The Commonwealth Update

An authoritative, nation-by-nation review of events across the Commonwealth, with an update now published six times a year in an issue of The Round Table.

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From 2008, the review is being written by Oren Gruenbaum, the Commonwealth Update editor, and currently Senior Sub-Editor at The Guardian in the UK

In 2007, the review was written by Judith Soal, a journalist who has worked extensively in South Africa and is currently deputy night editor at The Guardian in the UK.

Until 2007 the review was written by Derek Ingram, who was the Founding Editor of Gemini News Service until 1993, and is the author of a number of books about the Commonwealth and is active in the CJA, CPU, CHRI and the RCS, as well as a member of the Moot.

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Commonwealth Update - Issue 438, June 2015

Oren Gruenbaum


Lee Kuan Yew's Mixed Legacy

The death of the island nation's 'founding father' on 23 March at the age of 91 brought the expected paroxysm of public mourning. Tens of thousands of Singaporeans lined the meandering 10-mile route of the funeral procession from early morning, despite torrential rain (his son Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister, said the 'heavens opened and cried for him').

The government said that in the days after his death about 1.5 million people around the country paid tribute to Lee, who founded the still-ruling People's Action Party (PAP) in 1954, and led the country to independence from British colonial rule in 1963 (and then from a federation with Malaysia in 1965). He steered the tiny country from a tropical backwater with no natural resources to one of the richest countries in the world, with a GDP per capita of $55,000—ninth in the world, according to the World Bank, putting it above the US. There were eulogies from world leaders such as Barack Obama, whose statement called Lee a 'visionary' and 'true giant of history', and the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, who called him 'a lion among leaders'.

Yet there were voices from the fringes pointing out what Singapore had lost in its transformation into a economic role model. The writer Catherine Lim, a critic of the PAP, said Singaporeans had 'much respect and trust, though scant affection' for him. (Lee responded: 'If you take me on, I will put on knuckle-dusters and catch you in a cul-de-sac.') Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch told Deutsche Welle that Lee's 'tremendous role in Singapore's economic development … came at a significant cost for human rights'. The veteran journalist A Kadir Jasin wrote in his obituary: 'Lee left behind many admirers but very few friends. Some of his friends during the independence struggle walked away from him while others were purged. Many spent years in jail.'

Lee—and Singapore, for were the two not synonymous?—was known for vaguely comical edicts such as the ban on imports of chewing gum (though it was actually his successor as prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, who made a doctor's prescription necessary to buy gum legally) and mandatory flushing of public toilets. 'We decide what is right,' Lee said in 1987. 'Never mind what the people think.'

Such openly expressed patrician views are hardly limited to Singapore but the authoritarian, if not totalitarian, nature of the country's laws are egregious for a democracy. They extend to the right for police to enforce random drug tests on non-Singaporeans and locals alike, two-year prison sentences for gay sex (oral sex was only decriminalised for heterosexuals in 2007), a ban on walking around your home naked (a man was fined S$2,600 (US$2,000) for this in 2009), and a possible three-year sentence and S$10,000 fine for using a neighbour's wireless network (a boy was jailed for nine months for this in 2006).

This more sinister side to Singapore was displayed, appropriately enough, just after Lee died, when a 16-year-old boy, Amos Yee, was arrested and charged over a disparaging video the teenager posted about a leader who said of himself in 1998: 'Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right: if nobody is afraid of me, I'm meaningless.' For publishing a crude but childish caricature of Lee and Margaret Thatcher, plus remarks about Jesus, a boy faces three years in prison and a S$20,000 fine.

Yee was charged under the Protection from Harassment Act. More often the government has used the draconian Internal Security Act to suppress dissent. This colonial-era law descends from emergency powers introduced to combat the guerrilla war of the Malaya 'Emergency' from 1948-60. The communist bogeyman was invoked repeatedly to crush opponents of Lee. Operation Spectrum in 1987, for instance, saw the government detain 16 people over a supposed Marxist conspiracy involving members of that bastion of revolution, the Catholic church. There were forced confessions on television, their lawyers were themselves arrested, and Amnesty International declared the detainees to be 'prisoners of conscience'. After they were eventually released and complained of torture, they were re-arrested and only freed when they retracted their accusations against the authorities. Respected media outlets, such as the Far Eastern Economic Review, were suppressed for reporting on the bogus conspiracy.

