All posts by Binoy Kampmark

The Woes of Luka Modrić: Croatia, Nationalism and Football

Juraj Vrdoljak of Telesport was convinced.  “I think half the population didn’t show up to work on the morning after the win against England.” The victory had inspired early shop closures, a feeling of rampant escapism. “Croatia is a country with a deep economic crisis.  Every day, life is really hard.  It’s full of bad stories and tough times.  There is lot of poverty.  A lot of people are emigrating.”

Members of Croatia’s football team have become national talismans of endurance, the shock troops of resilience and hope.  Ivan Rakitić, when he takes the field against France, will be playing his 71st match of the season, the most than any top-flight player this year.  Luka Modrić remains unflinching in the midfield as the team’s general.  Domagoj Vida has been granite in defensive solidity.

Football teams can be held up as mirrors of the nations they represent. This sociological gazing can always be taken too far, a scholar’s fruitless pondering, but Croatia’s national side is instructive.  It was Dinamo Zagreb’s Zvonimir Boban who stirred matters with his heralded assault on a police officer engaged in a violent scuffle with fans in a match against Red Star Belgrade.  Croatian football was fashioned as a vehicle of protest and dissent against what was seen as a Serb-dominated federation.

In time, football kicks became shells and bullets in the murderous dissolution of Yugoslavia.  To this day, a legend stubbornly holds that the truculent Bad Blue Boys of Dinamo and the countering Deljie of Red Star precipitated the first shots of that war.

Starting with its current inspirational captain, the link between social ill and patriotic performance can be seamless.  When he finishes the tournament in Russia, Modrić will have to turn his mind back to his relationship with mentor and former Dinamo Zagreb executive Zdravko Mamić, a towering figure who finds himself facing a six-and-a-half year prison sentence for corruption and fraud.  From Bosnia and Herzegovina, he does battle with the authorities, attempting to avoid extradition after fleeing Croatia.

A bursting feature of the case mounted against Mamić involved claims of ill-gotten gains from transfers of Modrić from Dinamo Zagreb to Tottenham Hotspur in 2008 and Dejan Lovren to Lyon in 2010.  Modrić, it seemed, was implicated in signing an annex to his Dinamo contract, suggesting a 50-50 split of any future transfer fee.  What was significant was the timing – 2015 as opposed to any earlier dates.  Through his tenure, suggestions that Mamić had conducted a “silent privatisation” of the club were rampant, producing inflated transfer prices and a cult of acquisitiveness.

Modrić, having been billed as a star witness who initially supplied anti-corruption investigators with gold dust on Mamić’s penchant for cooking the accounts, notably in terms of pocketing millions of euros of the transfer fee, froze in the dock.  His memory, it seemed, had failed him; the contract annex was not signed, as he initially claimed, in 2015 but 2004.  This testimony was effectively rendered worthless.  Croatia’s captain now faces the prospect of a perjury charge that carries a possible sentence of five years in prison.

The Croatian Football association, in an official statement in March, was not having a bar of it, unsurprising given the powers that be within the country’s football hierarchy.  The body insisted upon “the principle of innocence and considers every person innocent until proven otherwise.”  It was also “deeply convinced of the correctness of Luka Modrić’s testimony before the court in Osijek, and especially because of Modrić’s behaviour since his first appearance for the Croatian U-15 team in March 2001 to date.”

While every inch the commander in the field, with his team keen to impress in their following, not all Croatian supporters are in the Modrić tent of fandom. The Bad Blue Boys have found themselves split in loyalties over the years, with some, such as Juraj Ćošić, forming a breakaway team, Futsal Dinamo. “Zdravko Mamić,” claims football sociologist Ben Perasović, “is a typical member of the new rich class.”  It is a class that continues to afflict Croatian football with their depredations, a looting tendency that is only now being reined in with mixed success.

The other team members have also shown this side to be rather prickly. Vida, and the now sacked assistant coach Ognjen Vukojević, were caught on film making comments supportive of Ukrainian nationalists in the aftermath of the side’s defeat of Russia in the quarter-finals.  FIFA’s benevolence prevailed, and the centre-back was permitted to play in the semi-final against England.

Such a background adds more than a touch of complexity, with all its discomforts, to the World Cup final against France.  Croatia’s team will not merely be facing their opponents on the field in a battle of wits and tenacity. Off it, pens and knives are being readied and sharpened, with prosecutions being prepared.

Even now, the team is being written off by the smug pundits of football orthodoxy, though with less disdain than before.  Three matches on the trot into extra-time suggest imminent exhaustion, a possible overrunning by a more refreshed French team. But desperation, in meeting talent, can be the most potent of elixirs.  This Croatian team has pushed the sceptics to the edge, and threatens to leave them there.  And with players like Modrić, adversity remains their closest companion.

Stomping in Britain: Donald Trump and May’s Brexit

What a rotten guest, but then again, that was to be expected.  Ahead of his visit to Britain, there was some indignation that US President Donald Trump should even be visiting in the first place.  Protesters were readying their assortment of paraphernalia in anticipation.  Walls of noise were promised.  Trump, on the other hand, was bullish after his NATO performance, which did a good deal to stir and unsettle partners and leaders.  On leaving Brussels, his singular account was that all partners had, in fact, agreed to a marked rise in defence spending.

Having settled into dinner with British Prime Minister Theresa May at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, there was a whirring buzz that the president had been busy, having given an interview to that infamous rag of reaction The Sun newspaper.  It was spectacularly poor form, featuring a series of pot shots against his host on how she had handled Brexit negotiations so far.  Not that May’s handling has been brilliantly smooth. Characterised by Tory saboteurs, confusion and ill-expertise, the British tangle with the European Union has persisted with barnacle tenacity.

