Tragedy in Sri Lanka

Most New Zealanders have little idea of the struggle of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka aside from television pictures of the horrendous outcomes of the civil war on Tamil civilians. These pictures have appeared more frequently over the last month and we’ll see more in coming weeks following the defeat of the Tamil resistance movement, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), by the Sri Lankan army.

In recent weeks some 10,000 have been killed, 50,000 wounded and around 275,000 made homeless.

For most of us it’s just part of the wallpaper of a violent world of human inhumanity but for the people directly involved and their friends and family overseas it has been devastating.

On Saturday I was at a meeting of the Tamil community in Auckland where the 150 people were emotionally exhausted from the last traumatic months of knowing their homeland communities have been destroyed and their families made refugees. All knew of people who had been killed but they felt the helplessness of those viewing events far from the conflict zone.

It’s been a very grim, brutal end to this phase of the Tamil struggle but like all struggles based on justice and self-determination it will not end with this military defeat.

The immediate need is for humanitarian aid to get through to the so-called “welfare camps” established by the Sri Lankan army. The need for food, water and basic medicines is urgent but just as important the eyes of the world are needed to witness and monitor the Sri Lankan army. It has a well-deserved reputation for racist hatred of Tamils and is held responsible by international human rights groups for numerous assassinations, disappearances and genocidal attacks on Tamils. According to the Asian Human Rights Commission “The Sri Lankan security forces are using systematic rape and murder of Tamil women to subjugate the Tamil population. Impunity continues to reign as rape is used as a weapon of war in Sri Lanka.”

At the Auckland meeting it was encouraging to hear National Party Member of Parliament Jackie Blue and Green MP Keith Locke speak knowledgeably and passionately on behalf of Tamils and stress the need to get humanitarian aid in while making refugee camps accessible to international agencies and taken out of the control of the Sri Lankan army which has placed heavy restrictions on aid agencies gaining entry to the camps.

The Tamil struggle for self determination is a story all too familiar. Britain left its colony of Ceylon 1948 with the single administration and the Sinhalese majority gaining control. In 1956 the Sinhalese established their Sinhala language as the only official language which forced most Tamils out of government jobs and into the role of second-class citizens facing systematic discrimination. This Tamil minority, approximately 14% of the population, with their own language and religion (Hindu as opposed to Buddhism) and geographical location (the North Eastern area of the country) began to agitate for independence and self-government.

They have made some gains. The Tamil language is now officially recognised and Tamil MPs sit in parliament but the desire for self-determination has strengthened over the decades.

The Sri Lankan government has seen this as a threat and have used their dominance to violently suppress Tamil aspirations. Anti-Tamil riots have been a regular feature of the past 60 years alongside targeted assassinations and disappearances of Tamil activists.

This came home to me personally in a dramatic way a few years back. In May 2005 I met with Tamil MP and human rights activist Joseph Pararajasingham on a visit he made to Auckland. He was an engaging, sincere man who represented Batticoloa in the Tamil North-East of the country. Seven months after his visit here we learned he had been assassinated while attending a Catholic Church service in Sri Lanka on December 27th that same year.

The assassination took place despite him supposedly being under the military protection of the Sri Lankan government.

This is not to say the Tamil resistance fighters are blameless. Alongside the Sri Lankan army the LTTE has also been accused of human rights abuses and terrorist actions against civilians such as suicide bombings as they have fought a bitter civil war on and off for the past 26 years.

However while both sides have been accused of human right violations the cause of the conflict has been the Sri Lankan government determination to put down a legitimate struggle for self-determination.

New Zealand’s response to all this will be decided by Foreign Minister Murray McCully. So far he seems determined to make trade priorities dictate our foreign policy with human rights concerns taking a back seat. There is a lot riding on Jackie Blue convincing him there is a right and wrong in Sri Lanka and that New Zealand’s voice can make a significant difference.

The resurrection of Roger Douglas

Those living outside Auckland are probably getting tired of the supercity debate. Labour has been filibustering in parliament to stall the legislation creating a transitional authority while Maori Party supporters are planning a series of hikoi in Auckland to protest the lack of Maori representation. The Royal Commission on Auckland Governance proposal that there be three Maori representatives (two elected and one appointed) to sit on a 23 person council has been sidelined by Act and National.

Labour has been careful to attack the process of the supercity without attacking the concept because it was Labour which established the Royal Commission after blaming parochial in-fighting in Auckland for Trevor Mallard’s failure to get region-wide approval for the waterfront stadium for the 2011 World Rugby Cup.

So there’s a lively debate going on here. However it’s a kilometre wide but just a centimetre deep. Aucklanders are more bemused than involved.

US commentator Noam Chomsky describes such democratic debate like this:

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”

If Chomsky were viewing the energetic supercity debate he’d recognise his words in action. There has been a lot of heated argument but it has been around the periphery of the issue rather than the substance of what the change actually represents for Auckland.

