Allan Nairn: Obama Administration Mulls Ending Training Ban on Atrocity-Linked Indonesian Special Forces Unit
Tune in on Friday for a special report from investigative journalist Allan Nairn on the White House’s proposal to lift a ban on U.S. training of a controversial elite Indonesian military unit known as Kopassus. The special forces unit has been linked to scores of human rights abuses in East Timor, Aceh, Papua, and Java since its formation in the 1950s. We reached Allan in Indonesia on Thursday afternoon. The entire interview can be heard online here.
Tune in on Friday for a special report from investigative journalist Allan Nairn on the White House’s proposal to lift a ban on U.S. training of a controversial elite Indonesian military unit known as Kopassus. The special forces unit has been linked to scores of human rights abuses in East Timor, Aceh, Papua, and Java since its formation in the 1950s. We reached Allan in Indonesia on Thursday afternoon. The entire interview can be heard online here.
ALLAN NAIRN: President Obama wants to restore military aid to the Indonesian armed forces, including Kopassus, the Red Berets. I’ve just come out with a piece that shows that the Indonesian army and Kopassus have been involved in a series of recent assassinations of civilian political activists. The piece names the names of the officers involved, including a Kopassus general named Sunarko. These assassinations were carried out in the region of Aceh in late 2009.
They targeted activists for the Aceh — the Partai Aceh, which is pro-independence. In one case, the case of a man named Tumijan, he was abducted, tortured to death. His body was dumped in a sewage ditch near an army post. In another, a man was sitting in his car outside his house. An assassin walked up, put two bullets in his head through the window.
According to a senior Indonesian official with detailed information on these murders, they’re part of a program of political murder being carried out by TNI, the Indonesian armed forces, and Kopassus and by military intelligence. And so, these killings are still going on today. And Obama is about to give them new aid on the pretense that the Indonesian army has reformed and has stopped killing civilians, which is false.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you know this, Allan?
ALLAN NAIRN: From people inside the Indonesian government, who gave the names of some of the killers and the officers they work for. And just a few hours ago, I spoke on the phone with General Aditya, who is the head of the police in Aceh, and he confirmed that his forces had in fact detained some of the assassins who were working for the army. They’d been holding them for months, but they never announced this, because they were afraid to do it. The police are afraid of the army. But when I asked him about it directly, he admitted it publicly for the first time. The Indonesian police have confirmed this. They know about it, but they’re afraid to act. The Indonesian army and Kopassus are running a program of killing civilians, and it’s active right now. And Obama wants to give them new US weapons, training and money.
AMY GOODMAN: Why does President Obama want to give them this money? I think we’re hearing a lot about the war on terror.
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, first the White House makes the argument that the atrocities are a thing of the past. The Indonesian military has killed hundreds of thousands, perhaps close to a million, civilians. But the White House argues, well, that’s in the past. But as I’ve just described, that’s a lie, that’s not true. Secondly, the White House claims that they want to use the Indonesian army to fight Islamist terror groups in Indonesia. They want to use them and a special anti-terrorist unit called Densus 88.
AMY GOODMAN: And Densus 88 is what?
ALLAN NAIRN: Densus 88 is a police SWAT-style task force that was originally created by US intelligence under the initiative of Cofer Black, formerly of the CIA, now with Blackwater. Two nights ago, I met with the Densus people, who described how were they — were trained in Jakarta and elsewhere by a CIA personnel in tactics including surveillance, how to pursue and snatch people, and interrogation.
AMY GOODMAN: But this issue of terrorism, of Islamist terror, can you expand on that more?
ALLAN NAIRN: In Indonesia, there are currently Islamist terror groups that have killed several hundred people. They bombed luxury hotels in Jakarta. They bombed a night club. They bombed two night clubs in Bali. They’ve killed several hundred in recent years.
The Indonesian military and police, on the other hand, have killed many hundreds of thousands. And for years, the Indonesian military and police have been sponsoring Islamist terror groups. They’ve been using them for their own purposes. They sent them into Poso and the Malukus. Indonesian generals back them. They went on Indonesian military transports. They use them to attack Christian villagers, while other elements of the army and police back the Christian villagers. The idea was to create chaos to try to destabilize the government of then Indonesian president Gus Dur. And it succeeded.
On another occasion, the Indonesian army sent a group called Laskar Jihad, an Islamist terror group, into Aceh to try to wean people away from supporting the pro-independence movement in Aceh. They were immediately driven out by the Acehnese. The Indonesian police have backed a group called the FPI, the Islamic Defenders Front, which goes around Jakarta in Islamic dress busting up bars which don’t give sufficient payoffs — payoffs to the police. Then the presidential intelligence agency, which reports now directly to General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the president of Indonesia, they have in the past made payments to Laskar Jihad and sent them into Papua.