Said Zahari, a journalist, was one of more than 100 left-wing opposition figures and trade unionists rounded up in 1963 by the British colonial authorities (aided by Lee). He was detained without trial for 17 years. Another veteran opponent of Lee, the tenacious JB Jeyaretnam, was hounded for trying to create a parliamentary opposition to the PAP hegemony. Jailed, sued by the government and disbarred from practising the law, Lee portrayed a principled democratic socialist as a dangerous subversive.

Writing in the Financial Times, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek calls Lee the creator of authoritarian capitalism, which he believes will shape this century as capitalism and democracy influenced the last (at least in theory): 'Market-based economics has no problem accommodating local religions, cultures or traditions. It is easily reconciled with the primacy of an authoritarian state.'

For Lee, though educated as an elite lawyer at Cambridge and London's Middle Temple, the law was subservient to the state, not above it. He said in 1986: 'We have to lock up people, without trial, whether they are communists, whether they are language chauvinists, whether they are religious extremists. If you don't do that, the country would be in ruins.' As well as ignoring the principle of habeas corpus, this distrust of his own people also led to him abolishing the jury system in 1969. In his Memoirs he explained: 'I had no faith in a system that allowed the superstition, ignorance, biases and prejudices of seven jurymen to determine guilt or innocence.'

Lee stepped down as prime minister in 1990 after 31 years but continued to wield ultimate power by handing the premiership to his chosen successor, Goh, and remaining 'minister mentor' until 2011. In 2004 Lee's son became prime minister, ensuring that the family had ruled for 56 years continuously.

As Human Rights Watch's Robertson said in Time: 'Singapore still is, for all intents and purposes, a one-party state where political opponents are targeted and contrary views muzzled—and that too is a part of Lee Kuan Yew's legacy.'

There is a bitter irony that criticisms Lee made of the colonial government of David Marshall in a 1956 speech could have been of his own regime: 'Repression, sir, is a habit that grows,' he said. 'The first time there may be pangs of conscience, a sense of guilt. But once embarked on this course with constant repetition you get more and more brazen in the attack.

'All you have to do is to dissolve organisations and societies, and banish and detain the key political workers in these societies. Then miraculously everything is tranquil on the surface. Then an intimidated press and the government-controlled radio together can regularly sing your praises, and slowly and steadily the people are made to forget the evil things that have already been done, or if these things are referred to again they're conveniently distorted and distorted with impunity, because there will be no opposition to contradict.

As one Singaporean wrote in the Guardian as she explained her mixed feelings about Lee's death, the flipside of his paternalism was an enforced infantilism for citizens: 'We are only now, 50 years after independence, beginning to emerge from the political passivity a 'father knows best' government urged us into.'


Jonathan's Finest Hour

There has been largely unexpected good news from the embattled country: an election that was regarded as (mostly) free and fair led to the first democratic transfer of power in its history when the former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari beat the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, by 15.4m votes to 12.9m.

One could almost hear the collective sigh of relief when Jonathan conceded defeat and urged supporters of his People's Democratic Party (PDP) to accept the decision of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) that Buhari had won, despite combustible allegations of irregularities at the polls. The spectre of violence sweeping the country as it had after the 2011 elections, when 800 people died, faded.

Buhari has asserted his democratic credentials (such as at Chatham House, when he declared: 'Before you is a former military ruler and a converted democrat who is ready to operate under democratic norms'). There was praise for Jonathan, who prevented the polls becoming the habitual vote-rigging exercise ('I promised the country free and fair elections. I have kept my word,' he said), and Attahiru Jega, head of the INEC, for his tough-minded determination to oversee a credible vote.

In a statement issued after the results were announced, Jonathan declared: 'I urge those who may feel aggrieved to follow due process, based on our constitution and our electoral laws, in seeking redress. Nobody's ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian. The unity, stability and progress of our dear country is more important than anything else.'

It could be said that Jonathan's finest moment as president came in relinquishing power. Certainly, his record in office was abysmal, even by the low standards of Nigerian presidents. About half the population still live below the poverty line, corruption on a vast scale continued unabated under his watch (the equivalent of 100,000 barrels of oil a day are stolen, according to the Economist), education was neglected (at 51%, according to Unicef and the CIA, literacy rates are nearly half that of South Africa, though it recently overtook that country in terms of GDP), the power network would be inadequate for a far smaller and poorer country, and the military—supposedly one of the strongest in Africa—is so under-equipped that soldiers go unpaid, often lack tents or bedding, and must scavenge for fuel.

