Author Archives: Deborah Jones

San Miguel de Allende: “NAFTA of Literary Festivals” 

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Photo by Jiuguang Wang
via Flickr 

By Brian Brennan
March, 2018

“Meet acclaimed Canadian authors in San Miguel!” said the invitation. How could one resist? According to the program, three of the seven keynote speakers at this year’s Writers’ Conference & Literary Festival in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico – Emma Donoghue, John Vaillant and Joseph Boyden – would be Canadian. They would join American keynoters Wally Lamb, Jane Friedman and Rita Dove, and Mexican author Jorge Volpi, to talk about some of the “most pressing issues in today’s multi-cultural conversation.”

Other Canadian literary panellists, readers, and workshop leaders would include Leanne Dunic, Merilyn Simonds, Sandra Gulland, Myrl Coulter, Laurie Gough and April Bosshard. They would discuss experimental writing and the state of publishing today, read at a special outdoor Canada Reads event and facilitate workshops on writers’ craft. It all promised to be a grand opportunity for Canada’s travelling authors to hang out and talk shop.

© Brian Brennan 2018

As it turned out, Emma Donoghue was forced to cancel at the last minute due to her mother’s death in Dublin. But the conference organizers scrambled and substituted Benjamin Alire Sáenz, a New Mexico poet and novelist. He flew in and delivered an impassioned closing keynote on living in Trumpian America.

This writers’ gathering in San Miguel de Allende (SMA), a colonial gem of cobbled streets and revolutionary charm, has been held annually since 2005. The first one attracted an audience of twenty-six. Now, more than three hundred workshop participants attend, and the main stage presentations attract a total audience of ten thousand. Clearly, the five-day event is a hit.

What accounts for its success? The sunny location for starters. The SMA weather in February is as temperate as the May weather on Salt Spring Island. Plus, the city is culturally rich and diverse. You can attend an afternoon reading by a Spanish poet, then listen to a Calgary jazz singer-pianist and a Brazilian electric guitarist performing Great American Songbook staples while you dine in a pizza restaurant owned by a former Mexico City addictions counsellor.

Plus, and this is a major draw, the featured keynoters are some of the world’s best-known authors, including the likes of Yann Martel, Naomi Klein and Joyce Carol Oates. The keynoters come for the weather too. “If your conference was in Youngstown, Ohio, I don’t think I’d come,” Calvin Trillin told organizers in 2013. “But since it’s in San Miguel …”

And they certainly don’t come for the big bucks to this event, which draws no sponsorship from publishing houses. Barbara Kingsolver came in 2010 because she wanted to visit Mexico’s famous monarch butterfly wintering site, two hours’ drive from SMA. She also came because she shared an editor with conference executive director Susan Page, a published author. “Knowing people is huge,” says Page. “Most of our major writers come because we share a personal connection with them.”

Page takes pride in the fact it’s a bilingual, tricultural event, with as many people coming from Canada as from the U.S. and Mexico. “We coined the phrase: ‘the creative crossroads of the Americas.'” Or as Kingston’s Merilyn Simonds, author of The Convict Lover, likes to call it: “The NAFTA of literary festivals. The coming together of writers from all three cultures is both inspirational and provocative.”

Simonds, who was first invited to the conference – along with fellow keynoter Margaret Atwood – in 2012, now lives in SMA for half the year. She consults with the festival organizers on Canadian guests and has been successful in getting funding from the Canada Council and the Canadian embassy in Mexico City. “It’s a joy to see Canadian books and writers becoming better known to readers beyond our borders..”

For Simonds, the spark of this festival is the literary conversations between writers of different nationalities. “When you get international writers coming together you can see your own culture reflected in a way that you can’t when you’re conversing within your own borders. It broadens us all creatively, imaginatively.”

This year, as in other years, one of the conversations was about cross-cultural influences. An international festival often turns the conversation to this provocative and sometimes contentious topic. Witness, for example, the furious social media backlash caused last year by the former editor of The Writers’ Union of Canada’s in-house magazine when he wrote – in an issue devoted to the work of Canada’s Indigenous writers – that there should be an “appropriation prize” for the best book by an author who writes about people “who aren’t even remotely like her or him.” The editor, Hal Niedzviecki, subsequently resigned and apologized, saying he regretted that his words had “failed to acknowledge the profound and lasting adverse impact of cultural appropriation on Indigenous peoples.”

So, how has exposure to or immersion in another nation’s culture affected the work of the writers who participated in this year’s SMA conference?

Simonds’s forthcoming novel, Refuge, is set partly in Mexico, and her work-in-progress evolves half in SMA and half in Chiapas. “I couldn’t have written either without living here, getting to know the Mexican culture, and having access to their remarkable literature.”

© Brian Brennan 2018

For Vancouver’s Leanne Dunic, a writer, digital artist and musician who has a Chinese mother and Croatian father and speaks Japanese as her second language, cross-cultural exploration is about working within and beyond the hyphen of a transnational identity, exploring culturally diverse narratives. As artistic director of the Powell Street Festival, the largest Japanese-Canadian arts and culture festival in Canada, Dunic is constantly being inspired by other authors and artists. “I meet so many artists from so many different backgrounds that I’m sure we’re all rubbing off on each other. As we move forward, and the world is becoming what it is, a lot more people are living in these transnational identities.”

April Bosshard, a Vancouver writer and story coach with a background in film, finds inspiration in the work of Japanese-Canadian filmmaker Linda Ohama, with whom she has participated in several projects. “Her passion and dedication and the messages she wants to get out about real people have certainly had an impact. Some of the work I’ve done lately has been a bit commercial, producing for online markets and so on, but she inspires me to return more to art, what your heart wants to say, what you want to put out to the world, that deeper truth.”

Gordon Cope, a Calgary author of travel memoirs and mystery thrillers who has lived in Paris, London and the South Pacific, and now lives full-time in Manzanillo, Mexico, finds that living internationally draws him to topics reflecting something other than the North American point of view. “In some ways, I feel like an anthropologist. My memoirs follow a common construct: well-meaning but bumbling narrator undergoing frequent embarrassment while trying to understand the host culture. Living internationally exposes me to many different points of view. It sharpens my powers of observation and obliges me to delve deeper.”

Sandra Gulland, author of the acclaimed Josephine B trilogy, grew up in California, moved to Canada in 1970 and now lives half the year in SMA. She says her Cold-War Berkeley upbringing used to make her think the end of the world was always imminent. Coming to Canada – “a healing nation,” as Carol Shields once called it – was a bit of a surprise because it offered Gulland a more optimistic view. “I was soon healed and won over by the general calm civility of Canadians. I’m not sure how this may have impacted my writing life. Calm helps, certainly.”

Gulland adds, in an interview with CBC’s Talin Vartanian, that the colonial character of SMA makes it an ideal setting for her French historical fiction. “This is a place where you hear horses on cobblestones. It’s a place where you walk everywhere, and life used to be like that. It helps to be immersed here in a Catholic culture where everyone shares the same values. There’s also the sensual richness of it, focused on the feminine and the Virgin Mary. You don’t see much of that north of the Mexican border.”

Edmonton’s Myrl Coulter, author of The Left-Handed Dinner Party and Other Stories, has spent the last seven winters in Arizona. She says the drive back and forth to Edmonton inspired her to write a road novel and now she wants to do more. She and her husband have sold their Arizona home so they can travel the world. “I’m looking for wider writing experiences. So, I’m reading widely in other cultures. And I plan on writing in other cultures – with dignity and respect.”

Respect for other cultures also defines the work of John Vaillant and Joseph Boyden.

When Vaillant was researching The Golden Spruce, his award-winning nonfiction book about the illegal felling of a tree sacred to the Haida Nation, he was told the story was the property of the Nation and shouldn’t be used without permission. This came as a surprise to the Boston-born writer who had moved to Canada in 1998 so his wife could do a graduate degree in anthropology at the University of British Columbia. So, he sought permission from the Tsiits Gitanee clan and was given “some really wonderful assistance.” It changed Vaillant’s life and informed his writing accordingly. “It’s also informed the way I live and think about the world; what I felt and saw and had shared with me in Haida Gwaii. I’m really grateful.”

Boyden sought permissions, too, when he wrote Wenjack, a novella based on the true story of a 12-year-old Ontario boy who froze to death in 1966 while on the run from a residential school. “I’ve done that with all my novels. I either seek advice from people like Georges Sioui, the great Huron academic and poet, or I talk to the family members of people on which I base my characters. In this instance, I asked permission from his sisters. It was a frightening thing because they could say no, and then where do you go? But they didn’t say no. ‘Keep doing what you’re doing,’ they said. So that’s what I did. They allowed me to write about their beloved brother.”

At the conference’s co-cultural panel that included Boyden and Vaillant, American poet Rita Dove spoke passionately about freedom of the imagination. “Labels carry with them presumptions about what a certain sort of writer can do. My lifelong goal is to thwart those presumptions whenever I can.” And Mexican novelist Jorge Volpi said, “We live in a world of clichés and simplification. It is our role to keep the language alive and vibrant.”