Papua is a region in the eastern part of Indonesia, which is under de facto occupation by the Indonesian armed forces and Kopassus. They’re conducting terror operations there, sometimes using these Islamist forces, sometimes using Kopassus men directly. There have been abductions, assassinations. And in one case, the Densus 88 antiterrorist force went into Papua and arrested a man because he had been sending SMS text messages that were critical of President Susilo. So here you have the CIA-trained supposed anti-terror unit arresting a peaceful civilian because he uses his cell phone to send out messages criticizing the President. This particular unit, Densus, is expected to be one of the groups that is focused on in Obama’s visit, and he’s expected to highlight their work with the US and perhaps even announce new aid for them.
So what they’ve been doing, what the TNI and POLRI, the Indonesian armed forces and police, have been doing, with these various Islamist terror groups is they’ve been setting them up, funding them, using them for their convenience. But also, when it is sometimes convenient, they’ve been killing them. And that’s what they’re doing right now.
In the run-up to Obama’s visit over the past two weeks, they’ve done a series of raids on these various Islamist groups. They’ve killed a number of them. They’ve arrested many others. They’ve arrested people from mosques, who they claim are linked to them. And as one police general privately put it the other day, they’re putting on a show for Obama. They want to get new helicopters, new transport planes, new interrogation equipment and training, more computers to spy on more cell phones, more surveillance equipment. They want more of everything from the United States. And by killing people from the Islamist movement that they’ve been sponsoring for years, they cynically hope that that will sell America.
It’s actually similar, in some respects, to the situation in Pakistan with ISI, the military Inter-Services Intelligence agency. That’s the outfit that worked with the US in helping to create the bin Laden forces that the US used against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the group, the ISI, that later went on to help launch the Afghan Taliban. Now the ISI is a close ally of Obama and General McChrystal and Richard Holbrook and the others who are running US-Afghan-Pakistan policy. So, with the one hand, the ISI is taking US money, the US weapons, and they’re, at Obama’s insistence, launching these offensive offensives on the border regions, which are causing extensive civilian death and retaliatory bombings in the cities of Pakistan. But with the other hand, as military people in the region have said just in recent weeks, all evidence is that that same ISI is continuing to sponsor the Afghan Taliban. So the Indonesian military is playing a similar double game.
The bigger picture, though, is that the Islamist terror groups in Indonesia are relatively small-time killers. They’ve killed a couple of hundred. It’s the Indonesian army and police who are the bigger-time killers. They’ve killed many hundreds of thousands. And, of course, it’s the US government itself, represented by President Obama, that is the bigger killer still, since the kind of operation the US has run in Indonesia, arming, training and financing forces like the TNI/POLRI, which systematically murders civilians, the US is doing that in dozens upon dozens of countries around the world.
It says something about the state of US politics now that this push to renew aid or increase aid to the Indonesian military is coming under a liberal Democratic President Obama. It’s coming while Obama has as his Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights a man named Michael Posner, who used to be one of the leading human rights advocates in the US. He ran a group in New York called the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, later renamed Human Rights First. They did very good work, for example, on pushing for justice in the case of Munir, the top Indonesian human rights lawyer who was assassinated by BIN, the presidential intelligence agency, by General Muchdi and General Hendro Priyono, who was a CIA asset. But now Posner is in the State Department. He’s running the Human Rights Bureau. And he and Obama and others are, by all reports, getting ready to circumvent congressional restrictions and push through, restore aid to — restore training aid to Kopassus, the most notorious of the killer forces and the one of the forces that, as I’m reporting today, have been involved in this recent wave of assassinations against political activists in Aceh.
AMY GOODMAN: What would the effect, Allan Nairn, of full restoration of military aid to Indonesia have?
ALLAN NAIRN: It would mean more killing, more killing of civilians, because it would make the Indonesian armed forces and police more confident. It would send the message to the Indonesian public that they have more reason to be afraid of the army and police, because now they will be able to see that those forces have the full might of America behind them. So it’ll mean more death and more terror on the popular level.
On the other hand, it’s also the case that the situation is now different than it was in the 1990s. In the 1990s, after the Dili massacre in occupied East Timor, the massacre that we survived, a grassroots movement grew up in the United States, including the East Timor Action Network, and we were all able to pressure the US Congress to cut off a lot of the military aid to Indonesia. That was under the dictatorship of General Suharto. And that cutoff had a huge effect within Indonesia. It actually contributed to the downfall of Suharto. That’s what Suharto’s former security chief, Admiral Sudomo, told me. The cutoff was very damaging to them. It helped to bring down Suharto.
