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January 28, 2008

Tourism and troubled places

Should western tourists visit troubled and undemocratic places?

A family member recently visited Uzbekistan. She had read up on the cultural and architectural history for the primary purpose of the visit was to see and photograph the mosques and architectural sites and oases associated with the Silk Route. It was only when she returned home that she learned more about the troubled political life of the country. Torture, according to Human Rights Watch, is a wide-spread and indeed ‘routine’ feature of the justice system. When she read of some of the repressive tactics of the government in its dealings with citizens she felt that she may have decided not to go to Uzbekistan or at least that if she had decided to go then the visit might have had a different orientation.

This is a question that I myself faced directly nearly forty years ago when working as a very young civil servant in recently-independent Botswana. To the south and east was South Africa, to the west, South African administered South-West Africa (modern-day Namibia) and to the north was UDI Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), all unacceptable regimes. Access to Botswana from overseas was in those days via South Africa. It was the period of grand apartheid. From time to time I had to go to South Africa as a part of delegations working on Botswana government business. Working in Botswana seemed worthwhile (a decision that I have never had reason to regret) and I approved of its non-racial and democratic approach to life. The country’s aims stood in sharp contrast to those of the racist regimes with which it was surrounded. Visiting South Africa was a necessary part of that decision. I decided never to go to Rhodesia during UDI as the UDI-regime was illegal and had not been inevitable. It took me over two-decades to stand in Zimbabwe and look in awe at the Victoria Falls and to meet, in Harare, a Zimbabwean family with whom I am still very close. Over several later visits I grew to love the high veldt but given recent developments in Zimbabwe and its political and economic mismanagement, I would be unwilling, once again, to go as a tourist. My very private ‘stand’ (I only ever mentioned it then when asked to join groups going on a visit) from the late 1960s was no doubt inconsistent, given the wider context of Southern Africa, and insignificant, given the daily sacrifices made by those who opposed apartheid in South Africa. It was based on a compromise (and costs in opportunities foregone) with which I could live and which made sense to me.

I recently visited the Democratic Voice of Burma: Let’s talk page: http://english.dvd.no/letstalk.php?id=20 On the 24th January, the day I visited, the topic was: ‘Should tourists stay away?’ This topic echoed my family member’s concern about the visit to Uzbekistan. Burma (Myanmar) is under a long-standing military junta or the State Peace and Development Council as it now terms itself. Democratic opposition is not tolerated. There is no free press. Many democratic leaders are detained in prison or under house arrest. In recent months, even Buddhist monks have been subjected to persecution for political opposition. According to the website, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a key democratic leader and Nobel Peace prize-winner, persecuted by the regime, has suggested that tourists stay away as any visit would be ‘tantamount to condoning the regime’. In the UK, trade unions and international charities have also called for tourists to stay away. This call is part of a wider strategy to urge further sanctions as a means of achieving regime change in Burma.

So here we have different countries, time periods and contexts and different levels of discussion (personal and full-blown ‘political’) but the question is the same. Should western tourists stay away from undemocratic and troubled societies? What regimes would be ruled out and what allowed? Are there different ways of being ‘a tourist’ that do not imply ‘condoning’ a given regime? Are there working compromises that can be made? Are there any considered views out there?

January 24, 2008

What happens in Pakistan matters in the rest of the world.

The political murder of Benazir Bhutto, and many of her supporters at the same time, shocked Pakistan and the world. Why is Pakistan of such significance to the rest of the world? What should the policy of the United States be in the short-run?

Pakistan is a significant Muslim country. It has highly sensitive borders with Afghanistan, China, India and Iran. It is a nuclear power thanks to Ali Bhutto, the late Benazir Bhutto’s father. It is a country where tolerance is being challenged by fundamentalism spilling out of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It is a place where democracy has often been challenged by military rule but where the aspiration for democracy is still alive. It has a President, Pervez Musharraf, who chairs the National Security Council, and who is supported internally by the army and externally by the United States. His government started out well on reform issues but he is widely regarded as weak, vacillating and running out of support. It is a country that the Economist newspaper recently described, with some justification, as ‘The world’s most dangerous place’. It is a place where democratic elections have been postponed for another six weeks as a result of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. It is a country in which the biggest single party is drifting. Pakistan as a country matters to the Muslim world; to its neighbors because of its growing potential for instability; to the United States and the West because of al-Qaeda and the Taliban; and to domestic politics the UK where the cities of Birmingham and Bradford, for example, have large populations of Pakistani origin.

