Inter Press ServicePascal Laureyn – Inter Press Service http://www.ipsnews.net News and Views from the Global South Fri, 23 Feb 2018 07:19:50 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8.5 Internet Freedom Rapidly Degrading in Southeast Asiahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2018/02/internet-freedom-rapidly-degrading-southeast-asia/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=internet-freedom-rapidly-degrading-southeast-asia http://www.ipsnews.net/2018/02/internet-freedom-rapidly-degrading-southeast-asia/#respond Thu, 15 Feb 2018 13:46:15 +0000 Pascal Laureyn http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=154339 Researchers recently evaluated 65 countries which represent 87 percent of internet users globally. Half of them experienced a decline of internet freedom. China, Syria and Ethiopia are the least free. Estonia, Iceland and Canada enjoy the most freedom online. The most remarkable evolution comes from Southeast Asia. A few years ago, this was a promising […]

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Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Line, WhatsApp and WeChat are the most popular social media sites in Southeast Asia, but their power to spread free speech is declining. Credit: ITU/R.Farrell

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Line, WhatsApp and WeChat are the most popular social media sites in Southeast Asia, but their power to spread free speech is declining. Credit: ITU/R.Farrell

By Pascal Laureyn
PHNOM PENH, Feb 15 2018 (IPS)

Researchers recently evaluated 65 countries which represent 87 percent of internet users globally. Half of them experienced a decline of internet freedom. China, Syria and Ethiopia are the least free. Estonia, Iceland and Canada enjoy the most freedom online.

The most remarkable evolution comes from Southeast Asia. A few years ago, this was a promising region. The economy was growing, democracy was on the rise. Malaysia had free elections, Indonesia started an anti-corruption campaign and the social rights of Cambodian garment workers were improving."A few years ago, social media were safe havens for activists. But today these media companies are too cooperative with the autocratic regimes." --Ed Legaspi of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance

“Internet helped these movements grow,” says Madeline Earp, Asia research analyst with Freedom House. “All kinds of organisations and media started using internet more and more. That was hopeful.”

Today, democratisation has faltered. A military coup in Thailand and the dissolution of an opposition party in Cambodia are just two examples of autocratic governments resisting change.

Censorship, arrests and violence

According to the report, seven of the eight Southeast Asian countries researched have become less free in the last year.

“Censorship is on the rise and internet freedom is declining,” Earp says. “Myanmar and Cambodia were the biggest disappointments.”

Recently, journalists were arrested in Myanmar. Fake news spreads hate speech and incites violence against Muslims. Today, Myanmar has more journalists in prison then in the last years of the military regime.

In Cambodia, an independent newspaper was shut down. Activists who denounce illegal activities of companies are being arrested. In Thailan,d the strict lese-majeste law is used to silence opponents. The Philippines has a growing number of ‘opinion shapers’ to push pro-government propaganda.

The only country that has improved its score is Malaysia. But Freedom House says that is mostly because of increasing internet use. Repression is not keeping up with the rapid growth. This shows that Malaysia is following a trend in Southeast Asia. The restriction on freedom of speech starts when internet use goes up.

“The Malaysian government has censored news websites. At least one Malaysian has been sentenced for a post on Facebook,” Earp adds.

The Chinese example

Part of the cause is to be found in China. The influential country has the world’s least free internet for three years, according to the Freedom House report. It uses a sophisticated surveillance system, known as the ‘Great Firewall’. An army of supervisors check on the internet use of the Chinese, from messaging apps to traffic cameras.

Undesirable messages are being deleted by Chinese censors. Sometimes that can lead to absurd situations. A newly discovered beetle was named after President Xi Jinping. But messages about this event were deleted because the predatory nature of the beetle could be insulting to the leader.

These practices play an important role in the decline of democracy in Southeast Asia. “Vietnam is copying the techniques of China,” says researcher Madeline Earp. “More bloggers and activists are being arrested because of their social media use.”

Fake news

Not only censorship is an issue. In Southeast Asia, fake news is being used to eliminate opponents or to manipulate public opinion. This is what Ed Legaspi, director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, explains in The Bulletin.

“Worryingly, many governments have taken advantage of existing mechanisms in social media to spread rumours and combat critical voices,” says Legaspi. “Thailand’s lese majeste law, Malaysian’s sedition act and Indonesia’s blasphemy law have all been used to curtail online speech.”

In Myanmar, inflammatory and racist language against Muslims provokes violent outbreaks regularly. Fake news sites spread rumours about a Buddhist woman who supposedly was raped by a Muslim. This contributed to the violence towards the Rohingya, a Muslim minority. And it helps the army to get support from a large part of the public.

The role of social media cannot be underestimated. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Line, WhatsApp and WeChat are the most popular in Southeast Asia, but their initial power to spread free speech is declining.

“A few years ago, social media were safe havens for activists. But today these media companies are too cooperative with the autocratic regimes,” says Legaspi. “They do nothing to protect their users.”

Manipulated elections

Various countries are organising elections this year. How these governments will deal with these moments of tension will determine the evolution of internet freedom.

Cambodia has elections with no opposition, Malaysia’s polls are heavily manipulated. Not much positive news is expected there. In Indonesia, the regional elections in June will be the first test since a fake news campaign against Jakarta’s once popular governor, Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama. He was convicted of blasphemy and jailed.

The growing knowhow of those in power is being used to improve their fortunes when elections come. Some of them already control internet use and silence activists, a sad evolution in a region that only recently seemed to be making progress.

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Caught Between Two Countrieshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2018/01/caught-two-countries/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=caught-two-countries http://www.ipsnews.net/2018/01/caught-two-countries/#respond Thu, 18 Jan 2018 00:01:36 +0000 Pascal Laureyn http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=153915 Three friends are relaxing in a quiet courtyard. They speak English with a strong American accent and talk about their disadvantaged neighborhoods. Their tattoos depict a rough life on the street. One of them calls Massachusetts home, while the others grew up in Georgia. But home is far away, on the other side of the […]

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Chhean was four years old when he moved to the U.S. His impoverished and traumatised parents ended up in the margins of society. "Life was hard. We were a minority in a minority.”

Chhean was four years old when he moved to the U.S. His impoverished and traumatised parents ended up in the margins of society. "Life was hard. We were a minority in a minority.”

By Pascal Laureyn
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, Jan 18 2018 (IPS)

Three friends are relaxing in a quiet courtyard. They speak English with a strong American accent and talk about their disadvantaged neighborhoods. Their tattoos depict a rough life on the street. One of them calls Massachusetts home, while the others grew up in Georgia.

But home is far away, on the other side of the world. They have been living in Cambodia for a number of years, against their will. They were deported by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to their country of origin, one completely unknown to them. Most have no or little knowledge of the Cambodian language, Khmer."Officially I'm Cambodian, but I don't feel that way. My home country is the U.S. but they don't want me there anymore." --Jock, 49

These American Cambodians belong to a group of more than 500 ‘deportees’ who have been sent back since 2002. They have lived the biggest part of their lives in the U.S. Their parents fled in the eighties, when Cambodia was torn apart by the genocidal Khmer Rouge and the following civil war. Between 1975 (start of the Khmer Rouge) and 1994 (end of the civil war) 158,000 Cambodians were allowed into the U.S.

“I was born in Thailand, in a refugee camp. Before I was deported, I had never visited Cambodia,” explains Chhean* (35). “I didn’t know nothing of this country. I didn’t speak Khmer. I grew in America, I am an American.”

Chhean was four years old when he moved to the U.S. His impoverished and traumatised parents ended up on the margins of society. “Life was hard. We were a minority in a minority. It was a tough time trying to survive, there was a lot of violence. I had to protect myself. That’s how I ended up in a gang.”

“I made bad choices. I was a threat to society. I can’t make no excuses, I can only blame myself.” After Chhean finished his time in prison, he was deported by ICE.

Five Years for a Fistfight

Legal residents in the U.S. who have no citizenship and get convicted for a crime can be sent back to their country of origin. No appeal is possible. The nature of the crime is not taken into account. “Immigration came to my home to detain me,” remembers Jock* (49). “I once got a conviction for a fistfight at school. I was 18. Twenty years later I get deported for a fistfight.”

Jock recounts what happened to him with disbelief. “I have spent five years in a cell, they thought I was an escape risk. Five years! For a fistfight 20 years ago! For years I have been begging them: ‘Please deport me’.” His friend Chhean was also incarcerated before his flight to Cambodia, but ‘only’ for two years.

Jock has been living in Cambodia for six years. He didn’t know the country at all. “I cried a long time when I arrived here. I thought my life was over. Someone who robs a bank is released after 15 years in prison and can start over again. I can’t.”

The deported Cambodians have trouble finding work. This country has a high rate of unemployment. They speak the local language badly and lack the necessary skills. Cambodia has an agrarian economy, but they are city boys. They are also met with distrust. They dress and behave differently. In Cambodian culture, their tattoos are considered signs of serious crimes.

“I worked the first six years in the rice fields. That is simple but hard work. I couldn’t find anything else,” says a deported Cambodian who wishes to stay anonymous. Last year, he acquired a certificate to teach English. He works in a classroom now.

“In the U.S. I worked in construction, but here it makes very little money. So I became a farmer,” explains Jock. “When I’m picking mangos, I can stop thinking.”

Chhean has familiar problems. “When I arrived here, I suffered from panic attacks. And even now I’m not adapted yet. Officially I’m Cambodian, but I don’t feel that way. My home country is the U.S. but they don’t want me there anymore. Now, Cambodia is my ‘land of opportunity’. I have to make the best of it. But I don’t plan big things for my life anymore.”

Lasting Trauma

The U.S. government wants Cambodia to take back more of its ‘lost’ children. That is required by international law when Cambodians are deported. But the government in Phnom Penh is hesitant. These citizens have no sense of the culture and can never really integrate into society. Some have serious mental illnesses, says Jock.