This did not inspire confidence from Trump, and the Chequers agreement that May had reached with cabinet members was deemed “very unfortunate”.  For the president, a Brexit softened and defanged to keep it bound up in some form in the EU could well spell an end to a separate, post-separation trade pact with the United States.  “If they do a deal like that, we would be dealing with the European Union instead of dealing with the UK, so it will probably kill the deal.”

The sting was greater for the fact that May was using the dinner to pitch her case for a separate trade arrangement.  “As we prepare to leave the European Union, we have an unprecedented opportunity to do more.”  Any free trade agreement between the countries, she asserted, would create “jobs and growth here is in the UK and right across the United States.” Bureaucracy would be defeated in the transatlantic venture.

Trump, as he tends to, was operating on a different frequency, claiming that he, brilliant chap that he is, had the formula for how May might best get a workable Brexit through. If only the prime minister had listened instead of chasing her own flight of fancy.

May was not the only British politician rostered for a tongue lashing. London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who reached some prominence criticising Trump’s election promise to temporarily suspend Muslim immigration to the United States, also came in for special mention.  “I think allowing millions and millions of people to come into Europe is very, very sad.”  Reflecting on the problems facing European cities as a result, he told The Sun that London had “a mayor who has done a terrible job in London.  He has done a terrible job.”  The mayor had blotted his copybook by doing “a very terrible job on terrorism” and, just for good measure, crime in general.

Not content at leaving it at that, Trump revealed that childish vulnerability typical in unstoppable, and encouraged egomaniacs. This had undoubtedly been spurred on by Khan’s refusal to ban the flying of a 20ft blimp depicting Trump as an indignant, orange infant, nappy and all.  “I think [Khan] has not been hospitable to a government that is very important.  Now he might not like the current President, but I represent the United States.”

Having said earlier in the week that the issue of whether May should continue as British prime minister was “up to the people”, Trump was less judicious in his liberating interview. In what could be construed as an act of direct meddling (foreign interference for the US imperium is genetic, programmed and inevitable), Trump had his own views about who would make a suitable replacement.  The blundering, now ex-foreign secretary Boris Johnson, a person with his own conditioning of Trumpism, would “make a great prime minister.”

For those incensed by Trump’s say in the matter, it is worth noting that his predecessor was no less terse in warning, not just the Cameron government, but the British people, that leaving the EU would banish Britain to the end of any trade agreement queue.  Britain was far better being part of a collective voice generated by the EU, rather than a single power going its own way.  At “some point down the line,” President Barack Obama explained at a press conference held at the Foreign Office on a visit in April 2016, “there might be a UK-US trade agreement, but it’s not going to happen any time soon because our focus is in negotiating with a big bloc, the European Union, to get a trade agreement done.”

Perhaps the most striking delusion that runs so deeply through the Brexit pathology is the idea the Britannia’s flag will again fly high, and that power shall, mysteriously, be reclaimed by a nation made anew.  Other powers will heed that; respect shall be observed.  What Presidents Obama and Trump have shown from different sides of the coin is that such hopes might be terribly misplaced.

Making Heavy Weather: Boris Johnson the Despoiler

There is a certain haunting similarity between the President of the United States and the now former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson.  This does not merely extend to mad, oddly positioned hair, and misshaped mullets.  Both share a philosophy of upending the order and permanent disruption, impossible for those on their putative side of politics to measure, predict or contain.

Last Friday, Prime Minister Theresa May thought that her cabinet, moulded by cabinet responsibility, would be able to go forth with the bare bones of a plan for negotiations with the European Union for Britain’s departure.  Johnson, with characteristic muddling, had signed on to the Chequers statement, but had issued public utterances about his dissatisfaction.  He was on board, but only in wobbly fashion.

Having first seen which way the wind would turn, Johnson waited for the initial resignations of the Brexit team led by David Davis to take the plunge. His resignation was intended as an improvised explosive device, timed to blow up in the prime minister’s face just before she was to address members of parliament on Monday.

The letter has all the elements of BJ the opportunist, the cad, the slippery debater.  It has no definite shape in terms of what should be done, but is filled with defiance and, dare one say it, hope. Central to the argument is a defence of the “British people”, those subjects for whom he supposedly speaks for.  “They were told that they would be able to manage their own immigration policy, repatriate the sums of UK cash currently spent by the EU, and, above all, that they would be able to pass laws independently and in the interests of the people of this country.”

He warned, with irate frustration, that the “dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt.”  Decisions had been postponed on vital issues “with the result that we appear to be heading for a semi-Brexit, with large parts of the economy still locked in the EU system, but with no UK control over that system.”

Ever chancing his arm, and interpretation of events, Johnson brought a touch of drama into the note.  The new plan proposed by May, he argued, seemed to take Britain further back since the last Chequers meeting in February.  Then, he described frustrations “as Mayor of London, in trying to protect cyclists from juggernauts.  We had wanted to lower the cabin windows to improve visibility; and even though such designs were already on the market, and even though there had been a horrific spate of deaths, mainly of female cyclists, we were told that we had to wait for the EU to legislate on the matter.”

Ever forceful with the dire scenario, Johnson insisted that the May plan would put Britain into a “ludicrous position” of asserting that “huge amounts” of EU law would have to be accepted “without changing an iota”, while shutting Britain out from influencing them. “In that respect we are truly headed for the status of a colony”.

Such imagery qualifies as both entertainment and conceit.  Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer summed up the Johnson approach in a sentence: “Boris Johnson’s whole political career has been characterised by self-promotion and spreading misinformation.”

On the issue of introducing cab design changes to improve visibility for trucks, Johnson conveniently avoided the European Parliament’s vote in 2014 requiring such improvements to be made, a point subsequently decreed by a 2015 directive.  A more complex picture to emerge from here is one of institutional lethargy and foot dragging across a range of institutions, of which Johnson’s own stint as London mayor may count as one.