There were many other engaging and provocative conversations at this year’s festival, including one on writers as activists in dangerous times. In a panel discussion on the subject, it was noted that the humane, compassionate world we have spent our lives working to make better is disappearing before our eyes. “So, what is our role as writers, right now?” The answer remains elusive.

Copyright © Brian Brennan 2018

 

Brian BrennanBrian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.

Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca

Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.

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Vancouver fights graffiti with graffiti

Graffiti hidden on the beach of English Bay in Vancouver’s tony West Side. © Deborah Jones 2017

DEBORAH JONES: FREE RANGE
July, 2005

The very first time he tried writing graffiti, Robbie, a talented teenager whose art has sold in galleries, blundered into Vancouver’s war on graffiti.

As he and another high-school student spray-painted images on a seaside retaining wall, an undercover police officer in Canada’s first designated graffiti squad nabbed the pair. Detective Valerie Spicer gave them a choice between a $500 ticket or community service with a peculiar Vancouver twist.

The teens chose service, in which offenders are teamed with established mural artists to produce sketches, given unlimited costly spray paint, then sent up for hard labour: creating murals under Vancouver bridges.

Robbie, who didn’t want his real name used lest he be linked with the despised “bomber” faction in the graffiti war, says being mentored by artist Milan Basic was an education and a privilege, but he is upset about being treated like a common criminal. “It’s a known free wall. It had been given to the graffiti people,” Robbie said indignantly.

The fact is, since 2002 there have been no free walls for “graffiti,” ”tagging” or “bombing” in Vancouver. A few writers, like Robbie, may have artistic talent to express, but officials say graffiti has been taken over by bombers who compete to quickly scrawl crude initials, or tags, in as many places as possible.

Respected bombers only use stolen paint and tag illegal places — the riskier, the better, said Mr. Basic, 34, an illegal writer in his youth. Outside the subculture, their work has few fans.

Vancouver police consider bombings so addictive, crime-ridden and expensive that it set up Canada’s first graffiti unit. “There have been stabbings and fights,” Det. Spicer said.

Police aim to divert as many as 200 young taggers from illegal graffiti to legal artistic expression.

Graffiti police officers co-operate with the municipal graffiti management program, which employs bylaws, public education and city cleaning crews to wipe out illegal graffiti within 14 days. For the offenders, there’s a carrot-and-stick approach.

The carrot is encouragement to create approved public art, and to date it’s resulted in 100 murals splashed on city bridges and underpasses.

Some of these, expressing hip-hop, transportation or animal themes, are created by the offenders. Others are by established commercial artists, and are increasingly sophisticated.

Last Saturday, Vancouver held a graffiti competition with 30 top writers, handing out prizes of $1,000 to the top four and an honorarium of $100 each for the rest. The murals, all created in six hours from sketches, are blazes of colour and shape that catch the attention of motorists on the Seymour Street off-ramp from the Granville Street Bridge.

The rationale behind the murals, said Jag Senghera of the city graffiti program, is the criminological theory that curbing small offences deters offenders from progressing to bigger crimes, and fixing broken windows and cleaning graffiti deters vandalism by improving civic pride.

Mr. Senghera said thatVancouver’s visible graffiti has declined by nearly 90 per cent, with about 68 of 5,138 buildings currently tagged, compared to 450 in 2001.

Debate rages in many cities over the artistic value of graffiti. Mr. Basic, who won $1,000 on Saturday, said he finds almost all graffiti pleasing. He now has a career painting film sets, which started with the now-cancelled TV series Dark Angel. The father of two young children, Mr. Basic uses his graffiti art to support his family and, on the side, still splashes his trademark nature images throughout Vancouver.

“Sometimes I paint commission pieces,” he says, “or I approach a store owner who’s got a graffiti problem, say I’ll paint a wall for free or sometimes for money.”

Mr. Basic said the city murals help deter graffiti because even bombers rarely deface murals with tags.

While graffiti has a venerable history in North American art, starting with highly stylized images in New York in the 1970s, style has been replaced by straight vandalism, Det. Spicer said.

She said the public, especially parents of teenage boys, should consider tagging illegal vandalism in an increasingly dangerous subculture, where teenagers rub shoulders with taggers who also commit serious crimes, like stabbing.

“Graffiti is extremely addictive,” she said, because taggers become hooked on fumes from solvent-based paints as well as the thrill of risk-taking. “They’ve fallen off buildings and been hit by trains. They’re usually piss-drunk.”

With increasing publicity and official attention, graffiti seems to be subject to massive cultural confusion. While cities and business owners call it vandalism, others respect it as edgy art. Its death knell as a subculture, however, may be its evolution into a mainstream marketing tool, with graffiti increasingly used in wallpaper and fabric design and even billboard advertising.

Robbie, who disparagingly calls the bombers “stoned bums,” still insists that he was exercising legitimate artistic expression by spray-painting an obscure retaining wall. “It’s not what I would consider to be a crime to do it.”

Copyright Deborah Jones 2005

Contact: djones AT factsandopinions.com

This story originally appeared in the Toronto Globe and Mail on July 11, 2005.

If you value this story, the author would appreciate a contribution of .27 cents, Canadian, to help fund her ongoing work and pay for this site. Click on paypal.me/deborahjones to be taken to Deborah Jones’s personal PayPal page.

DebJones in Spain

Deborah Jones is a partner in Facts and Opinions.

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal, of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is ad-free and spam-free, and we do not solicit donations from partisan organizations.

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Africville: Nova Scotia’s blacks remember

DEBORAH JONES: FREE RANGE
July 02, 1988

Halifax, NS, Canada —  In Halifax today, what used to be Africville , with all the rich and negative connotations of that name, is a little-used park on the windswept edge of Halifax harbor. From a stark concrete building nearby emanates the clamor and stench of the city’s garbage transfer station, which replaced the dump where many Africville residents once scavenged a living. Nearby, cars speed past on a busy artery.

Women walking from Africville towards Halifax in 1917. Photo: James & Son, Nova Scotia Archives Photo Collection, Public Domain

Little is left here of the vibrant and controversial community of about 400 black people who had to leave the area in the mid-sixties because it was thought to be unfit for human habitation. The exiles continue to feel their loss.

“There was one family on social assistance in Africville,” said Irvine Carvery, who was 12 when his family left their Africville home. “Now we have third-generation people on social assistance.”

The dispersion of residents from Africville, mostly into public housing, remains a sore point for Nova Scotia blacks. Africville is bitterly and romantically remembered as an impoverished but solid community wiped out by discrimination.

At the time, the government-organized move was supported by black leaders outside the community. Critics now charge that they considered Africville only as a blight affecting the stature of the rest of Nova Scotia’s blacks.

Linda Mantley, whose family roots in Africville went back to the last century, was a teen-ager when her family was moved into public housing in the North End of Halifax.

“I only wish I had been older at the time,” she said ruefully. The objectors to the move, mostly young people, were hushed by others who did not want anyone branded as a troublemaker, she said.

“If we had been older . . . if we knew what we know now, we would have fought it. We would have asked for money to fix up the houses and install city sewers and water.

“Now a lot of people got a lot of heartaches.”

“I really think it was just incredible naivete – you don’t solve a community problem by eliminating the community.” — Alexa McDonough

Despite being a distinct community for about a century, Africville did lack public services such as sewers and drinking water. Houses were condemned in several reports as woefully inadequate. And as government officials investigated ownership of the land before the relocation, they found only a few deeds and some claims of squatter’s rights. The ownership of some land was simply untraceable.

Nonetheless, residents liked the place.

“The community was independent; it functioned on its own without the help of the city, with its own school, hall, church, a number of stores and a post office,” Ms Mantley said. “A lot of people, if it was possible to get their land back somehow, would live back there again. I don’t blame them. Home is home is home.”

In 1981, the Africville Geneology Society was formed by a group of ex- residents to bring people from the neighborhood together each year “and to deal with past, present and future fears that involve Africville,” said Ms Mantley, a founding member. More than 3,000 are expected to gather in what is now Seaview Park for a reunion July 28 to 31. Mr. Carvery says they will come from throughout Canada and the United States.

“The word Africville continues to have powerful meaning for many of the former residents, and indeed for Nova Scotian blacks in general,” said Donald Clairmont, a sociology professor at Dalhousie University. Last year, he and Dennis Magill of the University of Toronto published the second edition of the Life and Death of a Canadian Black Community.

“Gone are the people, their community, their – and especially others’ – debris. Yet Africville still generates warm memories and purposive identity for its relocated people and their children and is still a rallying symbol in the black subculture,” they wrote. “Subsequent to the relocation, Africville became a kind of red alert, signalling danger to black community and traditions in the guise of city development projects, area upgrading and gentrification . . .”

Africville life was not sanitized or homogeneous, but offered a rich texture, Prof. Clairmont said. “And the fact that the community was taken away from them rather than they themselves migrating from it adds a profundity to their grievance.”