“I know a mental ‘deportee’ in my neighborhood. He walks all day in the middle of the street. He doesn’t realize where he is, he thinks he is still in the U.S. They shouldn’t bring those people here.”

The families that found a new home in the U.S. in the eighties brought few belongings but many war traumas. “My parents survived famine and mass murder,” says the teacher. “They don’t talk about it much. They try to forget.”

Research by the Leitner Center in New York showed that 62 percent of Cambodian refugees in California suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Fifty-two percent had severe depression. Many were in a state of shock and not able to take care of themselves or their children. They ended up in poor neighborhoods where crime was the norm.

For these specific circumstances, psychiatrists and lawyers say that refugees from Cambodia deserve special treatment. But President Donald Trump wants to increase the deportations. Some 1,900 are eligible for deportation, says ICE. In the “Kingdom of Wonder” – as Cambodians call their country – many refugees who return are confronted with alcohol and drug abuse. Many suffer from depression, and at least six deported Cambodians have committed suicide.

“I miss my three children (24, 18 and 13),” says Jock. “I call them once a week. I don’t tell them how I’m doing here. I don’t want them to worry.”

The teacher has a child in the U.S. as well. “I talk to her with Messenger. I can’t do much more. I can miss her as much as I like, it will not change a thing.”

Once deported, there is no way back. They can never visit the country where they grew up ever again. “Hell yeah! I would go back immediately if I could. Not tomorrow but today,” shouts Chhean jokingly.

His friend Jock has another view. “Once you have a criminal record in the U.S. they will never leave you in peace. I don’t want to go back. Period.”

*Last names omitted to protect the sources’ privacy.

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Philippines Most Dangerous Country in Southeast Asia for Journalistshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2018/01/philippines-dangerous-country-southeast-asia-journalists/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=philippines-dangerous-country-southeast-asia-journalists http://www.ipsnews.net/2018/01/philippines-dangerous-country-southeast-asia-journalists/#respond Wed, 10 Jan 2018 22:05:14 +0000 Pascal Laureyn http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=153815 It’s not just suspected drug users and dealers at risk of targeted killing in the Philippines. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) reported last week that the Philippines is the most dangerous country in Southeast Asia for journalists. Globally, the island nation came sixth on the list of most murderous countries. Joaquin Brinoes, Rudy Alicaway, […]

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A police commando stands guard as forensics investigators unearth the victims of the Ampatuan massacre. Credit: InterAksyon file photo

A police commando stands guard as forensics investigators unearth the victims of the Ampatuan massacre. Credit: InterAksyon file photo

By Pascal Laureyn
MANILA, Jan 10 2018 (IPS)

It’s not just suspected drug users and dealers at risk of targeted killing in the Philippines. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) reported last week that the Philippines is the most dangerous country in Southeast Asia for journalists. Globally, the island nation came sixth on the list of most murderous countries.

Joaquin Brinoes, Rudy Alicaway, Leodoro Diaz and Crisenciano Ibon Lozada. These are new names to be added to a tragic roster of killed journalists. In August, a gunman shot columnist Crisenciano Ibon in the back and seriously wounded his driver. The police speculate the attack may have been in retaliation for his columns criticizing illegal gambling. He had received many death threats.

Broadcaster Rudy Alicaway and columnist Leodoro Diaz were attacked within two days time. They were both riding motorcycles when gunmen came up behind and shot them dead. Their murders are likely linked to their reports on political corruption, underground gambling and the drug trade. Journalist Joaquin Briones was killed the same way. He was known for his hard-hitting radio program.

There is a fifth killing, not included in the statistics of IFJ. In August, Michael Marasigan, a respected former newspaper editor, was shot dead in a Manila suburb. Rodrigo Duterte’s administration says it is doing all it can to apprehend those responsible. But so far, no arrests have been made.

President Duterte is a vocal critic of the press. Even before he took office, as president-elect, he sent a chilling message to the press corps: “Just because you’re a journalist, you’re not exempted from assassination if you are a son of a bitch,” he said at a press conference. “Free speech won’t save you, my dear.”

Need for independent reporting

The numbers of journalists being killed are dropping in recent years. But there is no room for complacency, says IFJ. Only a year ago, the Philippines was reported to be the second most dangerous country for journalists in the past 25 years. Only Iraq had more deaths. And in the Philippines, the IFJ warned, unprecedented numbers of journalists were jailed or forced to flee, self-censorship was widespread and impunity for the killings, harassment, attacks and threats against independent journalism was running at epidemic levels.

In September, Edito Mapayo, the editor-in-chief of Diaryo Balita, a local newspaper on the Mindanao island, was choked and punched by Surigao del Norte Vice Mayor Francisco Matugas Gonzales. And in August, a government official filed a libel case against ABS-CBN’s broadcast journalist Ted Failon and three members of his staff. They were looking into the “allegedly irregular purchase of secondhand motorcycles for Pope Francis’ visit to Manila in 2014”.

The country is in great need of independent journalists to report on human rights abuses, like the continuing war on drugs and the extended martial law in Mindanao. According to Human Rights Watch, the war on drugs has claimed 12,000 lives since president Rodrigo Duterte decided to purify his people from the evil of cheap drugs. Critics say he doesn’t let the law get in the way of his mission.

Last month, Congress approved Duterte’s request to extend martial law on the southern island of Mindanao until Dec. 31, 2018. UN special rapporteurs Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and Cecilia Jimenez-Damary released a statement on Jan. 3 saying  that the Lumads, the non-Muslim indigenous people living on Mindanao, are suffering from the island’s ongoing militarisation.

“Thousands of Lumads have already been forcibly displaced by the conflict and have seen their houses and livelihoods destroyed,” the experts said in their statement. There were also reports indicating that military forces had killed local farmers in early December.

The restive island of Mindanao is also the location of the single deadliest event for journalists in history. The Maguindanao massacre is named after the town where mass graves where found in November 2009. A convoy was on route to file a candidacy for local elections when it was attacked. Fifty-eight people were killed, including at least 34 journalists.

‘End impunity’

“We welcome the reduction for the third year in a row in the loss of life suffered by journalists and media staff during 2017,” says IFJ President Philippe Leruth. “While this represents a downward trend, the levels of violence in journalism remain unacceptably high. We find it most disturbing that governments refuse to tackle the impunity for these crimes targeting journalists. Instead, the patterns don’t change in the most violent countries.”

While Mexico and India are extremely dangerous places for journalists, no region was spared the scourge of violence, including Western democracies. Investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia of Malta paid for her pursuit of the truth with her life. She was killed by a car bomb after she reported on government corruption, nepotism, patronage and allegations of money laundering.

“There is a safety crisis in journalism,” added IFJ General Secretary Anthony Bellanger. “There is a desperate need for a new instrument that finally would make it possible to implement a numerous of existing resolutions on media protection. We urge the adoption of this new convention to sustain other ongoing efforts to further promote the safety of journalists.”

In anticipation of such a guarantee for the safety of journalists, a few brave Philippinos are working hard to maintain an independent press.

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Nowhere to Hide from Climate Changehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2018/01/nowhere-hide-climate-change/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=nowhere-hide-climate-change http://www.ipsnews.net/2018/01/nowhere-hide-climate-change/#comments Tue, 02 Jan 2018 13:40:24 +0000 Pascal Laureyn http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=153697 This article is part of a series about the activists and communities of the Pacific and small island states who are responding to the effects of climate change. Leaders from climate and social justice movements from around the world met in Suva, Fiji from 4-8 December for International Civil Society Week.

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A semi-submerged graveyard on Togoru, Fiji. The island states in the South Pacific are most vulnerable to sea level rise and extreme weather. Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

A semi-submerged graveyard on Togoru, Fiji. The island states in the South Pacific are most vulnerable to sea level rise and extreme weather. Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

By Pascal Laureyn
TOGORU, Fiji, Jan 2 2018 (IPS)

The water is nibbling away the beaches of Fiji. Not even the dead are allowed peace of mind. The graveyard of Togoru – a village on the largest island of Fiji – has been submerged. The waves are sloshing softly against the tilted tombstones covered with barnacles. The names have become illegible, erased by the sea.

“Bula!” The Fijian greeting comes with surprise – no visitor ever comes this way. The village headman of Togoru was easy to find since only three houses are left of the village. On the beach, James Dunn (72) points to the drowned dead. “The village was even further behind the graveyard. In 20 years’ time, the sea has moved in a few hundred meters. The house where I was born is gone.” The patriarch remembers the graveyard being covered by the shade of the palm trees."Togoru will disappear soon. And our history with it." --James Dunn

Today, the trees are rotting in the surf. The soil around the roots is being washed away, until they fall over. Tree by tree, the sea moves deeper inland. The fields have become unusable for agriculture due to salination. The remaining village often gets flooded at high tide. “The waves knock on my door,” Dunn says.

The ancestors of James Dunn are buried here, but he can’t visit their graves anymore. His great-great-grandfather came all the way from Ireland to build this village. That explains his extraordinary name for a Fijian. Five generations later, James is probably the last headman of a village on the frontline against climate change.

Move or drown

Fiji and other South Pacific states are extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels. Most islands are low and remote, poor and insignificant. In the West, almost nobody cares. But the water has risen 25 centimeters on average since 1880, enough to wipe Togoru off the map. The village has already disappeared from Google Maps.

“The sea is stealing our land,” says Dunn. “The beaches where I used to play as a child are in the water. We had horse races. That’s impossible now.” Togoru has built five sea walls in the past 25 years. None could cope the force of the advancing waters.

If global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees, the sea level will still be another 50 centimeters higher. But even this most optimistic prediction spells doom for thousands of communities in vulnerable coastal areas.

From the beach of Togoru, the Fijian capital Suva is visible. “The prime minister came here to visit. He said we have to say farewell to our village. Luckily, he isn’t abandoning us,” Dunn says.

The government of Fiji recently published a list of 60 villages that need relocation. For a country with barely a million inhabitants, that’s a lot.

