policy positions regarding the national question. Between 1971 and 1983, the JVP recognized, in principle, the Leninist position on right of nations to self-determination. However, it continuously rejected agitating for the rights of non-Sinhala people. In the face of discrimination and repression against the Tamil people, the JVP central committee remained deadly silent. At the beginning of 1983 there was no difference between what the JVP was advocating and what an orthodox parliamentary party would have been advocating on the national question.

In July 1983 by concocting a conspiracy, the UNP government proscribed the JVP and drove it underground. In 1985, the JVP decided to build an underground organization and to use the national question in an opportunistic manner to gain political power. Instead of relying on people power, in late 1985, they had based their hopes on arms. 1986 saw a major shift in the JVP’s approach towards the national question. The JVP terror campaign in earnest appeared to have begun in 1987, with the Deshapremi Janatha Vyaparaya (DJV – Patriotic Peoples’ Movement)’s decision to declare curfew and kill civilians who do not abide by its orders. The government sponsored July 1983 pogrom against the Tamils had exacerbated the Tamil militancy in the north-east which by then has become a full scale civil war. In mid-1987 India airdropped supplies over the north east to prevent a full-scale invasion of the Jaffna Peninsula by the Sri Lankan state.

Since the 1990s, the JVP was traversing the right-wing route. It made a major shift towards class collaboration with the bourgeois leadership of the PA, thus taking a comparable route traversed by the old left in the 1960s. The JVP agitation was based on the claim that Sri Lanka’s, national independence and sovereignty were in grave danger. They opposed negotiations with the LTTE unless they drop the demand for separation and disarmed, which was politically equivalent to a complete surrender.

Worst was their statement that there has been no ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. With regard to the national question they joined hands with Sinhala chauvinist groups. Condemnation of terror by the JVP was one-sided. While condemning the terror campaigns conducted by the LTTE, they praised the terror campaigns conducted by the security forces as patriotic.

The JVP became pawns in the hands of reactionary political forces of the worst kind in the history of Sri Lanka. Sadly, many in the left have helped and are still helping bourgeois ruling elites in diverse ways to implement their neoliberal agenda. No wonder the left is in crisis in Sri Lanka.

It is in this light that we need to critically look at what the emerging FSP is attempting to do. There are lot of antagonisms regarding what they have done in the past. However, we of the left need to welcome and encourage any positive change in their political direction, even if we do not agree with their political agenda and line of action in their entirety. It is only through the united action of those in the left in collaboration with those who value democratic and human rights and rule of law, that Sri Lanka will be able to come out from its current precarious situation.

* The Lionel Bopage Story: Rebellion, repression and the struggle for justice in Sri Lanka by Michael Cooke
(Agahas Publishers 2011), 566pp, A$25.00 is available from Resistance Books. A review of this book by Ben Courtice can be read here. A review by Dr V Suryanarayan can be read here.

* * See aslo “Will the Frontline Socialist Party revive the left?” by Niel Wijethilaka and K. Govindan (Nava Sama Samaja Party).

April 13, 2012

Can the Greens reach beyond Brown’s legacy?

Bob Brown at Franklin Dam protest.

Beyond the predictable deserved and undeserved accolades that Brown will receive, the real question is whether the Greens can grow beyond the political legacy of Bob Brown — because that is where the Greens need to go to live up to the hopes for real change of their 1.7 million voters…

There is a lot to celebrate in the legacy of retiring Greens leader Senator Bob Brown. Above all, he’s been central to holding together the most successful new electoral party project in Australia that sits significantly to the left of the increasingly politically indistinguishable traditional parties of government, Labor and Liberal-National. 1.7 million out of the 13 million who turned out to vote in the last federal election voted for the Greens.

Brown’s almost Gandhian image — a legacy of his non-violent resistance against the Franklin dam in Tasmania and his unpertubable mild manner in public appearances (no matter the pressure he faced) — has undoubtedly played a role in keeping together a party that holds the diverse hopes for real change of many in Australia. He has the deep respect of many for being an activist who was prepared to be arrested for his efforts and for standing up to nasty personal attacks as a consequence of being Australia’s first openly gay parliamentarian.