Ms Mantley now lives with her family in Uniacke Square, a dilapidated public housing project in Halifax’s rough North End which the provincial and federal governments are renovating. Elderly people who were moved from Africville found the change especially difficult, and are still struggling, she said. When the restoration of Uniacke Square was announced in 1986, for example, many feared it would mean another relocation.

One main reason why the memory of Africville remains a bitter one, observers say, is that promises of better housing and job training made at the time were not kept.

People “never did get the new start promised them in the relocation rhetoric. Many indeed are still suffering from socio-economic disadvantages, and live in more crowded and bureaucratic public housing,” Prof. Clairmont said.

“Very little groundwork had been done to really help people deal with what was an absolutely massive transition,” recalled Alexa McDonough, whose first job as a young city social worker was to help with the relocation, and who says she had doubts about it even then.

“People had rent and other expenses to pay all of a sudden. There was no really coming to terms with the amount of disruption, massive transition. There was a community support and way of life in Africville that was devastated in the relocation,” said Mrs. McDonough, who is now leader of the Nova Scotia New Democratic Party.

“Although I think it’s not entirely accurate to have romantic notions about how idyllic existence was in Africville . . . what they gave up was not compensated for.”

She noted that many “have taken advantage of new opportunities . . . but there is also an overwhelming sense of loss of cultural identity.”

Critics of the relocation have charged that the city simply wanted the land. Mrs. McDonough has another explanation.

“I really think it was just incredible naivete – you don’t solve a community problem by eliminating the community.”

“People did feel then you could solve all the problems,” Prof. Clairmont said. “Put a social worker in there and he would look after their interests. When I (later) went to the human rights group and asked them what happened, most of them were surprised to learn there never was any employment program. Yet they were the ones who were supposed to be the watchdogs . . . Many of them were naive. They felt the relocation had been successful.”

“Nova Scotia blacks remember Africville . . . also because of what has happened to the rank and file of Nova Scotia blacks,” added historian Bridglal Pachai, director of the provincial Black Cultural Centre. “A few black professionals are in good places . . . but for as long as some 50 to 70 per cent unemployment rates apply to many of the predominantly black settlements of Nova Scotia, Africville will also be a symbol of the difficulties facing blacks in Nova Scotia.”

Most former residents admit Africville will never spring back to life. But Ms Mantley, for one, wants more information about it to be available in libraries and schools, and for its story to be told in history classes.

To no avail, Mr. Carvery petitioned the city last year to review the lot of Africville residents, and make good on promises of housing, job training and job opportunities.

Copyright Deborah Jones 2017

Contact: djones AT factsandopinions.com (including with republishing queries.)

This story was originally published in the Globe and Mail FOCUS section, on Saturday, July 02, 1988

If you value this story, the author would appreciate a contribution of .27 Canadian to help fund her ongoing work and pay for this site. Click on paypal.me/deborahjones to be taken to Deborah Jones’s personal PayPal page.

Updates and links:

The United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent criticized the destruction of Africville in a report on Sept. 25, 2017.  See the Canadian Press report here. 

Wikipedia page for Africville: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Africville

A video made 50 years after the relocation of Africville and the razing of its church:

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DebJones in Spain

Deborah Jones is a partner in and founder of Facts and Opinions.

Her bio is here. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal, of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is ad-free and spam-free, and we do not solicit donations from partisan organizations.

 

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Dear Americans: Enough, Already

DEBORAH JONES: FREE RANGE
August 19, 2017

Lacking ear plugs strong enough to block the din from America blasting the world, or a mega-phone loud enough to counter the babble, I’m resorting to two letters.

Dear non-Americans:

A sign at the Women’s March protesting President Donald Trump’s inauguration in Vancouver, Canada, on January 21. © Deborah Jones 2017

There’s a big world out there. Please remember that fact as we remain transfixed on America’s latest horrific but predictable melt-down. Yes, a raging super-power warrants some global attention. It does not require us to gorge on outrage, 24/7.

We are riveted wholly on the United States at the expense of other things, many in desperate need of our attention. We risk burn-out, gawping at America’s raging inferno. Stuff, important stuff, is at risk elsewhere — and just as it demands vigilance, America’s freak show is diverting our eyes and minds, and crushing our appetite for the information we need.

Please, just for a moment, ignore America’s bigots, racists, Nazis, supremacists of all sorts, culture wars. Turn away from the anger and grief pouring out of Charlottesville, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Choose any random sample of other urgent issues, and pay attention. Suggestions:

The deadly terror attacks in Finland and Spain; the hundreds who died in a landslide in the Democratic Republic of Congo; Venezuela imploding in  a political and economic crisis and seeking any kind of ally; Kenya’s explosive politics.

Note the trillion dollars, countless jobs and whole communities at stake in just-started talks between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, to overhaul the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Ponder the new twist on the peril facing Afghanistan, where America has now led a war for 16 years — foolishly helped by the professional militaries of many other nations. Afghanistan is still in ruins, arguably much worse. Now, American authorities have suggested sending in mercenaries to do what their soldiers could not. Think that will end well? At least, please, think about it.

Most of you who are reading this still live in democracies, albeit flawed. Most of us have voices that can matter — but only if we use them.

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My dear American friends:

You have my sympathy, but I for one can’t bear witness 24/7. Even if I could, you don’t deserve my, or the world’s, attention.

The fact is, just-more-than 19 per cent of you in the US, of voting age, voted for your current president. Another just-less-than 20 per cent voted for Hilary Clinton, his only feasible opponent (after your undemocratic Democrats stomped on Bernie Sanders).

What of the more-than 60 per cent of you who sat out and allowed idiots* to take over your country? You, who were apathetic? You, who failed to get your point across and convince others? (ie, politics in a democracy). You, who were too divided to come together for the big stuff you’re now screeching about? You, yes you, have some ‘splainin to do.

But, please, explain and talk to each other.

The rest of us in the rest of the world are deafened by your noise. I’ve tried to tune you out and turn you off for most of each day, but now you have sucked all of the oxygen from everyone’s air. And, frankly, we need that oxygen to deal with very real stuff that’s not all about you.

Copyright Deborah Jones 2017

Contact: djones AT factsandopinions.com (including for republishing.)

*Idiot stems from the Greek idios; it refers to a private person who is, literally, ignorant, in a culture that values the body politic, or “politics.”

If you value this story, the author would appreciate a contribution of .27 cents, Canadian, to help fund her ongoing work and pay for this site. Click on paypal.me/deborahjones to be taken to Deborah Jones’s personal PayPal page.

Credible world news sites:

Reuters World news France24BBC; Financial Times; The Economist

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DebJones in Spain

Deborah Jones is a founder of Facts and Opinions.

Her bio is here. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal, of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is ad-free and spam-free, and we do not solicit donations from partisan organizations.

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Reflections of a Canadian abroad as Canada turns 150

TOM REGAN: SUMMONING ORENDA
July 1, 2017

I never thought I would end up in rural Virginia, 40 miles outside Washington, DC. Never. I never thought I would live anywhere but Canada, or anywhere other than Nova Scotia, for that matter. But there was this girl, and for the past 25 years I’ve lived on the East Coast of the United States.

The old joke is that you can never get a Canadian to talk about Canada when he’s living in Canada, nor can you get him to shut up about it once he lives outside Canada. I think about Canada a lot more these days, living in the United States where Donald Trump is president, where there is no such thing as credible gun control, where conservative legislators use religion as a tool to undermine hard-won LGBTQ rights, where people actually say things like, “I’d rather have freedom and liberty than healthcare” (whatever the hell that means – I guess that means they want the freedom to die early).

Living in a country that is in many ways so similar to, and yet so different from Canada has helped me focus my thoughts more on what it means to be a Canadian. I am well aware that people lived in the land we now call Canada far earlier than 150 years ago, and there is more than a little justification for the idea that we stole that land from them. But I also know that 150 years ago a new political entity was formed, and while we cannot forget the sins of the past, we also can’t forget what it means to be a citizen of that 150-year-old nation.

In pondering that question, my thoughts continually return to an article written by Robertson Davies, the late, great Canadian author and playwright, for the 100th anniversary of the now-defunct Saturday Night magazine. Robertson – ever the Jungian – described Americans and Canadians in this way: Americans are extroverts, Canadians are introverts. Americans tend to act before they think, while Canadians tend to think before acting.  By and large I’d say Davies’ observations ring true.

The idea that we think before we act explains a great deal of the Canadian character to me. It’s why Canada is so often seen as a humane force for good in the world. Faced with the question of immigration, for instance, Canadians tend to think, ‘how can we help?’ As a whole (and yes I do realize there are exceptions – controversial Conservative politician Kellie Leitch proves the point) we Canadians weigh our actions before we make a decision. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Americans, it’s that they just do stuff before they think about what it means in the long run. Sometimes it works – sometimes it’s brilliant. Far too often, however, it’s a disaster not only for America, but for much of the rest of the world. (Think Iraq and Afghanistan – and that’s only recently.)

On the other hand,  Canadians do overthink. Our governments are famous for this, for taking so long to “think” about a problem that the eventual solution is often ridiculous and ineffectual.