Anne Dunn, James’s niece, has also lost her roots in Togoru. “Climate change to me means that we couldn’t bury my father and my uncle at our traditional burial grounds,” she says emotionally. The young woman was crowned Miss Fiji and Miss Pacific Islands in 2016. Now she uses her voice in the battle against climate change. “It affects our identity. We are islanders, our unique way of living is being threatened.”

The activist from Togoru was a guest speaker at the climate summit COP23 in Bonn (Germany), presided by Fiji. The small island state has taken up an outsized role at the conferences on climate change of the United Nations. It speaks with a loud voice to get attention. The micro-state on the isolated archipelago doesn’t have the means to battle the advancing sea. Any help from outside is welcome. ‘Vinaka’, thank you.

Monthly, more than 80,000 tourists come to the white beaches and colorful coral reefs. But the resorts regularly have to level up their beaches. Sugar is the second pillar of the Fijian economy under threat. A growing number of sugar cane fields are being destroyed by salination.

Extreme weather

Fiji is responsible for only 0.01 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. But it is being beaten relentlessly by the climate storm. “When it was all over, everything was flat. I could see for miles.” Malela Dakui (53), the village headman of Rakiraki, who witnessed another phenomenon of climate change: extreme weather.

On Feb. 20, 2016, Dakui hid under his table while wind gusts as strong as 325 kilometers an hour howled outside. Cyclone Winston blew away his roof, and his walls a few minutes later. The eye of the storm passed right over Rakiraki. The coastal village had experienced cyclones before, but never one with the force of Winston. Miraculously, nobody got hurt in Rakiraki, but elsewhere 44 people lost their lives.

Winston was the most powerful cyclone ever to be observed in the southern hemisphere. It was also the most costly, at 1.4 billion dollars, a third of Fijian GDP. Two years later, Rakiraki has not been completely rebuilt yet. The village looks like an outdoor construction fair. Between the destroyed houses there are many construction sites. Building materials and tools are everywhere. Since Winston, nobody wants to live in ramshackle huts anymore. But solid houses are expensive.

“Bula!” Everywhere he goes, the playful village headman is greeted heartily. He knows Rakiraki inside out. “Long before Winston, we sensed that the weather was changing,” Dakui explains. Climate change applies to his plate. “We have less fish because the coral reefs are dying. It has become too hot for taro, a popular vegetable. The farmers switched to cassava and sweet potatoes, but it doesn’t pay as well.”

The consequences of climate change on the weather are undeniable, the village headman thinks. “The weather patterns are changing rapidly. The rainy season used to start every year on the same day. Now the seasons are broken.” Since his house was blown away, Dakui knows more extreme weather is coming. Nevertheless, he is lucky. Rakiraki is slowly being rebuilt. Other villages are lost forever.

A lost history

Climate refugees are not a new phenomenon in Fiji and Tukuraki is the unwanted champion of relocation. This village in the volcanic mountains of the Fijian interior had to move three times in five years. In 2012, Tukuraki got hit by a landslide after extremely long rains. Ten months later the temporary shelters were destroyed by cyclone Evan. The third village was wiped away by Winston. The unfortunate homeless villagers moved to a cave for a while.

“For Fijians, land is the most important thing. It binds us. When we lost our land, we felt vulnerable and helpless,” says Livai Kidiromo, one of the village elders. The fourth Tukuraki is now his final home. The new and disaster resistant village was built with the financial support of the European Union. The modern dwellings can resist a category 5 cyclone, but offer no protection for the loss of their traditional way of living.

“Bula!” Apparently no other foreigner ever defied the difficult road to remote Tukuraki. That adventure is rewarded with a traditional welcoming ceremony and lots of kava. Men chew the root of the kava plant and spit the mush in a bowl with water. The brownish drink is lightly intoxicating. The chewers explain that the price of kava has doubled since Winston destroyed the fields. The production hasn’t recovered yet.

The new village is located on a plateau in the midst of an enchanting landscape. On the mountainside, the remains of the original village are visible from the new site. The jungle has retaken most of it. Only the church is intact.

“This village is much more comfortable than the old one. But we had to leave our past. That’s painful,” says Josivini Vesidrau, the young wife of the village headman, Simione Deru. He misses his birthplace. “I never go there anymore. I have to cry when I think of it.”

Climate refugees are a reality not just for Fiji. Samoa, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and many other neighboring islands are under threat. Kiribati is trying to prepare for its own demise, predicted for 2050. The government has bought 2,500 hectares of land in Fiji to relocate some of the 105,000 inhabitants when the last bits of dirt will be covered by water.

While the temperature rises and the storms strengthen, coastal residents have to choose: leave or fight. James, the Irish-Fijian headman of Togo, has another look at the turquoise water and the remains of his family graves. His cousin is cleaning up the garden for the Christmas party, maybe the last one. “Togoru will disappear soon. And our history with it,” says James. He doesn’t know yet where to go. “Fleeing is not an option. Fiji is not big, you can’t keep on moving.”

The post Nowhere to Hide from Climate Change appeared first on Inter Press Service.

Excerpt:

This article is part of a series about the activists and communities of the Pacific and small island states who are responding to the effects of climate change. Leaders from climate and social justice movements from around the world met in Suva, Fiji from 4-8 December for International Civil Society Week.

The post Nowhere to Hide from Climate Change appeared first on Inter Press Service.

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“Only Our Youth Can Save the Planet” – Kumi Naidoohttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/12/youth-can-save-planet-kumi-naidoo/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=youth-can-save-planet-kumi-naidoo http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/12/youth-can-save-planet-kumi-naidoo/#respond Wed, 20 Dec 2017 16:44:46 +0000 Pascal Laureyn http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=153638 “Today’s youth should think of new solutions for old problems like climate change and social injustice.” That’s the strong message of the South African activist Kumi Naidoo. The former executive director of Greenpeace says young people need to be more innovative and visionary, “because the solutions of my generation have failed.” After battling apartheid in […]

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Kumi Naidoo

By Pascal Laureyn
SUVA, Fiji, Dec 20 2017 (IPS)

“Today’s youth should think of new solutions for old problems like climate change and social injustice.”

That’s the strong message of the South African activist Kumi Naidoo. The former executive director of Greenpeace says young people need to be more innovative and visionary, “because the solutions of my generation have failed.”

After battling apartheid in South Africa, Kumi Naidoo led numerous global campaigns to protect
human rights.

Among other organizations, he headed CIVICUS, an alliance for citizen participation. It was at the International Civil Society Week (ICSW), organized by CIVICUS in Fiji in December, that Naidoo spoke out on youth and innovation.

“My advise for young people is: don’t put any faith in the current leaders. They are the biggest bunch of losers you are going to find. Because they are unwilling to accept that they have got us into this mess,” says Naidoo.

“Basically, we are using old solutions that have never worked in the past anyway,” Naidoo contin-ues.

Albert Einstein said: ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting to get different results.’ If humanity continues to do what we always did, we will get what always got: inequality, unsustainability and environmental destruction.”

How can young people steer the planet away from insanity?

“The most valuable role that they can play, is bringing fresh lenses to old problems. And not to be scared to be called romantic, unrealistic or idealistic. The so called realistic solutions to today’s
problems are ineffective.”

“In terms of innovation, I really think that the best solutions in the world – even on a small scale – are coming from young people. For example: Four years ago, a group of young schoolgirls in Zambia designed a generator that could run for five hours on one liter of human urine.”

Can local innovation change the whole world?

“We are obsessed with big infrastructure. We have to break out of that. In Africa, the rural popula-tion is short of energy. Big power plants are not going to help those people. Politics get in the way. And lots of energy gets lost in the transmission process. The solution is simple: small grids. All we need is 20 solar panels and connect them to 50 homes. It can be done quickly, it’s not rocket sci-ence.”

You have been a vocal critic of global bodies like the World Economic Forum. You proposed a system re-design. What do you mean by that?

“We are heading towards irreversible and catastrophical climate change. It’s one of the worst cases of cognitive dissonance. All the facts are telling us we have to change. Over the last 10 years, there has been an increase of 100 percent of extreme weather. But nothing is done. Therefore, I believe that innovation will not come from people who are trained in an old system.”

“I’m inspired by my daughter. She was in her early teens when she said that my generation is con-taminated by decades of bad experiences. She was right. The current generation has run out of fresh ideas. Young people will learn more easily, they are essential to innovation. Like the founders of Google, how old where they?”

What’s your dream for the future?

“That young people could recalibrate our values and convince the world that excessive consump-tion does not lead to happiness. I hope that they take us back to basics: a sense of community, sharing and equity. I hope that young people will be able to take us from an polluting economy to one that is based on green and renewable energy. And that extreme poverty will be completely eradicated.”

“My final message to our youth is: you have to resist the old wisdom that young people are the leaders of tomorrow. If you wait until tomorrow, there might not be a tomorrow to exercise it.”


This article is part of a series about the activists and communities of the Pacific who are responding to the ef-fects of climate change. Leaders from climate and social justice movements from around the world met in Suva, Fiji, 4 December through 8 December 2017 for International Civil Society Week.

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Civil Society Activists Speak Out– Despite Threatshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/12/civil-society-activists-speak-despite-threats/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=civil-society-activists-speak-despite-threats http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/12/civil-society-activists-speak-despite-threats/#respond Fri, 15 Dec 2017 13:49:12 +0000 Pascal Laureyn http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=153575 They are young, smart and willing to take the rough road. Victor, Jubilanté and Khaled are independent fighters who speak out with a force that could possibly change the appearances of their countries, and beyond. These ‘sparks of hope’ were awarded with the Nelson Mandela-Graça Machel Innovation Awards for their contributions to civil society. Nigeria, […]

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Victor Ugo dedicates the award he won to all Nigerians coping with mental illness. Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

By Pascal Laureyn
SUVA, Fiji, Dec 15 2017 (IPS)

They are young, smart and willing to take the rough road. Victor, Jubilanté and Khaled are independent fighters who speak out with a force that could possibly change the appearances of their countries, and beyond.