The resignation has been read in some circles of British commentary as decisively damning for Johnson’s future influence over the Tories.  His stint as foreign secretary, suggested Stephen Bush of The New Statesman, was so gaffe-strewn as to erode “his standing among MPs”. Where his effect becomes different is in the realms of disruption: encouraging Tory members to press for a confidence motion in the prime minister.  A mere 15 percent of Conservative MPs are needed to sign letters calling for such a vote.

Such readings of Johnson ignore the beguiling force he retains in politics.  His buffoonery and populism do have retail value.  Deemed unelectable at points of his career, let alone beyond promotion, he managed to win the mayorship of London.  He was indispensable to swinging the mood to Brexit prior to the 2016 referendum.  To that end, dismissive interpretations of Johnson’s career suffer, to some extent, from a rational view that sees politics as predictable and reasonable.  It was exactly such an approach that missed, almost in its entirety, the furious rise of Donald Trump.

“Johnson,” went William Davies in the London Review Books on March 8 this year, “approaches public life as a game in which he commits sackable offences as a way of demonstrating his unsackability.”

Making him foreign secretary had served only one purpose: a restraint, and a means of minimising any potential damage to May. But his presence, his bravado and his disruptive penchant made Davies wonder whether Trumpism was, as matter of reality, a British problem. “Johnson,” he admitted, “is as close as British politics has to a Trump problem; and his seniority suggests that Trumpism has permeated our political culture more deeply than we like to admit.”  This streak of British-styled Trumpism is bound to provide Johnson more nourishment, though its duration, and depth, remain questionable.

Giant Killing: Heroes and Teams at the 2018 World Cup

They have been falling like ninepins at one of the most unpredictable World Cups in generations.  Even before the kick-off in the tournament, Italy’s absence was conspicuous.  By the time the first phase of matches had been concluded, Germany, whose teams have made it to the elimination phase for eighty years, found itself in exit mode, a victim of exhaustion, desperation and South Korean determination.  Die Welt deemed the performance an embarrassment of perfection, the team’s performance “harmless, unimaginative, listless”.

Spain, who won the 2010 World Cup, found its adventure prematurely aborted in the round-of-sixteen, falling to the inspired Russian team on penalties.  Portugal, in their defeat before the hard set Uruguayans, went the same way in that round.  (Christian Ronaldo was distinctly off the boil.)  Not enough credit, however, was given in shocked observations to the other side of the show, the performances of those giant killing teams which have added to the fogginess of any crystal ball.

One colossus did seem dangerously predictable in advancing.  Brazil threatened at points to overcome a furiously talented Belgian team, but failed to transform possession into goals.  The Belgians made their chances count and duly dispatched another giant from the competition.

A sense prevailed that Brazil were their own worst enemy.  This was not the team of jogo bonito, jaunty, ruthless representatives of the beautiful game.  Neymar was both talismanic and deficient, an asset rolled into a liability.  His drama strewn efforts, which involved diving and rolling as much as it involved natural ability, did not provide the ballast his team required.  Such attitude, it has been surmised, might have been born from past serious injuries, be it the broken back he sustained in 2014, and a broken foot in February this year.

“I can say,” wrote Neymar in an Instagram post, “that this is the saddest moment of my career, it is incredibly painful because we knew we could get there, we knew we had conditions to go further, to make history.”  It proved “hard to find the strength to play soccer again, but I’m sure God will give me strength enough to face anything”.

The shocks have been marked and frequent, with the ground left for exhilarating performances.  Giants Argentina did not vanquish Iceland, the match concluding with a goal a piece. In an absorbing match, it was that other footballer of genius Lionel Messi, who took the penalty after a collision between Sergio Agüro and Hördur Björgvin Magnússon.  He botched it, and Hannes Thór Halldórsson made the save.  Another team of minnows had done their country exhilaratingly proud.

Croatia, with its own smattering of talented players, subsequently rumbled Messi’s side with three answered goals, despite both sides going into the second half without having scored.  France, in a thrilling bout involving seven goals and the incessant efforts of the 19-year-old Kylian Mbappé, issued the coup de grace.

The host team Russia was a thrill with Croatia, also going down to penalties.  England, albeit with a soft line of the draw, found themselves in their first semi-final in major international competition since 1996.  An exorcism of sorts has been taking place with this team, with manager Gareth Southgate, waistcoat and all, becoming very much a figure of veneration in a nation bruised and battered by the trauma of Brexit negotiations.  Both dedicated Leavers and grieving Remainers have at last found something they can agree about.

As the BBC noted with a smattering of affection, this “affable man” had done what a host of experienced highly credentialed predecessors hadn’t.  Sven-Goran Eriksson, Fabio Capello, Steve McClaren and Roy Hodgson had failed “despite more than 80 [matches] between them.”  While the football nation has historical pedigree, and not short of its stellar complement, team efforts have tended to founder when it mattered most, notably during the psychological wear-and-tear of the penalty shootout.  Southgate’s skill has been to temper expectations and the hysterical overconfidence that has accompanied previous World Cups.

The tournament has also thrown up a dilemma for managers: How best to incorporate the hero of the side, the glorious figure who shines in a team of lesser mortals who await for the powder to be lit, the flames to be stoked?  Teams studded with Neymar, Messi and Ronaldo may be Olympian on the field, but team value and effect is something else, material drawn from the machinery of collective spirit and mutual encouragement.

Truism as it is, teams, well functioning, telepathically linked and good of understanding, win matches.  Caesars deft of foot and brimming with talent are less significant, even if they are capable of landing killer blows.  “When you have somebody who can turn the game in a flash,” asks Kris Voakes, “do you select them at all costs regardless of their fitness in the hope that they supply that moment of genius?”  France, the sole giant and finalist in this competition, has no such dilemma, a team bristling with talent but compact in purpose.