Yet as frustrating is that can be, by and large we tend to be far more tilted to the good then to the bad.

Oh, I know there’s so much more to do. The historical treatment of First Nations people is so bad it really lacks an appropriate way to describe it. My African-Canadian friends would be the first to tell you that life is not all bouquets and roses. We must fix our messed-up electoral system.  And let’s not forget that it was a Canadian who opened fire on a mosque in Québec, something that has not happened in the United States to this point in time. (Every other damn place you can think of, yeah, for sure. Americans will slaughter each other in every conceivable manner and place you can think of.)

There are many things about Canada which I’m very proud: Canada has had gay marriage for more than a decade. Canada has gun control that, by and large, works pretty well. Canada has universal healthcare (and while it may have its problems, let me tell you, speaking from personal experience, it’s way better than what they have in the United States). The way the government selects justices for the Supreme Court. The current makeup of the federal cabinet, which also has its problems, but also sends a strong signal to the rest of the world (one that was recently cited by Pres. Macron in France when he created his 50% women, 50% men cabinet). Our stance on climate change. Canada went through a constitutional crisis that would’ve driven most countries apart. Instead we ultimately made use of that most Canadian trait, compromise, and most Québecois decided that instead of separating, hanging around in Canada was a pretty good idea after all.

These days I ‘wear’ being Canadian like a comfortable old sweatshirt and a pair of faded pair jeans. It just feels natural.  It is just the way I am. I am a Canadian.

Happy Birthday, Canada! Here’s to another 150.

Copyright Tom Regan 2017

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com

~~~

Tom Regan Tom Regan is a journalist in the Washington, D.C., area. He worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association in the U.S., he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92, and is a member of the advisory board of the Nieman Foundation for journalism at Harvard.

Return to Tom Regan’s page 

 

 ~~~

Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded only by you, our readers. We are ad-free and spam-free, and do not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we need a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Visit our Subscribe page for details and payment options, or donate below. With enough supporters each paying a small amount, we will continue, and increase our original works like this.

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For Britain, friendless desert looms behind Brexit door

Dear Readers, I am taking a sabbatical from my weekly columns in Facts and Opinions in order to finish writing a book that I started a few months ago. The book is on matters very much in the news, so it needs to be finished as soon as feasible, with the aim of publishing in the fall of 2018. I plan to return to these pages when my desk is clear again. — Jonathan Manthorpe

 

The author would appreciate a contribution, at least equal to the coffee you might enjoy while reading the column below, to help fund his ongoing work and pay for this site. Click on paypal.me/JonathanManthorpe to be taken to his personal PayPal page.

A combination of pictures shows Queen Elizabeth during the State Opening of Parliament in central London June 21, 2017 and a European Union flag. REUTERS/Stefan Rousseau/Pool

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
June 24, 2017

 

Thersay May speaks after losing her party majority in the snap UK general election. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

It has taken 100 years for Britain to sink from being the world’s premier super power to the increasingly inconsequential cluster of off-shore European islands it is today.

The slide into irrelevance has been slow and genteel, until the last few months, and especially since the debacle for the governing Conservatives in the June 9 election. The view from the White Cliffs of Dover is now of a vast and unwelcoming no-man’s-land.

Britain’s long road to reality came to a bleak climax on Thursday and Friday this week. Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, her political wounds still fresh and suppurating from her drubbing in the election two weeks ago, attended a summit of the 28 European Union leaders in Brussels.

She wanted to talk about the fate of British subjects living and working in Europe, and European counterparts in Britain, once Brexit is achieved in about two years. Also on her list was what to do about Northern Ireland, which will suddenly have a hard border with the EU at the crossing points into the Irish Republic once the separation is complete. And then there’s the cost of the divorce. How many billions is Brussels going to demand in compensation from Britain for backing out of future obligations?

Theresa May found, however, there is no interest among the 27 other EU leaders in talking to her about these things. For them, Brexit is a done deal. The details are for Eurocrats and whatever woefully inadequate team London manages to field – Whitehall is so bereft of experienced negotiators, the British government has been forced to bring in Canadians and New Zealanders on contract.

The EU leaders have already moved on. That was evident in what the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, told reporters ahead of the summit. Asked about the state of play between the EU and Britain, Tusk said:

“We hear different predictions, coming from different people, about the possible outcome of these negotiations: hard Brexit, soft Brexit or no deal. Some of my British friends have even asked me whether Brexit could be reversed, and whether I could imagine an outcome where the UK stays part of the EU.

“I told them that in fact the European Union was built on dreams that seemed impossible to achieve. So, who knows? You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

Tusk’s channelling of John Lennon has been widely interpreted as a sign that there is still an opportunity for the British government to change its mind, and to stay in the EU. That looks like wishful thinking. Tusk looked and sounded as though he was waffling because he had nothing to say.

Indeed, Tusk moved on smoothly but speedily to say that the mood of optimism in the EU is now higher than it has been for a long time and that it is ready for the challenges ahead. The EU has major issues to address, such as the continued pressure of migration from Africa and the Middle East, defence in the age of Donald Trump, and the economy, which is doing well with some notable exceptions like Greece.

Emmanuel Macron at the France 2 television special prime time political show, “15min to Convince” in Saint-Cloud, near Paris, France, April 20, 2017. REUTERS/Martin Bureau/Pool

The EU also has a new and interesting generation of leaders – at least for the moment — who have surfaced since the British voters opted, by a slim margin in a referendum exactly a year ago, to leave the common market. There’s Emmanuel Macron in France and Leo Varadkar, the homosexual son of Indian immigrants, in Ireland. They embody commitment to European cohesion, the virtues of multi-culturalism, and the withering of old partisan establishments in the face of a renaissance in political thought.

For many Europeans, and not just their leaders, Britain was always an unwilling and troublesome partner. There was much anger in Europe when former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron called the referendum on EU membership last year, and even more when the British voted to leave. There was justifiable fear that Brexit would encourage “Eurosceptic” voters in other member states to demand their own referenda. But, having found in subsequent elections in Holland and France that Brexit is not an infectious disease spreading right-wing demagogy throughout the EU, most of the remaining members are happy to see Britain go.

On the British side, the whole grim saga of Brexit is like an episode of Fawlty Towers, but without the jokes.

It began with a raft of delusional Conservative backbench MPs yearning for a British Golden Age that never existed. They persuaded themselves, and convinced many of their constituents that silly, interfering bureaucrats and unelected EU pooh-bahs in Brussels were destroying the British – or, more precisely, the English – way of life with footling rules and regulations.

Petty gripes took on a large swig of Basil Fawlty racism when the free movement of people and their families within the EU became a perceived problem. Free movement was enshrined in the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, but at that time the EU was still just a club of western European nations.

The full impact of the phasing out of internal borders wasn’t felt until the rule was extended under the 2004 Schengen agreement. And that coincided with the intake into the EU of 10 new members, most of them from the former Soviet East Europe bloc. The 10 are Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

In a perverse way, it was to Britain’s credit that it became the preferred destination for very many Eastern Europeans seeking opportunity. But the arrival of plane, bus, and ferry loads of Manuels willing to work harder, and for less money, than the British sent the country’s Basil Fawltys into paroxysms of rage. Chief among them was Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the very epitome of the pub bore. But pub bores, if they are gloomy enough, have a way of attracting Eeyores. So it was with Farage.

At the same time, globalization was gobbling up jobs and spitting them out in Asia and other low cost manufacturing centres. Farage’s tirades that it was all the fault of the bloody foreigners in Brussels found a ready audience. UKIP made something of a breakthrough in 2013 municipal elections, 2014 European elections and the 2015 general election for the Westminster parliament. In that election UKIP made its best showing ever when it won 12.6 per cent of the vote, but that translated into only one seat in parliament.

Even though UKIP’s standing remained inconsequential, its progression out of the ranks of fringe parties scared a lot of the Conservative backbenchers. Some feared losing significant support to UKIP. Others, no doubt, were scared of UKIP because they agreed with its declaration that Britain’s problems stemmed from its membership of the EU.

In an attempt to silence his rebels, Prime Minister Cameron promised ahead of the 2010 election that if elected he would oversee a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU. It was a ploy to try to discipline his Eurosceptic backbenchers for the election campaign. But then he reneged on the promise, in large part because he had not won a majority and was in a formal alliance with the pro-Europe Liberal-Democrats.

As the 2015 election approached, Cameron felt forced to renew his pledge, and said a referendum would be held in 2016 if the Conservatives won a majority, which they did.

History will undoubtedly heap much blame on Cameron for the farce of the last two years. First, he should never have allowed himself to be bullied into calling a referendum. Referenda do not sit easily with the Westminster parliamentary style of government. This is based on the concept of electing MPs, who are expected to understand and reflect in parliament the views and concerns of their constituents. If the MP fails in this mandate, he or she is chucked out in the next election. Referenda, which circumvent the supremacy of parliament and ask voters to decide by a simple yes or no vote on complex and often far-reaching questions, are an alien approach.

Referenda used by governments in the Westminster parliamentary system are usually a way out for political leaders who don’t have the guts or decisiveness to make up their minds about difficult issues.