Then, over the years after that, the aid has — much of the aid has gradually been restored. But Indonesia is not now in a moment where the army’s power is in the balance. Popular movements are very weak. Much of the middle class, including many middle-class NGO people, have been essentially bought off by the regime. They have very comfortable lives. Foreign expatriates have very comfortable lives. They’re making the claim that Indonesia is the new model of democracy, even though the poor, who are the vast majority in the country, are being terrorized by the police on a daily basis and, in key areas like Papua, terrorized by the army.
So, at this moment, it’s not as if, if the US withheld the military aid, that could bring down the army as earlier withholding helped to bring down Suharto, but it will have a marginal effect of definitely increasing the killing and torture that Indonesians suffer. So if Obama does that, he should be held to account.
You know, if we lived in a civilized world, which we don’t, when Obama showed up in Indonesia, the Indonesians should be ready to arrest him. Under international law, they would have the right to arrest him and put him on trial for the civilian killings that his forces are carrying out, by drone, for example, in Pakistan or Afghanistan. And likewise, when Indonesian generals come to visit the US, US police should be willing to arrest them and have courts put them on trial for the atrocities they have committed in Aceh, Papua, occupied Timor, Jakarta and elsewhere. But that doesn’t happen, because the murder laws don’t get enforced, international law doesn’t function, and we’re living in a world order where major states like Indonesia and the US are still governed by killers. But we often try to pretend otherwise, so we end up having these empty discussions about pressing for human rights, when what’s actually happening is giving guns to assassins.
AMY GOODMAN: Allan Nairn, can you talk more about how the Indonesians are preparing for President Obama’s visit? Of course, it’s a big deal on both sides. For them, this is the first president who spent a part of his life in their country, growing up, going to school. And, of course, for President Obama, it will be an emotional return to a place where he lived with his mother and his step-father.
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, you know, the Indonesian reaction to Obama, from the time he was first elected, is very interesting. When it happened, I was — that day, I was talking to some people in a kampung, a very important neighborhood. It’s people that I know very well. And one of the women who gets up at 4:00 a.m. to work in the market said that the neighborhood women had just been discussing Obama’s election, and they had concluded that it was a very good thing, because, they said, for so long, the black-skinned people in America have suffered, and now maybe Obama will put a stop to that. That was the way — and that was impressive, because these were people who live on a couple of dollars per day, whose children often face hunger and brain stunting, and here they were thinking about the poor and oppressed people in the United States, who materially live on a much higher level than they do.
But in Jakarta, among the elite, among the army, the police, the policy circles around them, the expatriate community, they viewed Obama differently. They viewed him as their meal ticket, their thinking being, well, he’s got personal ties to Indonesia, so now we’ll be able to use that to get him to restore our full military aid from Washington. And I guess they were right in their prediction, because, by all accounts, that’s what Obama is planning to do this coming — this coming Tuesday.
It’s especially outrageous on his part, because Obama is a US president who actually understands Indonesia. He was a young boy when he lived there, but in his books he makes it clear that he knew about the massacres that were going on in the 1960s, the massacres that brought the current regime to power. The army ousted Sukarno, the founding president. The US backed the terror in which more than 400,000 rural peasants, many of them members of the Communist party, were executed. The CIA gave a list of 5,000 dissidents, who they called Communists. Also they were also shot and strangled and slashed to death. And Obama knew about all this. He lived there afterwards. He wrote about it in his book. And he’s a smart guy. I’m sure he knows the story of the invasion of East Timor, which was authorized by President Ford and Henry Kissinger; about the very recent terror in Aceh; about the ongoing de facto
occupation of Papua. And yet, on the really transparently ridiculous excuse that the TNI is the agency to fight a small Islamist terror group which is in Indonesia, he’s about to supposedly restore, increase US weapons and training to this army.
And, you know, the case is sometimes made, well, if the US trains them more, they’ll respect human rights more. Well, what did the US train them in before? US trained Kopassus and the other Indonesian commando forces in — and this is according to Pentagon documents — in topics such as psychological operations, urban warfare, advanced sniper technique. They trained them in air assault. They trained them in ground assault. They trained them in interrogation. The Defense Intelligence Agency, operating through an officer named Colonel McFetridge, actually had a close liaison with Kopassus at the time, in 1998, when Suharto was about to fall, when Kopassus was going around Jakarta systematically kidnapping activists. Kopassus, the most notorious of those many hated Indonesian army units, the Red Berets, they are the unit that has been most intensively trained over the years by the United States. Their leaders have gone to Fort Benning and Fort Bragg for training. American Green Berets have come over to Indonesia to train them. They’re the ones who’ve gotten the most exposure. In fact, General Prabowo, their former commander, probably the single most notorious general in Indonesia, he once told me that Kopassus was the single unit of the Indonesian armed forces that was most closely identified with the United States and with US military doctrine. So it’s US military doctrine and training and weapons that they have — that the Indonesian forces have applied as, in recent decades, they’ve carried out massacres that have made them among the world’s most lethal armies, lethal in terms of killing civilians. So the notion that more US aid and weapons will make them kill fewer people is completely contrary —- is completely contrary to all history up to now. The way it really works is this -—
AMY GOODMAN: And General Prabowo was the son-in-law of Suharto, isn’t that right?