These ‘sparks of hope’ were awarded with the Nelson Mandela-Graça Machel Innovation Awards for their contributions to civil society. Nigeria, Guyana and Egypt already heard about them, the award will make their endeavors known internationally—and it’s high time to hear these inspiring voices.

Creating awareness for mental health in Nigeria. Motivating young creatives in Guyana to speak out using digital media. Defending human rights and freedom of speech in Egypt. These are some of the missions they have dedicated their lives to. Victor Ugo, Jubilanté Cutting and Khaled al-Balshy received the yearly award in Fiji last week.

The Nelson Mandela-Graça Machel Innovation Awards seeks to promote individuals and organizations for their excellence and bravery in creating social change. “They inspire compassion and empathy at a time of growing fear, xenophobia, and hate speech,” says Graça Machel, the former First Lady of South Africa.

During the International Civil Society Week (ICSW)— highlighting a conference organized by CIVICUS in Fiji’s capital Suva – the winners had the opportunity to capture a large audience eager to learn about their projects. The interest was overwhelming and often left them exhausted after the daily rounds of interviews and panel discussions. The fourth winner of the prestigious prize – the philanthropic Guerrila Foundation of Germany – was not present in Fiji.

Every year, CIVICUS – a civil society organizations alliance – brings the ICSW to another location to “promote and defend a more just and sustainable future.” Fiji hosted the 2017 event, highlighting the potential and problems of the Pacific.

Victor Ugo (Nigeria) – Best organization of civil society

Victor has the confident stride of a young man with proven achievements while walking from venue to venue at the conference in Suva. He shows no trace of the depression he once suffered from. He was diagnosed with the condition almost 4 years ago. And he was lucky, he got treatment. Most Nigerians who have psychiatric ailments never get help.

Victor Ugo patiently answers questions of interested journalists: “The award makes us more desirable.” Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

“Mental healthcare is none existent in Nigeria,” explains Victor. “There is no knowledge. Not just illiterate people, but also university professors think that mental illnesses are caused by evil ghosts. Patients get punished for their disease.”

As a consequence of the stigma, mental health facilities are really poor. “There are only 200 psychiatrists in Nigeria, a country of 186 million people,” an exasperated Victor says. “And many of them go into banking because they can’t find a job.”

After his depression the young doctor founded the Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative (MANI). Two years later, it has become Nigeria’s largest mental health organization. MANI combats the stigma, creates awareness and promotes services for mental health. “Most people don’t know the symptoms and that it can be treated.”

Therefor MANI encourages conversation on social media. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube are platforms used for online campaigns on depression, bipolar disorders or bullying. “We explain how a depression feels like. We make people talk about it,” says Victor. Patients share their experience, family and friends can ask for help. “We try to find people who want to talk about it. We call them our ‘champions of mental health’.”

Media sometimes spread misconceptions about mental health or ignore it completely. “We correct the media so that it is understood that it’s about diseases,” the young man explains. “Suicide, for example. We teach the press how to report on suicides without encouraging it.”

MANI is also creating an online platform to link doctors to patients, like Uber does with drivers and passengers. When a patient asks for help, a therapist in the area is alerted. They can make an appointment after they agree on the price. The platform will be launched next year.

“Today, in villages, patients are still being flogged and chained because of traditional beliefs,” Victor sighs. The taboo needs to be broken. “The less stigma, the more people will ask for help. That will create a market that can encourage more students to become a psychiatrist,” says the hopeful award winner. He dedicates the award to all Nigerians coping with mental illness. “The award makes us more desirable. Everybody wants to join.”

Jubilanté Cutting (Guyana) – Youth Activist Award

At just 19, Jubilanté Cutting founded the Guyana Animation Network (GAN) to help empower young people with skills in digital media and animation. During the conference in Fiji, she was not only promoting the business model of GAN but also trying to inspire. When the stylishly dressed young woman engages in discussions on civil society, she easily impresses people with her enthusiasm and motivational calls to action.

Jubilanté Cutting: “We help children to think out of the box, to learn something about themselves and express themselves.” Credit: Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

“I got the spark when I was 17, at a workshop on art, technology and animation in Trinidad and Tobago. There I met many talented people who were pushing out Caribbean style media products. It was an explosion of talent, it made my creative juices flowing. Although I noticed quickly that I’m not very talented as an animator. But I do have a talent for networking, I decided to focus on that and help to develop Guyana’s digital and creative industries,” Jubilanté concludes.

Two years later, the young law student created GAN. In its first year GAN has reached than 3,500 people through summer camps, events, talks in schools and social media. The main purpose is to change a way of thinking. “Art is still seen as a hobby, not as a professional career,” says Jubilanté who taps her fingernails on the table out of frustration.

“But digital creatives can have a profitable career. If we could attach a price on creativity, many people would already be millionaires. We have to embrace creativity as more than just fun and teach people how to monetize it.”

And no better way to learn new skills and creative mind sets than to start at a young age. “Children are an important target for us,” Jubilanté points out. “Our society is ignoring the young ones. I use every forum I get to emphasize this. Children are born in the digital age. We have to learn them to use that technology in a responsible way. That’s why our organization opens its doors to children, because we acknowledge how transformational they are,” says the young woman.

Jubilanté tells enthusiastically what happened at one of her workshops. When teaching software to create digital graphics, the children aged 6 and 7 were quicker than the older ones to grasp the complicated tool. “Children are unafraid to learn, that’s critical for creative development. But books only teach them things in a structured way. We help children to think out of the box, to motivate them to learn something about themselves and express themselves.”

It took Jubilanté and her team of co-workers and volunteers a year to get the attention of the government. “We need more infrastructure, training and equipment to break the barriers for development. The Nelson Mandela-Graça Machel Award won us the recognition of the government and it draws attention to Guyana and the whole Caribbean. Now people know that something is happening there with digital media.

At her 21, Jubilanté is already a force that drives things forward on sheer will power. GAN is only one year old, but she is thinking big. “I want to spread the Caribbean culture. Everyone already loves Bob Marley and Rhianna. I will make them love Caribbean animation and promote our own artists.”

Khaled al-Balshy (Egypt) – Individual Activist Award

Khaled al-Balshy is a prominent human rights defender and journalist fighting to protect free speech. In Egypt, that is no easy job. The government has increasingly cracked down on the press and has become one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists. In a nation where media are under constant attack, Khaled is struggling to defend freedom of the press.

The journalist is gifted with the calmness necessary to face hardship. Khaled knows all too well how an Egyptian cell looks like. He has a suspended 1 year sentence for harboring journalists wanted for expressing critical views. His news website al-Bedaiah is blocked. He was accused for “insulting the police” on social media. The courts have 10 pending cases against him. These are just a few of the harassments he has grown accustomed to.

“The situation in Egypt is one of the worst in the world. More than 12 journalists have been murdered in the last three years. More than 20 are in prison, some without clear accusations. Many others are being stopped from writing and publishing,” Khaled explains for the umpteenth time. He gives many interviews at the conference in Fiji, always with the same energy and indignation.

Known to be an ardent defender of press freedom, Khaled leads numerous initiatives for the detained and disappeared journalists. “I write about their cases. I visit their families. We organize meetings and we create groups that helps lawyers with the legal process.” Sometimes that leads to success. “When a journalist is released, we are happy. But only for a few minutes. Sometimes they have spent years in prison without a clear accusation.”

“This absurd dictatorship is feels threatened, why else would they imprison us?” Khaled continues. “They are afraid of us. When we write, we make a change. If we just tell the truth all the time, that change will come. We did this with Mubarak, we can do it again with al-Sisi,” says Khaled. “The only way to protect freedom of expression is to exercise it and to denounce the violations against it.”

“When I knew I won the Nelson Mandela-Graça Machel Award, I was sad for 3 days. I’m getting an award, while people are spending years in prison. My son convinced me that this award is for everyone, for the people I’m fighting for. It’s a message to the imprisoned journalists that their voices can break through prison walls.” The Tunisian translator wipes tears off her face when she repeats his words in English. Her country had a successful uprising, the one in Egypt has failed.

But Khaled has hope. He will continue to fight. “I want to make that change for my son, he is making me do this.”


This article is part of a series about the activists and communities of the Pacific who are responding to the effects of climate change. Leaders from climate and social justice movements from around the world met in Suva, Fiji, December 4 through December 8 for International Civil Society Week..

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A Voice of Inspirationhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/12/a-voice-of-inspiration/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=a-voice-of-inspiration http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/12/a-voice-of-inspiration/#respond Wed, 13 Dec 2017 15:12:30 +0000 Pascal Laureyn http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=153476 The lights are switched off and the dirty dishes are being cleaned. But on their way home, the participants of the International Civil Society Week (ICSW) still have a lot to chew on. Last week they collected new ideas and insights on civil society during the week long global event. For the first time ICSW was hosted in the Pacific, to focus on some of the world’s most vulnerable islands.

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By Pascal Laureyn
SUVA, Fiji, Dec 13 2017 (IPS)

More than 700 activists gathered in Suva, Fiji’s capital, to explore the latest trends – from climate change to human rights, from innovation to social justice. Anything that can help empower and mobilise citizens. The lively debates in panel discussions, workshops and lectures made the event look like a carnival of creative new ideas and tested knowledge.

The Innovation Lab brought together human rights defenders to share their tools, tactics and strategies. Oxfam addressed the long term problems that the 300 nuclear tests in the Pacific had caused. And the Public Interest Registry taught participants how to inspire donors to give and supporters to take action.

A lot of attention went to activist stars like Kumi Naidoo (Greenpeace, CIVICUS, …), Helen Clark (former prime minister of New Zealand) and José Ramos-Horta (former president of Timor-Leste). The youthful and charming winners of the ‘Nelson Mandela – Graca Machel Innovation Awards’ won many hearts when the annual prize was handed out.

Special focus on the Pacific

For the first time this global event was hosted in the Pacific. The conference focussed on the plight of small islands affected by rising sea levels and more frequent and extreme weather.

