I’ve been reading Mark Curtis’s powerful 2004 offering, Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses which exposes – often with the help of Foreign Office files only recently made publicly available – the direct and indirect complicity of British governments in the deaths of perhaps over 10 million people around the globe since 1945. From the back cover: ‘These are Unpeople – those whose lives are seen as expendable in the pursuit of Britain’s economic and political goals’. He presents a stack of evidence in support of a suspicion I’ve long harboured – namely that the mainstream political cultures, no matter what form they outwardly take and despite every protestation to the contrary, only exist in order to satisfy the grubbiest of economic motives. This is most in evidence when it comes to foreign policy and the vampiric exploitation of the post-colonial Third World; the secret face almost never revealed to the general public:
A July 1970 report entitled ‘Priorities in our foreign policy’ states that Britain needs ‘to act in support of our commercial and financial interests throughout the world’:
We must contribute within our economic capability to international stability and the protection of our interests in the rest of the world from which so many of our raw materials derive … We shall need to pay particular attention to the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Southern Africa.
The basic aim is to ensure that other countries establish economic climates favourable to British, and Western, companies. A Foreign Office report from 1968 recognises that the primary goal of foreign policy is to make Britain economically strong, meaning that ‘we should bend our energies to help produce a world economic climate in which our external trade, our income from invisibles and our balance of payments can prosper’. The key to this is ‘freer’ global trade and ‘increasing our efforts to open up new markets in Europe, Latin America and the Far East’. (p.123)
In my brief look at the history of the Tibet resistance movement (see below) I was puzzled by the question of why this one struggle (of many shamefully underreported struggles) had been singled out for so much attention in the liberal West over the years. Tibet demonstrators were in the news practically every day, much as the Burmese Buddhists were last summer, all of them getting much more favourable coverage than, say, the anti-war protests in 2003 or resistance movements in South America, Nigeria, Indonesia and in what’s left of deeply traumatised Palestine (ie: wherever Western interests were directly threatened).
Speaking of Nigeria, Curtis makes some interesting points comparing the intense focus on Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe (currently observable in the massive media bias toward Morgan Tsvangirai – a ‘western recruited stooge’ according to one commentator who frustratingly doesn’t elaborate on this position – and the MDC party) to the hypocritical silence on far worse offenders in the region:
Then there is Zimbabwe, a case regularly invoked as demonstrating New Labour’s commitment to human rights. That Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is a repressive authoritarian regime that thuggishly silences its opponents and has a horrendous human-rights record, is a statement of fact. But this human-rights record is no worse than many British allies and is in fact noticeably better than one other major African state, Nigeria, which enjoys close relations with London while Whitehall remains virtually silent on human-rights atrocities … The dozens of deaths at the hands of Mugabe’s security forces – grim enough, to be sure – compares to around 10,000 deaths in Nigeria since 1999, in many of which the Nigerian police and army are directly complicit.
On Zimbabwe, the media follows the policy of the state, as normal, and Mugabe is now a byword for violence – the subject of numerous articles and documentaries – while the public could be forgiven for never having heard of Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo.
Without access to the planning files we cannot be sure precisely why Britain stepped up pressure [against Zimbabwe] in spring 2000. Two factors, however, cannot be ignored: the breakdown of talks between Zimbabwe and the IMF in late 1999; and the introduction of Mugabe’s ‘fast track’ strategy of seizing white-owned farms in February/March 2000. (pp.116-8 )
Seumas Milne picks up on some similar points in this recent Guardian comment piece:
In the violence surrounding Zimbabwe’s elections, two people are currently reported to have died; in Tibet, numbers estimated to have been killed by protesters and Chinese forces range from 22 to 140. By contrast, in Somalia, where US-backed Ethiopian and Somali troops are fighting forces loyal to the ousted government, several thousand have been killed since the beginning of the year and half the population of the capital, Mogadishu, has been forced to flee the city in what UN officials describe as Africa’s worst humanitarian crisis.
When it comes to rigging elections, countries like Jordan and Egypt have been happy to oblige in recent months – in the Egyptian case, jailing hundreds of opposition activists into the bargain – and almost nobody in the west has batted an eyelid. In Saudi Arabia there are no national elections at all, let alone the opposition MPs and newspapers that exist in Zimbabwe. In Africa, Togo has been a more flagrant rigger, while in Cameroon last week the president was given the job for life. And when it comes to separatist and independence movements, the Turkish Kurds have faced far more violence and a tighter cultural clampdown than the Tibetans.
The crucial difference, of course, and the reason why these conflicts and violations don’t get the deluxe media and political treatment offered to the Zimbabwean opposition or Tibetan separatists is that the governments involved are all backed by the west, compounded in the Zimbabwean case by a transparently racist agenda.
