Saturday, January 26, 2008

WW2 Soldier Bear - 26 Jan 2008

Honour sought for 'Soldier Bear'

Voytek was billeted in the Borders (Imperial War Museum)

Archive footage
A campaign has been launched to build a permanent memorial to a bear which spent much of its life in Scotland - after fighting in World War II.
The bear - named Voytek - was adopted in the Middle East by Polish troops in 1943, becoming much more than a mascot.

The large animal even helped their armed forces to carry ammunition at the Battle of Monte Cassino.

Voytek - known as the Soldier Bear - later lived near Hutton in the Borders and ended his days at Edinburgh Zoo.

He was found wandering in the hills of Iran by Polish soldiers in 1943.

They adopted him and as he grew he was trained to carry heavy mortar rounds.

When Polish forces were deployed to Europe the only way to take the bear with them was to "enlist" him.

So he was given a name, rank and number and took part in the Italian campaign.

He saw action at Monte Cassino before being billeted - along with about 3,000 other Polish troops - at the army camp in the Scottish Borders.

The soldiers who were stationed with him say that he was easy to get along with.

"He was just like a dog - nobody was scared of him," said Polish veteran Augustyn Karolewski, who still lives near the site of the camp.

"He liked a cigarette, he liked a bottle of beer - he drank a bottle of beer like any man."

When the troops were demobilised, Voytek spent his last days at Edinburgh Zoo.

Mr Karolewski went back to see him on a couple of occasions and found he still responded to the Polish language.

"I went to Edinburgh Zoo once or twice when Voytek was there," he said.

"And as soon as I mentioned his name he would sit on his backside and shake his head wanting a cigarette.

"It wasn't easy to throw a cigarette to him - all the attempts I made until he eventually got one."

Voytek was a major attraction at the zoo until his death in 1963.

Eyemouth High School teacher Garry Paulin is now writing a new book, telling the bear's remarkable story.

'Totally amazing'

Local campaigner Aileen Orr would like to see a memorial created at Holyrood to the bear she says was part of both the community and the area's history.

She first heard about Voytek as a child from her grandfather, who served with the King's Own Scottish Borderers.

"I thought he had made it up to be quite honest but it was only when I got married and came here that I knew in fact he was here, Voytek was here," she said.

"When I heard from the community that so few people knew about him I began to actually research the facts.

"It is just amazing, the story is totally amazing."

Germany's 'last' WWI veteran dies - 26 Jan 2008

Germany's 'last' WWI veteran dies - 26 Jan 2008

Germany has no organisation to keep track of war veterans
The man believed to have been Germany's last World War I veteran has died peacefully at the age of 107.

Erich Kaestner, who at 18 was sent to the Western Front but served only four months in the army, died in a Cologne nursing home, his son said.

The death on Sunday of Louis de Cazenave, France's second-last World War I veteran, made global headlines.

But in a country that keeps no record of its veterans, Kaestner's death on 1 January went largely unnoticed.

"That is the way history has developed," said Peter Kaestner, the soldier's son. "In Germany, in this respect, things are kept quiet - they're not a big deal."

Erich Kaestner was unrelated to the writer and poet of the same name.

End of an era

Reports in Die Welt daily and Der Spiegel magazine identified Kaestner as Germany's last World War I veteran, but verification of the claim was difficult as the country keeps no record of its war veterans.

The German public was within a hair's breadth of never learning of the end of an era

Der Spiegel

In a country where the shame of the Nazi genocide and memories of two world war defeats still cast long shadows, both publications focused more on the German national psyche than the death itself.

"The German public was within a hair's breadth of never learning of the end of an era," wrote Der Spiegel, until someone updated his death notice on the internet encyclopaedia site, Wikipedia.

In its obituary for Kaestner, Die Welt noted: "The losers hide themselves in a state of self-pity and self denial that they happily try to mitigate by forgetting."

Officer, judge, husband

Born in 1900, Kaestner had joined the army when he left school in 1918.

He rejoined the military as a Luftwaffe first lieutenant in 1939, where he served mainly as a ground support officer in France.

After the war, he became a judge in Hanover, where his work earned him Lower Saxony's Merit Cross.

His 75-year marriage was recognised by Germany's president in 2003 shortly before his wife, Maria, died aged 102.

Brutal Egyptian Lives 25 Jan 2008

Evidence of the brutal lives endured by some ancient Egyptians to build the monuments of the Pharaohs has been uncovered by archaeologists.

Skeletal remains from a lost city in the middle of Egypt suggest many ordinary people died in their teenage years and lived a punishing lifestyle.