This last problem is part of the explanation for Jonathan's greatest failing: that he allowed Boko Haram to grow almost unchecked from a small, isolated and ineffective protest movement to grow almost unchecked into an insurgency that threatens the entire region and is plugged into the jihadi network of Islamic State (swearing its allegiance to Isis in March). After Jonathan declared a state of emergency in May 2013 the number of civilian deaths rose, according to the BBC. In 2014 Boko Haram controlled an area larger than Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands across three north-eastern Nigerian states and parts of adjoining countries, and had slaughtered at least 5,500 civilians and abducted at least 2,000 women and girls, according to Amnesty International. The cumulative total since 2011 had reached a ghastly 37,650, the Council on Foreign Relations said.

And yet here too there is room for cautious optimism. The combined forces of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Benin, with support from the US and France's 3,000-strong Sahel counter-insurgency force (until recently focused on Islamist militants in Mali and Chad) have begun to turn the tide of the Boko Haram insurgency. In May the fightback bore fruit with the rescue of hundreds of women and children held captive in a series of setbacks for the rebels as Nigerian troops assaulted Boko Haram's hideouts in the Sambisa forest, near the Cameroon border.

Washington was reluctant to get embroiled in more foreign firefighting but as Boko Haram's scorched-earth massacres pushed it to the top of the global jihadi league table by 2014, and the insurgency spilled over Nigeria's borders to threaten Cameroon, Chad and Niger, the US military rethought its regional strategy and three months ago decided it was 'ready to assist in whatever way [Nigeria] sees as being practical', according to Lt Gen Steven Hummer, of US Africa Command. This largely took the form of surveillance flights and sharing intelligence, and while Nigeria's ambassador appealed for more direct support it did mark a turning point in the fight against the jihadis. Similarly, in a development that Jonathan's government understandably kept quiet about, South African mercenaries were hired to add some bush warfare competence to the campaign.

But as the New York Times reported, Chadian troops have liberated towns with no Nigerian soldiers to be seen. A Cameroonian officer told the Guardian: 'I have no faith in Nigeria—neither the government nor the army. If things are calmer it's not because of what the Nigerian army has done but because the Chadian forces have absorbed the intensity of the fight.'

Colonel Jacob Kodji, Cameroon’s regional commander, said: 'We don't understand why the rest of the world hasn't helped us more. We need help from developed countries. You can see everything from your satellites, but we can't place a soldier every few metres along a 400​km-long border.'

And as Channel 4's Lindsay Hilsum points out, many villagers in the affected region are in an impossible bind: suspected of harbouring Boko Haram by the various military and punished for suspected collaboration with the authorities by the Islamists.

Buhari is the man to defeat Boko Haram, the journal Foreign Policy declared. But there is a long way to go yet before the many thousands of refugees in this region will sleep easily.


Peace talks restart

The election of the left-wing moderate Mustafa Akinci as the Turkish Cypriot prime minister in late April, and the fact that he was literally bearing an olive branch as his convincing victory over the conservative incumbent Derviş Eroğlu was announced, was seen as a positive step towards the eventual resumption of peace talks on the disputed island.

The on-off negotiations on reunifying the Mediterranean island, which has been divided since the Turkish army invaded in 1974 in response to a coup aimed at unifying the island with Greece, broke down last October amid some rancour, after a Turkish ship began prospecting for gas off the coast. Few observers could have expected that within days of Akinci being sworn in, and after a United Nations envoy brokered talks that convinced the Greek Cypriot leader, Nikos Anastasiades, to return to the table, peace talks would restart.

There are many good omens as discussions resume: Akıncı is an experienced politician—three times mayor of Nicosia's Turkish sector in the 1970s and a former deputy prime minister who also stood as a presidential candidate—and there seems a widespread readiness to finally hammer out a deal. He founded the Peace and Democracy Movement to promote the Annan plan for reunification leading to a federation and thence, as a united Cyprus, into the European Union, and for the analyst George Kyris, writing in the Guardian, the spontaneous celebrations of Akinci’s victory were 'reminiscent of that of 2004, when Turkish Cypriots rallied behind reunification and EU accession.'

