This is NOT the official weblog of Mark Thomas; this is a place to post his articles and news to bring them to a wider audience. This blog is in no way endorsed by the activist/comedian Mark Thomas. Most of the posts appeared on - hopefully they won't object to them being republished here.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Britain is the Kimberley Quinn of despots

The war on drugs was a difficult war to fight, as essentially it was a war on plants. Notoriously hard to suppress and tricky to negotiate with, the plants have won. Fortunately, they have been unable to articulate their victory, saving numerous governments from embarrassment. Now we have the "war on terror". Again, difficult to fight conventionally, as "terror" is a concept, an emotion and a tactic: we might as well declare war on the variable speed of light, uncertainty and approaching people from behind. I just don't think George W Bush has understood the nature of terrorism. When asked recently how he felt about the increase of suicide bombings in Iraq, he replied: "Bring it on." Which is surely the worst way to react: the last thing you want to shout at people prepared to blow themselves up is, "Oi, jihadi, you're all mouth! You ain't got the bottle."

Whatever the semantics and propaganda of the "war on terror" one thing is reassuringly familiar - the west's choice of strange bedfellows. Our government's ability to jump into the sack with human rights abusers and undemocratic states that are "onside" or "strategically important" has not been more pronounced since . . . well, since we sold arms to Saddam Hussein. And, despite the odd murmur about human rights, Britain remains the Kimberley Quinn of torturers and despots.

Jack Straw might condemn Uzbekistan as hundreds are murdered, but, true to form, Britain armed that country. The Uzbek security services killed at least one opponent by boiling him alive, and I wouldn't be shocked if Britain sold them the kettles, too - all the while claiming that "if we didn't do it Tefal would".

Less reported, but no less disturbing, are the actions of Indonesia in West Papua. Indonesia is another ally in the "war on terror" and therefore "onside". Which, if previous form is anything to go by, means Britain sells it weapons, which will be used against a bunch of people on whose behalf some of us will be screaming at the UN, asking it to intervene, at some point in the future.

Here is the briefest history of West Papua. The Dutch colonial masters leave. Shortly afterwards, in 1961, West Papua declares the first moves to independence. It is promptly invaded by Indonesia. In 1969 a referendum on independence takes place, not with the territory's million or so inhabitants voting in free and fair elections, but with 1,022 Papuans, hand-picked by Indonesia, being forced to vote at gunpoint. I'll leave you to guess the result. The Free Papua Movement, a guerrilla group armed literally with bows and arrows, takes on the Indonesian military, which is supplied with non-wood and non-feather-based arms from the UK and US.

Decades pass, thousands die, West Papua is ignored by the G8, the EU, the international community - everyone except multinationals, which are extremely supportive of Indonesia's right to license exploitation of West Papua's mineral resources.

If West Papua's right to democracy and self-determination hasn't worried the world so far, it should do now. Because Indonesia is turning it into the next East Timor, and will do so with the help of a known Islamist terror group - Laskar Jihad. "What is Laskar Jihad and what does it do?" you may ask. Well, the clue is in the name.

Unsurprisingly for a militia with the word "jihad" in its title, it waged, from 2000, a genocidal holy war against Christians in Indonesia's Molucca Islands. Thousands of people died. It did so with the protection and assistance of the Indonesian military.

Although Laskar Jihad officially disbanded after the Bali bomb in 2002, reports have been coming in from human rights groups that it has been running training camps in West Papua since 2003.

The most compelling tales were broadcast this year in Australia on the current affairs show Dateline, on which the Reverend Socrates Sofyan Yoman, president of the Fellowship of Baptist Churches of West Papua, claimed jihadists were entering the region en masse. The programme also obtained testimony from a Papuan human rights activist who claimed to have infiltrated and trained with Laskar Jihad. He described its activities as "intimidating and killing Papuans who were involved in the Papua independence movement". All of this appears to be with the blessing of Indonesia's military. Rev Yoman says: "Wherever there are Indonesian soldiers, the militia and jihadists are there too. They are inseparable."