So it was with the Brexit referendum in June last year. On top of the sin of calling a referendum in the first place, Cameron then ran an appalling campaign, arguing with only tepid enthusiasm that the future for Britain is better inside the EU. Not only was the campaign feeble, Cameron and other political leaders, the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn most prominent among them, failed to perceive how deeply anti-EU sentiments had taken hold among committed Tories in rural England and blue collar voters in traditional Labour Party strongholds.

When the referendum results came in after the June 23 vote last year, it was Conservative country folk and abandoned rust belt workers in traditional Labour regions who pushed the results to 51.89 per cent in favour of leaving the EU and 48.11 per cent against.

Dawn breaks behind the Houses of Parliament and the statue of Winston Churchill in Westminster, London, Britain June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Brits vote for Brexit. Dawn breaks behind the Houses of Parliament and the statue of Winston Churchill in Westminster, London, Britain June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

To his discredit, Cameron immediately left the field. He resigned both as Prime Minister and party leader almost as soon as the last ballot was counted. This helped entrench the view in Britain, which still holds in some quarters, that there had been a conclusive vote for Brexit and that democracy had spoken. That was not true. Voter turn-out was 72 per cent and was especially low among young Britons. Also, it was mainly voters in England that voted for Brexit, and their numbers overwhelmed those in Scotland, Northern Ireland and much of Wales who wanted to stay in the EU.

With the swift departure of Cameron, events in the Conservative Party took on a surreal tone. It was evident to all that Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London who had just returned to the Commons in the 2015 election, lusted after the leader’s post. A well-known figure from his frequent appearance on television, his newspaper columns, and his penchant for politically incorrect buffoonery, Johnson had made himself the champion of the Brexit campaign, and now expected the pay-off.

He was well-placed to win under the Tories’ system for choosing a leader. First, the parliamentary caucus, through a system of informal and backroom polls, picks two candidates, who are then put to a nation wide vote among party members to make the final choice. It looked to be a choice between Johnson and the pro-remain Theresa May.

But then, at the last moment, one of Johnson’s most prominent supporters and backers, Michael Gove, decided that he wanted to be a candidate. There were a few hours of confusion before Johnson and Gove did the maths, realised they counted each other out, and both withdrew.

Theresa May became Tory leader and Prime Minister by default.

Despite her support for Britain remaining in the EU, May was seen as a safe pair of hands. Comparisons were made with Margaret Thatcher and cartoonists starting portraying May in a suit of armour, much as they had the Iron Lady 30 years ago. But cartoonists are often the most sensitive of social commentators, who spot trends and moods well ahead of others. It soon became noticeable that May’s suit of armour was not the Thatcherite pristine battlewear of St. George, but more the bashed and battered cast-offs of Don Quixote.

May proclaimed that “Brexit means Brexit,” though what that meant was and continues to be a mystery. It also remained a mystery on what terms she wanted to leave the EU and what she wanted Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with Europe to be. There was much bandying around of the phrases “hard Brexit” and “soft Brexit,” though what these inferred about Britain’s departure from and future trade and other ties with Europe is difficult to say.

A rough guide is that “hard Brexit” means Britain will entirely sever relations with the EU, and only then seek a new free trade agreement. “Soft Brexit” means Britain seeking to keep the existing free trade relationship with the other 27 countries, while jettisoning the things it doesn’t like about the EU, such as the ultimate sovereignty of the European Court and the free movement of people.

Theresa May started off by advocating for a hard Brexit. But the calamities that have befallen her in the past year – most of them self-inflicted — have confiscated almost all her political authority. She is now plaintively asking for a soft Brexit, but will have to put up with whatever Brussels gives her.

After taking office, May delayed starting the process of Britain leaving the EU, by triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, until the end of March. Part of the delay was undoubtedly because the government came face to face with the difficult realty that Britain no longer had enough experienced trade and constitutional negotiators in its civil service to field a team in Brussels. In February a call went out from Whitehall asking Canada, Australia and New Zealand to please lend Britain some of their negotiators.

Until the triggering of Article 50 there was some hope that May might follow her own preferences, and those of the majority of members of the House of Commons, and somehow reverse what was, after all, far from being an overwhelming vote to leave the EU.

At the same time, public opinion in Britain did an about turn. It was now a slight majority who favoured staying in the EU and a minority still backing Brexit. There are a number of reasons for this, most of them the usual hangover in the cold light of dawn after a night of revelry.

The campaign for Brexit a year ago contained a largely unspoken piece of wishful thinking that saw Britain’s departure from the EU as the moment when there would be a revival of the club of English-speaking nations. This dream envisaged an alliance of Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand against the world. It was only after the Brexit win, when the yearned-for alliance did not materialize, that Brexiteers began to see what a cold and unwelcoming world awaited their arrival.

The current Canadian government is a firm believer in multilateral institutions and regional free trade agreements. It has just completed a major free trade agreement with the EU. Australia and New Zealand are similarly inclined and both, after much internal struggle, now self-identify as Asian nations. Former U.S. President Barack Obama was upfront in urging Britons to vote to remain in the EU, but the arrival of Donald Trump changed the equation.

Many Brexiteers were cheered and heartened by Trump’s denigration of the EU and his support for the British, French and anyone else to quit the alliance. But once Trump became President it became obvious to even the most hidebound Brexiteer that Trump has no political philosophy or fixed convictions, and that he is motivated entirely by flim-flammery and whatever he thinks the crowd wants to hear. It was also clear that Trump has nothing but disdain for the UK, and any dreams in Britain of a revival of the trans-Atlantic “special relationship” is worse than fanciful.

With the air heavy with confusion, Theresa May then made another appallingly bad decision. She chose to call a snap election, saying the country needed to demonstrate “strength and stability” by giving her a majority in the House of Commons and clear mandate to negotiate Brexit.

Well, it is true that her political legitimacy was tenuous. She was Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party only because she was the only surviving candidate after Cameron resigned. But her timing was terrible, and she misread the mood of voters just as badly as Cameron had in 2016.

Jeremy Corbyn, then the new leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party greets supporters after speaking in a pub in London, Britain September 12, 2015. REUTERS/Neil Hall

To very many people, May’s calling of the election looked like a crass piece of opportunism. Polls indicated that the Labour Party and its leader Corbyn were unpopular beyond belief, and that May and the Tories could not only dramatically increase their majority, but even perhaps kill off the Labour Party as a political force for a generation.

Voters didn’t like being taken advantage of by the Tories. More than that, many of them objected to May and her advisers trying to dictate the issue as them being given a strong hand with which to confront Brussels. During the course of the campaign the voters decided the issue they preferred was the whole question of austerity cuts in government spending under the Tories, and what this was doing to social services. Jeremy Corbyn during the course of the campaign transformed from a loonie leftie leftover from the 1960s, to a principled swan gliding majestically and calming the ruffled waters of British public life.

Corbyn didn’t win, of course. However, he brought the Labour Party roaring back into contention and drove May and the Tories into minority. In order to continue governing she is now dependent on the support of the 10 members of the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland.

These are not savoury or compatible bedfellows. DUP political philosophy, such as it is, is rooted in Protestant triumphalism over Catholics in Ireland in the 17th century. To say that the DUP is not housetrained in the social issues of the 21st century is to be excessively polite. That might be manageable for May and the Conservatives were not Northern Ireland a key issue in the Brexit negotiations.

In 1998, at the end of the 30-year guerrilla and terrorist war launched by the Irish Republican Army in the 1960s to try to unify Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic, a central element in the Good Friday Agreement was the opening of the border between the two jurisdictions. This was eased by both Britain and the Irish Republic being members of the EU. But when Britain leaves the European community, customs and immigration barriers should go up again along the border between the two Irelands, with potentially serious consequences for the peace process. That process is already churning through dangerous seas with the collapse of a power sharing agreement between the republicans and unionists in the provincial government.

Moreover, the revived border will be the only land link between Britain and the EU. It will be the place illegal migrants congregate in the hope of getting into Britain, as they do in the French port of Calais now.

That’s assuming, of course, that after Brexit, Britain is still an attractive destination for refugees and migrants from Africa and the Middle East. In a speech this week, the Canadian governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, warned Britain is heading for difficult and uncertain times that will see weaker real incomes. He said that monetary policy implemented by the bank can go only so far to alleviate the impact of job losses and inflation that are likely to be part and parcel of the Brexit process.

He mocked the idea that Brexit is launching the UK on a “smooth path to a land of cake and consumption.” This was clearly a jibe at Boris Johnson, now Britain’s foreign minister, who in the course of the Brexit campaign said he was in favour of “having our cake and eating it too.”

No head of the Bank of England in living memory has been the target of so much public criticism as Carney, who headed the Bank of Canada before taking over in London in 2013. So his tilt at Johnson will probably be water off a duck’s back, as most criticisms of Johnson prove to be. The man is not known for his sensitivity.