United States policy towards Pakistan has been inconsistent. Pakistan was initially seen as undemocratic. It was then seen as a potential ally in the ‘War against Terror’. This meant military and civilian aid and the suspension of economic sanctions. The United States cooperated with the regime, strongly supporting the drive against the Taliban and only gently, so it seems, calling for a return to democracy. The United States supported the return of Benazir Bhutto but failed, tragically, as did the Pakistan government, to provide for her protection. Pakistanis, particularly, but not uniquely, the middle-classes, long for democracy but civilian rule has all too frequently become mired in corruption and inefficiency, as was the case with Benazir Bhutto’s terms in office.

At the same time, according to Stephen P. Cohen, the United States seems to demand a lot in terms of security issues and changed international policies from a government that is essentially weak. Pakistan is a developing country beset with regional problems. It is not clear that the United States has a consistent set of simple and achievable objectives guiding its policy towards Pakistan. It has expected too little by way of democratic reform and too much by way of security and changed foreign policy. Given the limitations of the government and what government in any society can effectively achieve during periods of social or religious change, the United States needs to focus its policy. The single best hope, for democracy and stability, the secular and pro-western Benazir Bhutto, has been removed from the scene. This does mean that all hope is gone. Bhutto’s son told the world that, in his mother’s words, ‘Democracy is the best revenge’. If the elections can meet the usual ‘fair’ and ‘free’ criteria the country’s direction will be determined by popular vote and fundamentalists will be tested and most likely constrained by more popular parties. In the short-run, the United States should exercise whatever influence it has upon Musharraf in order to reign in his own security forces, seen by many commentators as propagating unrest in their own interest. John Edwards, according the Pakistan News, suggested that ‘we have to hold his feet to the fire’ because of broken promises in the past. This has to be done with care for the army top brass must be carried along too. There should be no independent US military action in Pakistan’s sensitive border areas.

January 17, 2008

Russia moves against the British Council

The war of nerves between Moscow and London continues. With the harassment of Stephen Kinnock, head of the Council’s St. Petersburg office, the behavior of the Russian officials has sinister echoes of the old Soviet Union and the Cold War. Where does the ill-feeling come from, and what is its significance?

The Kremlin has declared that the British Council Offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, as operating illegally and has attempted to close them. The British Council is a cultural organization operating world-wide and sponsored by the British Government. It is aimed at the promotion of educational and cultural ties. The temporary detention of the office director Stephen Kinnock, son of former Labour Party leader and later European commissioner, Neil Kinnock, is being seen in London as a deliberate act of provocation aimed at closing the offices. These are operating under an agreement with Moscow signed almost a decade ago. The fact that the temporary detention was followed by interviews by the FSB (the Russian Security Services) for all members of staff at the St. Petersburg office meant in effect that the office was forced to close though the British Council insists that it is operating under a legally valid international agreement. Stephen Kinnock’s visa will, according to Russian sources, not be renewed. The interviews, according to the BBC website, were described by the chief executive of the British Council, Martin Davidson, as having ‘little to do with their work’ and that the interviews were ‘aimed at exerting undue pressure on innocent individuals’.

UK foreign Secretary, David Miliband, has rejected claims that the offices had violated taxation law and has made it clear that he sees this as a deliberate campaign of staff intimidation. Britain claims that the offices are operating legally under a valid agreement that has not been terminated. Russia wanted talks on cultural exchanges but these failed some time last year. Miliband, according to the BBC, sees the actions of the Russian officials as ‘not worthy of a great country’. Miliband's response is supported by the EU and by the United States. The Russian Ambassador to Britain has reacted to Miliband by saying that the situation is slipping into a diplomatic crisis.

What is at issue is more complex than a tiff over a significant cultural organization, Russia is in a fairly truculent mood and wants to make up its own rules with respect to international action. This in itself has some unfortunate ramifications as state actorsneed a framework tha tleads to some degree of predictability and even accountability. Most commentators seem to hold that Russia in general, and Putin in particular, is still upset with the allegations against Andrei Lugovoi, a former FSB operator, suspected of murdering Alexander Litvinyenko in London using radioactive poison. Russia, in apoltical decision, refused to hand Lugovoi over for trial in London. London is also the home of many rich Russians and Russia is not happy with the rejection by the courts (not in th eUK a politcal decision but a judicial decision) of an extradition request against one of the ‘oligarchs'. Nonetheless it is hard not to accept Miliband’s judgment that the Russians are in fact scoring an own goal. The more they harass the British Council, the more attention is paid to the history of the relationship that flows from the murder of Litvinyenko. It is hard to see what Russian can gain from its position.