The Tragedy of 21 Million Climate Refugees

One Every Second

One EverySecond (2018)

Film Review

This documentary concerns the 21 million people (one every second) who are forced from their homes (yearly) by catastrophic climate events. Islands and low lying coastal communities, especially in the developed world, are the most vulnerable. This is mainly due to flooding and contamination of crop lands by salt water. The third world poor (particularly women and girls) have limited options for relocating, and their governments are rarely in a position to help them.

This film tells the harrowing tale of a 14 year old Bangladeshi girl forced into prostitution in Dhaka when floods destroy her rural family home. She speaks quite poignantly about clients who refuse to pay unless she pretends to enjoy herself, about gang rapes and about police who threaten her with arrest unless she pays protection money or rewards them with sexual favors.

The Rohyngya Crisis: Is Myanmar the New Syria?

For nearly a year now, the western media has been flooding us with images of Muslim Rohingya fleeing Rakhine state in Myanmar. Since October 2017, an estimated 700,000 (roughly half the Rohingya population) have fled into Bangladesh where they live in primitive refugee camps or in the open air on the roadside. Most of are women fleeing the Myanmar army, which has been burning their villages, gang raping them, killing their husbands and, in some cases, their children. Since 2016, some of the 700,000 Rohingya who remain in Myanmar having been living in camps (some under military force – others voluntarily for protection from Buddhist vigilantes).

We read occasional vague references to the current “civil war” in Rakhine state. And listen to hysterical rants by Amnesty Internationali spokespeople condemning Myanmar president Aung San Suu Kyi for her failure to speak out against the army’s brutal treatment of Rohingya Muslims. AI is also calling for Burmese leaders in the International Criminal Court – which is impossible as Myanmar isn’t an ICC member.

Is a New Proxy War Brewing in Myanmar?

In most cases, the western media tells us virtually nothing about the civil war that is the root cause of the current Rohingya refugee crisis. Why not? In exploring non-western media accounts, I get the uncomfortable inkling I am witnessing a burgeoning proxy war in Myanmar, similar to the civil war in Syria, with Saudi Arabia and possibly other US client states supporting the Rohingya rebels. Obviously this background in no way justifies recent terrorism by the Myanmar army against Rohingya civilians. At the same time, the world is growing weary of the US and their allies using human rights violations as justification for military intervention. In Myanmar, as in Syria, the only sustainable solution is a political settlement, ie an international agreement that protects Rohyngya autonomy and human rights while ending interference by foreign players.

Myanmar’s 70-Year Civil War

The current Rohyngya crisis was triggered in August 2017 when the Arakanii Army (AA) and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a new extremist group, launched a concerted attack on Myanmar army and police. The government of Myanmar has been fighting armed Rohingya separatists since it first won independence in 1948. During World War II when Japan occupied Burma, local Buddhists supported the Axis forces and the Bengali Muslims remained loyal to the British crown. Tens of thousands died during mass mutual reprisals. As Burma negotiated independence from the UK, Muslims in northern Arakan appealed to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to annex this area. When the both Burmese independence hero Aung San and Pakistan’s founder Muhammed Ali Jinnaha rejected this appeal, Arakan Muslims launched a mujahideen insurgency

Simultaneously fighting communist and ethnic insurgencies among the Karensiii, the Kachensiv and other marginalized groups, the Burmese army could only control major cities and towns in Arakan. The mujahideen controlled large parts of rural Arakan, leading many Buddhist villagers to flee to the southern part of the state.

It wasn’t until late 1954 that the last mujahideen camps fell to the Burmese army, with most insurgents retreating into East Pakistan. The Burma/East Pakistan (Bangladesh) border has always been extremely porous (like the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan) with Rohingya militants moving in and out of northern Burma to launch attacks on police and army outposts.

Two years after Burma’s 1962 military coup, Muslim youth from rural Arakan formed an underground movement called the Rohingya Independence Force (RIF). In 1998 various RIF factions united to form the Arakan Roningya National Organization (ARNO). It was at this point they began receiving financial and material support from the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), which operates out of Saudi Arabia.

The Rise of the Arakan Army

The 2004 downfall of Prime Minister Kihn Nunt and the collapse of his military intelligence network would result, in 2012, in the emergence of the Arakan Army (AA). Recruiting Rakhine laborers working in Phakant jade plants in Kachine state, the AA agreed to open a new western front in Rakhine state when the ceasefire between the Myanmar military and the Kachine Independence Army (KIA) broke down in 2013, Between March 2015 and April 2016, the AA killed 13 Myanmar troops, which, in turn, captured 57 AA troops.