“The peoples of the Pacific, like those in other small island states, have to tackle the devastating impacts of climate change alongside other development challenges,” says Danny Sriskandarajah, secretary general of CIVICUS.

CIVICUS, an alliance for citizen participation, organized the conference in cooperation with PIANGO, the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Government Organisation.

Fiji has taken a leading role in the Pacific to address climate change. The republic has already presided over the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 23) in Bonn and co-hosted the UN Oceans Conference in New York earlier this year. It collaborates closely with other Pacific states and territories.

Brianna Fruean, a 19 year old student from Samoa, is one of the Pacific Climate Warriors, a cooperation between 12 island nations. “My grandfather liked to take me to the markets to look at the rich variety of fish. But the corals are devastated due to climate change. If you go to the fish markets now it’s not so plentiful anymore. That’s how my passion for climate change began.”

“It is critical that every person on this planet recognizes the importance of what is going on in the Pacific,” says Danny Sriskandarajah. “Everybody must act. Whether it is change in their consumption behavior or putting pressure on their local and national authorities.”

Many inspirational voices

Speaking at the closing event, Joanna Kerr – the Canadian head of Greenpeace – said that the problem of climate change will require enormous civil society mobilisation to address. “The problem is so huge it can be hard to stay optimistic. But the hope and resilience of the Pacific gives us hope.” She applauded the ordinary Pacific peoples’ appreciation for climate change.

Another inspirational voice of hope was that of Victor Ugo, a Nigerian doctor. He came to ICSW to collect his ‘Nelson Mandela – Graca Machel Innovation Award’ for his work on developing awareness on mental health in Nigeria. He experienced several eye-openers at the conference.

“I’m eager to go home and try out all the things that I’ve learned here in Fiji. I want to help people with mental illnesses to speak out so they can achieve something in their communities. There is still an awful lot of work to do in Nigeria on mental health. But challenges are not restrictions,” Ugo said.

If conferences are about motivating people to keep on going forward, then ICSW has done its job.


This article is part of a series about the activists and communities of the Pacific and small island states who are responding to the effects of climate change. Leaders from climate and social justice movements from around the world met in Suva, Fiji from 4-8 December for International Civil Society Week.

The post A Voice of Inspiration appeared first on Inter Press Service.

Excerpt:

The lights are switched off and the dirty dishes are being cleaned. But on their way home, the participants of the International Civil Society Week (ICSW) still have a lot to chew on. Last week they collected new ideas and insights on civil society during the week long global event. For the first time ICSW was hosted in the Pacific, to focus on some of the world’s most vulnerable islands.

The post A Voice of Inspiration appeared first on Inter Press Service.

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“Migrants Deserve Dignity” says CIVICUS While Trump Pulls out of Proposed Migrant Compacthttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/12/migrants-deserve-dignity-says-civicus-trump-pulls-proposed-migrant-compact/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=migrants-deserve-dignity-says-civicus-trump-pulls-proposed-migrant-compact http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/12/migrants-deserve-dignity-says-civicus-trump-pulls-proposed-migrant-compact/#respond Wed, 06 Dec 2017 16:34:50 +0000 Pascal Laureyn http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=153356 Continuing his “America First” approach, President Donald Trump has pulled the U.S. out of a proposed United Nations global compact seeking an agreement to protect the safety and rights of migrants and refugees. CIVICUS, the alliance for citizen participation, reacted strongly against the American disengagement, while proposing a Declaration of its own: Climate Induced Displacement. […]

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Hundreds of refugees and migrants aboard a fishing boat moments before being rescued by the Italian Navy as part of their Mare Nostrum operation in June 2014. Credit: The Italian Coastguard/Massimo Sestini

By Pascal Laureyn
SUVA Fiji, Dec 6 2017 (IPS)

Continuing his “America First” approach, President Donald Trump has pulled the U.S. out of a proposed United Nations global compact seeking an agreement to protect the safety and rights of migrants and refugees.

CIVICUS, the alliance for citizen participation, reacted strongly against the American disengagement, while proposing a Declaration of its own: Climate Induced Displacement. (CID)

The declaration was proposed at the International Civil Society Week (ICSW) in Suva, Fiji’s capital
at a global conference, with more than 700 participants from 109 countries, discussing topics ranging from human rights to global warming. The weeklong conference is scheduled to conclude December 8.

“Whole communities and countries are already being displaced because of changing weather patterns, rising sea levels and more frequent and catastrophic events. But the response at the moment is very ad hoc,” declared Danny Sriskandarajah, CEO of CIVICUS and organiser of the event in Suva.

“Our declaration is saying that we need a principle-based response to climate induced displacement. The key principle is that we have to treat with dignity and respect people who are being displaced through no fault of their own.”

The United Nations has an ambitious plan to create a more humane global strategy on migration. But the Trump administration has pulled out, saying involvement in the process interferes with American sovereignty and runs counter to US immigration policies. President Trump viewed the proposed pact as a threat to national security.

Trump’s decision was disclosed last Saturday by Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. “Our decisions on immigration policies must always be made by Americans and Americans alone. We will decide how best to control our borders and who will be allowed to enter our country,” Haley said in a statement.

Sriskandarajah, who is baffled by Trump’s withdrawal, said: “The entire western world believes somehow that you can manage global mobility through short term restrictions. The fact that Donald Trump has pulled out the US of the global compact process is yet another sign that countries are looking for short term, regressive, insular measures on migration.”

“The fact that the US is pulling out is really worrying. Human mobility has happened throughout history. It is going to increase. So we need sensible collaborative ways of managing that mobility,” the CEO of CIVICUS said at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, where ICSW meetings are taking place.

“For those people that already have been displaced by climate change, they are going to be left to the mercy of other countries. That leads to more uncertainty.”

Under Trump, the U.S. has taken a hard line on immigration. The president wants to build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, arrest illegal immigrants and slow down legal immigration. The U.S. has also withdrawn from many global commitments, including the Paris Climate Change agreement.

The ‘Global Compact on safe, orderly and regular migration’ is expected to go before the UN General Assembly for approval in September 2018. And ICSW wanted to highlight the importance of this issue. Instead, many activists at ICSW now express their concerns about its potential demise.

Meanwhile, conservative websites that support president Trump reported the news with triumphant headlines. “U.S. Withdraws From Obama-Negotiated U.N. Agreement on Mass Migration,” claimed Redstate.com boldly.

Asked about the US withdrawal, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters at a news briefing on December 4: “Obviously, it’s a decision that we regret, but I think there’s still plenty of time for US engagement on this issue. But the decision should not disrupt what we see as a clear, unanimous outcome of the New York Declaration for such a Global Compact, which, I should remind you, will be non legally binding and grounded in international cooperation and respectful of national interests”.

“From where we stand, the positive story of migration is clear. It needs to be better told,” Dujarric noted. Equally, he pointed out, the challenges it faces need to be tackled with more determination and greater international cooperation.

“We obviously look forward to the outcome of the discussions of… in Mexico and the start of the more formal discussions in February,” he added.

Asked whether the UN was forewarned, Dujarric said; “ I’m not aware that it’s one we had any warning about.”

Meanwhile, in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, the Preparatory Meeting for the Global Compact on Migration got underway.

At the opening of the Conference, the Special Representative for International Migration, Louise Arbour, stressed that migration demands a global response.

“The movement of people across borders is, by definition, an international reality,” she said. “There is nothing in that to contradict a state’s sovereign right — subject to international and domestic law — to manage who enters and stays within its borders.”

She added that the success of the global compact will rest on maximum countries’ political and moral buy in and willingness to enhance cooperation at the regional and international levels.


This article is part of a series about the activists and communities of the Pacific who are responding to the effects of climate change. Leaders from climate and social justice movements from around the world are currently meeting in Suva, Fiji, through 8 December for International Civil Society Week.

The post “Migrants Deserve Dignity” says CIVICUS While Trump Pulls out of Proposed Migrant Compact appeared first on Inter Press Service.

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Civil Society Week Puts Spotlight on the Pacifichttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/12/civil-society-week-puts-spotlight-pacific/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=civil-society-week-puts-spotlight-pacific http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/12/civil-society-week-puts-spotlight-pacific/#respond Tue, 05 Dec 2017 06:58:52 +0000 Pascal Laureyn http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=153327 It’s a busy week for movers, shakers and policymakers attending a global gathering of civil society activists here in Fiji. For the first time, the International Civil Society Week (ICSW) is holding its sessions in the Pacific. It’s a sign of a growing awareness of the problems facing these remote islands – problems they cannot […]

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Fiji landscape. Credit: UN Photo

By Pascal Laureyn
SUVA, Fiji, Dec 5 2017 (IPS)

It’s a busy week for movers, shakers and policymakers attending a global gathering of civil society activists here in Fiji. For the first time, the International Civil Society Week (ICSW) is holding its sessions in the Pacific. It’s a sign of a growing awareness of the problems facing these remote islands – problems they cannot be ignored any longer.

When in Fiji, it is easy to get into a holiday mood. The picture postcard beaches, spectacular mountains and friendly faces can temporarily distract many workaholics. But not so for the participants of Civil Society Week. Already on arrival at the international airport of Nadi, the activists, civil workers, social entrepreneurs and journalists start mingling quickly and exchanging business cards. The debates are not confined to conference halls.

More than 700 participants from 109 countries are gathering in Suva, Fiji’s capital, to discuss key global issues, including human rights, global warming, gender empowerment, and many more. CIVICUS, an alliance for citizen participation, has organized the global event in cooperation with PIANGO, the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Government Organisation. Their goal: to strengthen the civil society sector and to look for common solutions to global challenges.

“Raise your voices and be heard,” the president of Fiji encouraged participants at the opening ceremony of the ICSW. That is exactly what the CEO of CIVICUS had in mind. “We are in a unique time in history: democracy is in crisis, trust in institutions is declining and we fail to act on climate change,” Danny Sriskandarajah says. “This is not only an important time to talk about these issues. We want to create a space for action.”

