Friday 25 April 2014

A report from the Burmese delta

Next Friday, 2 May, The World Tonight will broadcast my report from the Burmese delta, six years after the region was devastated by Cyclone Nargis and at least 140,000 people were killed. The following piece appears in the new edition of Radio Times. 

Tattered white strips of cloth still flutter from the trees that overhang the wide waterways of the Burmese delta, distress signals from six years ago when Cyclone Nargis devastated the region. They are a poignant reminder of a time when the people who lived here waited desperately for help after one of the worst natural disasters of modern times. The message was a simple one: Please help us.

But little help came. The military regime that had ruled Burma for more than 45 years banned all foreign relief organisations from the delta – and no one knows to this day how many people died. The estimates start at 140,000. I remember interviewing the then Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, at the time, and pressing him again and again: why wasn’t more being done to help the people of the delta in their hour of need?

So now, here I am, six years later, to see for myself what kind of a life the survivors have managed to rebuild for themselves. I travel in a wooden, flat-bottomed boat, sometimes inching our way through shallow channels to get to villages that can be reached only at high tide. At night, I sleep on the floor in a village school, and I wash at a tank of rainwater in the school courtyard.

There was a time when the Burmese delta, criss-crossed by countless waterways, rivers, channels and canals as the Irrawaddy river makes its way towards the Andaman Sea, was the main rice-growing region of Asia. But it is remote and isolated, without roads, electricity, or telephones, so how can it compete now with Burma’s regional super-power neighbours, India and China?

Today the delta is one of the poorest regions in one of the poorest countries in Asia. The people here have been ignored for so long that they expect little help, even when disaster strikes. They eke out a living, fishing and growing rice and vegetables, and they pray for no more cyclones. Their simple wooden houses, with their thatched roofs, didn’t stand a chance when Nargis struck. Hundreds of villages were flattened. Literally.

Thein Thein Nyein was a 10-year-old schoolgirl six years ago. Now she’s a confident, self-assured teenager, with ambitions to become a lawyer. But her voice falters as she remembers Nargis. “We were so frightened. We spent the whole night praying, it was freezing cold, and we were scared of the snakes. Then the next day we looked for our home, but it had gone. Everything had gone; there was nothing left.”

Fishermen’s boats had been smashed; their nets had been ripped to shreds. Their farm tools had been swept away as the cyclone brought seawater crashing deep inland. Even today, the salt that stayed in the ground after the seawater receded means that crop yields are still lower than before the cyclone.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the villagers' priorities were to rebuild their houses and find food and drinking water. One man tells me how he retrieved driftwood from the river to build a new home for his family. Once, it had been someone else’s home, somewhere up river. Who knows what happened to them?

But now let me introduce you to May Tha-Hla. She’s a London-based market researcher, whose father came from the delta and later became head of Rangoon University. She flew to Burma as soon as she could after Cyclone Nargis to see what help she might be able to provide.

The villagers of the delta begged for help to rebuild their schools. Without schools, their children would receive no education, and without an education, they would have no chance of building a better life. So May set up a charity -- Helping the Burmese Delta -- to raise funds to build schools. Six years on, she and her co-founder husband, Jon Wilkinson, running the charity on a shoestring, have built nearly 20, with more on the way.

They are with me on this trip, so I have a chance to see some of the schools. Each one is a single room, about 45 feet by 18 feet, sturdily built above ground level, with a green-painted metal roof. Inside are rows of wooden benches and a blackboard. Children of all ages up to 13 are taught together in groups, often by a single teacher.

It costs less than £6,000 to build and equip one of these schools -- and once the timber has been bought, it can be built in about three weeks. In some schools, the villagers pay the teacher's salary themselves -- the going rate is equivalent to about £10 a week, usually paid in rice. If the government takes over the running of the school, it will pay for the teacher, usually about twice what the villagers paid, and then something very interesting happens.

In villages with no school, local people move away, looking for somewhere where they can educate their children. In villages which do have a school -- and even more so in villages where the government pays for the running of the school -- people move in from other villages. So a village with a school is a growing village, and in a growing village, there's more of a chance of a decent life. 
 In the bustling village of Yay Kyaw Toe, May's charity has now built a high school, where older children are educated to university-entrance level. I meet the chairman of the village council, U Thein Htway, in the local teashop, where there's an impressive array of rice, noodles and green vegetables on display. "We never dreamt there would be a high school here," he says with pride. "Now our children have a chance to go on to university and to get decent jobs. And even if they don't come back to live here, they'll send money back to their families, so everyone will benefit."

Cyclone Nargis was one of the five deadliest cyclones of the past 100 years. Six years on, the people of the Irrawaddy delta are still struggling to rebuild their lives. But at least now, outsiders can see for themselves what needs to be done. And that, say the villagers, gives them real hope for the future.