But beyond the predictable deserved and undeserved accolades that Brown will receive, the real question is whether the Greens can grow beyond the political legacy of Bob Brown — because that is where the Greens need to go to live up to those hopes for real change.

His successor, Senator Christine Milne, conceded in the April 13 press conference announcing Brown’s resignation and the Greens leadership change that we are living through the “biggest assault on the environment in Australia’s history”.

She put the blame on “mining companies and the major parties that won’t stand up to them”.

The mining boom won’t last for ever, she said, and “we are a society not just an economy”.

Brown has acknowledged the challenge for “the world’s richest country in per capita terms”.

Progressive politics, he told Crikey.com, is in a “stunning and very troubling retreat”.

“It’s being totally eclipsed by the power of the corporations,” Brown is quoted by Crikey.com as saying. “I see this disconnect where people are so frustrated with politics generally that they don’t see that there’s any hope in the political arena whereas there is no hope anywhere else.”

Brown said at the April 13 press conference his greatest political legacy was build a party that had its sights firmly on becoming a party of government.

“The Greens are on a trajectory to being government. We are not out to just keep so-and-so honest,”  he said, seeking to distinguish the Greens from the now vanished Australian Democrats, a party that previously enjoyed the so-called “balance-of-power” in the Australian Senate towards the end of the last century and whose founder, Don Chipp, famously  described his party’s aim as to “keep the bastards honest”.

No minor parliamentary party has ever succeded “keeping the bastards honest”.

The Greens, as former left Greens NSW MLC Sylvia Hale said in her valedictory speech in 2010, the Greens do face a choice between being a minor irritant and taking on the mainstream parties.

The first choice, Hale argued, was resist being just a party of environmental concerns. Despite the origins of Brown and the Tasmanian Greens (which have effectively led the Australian Greens up to now), it has to be said that the Greens have transcended this first challenge.

The Greens have stood fairly consistently again the Lib-Lab policies of support for the imperialist wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, against the racist and inhumane refugee policies of the major parties (which has thousands of asylum seekers – including more than a thousand children – detained without trial and indefinitely in concentration camps around the Australia), opposed the major parties open slather policies on mining and supported the rights of workers. So they have gone beyond a narrow green focus and resisted the pressure to capitulate on the war question as have the German and other European Green parties.

Social movement activists know that though the Greens could clearly do a lot more to help build the movement in the streets, at this stage the Greens are the only party that champions their causes in state and federal parliaments.

Hale said it was “Perhaps time for The Greens to bite the bullet, acknowledge the fact that the electorate and the party’s candidates see themselves as the most left-wing political party of any significance in Australia, and campaign accordingly.”

But the bigger challenge, as Hale acknowledged, is for the Greens to recognise the real class divide in society and neo-liberal capitalist roots of the biggest social and environmental problems., and to embrace challenge of standing up to the Lib-Lab neo-liberal orthodoxy which, as former Labor PM Kevin Rudd put it, is “simply to enforce contracts and protect the allocation of property rights”.

The major parties’ embrace of neo-liberalism is at the heart of the economic and environmental crisis and is now the source of their growing credibility crisis. Hale argued that the Greens want to be a real party of change it needs to reject that course but also move beyond narrow parliamentary politics.

“Voting in many ways is the lowest form of politics. All that is required is to turn up every four years and mark a piece of paper. More than ever, political engagement has become the preserve of a minority. One of the challenges for the Greens is to evolve alternative institutions that would give meaning to politics in a broader sense.”

This is indeed a challenge that has yet to be taken up by the Greens. The party’s focus is overwhelmingly on winning parliamentary seats and working within the existing political representation system.

Further, Hale notes that it is unlikely that the Greens will be able to form government at the state or federal level unless proportional representation is introduced for the lower houses of state and federal parliaments.

As the Greens have increased their representation at local, state and federal levels, the party has come under pressure to support neo-liberal measures such as cuts in social services, outsourcing and privatisation. The Greens have joined coalition governments twice in Tasmania with the Labor party and both these governments have implemented neo-liberal measures. In several local governments, Greens councillors have also supported neo-liberal attacks.

