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Dabbling with the dark side

It is something of a joke these days to see the US State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. Talk about the pot calling the kettle(s) black.

Since the 11 September 2001 attacks, the human rights struggle has suffered a beating at the hands of the United States. In particular, the obnoxious practice of detention without trial has been given a new lease of life.

The United States is holding close to 14,000 prisoners in Iraq, another 500 in Afghanistan and nearly 500 more in Guantanamo Bay. That’s not counting the unknown number of ‘suspected terrorists’ held by the CIA in secret “renditions” at various locations around the world. God knows how many of them have been tortured.

That’s not counting the hundreds of others held without trial by other countries in their own regional ‘wars on terror’. For instance, in Malaysia, there are close to 100 people being detained without trial at the Kamunting Detention Centre – over 50 of whom are alleged JI members and half a dozen alleged KMM members. Neighbouring countries in Asean too are holding alleged terrorists without trial using similar undemocratic laws.

Torture (whether physical or psychological) and detention without trial violate natural law as well as international law. So why are these “civilised” nations doing it – or turning a blind eye to such practices?

This is an excerpt from a piece I wrote for the Malaysian Herald last October, in which I highlighted the illuminating analysis provided by Middle East historian Juan Cole.

Indeed, militarism, manifested in the “war on terror”, is the dark side of neo-liberal globalisation. Many analysts believe the ‘‘war on terror’’ has been hyped up to mask the United States’ rush into the Middle East to take strategic control of crucial oil reserves as global oil production reaches a plateau in the next few decades.

But why is the United States so keen on allowing torture? ‘‘Boys and girls, it is because torture is what provides evidence for large important networks of terrorists where there aren’t really any, or aren’t very many, or aren’t enough to justify 800 military bases and a $500 billion military budget,” says analyst Juan Cole, a professor of Modern Middle East History at the University of Michigan….

“The Bush administration needs the Terror/al-Qaeda bogeyman to justify the military occupation of strategic countries that have or are near to major oil and gas reserves,” says Cole, in his “Informed Comment” blog. “It needs al-Qaeda to justify the lily pad bases in Kyrgyzstan etc. But the problem is that we now know that serious al-Qaeda is probably only a few hundred men now, and at most a few thousand.”

How do you prove to yourself and others a big terror threat that requires a National Security State? You torture people into alleging it, he says. “Global terrorism is being exaggerated and hyped by torture just as the witchcraft scare in Puritan American manufactured witches.”

Dam-it, what’s going on here?

It looks like some of our planners are on a dam-building spree, even though the Bakun Dam is expected to produce electricity that the country does not really need for now.

For one thing, Malaysia has a 40 per cent reserve capacity now – even without including the expected excess electricity from Bakun. Even by 2010, we would still have 30 per cent excess capacity. It is only by 2012 that the excess capacity would drop to around 20 per cent.

With all this surplus electricity floating around, it is surprising that they are even thinking of building more dams – and in Sarawak of all places. Imagine, they haven’t figured out what to do with all that electricity from Bakun, and they are talking of newer bigger dams.

Will Tenaga be forced to buy some of that excess electricity – and at what price? 12 sen per unit (the price recently negotiated with Independent Power Producers)? Or 17 sen per unit (the high price agreed when the original Bakun power purchase agreement was signed in 1996)? In the first place, why should Tenaga buy electricity at these prices when its own power generation plants are among the most cost efficient?

Or will the government approve the construction of polluting aluminium smelters in Sarawak to suck up the excess power from Bakun? Now there is even talk of Tenaga taking up a stake in the highly risky business of sending all that excess electricity by submarine cables to the peninsula.

And what about the catchment areas for Bakun? Is there sufficient protection to ensure they are not stripped?