Naturally there’s no mainstream discussion about the historical roots which grew to bear the fruit of these conflicts we lament, especially where the legacy of our own colonial imperialism – continuing in various guises to the present day – could be shown to bear a significant portion of responsibility. Milne continues:
That’s most obviously true in Zimbabwe, which was not just a British colony, but where Britain refused to act against a white racist coup, triggering a bloody 15-year liberation war, and then imposed racial parliamentary quotas and a 10-year moratorium on land reform at independence. The subsequent failure by Britain and the US to finance land buyouts as expected, along with the impact of IMF programmes, laid the ground for the current impasse.
Like they say :
Even if the media doesn’t control what you think, it can still control what you think about.
Back on the initial covert military support of the Tibetan nationalists by the CIA, and the more overt continued financial backing from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) I concluded:
Something fishy here… Perhaps it’s a similar situation to Afghanistan under the Soviet occupation and the arming & training of the Mujahideen (again by the CIA, with help from MI6 in case you were thinking it was just those pesky Americans). Tibet, like Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia, Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala ….. is after all a country rich in mineral and natural resources.
In other words, we funded them as a cheap proxy thorn-in-the-side of our imperial rivals and hung them out to dry as soon as this stopped being useful in furthering our broader economic aims. In Burma and Tibet there is still an interest in wresting the lucrative spoils from the sphere of Chinese dominance and perhaps contracting out further ‘development’ of these prizes to Western corporations and letting the IMF implement one of its wonderful programmes of ‘structural adjustment’. And in Zimbabwe? Speak of the Devil:
A related threat posed by the Mugabe regime is its refusal to implement the orders of the Washington-based institutions, the IMF and the World Bank. Zimbabwe’s adoption of a Structural Adjustment Programme in 1991 led to rises in inflation and the contraction of manufacturing and employment. [Wossat – it’s not all Mugabe’s fault that his economy is in tatters?!? – ed.] By 1997 Zimbabwe was in the throes of a serious economic crisis. The IMF demanded further cutbacks in government spending as a well as an end to Zimbabwe’s intervention in the DRC, which was costing £1 million a day. When Zimbabwe refused, the IMF cut off aid. (Curtis, p.120)
And hence there is suddenly room on the nightly news for reporting critical of state government and supportive of dissident separatists and pro-democracy activists. It’s a funny old world…
Here’s Curtis again on a rather less noble resistance movement that enjoyed Anglo-American support in 1950s Indonesia where the powers-that-be ‘had long wanted to remove President Sukarno [whose] nationalist domestic policies and a foreign policy of non-alignment were a direct threat to Washington’:
In late 1957 dissident colonels in the Indonesian army were leading a challenge to Jakarta’s rule in the outlying provinces. By the end of the year Jakarta’s authority did not spread much beyond the island of Java and the north-eastern area of Sumatra; elsewhere, local commanders were in practice operating their provinces independently. In January 1958 a rebellion against the central government broke out in Sumatra and Celebes. The causes were described by the British ambassador in Indonesia as the desire to end the Indonesian government’s inefficient economic policy and a demand for more self-government for the richer provinces [hmm, so not exactly a popular uprising against tyranny then – ed.]. He also noted that ‘anti-communism’ has been included in the aims of the rebels and ‘in order to attract Western support, it has been made to appear one of the main purposes of the rebellion’.
On 15 February, the rebels proclaimed a Republic of Indonesia in the city of Padang; following which the Jakarta government began military operations to crush the rebellion. By June the government had almost succeeded: Padang had been recaptured and the dissidents, although still in control of large areas of Sumatra, were forced to resort to guerrilla warfare. Their rebellion finally petered out and they surrendered in 1961.
The US and Britain covertly supported this rebellion in its early phase, perhaps hoping to see Sukarno overthrown, or at least for what Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd understood as the rebels’ ‘nuisance value’ [compare ex-CIA man, Sam Halpern’s ‘nuisance operation’ description from the Shadow Circus film below – ed.]. This meant using the rebellion to press the Jakarta government to adopt policies of London’s and Washington’s pleasing. When their clients outlived their usefulness – which the rebels did as soon as Jakarta had won the main war – London and Washington dropped them and re-engaged with Jakarta. (pp.191-2)
It seems clear to me that any alignment between Western governments (or for that matter, any government or interested party powerful enough to reach mafia don status on the world stage) and the human spirit struggling to loosen its chains is a transitory, coincidental arrangement fraught with ruinous bargains and hobbling compromises. After a time you’d think this ought to indicate to all involved a basic incompatibility between the two collective urges.
‘Be careful what friends you make’ indeed…
[::toot toot:: = sound of me blowing my own horn]