Recently, more left-wing Greens MPs in NSW have come under attack in their party from the right, particularly over the question of Palestine. A NSW Greens position of active support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israeli apartheid was watered down in the wake of a nasty attack on former Greens mayor Marrickville Fiona Byrnes

So the political legacy of Brown’s leadership is mixed, and his successor, Milne, indicated that she saw the way forward for the Greens in building alliances with “progressive business in Australia”, which she described at the representatives of a more sustainable economy against the “vested interests of the old economy”.

The new Greens leader identified the mining companies as a key part of the “old vested interests” but who are these progressive capitalists she is appealing to?

Only a naive understanding of 21st century could leave out the fact that all sectors of big business are interlinked, at the very least through finance capital that shuffles and channels investment (including some $1.3 trillion in workers’ superannuation funds). Directly or indirectly, all big capitalists have their money invested in what is the biggest ever mining boom in Australian history. So a policy of looking for change by appealing to “progressive business in Australia” is doomed to failure.

Milne’s outlook is not a shift to the right for the Greens. It underlies the Greens’ backflip on the ALP’s second plan to introduce an emissions trading scheme to deal with the global climate change crisis — a crisis that most scientists acknowledge governments around the world have failed to seriously address.

As Green Left Weekly‘s Simon Butler pointed out in its March 24 issue, back in 2009, Milne (then Brown’s deputy leader) said: “The Greens oppose the CPRS [the former Rudd Labor government’s Carbon Pollution Trading Scheme]  as it stands not because it is too weak but because it will actually point Australia in the wrong direction with little prospect of turning it around in the time-frame within which emissions must peak. This is why we say it is not just a failure, but it locks in failure.”

Now, Milne applauds what is essentially the same scheme (preceded by a temporary fixed carbon price to be introduced in July) as “the vital first step towards tackling the climate crisis”.

As a consequence of this backflip and capitulation to the ALP, the Greens demobilised what had until 2010 been a growing mass movement for the radical but urgently needed measures to address the climate change crisis, including a shift to renewable energy in 10-15 years. Most Greens supporters in the movement turned the rallies into cheer squads for the Gillard ALP government’s “carbon pricing” scheme and eventually the movement dwindled.

This is one of the most negative political legacies of Brown’s leadership of the Greens.

The 2012 State of the Climate report by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO projected an average temperature rise in Australia of 1 to 5°C by 2070, long-term drying over southern and eastern Australia and an increase in extreme weather events such as severe floods, droughts and extreme cyclones. The report highlighted accelerating sea-level rises. The global-average mean sea level for 2011 was 210 mm above the level in 1880 and has risen faster between 1993 and 2011 than during the 20th century as a whole but to the north and north-west of Australia the rates of sea level rise are two to three times the global average.

If per-capita-richest and per-capita-worst-carbon-emitting Australia is going to rise to the challenge, as Brown urged in his resignation press conference, then the Greens need to break from Brown and Milne’s political legacy on the ALP’s dodgy climate-change policy.

April 4, 2012

Indonesia explodes into protests over fuel price rise plan

One of the 1063 fuel price protests held in Indonesia in March 2012. Photo by Sari Putri.

The following interview was conducted through the internet on April 4 by Peter Boyle for Green Left Weekly with Dominggus Oktavanius, secretary-general of the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD) of Indonesia, following a month of mass unrest and demonstrations all around the country over March 2012. Indonesian Police Watch (IPW) reports there were 1063 demonstrations, 16 police stations were damaged and 750 protesters were arrested just between March 23-26 . IPW was established in 2002 by the law faculty of the University of Indonesia but is now an independent monitoring organisation.


* * *

Dommingus Octavanius, secretary-general of the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD), addressing rally outside parliament house in Jakarta. Photo by Sari Putri.

There have been some very big and militant demonstrations against the SBY government’s plan to increase the price of fuel by 33%. Where and when were the biggest demonstrations and which groups organised them?

Over last March militant demonstrations erupted across all the major cities in Indonesia. There were a total of 1063 actions compared to just 12 and 16 demonstrations in the two previous months of this year, according to police data. Almost all these actions were in rejection of the government’s plans to raise fuel prices.