ALLAN NAIRN: Yes, he was the son-in-law of Suharto. He was a close protégé of the United States. He was America’s man for many years. In fact, in testimony before the US Congress, the former US ambassador to Indonesia cited Prabowo as an example of the beneficial effects of US training. And Prabowo is legendary in Indonesia, not just for commanding massacres and assassinations and abductions in occupied Timor, and even in Jakarta itself, but also for personally participating in torture. He likes to get his hands dirty. I’ve talked to some of his victims. And he was, for years, one of the main US protégés.
The point is that it’s the mission that matters. So if you have a force that has a bad mission, the repression of civilians, like the Indonesian armed forces, the more you train them, the worse it is. The more you train them, the more competent they get, the more technically proficient they become, the better they are at using technology, the better they are at tactics and strategy. And that means they are still more effective in carrying out their mission, which is the mission of repression. So when you have a force like that, the more incompetent they are, the better. The more you professionalize them, the more you advance their level, the more dangerous you make it for the people.
AMY GOODMAN: Allan Nairn, do you think the US military and CIA could ever help improve Indonesia’s human rights record?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, they could make a first contribution by completely cutting off this regime. You know, it’s called a democracy because General Susilo, the current president, was in fact elected. But he was elected in a process under which, as all the election observers in Jakarta acknowledged, the army first had to effectively vet the candidates, as did the top local oligarchs. And two of the main opponents of Susilo in that election were General Prabowo himself, who was running as vice president, although — as a vice-presidential candidate, although he really wouldn’t have been in charge, and General Wiranto, another one of the most notorious generals, another former US protégé. Wiranto was the guy who ran the terror in East Timor in 1999 after the Timorese voted in the UN-supervised referendum for independence. Wiranto was also the man who got the green light from Admiral Dennis Blair to continue with the massacres that slaughtered numerous churches in East Timor. And Blair, by the way, is now President Obama’s national security adviser.
So what the US could do is first completely cut them off. Then the US could start to heal itself, not just for the benefit of Indonesians, but for people everywhere. You know, in the Indonesian press and in political circles and in the legislature, you know, there are a lot of corrupt politicians. These politicians in Indonesia are legendary for their corruption and their ties to this military. But some of them have made some pretty good points in recent days, saying, “Who is the US to criticize us about torture? Who is the US to criticize us about abduction? The US is doing that in Afghanistan, in Pakistan. The US is now openly doing that around the world.” And they’re right. When the US claims that Indonesia shouldn’t do that, while with another hand handing Indonesia the weapons, handing them the interrogation and surveillance technique, handing them the political cover, it’s — it’s farcical. It’s not human rights activity; it’s better described as criminal activity.
AMY GOODMAN: Allan, President Obama has just announced he’s postponing his trip to Indonesia until June.
ALLAN NAIRN: Oh, really? Just announced that?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes.
ALLAN NAIRN: Huh, well, that’s very interesting. Did he make any announcement about the cooperation pact with Indonesia? Because they were supposed to unveil a new comprehensive deal that would include this increased military training. Did the White House make any statement about that?
AMY GOODMAN: I’m just taking a look right now. It says, “President Obama has postponed his trip to Asia until June so” that — let me see, I’m turning the page — so that “he can work on health care reform and guide the bill toward a possible vote [on] Sunday.
“White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday [that] Obama, who already postponed his trip to Indonesia and Australia once and was expected to leave Sunday, called up the leaders of those countries to inform them of the change in plans,” saying, “The president greatly regrets the delay," Robert Gibbs said. He said, "But passage of health insurance reform is of paramount importance, and the president is determined to see this battle through.”
ALLAN NAIRN: OK, well, I think the key point now is, for those concerned about terror in Indonesia, is that even though Obama himself is not coming, I think it is still possible that the deal they were making with the Indonesian army may still go forward, because for the past few days, other top US officials, including Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, have been in Indonesia. US generals have been in Indonesia. In fact, Kopassus general — Kopassus generals even went to Washington and were welcomed by the Obama people with open arms. They were working out the details of this new pact. And it is possible that even though Obama himself won’t visit, they will still try to push this deal through. So that means specifically that they may go ahead with their already announced plans to circumvent the US congressional Leahy Amendment, which bans training for units involved in atrocities, and boost their training for Kopassus.
