Tamils, Kettles and Shrivels

April 21, 2009

Some news from around the world for those of you who feel the need to take a break from all of this sunshine mullarkey. Stoke Newington was looking resplendent as ever, and the local branch of Mind had a battered old copy of W.G. Hoskins History of the English Landscape for me to nab. I also lugged home a bag of compost to fill an improvised poly-tunnel that we’ll be constructing using a piece of discarded plastic sheet and an old crate. Should be a journey.


Apparently rivers around the world are losing water, at least according to researchers at the USA’s National Center for Atmospheric Research. Rivers around the world are drying up, from the Ganges to the Yellow River, to the Colorado and the Congo, a development that the study judges to be “associated” with climate change.

The research team surveyed stream flows in major rivers from 1948 to the present, finding that reduced flows outnumbered increases by 2.5:1, quite a correlation. This spells looming disaster for fresh water species which rely on those streams and, of course, the human populations who depend upon those rivers for irrigation and the minor matter of drinking water.

Other rivers which haven’t seen decreases, such as the Brahamaptura or the Yangtze may well soon experience them as the glaciers which feed them are depleted.

On a broader scale, “Discharge from the world’s great rivers results in deposits of dissolved nutrients and minerals into the oceans. The freshwater flow also affects global ocean circulation patterns, which are driven by changes in salinity and temperature, and which play a vital role in regulating the world’s climate.”

Bad news indeed.

And this chimes in with a warning being issued by Oxfam,  which is reported on by the Guardian today. According to the paper, the development charity claims that “Emergency organisations could be overwhelmed within seven years by the rising number of people in poor countries affected by floods, droughts, heatwaves, wild fires, storms, landslides and other climate hazards” due to the effects of climate change.

Apparently, since 1980 the number of people affected by “climate related disasters” has doubled and Oxfam expects the total affected to reach 375 million per year by 2015. That’s an enormous number of refugees, broken families, devastated communities and lost lives.

Meanwhile, hundreds of tamils remain encamped in London’s Parliament Square, where a few of them remain on hunger strike. Protesters in Paris clashed with police yesterday,  while tamils gathered around the world to demand a ceasefire in Sri Lanka’s civil war, which, Tamil sources claim, has claimed hundreds of lives in the past week alone.

Thousands of tamils have been confined to a tiny part of north-east Sri Lanka for weeks as the military has closed in on Tamil Tiger (LTTE) positions. In the past few days the Sri Lankan army claims to have breached one of the final Tiger defenses, sending tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the zone.

Videos from tamil groups suggest that the reason for the flight is deepening human misery, with the government having blockaded medical and food supplies. Journalists and aid workers have been excluded from the area by the government for months, so the outside world is heavily dependent upon official sources for information – a very unsatisfactory position.

This has ensured that the Sri Lankan government’s narrative has been largely unchallenged. The government has been seeking to frame its offensive as a “rescue” operation for the entrapped tamils, but reports of mass killings – sometimes via cluster bombs and chemical weapons, belies this tale.

The government headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa has employed tactics that recall Israel’s ongoing blockade against the Gaza Strip. While claiming to target a militant group within northern areas, his government has sought to collectively punish civilians living there, killing indiscriminately in the process.

For example, the Jesuit Refugee Service, one of the last organizations to maintain contacts in the conflict zone, reported last week that artillery barrages had killed 46 people, 17 of whom were children. As the Guardian editorialised on 11 April, those deaths were “all victims of shelling in Pokkanai, within the no-fire zone.”

Yet international organizations have sought to pin all of the blame for civilian casualties squarely on the Tamil Tigers. The UN’s under-secretary for humanitarian affairs, John Holmes, has said that “some 350,000 civilians are trapped in an increasingly confined space and effectively prevented from leaving by the LTTE,” a situation which “raises deep concerns over the possible use of civilians to render areas immune from military operations.”

Meanwhile, “the Sri Lankan army is not releasing those who manage to flee the fighting. They are being put into camps, where they are not allowed to communicate with the outside world” which may account for their unwillingness to flee the conflict zone.