Johnson probably still wants May’s job and to be Prime Minister, but there is a lot of opposition to him within the party, and there seems to be a consensus among Tories that now is not the time to remove her. A comment by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister), George Osborne, that May is a “dead woman walking,” looks to be off target. She has shown contrition for her failure in the election, and fired the advisers who pushed her along that path. This week she produced a legislative agenda for the new parliament that can draw widespread acceptance from both Tories and others in the House of Commons.

Theresa May’s fate will turn on the progress and direction of the negotiations on Brexit. While it is not impossible that a putsch is attempted over the summer, the most likely scenario is that an assessment of her leadership will be made by Tory party members at the annual convention in October. If May survives that, there will probably be an inclination to let her carry on until Britain leaves the EU in March 2019 or thereabouts.

By that point, it looks very much as though the leadership of Britain will be a grim and thankless inheritance.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2017

Contact Jonathan Manthorpe, including for queries about syndication/republishing: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.” Return to his column page.

 

~~~

Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

~~~

Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation.

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Singapore rocked by ruling family feud

ear Readers, I am taking a sabbatical from my weekly columns in Facts and Opinions in order to finish writing a book that I started a few months ago. The book is on matters very much in the news, so it needs to be finished as soon as feasible, with the aim of publishing in the fall of 2018. I plan to return to these pages when my desk is clear again. — Jonathan Manthorpe

 

The author would appreciate a contribution, at least equal to the coffee you might enjoy while reading the column below, to help fund his ongoing work and pay for this site. Click on paypal.me/JonathanManthorpe to be taken to his personal PayPal page.

 

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
June 17, 2017

The family of former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who died in 2015 at age 91,is embroiled in a public feud. Above, Lee in 2002, during a U.S. visit. Photo by Robert D. Ward, U.S. government, public domain

Schadenfreude is a vice usually best avoided.

The Fates are cruel. Seeing you take delight in someone else’s misfortune, they are very likely to whip the carpet out from under your life, giving secret pleasure to those who wish you ill.

But the ruling Lee family of Singapore has created for itself, at other people’s expense, such a charmed nepotistic dynasty that anyone can be forgiven for wallowing in schadenfreude and drinking deep the pleasure of seeing them come a cropper.

It is not unusual, of course, that when the patriarch of a family dynasty dies, the children and grandchildren fall to squabbling over the inheritance. That is what is happening here after the death in 2015 of Lee Kuan Yew at age 91.

A fierce public battle has broken out between Lee Kuan Yew’s eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, who has been Singapore’s Prime Minister since 2004, and two of his siblings. On Wednesday, his sister, neurologist Lee Wei Ling, and brother attorney Lee Hsien Yang, published an extraordinary six-page diatribe against their brother. They accuse him of trying to establish his branch of the family as a political dynasty, and of using state security agencies against them.

Read the document here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0ByodqaSLlpPIWHdRdFE2QlZYbzg/view

“Since the passing of Lee Kuan Yew, on 23 March 2015, we have felt threatened by Hsien Loong’s misuse of his position and influence over the Singapore government and its agencies to drive his personal agenda,” says the statement. The younger brother, lawyer Hsien Yang, says he and his wife feel compelled to leave Singapore and live elsewhere because “we fear the use of the organs of state against us.”

Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore’s founding father. He first became prime minister under British rule in 1959, survived the disastrous three-year attempt at amalgamation with Malaysia from 1963 until 1965, and remained leader of the Lion City’s government until he retired in 1990. After that and until his death, Lee in true Confucian style remained the ultimate arbiter of contentious policy questions as “Minister Mentor” to the government.

On the international stage, Lee Kuan Yew became one of the sage analysts of Asia in the last half of the 20th Century. Western leaders and their advisers were forever scuttling to Singapore to crouch at the knee of the Great Man and listen to his views on the state of the world.

Lee was equally revered at home in Singapore, a cluster of islands with no natural resources beyond the skills of its, now, nearly six million people. Over his 31 years at the helm, Lee Kuan Yew crafted Singapore into a hugely wealthy and successful state as one of the premier financial centres and trading entrepot of Asia.

The discipline required to achieve this success came at a social and political price. Lee created a political system that had elections without democracy and the rule of law without justice. All sorts of descriptions have been applied to Lee’s political and judicial creations from “guided democracy,” to “Gucci fascism.”

Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP) has ruled Singapore forever, largely through the benefit of masterful gerrymandering, which has made it impossible for opposition parties to win more than a handful of seats. In the last election, held a few weeks after Lee’s death in 2015, the PAP won 83 out of the 89 parliamentary seats.

When opposition figures have arisen whose political skills and appeal might overcome the gerrymandering of constituencies, other means have been employed to withstand the danger. A favourite ploy has been to charge political opponents with criminal libel or slander for things they have said or published about members of the Lee family in the heat of campaigns.

The Singaporean judicial system makes a sharp distinction between civil and political justice. On civil matters, such as business and contract disputes, the courts are scrupulous in their fairness and interpretation of the law. That is one of the attractions of Singapore for international companies as an Asian base for business.

The Singaporean courts, however, take a far more intense approach when it comes to political matters, and especially when the Lee family is directly involved. The record is that the courts are withering in their verdicts and sentences imposed on anyone found to have demeaned the senior members of the Lee family. Opposition politicians have had such large financial penalties imposed on them that they inevitably go bankrupt and are thus ineligible to be candidates in elections.

The courts have been equally activist on behalf of the Lee family when foreign and international newspapers and magazines have suggested that the Singaporean courts are biddable. The courts have been just as stern when these publications have pointed to what appears to be a network of Lee family nepotism running through most of the Lion City’s main governing institutions.

The list of publications that have incurred Singapore’s judicial wrath include The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Time Magazine, The Asian Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Asiaweek, and the Far East Economic Review. As the judgements have usually included a ban on distributing their publications in Singapore, with its large and well-healed expatriate business community, most of the media companies have swallowed hard and complied with the judgements.

Yet it often seems that Singapore is the Lee family corporate conglomerate that happens to own 63 islands and islets rather than a true nation state. When the number of Lee family members who occupy senior positions in various government departments and other institutions was pointed out to Lee Kuan Yew he always insisted that Singapore is a meritocracy and that his family members held their positions by dint of their personal qualities.

Not everyone was convinced. When Goh Chok Tong was Prime Minister after Lee Kuan Yew’s resignation in 1990, until Lee Hsien Loong took over the leadership in 2004, there was much public speculation. The usual analysis was that Goh was only keeping the Prime Minister’s seat warm while Lee Hsien Loong gained the experience to take over. If these views hit the public prints, the Lees — father and son – immediately took to the courts, which without exception upheld their outrage and imposed stinging penalties.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s younger brother and sister, now stirring the family brouhaha, have held senior institutional positions. Sister Lee Wei Ling was a director of the National Neurological Institute, and her brother, Lee Hsien Yang, was chief executive officer of Singapore Telecommunications for two years until April 2007. In 2009 he was appointed chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore.

No doubt these appointments were made on merit as, of course, was the 2002 appointment of the Prime Minister’s wife, Ho Ching, as Chief Executive Officer of Temasek Holdings, Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, currently worth over $US200 billion. Before that, Ho Ching was president and chief executive of the government-owned Singapore Technologies.

The public record tends to applaud Ho Ching’s abilities as master of Temasek, for transforming the fund from a Singapore-focused firm into an active investor in Asia and the world. The record usually draws a veil over 2006 when Ho Ching led Temasek to buy Shin Corp, the family business of Thailand’s Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, for $US4.5 billion.

The transaction outraged many Thais, including the military, which addressed the issue after it ousted Thaksin in a coup in September that year. Quite how much Temasek lost in that deal is still unclear, but many analysts put it around the amount the fund paid for Shin Corp; $US4.5 billion.

The centre of the dispute between the Lee siblings is prosaic in comparison. On the surface, it is all about the fate of the family home, a colonial-era bungalow at 38 Oxley Road, close to Singapore’s main shopping concourse, Orchard Street. Most of the six-page statement issued by Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling on Wednesday concerns the fate of this house.

The house was built by a Jewish merchant around the start of the 20th Century and was bought by Lee Kuan Yew soon after the Second World War. He lived there with his mother for a while, but then went to Britain to study law. When he returned to Singapore in 1950 he moved into the house with his new bride, Kwa Geok Choo. It was in the basement of the bungalow that Lee and political colleagues formed the People’s Action Party in 1954.

It has continued to be a family home, but in his last will, dated December 2013, Lee Kuan Yew left instructions that the house should be demolished after his death. Lee Kuan Yew had many faults – intellectual arrogance being a big one – but delight in the fripperies of power was not one of them. He did not want the house to become a national monument. In a book he wrote published in 2011 Lee said he didn’t want strangers to “trudge through” the family home.

In Wednesday’s statement, the two younger Lees recounted their father once saying, when asked what monuments he would like to see commemorating his contribution to Singapore, “Remember Ozymandias.”

This was a reference to the sonnet by English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley about the Egyptian Pharaoh, who had an inflated sense of his own importance. In the poem a traveller comes across the remains of a statue with a plaque saying:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The younger Lees charge that their elder brother, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, aims to preserve the family home as a national monument in order to bolster his own political stature and to prepare the ground for his own son to take over political leadership. (The son, Li Hongyi, has denied any political ambitions.)