The biggest demonstrations occurred in Makassar and lasted for almost a full week between the March 21-30. More than thirty thousand people  took part in these protests on March 29-30. The students had got support from their lecturers and the campus authorities so all of the big universities were closed down.

Then, in Medan (March 28-29), Jakarta (March 21, 27 and 30), and Surabaya (27/3) – each of which involved tens of thousands of people. The most intense action took place in Jakarta, East Java, Central Java and South Sulawesi.

It’s hard to identify a particular group which organised all of these actions. The actions in Makassar were mainly by students and the urban poor. The National Student League for Democracy (LMND) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD) took part in it, especially around the ’45 Campaign for Article 33 of the Constitution. This campaign promotes a section of the constitution from Indonesia’s 1945 revolution (through which Indonesia won its independence from the Dutch colonial regime) that decreed the foundation of the national economy as a transition to a socialist economy.

The biggest demonstrations in Jakarta were organised by an alliance of trade unions and student organisations. But it should be noted that some of the opposition parliamentary parties, especially the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), also promoted the mobilisation among their supporters.

What would be the effect of a 33% price rise on the life of the mass of Indonesian people?

Such a fuel price hike would certainly affect the prices of goods basic necessities of life, ranging from transportation, food, clothing, housing, education, and so forth. Workers will be forced to bear the additional burden of a 10-20% rise in cost of living. About 80% of the total number of workers in Indonesia who earn below US$220 per month (two million rupiah) will be hit hard.

Poor people who work in the informal sector – in transportation and fishing – will suffer the worst impacts. They are the largest class of fuel users for economic activity. The conditions of poverty in Indonesia are severe enough without an increase in fuel prices.

This is why on March 8, the PRD sent a direction to all of its structures and cadre to carry out massive propaganda reject the proposed April 1 fuel price hike. It called for a maximum mass mobilisation on March 30 and 31 in all cities where the PRD organises.

The police used violence some of these demonstrations. Can you tell us about this?

That is correct. Violence by the police against the demonstrations took place almost equally in all regions. There are two reasons for this violence: first, the government does not have an answer to the demands of the masses, nor could it dodge critical questions about these price increases. This repression is similar to the actions of Western governments against the Occupy movement and the authorities attempts to evicted the Tent Embassy camps by Aborigines in Australia. Second, in order to have a stronger reason to carry out repression, the police infiltrated their agents into the demonstrations to provoke unrest, by throwing rocks at the police or setting fire to vehicles. We saw for ourselve how a group of people infiltrated the demonstration to provoke violence in Gambir, Jakarta, on March 27. But this only legitimises the use of unprovoked police repression against protesters.

In addition to these two reasons, it seems that the Indonesian police are trying to prove that they capable of being a strong protectors for corrupt rulers and their masters in the West.

Several new types of weapons and ammunition used against demonstrators. We experienced a new kind of gas that the police shot into in the crowds. It exploded and besides stinging our eyes it burnt our bodies.

After the protest the parliament adopted a law that delayed the price rise. Is this a real concession to the protesters? Or is it a trick?

Actually this was just a hoax, because the decision of the House of Representatives (DPR) has handed the authority to the government to raise fuel prices. The new law says that the government may raise fuel prices according to price changes on NYMEX on Wall Street if the price of Indonesian Crude Oil exceeds the subsidised Indonesian fuel price by an average of 15% for six continuous months. This policy is absolutely contrary to the constitution Article 33 of the Constitution of 1945.

After the decision of the DPR the demonstrations have become smaller. Do you think they will they continue and get bigger again?

The parliament’s decision just set off a time bomb, so we believe the demonstrations will expand when the inevitable price rise brings a new momentum. Each demonstration is actually a response to the accumulation of many sever problems for the ordinary people. An increase in fuel prices acts as the trigger for protests around the many other problems that already exist. <END>

Indonesian protest against fuel price rises. By Sari Putri.

Photo by Putri Sari

Photo by Putri Sari.

Photo by Sari Putri.

March 31, 2012

Cocos Islands: New spy base for the US killing machine?

A US military drone.

(Listen to expanded story on Cocos Islands in a radio interview I did with NZ Earthwise program here.)