There’s plenty of action on the pretty campus of the University of the South Pacific where the event is organized. There are dozens of panel discussions, workshops and lectures every day. The participants talk about sexual exploitation, fair trade, land rights, volunteering and peace building to name just a few.

Najmin Kamilsoy, a bright and energetic young man, is an activist for the NIDA Civic Movement, a pro-democracy youth organization that defends human rights in Azerbaijan. “I want to meet people from other countries who face the same problems,” says Najmin, who has been arrested several times. Devesh Gupta of New Delhi is building an international education organization for the Dais Foundation. “I’m here to promote Dais and find new opportunities for growth.”

“We want civil society to take global action to counter the growing restrictions on civic freedoms. But that is not possible without local grassroots movements,” Sriskandarajah says. “That’s why we have to bring activists together, also to keep them motivated. The weight of the world is lighter because in Fiji they can meet people who care as well.”

For the first time, Civil Society Week is organized in the Pacific. Many participants of the conference are eager to meet people from exotic places like Micronesia, Tonga or the Cook Islands and listen to their experiences, ideas and hopes.

The Pacific is regularly overlooked by many, although it deserves more attention for the disasters that rising sea levels and stronger cyclones are causing. Emele Duituturaga, the executive director of PIANGO, told participants that it’s hard for the Pacific to be visible. These micro states are remote, small and politically weightless.

“But this year the region has become the epicenter of activism,” she says. In November, Fiji held the presidency of COP23, the UN Climate Change Conference. Thousands of government delegates and leaders from all sectors of society gathered in Bonn, Germany. The Civil Society Week adds to this growing awareness. The many island nations of the Pacific use these global platforms to remind the world that “we are all in the same canoe when it comes to climate change.”

Brianna Fruean, a 19 year old student from Samoa, explained how best to navigate a va’a, a Samoan canoe. You need to put the old boatsmen in the back and the youth in front. Steering is best done by experience and for powerful peddling you need muscles. Connecting a sense of direction with the sheer will to get things done, that’s what this conference is all about.

This article is part of a series about the activists and communities of the Pacific and small island states who are responding to the effects of climate change. Leaders from climate and social justice movements from around the world will meet in Suva, Fiji from 4-8 December for International Civil Society Week.

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The Birth of a Dictatorhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/11/the-birth-of-a-dictator/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=the-birth-of-a-dictator http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/11/the-birth-of-a-dictator/#respond Fri, 17 Nov 2017 13:26:29 +0000 Pascal Laureyn http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=153072 The government had an almost paranoid fear of protests. A square kilometer around the Supreme Court was barricaded and off limits to the public. In faraway provinces, roadblocks were erected to stop demonstrators. Some opposition members were under temporary house arrest. But it turned out to be unnecessary. Nobody dared to protest. The Cambodian government […]

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Police arrayed in front of the Cambodian Supreme Court. Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

Police arrayed in front of the Cambodian Supreme Court. Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

By Pascal Laureyn
PHNOM PENH, Nov 17 2017 (IPS)

The government had an almost paranoid fear of protests. A square kilometer around the Supreme Court was barricaded and off limits to the public. In faraway provinces, roadblocks were erected to stop demonstrators. Some opposition members were under temporary house arrest. But it turned out to be unnecessary. Nobody dared to protest.

The Cambodian government has launched a fierce crackdown on the opposition. For a few months now, politicians, journalist and activists have been harassed to make their work impossible. A new low point was reached on Thursday when the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP (Cambodia National Rescue Party) ahead of the elections in 2018. Only the CNRP could have competed with the CPP (Cambodian People’s Party), which has been in power for more than three decades. Hun Sen is the world’s longest serving prime minister."Blood on the streets is not a victory for democracy. It's a return to the dark ages. We want people to stay hopeful." --Mu Sochua, vice president of the CNRP

The official dissolution of the CNRP was just a formality. The president of the Supreme Court is also a top committee member of de CPP and a longtime ally of Hun Sen. In Cambodia, justice is an auxiliary of the government – and the prime minister is pulling all the strings firmly, now more than ever.

“I could easily continue for another 10 years,” the 65-year-old Hun Sen told reporters on Thursday. Consequently, he acknowledged that he doesn’t consider an election as a consultation of the people, but as a way to varnish his dictatorial regime with a thin layer of legitimacy. The CNRP was the last democratic obstacle to his power over the country’s resources, which he needs to buy support from the elite.

Fear of reprisals

Since the government stepped up the crackdown on democracy, few Cambodians dare to speak out in public – certainly since the murder of Kem Ley, a popular journalist and a government critic. That was a turning point. Until then, Cambodians thought that their country would slowly become more democratic. But that hope was buried together with Kem Ley in his hometown Takeo.

His mother is cutting vegetables at the grave of her son. Phauk Se had done that every day since July 2016. Next to the burial site are pictures taken moments after the shooting. Kem Ley is lying between tables and chairs, a puddle of blood under this head. He was killed while he was having his morning coffee in a gas station in Phnom Penh.

The 80-year-old mother receives guest every day with soup and a friendly chat. The grave of her son has become a place of pilgrimage. The gunman is behind bars. “That’s not the real killer,” Phauk Se says in a timid voice. “If the government really wanted, they would have found the real culprit.”

Phauk Se, 80, whose son Kem Ley, a popular journalist and a government critic, was murdered in July 2016. Pascal Laureyn/IPS

Phauk Se, 80, whose son Kem Ley, a popular journalist and a government critic, was murdered in July 2016. Pascal Laureyn/IPS

No Cambodian believes that the killer acted alone. But nobody dares to express their suspicion. “Who has the real power? There is only one party who can organize such a murder,” says Kem Rithisith, the brother of Kem Ley, without naming it. “There was a second finger on the trigger, and everyone knows whose finger that was.”

Meanwhile at the market of Takeo, business is not good. Shopkeepers are lying in hammocks, waiting for customers. Mao Much Nech, a salesman of cheap jewelry, doesn’t want to say what party he supports. “That’s sensitive. But the government has lost dignity and credit because of the murder. It’s time to wake up and fight back.”

“The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer,” a woman says in her stall filled with colorful dresses. “We want change.” Most of the shopkeepers at the market use the same word to express their disappointment with the government.

Blood on the streets

The CPP knows it can’t survive a new popularity test. The CNRP almost won the elections of 2013. It made more progress with the local elections in June. It’s evident that the elections due in July 2018 are causing anxiety at the CPP headquarters. To prevent a defeat, it has started the final assault on the opposition. The CNRP is now dissolved and the party’s president Kem Sokha is in prison. Five thousand mandatories lost their jobs and half of the 55 members of parliament have fled the country.

Mu Sochua is one of them. She is preparing a vegetable soup during the phone call with this reporter. The sound of cutting, chopping and grating makes a fitting backdrop to the combative language of the vice-president of the CNRP.

“The dissolution of the CNRP is a big miscalculation of Hun Sen. The discontent will only continue to rise. Until now the CNRP has channeled this peacefully. But soon people might take their anger to the streets,” Mu says from a Moroccan kitchen. She fled Cambodia after she was tipped off about her impending arrest.

“It needs only one spark to start violent protests, like Tunisia and the Arab Spring,” the politician says while igniting a gas stove. “I’m very afraid of violence. Hun Sen will do anything to stay in power. If people would dare to protest, the tanks will be waiting. Blood on the streets is not a victory for democracy. It’s a return to the dark ages. We want people to stay hopeful.”

The exiled Mu Sochua is now traveling the world to find support for the grassroots movement for democracy in Cambodia. “The CNRP is more than a party. We don’t care about the political game. We want democracy in Cambodia, that’s our real job.”

Sanctions please

The offices of the CNRP headquarters echo hollowly. The building is quiet and almost empty. A few guards are watching a Korean soap opera. Lawmaker Kimsour Phirith may get arrested any moment, but he keeps on smiling. “I’m not afraid. I have done nothing wrong. The CPP is afraid – of losing power.”

“We are witnessing the death of democracy in Cambodia,” Kimsour says. “Hun Sen is showing his true face. He is a dictator now. We are counting on the West. Only economic sanctions can help us.”

The Cambodian economy strongly depends on tourism and the garment industry. If the factories stop producing, 700,000 workers will lose their jobs. Hun Sun would have a major crisis on his hands.

The government may think that Beijing will come to rescue. China has proved in recent years that it has the will and the money to back up Phnom Penh. “But that’s not guaranteed,” says Ou Chanrath, who lost his job as a lawmaker on Thursday. “The Chinese are still dependent on the West. The garment factories are Chinese, but the exports go to the West. When sanctions hit Cambodia, they will pack their bags.”

Human rights groups condemned the dissolution of the CNRP and asked the West to act. “The international community cannot stand idly, it must send a strong signal that this crackdown is unacceptable,” said James Gomez, Amnesty International’s Director of Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

The European Union issued a critical statement in which it linked human rights with access to the European bloc’s reduced and zero tariff trade scheme. The US government decided to discontinue funding for the NEC (the Cambodian election body), in case it still bothered to organise elections.

Prime Minister Hun Sen tried to reassure the nation on Thursday evening. In his speech he said – without any hint of irony – that the government is still deeply committed to democracy. CNRP spokesperson Yim Sovann reacted by saying that “they can never remove the CNRP from the heart of the people.”

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The Mekong, Dammed to Diehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/11/mekong-dammed-die/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=mekong-dammed-die http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/11/mekong-dammed-die/#respond Tue, 14 Nov 2017 11:45:35 +0000 Pascal Laureyn http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=153012 In Laos, the lush forests are alive with the whines of drills that pierce the air. On the Mekong, a giant concrete wall rises slowly above the trees. The Don Sahong dam is a strong symbol, not only for a power-hungry Asia but also for what critics fear is a disaster in the making. Landlocked […]

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A boat navigates the Mekong, whose combined fisheries are valued at 17 billion dollars. Credit: Francisco Anzola/cc by 2.0

A boat navigates the Mekong, whose combined fisheries are valued at 17 billion dollars. Credit: Francisco Anzola/cc by 2.0

By Pascal Laureyn
PHNOM PENH, Nov 14 2017 (IPS)

In Laos, the lush forests are alive with the whines of drills that pierce the air. On the Mekong, a giant concrete wall rises slowly above the trees. The Don Sahong dam is a strong symbol, not only for a power-hungry Asia but also for what critics fear is a disaster in the making.