Soft Brexits and Hard Realities: The Tory Revolt

It was meant to be an away day at Chequers in total hermetic isolation, an effort on the part of UK Prime Minister Theresa May to sketch some common ground in a cabinet that has struggled to agree on much regarding the imminent departure of Britain from the European Union.  The clock is ticking, for many ominously, with the departure date slated for March 29, 2019.

The initial signs seemed good: a consensus had, initially, been reached by all brands of Brexiter. Chief Brexit minister David Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had, in principle, come on board, though there were mutterings of dissatisfaction at the PM’s new plan.  At least for a time, collective cabinet responsibility had been satisfied.

The plan focused on, in the words of the Chequers statement, a proposal establishing “a free trade area for goods. This would avoid friction at the border, protect jobs and livelihoods, and ensure both sides meet their commitment to Northern Ireland and Ireland through the overall future relationship.”  Such a vision free of friction would entail maintaining “a common rulebook for all goods including agri-food” with a stress on harmonising UK laws with those of the EU.  Parliament have the ultimate say on their passage. “Regulatory flexibility” would govern the issue of services; “strong reciprocal commitments related to open and free trade” would characterise UK-EU relations.

The issue of the role played by EU courts, always trouble for the fanatical leavers, would continue to play a part in so far as UK courts would heed “the common rulebook”.  A joint institutional framework would ensure consistent interpretation and application of such rules, but “the supremacy of UK courts” would be assured.

As for the issue most worrying to the market types amongst the Tories, the proposal suggested “a new Facilitated Customs Arrangement that would remove the need for customs checks and controls between the UK and the EU as if a combined customs territory.”  This would leave Britain to have its own seat at the World Trade Organisation and strike trade deals with other states, another cherry for the harsh Brexiters.

The populist element was also considered: free movement, a central EU principle, would end, but the UK would seek a principle of ensuring that UK and EU citizens would still be permitted to visit, work and live in respective jurisdictions with ease.  Large annual payments to the EU, those so heavily stigmatised during the 2016 referendum campaign, would also end, though this would not terminate specific contributions to areas of “joint action”.

It did not take long for the ruptures within government ranks to begin.  After the discomforting unity came the blood filled flood; first three resignations, all associated with the “hard” variety of Brexit lore.  The most prominent of them was Davis himself who had shown various, and variable colourings of competence during his time in that newly created position in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum.  He had been marginalised of late, the Prime Minister evidently feeling that the issue was simply too important to leave to him. More to the point, he had threatened some five times to resign since November 2017, making him seem like a purveyor of empty threats.

With Davis’ exit went deputy Steve Baker and junior Brexit minister Suella Braverman.  “The general direction of policy,” came a liberated Davis in his letter of resignation, “will leave us in at best a weak negotiating position, and possibly an inescapable one.”  Parliamentary control, he opined, would be “illusory rather than real”.  The “common rule book” policy would effectively hand “control of large swathes of our economy to the EU and is certainly not returning control of our laws in any real sense.”

On Monday, just minutes before May’s address to members of parliament, Downing Street announced that Johnson was also making a dash for it.  His resignation letter was certainly heavy with opportunistic John Bull flavour; Britain, he charged, risked heading “for the status of a colony”.  The PM, he accused, was “sending our vanguard into battle with the white flags fluttering above them” in preparations for a “semi-Brexit”.  “It now seems that the opening bid of our negotiations involves accepting that we are not actually going to be able to make our own laws.”

There is not much sincerity all around.  Individuals like Environment Minister Michael Gove are backing May for the moment, thinking that a streak of sound pragmatism runs through this flawed plan.  But anyone having Gove’s backing is bound to feel the sheath of a blade, if not the blade itself, at some point.

Those remaining on May’s rocked ship have become apocalyptic in a different way, suddenly seeing the EU as less problematic than their opponents opposite the Parliamentary chamber.  “If we don’t pull together,” went a Cabinet minister to The Guardian, “we risk the election of Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister.”  Never mind Europe, went this particular line of reasoning: Labour might just walk in.

Within British politics, May’s Friday product does not seem to be flying well, though it had taken off in a fashion.  Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, taking the Scottish angle on this, suggested that the plan had started to unravel early, though it had a kernel of good sense. “It simply underlines the fact that the UK is leaving the EU (which I wish it wasn’t) the only workable solution is to stay in single market and customs union.”

Then comes the most obvious point that would render this whole exercise drily spent and academic: Will the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his crew have a bar of it?  There is, superficially, too much of the Swiss solution to this, too much of the “give me your market” but spare me the regulatory trade-off.  Having expressed his dislike for such a solution in the past, it is clear that May is facing the toughest of sells.   The EU apparatchiks still wish to make an example of Britain, a form of deterrence against others who wish to take the exiting step in the name of reclaiming sovereignty.

But there is something striking about the latest chapter in the ever ballooning Brexit script.  The Chequers statement is a product of a person who has not only survived, but shredded the hard Brexit base within her cabinet.  With Davis and Johnson gone into the dangerous ether of political disruption, the issue is whether the positions will firm up or loosen.  Till then, and even after, few sane individuals will want May’s job.

The Lures of Kleptocracy: Malaysia’s Najib Condition

Words can be teasing in their meaning.  In the realm of political and financial discussion, they can become absurdly changing.  Take Malaysia’s political status. On the surface, all looks delightfully democratic in that multi-ethnic state.  Once the eyewash is applied, a certain ugliness manifests: the ethnic tensions that are only ever a stone’s throw away from bloodshed and riot; the thieving of state assets as a measure of self-enrichment by representatives; the periodic threatening and at stages jailing of opponents and dissidents unhappy with the vision of its leaders.

While the Mahathir Mohamad show is in full force, the former prime minister Najib Razak, finds himself in the dock facing graft charges. His plight is no doubt a good demonstration that embezzling funds and gaining assets should be done in spectacular fashion.  Do not stop at the pennies and mild theft: go the whole hog.