Green MP Sue Kedgely got closest to the truth last week when she accused Act Party leader and Minister of Local Government Rodney Hide of staging “Rogernomics part two” by passing a law under urgency to strip Auckland’s local councils of their powers and transferring control to the Auckland Transition Agency peopled with Rodney Hide’s cronies.

She was right, but Rogernomics part two extends well beyond the transitional agency. The entire concept of the supercity is based around business running the city for the benefit of business. It represents the culmination of a well-orchestrated campaign for several years by the likes of the Employers and Manufacturers Association for control of the region’s local government policy and community assets to the value of some $28 billion.

The second round of Rogernomics will really wind up once business interests dominate the region-wide council. Twelve council seats will be elected locally and will reflect the makeup of the local areas they represent (each one about twice the size of a parliamentary electorate) while the other eight will be elected at large and will be dominated by the grouping with the resources to run a regionwide campaign. This will be the “party” of business with John Banks as their candidate for the all-powerful position of mayor.

The biggest losers will be the low-income areas of South Auckland which is currently the biggest portion of the Manukau City Council. Take water supply for example. For many years Manukau City residents have steadfastly refused to adopt so-called user-pays charges for water supplies despite two determined attempts by former mayor Barry Curtis to foist this on the city’s inhabitants. However we have been told already the supercity will have one single supplier of water and wastewater services and this will no doubt be provided on a user-pays basis as it is currently in Auckland City.

Local Manukau residents will now be overruled and user-pays charges will be forced on this community where so many are least able to pay.

To help prepare the way for privatised water Act leader Rodney Hide is appointing Chief Executive of Watercare Services Limited, Mark Ford, to head the Auckland Transition Agency. Ford is a strong supporter of user-pays and the privatised provision of water as in Papakura whose local council contracted out it’s water services to multinational United Water on a long term contract.

Courtesy of Rodney Hide, John Banks and the like-minded Mark Ford the better-off citizens of Auckland’s northern and eastern suburbs will see decreases in their overall rates and water charges while New Zealand’s lowest income families in Manukau will face stiff increases.

We are indeed into Rogernomics part two but listening to the bluff and bluster from Labour and National one would never know.

And just wait till ACT/National get their grubby hands on the $28 billion of local body assets in Auckland. Roger Douglas will then complete his resurrection.


Maori Party stooges for prison privatisation

There is something fundamentally wrong with Judith Collins’s plan for the private sector to run prisons.

If the state takes the extreme step of depriving a person of their liberty then those the state employs to incarcerate must surely be directly accountable to the state. Privatising that accountability is wrong in principle.

New Zealand has experienced a privately run prison before and a lot has been made of how well the Auckland Central Remand Prison (ACRP) was run after a National-led government awarded the management contract to Sydney-based Australian Correctional Management (ACM) in the 1990s.

The feedback from Maori groups in particular was very good and some Maori expressed dismay when the private contract was not renewed by the Labour government in 2005. Local iwi representatives said they had been consulted well by the company before the contract was let and enjoyed excellent relations with the prison management. They were made to feel welcome and involved in rehabilitation programmes. National also claimed the cost was lower with a private contract. At the time National’s Tony Ryall said the cost per prisoner at ACRP was $43,000 compared to $54,000 in state run prisons. However his figures were a con because they compared the cost at a remand facility with those associated with maximum security prisons where the costs are much higher. Labour has since released figures to show that the actual cost per prisoner at state-run remand centres was just $36,000 compared to the higher figure at the ACRP.

It was important for National and ACM that the first private contract to run a prison in New Zealand would be successful. It was therefore funded especially well by the government while the company took care not to scrimp on spending.

In supermarket terminology this was a “loss leader”. Once they got their foot in the door this would open up bigger opportunities for private investment and government-guaranteed profits. The involvement of Maori early on was also a key part of their strategy because it helped blunt opposition to privatisation. If Maori, as those most negatively affected by imprisonment, were seen to support privatisation then those opposing had an uphill battle.

This same strategy was used to get the Auckland Skycity Casino up and running. Never mind that down the track Maori are disproportionately the victims of gambling, the up-front involvement of Maori was a successful, cynical strategy to help bulldoze opposition to thousands of pokies invading Auckland.

The private sector certainly know how to run a scam and it’s useful to look at the behaviour of ACM’s parent company – the US-based Wackenhut – once it was established running prisons for profit in the US.

The company was started by former FBI agent George Wackenhut whose corporate empire extended to providing services in strikebreaking, international security work (which included providing security for chemical weapons shipments to Saddam Hussein in Iraq) and beating anti-nuclear protestors as well as running private prisons.

After becoming well established in prisons their loss leaders became cash cows. The results were disastrous.