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands are a tiny group of coral atolls in the Indian Ocean 2,800 km northwest of Perth and 900 km from Java currently with a population of about 600.

These islands were nominally a British Territory between 1858 and 1955 when they were transferred by a British act of parliament to Australia. Yet for the next 17 years, the Australian government allowed the islands to operate as a private fiefdom of the Clunies-Ross family – just as the British had for a 100 years ago before then.

The islands were uninhabited until 1826 when Alexander Hare, a former minor British colonial official, set up an establishment with some 50 slaves, mainly of Malay background, and a personal “harem” he had collected from numerous colonial outposts.

Hare was displaced a year later by his former business partner, John Clunies-Ross, a Scottish ship captain whose descendants enriched themselves on the labour of the Malay plantation workforce they paid with tokens that could be spent only on the company store. The Malay islanders had no access to formal education while the Clunies-Ross children were sent to private schools in England. The head of the Clunies-Ross family was lawmaker, judge and administrator and anyone who did not accept his rule was banished.

So it is no surprise that when in 1984 the Cocos Islanders were finally given the choice between independence, free association and integration with Australia, they overwhelmingly voted in secret ballot for integration. Only members of the Clunies-Ross family and a couple loyal servants were in favour of “independence”.

But the Australian government did not offer the islanders their liberation from semi-feudalism just out of respect for freedom.  Kenneth Chan, the Australian administrator on the Cocos Islands between 1985-85 admitted in a largely unnoticed academic paper he wrote in 1987 that the islands strategic location was the main motivation to acquire and integrate this Indian Ocean territory.

The islands were used as a military base by the British in World Wars I & II and now the US military wants the islands as a base for drones and other spy planes. Pentagon officials are hoping that Australia will make up for a possible closure or downgrading of its main Indian Ocean island military base in Diego Garcia, which it leased from Britain in 1966.

The US built its giant base on Diego Garcia in the 1970s after the 2000 Chagos Islanders were forcibly removed through trickery and starvation, a major colonial crime relatively recently exposed to the world.

The US has used Diego Garcia to base nuclear weapons, marines, warships, bombers and spy planes. And it has used it as a transit station for political prisoners on sent for “rendition” to other countries so they can be tortured, though this is officially denied . Diego Garcia is an strategic hub of the US killing machine.

But the US lease runs out in 2016 and the Pentagon wants to relocate at least some of the military functions of the base to various Australian bases in Western Australian, Darwin and the Cocos Islands. The Gillard Labor government and the Liberal-National opposition wholeheartedly support this process and have already agreed to station thousands of US marines in Darwin.

Green Left Weekly opposes all these new US bases and campaigns for the closure of the existing nominally “joint US-Australian” military bases. You can help us expose and fight the Australian complicity with the US killing machine. By donating online today to the Green Left Fighting Fund.

Direct deposits can be made to Greenleft, Commonwealth Bank, BSB 062-006, Account No. 00901992. Otherwise, you can send a cheque or money order to PO Box 515, Broadway NSW 2007 or donate on the toll-free line at 1800 634 206 (within Australia).

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Click to enlarge.

March 16, 2012

The grim news from Cape Grim

The 2012 State of the Climate Report by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO was launched at weather monitoring station on remote Cape Grim in Tasmania. The location was an apt choice for a report which has very bad news about Australia’s continuing failure to respond adequately to the climate change crisis.

Each decade since the 1950s has been warmer, the report states. Annual-average daily mean temperatures have increased 0.9% since 1910 and annual-average overnight minimum temperatures have warmed by more than 1.1% since 1910.

And we shouldn’t be foxed by the recent two years of wetter than usual weather — due to the La Niña effect — into thinking that this long-term warming trend has ended. “2011 was the world’s 11th warmest year and the warmest year on record during a La Niña event”, according to the report.

Furthermore, the world’s 13 warmest years on record have all occurred in the past 15 years.

La Niña events are associated with warmer-than-average ocean temperatures in the Australian region, the report explains, and sea-surface temperatures around Australia have increased faster than the global average.