Many suffered from spinal injuries, poor nutrition and stunted growth.

The remains were found at Amarna, a new capital built on the orders of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, 3,500 years ago.

Hieroglyphs written at the time record that the Pharaoh, who was father of Tutankhamun, was driven to create a new city in honour of his favoured god, the Aten, with elaborate temples, palaces and tombs.

Along with his wife Nefertiti, he abandoned the capital Thebes, leaving the old gods and their priests behind and marched his people 200 miles (320km) north to an inhospitable desert plain beside the River Nile.

The city, housing up to 50,000 people, was built in 15 years; but within a few years of the Pharaoh's death, the city was abandoned, left to the wind and the sand
For more than a century archaeologists looked in vain for any trace of Amarna's dead.

But recently archaeologists from a British-based team made a breakthrough when they found human bones in the desert, which had been washed out by floods.

These were the first bones clearly identifiable as the workers who lived in the city; and they reveal the terrible price they paid to fulfil the Pharaoh's dream.

"The bones reveal a darker side to life, a striking reversal of the image that Akhenaten promoted, of an escape to sunlight and nature" says Professor Barry Kemp who is leading the excavations.

Painted murals found in the tombs of high officials from the time show offering-tables piled high with food. But the bones of the ordinary people who lived in the city reveal a different picture.

"The skeletons that we see are certainly not participating in that form of life," says Professor Jerry Rose, of the University of Arkansas, US, whose anthropological team has been analysing the Amarna bones.

"Food is not abundant and certainly food is not of high nutritional quality. This is not the city of being-taken-care-of."

The population of Amarna had the shortest stature ever recorded from Egypt's past, but they would also have been worked hard on the Pharaoh's ambitious plans for his new capital.

The temples and palaces required thousands of large stone blocks. Working in summer temperatures of 40C (104F), the workers would have had to chisel these out of the rock and transport them 1.5 miles (2.5 km) from the quarries to the city.

The bone remains show many workers suffered spinal and other injuries. "These people were working very hard at very young ages, carrying heavy loads," says Professor Rose.

"The incidence of youthful death amongst the Amarna population was shockingly high by any standard." Not many lived beyond 35. Two-thirds were dead by 20.

But even this backbreaking schedule may not be enough to explain the extreme death pattern at Amarna.

Even Akhanaten's son, Tutankhamen, died aged just 20; and archaeologists are now beginning to believe that there might also have been an epidemic here.

This corroborates the historical records of Egypt's principal enemy, the Hittites, which tell of the devastation of an epidemic caught from Egyptians captured in battle around the time of Tutankhamen's reign. It appears this epidemic may also have been the final blow to the people of Amarna.

Timewatch: The Pharaoh's Lost City is on BBC Two on Saturday, 26 January at 2010 GMT

Monday, January 21, 2008

France Honours Black US Veteran of WWI

Friday, 24 August, 2001, 11:05 GMT 12:05 UK
France honours black US veteran

US troops were segregated according to race

American World War I veteran William Brown has been given a 107th birthday surprise.
Mr Brown, who lives in Las Vegas, was awarded the Legion of Honour by the French Government on Thursday.

In my life I never cared about a person's nationality, the colour of their skin or anything else

William Brown
The French award came because private Brown and other black soldiers from the US expeditionary forces were segregated from the white troops and assigned to French units when they disembarked in France in June 1918.

The grandson of slaves, Mr Brown says he has no bitterness for the segregation.

"In my life I never cared about a person's nationality, the colour of their skin or anything else, because we are all God's people," he told reporters.


Mr Brown was drafted in 1918, and managed to escape the war unscathed.

"I never cared for war - I have always been a man of peace," he said.

"I couldn't wait until I got out. I was lucky to get out without being wounded. My brother was gassed and caught a little shrapnel."

After the war, Mr Brown had a variety of jobs, and retired to Las Vegas in the 1970s.

When the French government awarded the legion of honour-its highest national honour- to 900 US World War I veterans in 1998, Brown was overlooked.

Legion of Honour

Since then his niece Jennie Jefferson has campaigned to win him recognition.

The result was his naming as a Chevalier of the National Order of the Legion of Honour of France in Las Vegas on Thursday.

The US Office of Veterans Affairs calculates there are some 2,200 surviving American World War One veterans.

Last Updated: Friday, 3 March 2006, 17:16 GMT
E-mail this to a friend Printable version

France rediscovers WWI veterans

Mustard gas survivor Rene Riffaud now lives in Normandy

France has rediscovered two elderly men who fought in the First World War, boosting the number of surviving veterans from five to seven.