Helping The Burmese Delta is at
More photos from my trip are available here.

Thursday 17 April 2014

When countries fall apart

It's beginning to look as if Ukraine, as currently constituted, is well on the way to becoming a non-functioning state. So let's ask the really difficult question: so what?

After all, it wouldn't be the first country to fall apart. Some do it relatively painlessly -- take a bow, Czechoslovakia -- others do it drenched in blood -- Yugoslavia, Sudan, and Ethiopia.

And, whisper who dares, what about the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland if Scotland decides to go its separate way? Or even Spain, if the Catalans have their way?

National borders are sometimes no more than lines drawn on a map, often by colonial powers who had little or no understanding of -- or indeed interest in -- ethnic or religious loyalties. Ukraine has been fought over, controlled, and divided for much of its history -- as recently as the 1920s, bits of it were handed over to Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia. Western Ukraine was snatched from Poland and handed over to Moscow in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939.

What all this means is that Ukraine in its current incarnation is a very modern, and very artificial, construct. (Crimea was handed over to Ukraine by Khrushchev only in 1954.) And if some of its people aren't happy with where the borders are, why shouldn't they have the right to change them?

That's the theory, anyway. The reality, unfortunately, is a great deal more complex, which is why one of the most hallowed tenets of international law is that internationally recognised borders are sacrosanct. Any attempt to change them by force is regarded in law as an act of aggression.

It's been evident ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, from which Ukraine re-emerged as an independent state, that the people in the west of the country -- what had been Poland until 1939 -- have a very different world view from those who live closer to Russia, many of whom are Russian-speaking and whose centre of gravity tends to be Moscow. Much of the current crisis stems from a historic refusal to recognise the political implications of that divide.

So now we are where we are. Both Kiev and Moscow say they're prepared to talk about new constitutional arrangements that would give more autonomy to the people of eastern Ukraine. Trouble is they are miles apart on how much autonomy is reasonable: Moscow wants Ukraine's eastern regions to be free to adopt their own foreign policy (now, why would that be important to the Kremlin, I wonder?), while Kiev, understandably enough, regards that as several steps too far.

All this would be tricky enough to resolve even without the big power posturing that overlies so much of the current crisis. Both Moscow on the one hand, and the EU and Washington on the other, seem to see Ukraine as a tug-of-war, pulling in opposite directions to drag Ukrainians into one camp or the other. It's not a pretty sight.

I don't see why it would be such a tragedy if Ukraine and Russia redrew their borders, with one, all-important proviso: that it is done in accordance with the wishes of the majority of the people in the region affected, as expressed in a fairly-conducted referendum. After all, that's what is planned for the people of Scotland …

The best we can hope for -- and by "best", I mean best for the people of Ukraine -- is that the men with the balaclavas and the guns and the not-so-mysterious origins will hold their fire, and that the Ukrainian armed forces will act with maximum restraint, while politicians and diplomats try to hammer out a constitutional reform package that both sides can live with.

In theory, it's not impossible. In practice, I'm not very hopeful. But at least can we stop pretending that there's something immovable about current borders or unchangeable about constitutional arrangements. Borders have changed throughout history, usually as a result of war. Is it really beyond the wit of man to change them peacefully?

Friday 11 April 2014

Politician, heal thyself

I have a very simple message for MPs after the events of the past few days: if you want to be respected, behave respectably.

If you don't want us to have contempt for you, don't behave contemptibly.
I mean, how difficult is it to behave like decent, law-abiding human beings? No cheating, no lying, no stealing from taxpayers. 

If you're serious about cracking down on "benefit cheats" (just 2% of benefits paid are due to fraud or error, according to the government's own figures), you could start by looking in the mirror. Funny, isn't it, how no one called our recently-departed culture secretary a "benefit cheat"?

And it's interesting, too, how little sympathy from her colleagues there was for Maria Miller, who by all accounts didn't exactly go out of her way to make friends, compared to the outpouring of sympathy for her fellow Conservative MP Nigel Evans, who was acquitted yesterday of sexual assault charges.

Too few MPs, it seems, have bothered to remember the old adage: Be nice to people on your way up, because you'll need them on your way down.

I blame the schools they went to. Did no one teach them the basic tenets of civilised behaviour? Surely they went to Bible classes?

Matthew 7:12: "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them."

Or, if you prefer, Luke 6:31: "As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise."

Perhaps some MPs weren't brought up in the Christian faith. Never mind, Confucius had a similar idea: "What you do not want others to do to you, do not do unto others."

And Jews should be familiar with Talmud Shabbat 31a: "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellowmen." Not for nothing is the principle known as the Golden Rule; just about every religion has a similar precept.