Furthermore, as Yusuf Kanli, a columnist with Hürriyet, said: 'Most Turkish Cypriots have been fed up with Turkey's growing arrogance towards northern Cyprus, as well as being left out in the cold by the international community.' This tension spilled out in a row between Akinci and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, after the Cypriot politician told the Turkish president that the relationship between the territory and Ankara (still the only country to recognise it as a sovereign state and bolstering the self-declared republic militarily, economically and politically) was one of 'brothers and sisters' rather than 'motherland and child', as Erdoğan—and every Turkish leader before him—maintained).

Another hopeful sign was Turkey and Greece agreeing security measures to ease tensions in the Aegean Sea, where the two countries have long been in low-level conflict over territorial borders. The Nato allies went to the brink of war over the dispute as recently as the 1990s, Reuters reported. The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, and his Greek counterpart, Nikos Kotzias, both spoke of progress in the Cyprus talks. 'Turkey and Greece are giving their full support, the international community is giving its support. 2015 is a good opportunity, we do not want to miss this window,' Çavuşoğlu said.

Akinci proposes confidence-building measures to bring the Greek Cypriots onside, such as reopening the ghost town of Varosha in Famagusta, which has lain empty since 1974. 'Akinci is a rather different leader, and he is expected to focus on the role of society in reconciliation rather than on just the official negotiations,' said Kyris.

As the Hürriyet’s Kanli pointed out, there are many obstacles to overcome, not least how to manage the large gas fields discovered offshore, and the painful question of land and property seized or abandoned when the population divided along religious lines in the 1970s.

No wonder that Akıncı tried to play down expectations, warning: 'I am not a magician. I will work for a deal by the end of this year. But without Greeks committing themselves as well, no success is possible.' Nevertheless, it is the most promising moment for Cyprus in a long while.


Bringing Happiness Home

'There is a need to educate our young ones that violence generally is unacceptable as a means to resolve conflicts.' It is a worthy sentiment, even if this dictum came from Frank Bainimarama, prime minister and leader of two coups in the past 15 years. The former military commander was speaking to the Pacific Women's Parliamentary Partnership Forum on the subject of domestic violence. He went on, the Fiji Times reported, to declare 'zero-tolerance for domestic violence in Fiji, whether it is men beating women, women attacking men or even parents hitting their children.

'For too long, Fijian society, in common with other Pacific societies, has turned a blind eye to what goes on in the privacy of people's homes and even worse, we have tolerated and encouraged a culture in which spouses or parents are entitled to use violence to resolve disputes or bring supposedly errant family members into line.

The statistics are certainly grim. According to the Fiji Women's Crisis Centre, 'Fiji's rates of violence against women and girls are among the very highest in the world: 64% of women who have ever been in an intimate relationship have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a husband or intimate partner in their lifetime, and 24% are suffering from physical or sexual partner violence today.'

Nearly half of women have been punched, kicked, dragged, beaten up, choked, burned, threatened with a weapon or had a weapon used against them. Every day no less than 43 women are injured and one is disabled. Even more shocking is that 15% of women have been beaten during pregnancy.

And yet, despite this appalling catalogue of violence, there is the bewildering paradox that Fiji tops an annual global survey to find the happiest country. The most recent Win/Gallup poll found 93% of Fijians considered themselves very happy or happy, and 82% expected life to be more prosperous and peaceful than the previous year. Among women, a negligible 2% said they were unhappy or very unhappy.

Some explanation of how a vulnerable island nation that suffers more than its share of coups, social problems and natural disasters can still have such a resilient population was glimpsed in the uplifting response of Mary Rokonadravu to winning a regional heat for the Commonwealth short story prize for her work ‘Famished Eels’ (published along with the Africa region winner by Granta).

A communications manager for WWF-Pacific, the Fijian told the Guardian: 'I live and write in a fragile democracy. A small island country beset by issues of climate change and globalisation—I belong to peoples at the frontlines of loss and ultimate disappearance without having found a voice. It is not an easy space to inhabit. For too long, others have told our stories and that has always been painful to witness.

We do not have to leave our homelands in order to tell our stories. It is possible to dream, write and speak from the islands.'

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