I think, however, politically, practically speaking, that it may be possible to at least defeat politically that aspect of the deal. There are various reasons to think that’s possible. The East Timor Action Network is running a campaign to stop it. Just in the past few hours, human rights groups and survivors of army terror in Aceh have come out, and Indonesian national human rights groups have come out, with a statement asking Obama to not increase the training for Kopassus. So I think that deal perhaps could be stopped, and people should contact Congress and the White House, demand that the US cut off all military aid to Indonesia. And they can to go to the East Timor Action website and get details about the Kopassus aspect of the problem.
AMY GOODMAN: Allan, what about the role of US corporations in Indonesia?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, the gold and the copper of Indonesia, concentrated in Papua, are controlled and extracted by Freeport-McMoRan. It’s one of the most profitable massive mining operations in the world. They essentially run Papua like — that part of Papua like a plantation. And for years, they’ve been making payoffs through the Indonesian army to what they call provide security for their facility. What that means is to keep the local population in line. A few years ago, there was an ambush of Americans who were working as teachers for the children of Freeport-McMoRan employees. And the FBI tried to blame the local West Papua independence movement, which is very poorly armed and militarily extremely weak — this was an assault with automatic weapons — when all the good and specific evidence pointed to this being a Kopassus operation apparently aimed at pressuring Freeport-McMoRan to increase their payments to the Indonesian army, because they had recently cut back on those payments since they were getting heat for potentially violating the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. There were also other US and foreign multinationals like Newmont Mining, like Citigroup, like JPMorgan. These companies are real mainstays of the regime.
And this is in a country where the rich are extremely rich. If you go around Jakarta, you actually see people living on a level higher, fancier, more spectacular, than the level which the — you know, most people with money live in, say, the United States, but where the majority, many of them, are suffering hunger, particularly in the eastern part of the country. In the area known as East Nusa Tenggara, Timor, there are constant reports of actual starvation deaths of babies due to malnutrition. Yet the enormous wealth that lies beneath the earth of Indonesia and is being taken out by these US corporations does not find its way back to these hungry children. And that’s the fault of both the US corporations and the Indonesian government that cuts the deal with them.
Greenpeace just came out with a very important report showing that the Nestlé corporation draws much of their palm oil — palm oil which is used in all sorts of foods and also cosmetics and so on — from an Indonesian company called Sinar Mas, which has massive, in effect, deforestation operations, where they cut down the forests, the natural forests, where they destroy the peat, the natural peat, areas in order to grow, in plantation style, the kelapa sawit, the palm that’s used for making the palm oil. And this has terrible environmental consequences. It leads to a massive increase in the emission of methane gases, which contribute to the atmospheric problems. It also helps destroy the groundwater. And they also frequently do burning to clear the lands so they can put up their palm oil plantations. And this clearing by burning, especially on the island of Sumatra, creates these incredible black toxic clouds, which often drift over the Straits of Malacca into neighboring Malaysia, Burma and southern Thailand. And if you’ve ever breathed the air when one of these burning clouds has settled, it’s one of the most frightening breathing experiences you can have, I mean, worse than you’ll find in — worse than you will feel in the worst industrial city. And this, again, traces back to Nestlé.
Indonesia actually ranks behind only the US and China as a source of these kinds of harmful emissions because of the vast destruction of their forests. This destruction is illegal under Indonesian law. They call it “illegal logging.” They actually use the English — in Indonesian speak, they actually use the English phrase of “illegal logging.” Much of it is done through the army and police. The army and policemen go out and cut with the corporations, both local and international. They just take over sections of forest. They’re supposed to be national forest or protected areas. And they chop them down. They mow them to put up these plantations. And even though Indonesia is hardly heavily industrialized — it’s still mainly a vastly rural country — they end up making it the third worst polluter of this kind in the world.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Allan Nairn. Allan, you’ve also traveled through Burma and Thailand. Can you talk about the latest in the rebellion that’s taking place right now, the protests that are taking place in Thailand?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, it’s very interesting what’s happening in Thailand. There’s a protest movement called the Red Shirts. Their members come from the north and the northeast of Thailand, a lot of them rural rice farmers, poor people, working-class people. And they’ve come into Bangkok on their tractors to demand that an election be called.
Thailand is another country that is described as a democracy. They have a prime minister, Prime Minister Abhisit, who’s very smooth. He’s Oxford-educated. He’s a darling of the international press. He’s often described as a liberal figure. But he came into office as the result of, first, a military coup, and then a series of decisions by the Thai courts, which are closely aligned with the Thai army and oligarchy and the Thai royal family, which legally abolished the political party that these now-protesting Red Shirt poor people sympathized with.