The 1Malaysia Development Berhad fund, founded by Najib in 2009, is no small beer.  Here is an infrastructure pool with tax payer moneys that found its way into all sorts of mysterious and diffuse channels.  As such funds tend to generate a growth industry involving subsidiaries, it fell to SRC International to become the financial juggernaut to deal with overseas investments in energy resources.  It is alleged that SRC International was the conduit for much of the $4.5 billion that supposedly found its way into various accounts connected with Najib and his inner circle.

The money going missing from 1MDB became an international matter spanning numerous jurisdictions interested in the issue of laundering.  In 2016, Swiss investigators found “serious indications” that $4 billion had been misappropriated from state owned funds.  Since 2016, the US Justice Department has been conducting an investigation claiming that $4.5 billion from the 1MDB fund was moved to offshore bank accounts.  A civil claim has also been filed to the tune of $1.7 billion by US prosecutors to recover assets supposedly gained by using appropriated funds.

Malaysian police, not wanting to be left in the cold, have seized some $275 million worth of handbags, jewellery, watches and cash from Najib’s associated properties, while freezing over 400 bank accounts as part of the 1MDB investigation.

Less the cunning of history than its twisted grin must be the link claimed by US authorities between Najib’s stepson Riza Aziz, his co-founded company Red Granite Pictures, and Hollywood.  This is somewhat delightful, if you fancy seeing a connection between appropriated Malaysian funds that end up assisting the making of The Wolf of Wall Street, a Martin Scorsese film about insatiable greed, ill-gotten gains and ignominious fall.

Mahathir has been on Najib’s case for a time, suggesting that his former protégé had become a bad apple in an otherwise vast orchard of prospects.  But questions have been raised about his motivations over the issue.  Were the missing assets initially claimed as misappropriations or raised borrowings to supplement the fund?  Inventive accounting can be the hand maiden of expansive laundering.

None of this seems to matter now except to the prosecutor’s details, which have so far laid three charges against Najib regarding criminal breach of trust between 2011 and 2015.  Each charge, if proven, can carry a maximum penalty of twenty years in prison. In an additional smattering of brutality, the charges would normally carry whipping, but Najib would be exempt by virtue of age, being over 60 years old.

The latest turn of events heartens Maria Chin Abdullah, an MP long engaged in human rights battles. “I think it’s about time.  I must say I was very happy because at last we are going to get to the bottom of this and this is only the tip of the iceberg.”  Government MPs such as Wong Chen claim being swamped by messages of hope, with constituents calling the Wednesday charges against Najib “the happiest day” of their lives.  Such hope may prove misplaced, a case of removing the man rather than allaying the condition.

Soon after Najib’s defeat, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission pressed Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor about the alleged transfer of $10.6 million from SRC to Najib’s personal account. This had been previously given a clean bill of health by attorney-general Mohamed Apandi Ali. But the amount that did stand out was the $681 million that found a home in his accounts in July 2015.  This, he claimed, was a generous donation from Saudi royalty.

He then claimed, just to spread the rot, that former central bank governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz who now sits on Mahathir’s advisory council, had full knowledge of the transfer at the time.  Her initial reluctance to comment turned to a matter of sheer clarity: the claims by Najib were “categorically false”.  She had been blessedly ignorant.

When we revisit such terms as democracy, kleptocracy and autocracy, Malaysia has been all three and none. It is a state that has been looted by its all too rapacious political classes, mangled by an opportunism pitched between racial politics and acquisitiveness.  The prosecution of Najib is less an issue of reform than the removal of irritating situated scar tissue, or, the iceberg’s gleaming, conspicuous tip.  Leaving Mahathir to head the removal operation is much like telling ambitious parents to punish their overly successful children. Najib’s alleged theft remains the all afflicting condition for the powerful in Malaysia, as much individual initiative as historically inspired.

The ailing political body continues to remain intact, and the total exposure of the depth of financial abuse is unlikely to take place.  Mahathir will do, as he did before during his initial, lengthy stint as prime minister: maintain control, rein in the contrarians and make cosmetic adjustments.  Unlike Najib, he will just be less vulgar about it.

Keeping Your Refugees: Macron, Francafrique and Euro-African Relations

Ties between Europe and Africa have never been rosy.  A relationship based on predatory conquest and the exploitation of resources (slave flesh, minerals, and such assortments) is only ever going to lend itself to farce and display rather than sincerity.  The late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, whose death must be placed squarely at the feet of the Franco-Anglo-American intervention in the Libyan conflict of 2011, typified the cruelly distorted relationship, a man who morphed from erratic, third way statesman of revolution to terrorist inspired “Mad Dog”; then to a modern, if cartoonish figure capable of rehabilitating a state from pariah to flattered guest.

A neat expression of Euro-African ties was captured in the 2007 Dakar address by then French President Nicolas Sarkozy.  Like the current French President Emmanuel Macron, Sarkozy wanted to make an impression on those in what had been formerly characterised as the Dark Continent.  The leaders of the Maghreb and West Africa had been led to believe that promise was wafting in the air, that France would have a grand update on its relationship with former colonies on the continent.  The system of Francafrique, larded with neo-colonial connotation, would be scrapped.  Sweet sensible equality would come to be.

An impression he did make, albeit in spectacularly negative, sizzling fashion.  “The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history… They have never really launched themselves into the future.”

Sarkozy’s speech seemed a cribbed version of texts produced at a time when European officials were falling over each in other in acquiring and renting portions of the continent.  But in 2007, a French leader could still be found speculating about the limited world view of African agrarianism, its peasantry cocooned from enlightenment.  “The African peasant only knew the eternal renewal of time, marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words.”  This, for the French President, was a “realm of fancy – there is neither room for human endeavour nor the idea of progress.”