At present, the government estimates there are 300 AA and ARSA troops operating along the Myanmar-India-Bangladesh border and another 200 fighting with the KIA. They enjoy strong support from the civilian population. Rohingya refugees describe young villagers picking up clubs, knives and sticks to join attacks against Myanmar police and military.

Saudi Support and the Methamphetamine Trade

According to the Muslim World League website, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia continues to support the Rohingya with financial and material support. According to International Crisis Group, Rohingya separatists also get major financial support from wealthy Rohingya refugees living in Saudi Arabia.

Rohingya militants also seem to be involved in methamphetamine smuggling, with the army seizing 26.7 million meth tabs from suspected militants in 2015 and 37.7 million tablets in 2017. There are also concerns they may have links with the Pakistani Taliban and possibly Islamic State militants.


i Amnesty International is increasingly playing a cheerleading role for US military intervention in Syria and non-aligned countries exhibiting “human rights” violations. See Amnesty International: Trumpeting for War . . . Again

ii Arakan (now known as Rakhine state) is a historic region bordering the Bay of Bengal to its west, Bangladesh to its north and Myanmar to its east.

iii The Karen, Kayin, Kariang or Yang people encompass a number of individual Sino-Tibetan language speaking ethnic groups, many of which do not share a common language or culture. These Karen groups reside primarily in Karen State, in southern and southeastern Myanmar.

iv The Kachins are a coalition of six tribes whose homeland encompasses territory in Yunnan, China, Northeast India and Kachin State in Myanmar.

I originally published this article in OpEd News

(Image by Tasnim News Agency [CC BY 4.0 (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Has Democracy Failed Women?

 

Has Democracy Failed Women?

by Drude Dahlerup (2018)

Book Review

This book challenges conventional wisdom that Greece was the birthplace of democracy, as it totally excluded women from participation in the political process.

Has Democracy Failed Women? starts with a brief review of women’s long difficult battle for the right to vote. New Zealand was the first to grant women a vote in national elections in 1893. Other English-speaking countries, including Britain, enacted women’s suffrage following World War I. Catholic countries, including France, Italy, Chile and Argentina waited till World War II ended. It was 1971 before women could vote in national elections in Switzerland.

It’s well established that democratic assemblies with inadequate female representation, are incapable of addressing the continuing oppression women experience under capitalism.* Yet more the 100 years after first receiving the right to vote, women (who comprise 52% of the population) are still denied full representation in the institutions of power. In the West, only two parliaments have granted women full parity (40-60% representation). In the global South, only Rwanda and Bolivia have as many women as men in their assemblies.

Dallerup blames the “secret garden of politics,” the failure of most political parties to select candidates in a transparent or democratic process, for women’s failure to receive fair representation in government. In most places, party officials limit their candidate pools to well-established old boy networks.

In general, only countries with Proportional Representation (see The Case for Proportional Representation) are likely to achieve more than 25% female representation in their national governing bodies. Countries (like the US, UK and Canada) employing a Plurality/Majority (winner- takes-all) voting system based on geographic districts have the most difficulty achieving adequate female representation. In these countries, a woman usually has to defeat a male incumbent to win a seat.

I was very surprised to learn that 57% percent of countries have achieved better female representation by imposing gender quotas. Pakistan was the first in 1956 (though they have subsequently rescinded the quota), Bangladesh in 1972 and Egypt in 1979. Scandinavian countries took a big step towards gender parity via voluntary party quotas

As of 2015, only three countries had no women at all in government: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Trump has only two female cabinet members, the lowest since the 1970s.

In an era in which the power of elected assemblies is being systematically eroded by multinational corporations, Dallerup feels it’s also really important to ensure strong female representation on corporate boards and the regional and international bodies they control. Spain, Iceland, Belgium, France, Germany, India and Norway all have laws requiring a minimum of 40% representation on corporate boards (a move consistently linked with higher profits.


