Walking the streets of Minsk, it does not take long to figure out that Belarus is a police state. The broad avenues in the center are spotlessly clean in a way that the streets in democratic countries simply are not. Men in uniforms walking slowly and sternly with batons affixed to their waists are ubiquitous; their purpose seems solely to intimidate. But the appearance of so many uniformed men on patrol, and the strong-arm tactics the regime uses to disperse peaceful demonstrations, can be deceptive. Belarus is not like Syria or Zimbabwe, where the government regularly tortures and kills political dissidents with impunity. Due to the Soviet-style economy, it doesn’t have to inflict violence on a wide scale to keep the population cowed. It can merely threaten the livelihoods of anyone who dare participate in a protest, never mind becomes involved in opposition politics.
Worth reading in full for a look inside a country that is, effectively, still behind the iron curtain.
[Of course some people like police states. Stewart Parker, for instance, author of The Last Soviet Republic: Alexander Lukashenko's Belarus. He writes enthusiastically at The Marxist-Leninist on last December's elections. Let's first remind ourselves of what the Economist had to say:
It would be more honest if Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Belarus's thuggish and dictatorial president, did away with elections altogether. Instead, yesterday's charade of a poll resulted in false expectations and cracked skulls. As the country's slavish electoral committee declared Mr Lukashenka the winner, with 80% of votes on an improbable turnout of more than 90%, the true outcome of this election began to emerge.
Last night a massive demonstration of some 30,000 people was brutally dispersed by the Belarusian KGB and riot police. Six hundred people have been arrested. Many more have been beaten up. Seven of the nine candidates standing against Mr Lukashenka are in prison, some of them badly hurt. Their supporters are being hunted by the local KGB. Vladimir Neklyayev, a poet and one of the main candidates, was knocked unconscious as he tried to make his way to a demonstration. Later security services removed him from hospital—as his wife, reportedly, screamed from a locked room—and placed him in detention....
None of this was visible to the starry-eyed Parker, who could see only the triumph of a genuine people's democracy saved from the ravages of international capital by its heroic leader - and therefore by its example a threat to Western hegemony:
Although Belarus has a market economy, it has shown all too clearly what is possible when governments and presidents run a country not in the interests of foreign capitalists, or even solely in the interests of domestic capitalists, but actually take care of the interests of working people too. Belarusian MPs, and indeed President Lukashenko, come from very ordinary backgrounds, and the country operates a people’s assembly in which representatives from all areas and occupations discuss state policy with the president and government officials.
He notes, in a comment at the end, "Belarus is a country that tends to slip under the radar of most people especially on the left, who should be supporting it and holding it up as an example of a socially oriented system that works."
The People's Republic of China "liberated" Xinjiang, aka East Turkestan - that huge area to China's northwest - in 1949. Since then it's been fighting to crush any independence movement within the largely Muslim Uighur population, both by repression and by encouraging Han Chinese immigration. While the repression is constant, the details change. Prior to 2001, rebels were generally branded as CIA stooges. Since 9/11, those rebels have conveniently become al-Qaeda-like fundamentalists, and the crack-down slots neatly into the world-wide war on terror.
Accusations of genocide against the Uighurs have been made before. Now in this article in the Weekly Standard, Ethan Guttman ups the stakes. He finds evidence that the Chinese are organ-harvesting on a massive scale from Uighur political prisoners - who may not always be dead at the time:
In July 2009, Urumqi exploded in bloody street riots between Uighurs and Han Chinese. The authorities massed troops in the regional capital, kicked out the Western journalists, shut down the Internet, and, over the next six months, quietly, mostly at night, rounded up Uighur males by the thousands. According to information leaked by Uighurs held in captivity, some prisoners were given physical examinations aimed solely at assessing the health of their retail organs. The signals may be faint, but they are consistent, and the conclusion is inescapable: China, a state rapidly approaching superpower status, has not just committed human rights abuses—that’s old news—but has, for over a decade, perverted the most trusted area of human expertise into performing what is, in the legal parlance of human rights, targeted elimination of a specific group.
If the title of Guttman's article - The Xinjiang Procedure - brings to mind the thrillers of Robert Ludlum, it's not entirely inappropriate. The whole piece is a little breathless. Still, there are some chilling details:
If a Uighur couple had a second child, even if the birth was legally sanctioned, Chinese maternity doctors, she observed, administered an injection (described as an antibiotic) to the infant. The nurse could not recall a single instance of the same injection given to a Chinese baby. Within three days the infant would turn blue and die. Chinese staffers offered a rote explanation to Uighur mothers: Your baby was too weak, your baby could not handle the drug.
How are the preparations going for 2012, then? That's Juche 100 according to the North Korean calendar: 100 years since the birth of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, and the year when the Democratic People's Republic of Korea will finally show itself to the world as a Great and Prosperous Nation.
With 2012 and the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung right around the corner, North Korea is focusing heavily on securing funds for the completion of Pyongyang civil engineering projects.
The authorities are working at high speed on the construction of apartments, a department store, theaters and the Ryukyung Hotel, all the while working to create competition between organizations.
As is well known, this has included the mobilization of student labor. However, a South Korean source has now alleged that this has led to a series of accidents and the death of large numbers of the mobilized students.