Landlocked Laos wants to become ‘the battery of Southeast Asia’. The mountainous country with swirling rapids has the ideal geography for hydropower production and Don Sahong is just one of nine dams that Laos wants to build on the mainstream Mekong, claiming that this is the only way to develop the poor country.Millions of people in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam could lose the fish they rely on for food.

But there are serious drawbacks. The Don Sahong dam is being built with little or no consideration of the impact on ecosystems and communities along the Mekong. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Mekong is the second most biodiverse river in the world, after the Amazon. It supports the world’s largest freshwater capture fishery. The Lower Mekong Basin provides a wide variety of breeding habitats for over 1,300 species of fish. But damming the Mekong will block fish migration towards these habitats.

The FAO calculated that about 85 percent of the Lower Mekong Basin’s population lives in rural areas. Their livelihoods and food security is closely linked to the river and is vulnerable to water-related shocks – not just for fishers but for thousands more who sell food products or provide hundreds of related services, says FAO. Millions of people in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam could lose the fish they rely on for food.

Chhith Sam Ath, the Cambodian director of the World Wide Fund (WWF), claimed in The Diplomat that the Don Sahong Dam is “an ecological time bomb”.

Millions of people in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam could lose the fish they rely on for food.
“It threatens the food security of 60 million people living in Mekong basin,” he said. “The dam will have disastrous impacts on the entire river ecosystem all the way to the delta in Vietnam.” This is particularly devastating for downstream Cambodia because more than 70 percent of the protein consumed there comes from fish.

The 260-megawatt dam can also endanger the Irrawaddy dolphins, which are an important source of ecotourism on the Cambodian side of the Mekong. There are only 80 dolphins left. Some live just a few miles from the Don Sahong dam site. WWF warns that damming the Mekong will soon drive all the remaining dolphins to extinction.

 

A battery worth 800 million dollars

Laos is going forward with the dam all the same, without approval from the Mekong River Commission and in defiance of protests from NGOs and downstream countries. Lao officials say that they cannot stop the country from pursuing its right to development. They argue that they will address some of the concerns with ‘fish-friendly turbines’ and fish ladders. But critics are not convinced that these measures are sufficient.

Downstream, Cambodia is making things much worse. On a Monday morning in September, Prime Minister Hun Sen pushed a symbolic button. For the first time the floodgates of Lower Sesan 2 Dam closed and an artificial lake started to fill. Cambodia now has its own 800-million-dollar battery, built with Chinese funds and knowhow.

In the opening ceremony, Hun Sen praised the technological miracle and the Chinese investors. He pointed out that the need for electricity is growing rapidly. Cambodia has the most expensive electricity in Southeast Asia. That will change with this 400-megawatt dam on the river Sesan, close to its confluence with the Mekong.

 

Drowning village

In Kbal Romeas, upstream the Sesan, fishermen waited in vain for the yearly migration in May and June. No more fish to catch. The villagers have moved elsewhere, escaping the rising water and increasing poverty. The only reminder of a once lively Kbal Romeas is the roof of a pagoda that seems to float on the empty water.

“The river Sesan is blocked by the dam,” Maureen Harris of NGO International Rivers writes in her report. “That’s a problem for the 200 species that migrate from the Mekong to their breeding grounds in the Sesan.”

The American National Academy of Sciences predicts that the fish population in the Lower Mekong Basin will decline by 9.3 percent. That’s just one dam. More dams are on the drawing table. The Mekong River Commission (MRC), the intergovernmental body charged with coordinating the river’s management, recently released provisional but alarming results of their research. The two finished dams and the 11 scheduled dams will decimate the fish population in the Lower Mekong Basin by half.

The dams would also affect roughly 20 million Vietnamese people in the Mekong Delta, an area that accounts for more than a quarter of the country’s GDP. Dams block the flow of sediments, rich with nutrients needed to make soil suitable for cultivation. In Vietnam eroded riverbanks and houses tumbling in the water have become a common spectacle.

The Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen dismissed these environmental concerns, criticising “radical environmentalists”.

“How else can we develop?” he said. “There is no development that doesn’t have an effect on the environment.”

The international NGO Mother Nature mapped the environmental consequences of the Lower Sesan 2 dam. Consequently, the Cambodian government revoked its license. One of the founders, Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, has been banned from the country.

 

Costs outweigh benefits

The dams come at a high environmental cost, imperil food security and risk increasing poverty for millions of people. Moreover, the river’s potential is overestimated by dam developers, says the Mekong River Commission. Dams will meet just 8 percent of the Lower Mekong Basin’s projected power needs. The MRC proposes a ten-year moratorium on dam building. But few governments are listening.

The MRC valued the combined fisheries for the Mekong Basin at 17 billion dollars. Energy from the 13 dams may yield 33.4 billion, according to an international study by Mae Fa Luang University in Chiang Rai. But a denuded river system carries a price tag of 66.2 billion dollars, the same study predicts.

The real costs of hydropower seem to outweigh the benefits. But the projects still go ahead. The thump of jackhammers will become more common. The mother of all rivers will have to face an army of men with safety hats that want to stop her from flowing freely.

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Myanmar’s Democracy Feels Strain of Religious Fault Lineshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/10/myanmars-democracy-feels-strain-religious-fault-lines/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=myanmars-democracy-feels-strain-religious-fault-lines http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/10/myanmars-democracy-feels-strain-religious-fault-lines/#comments Wed, 25 Oct 2017 00:01:42 +0000 Pascal Laureyn http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=152694 I try to hold on tight as my driver navigates his motorbike over a bumpy and muddy track. His helmet is decorated with a swastika and an eagle, part of an ill-inspired fashion trend called Nazi chic. It’s symbolic for a country where hate and racism seen to have become normalized. For many years the […]

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Muslims in the Thingangyun community of Yangon. They say extremist Buddhist monks sometimes try to provoke them by shouting nationalist slogans in their neighborhood. Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

Muslims in the Thingangyun community of Yangon. They say extremist Buddhist monks sometimes try to provoke them by shouting nationalist slogans in their neighborhood. Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

By Pascal Laureyn
YANGON, Oct 25 2017 (IPS)

I try to hold on tight as my driver navigates his motorbike over a bumpy and muddy track. His helmet is decorated with a swastika and an eagle, part of an ill-inspired fashion trend called Nazi chic. It’s symbolic for a country where hate and racism seen to have become normalized.

For many years the Rohingya in Rakhine State have been suffering from state-sponsored discrimination and stigmatization. Today this hostility is spreading rapidly toward other Muslims in the country."We have the choice between a harmonious country and a failed state." --Tet Swei Win, director of the Centre for Youth and Social Harmony

We’re driving towards the outskirts of Dalla, a village on the Yangon River. I chose this place randomly, to sample the relations between Buddhists and Muslims. And it seems to go well.

“We don’t like what is happening in Rakhine. But here we have no problem with Muslims. There is mutual respect,” an elderly woman tells me. Most people I talk to confirm this.

A former soldier uses harsher language. “In Rakhine, Buddhists are being slaughtered. Muslims are burning down villages, cutting people’s throats and raping women. I don’t believe anymore that there is such a thing as a good Muslim.” His wife summarizes in her own fashion: “All Muslims must die.”

Because of disinformation, rumors and propaganda, these wrong ideas have penetrated all levels of society. Many people in Myanmar believe that all Rohingya are arsonists, rapists and murderers. As a result, they think that violence against them is acceptable. The fact that the Rohingya are not the instigators but the victims of an ethnic cleansing is being denied by many.

A former soldier in the Burmese village of Dalla who says he doesnʼt like Muslims because of what is happening in Rakhine State. Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

A former soldier in the Burmese village of Dalla who says he doesnʼt like Muslims because of what is happening in Rakhine State. Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

A worsening situation

The hatred towards the Rohingya is well known. But less documented is the spread of this hate towards other Muslims in Myanmar.

“Since the military coup in 1962, religion has been used to set up people against each other,” says U Aye Lwin, a Muslim and one the founders of the interreligious movement ‘Religions for Peace Myanmar’. I meet him in his mosque in Yangon. The building is well cared for but modest. Nothing would encourage visitors to suspect that it houses the tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last emperor of India.

“The dictatorial regime did not have the support of the population,” U Aye Lwin tells me. “So the army manipulated the Burmese sentiments of identity and religion. They told the Buddhist majority that the Muslims are a threat to their religion and country. That’s how Islamophobia has set in.”

The democratization of Myanmar did not change this. Hopes that Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD would defend the minorities were soon dashed.

“When the NLD won the elections, it got even worse. Religion is now being used by the army to create instability. That’s how it clings to power,” the religious leader says.

The army wants to show it’s the only institution that can save Buddhist Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi is powerless, critics say, and her government has no control over the army. Moreover, she risks losing voters if she defends the Rohingya.

U Aye Lwin stands in Bahadur Shah Zafar Memorial Hall, which also functions as a mosque, in Yangon. U Aye Lwin is a Muslim and one the founders of the interreligious movement Religions for Peace Myanmar. Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

U Aye Lwin stands in Bahadur Shah Zafar Memorial Hall, which also functions
as a mosque, in Yangon. U Aye Lwin is a Muslim and one the founders of the
interreligious movement Religions for Peace Myanmar. Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

“Buddha is not Burmese”

Kyaw Min Yu is an expert on prisons. He spent eight years behind bars after the student revolt of 1988. After a new uprising in 2007 he served five more years in detention. He is Rohingya and Muslim.