Perhaps we can say thanks to Mahathir for getting us into this mess in the first place. If only we had the vision to use all that money to carry out research into cleaner, less environmentally damaging, alternative sources of energy. If only we could also think of conservation of energy instead of finding new ways of using up electricity that we didn’t really need in the first place. If only…

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 10 (IPS) – Even before the problem-ridden Bakun Dam in eastern Sarawak can be completed, officials are talking of plans to build two more hydroelectric dams in the state, one of which could make Bakun look puny by comparison.

Concerns over the necessity for such dams, how the surplus electricity will be used, the resettlement of indigenous people, and the ‘development’ of catchment areas appear to be going unheeded.

The turbines powering the 2,400 Mw Bakun Dam along the Balui River could start churning by 2009, but planners are still mulling over what to do with all that excess electricity.

Should they approve a power-guzzling — and extremely polluting — aluminium smelter plant in Sarawak? Or should they channel the excess power to the more industrialised Malaysian peninsula via submarine cables laid on the bed of the South China Sea?

The former option would require the participation of major transnational corporations with questionable benefits for the rural economy of Sarawak.

The option to lay cables, on the other hand, would be expensive and is fraught with technical uncertainties. Full article: Surplus electricity – But bigger dams planned

How the NEP equity targets miss the point

So is the bumi share of corporate equity 18.9 per cent? Or 45 per cent?

Here’s something to think about this weekend.

In many ways, the NEP 30 per cent target has become almost sacrosanct. On it hinges much of the political legitimacy of a party like Umno – for persistent underachievement can be used as a clarion call to mobilise support along racial lines

But is share ownership a really meaningful indicator of economic well-being for most ordinary Malaysians?

This is an extract from a piece I wrote for the Malaysian Herald last October.

To measure economic justice by looking merely at equity ownership – i.e. the ownership of shares – among the various communities is misleading

Whether we use the par (nominal) value or market value of shares in our calculations, whether we use only listed firms or all firms, whether we include government-linked companies in the bumiputra share – all of this misses the point.

The truth is only a tiny percentage of Malaysians actually own shares. And among those who do hold shares, a small group of them control the bulk of the shares, while the rest are just small-time investors.

What about the vast majority who do not own shares or unit trusts? Where do they fit in?

In truth, the gap between the rich and the poor in Malaysia – like in the United States and many other countries in the world – has been widening. Even among the bumiputras, the gap between the rich and poor has grown larger.

According to the UNDP Human Development Report 2005, only nine countries have reduced the gap between rich and poor. On the other hand, 80 per cent of the world’s population have experienced an increase in income inequality.

Could this be the result of the headlong rush into full-blown market capitalism and corporate-led globalisation?

This is what we should be looking at.

So we need to look at how we can empower our own marginalized communities and other people displaced by ‘development’ – through education, through skills training, by creating the means for economic self-sufficiency.

At the same time, we need to develop our rooted-ness in our ancient cultures and spiritual traditions and not succumb to the overwhelming culture and materialistic values of the global market. We need to promote food security through organic, sustainable traditional farming – not through large-scale cash crops using pesticides and low-wage plantation labour. (I see the government has ‘temporarily’ lifted its ban on the toxic herbicide, paraquat.)

At the end of the day, full-blown market capitalism of the neo-liberal variety is deeply flawed and leads to wide income disparities. It focuses excessively on material development – to the detriment of the environment, the ancient cultures we share, the traditional wisdom and our rich knowledge-base in farming, in healing, in the spirituality found around Nature (see how Jesus often went to the hills to meditate), which are all sidelined.

We should go beyond statistics and look at the authentic development of the human person and create a climate that empowers communities by providing them the means to become self-sufficient.

The Top Five Ways They Block the Real News from Reaching You

Ever get the feeling that what you read in the newspapers is not really journalism. Well, you wouldn’t be far wrong. Much of what passes itself off as journalism today is actually slick public relations disguised as journalism, or more accurately, Corporate Media Propaganda.

It was the Australian social scientist Alex Carey who observed that there were three developments of major significance in the last century: “the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.”