The report projected an average temperature rise in Australia of 1 to 5°C by 2070, long-term drying over southern and eastern Australia and an increase in extreme weather events such as severe floods, droughts and extreme cyclones.

Other CSIRO research has found that:

  • With just a 1 to 2°C average temperature rise in Australia, up to 58–81% of the Great Barrier Reef will be bleached every year and there will be a 90% decrease in core habitat for vertebrates in northern Australia tropics.
  • With a 2 to 3°C rise, 97% of the Great Barrier Reef will be bleached every year and 80% loss of freshwater wetlands in Kakadu  due to a 30 cm sea level rise. Malaria receptive zones spread southwards, population at risk of dengue increases from 0.17 million to 0.75-1.6 million, 10% increase in diarrhoeal diseases among Aboriginal children in central Australia, 100% increase in number of people exposed to flooding in Australia and New Zealand and increased influx of refugees from Pacific Islands.
  • With a 3 to 4°C rise, there will be  a 95% decrease in distribution of Great Barrier Reef species, 20–85% shrinkage of total snow-covered area in the Australian Alps and 30–70% loss of core habitat for Victoria and montane (highland) tropical vertebrate species. Malaria receptive zones spread furthercsouth, temperature related mortality among people 65+ years in Australian capital cities increases by 89–123% and the dengue transmission zone shifts as far south as Brisbane.
  • And if average temperatures rise above 5°C, 90–100% of core habitat will be lost for most Australian vertebrates.

The 2012 State of the Climate Report also highlighted accelerating sea-level rises. The global-average mean sea level for 2011 was 210 mm above the level in 1880 and has risen faster between 1993 and 2011 than during the 20th century as a whole.

But these are just average sea level rises. To the north and north-west of Australia the rates of sea level rise are two to three times the global average. While Torres Strait Islanders and South Pacific Islanders have been sounding the alarm for at least a decade but their voices are being drowned out by climate change denialist campaigns strongly backed by mining billionaires like Gina Rinehart.

The report presented clear evidence that the levels of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, in the atmosphere all continue to rise exponentially.  Carbon dioxide has reached a frightening new high of 390 parts per million in the atmosphere.

The report also demolished the climate change denialists’ claim that the rising temperatures are not caused by human activity: “It is very likely (at least 90 per cent likelihood) that most of the observed global warming since the mid-20th century is due to increases in greenhouse gases from human activities.”

It is almost too late to take the necessarily radical action required to avert catastrophic climate change. And if the voices of reason don’t prevail over the powerful vested interests that are blocking such action, then we will soon pass that point.

Green Left Weekly needs your urgent help to step up the fight against these powerful vested interests. Our objective is to raise $250,000 for our Fighting Fund by the end of this year. So far our supporters have raised $25,392 – just over one tenth of this target.

You can  donate online today to the Green Left Fighting Fund. Direct deposits can be made to Greenleft, Commonwealth Bank, BSB 062-006, Account No. 00901992. Otherwise, you can send a cheque or money order to PO Box 515, Broadway NSW 2007 or donate on the toll-free line at 1800 634 206 (within Australia).

March 2, 2012

Rising insecurity as more jobs go

There is a growing disconnect between the official rosy picture of the Australian economy and mounting public anxiety about job security. The latest official unemployment rate figure (for January 2012) was steady at 5.2% and federal Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson insists there is no reason to worry. Australians, he said, should shake off their misplaced “boom with gloom” attitude.

“The whole mindset is a bit overdone, it’s almost as if most Australians think we live in Greece.

”We don’t, we actually have an incredibly bright future ahead of us”, said Parkinson to a Senate estimates hearing, “the opportunities we have in front of us are the like we have never seen before.”

But the headline unemployment rate hides the actual job situation. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has reported rises in underemployment and the numbers of discouraged job seekers since 2007.

ABS estimated that at the end of last year there were 873,500 underemployed workers ( i.e. part-time workers wanting more hours of work or full-time workers being forced to work less hours) in addition to 627,500 unemployed. Since November 2007, 191,400 more Australian workers became underemployed.

The number of discouraged jobseekers (people who want to work and are available to work but were no longer actively looking for work because they believed they would not find a job) have also been rising since 2007. The ABS estimated to have reached 102,100 by September 2010.