*Interventions Dallerup views as essential to ending women’s inequality and oppression include

  • redistribution of money and resources, eg to single mothers for maternity care and maternity leave
  • actions against the feminization of poverty
  • public services: care for children, the elderly and disabled
  • housing and public transportation
  • an independent judiciary without with gender biases; intervention against domestic violence; anti-discrimination regulations, ie on equal pay and equal treatment; and affirmation action (ie gender quotas)
  • support for men’s role as caregivers, eg paternity leave
  • protection from sexual violence and harassment in peace and war and the inclusion of women in peace negotiations and post-conflict reconciliation

Also published in Dissident Voice

How Climate Change is Killing People in Bangladesh

30 Million

Directed by Daniel Price and Adrien Taylor (2016)

Film Review

Thirty Million is a New Zealand documentary about how rising sea levels in Bangladesh are already displacing (and killing) people in low lying coastal areas. It depicts quite dramatically how coastal farmers inundated by rising tides are moving into incredibly congested cities, where there is virtually no housing or infrastructure to support them. There many of them die – through lack of food, untreated medical illness or a variety of catastrophic events (fires, building collapse, floods, etc.). Those with above average wealth attempt to leave Bangladesh for Europe, Australia, New Zealand and other destinations.

The film features former Prime Minister Helen Clark in her new role as the administrator of the UN Development Programme. She speaks very eloquently about the urgent need to reduce global carbon emissions. I find it a bit hypocritical in few of her failure to make a serious effort to reduce New Zealand’s CO2 emissions during her stint as prime minister (1999-2008).

 

Organizing Bangladeshi Sweatshops

Udita (Arise)

Rainbow Collective (2015)

Film Review

Udita is an inspirational film about the unionization of the female garment workers in Bangladeshi sweatshops (see The Ugly Side of the Fashion Industry) over the last five years.

In addition to exposing the deplorable living conditions of these women and their children, the documentary also profiles two disasters that significantly increased union membership: the 2012 fire in the Tazreen factory that killed 57 workers and the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in 2013 that killed 1021 workers.

Udita differs from other sweatshop documentaries in that in focuses minimal attention on the western brands (Walmart, Gap, etc) that reap obscene profits from employing third world women in conditions of virtual slavery. This film is more about the lives of the workers, who are often single mothers abandoned by their husbands.

The film begins by profiling one organizer who first tried to form a union in 2010, when the minimum wage in the garment factories was $22 a month. Deducted from this was the $13 a month a typical garment worker paid to live in a one room shack with shared bathroom facilities.

Overtime was compulsory, with workers only getting only one day off a month. They were also subject to beatings and/or firing if they complained about maltreatment or non-payment of wages (it was common for paymasters to dock their pay for non-existent infringements). One of the early grievances the National Garment Workers’ Federation (NGWF) won was the case of 250 workers who hadn’t been paid for three months.

NGWF members grew significantly following the Tazreen fire. The main reason the fatality rate was so high was because workers were doing compulsory overtime on a big Walmart order and the doors and gates had been locked to keep them from leaving. Following the 2012 fire, NGWF held a number of large protest marches and forced the government to increase the minimum wage to $64 a month.

The documentary also profiles a woman forced to assume custody of her two grandchildren after both daughter and a son-in-law are killed in the Rana Plaza disaster. Because she had no money to pay their school fees, both children were kicked out of school (public schooling is virtually non-existent in Bangladesh).

The film ends with a humongous 2014 protest march, in which the woman and her grandchildren participate. The principal demand is compensation from the factory owner for the 1121 deaths.

The Ugly Side of the Fashion Industry

The True Cost

By Andrew Morgan (2015)

Film Review

The True Cost is about the immense environmental and human cost of the fashion industry – all for the sake of a few people raking in immense profits.

The modern trend of “fast fashion” is the most destructive. Over the last few decades, the big fashion brands have sought to make clothes so cheap that consumers only wear them a few times before discarding them and buying new ones.

The average American purchases 80 pieces of clothing a year, 400% more than two decades ago. The US disposes of 11 million pounds of textile waste a year, an average of 82 pounds per person.

Reliance on Sweatshops

Lowering the cost of clothes has necessitated moving 97% of clothing manufacture overseas. Bangladesh, where workers (who are 85% women) earn less than $3 a day,  is the favorite of most big name brands like the Gap.

The women work and live in total squalor. In the past few years , 1,000 workers were killed when the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed. Hundreds more have died in a series of fires. The pay is insufficient for the women to provide housing for their children. They remain with relatives in the countryside and see their mothers at most once or twice a year.

Thanks to Global Exchange and the anti-sweatshop campaigns of the 1990s, all the big fashion brands sign voluntary codes of conduct to makes sure their local contractors respect the human rights of their sweatshop workers (which they never enforce). The big brands also systematically obstruct federal legislation that would make such codes compulsory.

The Second Most Polluting Industry in the World

The environment degradation caused by “fast fashion” is equally horrific. The garment industry is the most polluting in the world (second only to oil). The global proliferation of GMO cotton has had devastating health effects in India and the Lubbock Texas area. Until I saw this film, I was unaware that Lubbock is one of the largest cotton producing regions in the world.