Francois Jaffre, aged 104, was assumed dead by authorities but was in fact living in a retirement home near Paris.

And Rene Riffaud, now 107, was added to the list of WWI veterans after a campaign by his granddaughter.

Millions died during the 1914-1918 war, but just a handful of elderly veterans survive today.

France is expected to mark the death of its last WWI veteran, or "poilus", with a national commemoration.

Fighting men

Authorities lost track of the two men over the years for different reasons.

Much of World War I was fought on French soil
The National Veterans' Office lost track of Mr Jaffre, who joined the navy in 1917, when he moved home many years ago.

According to the French newspaper Le Monde, he served on a submarine hunter that escorted US ships across the Atlantic from New York.

For many years after the war he lived in Paris, but moved to a retirement home in the Yvelines region and forgot to tell the veterans' office.

Tunisia-born Mr Riffaud fought as an artilleryman in the Ardennes forest in the north-east of France, where he was affected by poisonous mustard gas.

Dwindling band

Hamlaoui Mekachera, the French veterans' minister and son of a former WWI soldier, hailed the rediscovery of the two men.

"We are very happy. Instead of there being five of them, there are seven, and I hope they will remain among us for a very long time," he told LCI TV.

"It is not impossible that we could discover some more. There have been two cases in one week," he said, although he admitted that it was unlikely.

France's oldest surviving veteran, Maurice Floquet, celebrated his 111th birthday on Christmas Day.

Another veteran, 107-year-old Ferdinand Gilson, died last weekend.

WWI Veterans Recall

Friday, 9 November 2007, 11:44 GMT

Surviving WWI: Veterans' stories
Ahead of Remembrance Sunday, Britain's surviving World War I veterans talked to Charles Wheeler for the BBC's Ten O'Clock News about their memories of the conflict.

Harry Patch
Harry Patch, who is 109 years old, was called up for service in 1917 when he worked as an 18-year-old apprentice plumber in Bath.

World War I veteran Harry Patch

Mr Patch fought at the battle of Passchendaele in Belgium - a conflict that lasted three months and cost nearly 500,000 lives on both sides.

That summer was one of the wettest on record and no-man's land became a sea of mud where men drowned cowering from machine-gun and sniper fire.

Speaking about life in the trenches, Mr Patch said: "If any man tells you he went into the front line and wasn't scared, he's a liar."

Claude Choules, who is now 106, served in the Royal Navy during the Great War. He signed up in 1916 when he was just a boy.

World War I veteran Claude Choules

"We used to see hospital ships coming across and soldiers being wheeled off them," Mr Choules said, recounting his time in the Navy.

During the war, the Germans inflicted significant damage on the British fleet, notably at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, the largest clash of big-gun battleships of all time.

While serving on HMS Revenge in 1918 Claude Choules witnessed the mass surrender of Germany's imperial Navy.

In the 1920s he was seconded to the Royal Australian Navy as an instructor. He stayed in Australia and he now lives in Perth.

William Stone, 107, is one of only two ex-serviceman still living in Britain to have served in both world wars.

Veteran William Stone

Mr Stone joined the Navy on his birthday in 1918 and served until 1945. His strongest memories are of World War II and the Battle of Dunkirk.

"One of our ships, Skipjack, was bombed and she just disappeared. Two hundred soldiers and all the crew were killed", he said.

Mr Stone, who now lives near Wokingham, was presented with the National Veterans' Badge in 2004, for his service to the UK.

Syd Lucas, 107, was called up in 1918 and saw service in both world wars.

Veteran Syd Lucas

Mr Lucas was the youngest of three brothers. Both his siblings fought in France.

He said: "The youngest one of the two was blown up twice but he didn't get any bad injuries and the other one was shot through the finger, that's all he got. They were lucky."

Mr Lucas was trained in Derby and then Yorkshire but when the war ended in November he was sent home before he had to leave the country.

He emigrated to Australia between the two wars and has a son and a daughter who are now 78 and 82.

At 111-years-old, Henry Allingham is the oldest survivor of World War I.

Oldest veteran Henry Allingham

Mr Allingham is the last survivor of the Battle of Jutland in 1916, before joining the Royal Flying Corps and serving on the French front.

Now a resident at St. Dunstan's, a home in Brighton for ex-servicemen, he makes frequent trips to France to speak to school children.

During a visit to the graves of servicemen he said "all of us must remember them, always".

Veteran, 109, revisits WWI trench

The Germans suffered the same as we did

Harry Patch

The last known surviving British soldier to have fought in the trenches of World War I has revisited the site where he fought 90 years ago.