And at one point, the courts actually removed a recent Thai prime minister, charging him with corruption, because he went on a TV cooking show. He likes to cook, and he got out his wok, and he made some Thai dishes. They paid him $500. The court charged him with corruption and threw him out of office. That’s because he was aligned with what is now this Red Shirt movement, the movement of the poor.
And finally, after the coup, these judicial maneuvers and also a series of protests by a pro-army, pro-royalist movement called the Yellow Shirts, which was sometimes violent and which — they took over the Thai — the main Bangkok airport, after all that, finally, an unelected pro-army, pro-oligarchy government was installed, the current government of Abhisit, an unelected government. So these protesters are calling for a real election. And everyone, you know, in Bangkok says, if they call an election, Abhisit’s and the army’s and the palace’s forces will probably be voted out of office.
However, there’s a twist to this, an ironic twist that also says something about the current state of world politics. The party that these poor people, the Red Shirts, are supporting, the party that they feel has helped them, is headed by a man named Thaksin Shinawatra, a former high-ranking police officer who in earlier years was elected prime minister and was transparently corrupt. He stole, obviously, several billion dollars using his office as prime minister of Thailand. He was also a killer. He killed a couple of — he sent out the security forces to kill a couple of thousand people in a matter of weeks as part of a supposed war on drugs. He aggravated the already oppressive situation in the south of Thailand, where the army and police had been abusing ethnic Malay Muslims, and he sparked a full-blown rebellion there, which is extremely vicious and continues to this day. This man, Thaksin, did all those things.
But he also was the one who was seen by the poor as the first in Thailand in many years who paid attention to their needs. He actually set up a national health program, which, in some respects, is better for the poor than that which exists in the United States today. It’s the 30-baht program. Thirty baht equals a little less than one dollar. And for that amount, you can go into any clinic or hospital in the country and get treatment, even if you don’t have money. And through this and other measures, Thaksin became very popular with the poor, thus this movement.
But he is also a killer, who, you know, in a civilized order, would be in jail, as his opponents would be. So that’s what the poor — that’s the choice the poor thinks they have to choose between: one killer who helped them and another group of killers — the army and the royalists — who have not helped them at all.
Another twist to the situation in Thailand, which gets no international publicity, is that they have these amazingly oppressive laws which make it a serious crime to utter any kind of statement to anyone anywhere which can be interpreted as critical of the king. And these laws can be used against any political opponent, and they are routinely. For example, there’s a woman known as “Da Torpedo,” who’s a very famous orator, who spoke at some of the earlier Red Shirt pro-poor people, pro-democracy rallies, and she made an innocuous statement about the nature of the regime. The palace and the army and the police said that she had insulted the king. So she was promptly arrested and thrown in prison. She’s still in prison now. And the local press recently reported that she’s now using her rhetorical skills to announce the sports matches that the female prisoners have. And people are routinely threatened or hauled away in Thailand if they speak, so no one dares to say anything that could even be vaguely construed as critical of the king. And this is called a democracy.
And this is, by the way, yet another US military client. Thailand has had an intimate military relationship with the US since the Vietnam War, when they basically acted as a US base as the US was attacking Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In recent years, they’ve been very close to US intelligence. You know, the famous torture video, the video of the CIA interrogation involving waterboarding and other torture, the video that was then destroyed by the CIA, that was shot in Thailand in one of the US secret prisons. And, in fact, the Thai intelligence man who helped facilitate the setting up of those secret prisons, who was a frequent visitor to Langley, the CIA, who had direct meetings with President Bush and with CIA anti-terrorism center people under Bush — who now work for Obama, people like Brennan — this Thai intelligence man, who talked to me about how the security forces routinely torture, he has now been promoted to head of the secret police. And he got that promotion, he told me a number of months ago when he was having political problems, because of the support he got from the CIA and the Israeli Mossad.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Allan Nairn, the latest news from Burma, the military junta imposing a new law that says their opponents cannot run in national elections if they have a criminal record, and of course Aung San Suu Kyi has been convicted by the military junta. Can you talk about the latest in Burma?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, the military are trying to hold onto power. The Burmese military are in an unusual position. They aspire to be a totalitarian regime. They don’t really have the economy or the technology to exert that full control, although in parts of the countryside, especially in the east, where the Karen people and the Shan people and other, what they refer to as, ethnic groups in Burma, where they live, there in the countryside the military exerts very close control. They frequently come into villages in the middle of the night. They drag away women to work as what they call porters. They have to do the bidding of the army, carrying their rice bags, carrying their weapons, servicing them sexually if they demand it. Sometimes they kill them after they’re done with them. The army strives to control Burma.