“We believe, unfortunately, that Hsien Loong is driven by a desire for power and personal popularity,” says the statement. “His popularity is inextricably linked to Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy. His political power is drawn from his being Lee Kuan Yew’s son.”

On Thursday it became known that a government committee is working on options for the fate of the house.

Lee Kuan Yew came from a Hakka family, whose forebears came from the border region of Guangdong and Fuchien provinces in southern China. In the mid-18th century many Hakka went to Borneo after hearing reports of the discovery of alluvial gold in the rivers there.

Soon after their arrival, the Hakka, who had a well-deserved reputation as warriors, were contracted by a local rajah to fight in a dispute with one of his rivals. The Hakka’s reward for victory was the grant of a large slice of land. Here, in 1777, the Hakka established the Lanfang Republic, the first republic in Asia, which even pre-dated the United States version. The Lanfang Republic survived until 1884, when it was overrun by Dutch imperialists and is now part of Indonesia.

At the time of the Dutch onslaught, many of the Hakka fled to the British colony of Singapore, among them Lee Kuan Yew’s family.

But that’s another story.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2017

Link:

Read the family document, “What has Happened to Lee Kuan Yew’s Values,” here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0ByodqaSLlpPIWHdRdFE2QlZYbzg/view

Contact Jonathan Manthorpe, including for queries about syndication/republishing: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.” Return to his column page.

 

~~~

Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

~~~

Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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British Election Brings Mayhem

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May arrives on Number 10 Downing Street on the morning after Britain’s election in London, June 9, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
June 9, 2017

British voters have shown Prime Minister Theresa May the door.

Her gamble to call an early election in the expectation of strengthening her Conservative majority in parliament – and thus her clout in upcoming negotiations on the United Kingdom leaving the European Union – failed dramatically.

When the final votes were tallied in the dawn hours of Friday morning the Tories were reduced to a minority of 319 seats in the 650-seat house. May said on Friday she will seek to continue in government, probably with the support of the 10 elected members of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, traditional allies of the Tories.

The implications of this drubbing for the Conservative government are profound. For May herself, the writing is on the wall. If she does not choose to quit the party leadership and premiership herself, it is a matter of months at the most before the Tory caucus settles on a slate of candidates to supplant her.

For Britain, the results have much deeper implications. The Westminster government is due to start talks in 10 days time with Brussels on the terms of departure from the EU. Key issues are how much Britain is forced to repay the EU in exit fees, what transitional arrangements will be put in place during the two to three years of the exit process, and what, if any, agreements can be reached on future free-trade arrangements.

The election result has weakened dramatically the bargaining position of the British negotiators. Whether the process can keep to the envisaged two-to-three year exit time table and how painful the extraction is now heavily dependant on the generosity, if any is on offer, of the remaining 27 EU members.

Theresa May called the election saying she needed a “strong and stable” majority in parliament with which to confront Brussels. The reality was that she and her advisers saw the Tories had about a 20 point lead in the polls over the main opposition Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn. He, with his unreconstructed left-wing views and apparent lack of anything approaching charisma, was widely dismissed as “unelectable.”

May, much to the chagrin of many Tories, called an unnecessary snap election, and she has paid the price.

Corbyn proved to be an effective campaigner, especially among young voters. Labour produced a manifesto that spoke to widespread disenchantment among voters at the grinding austerity measures pursued by successive Conservative governments.

There was also a common determination among people who voted in last year’s referendum against leaving the EU. In that vote, 52 per cent voted to leave and 48 per cent remain. Among those remainers is widespread belief and anger that they have been forgotten as the exit process starts. They are upset that Theresa May has opted for a so-called “hard Brexit.” This appears to mean no attempts would be made to forge agreements with Brussels on such things as migration, easy movement of labour and free trade before Britain leaves. In tandem with that is anger that the May government has been secretive about its plans and details of the current talks with Brussels.

If the Conservatives hang on to government, the whole atmosphere around the dealings with Brussels will change. The Labour Party is going to have much more influence on the process, simply because of its added authority in the House of Commons. This is likely to result in much more open debate about the negotiations and negotiating positions as they go along.

The election was clearly a referendum on Theresa May’s leadership, but it was also a reaction to last year’s “Brexit” referendum.

Both the Conservatives and Labour picked up notably larger numbers of votes than they did in the last general election in 2015. But Labour picked up many more than the Tories, and this translated into 26 more seats. A major factor in both parties’ growth in support was the virtual disappearance of the United Kingdom Independence Party, whose highly effective campaigning against the EU spooked former Tory prime minister David Cameron to call the referendum last year.

It had been expected that the Tories would gain most from the disappearance of Ukip. However, in Britain’s rust belt, the ravaged old industrial areas of the Midlands and northern England, many traditional Labour voters opted for Brexit in the referendum, believing that free immigration under the EU had robbed them of their jobs. With Ukip gone, these people returned to the traditional Labour Party loyalty.

Also, many young people who neglected to vote in the referendum and who felt cheated out of their future by the decision to leave the EU, came out to vote this time. They seem to have gone mainly for Labour.

A notable sidebar to the election was the near collapse of the Scottish National Party. It lost 21 seats, with the Conservatives picking up 12, Labour six and the Liberal Democrats three. In the referendum Scotland voted heavily to remain in the EU, and the victory for Brexit led SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon to demand another vote on Scottish independence. With this result, the prospects of another independence referendum for Scotland have disappeared, for the moment.

The Conservatives now have a major problem picking likely candidates to succeed Theresa May. Several high-profile ministers lost their seats in Thursday’s election and there are thus four names on the slate at the moment.

There’s the Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who performed well in the campaign, particularly in TV debates. David Davis, the minister responsible for negotiating Brexit, is another. Then there’s the Defence Minister Michael Fallon, who is a smooth performer, but perhaps a bit too smooth. Finally, there is Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who campaigned for Brexit, and who could probably have won the leadership in the wake of Cameron’s resignation last year had he stood.

Far from bringing stability and certainty to the British political scene and the Brexit process, this election has produced massive uncertainty. Not least of those questions is who will be Prime Minister in a few weeks or months time.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2017

Contact Jonathan Manthorpe, including for queries about syndication/republishing: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, and Labour Party candidate Emily Thornberry gesture at a counting centre for Britain’s general election in London, June 9, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Staples

Related stories:

UK Election a Debacle, Brexit Looms, by David Milliken and Kate Holton   Report

British Prime Minister Theresa May said she would lead a minority government backed by a small Northern Irish party after she lost an election gamble days before the start of talks on Britain’s departure from the European Union.

Text of Theresa May’s statement, Reactions   Fact Box

Prime Minister Theresa May made the following statement in Downing Street on Friday after she lost her majority in a national election…

Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.” Return to his column page.

 

~~~

Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

~~~

Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

Posted in Uncategorized Tagged , , , |

Trump Cries Havoc! – Dogs (still) Kenneled

Dear Readers, I am taking a sabbatical from my weekly columns in Facts and Opinions in order to finish writing a book that I started a few months ago. The book is on matters very much in the news, so it needs to be finished as soon as feasible, with the aim of publishing in the fall of 2018. I plan to return to these pages when my desk is clear again. — Jonathan Manthorpe

 

The author would appreciate a contribution, at least equal to the coffee you might enjoy while reading the column below, to help fund his ongoing work and pay for this site. Click on paypal.me/JonathanManthorpe to be taken to his personal PayPal page.

 

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
June 10, 2017

Donald Trump in the last few days has given the world a master class on how ignorance and miscalculation by a United States president can trigger conflict and set the stage for war.

Look at what has happened this week since Trump’s pronouncement late last month that the rivalries in the Middle East are a “battle between good and evil.” Trump went on to pillory Iran as the main sponsor of terrorism in the region, and to pledge that the current White House regime is solidly behind the Saudi Arabian faction.

There has been a cascade of events triggered by that speech. It has brought the long-running rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran to boiling point. Even Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, bullish after winning a referendum to dramatically increase his executive powers, spotted an opportunity to follow his dream of re-establishing the old Ottoman Empire’s patrimony over the Middle East and strode into the ring.

As of today, a regional war is not imminent, but the rival champions are sizing each other up. The possibility of a major conflict is far more likely than it was before Trump’s speech in Riyadh on May 21.

Previous U.S. presidents have always leaned towards supporting Saudi Arabia, on which the U.S. depended until recently for its oil supplies, in the Riyadh monarchy’s rivalry with Iran. But until Trump, the U.S. chief executives maintained a degree of ambiguity in their dealing with Riyadh so as to restrain the House of Saud.

However, the emboldened Riyadh monarchy has interpreted Trump’s speech as a licence to strike out at its enemies. On Monday the Saudi government marshalled its allies Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen and Bahrain to join in the almost total diplomatic, economic and transportation isolation of the fellow Gulf State of Qatar.