Harry Patch, 109, from Somerset, made the trip to Belgium to recall his part in the Battle of Passchendaele which claimed 250,000 British casualties.

He also went to pay homage to the tens of thousands of German soldiers who lost their lives.

Tuesday marks the anniversary of the start of the Battle of Passchendaele.

Badly wounded

Mr Patch served with the Duke of Cornwall's light infantry and was called up for service while working as an 18-year-old apprentice plumber in Bath.

During the fighting Mr Patch was badly wounded and three of his best friends were killed when a shell exploded just yards from where he was standing.

He made the trip with historian Richard van Emden, who helped Mr Patch write down his memories.

Wreath laid

Mr van Emden showed him the five miles they advanced over 99 days which claimed 3,000 British casualties every dayMr Patch was also shown a recently discovered panoramic photograph of the fields taken in 1917.

"Too many died. War isn't worth one life," said Mr Patch.

He said war was the "calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings".

Mr Patch laid a wreath at the site of the trench, which now forms part of a German war cemetery.

War effort

"The Germans suffered the same as we did," he said.

Germany also had heavy losses in the battle which has been described as one of the bloodiest and most brutal of the Great War.

The Battle of Passchendaele was officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres - the name of the principal town within a bulge in the British lines.

British commanders wanted to reach the Belgian coast to destroy German submarine bases following a warning that a blockade would soon cripple the war effort.

There was also the prospect of a Russian withdrawal from the war which would strengthen the Germans on the Western Front.

Battle of Passchendaele

The battle lasted from 31 July to 6 November 1917
An initial bombardment of German positions involved 4.5m shells and 3,000 guns
The battle was infamous for the mud - shelling had churned clay soil and smashed drains
The heaviest rain for 30 years made the mud so deep men and horses drowned
The battle ended when British and Canadian forces captured Passchendaele
The village was barely five miles beyond the starting point of the offensive
There was a total of 325,000 Allied and 260,000 German casualties

French soldier Lazare Ponticelli (pictured), 110
British pilot Henry Allingham, 111
Austro-Hungarian artilleryman Franz Kunstler, 107
A small number of other veterans are also still alive

The Passing of French World War I Veterans - The Poilus (Hairy Ones)

Last Updated: Sunday, 20 January 2008, 22:34 GMT

France's oldest WWI veteran dies

Louis de Cazenave witnessed the Chemin des Dames bloodbath
One of the last two surviving French veterans of World War I has died at the age of 110.
Louis de Cazenave, who fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, died in his sleep at his home in Brioude, central France, his son Louis said.

Mr de Cazenave's death leaves Lazare Ponticelli, also 110, as the last "poilu", or French WWI veteran.

Mr de Cazenave's son said he died as he would have wanted - peacefully in his sleep at home, surrounded by family.

President Nicolas Sarkozy sent condolences to Mr de Cazenave's family and paid tribute to all those killed in the war.

Adding his tribute, French Defence Minister Herve Morin said:

"De Cazenave departed with the discretion and simplicity that he had cultivated as a remedy against the fracas and horror of combat."

To the slaughter

The second-last of the poilus (English: hairy ones) - the affectionate name given since Napoleonic times to French footsoldiers - joined up in 1916 at the age of 19, midway through the war.

He was one of the 8.5 million young Frenchmen mobilised to fight the German occupation.

In April 1917, assigned to the Fifth Senegalese Rifles, he fought in one of the most disastrous French actions of the war, at the Chemin des Dames, during the Second Battle of the Aisne.

The chemin was an 18th Century road straddling a ridge.

The Germans took it in late 1914, and after two years of attritional warfare, the French commander-in-chief, Gen Robert Nivelle, recommended a massive assault against them.

But squabbling between Allied leaders lead to delays and leaks.

Forewarned, the Germans dug in so well that the creeping artillery barrage ahead of the French advance did little to dislodge them.

Across the battlefront the French lost 40,000 men on the first day.

Some reports say the advancing French bleated in mocking acknowledgement that they were lambs to the slaughter.

The last poilu

Mr de Cazenave's family say the experience, which led to French mutinies, left him a pacifist.

During World War II he was briefly jailed by the pro-Nazi puppet regime under Marshal Petain, the general who relieved Nivelle after the debacle.

"War is something absurd, useless, that nothing can justify. Nothing," he told Le Monde newspaper in a 2005 interview.

In that interview, he described walking through fields of wounded soldiers calling for their mothers, begging to be finished off.

President Sarkozy said Mr de Cazenave's death was an occasion to reflect on the 1.4 million French soldiers who lost their lives, and the 4.5 million who were wounded, during World War I.