In Texas most of the GMO cotton is Roundup Ready, Monsanto’s best selling pesticide. Heavy exposure is responsible for a large cancer cluster among Lubbock area residents.

In India, both Roundup Ready and Bt Cotton are grown. The former is responsible for a significant increase in birth defects, cancer and mental illness. The latter is responsible for a serious reduction in crop yields (the pesticide Bt Cotton produces kills the soil bacteria responsible for soil fertility). The loss of soil fertility has led to farmers losing their land and livelihood, as well as over 200,000 farmer suicides in the last 15 years.

India is also experiencing massive chromium contamination of the Ganges River and surrounding groundwater, from chemicals used in tanning leather for the western fashion industry.

Spin, Propaganda and Lies

The fashion industry pumps out propaganda that sweatshops are good because they create jobs for people who otherwise would have no alternative. This ignores the deleterious effect of “free trade” treaties that have destroyed the rural economies of many third world countries.

The official narrative also belies collusion between the fashion industry and the Vietnamese government, known for brutally beating and killing garment workers during peaceful protests demanding a minimum wage.

The full film was available on YouTube last week but has been taken down. You can rent it from VHX or iTunes for $3.99: Watch now

“Conscious Capitalism”: Lipstick on a Pig?

Not Business Usual

Directed by Lawrence Le Lam, Rik Klingle-Watt (2014)

Film Review

Not Business as Usual challenges the maxim promoted by neoliberal economist Milton Friedman that corporations have no social obligation beyond providing a short term financial return to their shareholders. It traces the rise of “conscious capitalism” and the “B corporation,” which started from a 1989 Colorado meeting of the founders of various socially responsible corporations, including Patagonia, the Body Shop and Ben and Jerry’s.

The goal of the B corporation is to introduce social responsibility to capitalism. Thus far 20 states have introduced regulations for chartering B corporations, and 18 are working on pending legislation. Criteria for becoming a B corporation include responsible environmental practices, demonstrated commitment to the community and fair treatment of employees. According to the film, a B corporation commits to high environmental and employment standards along the entire supply chain. Thus a B corporation selling eco- apparel commits that the contractor producing the garments isn’t ruthlessly exploiting workers or discharging harmful chemicals into Bangladeshi waterways.

The documentary highlights a number of B corporations whose activism has resulted in groundbreaking changes in their communities and, in some cases, the third world. I was particularly intrigued by a B corporation called Lunapads. Lunapads has introduced low cost, washable menstrual pads to 120,000 women in the third world. In Uganda and other African countries, teenage girls typical skip school during their period when they lack access to affordable menstrual pads. In addition to keeping teenage girls in school (and unmarried), local manufacture of Afropads has created hundreds of local jobs.

Can the “Conscious Capitalism” Movement Save Capitalism?

The filmmakers contend the “conscious capitalism” movement will save the capitalist economic system. They argue that consumer pressure will eventually force all corporations to become more socially responsible – insisting consumers are demanding more socially responsible products and are happy to pay more for them.

I find a number of fallacies in this argument. In the first place, it’s only middle class consumers who are “demanding” ethical products, a middle class that is rapidly vanishing in most of the industrialized world. Minimum wage workers who are a paycheck away from the street have no choice but to opt for the cheapest clothes, foods and household goods they can find.

Secondly the present economic and environmental crisis is driven by powerful monopolies, particularly in the banking and defense industry. The thought of banking monopolies like Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan suddenly transforming themselves into B corporations is ludicrous. At present the main obstacle preventing entrepreneurs from forming B corporations is the unwillingness of Wall Street banks to provide start-up funding.

Thirdly while the social activism of individual B corporations is extremely laudable, I question the criteria used for measuring community responsibility. Surely a B corporation that’s truly committed to their community wouldn’t be seeking out “ethical” apparel contractors in Bangladesh. Surely they would be bringing these jobs back home to their local region.

The irony here is that many of the entrepreneurs who started the “conscious capitalism” movement made their fortunes by selling up to multinationals who clearly don’t share their vision. Ben and Jerry’s sold up to Anglo-Dutch food giant Unilever in 2000, and in 2006 the Body Shop agreed to a takeover by l’Oreal.

We have approached our local Body Shop outlet numerous times about supporting local environmental issues (ie fracking, fecal runoff from dairy farms). Claiming “corporate-wide policy,” they won’t even permit us put a poster in their front window.