The impact of the speech was such as to prompt Senegal’s foremost scribe Boubacar Boris Diop to suggest a cognitive confusion of some scale.  “Maybe he does not realise to what extent we felt insulted.”  Defences were offered in France, one coming from Jean-Marie Bockel.  The speech, he concluded, had one thread through it: “the future of Africa belongs firstly to the Africans.”

And so now, in 2018, where history has again become an issue, throwing up its human cargo of suffering from conflict, poverty and strong shades of neo-colonialism, France, fashioned as a European leader, again finds itself considering how to respond to relations with the southern continent.

For various African states, the signs are not good.  Historical condescension and the sneer seemingly persists.  Macron, in an effort to steady the refugee control effort in the European Union, has gone into full school teacher mode.  The EU, he has iterated, cannot take decisions on behalf of African states, though he does suggest that, “Helping Africa to succeed is good for Europe and France.”

African states also suffered from a distinct problem of fecundity: unplanned population growth threatened further northward migration.  Immigrant processing centres in North Africa designed to halt the flow into Europe’s south, he suggests, “can fly, just if some African governments decide to organise it”.

This is something Macron has been onto for a time, and it replicates a broader formula adopted by wealthier states to more impoverished ones.  No doubt eyeing such ghoulish experiments as Australia’s Pacific Solution, which shifts the burden of processing and assessing refugee claims to small, low-income Nauru and unstable Papua New Guinea, Macron suggested in 2017 that states such as Libya carry the can, a suggestion as absurd as it is venal.

In August that year, he ventured, with agreement from German, Spanish and Italian counterparts, to focus on the setting up of migrant processing centres in Libya, Chad and Niger.  These would involve European resources to help create and sustain them.  The gaping flaw of this suggestion, one carried over into the EU negotiations last week, ignores the shattered status of Libya, a state in all but name.

Such plans, in the assessment of Left MEP Malin Björk, were “tainted by structural racism towards the African population”. In the opinion of the Swedish MEP, “Europe has not right to criminalise mobility of movement especially not in third countries.”  Such views are coming across as marginally quaint in the hard nosed and distinctly inhumane line of EU politics.

The value of Macron’s schooling is also compounded by manifold problems on what Europe actually intends to do.  The EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan that came into force on March 20, 2016 was meant to be a holy of holies, stemming the flow of refugees into frontline Greece.  It came with the natural consequence of shifting the routes of movement towards the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean.  Like aqueous matter, human flows will find a way.

Macron is only speaking for Europe in one respect: regaining control of borders and putting the refugee genie as far as possible back into the bottle.  Disagreement reigns over the method.  During negotiations in Brussels, EU leaders agreed, for instance, that “regional embarkation platforms” established outside the zone would be implemented to target the people-smuggling process.  In principle, it was also agreed that there would be secure migrant processing centres set up in EU countries.

On this point, member states remain deafeningly silent, though Macron has insisted on the traditional formula that states who first receive the migrants should have those centres. The current Italian government hardly sees the point of why; other EU states are more than fit to also conduct such processes.

As such squabbling to the richer North takes place, the impecunious South will simply continue to be a massive conduit of dangerous, often deadly travel.  This, along with Francafrique notions and various lacings of European suspicion towards African states, will continue with headstrong stubbornness.

Rescues, Caves and Celebrity Salvation

It all risks becoming pornographic, looped and re-run with an obsessive eye for updates and detail about despair and hope.  The twenty-four hour news cycle tends to encourage this sort of thing, ever desperate for snippets, obsessively chasing the update.  With a soccer team of twelve youths and their coach trapped in Tham Luang Nang Non cave some one kilometre below the surface, the curious, the gormless, and those with an unhealthy interest in the morbid have assumed couch position.

First came the discovery of the team by British divers after the group had gone missing for nine days.  They were found on a ledge inside the Northern Thai cave system.  Divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthen were feted as being among the best in the world, the former having been awarded an MBE for, of all things, services in cave diving.

There was much hooting and tooting in celebration, something prompted by the fact that any hope of finding them alive, according to the governor of Chiang Rai province, was nigh impossible.  But the mechanics of extricating the team from the cave started to mount in complexity and desperation, bursting the initial balloon of celebration.

With 2.5 miles of flooded cave between the team and the entrance, a sense of imperilment has grown.  This is compounded by a dreaded risk that adds a televisual ghastliness to the tale: the prospect of more heavy rain on the weekend, something that will foil current efforts to drain the excess water.

A village of international rescue experts including military personnel has grown around the enterprise, not to mention a vast hive of media representatives.  Four questions seem to be doing the rounds: to leave the team in the cave till there is a receding of the water level (dangerous given the monsoon season); pumping out the water to an extent to enable the trapped team to wade out; teaching the youths how to scuba dive, something which would be no mean feat given the length of time it would take for them to journey out of the cave (some five hours) and their status as virginal divers; and finally, drilling into the cave system.

Thai Navy Seals have been deployed, and much help is at hand, but the goriness has not been entirely dissipated.  The Navy Seal Chief Rear Adm. Arpakorn Yoo-kongkaew has been feeding the story to journalists keen to strike the optimistic note.

The Rear Admiral did not disappoint.  “Now we have given food to the boys, starting with food that is easy to digest and provides high energy.” He stressed that care has been given to the youths “following the doctor’s recommendation.  So do not worry, we will take care of them with our best.  We will bring all of them with safety.  We are now planning how to do so.”  Such confidence was given a dint with the subsequent death of one of his crew, Samarn Poonan, who perished due to lack of oxygen during a dive.

One similar incident stands out to what is currently unfolding in Thailand: the initial loss, the recovery and sanctifying of the “Los 33”, the Chilean miners who became celebrities of salvation in 2010.  They spent 69 days in the collapsed San Jose mine near Copiapó.  Over time, a process of mythologising began to take place.