"This generation has only one remaining representative today," he added in his statement.

The last poilu, Lazare Ponticelli, has been told of Mr de Cazenave's death.

He is now one of a handful of known World War I veterans left in any of the warring nations.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

A Fragile Jerusalem

A fragile peace amid centuries of tension
By John McBeth, Senior Writer

TOURISM BOOM: A street in Jerusalem's Old City. Despite the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, tourists are thronging Jerusalem again, to the delight of taxi drivers and tour guides. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

FOR a journalist from Asia making his first visit to the Holy Land, it would be brave and also incredibly foolish to try to delve into the rights and wrongs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But coming from a region in a constant state of change, I have often wondered whether today's Israel-based correspondents find it intensely boring to be covering essentially the very same issues that their predecessors were doing more than half a century ago.

Oh sure, the Middle East - and Palestine in particular - will always occupy the headlines as long as the region remains a source of much of the world's oil and a potential flashpoint for a wider global conflict.

But much of what happens here seems to be a replay of an old movie, with a plot that has stayed pretty much the same since the 1967 Six-Day War that left Israel in control of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

People of my generation, of course, remember the Holocaust and a lot of our early sympathetic thinking was shaped by that and by the Arab nations ganging up on a nascent Israel - not by whether the Palestinians deserved a homeland too.

That view has become much more nuanced over the years. Indeed, many of my frustrated colleagues have come to the conclusion that the Israelis and the Palestinians deserve each other in their stubborn refusal to reach a settlement.

That frustration also seems to partly stem from the fact that it is almost impossible for a disinterested journalist to write a balanced story about Palestine - or at least one that satisfies all the protagonists. It is easy to understand why.

It was hard to ignore our Muslim taxi driver when Israeli soldiers pulled us over and questioned us as we approached Tel Aviv in the early hours of the morning. 'This only happens to Muslims,' he said with a resigned shrug. 'They think we are dangerous people.'

But it is equally hard to ignore another reality. While the ugly security fence now surrounding much of the West Bank may have deprived many Arabs of their livelihoods, it has been largely responsible for a drastic reduction in suicide bombings.

So the best plan for the casual visitor is to try to ignore recent history and go back in time - to the days of the Bible and even before that. In a city as ancient as Jerusalem, it isn't difficult when confronted with vistas that have changed little in a millennium or two.

New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Steve Erlanger says the prevailing fragile peace is reason enough to spend time in 'an extraordinary city at an extraordinary time'. The tourists are back and taxi drivers and tour guides are happier on both sides of Jerusalem - the mostly Jewish West and the mostly Arab East.

There are freeways, of course, but once inside this city of 600,000 people, don't look for glass towers or other examples of modern architecture that mark the skyline of Tel Aviv, the Israeli capital only a 45-minute drive away through the low-lying Judean hills.

Even newly built office blocks are designed along the same lines as the earliest buildings, leaving an overall impression of dun-coloured timelessness. For all the monotonously unending stonework, however, it is uniquely compelling.

Then there is the scale of everything. I always imagined there was more distance between all those places of Biblical significance. Yet there is the Mount of Olives, literally overlooking the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of the Agony where Jesus prayed after the Last Supper.

Just across a small rocky valley from there rise the walls of the Old City, encompassing the Temple Mount, with its golden Dome of the Rock, the Al-Aqsa mosque, the Wailing Wall - so revered by the Jews - and Calvary, where Christ was crucified.

It is all a little too much to take in, particularly if you haven't read the Bible for a few decades and are struggling to remember what relevance each location has in the overall scheme of things.

'It can be very moving here - and that's one of the things I like,' says Erlanger, an old friend from Bangkok days. 'They recently uncovered the real Siloam pool where Jesus told the blind man to wash his eyes and see. It has beautiful drain covers for the rain in the shape of olive leaves.'

Erlanger is fascinated by the big debate of the day - whether King David and King Solomon were merely 'chieftains on a dusty hilltop'. I keep asking myself another question: If we were the Romans, what would we have made of that troublemaker Jesus in those times?

Only those who live in Jerusalem can sense the tensions that exist just beneath the surface. Crossing through the concrete security fence into Bethlehem for a tour of the Church of the Nativity involves some waiting - but not much.

There is a temporary hold-up when Israeli soldiers question whether our car, which belongs to an international television network, has the necessary insurance cover to enter the West Bank. It does and we are allowed to proceed.

But at other checkpoints into the West Bank, I'm told, the waiting can be endless. It is a point of tension in itself for Palestinians trying to eke out a living, perhaps as much as the Jewish settlements that are allowed to encroach on Palestinian land.