If jihadist training camps were found in an African state there would be uproar. At the very least, the US would have bombed a harmless pharmaceutical factory. This is where the "war on terror", in its hypocrisy, fails. Not only does the UK continue to arm Indonesia, but it can't even condemn the genocidal collaboration of jihadists and the Indonesian government as they crush a democratic independence movement of people armed just with bows and arrows.

Monday, May 02, 2005

The Threat of Banner-Waving

"Are you thinking what we're thinking?" Well, if you are thinking: "I'd rather get cancer than vote for Michael Howard," then the answer is: "Yes I am!" If, on the other hand, you are thinking: "Committed and casual racists vote Tory!" then the answer is: "No." Never has an election campaign been so offensive and yet so dull. Remember that someone actually got paid to come up with "Forward not back". A grown man (probably) in a suit shouted across a meeting: "I've got it! Forward not back!" He may well have been carried shoulder-high around the room in euphoria.

As, yet again, the election outcome depends upon key marginals – where all the parties' efforts are pitched to win those relatively small numbers of votes – so the process of democracy becomes only slightly more inclusive than the election of a new pope. And with just as much likelihood of radical change. What are the chances of reversing the ravages of privatisation, scrapping the private finance initiative and desisting from being America's stunted sidekick? It's as likely as a Marie Stopes clinic being set up in St Peter's Square*.

Our debased democracy is undermined even further as Labour's laws bear their bitter fruit and continue to restrict our right to protest. Ironically, it was protest that led to the Labour Party's very creation. The Chartists fought and died for the right to vote. In this country, women vote not as a result of marketing slogans, but because of protest and direct action. Our right to protest is the cornerstone of democracy. Has the Labour government forgotten all of this? Do bears shit in the woods? Does the Pope protect child abusers?

Consider Brian Haw. Brian has held a lone peace vigil in Parliament Square since July 2001, demonstrating against the sanctions on Iraq and war in that country. You might have seen him, if you have passed by during that time, standing amid flags and banners opposite our mother of parliaments. In the dying stages of the last parliament, Labour rushed through the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, which included clauses aimed at getting Brian removed.

It is now an offence for someone to be "spoiling the visual aspect, or otherwise spoiling the enjoyment by members of the public, of any part of the designated area [Parliament Square]". All of which is legal speak for: "Fuck off with your banners about the war." Furthermore, the bill prohibits demonstrations within a 1km radius of parliament without six days' notice and permission from the police, who can set a limit on the numbers of protesters and banners. We could now be arrested for having one too many placards.

Maybe I missed something. Maybe I've underestimated the threat of a banner. Maybe I had my ears blocked when the government said: "We were going to ask for Syria to leave the Lebanon, but not after such a wanton display of flag-waving by demonstrators." Nor did I hear the announcement, "Well, you can understand why any Ukrainian autocrat would rig the election, after such a violent use of the colour orange."

Consider Lindis Percy. She is a registered midwife, Quaker and peace activist who demonstrates at Menwith Hill, the US spy base near Harrogate in Yorkshire. Because she has protested against the base and its role in guiding bombers into action in Iraq, she is being threatened with an antisocial behaviour order by the Ministry of Defence police.

That sounds reasonable; after all, you can't move round our way for gangs of Quaker midwives downing alcopops outside the community centre, shouting at local residents: "You better be having a natural childbirth or we'll fucking do you!" and "See your missus? I stitched her!" Quaker midwives? Don't get me started. They are forever nicking ambulances and doing doughnuts in the residents-only parking spaces.

Consider the case of EDO MBM Technology, an arms company based in Brighton, merrily producing the release mechanisms and guidance systems for the bombs dropped on Iraq. Faced with protesters outside its doors, it has sought an injunction to create an exclusion zone around the factory, on public highways and the park by the factory. "Against who?" you ask. Against everyone who might not like its work; if the injunction is granted, anyone who walks past its gates with a "Smash EDO" badge could be arrested. Unless they are doing it on Thursdays, when the company has generously said it will allow no more than ten people to protest – quietly.

You have to wonder if it's worth defending a democracy so fragile that it has to try to crush a sole protester outside parliament, a Quaker at a military base, and anyone and everyone who wanders past an arms factory with a bad attitude.

* Any reader with knowledge of planning application law in Vatican City, please get in touch. It's worth a go.