Vinoth Ramachandra

The Lives of Others

Posted on: May 8, 2009

‘It’s just so unreal when you  hear it here, in a peaceful and free country’.

So wrote a Swiss student, on hearing of the intimidation, extortions, arbitrary arrests and assassinations that have become Sri Lanka’s political culture in recent years. It is hard for European youth like her to recall that Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal, not to mention the horrors of the Soviet Union, are not exactly ancient history. And it is the only encouragement that we in countries like Sri Lanka derive- looking at how other nations have recovered from their own seemingly unending nightmares.

It is hard for the law-abiding, peace-loving Swiss citizens who walk the streets of Zurich and Berne to admit that beneath their feet lies the wealth of many poor nations. Swiss banking anonymity and offshore tax havens (several of which are British protectorates) encourage tax evasion, corruption and money laundering on a massive scale. It is impossible to tackle political gangsterism in poor countries when the global banking system aids the embezzlement of public funds and theft of public assets. It is only after the loss of tax revenue in EU countries and the recent subprime disaster that pressure has been exerted by Western governments on Lichtenstein, Swiss banks and other institutions to relax their secrecy rules. It is only when the rich suffer that change is likely to happen.

Furthermore, several of the most protracted conflicts in recent years have their roots in British imperial policy- for example, Palestine, Iraq, Kashmir, Nagaland, Myanmar, Zimbabwe. History continues to dominate the present. The genocide in Rwanda in 1994 was not a repetition of ancient tribal rivalries, but a direct consequence of German ‘race science’ and Belgian colonial practices. Most of Africa’s fifty-three nation-states trace their borders to an 1884 conference in Berlin where European powers carved up virtually the entire continent among themselves.

Who can understand Middle Eastern politics today without knowing the manipulative policies of the British and the French during and after the collapse of the Ottoman empire? British administrators sculpted the modern state of Iraq, drawing its boundaries in such a manner that all its huge oil reserves would belong to them and not the Turks, and denying the local puppet regime that they installed in Baghdad access to the sea by creating a buffer state called Kuwait. Every attempt since the early 1960s by the Iraqis and Iranians to nationalize their oil supplies and become democracies was met with force by the British and Americans in defence of their oil companies.

The manufacture and trade in small arms is another way European nations are complicit in civil conflicts and organized crime in other parts of the world. Companies in Belgium and Sweden, two ‘peaceful and free countries’, are among the biggest global dealers in small arms.

An independent panel of experts reported to the UN Security Council in October 2002 of how 85 transnational companies based in Europe, the United States and South Africa (including household names such as Barclays bank, De Beers and Anglo-American) had transgressed ethical guidelines in dealing with criminal networks that have pillaged natural resources from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A scramble for gold, diamonds, cobalt and copper by army officers, government officials and entrepreneurs from the Congo and neighbouring countries generated billions of dollars that found their way to mining companies and financial institutions. So lucrative was the plunder that there were attempts to prolong the fighting by stirring conflict between rival militias and rebels.

Consider Papua, the lush, mineral-rich province of eastern Indonesia, known formerly as Dutch New Guinea. The US government in 1962 compelled the Netherlands to transfer administrative control of the region to the Indonesian government, despite widespread opposition from native peoples. The latter are mostly animist or Christian, not Muslim. The US cemented its alliance with the despotic Suharto regime against the ‘communist threat’ in South-East Asia and won lucrative mining concessions for its companies. Today US and Australian mining companies work hand-in-glove with the central Indonesian government in plundering this province, the largest in Indonesia, of its riches and robbing the local population of their natural heritage. It remains one of the least economically developed regions of the country. A low-level insurgency has been brutally suppressed with many violations of human rights. But who in either Australia or the US cares what their companies do overseas, or the plight of the local Papuan Christians?

1 Response to "The Lives of Others"

Dr. Vinoth,
Thank you again for your prophetic and piercing writing. I am often get so discouraged and overwhelmed by these kinds situations that going into a existential numbness seems to be an attractive option. How long and how many times can someone write emails to Amnesty, stand outside parliament with a sign ‘Stop the killing of Tamils’ or stand outside the Zimbabwean embassy and pray? I know theologically that God has not abandoned this world to the choices and schemes of evil men. But where are the signs of hope? Encountering the anguish of God for his world is very costly….

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May 2009
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