The source revealed, “Due to the speed of the work and insufficient safety measures at the construction site, college students unfamiliar with the work environment are suffering fatal accidents, and word has spread in Pyongyang that hundreds of college students have died.”
Another source familiar with the situation agreed, saying, “Recent foreign visitors to Pyongyang say they heard rumors that hundreds died in accidents on construction sites, if these rumors were even heard by foreigners then it seems it must be a significant number of people.”
Well...it's all in a good cause.
Meanwhile, a preparatory committee has reportedly been formed and is in the midst of organizing international events for next year.
Last April, North Korea announced that 2012 will see an ‘International Friendship Meeting’ in commemoration of Kim Il Sung’s birthday, a ‘Pro-Unification International Convention’ and a ‘International Juche Convention’.
Accordingly, the committee is selecting influential foreign officials to invite and recruiting appropriate artists and organizations for the various events, and overseas organizations have begun recruiting applicants wishing to visit North Korea to add color to the audiences.
A great opportunity to visit, then - if you're fairly sanguine about the prospects of a collapsing hotel.
Michael Binyon in the Times (£) reports on the latest Wikileaks triumph:
The publication by WikiLeaks of the names of the seven remaining Jews in Baghdad has put their lives in immediate danger, according to Canon Andrew White, the Anglican vicar of the city.
The few remaining members of a once- thriving community have been obliged to conceal their religion after waves of persecution. They fear that if they are identified, extremists will kill them.
The Jerusalem Post covered this last month. The fact that it's now made it to the British press seems to be down to Alan Yentob:
A warning about the dangers that they face was to be broadcast this morning on the BBC Today programme by Alan Yentob, the creative director of the BBC, who has documented the exodus of Jews from Iraq and the sufferings of those who remained. The Last Jews of Iraq, a documentary by Yentob, will be broadcast on Radio 4 tomorrow.
He said that for 2,600 years, Mesopotamia had a thriving Jewish community. By the end of the First World War, a third of the population of Baghdad was Jewish, with the 1920s and 1930s seen as the golden years. The Second World War was the first blow to the community, with pogroms that forced many to flee. In one day alone, some 180 were killed. The great crisis came with the creation of Israel in 1948. Iraq sent an army to fight in Palestine, and the Government denounced the Jews living in Iraq as Zionists and traitors. Yentob, whose parents were Iraqi Jews, said that over the next two years around 90 per cent of the community left.
By the 1960s, only about 6,000 remained. They were forced to carry yellow identity cards and suffered harsh discrimination. During the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, they were again attacked as spies, and many were killed. Yentob said that many of those who went to Israel were overshadowed by the European Jewish immigrants. Those who went to Europe and America often did well. The Saatchi brothers, are two of the best-known in Britain.
For a moment there I thought we were going to see something on BBC TV - but no, it's just Radio 4. Better than nothing, of course...
The decimation of the Jewish communities across the Arab world - and the continuing power of Arab anti-semitism - is surely one of the great untold stories of recent Middle-Eastern history. It's worth pointing out that the day when 180 Jews were killed in Iraq - the Farhud - was in 1941, seven years before the creation of the state of Israel. Inspired by pro-Nazi Iraqi officers, it was perhaps the key moment in the death of Jewish Baghdad.
So yes, it would surely be worth a TV programme. Credit to Yentob for getting this on Radio 4 though:
Jews in Iraq? Alan Yentob investigates a 2600 year old community, now almost disappeared. Once they thrived as a third of Baghdad's population, now only seven Jewish people remain.
Few people realise there was once a thriving Jewish community in Iraq - in 1917 it was a third of Baghdad's population. Jewish people had government jobs and dominated the music scene. They were an integral part of the community, living peacefully with Arab neighbours. The Jews had been in Iraq for more than two and a half millennia, since it was called Babylon, and remembered in Psalms. For centuries it was the centre of Jewish learning. Alan speaks to people who remember a life in Baghdad characterised by integration, religious diversity and colourful traditions.
In the 40s, everything changed. Nazism, Arab-nationalism and anti-Zionist feeling created a wave of anti-semitism. Violent pogroms flared up, young Jewish men were publically hanged, Jews were forced from jobs. By the 1970s nearly all had left, many in 1951 when 110,000 people were flown to safety in Israel. We hear from those who remember the community's traumatic final days.
Now those few Jews who remain are hidden away. They will certainly be the last of the ancient Babylonian Jewish line, says Canon Andrew White, the 'Vicar of Baghdad'.
In a very personal programme, BBC Creative Director Alan Yentob, himself the child of Iraqi Jewish immigrants, looks into his heritage and uncovers the hidden history of the Jews of Iraq. Although the community is now almost vanished in Iraq itself, its traditions survive though around the world. With interviews, archive recordings and contemporary music, Alan brings its vibrancy to life.
But it's still presented as some sort of special personal thing for Yentob - a little historical backwater that he's interested in because he happens to be descended from Iraqi Jews himself - rather than the key piece of forgotten history that it really is: with special relevance, of course, for the Israel-Palestine conflict...a relevance, you can't help feeling, that fits uneasily with the usual BBC line.