Friday, October 19, 2007


Last weekend, we smushed George Bush. In fact, we smushed him so badly, his head came off.

So what were we up to exactly?

I think we were celebrating freedom of speech and expression while playing with a rubber doll. I doubt there are too many countries in the world that sell little caricature rubber pieces of their President or Prime Minister at the national airport. And since they do in America, they went the whole hog and added the words ‘No Brainer’ at the back of his head.

I bought one and introduced him to my three year old niece. I told her he was ‘George Bush’ and that she could go ahead and ‘smush him.’ She did it in right earnest. In fact once when she dropped him she prophetically said, “George Bush went down.”

Of course, honey. He’s definitely headed that way.

By Sunday night she had been kneading little rubber Bush with such gusto that his head came off. We put it back on because we won’t be denied the joy of smushing Bush.

Monday, October 08, 2007


‘Don’t go for gas, go for democracy.’

As India’s petroleum minister drove to the New Delhi airport on his way to Burma (Myanmar), pro-democracy protesters lined the streets with this message. But even as blood flowed on the streets of Rangoon, India went with blinders on, just for the oil.

Last week in mysterious, isolated Burma, democracy was crushed once again. Buddhist monks spearheading a new pro-democracy struggle were rounded up, beaten, jailed, and even killed when they rose up against the repression of their military rulers. The desperate Burmese looked to India for help and moral support because none was forthcoming from China. But India’s response was frustratingly typical. Like an ostrich sensing trouble – India buried its head in the sand, calling the protests Burma’s “internal matter.”

The world’s largest democracy, India, must shed this timidity, and mark its presence on the international stage by wielding more influence in the region. This fence-sitting is terrible for its image.

Boasting an annual growth rate of more than 9%, India has significant energy interests that have overtaken principled foreign policy issues. But the return on investment thus far in Burma is so below par that even the two main issues of the politics of realism or realpolitik do not justify India’s silence.

First, energy hungry China and India are competing for Burma’s natural gas and oil reserves. To achieve this, India started wooing the military junta in 1994. But in the last 13 years India has received no gas from Burma. Indeed, a few weeks ago, two contracts were awarded to PetroChina.

Second, Burma shares a border with India’s volatile north-east, plagued by tribal insurgency. India believes it needs the Burmese military’s help to flush out insurgents setting up training camps on the Burmese side. But, of the many groups that operate there, the Burmese army has taken action against only one, with whom India had a ceasefire anyway. Burma even receives arms and ammunition from India for these so-called counter-insurgency operations.

It seems then that tiny, dictatorial Burma benefits more from this relationship with India than the other way around. That’s pathetic for a country that likes the title of ‘superpower’. Now is the time to enhance that reputation because India has gained little from Burma anyway.
Besides, India can’t wish away Burma’s struggle for democracy. Economists warn that the uprisings will keep returning to political centre-stage in Burma because of the fragile nature of its economy. The Army has made most Burmese hopelessly poor. This latest struggle began on August 15th when the junta recklessly withdrew fuel subsidies. The price of gas went through the roof, rising almost 500%. Most Burmese could not even afford a bus ride. The Generals are handling the economy so poorly, that unrest might become a permanent feature in Burma. Given this situation, India will have to deal with its eastern neighbour sooner or later. It simply can’t afford to look away every time.

India must support democracy in Burma. As the only stable democracy in the region, it has the moral authority to preach it. It can’t justify supporting the dictators because it has gained nothing yet from the relationship economically either.

The Burmese have faced grave injustice for more than four decades. They want democracy but it’s been snatched from them with guns and violence every time.

Ironically on 15th August, when unrest began, India was celebrating its 60th year of independence. It’s time then for the world’s largest democracy to speak up boldly and stand up for freedom in its own backyard.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


On the empty street outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Ahmed would often find himself alone with his massive shadow. He feared the militias were waiting to kill him for working as an interpreter for the Americans.

When Ahmed requested his American bosses turn off the floodlights as he left, he was assured that somewhere in a watchtower American snipers were watching his back.

Months later, Ahmed went up there to thank them. The snipers didn’t know what he was talking about and then could only laugh. Ahmed felt betrayed. He realized no one was looking out for him. He had just been lucky. The Iraqis were on their own. As they are today.

Hundreds of loyal Iraqis are on the run from militias for helping America. They want asylum in the U.S. But America has yawned in their faces. Iraqis are dying while America’s refugee program remains riddled with red-tape.

America has a moral obligation in Iraq, and it should do more to help law-abiding Iraqis who supported its war efforts to get out of there.

Ahmed is part of the massive humanitarian crisis unfolding in Iraq. According to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) 4.2 million people have been displaced. Jordan and Syria have each taken in more than a million Iraqis.

America had promised to provide refuge to 7000 Iraqis by the end of September. Only 829 have been admitted. Ryan Crocker, U.S. Ambassador in Iraq, says that at this rate Iraqis will have to wait anywhere between 10 months to two years to get a visa, if at all. Crocker articulated the asylum seekers desperation when he sent two damning cables to Washington. One was bluntly titled, ‘Iraqi Refugee Processing: Can We Speed it Up?’

There are legitimate security concerns for America. Could the U.S. be letting in disgruntled Iraqis who could turn against the country? It’s possible and that’s why the security screening should not be lenient. What Washington should do however is respond with the sense of urgency that Crocker is demanding.
America can begin by implementing a few of Crocker’s suggestions immediately - Put more people on the job at the embassy in Amman, allow at least Iraqi employees like Ahmed to apply for visas in Baghdad, and try interviewing Iraqis through video conferencing.

The whole process of for refugee status needs to be simpler. Iraqis can’t even apply for refugee status within their own country. The U.S. considers it too unsafe to let so many people into the Green Zone in Baghdad. So, Iraqis have to undertake a perilous journey to the U.S. Embassy in Amman to apply. The understaffed embassy there begins processing their papers while the Iraqis return to the minefield of home, to wait. But, as Crocker has pointed out, the much awaited call could come up to two years later. In Iraq’s tumultuous conditions, that is far too long.

Acknowledging Crocker’s missive however is at odds with the noises the Bush administration makes about the war. If we are told that the situation on the streets of Baghdad is improving, then how come there is a mass exodus of people fleeing to Jordan, Syria, Sweden, Norway, Germany and Denmark, and now clamoring to enter America?

The propaganda about this war lies at the heart of the problem plaguing America’s response to this massive displacement of people. Instead of responding to the refugee problem highlighted by its own ambassador in Baghdad, the Bush administration has started its usual round of finger-pointing. While the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department engage in the blame game, this crisis is costing lives in Iraq.

The refugee problem needs to go right on top of the Iraq agenda. Every humanitarian agency working in Iraq recognizes its explosive nature except America. The UNHCR has said that relocating within Iraq is not an option for asylum seekers from Southern and Central Iraq - they simply have to get out of there or they’ll get killed. It has also doubled its budget to $123 million to tackle the crisis.

America needs to help the refugees now to save the lives of loyal Iraqis like Ahmed. By speeding up the refugee intake, the U.S has a real opportunity to do something it hasn’t done in a long time – regain some moral support in the world by restoring the faith of old friends.