For a people who rely on tourism for their lifeblood, it also doesn't help that no-one raises a finger when a pack of Arab youths besiege our car in an apparent effort to intimidate us into giving them money.

But here we lurch into dangerous territory. So let's head east out of Jerusalem, past Jericho (now doesn't that ring a loud bell) to the shores of the Dead Sea and then south along a barren escarpment to a place a military historian can really relate to: Masada.

It was here, in 73BC, that 936 Jewish freedom fighters committed mass suicide after a besieging Roman legion built a massive rampart of stones and beaten earth that breached the defences of the mountain-top redoubt.

Today, a cable car carries tourists on the 900m ride to the top of the 200,000-sq-m mesa where they can wander through the structures first built by King Herod the Great and gaze down on the ruins of the Roman camps and siege ramp.

Until recently, recruits to the Israeli Defence Force took their oath atop the ancient fortress, vowing: 'Masada will never happen again.' But out there, on the eastern edge of the Judean desert, the politics of the Middle East seem far away, part of a much different world.

Waiting for a Nixon moment

Home > Review > Others
Jan 16, 2008
Waiting for a Nixon moment
By William Choong, For The Straits Times

CANBERRA - IN FEBRUARY 1972, US president Richard Nixon pulled off a brilliant coup when he initiated talks with Chinese leaders that ended 25 years of Sino-American hostility.
His historic effort was shrouded in secrecy because it challenged the collective wisdom of the American foreign policy establishment, which was consumed by ideological hatred of the Chinese communists following previous confrontations in the Korean War in the early 1950s and in Vietnam in the late 1960s.

In his memoirs, Nixon recalled how his anxieties vanished as soon as he entered Mao Zedong's study in Zhongnanhai, the seat of China's government.

'He stretched out his hand. So did I. He shook my hand for as long as about one minute,' Nixon wrote.

The symbolic handshake reaped enormous benefits.

The United States forged a new relationship with China to balance the Soviet Union, thus enabling defeated US military forces to exit Vietnam. More importantly, Beijing and Washington forged a new order for Asia centred on the future of Japan, the two Koreas and India.

As US President George W. Bush winds up his Middle East tour this week, what the region needs is another Nixon moment to break America's long-running diplomatic logjam with Iran.

Since the hostage crisis of 1979, US officials have viewed Iranian leaders as the personification of evil. This has culminated in attempts to curb Teheran's alleged nuclear ambitions through the building of an anti-Iran coalition in the Middle East.

Like the historic Nixon-Mao rapprochement in the 1970s, however, the US needs to replace its ideological hatred of Iran with clear-eyed realpolitik to solve many problems in the region.

The US and Iran are not natural allies, but like China and the US in the early 1970s, they have shared interests.

Both Washington and Teheran are against Al-Qaeda and the Taleban in Afghanistan. Both want stability in Iraq.

During the war in Afghanistan, Iran even acted as Washington's de facto ally.

Mr Kenneth Pollack, a Persian Gulf expert and former CIA analyst, notes that during the war in Afghanistan, Iran provided the US with assistance on intelligence, diplomacy and Afghan internal politics.

After the US turned its sights on Saddam Hussein, the Iranians suggested that they were willing to cooperate on that too. But the offer was rejected by Washington.

Few would also remember that Iran was one of two places in the Muslim world where there was a widespread outpouring of sympathy for the victims of the Sept 11 attacks in 2001 (The other place was Karachi in Pakistan).

US engagement, however, does not mean that Iran is seen to be a saint. Teheran continues to threaten Israel using Hamas and Hizbollah, and to plague US forces in Iraq. Its alleged nuclear ambitions also pose a danger to stability in the region.

These factors, however, should not preclude engagement.

During the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988, the US complicitly supplied arms to both sides to prevent a dominant power from emerging in the region.

Currently, the US pursues the opposite of engagement, seeking to contain Teheran through an anti-Iran coalition.

But containment of Shi'ite Iran is beset with problems.

America's attempt to contain Iran through an anti-Iran coalition in the 1980s led to a radicalised Sunni political culture in the region that eventually yielded Al-Qaeda, say analysts.

Moreover, America's containment of Iran is based on the latter's alleged nuclear ambitions, which the US intelligence community now concedes are less extensive than previously reported.

In its latest National Intelligence Estimate issued last month, the community reported that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003.

Wrote Strategic Forecasting, a US-based commercial intelligence firm: 'The Bush administration made Iran's nuclear weapons programme the main reason for its attempt to create an international coalition against Iran, on the premise that a nuclear-armed Iran was unacceptable.