It was fame imposed on the ordinary, confected by the mere fact, as important as that fact was, that they had survived.  Like Church miracle artefacts, they were vested with allure, attraction, and sheer pulling power.  They were also there to be exploited, used, and interpreted.  Otherwise, they were uncomplicated creatures of animal and mineral, many of whom believed that God had been the thirty-fourth miner keeping them resolute.

As the rescue effort unfolded, the minor celebrity bandwagon grew.  US radio personality Ryan Seacrest sent prayers and well wishes hoping, rather insipidly, “to see everyone on the surface soon.” The clownish Irish song duo of Jedward sent their own message of tinny idiocy: “All the miners remember it’s not about mining it’s about finding dinosaurs and dragons.” The late English presenter Keith Chegwin expressed some mock shame that “Dig Brother” had ended.  “Wonder what Chile 4 will put on now.”

The miners would subsequently add a touch of mysticism to the rescue, essentially sacralising it.  Jorge Galleguillos spoke of seeing “a white species… a butterfly” falling “like a paper” into the mine.  “Faith is nourishment… Faith is life.”  Stories abounded of how medical ailments were healed by prayer.  The drill used to tunnel to the miners was guided, according to miner Ariel Ticona, “by the hand of God”.

The miners became the heralds of a modern success story.  They were invited as guests of honour to Manchester United.  They did the US chat show circuit.  As a statement of pure fantasy, they went to that composite of fantasy, Disneyland. Then, for another sort of miracle dream work, they ventured to the Holy Land.  Expenses were footed.

Amidst the celebratory orgy typical of myth came a few sceptical qualifiers.  The degree of medical danger posed to them, for instance, had been given undue embellishment.  Dr. James Polk, deputy chief medical officer and chief of space medicine at NASA put this down to “not having all the facts, and things that people did not know about the situation”.

The workers were, for instance, trapped at sea level and could hardly have suffered from decompression sickness.  The miners were less confined as was portrayed, able to continue their labours underground.  Nor were they at risk of Vitamin D deficiency. “Chilean authorities,” according to Polk, “anticipated this, and they gave them a large dose of Vitamin D3 as part of their nutritional supplementation.”

Many of the rescued miners subsequently faced the ruination of imposed fame.  Mario Sepúlveda spoke of “fame but not money. It is the worst possible thing.”  The camera that had given him and his colleagues celebrity had also consumed them.  His world remains one of anti-depressants and a return to mining, where the darkness comforts.

The “Los 33” effect is very much at play regarding this young football team even as the rescue crews are busying themselves on tactics.  The big and the moneyed are seeking their place in the sun, offering advice.  Some are constructive; others are simply sentimental.  Elon Musk, according to a spokesman, has revealed that negotiations are underway on supplying location technology using Space Exploration Technologies Corp. or Boring Co. technology for digging purposes, or providing Tesla Inc. Powerwall battery packs.  But to every little bit of brain storming comes the deadly qualifier: engaging such services as that of Boring Co., with its colossal drills, might simply be too dangerous.

Even now, the young team has drawn on the heartstrings of the football community, encouraging a measure of faith.  Liverpool Football manager Jürgen Klopp, in an official video intended for the youngsters and their coach, spoke of “hoping every second that you see the daylight again.  You’ll never walk alone.” Such language, heartfelt yet tinged with a sense of funereal doom.

Send in the Troops! Deploying the ADF against Rioters

Such moves should trouble any constructive dissenter and civil libertarian: the vesting of powers in a military force to be used against domestic disturbances.  While the United States has a troubled history with it, posse comitatus still remains something of a letter restricting the deployment of the US armed forces on the streets of the country’s cities. That doctrine has effectively seen an expansion of the FBI’s role to occupy what might have been seen in the past to be traditional military roles.

In Australia, no such reining in powers and impediments exist, though States have been hamstrung by the requirement of making a request to the Commonwealth to initiate military action in the event that their police forces lack the means to protect themselves or the Commonwealth’s interests.

This has left the prospect of enlarging the army’s role in civilian life disturbingly possible in times of perceived crisis.  Utterings since the 2014 Lind Café hostage taking by Man Haron Monis, absurdly described as a “siege” by the counter-terror fraternity, combined with other foreign terrorist incidents that call out powers be broadened have become regular.

Last week, the Australian Attorney-General Christian Porter, who occupies a position where this sort of thing shouldn’t happen, announced that members of the Australian Defence Force would be vested with “shoot to kill” powers to be used only in “reasonable and necessary” circumstances to protect life.

Porter’s arguments give the impression that such military operations will be governed by the protocols of good sense and reason, notwithstanding that the ADF is a killing rather than justice machine.  Matters of evidence matter less than those of expediency.

The use of force by the ADF in a battle situation off Australian soil in a war zone is somewhat different and this is a much higher and more stringent standard, and the same standard in effect the police have been operating under for many decades in our variety of jurisdictions.

The ADF will also be given pre-authorised power to respond to threats on land, at sea and in the air, and given expanded powers to search, seize and control movement at the scenes featuring terrorist incidents. This power would also apply to quelling riots.

Porter also uses the creaky argument that changing security environments have warranted the move. “The terror threat we face today,” he says tediously, “is greater and more complex than that we faced when these laws were introduced almost 20 years ago.”

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin has felt besieged by a movement that can only be described as a militarisation of civil space.  Pressed for comparisons between the effectual nature of a police operation against terrorism last year with its military analogue, Colvin made the following observation:

Of course, [the military] are in a better position to deal with some situations than us.  But the concept that we aren’t trained or capable to deal with the domestic terrorism situations that we see, I think, needs to be challenged.