Protesters in Parliament Square have no faith in the UN as an impartial broker, and the UN is being ignored by the Sri Lankan government in any case. Its staff in the country, and the UN hierarchy around Ban Ki Moon, have said nothing about the ongoing carnage, beyond condeming tamil resistance.

The situation appears bleak for the thousands still locked in the zone. When a 24 hour ultimatum issued by the Sri Lankan government expires tomorrow, more havoc and mass killing is likely to ensue.

On a less tragic, but still important note, the furore over the tactics used by British police on April 1 in dealing with protesters against the G20 rumbles on. With evidence mounting that police did kill Ian Tomlinson, and that the passer by did not die from a heart attack (as claimed by police on the day and afterwards) but from internal bleeding, the authorities are running scared. Stories about the extensive, probably systematic, obscuring of police numbers during the protests, and many other complaints about police brutality have added to the pressure for an inquiry into why the police were so heavy handed, and who ordered that it should be so.

In that context of rising public discontent with the police, members of the government are starting a counter-attack. The unelected Home Officer minister Lord West, for example, told his fellow peers yesterday that “thousands of officers acted absolutely professionally and proportionately” and we “should be extremely proud of them.”

Echoing the rhetoric of the Association of Chief Police Officers, a private lobby group attached to the police, West said that “I have to say I do not like the thought of water cannon, baton rounds or shooting people all of which seem to occur in some other countries and I am jolly glad I live in this country. But all of those things will be looked at.”

This suggests that people in power are seeking to respond to an example of wholly over the top policin of peaceful protest by adopting more repressive control techniques.

On April 1, thousands of protesters gathered to express their disgust at the massive bail-outs dispensed to corrupt and incompetent banking giants, while public budgets are being cut back and development aid stagnates. At the climate camp, held in Bishopsgate, activists gathered to oppose carbon trading schemes which offer little in the fight against climate change yet much for trading firms and those rotten banks.

The climate camp was met with intense and under-reported repression. Hundreds of heavily padded and well armed riot police marched over tents and people alike, causing many injuries. A kettle was created trapping thousands inside it, with no means of leaving, for over six hours.
At Bank, thousands more were penned by riot police for more than eight hours. As those trapped sought to break out and leave, the windows of one strangely undefended branch of RBS were smashed, but that was the extent of property damage. No police were seriously injured, yet the rights of thousands were trampled.

Yet the defenders of police brutality are mounting a counter-campaign to protect their position during future demonstrations. Police leaders have predicted a “summer of rage,” and have ensured it through their tactical decisions at the G20.

London’s Mayor and the Chief Commissioner of the Met Police have joined forces to paint officers as trapped in a “complex” policing operation. As Boris Johnson put it, “I think the overwhelming majority of people in this city and this country understand the particularly difficult situation they [the police] face when being asked to provide security in a demonstration such as the G20.”

Commissioner Paul Stephenson has absurdly claimed that the brutality was in defence of world leaders, arguing that the G20 operation was “one of the most complex policing operations that’s ever been undertaken – protecting multiple heads of state.” World leaders were gathering behind a wall of steel some miles distant in London’s Docklands.

This is all predictable. The tabloid press is lining up in support of such calls, with the Daily Mail carrying a long vindication of police violence by film director Michael Winner. Yet the police can’t help feeding public anger at their behaviour. In the latest slice of brutality, five off duty officers from Manchester have been arrested for attacking a teenager during a night out.

Meanwhile, the twentieth anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster has rekindled memories of the incompetence and dishonesty which police exhibited during and after the tragedy. The Taylor report into the disaster pinned the blame mainly on South Yorkshire police for opening a gate into the Leppings Lane terrace and funneling fans into the packed stands. Police then sought to cover up their incompetence and to slander football fans as responsible.

When the police act in this way, they are always shielded from effective criticism and reform by their leaders and their political allies. It happened after the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, and after Hillsborough too. It’s happening again after the death of Ian Tomlinson. That’s why a sustained campaign is needed, sorely needed.


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