'If there is no Iranian nuclear programme, then what is the rationale for the coalition (to contain Iran)?'

(That said, the Iranian nuclear programme - even if it does exist - was never the key issue. While US deterrence of Iran is not perfect, Teheran knows well enough the consequences of lobbing a handful of nukes at Israel or US forces in the region. Washington's key goal now, like the 1980s, is preventing the emergence of another dominant power in the region.)

American rapprochement with Iran would become possible if Washington were to adhere to the classic dictum of knowing one's enemy.

The dominant worldview of Iran's leaders is the perception of being surrounded by US military forces, writes Dr Houman Sadri, a scholar who has spoken to Iranian officials and scholars inside and outside Iran.

'As a Revolutionary Guard officer once expressed to me while discussing Iran's security situation depicted on a map on his office wall, most Iranian leaders now share, with increasing anxiety, the common view that the US is following a policy of gradually encircling Iran with hostile American forces based in neighbouring countries,' wrote Dr Sadri in an article published in the journal Military Review.

Thirty years ago, the US had only a handful of military bases in the region - ironically in Iran itself. Today, US bases are located in nearly all of Iran's neighbouring states - Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Pakistan and Turkey.

Such an understanding of Iran's vulnerable position should have pushed the US to engage Iran. But the baggage resulting from the 1979 hostage crisis has led Washington to reject a series of diplomatic overtures from Iran.

Last year, a top Iranian official told CNN that Teheran wanted cooperation, not confrontation, with Washington.

'We are not after conflict. We are not after crisis. We are not after war. But we don't know whether the same is true in the US or not. If the same is true on the US side, the first step must be to end this vicious cycle that can lead to dangerous action - war,' the unnamed official said.

This truth only became too evident in the recent confrontation between US Navy ships and Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats in the Strait of Hormuz. The lack of a formal line of communications between the US Navy and its Iranian counterparts could easily have led to war.

Earlier this month, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also told a group of students that he did not rule out a resumption of ties with the US in the future.

A first step towards engagement would be an acknowledgment by Washington that Teheran does indeed have legitimate interests and concerns in Iraq, argue Mr Vali Nasr and Mr Ray Takeyh in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs.

This would get the two governments to finally realise that they have similar objectives: preserving the territorial integrity of Iraq and preventing the civil war there from engulfing the Middle East.

This in turn would be twinned with a 'new regional order' that will rest on, among other things, a treaty pledging the inviolability of the region's borders, arms control pacts proscribing certain categories of weapons, and a common market with free trade zones.

'Engaging Iran while regulating its rising power within an inclusive regional security arrangement is the best way of stabilising Iraq, placating the United States' Arab allies, helping along the Arab-Israeli peace process, and even giving a new direction to negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme,' wrote Mr Nasr and Mr Takeyh.

'Because this approach includes all the relevant players, it is also the most sustainable and the least taxing strategy for the United States in the Middle East.'

For now, however, there is little of Nixon's hard-headed pragmatism in American policy towards Iran.

The Bush administration has promised extensive talks only if Iran satisfies its demands over the disclosure of its alleged nuclear programme.

The Iran policies of the current crop of US presidential candidates are also little different from that of Mr Bush.

Senator Hillary Clinton is seen to be hawkish on Iran. Likewise, Senator John McCain has changed the lyrics of the classic Beach Boys song Barbara Ann to describe how the US should Bomb Iran.

Only Democratic contender Barack Obama has displayed Nixonian overtures.

He has pledged to 'engage in aggressive personal diplomacy' with Iran, and offered economic inducements and a promise not to seek 'regime change' if Iran stopped meddling in Iraq and cooperated on terrorism and nuclear issues.

In addition, he has promised that forging a new relationship with Iran would be a major element of a broad effort to stabilise Iraq as he executes a speedy withdrawal of American combat troops.

The hope is that Mr Obama - if elected president - would, like Nixon, be able to secure another historic handshake. If not, a window of opportunity for another Nixon moment might well be closed.

The writer is doing a doctorate in strategic studies at the Australian National University.

Suharto's historic role

Jan 16, 2008
Suharto's historic role

THE evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.' Shakespeare was not being cynical, only realistic, when he noted that. Historians, taking a long view, might be able to arrive at sober judgments of controversial figures. Caught in quotidian headlines, journalists and ordinary people may have difficulty taking the long view. One can observe this dynamic working itself out where former Indonesian president Suharto is concerned. Seriously ill in hospital, the retired five-star general has received visits from Asian statesmen - among them, Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew - anxious to pay him tribute and take the long view even as his own countrymen are reluctant to honour him.
History is unlikely to place Mr Suharto among the great 20th-century political figures. His name is unlikely to be mentioned in the same breath as Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt, Jawaharlal Nehru or Deng Xiaoping. But though not among the first rank, Mr Suharto will be remembered as a significant figure who had a prodigious - and on the whole, beneficial - effect on his country as well as the region.