Specific interest here is focused on Part IIIAAA of the Defence Act 1903, covering the “Utilisation of Defence Force to protect the Commonwealth Interests and States and Self-governing Territories.” Porter’s aim was to ensure “that law enforcement agencies around Australia can easily request ADF assistance to respond to these threats where necessary and are available to states and territories to assist with major incidents, such as geographically dispersed or otherwise widespread, coordinated acts of violence of other domestic incidents that threaten the security and lives of Australians.”

But critics of encouraging military deployments in local counter-terrorist situations have been sharp enough to note that the Lindt operation, which resulted in three deaths including the hostage taker was, in Allan Orr’s words, “not the NSW Tactical Operations Unit (TOU), it was the competitive and jealous quarantining of tactical skills, resources and budget entitlements by the ADF that left the frontline TOU without the training and equipment it needed to do its job properly.”

Orr’s sensible appraisal has been put to one side by such individuals as Neil James of the Australia Defence Association, who takes the line of Australian exceptionalism and creativeness with the historical record.

The whole concept of this goes back centuries back in the days when they didn’t have police forces and governments used to call on the military to do things that the police do now.  All this is doing is putting in a statute was is a century-and-a-half of precedent.

This blotching of the historical record ignores the fundamental wisdom of separating the functions of police and the functions of defending the realm in an industrial society.  Muddling these merely serves to doom the security of citizens, rather than enhancing them.  Such is the danger of amalgamating, rather than dispersing, forces.

As with matters affecting liberty, the bungling nature of proto-authoritarianism is what spares it.  While the ADF might well have these new powers, police are still vested with the lion’s share of dealing with terrorism incidents. The powers in Canberra have also insisted that the military’s Tactical Assault Groups specialised in anti-terrorism activities can only be deployed nearer their bases in Sydney and Perth.  Changing legislation, for all the aspiration of the drafters, does not necessarily change operational realities.

Democrats Against Assange: Influencing US-Ecuador Relations

Such a historical twist, but one that deserves its iniquitous slot in the history books.  No secret has been made about US policy towards Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, which continues its trajectory to seek his apprehension and shutter the organisation.  Despite its cables being used for political effect by interested parties; despite the exposures of corruption within the ranks of US politics, Assange is to be thanked with punishment.

This is the sentiment expressed by Senator Robert Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, along with nine other Democratic senators, in a letter to US Vice President Mike Pence.  The senators had been losing sleep after getting wind of what was said, or rather not said, in a June 4 phone call between Pence and Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno. One glaring omission troubled them: the absence of any discussion about Assange’s asylum status and stay in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

Ahead of Pence’s meeting with Moreno this week, the senators wished to press the matter:

As the United States is still seeking clarity about the full extent of Russian intervention in our elections and Russian interference in elections across the world, it is imperative that you raise US concerns with President Moreno about Ecuador’s continued support for Mr. Assange at a time when WikiLeaks continues its efforts to undermine democratic processes globally.

This is a fine take, if dizzyingly inaccurate: WikiLeaks as the great undermining force of democratic states, worrying politicians in the United States who have enthusiastically backed the imperial project of overthrowing democratically elected governments. But slotting Assange, Putin and electoral interference in the same line is bound to have its emotive effect on politicians obsessed with government secrecy.

The charges tend to muddle the broader political landscape, but the intention in the letter is to paint Assange as an architect of discord, comfortably wading in the politics of other states.  That such muck racking is often no more than releasing documents casting a different light on traditional politics is beside the point; Assange interfered in revealing the hidden whispers and clandestine reflections.  Other scenes of engagement are also noted: the French presidential election, and the Spanish referendum on Catalan independence.

What the letter omits to say is that the current US president has expressed his delight at various nuggets he has received from the WikiLeaks trove.

I simply state what he states, it is for the people… to make up their own minds as to the truth.  The media lies to make it look like I am against ‘Intelligence’ when in fact I am a big fan!

The specific reading advanced by the Democrats builds upon the stance that Assange as a radical transparency vigilante must be potted.  It regurgitates, in uncritical form, the designation by former CIA director Mike Pompeo that WikiLeaks was a “non-hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.”  It makes the facile link between WikiLeaks and Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) in suggesting that the publishing outfit was used “to release hacked information in order to influence… the 2016 US Presidential election.” (Use here is conflated with manipulation, collusion, and conspiracy.)

The content, and veracity of such material, is deemed irrelevant.  And rather than being content with his arbitrary detention in Ecuador’s embassy compound in London, as found by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, there is a desire to take the next step.

As for the meeting with Ecuador’s Moreno, the White House was short if vaguely ominous:

The Vice President raised the issue of Mr Assange.  It was a constructive conversation. They agreed to remain in close coordination on potential next steps going forward.

The Senators’ letter also made the observation that US-Ecuador relations for the last decade had been “marked by unfortunate tensions.  However, under President Lenín Moreno’s leadership, there is a unique opportunity to reverse this trend.”  A change presented itself now to “forge a new chapter in longstanding relations with the United States and Ecuador built on shared values, and address remaining challenges between our countries.”

Too much bad blood exists within the Democratic camp about Assange, who has become a proxy hate figure for a party that bungled the US presidential elections in 2016.  A steadfast refusal to accept the result, not to mention the inadequacies of their candidate where it most mattered permeates through the Mueller investigation and Russia Gate, all tied together by a bow of grievance.

A note from Harry Cheadle writing for Vice in the lead up to the 2016 election is instructive in painting the picture that emerged from the DNC-Podesta trove released by WikiLeaks. The emails portrayed an “organization that is contemptuous of opposition, often obsessed with how an issue is perceived, and yet sometimes prone to decisions that seem self-defeating and dance on the knife edge of political disaster.”  The chickens, notably of the socialist variety, are vengefully coming back to roost.

Scratching for ideas and options in ambushing President Donald Trump, it is clear that the senators have latched on to the next best thing: revoking the political status of a man with no internet access who will be arrested the moment he steps out of the embassy door. How fittingly democratic of them.