This is an excerpt from a piece I wrote for the Malaysian Herald last October:

Power is now moving into the hands of the transnational corporations – and the structures that support them. The corporate media’s role is to condition the public into blindly accepting such a fundamental shift in the way our economies are controlled and managed.

Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky introduced their ‘propaganda model’ of the media in their book ‘Manufacturing Consent’ in 1988. Basically, they said the media have five types of filters that determine what gets presented as news and what does not. They also showed how dissenting views get very little space – in stark contrast to the political-corporate powers-that-be who have easy access to the media (and the public).

Some of these state-corporate hidden messages include the notion that economic growth is the best way forward, that the neo-liberal corporate-led model of globalisation is the best thing since sliced bread, and that corporations are essentially benevolent.

The first filter that determines what is reported is of course the corporate ownership of the media, which heavily influences what is transmitted to the public.

The second is massive advertising revenue which again conditions a newspaper to be “friendly” to business interests for fear that firms may withdraw their advertising spending and go elsewhere.

The third filter is the sourcing of news. Ever notice how the media often quote speeches and statements from the centres of power – whether it is the White House or Putrajaya or economic interests – that are closely linked with the promotion of business interests? And notice the scarcity of interviews with the poor and the marginalised.

The fourth filter comes in the form of negative responses to a media statement or programme – that is public complaints, threats of lawsuits or punitive action or official warnings – all of which can put fear in media owners.

The fifth filter is the demonisation of enemies – whether they are communists, dictators, activists protesting against corporate-led globalisation, environmentalists, or anyone who has a different view about how the economy should be run. These dissidents are often portrayed as crazies, mavericks, ‘radicals’, and fringe groups.

Makeover for predatory IMF and World Bank

While attending the Annual Meetings of the Boards of Governors of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Singapore, I soon realised that a slick makeover job, a real PR job, was underway.

In recent years, these two global financial institutions have received some bad press for the tremendous damage their policies have had on developing nations.

The PR job required a range of sweeping cosmetic measures. But could such measures really save the Bank and the IMF from their serious image and credibility crisis? No way.

This is the review I wrote for Inter Press Service after the Annual Meetings were over.

‘There’s no doubt in my mind that the Fund and Bank cannot be reconstructed,” said Glasgow-based political scientist and author John Hilley, who has written about neo-liberal militarism, the Fund and the Bank, in e-mailed comments to IPS. ‘‘Both need to be replaced by bodies concerned with people and planet rather than austerity prescriptions and business values.”

Critics said the elite closure and containment of dissident voices in Singapore should serve as a reminder that these bodies cannot be ‘constructively engaged’.

Hundreds of civil society activists were forced to divide their numbers between Singapore, where accredited activists were ‘constructively engaged’ inside the convention centre, and neighbouring Batam in Indonesia, where others held protests and parallel meetings. This divide-and-rule tactic may have weakened the overall impact of the usual civil society protests surrounding such meetings.

‘‘The Singapore meetings really showed how undemocratic the Bank and the Fund were,” said Achmad Ya’kub of the Indonesian Federation of Peasant Unions (FSPI), who was deported after being interrogated for 14 hours in Singapore. ‘‘They lost the very little credibility that they still had.”

The sentiment in some activist circles is that civil society organisations should boycott all future meetings with the Bank. Civil society ‘engagement’ in the consultative process, it is argued, indirectly helps to legitimise the WB-IMF annual proceedings..

Hilley warned that no one should be taken in by the supposedly more benign face of the Bank. ‘‘The Wolfowitz presidency, the IFC’s business agenda and the resolute adherence to growth-based policies are all testament to the Bank’s real priorities,” he said. The IFC (International Finance Corporation) is the private sector arm of the Bank, whose president, Paul Wolfowitz, is widely seen as an architect of aggressive U.S. foreign policy in Iraq and the Middle-East. Full article