Mr Lee, in paying tribute to Mr Suharto, recalled the South-east Asia of 1965. Indonesia, led by the boisterous Sukarno, was then a source of instability. It conducted a campaign of Konfrontasi against Malaysia, its economy was in the pits, communists were running riot. Mr Suharto, having come into power after a bloody fight with communists, slowly changed things. Asean would not have come into being if Indonesia under his charge had sought to be a regional hegemon. Because it chose to be the facilitator, not the dictator, of regional stability; because it focused on economic and social development; because it was stable for more than 30 years, the region as a whole was able to grow. Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore were able to take off economically in some part because of Pak Harto.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Blood is thicker than water

Blood is thicker than water
By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, For The Straits Times Jan 4

ACROSS BORDERS: Malaysian police firing water cannon at ethnic Indian protesters in Kuala Lumpur last November. The protest later prompted Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to express his concern over the welfare of the minority community. -- PHOTO: AP

IT IS not widely known that on March 12, 1992, Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi, then Malaysia's foreign minister, summoned Myanmar's envoy in Kuala Lumpur 'to express concern over Myanmar's treatment of the Rohingya minority'.
The same day, Indonesia's then foreign minister Ali Alatas said the situation in Myanmar was 'threatening the stability of the region'.

A brief examination of the Rohingya position is necessary before considering the implications of those gestures that may have set a precedent for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's expression of concern over Malaysia's own ethnic Indian minority.

Myanmar's 800,000 Rohingyas have complained of repression since 1978, when the army launched Operation Nagamin (Dragon King) aimed at 'scrutinising each individual living in the state, designating citizens and foreigners in accordance with the law and taking actions against foreigners who have filtered into the country illegally'.

About 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh and a further quarter of a million followed in 1992. The Rohingyas are of Bengali stock, from the Chittagong region of what is now Bangladesh, who moved to Myanmar's Arakan district before South Asia came under British rule.

They could not go to Malaysia or Indonesia, which share no land borders with Myanmar. Nor are the Rohingyas ethnically connected to the Malay race in either country, as they are to Bangladeshis. There was thus no risk of Myanmar's troubles spreading to Malaysia or Indonesia. Being contiguous with Myanmar's Arakan Hills, Bangladesh saw this as a very real fear.

History shows that diplomatic propriety is frequently at odds with instinct and human obligations.
Why then were Datuk Seri Badawi and Mr Alatas so concerned about a remote people? The only explanation seems to lie in a shared religion. The Rohingyas being Muslim, like the bulk of Malaysians and Indonesians, the two foreign ministers felt entitled to express interest.

By that token, the government of any Muslim country can respond to anything involving Muslims anywhere on earth. This is English metaphysical poet John Donne's no-man-is-anisland ideal trimmed to only the Muslim segment of it.

It's forgotten today that Nationalist China propounded a similar principle. Its citizenship law based on the lex sanguini theory of an indivisible and indissoluble Sinic nationality held that though seas and frontiers separated the Chinese of China, its offshore islands and the diaspora, they were 'essentially one people with a shared heritage, the Chinese civilisation'.

That made Hong Kong and Macau the Second China, and Nanyang, the region of the southern seas where Singapore is located, the Third. One of several differences between the People's Action Party and the Barisan Socialis in Singapore was that while the former categorically rejected the Third China thesis, the latter viewed it with some sympathy.

Nationalist China's law had an amusing sequel when the British retaliated by requiring all ethnic Chinese refugees in India during World War II to register under the Registration of Foreigners Act. When Tan Chin Tuan of the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation refused, the enraged British police officer in charge of security in Kolkata barked 'purple with rage' that all Chinese were shoemakers, restaurateurs and black-marketeers!

The situation was saved through the intervention of another Briton whom Tan had known in Singapore as a commercial artist but whose Cathay Building office was a front for the Special Operations Executive charged with sabotage missions behind enemy lines.

Though Communist China repudiated its predecessor's citizenship law, it protested when, during the 1962 Himalayan war, a resident of Kolkata's Chinatown was manhandled on a bus.

History shows that diplomatic propriety is frequently at odds with instinct and human obligations. Politicians are also people, belonging to particular races and religions.

Blood is thicker than water.

The writer is visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. This is a personal comment.

Copyright: Sunanda K. Datta-Ray