But unlike most repressive regimes, which always have some kind of popular base — you know, you can’t rule usually without a popular base — the Burmese regime has almost no popular base by now. They’ve been running the country since the early 1960s. In the early days, they called themselves communist socialists. Now they call themselves capitalist capitalists. What they are is just military thieves. And there’s almost no one at the popular level who backs them. So they are in fact very brittle. What they’re trying to — and vulnerable.
What they’re trying to do is stage a sham election in hope of getting international support. And in fact, when they first announced that they were going to hold that election this year, some international powers, including the US, made some noises indicating that, well, you know, maybe if they pull this off, we will then give them the stamp of legitimacy. But the rules for the election that the army just published are so ridiculously unfair that now even the US and Europe and others have said, well — and the UN — this will be a sham election.
But I think the most important development in Burma is not the elections; it’s what’s happening on the streets. There’s been a movement of wildcat — a series of wildcat strikes at factories in the Rangoon area, now possibly spreading to Bagan. And in these strikes, it’s mainly young women who work in factories for about a dollar a day. They make slippers. They make brassieres, blouses. And they’ve just been sitting down and striking, to many people’s astonishment. They’ve been demanding basically 50 percent raises, raises from about a dollar to a dollar-fifty. They’ve been asking to have one day off per week. They’ve been asking for a few more pennies when they work overtime. And this is the interesting thing: so far in this wave of strikes, which has gotten almost no publicity either inside or outside Burma, they have — the workers have largely won. The army has largely conceded to their demands.
When the first strike happened, they came in, and they snatched away the leader, the strike leader. Everyone expected that they would get, say, an eighty-five-year sentence. That’s the kind of term one routinely gets for speaking in Burma. But instead, they let the strike leader go within just a couple of weeks. And they went and told the corporation that ran the factory, “Yeah, give them the little raise they’re asking for.” And this has been happening in one plant after another.
And to me it suggests that the military is now feeling vulnerable, because they’re starting to really fear the people. As everyone knows, there’s a powerful grassroots movement among poor monks, younger monks who took to the streets in September of 2007. And they’re still trying to resist the regime. The army has arrested hundreds of them. They send them off to chain gangs, to quarries, where they crack rocks, some until they die. Some of them have been executed. The political party around Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD, has a lot of corruption. Many people are disillusioned with it. But things like these strikes of the young women workers, the movements of the young poor monks, who are extremely close to the people — you know, they have to go out and seek alms, beg for their food every morning, beg for their rice, which keeps them very close to the people — I think these have real political potential in Burma. And the regime knows that, and they’re fearful.
One thing that should be noted, the US is technically an adversary of the Burmese regime. Former President Bush and his wife Laura relentlessly, publicly criticized the Burmese military. It was — I think it was their way of getting some balance, since they were being assailed world — justly assailed worldwide as enemies of human rights and human freedom. They wanted to find some place where they could, at least on paper, stand up for human rights, and the Bushes chose Burma as their personal project. And rhetorically they just, you know, slapped the regime up one side and down the other. Obama, coming in, has changed that approach. He’s now trying to negotiate with the regime. But all that’s irrelevant.
What’s relevant is the material support that that army, the Burmese army, gets. Their main support comes from China. China is their main sponsor. They also get important support from Russia, from India, from neighboring Thailand, from Malaysia and also France. But although the US is supposedly an adversary of Burma — of the Burmese military, the US, in fact, first, allows Unocal, the US oil and gas company, to keep on operating. They have a massive operation in Burma, which was found by a US court to have used slave labor there. And that is the number one — in recent years has been the number-one dollar source for the regime. Yet, although the US has imposed sanction on other lesser businesses, like gems, for example, and various kinds of normal commerce and some kinds of banking, they’ve let Unocal continue to operate, the number-one dollar source for the regime.
In addition, the main banker for the Burmese regime is the city-state of Singapore. That’s where the generals go to hide lots of their cash, and a lot of it US dollars. And Singapore is very close to the United States. It’s close to being a US protectorate. And if the US told Singapore to shut that banking down, they could do it, but they haven’t told them that.
And then, additionally, Burmese intelligence, the people who run the prisons that are currently holding more than 2,000 dissidents, the people who run the torture, that Burmese intelligence operation was for years trained by Israeli intelligence. Burmese intelligence men go over to Israel for training. Israelis would come there. That relationship continues, although at a lower level now. Now the Russians have stepped in, the Russian government, to run a lot of the telephone-tapping systems that the Israelis first set up for the Burmese government. But Israel is still there, and they’re still doing intelligence and police training. And of course the US could also shut that down, if they wanted to.