Wackenhut lost contracts to run prisons in Louisiana and Texas in 1999 after scandals involving mistreatment of prisoners and profit-taking at the expense of such things as drug rehabilitation, counselling and literacy programmes. A Louisiana judge called one Wackenhut jail unsafe, violent and inhumane while a government review reported assaults, abuse and humiliation of juvenile prisoners. Two Wackenhut-run prisons in New Mexico had appalling management and experienced numerous riots and murders.

This was the company National chose to run the ACRP and while it’s not the only private prison contractor there are plenty more like just like them waiting in the wings.

Private contractors make their prison profits by lowering staffing levels, 15% lower is the typical overseas figure, and employing staff on poorer pay and conditions of work. None of this is helpful to prisoners or rehabilitation. Quite the opposite in fact.

It’s virtually certain the first new prison contract will be awarded in conjunction with an iwi group. Just as with the ACRP contract this will again be the entry point for the private sector into our prisons.

Already the Maori Party are keen to provide the political cover. Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia says private management of prisons is an investment opportunity for iwi while the usually astute Maori MP Hone Harawira simply says the state has failed Maori in prisons and it’s time to try something new. He’s right about the failure so it’s plain stupid to race ahead even faster in the same direction.

Mad as it is, New Zealand prison policy is about to get worse. If you are frustrated at all this mindlessness then put in a submission to oppose the privatisation of prisons. You have till the end of next week to have your voice heard.

Greed drives swine-flu epidemic

I’ve been surprised at the degree of irresponsible media reporting on the swine flu epidemic.

It was unlikely from the outset that New Zealanders were under deadly threat as claimed. There were deaths in Mexico where the virus strain originated but all reports have shown most people experience very mild flu-like symptoms at worst. That could change if the virus mutates but the same can apply to any virus.

Nevertheless the media beat it into a frenzy. Promoting panic is a sure winner for newspaper sales and essential TV viewing so there was a vested interest in sensationalising the story.

After all it had all the hallmarks of a great story. Death out of the blue from an unseen killer is naturally frightening. If Alfred Hitchcock had made a film about a viral attack he would have been onto a winner. And what a great name – swine flu. Hollywood couldn’t have done better.

A week later and it’s clear it was a beat-up. More New Zealanders will die of the usual strains of influenza this winter than those with swine flu symptoms we’ve seen so far.

Despite all this, irrational behaviour seems to have spread faster than the virus. Pigs are being slaughtered in Egypt, Mexican travellers are being randomly put in quarantine in various countries and a couple of Auckland hotels have refused to take in unwell tourists.

This is not to say there isn’t the potential for a pandemic such as the world saw in 1919 with the so-called Spanish flu outbreak which killed tens of millions worldwide. With air travel so widespread now the spread of such an infection would be more rapid and potentially much more devastating were a viral strain with similar deadly potential to emerge.

How likely is such an event in the near future?

It seems the answer is a resounding yes with the focus less on “if” and more a matter of “when”. So why not some in depth reporting to follow up the over-heated swine flu story?

With the financial crisis there were voices raised warning of the serious dangers at every step taken in the deregulation of financial markets in the past 20 years. Similarly there have been many voices sounding in recent years of the dangers of “greed-driven” meat production and its propensity to produce the very virus strains we see in so-called swine flu.

The swine flu virus is a combination of bird, pig and human viruses and it isn’t the first time such a strain has emerged. In 1998 a similar combination developed in an industrial pig farm in North Carolina and spread across the US. Intensive farming practices were blamed at the time where pigs and birds were farmed in cramped conditions, in sheds which were side by side and tended by the same human staff.

A study published by the University of Iowa College of Public Health in November 2005 investigated the risks of viruses jumping from animals to people. It pointed out that family farms were being replaced by industrial farms. In the US in 1965 there were more than a million farmers with an average of 50 pigs each but by 2005 there were 50,000 farmers with an average of 900 pigs each. The numbers of farmers continues to decrease while the number of pigs continues to increase. Some pig farms now have tens or even hundreds of thousands of pigs living in overcrowded, inhumane conditions.

In the new industrial farms the Iowa study argued that “the potential for animal-to-animal transmission will be much greater than on a traditional farm because of the pigs’ crowding resulting in prolonged and more frequent contact”.

“In addition, virus-laden secretions from pigs may be more concentrated, and reductions in ventilation and sunshine exposure may prolong viral viability.”

Workers on these farms are most at risk. “They may serve as a conduit for a novel virus to move from swine to man or from man to swine,” the study said and warned this could initiate epidemics by mixing viral strains which would then trigger a pandemic.

It isn’t certain at this point but it seems the latest outbreak originated in an industrial pig-farming area east of Mexico City.

So while we have been bombarded with all the drama of the outbreak the apparent cause has received scant attention.

Wouldn’t it be great if Health Minister Tony Ryall announced New Zealand support for an investigation into the cause of the outbreak instead of planning to spend more large sums preparing for the next epidemic?