An ACTU report Insecure work, anxious lives: the growing crisis of insecure work in Australia found that casual jobs, short term contracts and other insecure forms of work are on the rise and secure jobs are getting harder and harder to find.

  • Only around 60% of workers are in full or part-time ongoing employment.
  • More than 4 million workers are engaged as casuals, on short-term contracts, in labour hire, or as independent contractors.

The sum of unemployed, underemployed and discouraged jobseekers is more 1.6 million. From their perspective and from the perspective of the millions workers with insecure jobs and under the yoke of record household debt, Parkinson’s words are a cruel joke.

Since the beginning of this year all the big banks have begun shedding jobs as have the car manufacturing giants General Motors – Holden and Toyota, aluminium producer Alcoa and the privatised communications giant Telstra. On top of that federal and state governments are destroying jobs to try and return to surplus budgets and deliver tax cuts to big business.

On February 29, a major construction company in NSW, the Reed Group, announced it was in trouble. Brian Parker, the NSW secretary of the building division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) warned a meeting of Unions NSW on March 1 that if Reed collapsed, the ripple effect could cost up to 10,000 jobs.

Job shedding by bigger companies gets into the news but job losses by workers in small and medium sized businesses are not often reported. The ABS estimates that about half of all workers in Australia are employed in small businesses, defined as employing 20 or fewer workers.

According to a report by Dun & Bradstreet, the number of such small businesses going bankrupt jumped by 48% over the last 12 months, while small business start-ups fell by 95% over the same period. Small business failures among firms with less than five employees grew 57% over the year.

So what is the solution?

Last week, Gerry Harvey the chairperson of the electronics and furnishing Harvey Norman retail chain appealed to the public to start spending up again instead of paying down their credit card and other debts to avoid more businesses bankruptcies and job losses.

If we listen to Harvey ordinary people should just get deeper into debt and go on a shopping spree. Other big capitalists tell us to have faith that the billions of dollars of profits now being made by the big mining companies and the banks will trickle down to us.

The Gillard Labor government assures that its subsidies to big car companies and its promised company tax cuts will help save jobs. But will they?

Billions of dollars have been spent by governments over decades to subsidise big steel manufacturing companies and car companies in the name of saving jobs. These companies have taken the money, made huge profits, paid obscene amounts to their CEOs and gone on to shed more than 30,000 jobs in the steel industry and 20,000 in car manufacturing.

Public subsidies to protect the profits of big corporations won’t guarantee jobs. If big profits meant job security, Australia’s big four banks shouldn’t be embarking on a new wave of bank shedding. Last year, they reported a combined profit of $25.2 billion.

ACTU President Ged Kearney recently noted that “the combined salaries of the four major banks’ CEOs totaled $28.6 million. This, along with the massive profits makes it impossible to feel any sympathy for their complaints about their financial circumstances.”

“At the same time,” she added, “the big four banks last year slashed 3300 jobs and already in the first month of this year, Westpac and ANZ have announced plans to shed another 730 jobs between them.”

On February 12, Finance Sector Union national secretary Leon Carter told reporters that 2,000 jobs had gone this year and added: “If this pace continues, we stand to lose 10,000 jobs over the next 18 months.”

Most of Australia’s trade union leadership follows the Gillard Labor governments line that jobs can be saved through more corporate subsidies and more corporate tax cuts. But one trade union leader has broken from the pack and is advocating a different course.

In his exclusive interview with Green Left Weekly on February 18, Geelong Trades and Labor Council secretary Tim Gooden said:

“People say it’s a private world, a free market — that’s crap. All the risk has been socialised, all the profits are privatised.

“In reality, society is pretty much paying for these companies anyway. If the corporate system can’t maintain them, then the public system should take them over…

“If an industry became redundant, workers should be retrained on full pay into the new industry, not thrown on the scrapheap like we see today.

“Nationalisation would also be cheaper — if we aren’t paying business board members millions to suck on cigars, the costs would be lower. And any funds raised are for public, not private, use.

“Importantly, we would be able to plan any scale down of an industry that society decides is redundant or harmful. We could put the resources and skills into industries we want.”