I meet the president in the small headquarters of his Democracy and Human Rights Party in Yangon. He walks with great difficulty, a consequence of his long periods of incarceration. “I used to believe in Aung San Suu Kyi. I worked for her. I protested for her. I have spent time in jail for her. But now I have had enough of her,” he says.

“Aung San Suu Kyi has become biased. She is using a language that doesn’t suit her function as the unofficial leader of the country. She speaks only for the Buddhist Bamar, the largest ethnic group of Myanmar.”

At the NLD, nobody wanted to talk to me. But I did get Htin Lin Oo on the phone. He is the former spokesperson for the NLD. He is Buddhist and defends religious tolerance. In December 2014 he dared to criticize the monks that spread hate: “Buddha is not Burmese. Burmese extreme nationalists should therefore not adhere to Buddhism if they wish to defend their own race.”

This provocation was answered by the military regime with two years of forced labor for insulting Buddhism. The party canceled his membership, under pressure from the monks who felt insulted.

But Htin Lin Oo is still optimistic. “Problems between migrants and natives will always exist. It does not stop our democratic development. Other countries had the same problems. The US fought a civil war. They still have problems with extremists.

“Therefore, the international community should not put us under pressure. They should help us. They should stop complaining about problems with the Bengali in Rakhine,” Htin Lin Oo says.

Although he preaches peace, he does refer to Rohingya as Bengali, illegal immigrants.

A gift from heaven

The international community produces statements but does not intervene. The United Nations is still investigating the events in Rakhine and still hasn’t decided whether the Rohingya are victims of a genocide or not. But it is a textbook example of an ethnic cleansing, says Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), some 900,000 refugees are now being cared for by the Bangladesh government. Shelter is the most pressing priority, but many other critical needs must also be met, including protection, proper registration, food security, basic health services and water and basic sanitation facilities.

Speaking at an international pledging conference in Geneva this week, IOM Director General William Lacy Swing “[urged] international leaders to support the peaceful resolution of this decade long crisis in Myanmar and insist that the Myanmar authorities create conditions of safety, security and dignity in Rakhine state to one of the world’s most persecuted populations.”

On a local level, hundreds of activists are trying to avoid the contamination of violence from Rakhine State to the rest of the country. “All kinds of false rumors are being spread through social media. We are teaching people how to deal with one-sided information. It’s our way to prevent violence.”

Tet Swei Win is the director of the Centre for Youth and Social Harmony in Yangon. He takes me to Thingangyun, a predominantly Muslim district. Sometimes, extremist monks come to make mischief. “Those Buddhists come here with a hundred people to shout slogans. Then we have to react very quickly to prevent violence.”

When I step out of his little van in the contentious neighborhood, Tet Swei Win tells me not to mention to anyone that I am a journalist. That could create tensions. The peace is very fragile. He shows me the local school. According to the new manager it is full. “There is no place anymore for Muslim children. I try to fight this,” the activist tells me.

“Many people in Myanmar thought that democracy is something that falls from the sky. A gift from heaven. But they didn’t realize that democratization is a process. If you want democracy, you will have to work for it. The different religions will have to learn how to talk to each other. It could take decades before that problem is solved.”

Tet Swei Win thinks it could go either way. “We have the choice between a harmonious country and a failed state.”

The series of reports from the border areas of Myanmar and Bangladesh is supported by UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC)

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Rohingya Crisis Stokes Fears of Myanmar’s Muslimshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/10/rohingya-crisis-stokes-fears-myanmars-muslims/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=rohingya-crisis-stokes-fears-myanmars-muslims http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/10/rohingya-crisis-stokes-fears-myanmars-muslims/#respond Tue, 24 Oct 2017 13:07:07 +0000 Pascal Laureyn http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=152677 In a quiet street, the sound of children’s voices can be heard from an open window. They are reciting verses of the Koran in unison. The small Islamic school lays hidden in a walled neighborhood where only Muslims live. This is an island of tranquility in Mandalay, the second-largest city of predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. Calm […]

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The propaganda of the government and hostility of Buddhist nationalists are not exclusively reserved for the Rohingya in Rakhine - The entrance to the gated community of Joon, Myanmar. With tensions between Muslims and Buddhists rising, the gates are closed at night. Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

The entrance to the gated community of Joon, Myanmar. With tensions between Muslims and Buddhists rising, the gates are closed at night. Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

By Pascal Laureyn
YANGON, Oct 24 2017 (IPS)

In a quiet street, the sound of children’s voices can be heard from an open window. They are reciting verses of the Koran in unison. The small Islamic school lays hidden in a walled neighborhood where only Muslims live. This is an island of tranquility in Mandalay, the second-largest city of predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.

Calm seems to be the norm in the narrow streets leading to the Joon Mosque. But since a few years ago, the gates of this community have been locked at night. After centuries of peaceful coexistence, tensions between Muslims and Buddhists are building. Residents of the neighborhood don’t feel at ease anymore."Our shopkeepers are sometimes being harassed by monks. But when we call the police, they never show up." --U Wai Li Tin Aung

“Sometimes Buddhist monks try to intimidate us by shouting religious slogans. They call us ‘kalar’, an insulting word for Muslims,” says U Wai Li Tin Aung, secretary of the Joon Mosque, the biggest in Mandalay.

He thinks that the tensions are being provoked by the conflict in Rakhine State, in the west of Myanmar. There, the Rohingya – a Muslim minority group – is being persecuted and murdered by the military and by militias. Since August almost 600,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh. The UN has labelled it ethnic cleansing.

Simmering tensions

The propaganda of the government and hostility of Buddhist nationalists are not exclusively reserved for the Rohingya in Rakhine. According to some Burmese, all Muslims are terrorists who want to take over the country. Since the gradual democratization of Myanmar, the authoritarian controls on media have disappeared, giving extremist ideas a free and unfiltered forum. In large parts of society, racism has become normalized. Many fear violence against Muslims has become acceptable.

U Wai Li Tin Aung is worried. “The government does nothing. Our shopkeepers are sometimes being harassed by monks. But when we call the police, they never show up. Laws are only in favor of Burmese Buddhists.”

It used to be different. The Muslim area around the Joon Mosque has a respectable history. Mindon Min, the penultimate king of Burma, gave this neighborhood to the Muslims in 1863. The monarch had founded the new capital in Mandalay and his administration was run mainly by Muslims. But that recognition seems to be forgotten, and now the inhabitants are victims of discrimination.

The propaganda of the government and hostility of Buddhist nationalists are not exclusively reserved for the Rohingya in Rakhine - U Wai Li Tin Aung, secretary of the Joon Mosque, the biggest in Mandalay, Myanmar, stands on the entrance steps with two of his children. Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

U Wai Li Tin Aung, secretary of the Joon Mosque, the biggest in Mandalay, Myanmar, stands on the entrance steps with two of his children. Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

Pathe Aye Maung shows his identity card and the one of his son. Both are officially registered as Muslims. The ID card of the father says that he is a member of the Panthee, a recognized ethnic group in Myanmar. But the son is registered as an ‘Indian’, which means he is considered an illegal foreigner. “When my son went to complain about this, he was put in jail,” Maung says.

This is a problem that the Rohingya know all too well. They have been living in Rakhine for centuries, but they have been discriminated against since independence in 1948. The media and the government never use the word Rohingya. Naming them correctly would be interpreted as a recognition of their historical rights. Instead, most Burmese people consider them Bengali: illegal immigrants who should return home.

A large group of Buddhists feel that their culture and religion is being threatened by ‘foreigners’. They are afraid of so-called Islamification. They fear that Myanmar will evolve the same way as Indonesia, a Buddhist country that later became Islamic. So for many, all Muslims are viewed with suspicion. Some religious leaders have tried to turn these anxieties into violence against Muslims.

“We don’t let ourselves be provoked,” says secretary U Wai Li Tin Aung. “Whatever the extremist monks say, we stay calm and keep the peace. We have learned that from our religion. We don’t use violence.”

But that does not always work. In 2014 riots erupted in Mandalay, the bastion of Burmese Buddhist culture. The violence was ignited by false rumors of the rape of a Buddhist woman by a Muslim. Nationalist monks had spread these rumors with lightning-fast speed through social media. In the resulting street fighting, a Buddhist and a Muslim were killed.

During those tumultuous days, the police raided the Joon Mosque. They seized sticks, rods and marbles hidden in the prayer room. The secretary stresses that they were only to be used in case of an attack on the mosque. “Everybody was scared at that time. We couldn’t expect any protection from the army or the police.”

A political conflict

The violence placed Muslims and Buddhists in a polarized position, with simmering religious tensions and identity politics. And critics say the army and consecutive governments have used it to divert the attention away from their faltering policies.

The conflict with the ‘foreign jihadis’ signals to Myanmar’s citizens that the army is the only trustworthy protector of the country. It is a way to tighten the military’s grip on the economy, even after the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD party. For the Muslims, the much-lauded democratization has not delivered much yet. For the first time in the history of independent Myanmar, there is no Muslim presence in parliament anymore.

Still, not everyone agrees with the extremists, and most Buddhists still get along nicely with their Muslim neighbors.

One Buddhist fruit vendor strolls through the Muslim neighborhood with her merchandise on her head. “It’s a pity that there’s a conflict going on. I have been coming here for years and I never had problems. Why should there be problems now? That’s bad for business.”

Meanwhile, the international donor community announced pledges on October 23 for more than 344 million dollars to address the mounting humanitarian crisis of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. The pledging conference in Geneva was co-organised by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and with Kuwait and the European Union as co-hosts. They noted that the ongoing exodus is the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world.

“Today’s pledges from the international community will help rebuild Rohingya refugees’ lives. Without these vital funds, humanitarians would not be able to continue providing protection and life-saving aid to one of the most vulnerable groups in the world. While we are thankful, I hope that the end of this conference does not mean the end of new funding commitments. We have not reached our target and each percentage point we are under means thousands without food, healthcare and shelter,” said William Lacy Swing, IOM Director General.

The series of reports from the border areas of Myanmar and Bangladesh is supported by UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC)

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