You know, the US can’t tell China what to do, but they can tell Singapore and Israel and Unocal what to do. But they’ve chosen not to. Now, if the US took these actions, it would not bring the regime down, because China is still their main support. But it would at least give some heart to the very oppressed Burmese people and take some of the hypocrisy out of the US claims that they’re backing human rights in Burma.
Another thing about Burma that’s interesting in context is that, you know, Burma is one of the world’s few pariah states. There aren’t that many. There’s North Korea. There’s Burma. There’s Zimbabwe. There are a few others that are subject to sanctions by the West. They’re routinely denounced as beyond the pale, so on and so forth. They are a somewhat closed economy. They’re not the kind of economy that the US and the World Bank and the IMF are pushing, one that’s fully integrated with world markets. Yet if you look at the standard of living of the Burmese poor, which is desperate, which involves a lot of hunger, it is horrible, but it is still basically the same as that of Bangladesh in the same region.
If you go into Bangladesh, Dhaka, the capital, looks a lot like Rangoon in Burma. The wages of the workers in Bangladesh are comparable to those of Burma. The level of hunger in Bangladesh, as is the level of hunger in rural India, is comparable to that of Burma. Yet Bangladesh and India are both free market democracies. They are not pariah states. They’ve completely opened up to the international — or they’ve extensively, not as much as the West wants, but they’ve extensively opened up to the international markets. In India, that opening has destroyed much rural agriculture and touched off a wave of farmer suicides. In Bangladesh, if you go into the sweatshops by the river in Dhaka, you can find that they are mainly staffed — I did this a number of months ago — you can see that they are mainly staffed by fourteen-year-olds and fifteen-year-olds and sixteen-year-olds. The senior people, the foremen who honcho the operation, they’re about seventeen. They’re boys and girls. They don’t go to school. Yet, when you talk to these kids, they say, “Well, I’m here because I send money back home, and without that, the family will go hungry.”
In fact, in one of these sweatshops, which was producing denim jeans for export, I took a video of the children working there, you know, working twelve hours a day, six-and-a-half — more than twelve hours a day, six-and-a-half days a week, for — in that factory it was approaching two dollars per day. You know, Dickensian sweatshop conditions. I then went and showed it to local Bangladesh labor union activists, and their reaction on seeing this video was, “Oh, my god! It looks like you got tricked. It looks like someone brought you into a model factory.” Because, in fact, they said, in most factories the conditions are much worse. The children are not paid wages as high as these kids, and the physical condition of the kids is even worse than the ones I saw in those factories. You know, one of the labor activists said, as he looked at the video, “Boy, these kids look clean. They look like they’ve had the chance to bathe. That’s unusual.”
This is the level at which people are living in this free market democracy plugged into the international market. That’s in Bangladesh. Same story in rural India. And it is basically the same as people are living in the closed pariah dictatorship of Burma, which — and also if you look at the statistical indications — I mean, it’s hard to get into North Korea — North Korea is obviously politically more repressive than any of these other countries. But it seems, for many people in North Korea, poor people in North Korea, the level of hunger is horrible, but it’s not that different from the level of hunger experienced by people in the free market democracies of Bangladesh and India. So the point is that if you go country by country around the world and look at places where people are starving, where people don’t get enough calories to keep their brains functioning alertly, especially the kids — and for the kids, it can make permanent damage — you find that there’s almost no correlation between that kind of misery and whether they happen to live in a democracy or a dictatorship, whether they happen to live in a country that calls itself capitalist or in a country that calls itself socialist or communist.
It all depends on whether a regime, under pressure from its own people and the various international forces that surrounds it, makes a commitment or not to trying to feed its own people. You know, North Korea is a communist dictatorship where people are starving. Cuba is also a communist dictatorship, but they have a better record on nutrition, on medical care, than all the US client so-called democracies throughout Latin America. Colombia, a famous right-wing government, which is militarily close to the US, which assassinates its own labor leaders, Colombia routinely imports Cuban doctors. They bring them in from communist Cuba to help treat the poor in Colombia. So it’s not a matter of whether you’re communist, non-communist, even whether dictatorship or democracy.
The concept of democracy in the lives of the poor is very overrated in this world. You can have democracies where elections are held, where votes are taken, even where the ballots are fairly counted, but if there’s an unequal distribution of wealth, the rich people will almost always win those elections. And unless the poor are able to organize and pressure the rich with — threaten the rich with uprising, with withholding their labor, with other kinds of mass power, unless that happens, even in democracies, people can still be left to starve.
AMY GOODMAN: Allan Nairn, I want to thank you very much for being with us.
ALLAN NAIRN: You’re welcome.
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