Qatar has been an irritant for the Saudis for years. The emirate is fabulously wealthy from its holds on some of the world’s largest known oil and gas reserves. It has the world’s highest per capita income and the Emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, spends lavishly on projects that consume his interest.

One of his preoccupations is the Al Jazeera TV news network, funded from the Qatar state coffers. The English language side of the network was established and staffed by respected, and often well-known, figures from British, U.S., Canadian, and Australian networks, and has a reputation for independent and accomplished journalism.

The Arab language network is another matter, however. It is fiercely anti-Israeli and very pro the most extreme Islamic terrorist organizations, such as the Islamic State group, and other hardliners such as Hamas in the Palestinians’ Gaza Strip. It is also deferential towards the puritanical Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which briefly held power for a year after elections in mid-2012, until ousted in a military coup.

All these biases reflect the broader leanings of the Emir, who along with his family has been a major source of funds and support for radical Sunni Muslim terrorist groups. So too has the Saudi royal family and its hangers on, but that hasn’t stopped Riyadh getting increasingly irritated by Qatar’s influence.

What particularly gets the Saudi goat is the al-Thani family’s refusal to toe the Riyadh line on opposition to Iran. Indeed, Qatar has often been vocal in its opposition to Saudi goading of Tehran and has called for dialogue instead of political rivalry.

Qatar has good practical reasons for the strong lines of communication it keeps with Tehran. Much of Qatar’s wealth comes from the South Pars natural gas field under the Persian Gulf, whose ownership Doha shares with Tehran. Just the daily management of this vast resource demands open channels of communication.

Riyadh’s immediate justification for launching its sanctions attack on Doha was an article posted briefly on the Qatar News Agency website on May 23. The article quoted the Emir, Sheikh Tamim, as warning against confrontation with Iran in the wake of Trump speech. The story also quoted the Emir as defending the Palestinian group Hamas, and the Lebanese Shia Muslim movement, Hezbollah, which is Tehran’s proxy in the Syrian civil war.

Riyadh trumpeted this article as evidence of Qatari support for terrorists, and gathered its friends in Qatar’s neighbouring states to back the embargo. Trump, in his ignorance, even tweeted support for the move. He called it a major advance in the campaign against the Islamic State group, which is under siege in the territory it holds in the Iraq/Syria border region, and which has inspired recent attacks in Britain, France and Belgium by local jihadists.

However, it now appears from information from various western and Middle Eastern intelligence agencies that the posting of the story was a fake, and was planted by hacking of the site, probably by Russia.

In the meantime, though, the juggernaut of Riyadh’s sanctions started rolling. This ostracising is a very serious matter for Qatar. It is a desert nation with almost no agriculture and depends on imports for the bulk of its food supply, most of it coming from or through Saudi Arabia. Doha is also a regional financial centre, and the closing of airspace by all of Qatar’s neighbours has more or less shut down air traffic.

Qatar is a good example of why “hypocrisy” and “irony” are insufficiently potent words to describe Middle Eastern politics.

As well as being a major material supporter of the Islamic State group and other extremist outfits, Qatar is home to the largest U.S. military facility in the Middle East. There are about 10,000 U.S. military personnel at the huge al-Udeid Air Base, from which are launched most of the air and special forces attacks on the terrorists in Syria and Iraq that Qatar is funding. The Saudi embargo has given the Americans the very practical problem that military liaison officers from neighbouring Gulf States may no longer come to al-Udeid.

Qatar’s ability to walk in opposition directions on both sides of the street doesn’t stop there. While Doha is promoting links with Iran, it is also part of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen against Houthi rebels who are supported by Iran and who have taken over most of the country.

By mid-week, Kuwait had offered to broker some kind of resolution between Riyadh and Doha. If that happens, Doha will have little option but to capitulate on most Saudi demands, especially on reining in Al Jazeera.

But on Wednesday there was another significant shift in the state of the game board. In a special night-time session the Turkish parliament rushed through legislation allowing the Turkish army to conduct joint military exercises with Qatar and for Turkish police to train their Qatari counterparts. This adds to Turkey’s establishment a year ago of a military base in Qatar where 3,000 Turkish troops are stationed.

The move by the Ankara parliament followed a speech on Tuesday evening by President Erdogan in which he said “I want to clearly say that we disapprove of the sanctions on Qatar.” Erdogan’s statement followed a round of telephone calls with all the leaders involved in which he tried to act as a peace broker. His decision to come down on the side of Qatar apparently came after he decided there was no peace to be brokered.

Erdogan and Sheikh Tamim share views on several issues, especially their support for the Muslim Brotherhood, a puritanical Islamic group active throughout the region, but mainly in Egypt. The Brotherhood, along with the even more radical Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, who benefit from the patronage of the royal family, are the main theological inspiration for the leading terrorist groups of recent years from al-Qaida to the Islamic State.

Although Turkey and Qatar are both adherents to the Sunni faction of Islam, they share a desire to keep open relations with Iran, which champions the rival Shia Muslim code. This illustrates well that the tendency from outside to define the divides in the Middle East purely along the religious lines of Sunni and Shia factions is overly simplistic. When all is said and done, the divides in the Middle East are the age-old ones of money and power.

For Erdogan, a major reason for a working relationship with Iran is Turkey’s perennial problem, largely self-inflicted, of its Kurdish minority. The 35 million Kurds live in eastern Turkey, north-eastern Syria, northern Iraq, and northern Iran. They are the world’s largest ethnic group without a nation state, but there are active hopes and expectations that if and when the dust settles in the Middle East, there will be a new, internationally recognized Kurdish state.

There has been a de facto independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 1990, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. This week the Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani announced he intends to hold a referendum on independence on September 25.

Turkish president Erdogan has had generally good and functional relations with Barzani, who has helped him contain the Turkish Kurds. But this week Erdogan warned the Iraqi Kurds against seeking independence. Erdogan fears that if a Kurdistan is established in what is now northern Iraq it will further fuel the already blazing campaign for independence among the 14.5 million Turkish Kurds and the secession of Turkey’s eastern Kurdish region. Iran has similar concerns about its six million Kurds, which give Tehran a natural joint interest with Ankara.

Erdogan is already uneasy about the use by the U.S., Canada and other western states of the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds as the main frontline troops against the Islamic State fighters. The Turkish leader regards the Syrian Kurds in particular as indistinguishable from his own Kurdish separatists, the Kurdish Workers’ Party, whom he sees as terrorists.

Erdogan’s military actions in the Syrian civil war have been aimed just as much at the Syrian Kurds as they have at the troops of President Bashar al-Assad and the Hezbollah fighters from neighbouring Lebanon aiding him with Iran’s support. Indeed, on several occasions U.S. forces have put themselves in positions to prevent Erdogan’s troops from attacking the Syrian Kurds.

Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Emir of Qatar, with US President Donald Trump May 21, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo by Shealah Craighead, US government

Events came thick and fast on Wednesday. Most dramatic were simultaneous terrorist attacks in Tehran on the Iranian parliament and mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khmoeini, who led the 1979 revolution that ousted the Shah and established the Islamic Republic. At least 17 people were killed and over 40 injured in the attacks by six terrorist, all Iranians, who were killed after lengthy gun battles. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack, and there is evidence some of the terrorists had fought with the group in Syria and Iraq.

The timing of the attack was undoubtedly mostly to do with the Islamic State group trying to boost and burnish its image as it steadily looses territory and control of cities like Mosul and Raqqa. It is highly unlikely the Islamic State could have organized the Tehran attacks fast enough to be responses to the events earlier in the week. But the group had great luck with the timing. The attacks inevitably were meshed into the script of Trump’s speech, rampant Saudi Arabia, and the demonizing of Qatar.

There is a conviction among Iranian security and intelligence agencies that the Islamic State group and all other Sunni-inspired terrorist organizations are creations of Saudi Arabia. It’s a conviction for which there is good historic evidence, though the information on current official support by Riyadh is less definitive.

So it was inevitable that Iran would interpret Wednesday’s terrorist attacks on Tehran as retribution by Saudi Arabia for Iran’s support for the Assad regime in Syria. The attack is also seen in Tehran as a test of Iran’s resolve in the face of Trump’s granting of a free licence to Riyadh.

In a statement, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the country’s most powerful military force which is overseeing much of the Assad regime’s fight against the Islamic State and other rebel groups in Syria, blamed Saudi Arabia and the U.S. for the attacks. “We will avenge the blood of those martyred in today’s terrorism attacks,” said Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami, deputy commander of the Guards Corps.

Thus the stage is set for Act Two of the drama unfolding from Trump’s speech. As this action-packed week has shown, the Middle East story is spinning erratically and unpredictably, with actors from major, minor and even sub-plots suddenly appearing at centre stage.

Sadly, there are no signs that Trump has learned anything from four months as a tenant of the Oval Office. There is little reason to hope he will grasp the reality that what the President of the United States says, the words he uses and the sentiments he adopts are matters of life and death for many people.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2017

Contact Jonathan Manthorpe, including for queries about syndication/republishing: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.” Return to his column page.

 

~~~

Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

~~~

Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

Posted in Uncategorized Tagged , , , , , |