I am, as you may have noticed by now, a passionate believer in parliamentary democracy as the least bad way of organising a country's political affairs. But oh, how I wish politicians wouldn't make it so damn difficult to defend the work that they do.

Not all of them, of course. Nigel Evans, for example, seems to have behaved entirely honourably as he faced a deeply unpleasant ordeal. As a result, he has a pretty good chance of returning to his old job as deputy speaker of the House of Commons. If he can face it …

So here, because I like to be helpful, is my little cut-out-and-keep guide for MPs in trouble.

1. Always apply the Private Eye test: would you be happy if what you're about to do appeared in Private Eye? If the answer is No, don't do it. Simples.

2. If allegations are made against you and it's a fair cop, say so, explain if you must, then quit. Quickly.

3. If the allegations aren't true, say so, resign if you have a front-bench job, and say you hope to be back after you've been cleared.

4. If you're a minister and your department is responsible for an almighty cock-up, admit it, apologise, and resign. You enjoy the perks when the going is good; this is the price you pay. Does anyone still remember Lord Carrington, who resigned as foreign secretary in 1982 after Argentina invaded the Falklands? It was hardly his fault, but he took responsibility.

5. And one last piece of advice for prime ministers: if a member of your Cabinet is in serious trouble, don't think you can tough it out. You can't, and you'll be damaged goods when you lose.

The late, great political columnist Alan Watkins, from whom I learned everything I needed to know about politics, first as an avid reader of his columns and then as a colleague, used to say: "Politics is a rough old trade." And so it is. No politician should ever even dream of complaining "It's not fair."

If UKIP do well in next month's European parliament elections, I won't be blaming the people who voted for them. I'll be blaming the entire political class who gave them so many good reasons to do so.

Politician, heal thyself.

Friday 4 April 2014

Living in the shadow of genocide

We live, 20 years after the murder of an estimated 800,000 people, in the shadow of Rwanda. And this weekend, on the anniversary of the start of the Rwanda genocide, is a good time to contemplate the significance of that shadow.

A tiny country, in the middle of Africa, less than one tenth the size of the UK: how come Rwanda forced the rewriting of the rules of international behaviour?

One word sums it up: shame. Shame that the peoples of the rich world stood by, saw what was happening, and did nothing to stop the slaughter. And out of that shame grew a new doctrine, solemnly endorsed by the United Nations. It became known as the responsibility to protect (R2P in diplo-speak), and it was drawn up, in the words of the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, "to address the international community’s failure to prevent and stop genocides, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity".

Quite right, too. In Kosovo, and then in Sierra Leone, international military action did stop the brutal slaughter of civilians.  Tony Blair made a speech in Chicago in April 1999 in which he unveiled what he called his "doctrine of international community".

In it, he said: "We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not. We cannot refuse to participate in global markets if we want to prosper. We cannot ignore new political ideas in other counties if we want to innovate. We cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure."

But then came the US-led invasions of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, and of Iraq in 2003. Neither, despite what might have been claimed at the time, was in any sense a humanitarian intervention; and both turned into grim, messy military occupations. It didn't take long for voters to lose faith in the notion that military interventions in far-away places might help to make the world a better place.

Nowhere does Rwanda cast a longer shadow than in Syria. War crimes and crimes against humanity aplenty, an estimated 150,000 people killed, yet no protection on offer from foreign powers. Why? Because of Afghanistan and Iraq. Because memories of losses there, both military and civilian, are far fresher than memories of the horrors of Rwanda.

This is not an argument for sending in foreign troops to Syria. To do so, in my judgement, would make an appalling conflict even worse. But surely we need to ask ourselves this weekend, as we are reminded of how we failed the people of Rwanda 20 years ago, if we are failing the people of Syria today.

And while I'm on the subject of failing to live up to our solemnly-proclaimed "responsibility to protect", how about the people of the Central African Republic, far closer to Rwanda than Syria is? It's estimated that up to a million people there have had to flee from their homes -- most of them Muslims, terrified of Christian militias who have embarked on a sectarian cleansing campaign of brutal ferocity.

At a summit meeting of EU and African leaders in Brussels this week, the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon warned that the violence in the Central African Republic could soon turn into genocide. That word again. The shadow of Rwanda again.

There are already some 8,000 African and French troops in the country, but I have yet to detect any sense of urgency -- responsibility, if you prefer -- to protect the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled in fear of their lives.

Yes, I know. We can't save everyone. We're broke, and military expeditions are hugely expensive. But that's not really it, is it? We've lost the will, as well as the means.

But here's the thing about shadows. You can turn your back on them, but even if you ignore them, they're still there. You can't get rid of them. That's why I say we are still living in the shadow of Rwanda.