PNG economy slides further; black days in India as anti-Muslim sentiment rages; Mahathir hypocrisy; China tempers North Korea slurs. By Hamish McDonald.

No farewell to arms as Syria mobilises

Indian activist Sudheendra Kulkarni sits covered in ink as former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri addresses  the media  in Mumbai.
Indian activist Sudheendra Kulkarni sits covered in ink as former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri addresses the media in Mumbai.
Credit: AFP

When in doubt, apply weapons and ammo. So after an abashed United States Army general told a congressional committee only “four or five” US-trained moderate rebels were in action in Syria and the whole $US500 million program to build up a force against the Assad regime was called off, American cargo planes last Sunday began dropping arms to other groups in Syria.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, sped up delivery of 500 more US-supplied anti-tank missiles to its favoured rebels in Syria, for use against Assad forces and Russian “volunteers” fighting with them. The TOW missiles come from a stockpile of 13,000 ordered by the Saudis in 2013, and would have come with “end user” requirements so the transfers would be approved by Washington. Assad’s forces are trying to retake territory with support from Russian aircraft and helicopters. The question now being asked by the Syrian rebels is: Why can’t we have anti-aircraft missiles, too, like the Stingers supplied to the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s? 

As Syria slides into a proxy war between a Russia-Assad-Iran-Hezbollah alliance on one side and a Sunni Arab-US alignment on the other, the involvement of the Islamic State, or Daesh, and the al-Qaeda-inspired al-Nusra Front is an embarrassment for the Sunnis and a gift for the Russian-Shiite side. 

The Iraqi government, set up and maintained so expensively by the US and allies such as Australia, tends to the Shiite alignment, accepting ground support from Iran and inviting air support from Russia, and now using Chinese-made drones to attack Daesh, so far within its own borders. The position of Turkey, reeling from the Ankara suicide bombing last Saturday, and heading into fresh elections on November 1, gets hazier. 

Details of Russian air and cruise missile strikes show a focus on hitting moderate rebels in the west and north of Syria, rather than IS in the east. Noah Bonsey, senior Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group, thinks Moscow is out to protect its strategic foothold in the eastern Mediterranean. Crippling mainstream rebels will “leave itself as the lone supposed bulwark in Western eyes against the Islamic State,” Bonsey wrote this week in Foreign Policy online. This invites escalation of support by the regional Sunni powers to keep their proxies at the negotiating table, whenever diplomacy takes over.

1 . PNG economy slides further

Here we go again in Port Moresby. This week independence leader Sir Michael Somare resigned from the National Alliance Party backing Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, after being approached by the opposition to stand as alternative prime minister in an imminent vote of no confidence.

This was to have been a triumphant year for O’Neill and Papua New Guinea: a full year of liquefied natural gas exports from the ExxonMobil project giving world-beating GDP growth of nearly 20 per cent, hosting the Pacific Games, celebrating 40 years of continuous democracy since independence in 1975.

Instead the economy has been hammered by the late-2014 collapse in petroleum prices. The government’s budget deficit for 2015 has blown out from 4.4 per cent of GDP to an unprecedented 9.4 per cent. O’Neill’s state investment in 9.8 per cent of Oil Search Ltd, a partner in the ExxonMobil project, has become ruinously expensive, according to a detailed report by Fairfax’s John Garnaut on the $1.3 billion loan from UBS Australia to finance it. O’Neill himself has been trying to avoid a job-threatening leadership tribunal hearing about alleged irregularities in approving the loan. 

The national currency, the kina, is being kept artificially high to help repayments, so exporters of non-oil commodities such as coffee and gold also suffer. To cap it all, PNG has been badly hit by the El Niño effect, with drought intensifying across the mainland. Villagers in the highlands require food assistance. The Fly River in the west is too shallow for barge traffic, so the big Ok Tedi copper mine has ceased production, and with it a sizeable flow of revenues to Port Moresby.

2 . Black days in India

India’s Narendra Modi is a hero of economic reform and strategic alignment in the West, but his Hindu-nationalist political camp at home is being blackened by the actions of some of its more fanatical members.

On Monday in Mumbai, zealots of the virulently anti-Muslim far-right Hindu party Shiv Sena pulled journalist Sudheendra Kulkarni out of his car and tipped a bucket of black ink over his head, to disrupt Kulkarni’s launch of a new book by former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri. Kulkarni went to the event dripping in the ink and took his place at the top table.

Shiv Sena is a coalition partner of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in both Delhi and Maharashtra state, which includes Mumbai. Few expect punishment to follow. Anti-Muslim incidents are on the rise, with a Muslim man lynched by a mob in northern India for allegedly slaughtering a cow, Muslim politicians in Kashmir hounded for eating beef, and Shiv Sena threats closing concerts by Pakistani ghazal singer Ghulam Ali. On August 30, two men murdered South Indian scholar Malleshappa Kalburgi, a rationalist who had derided “idol worship”.

Modi is struggling to get his major economic reforms through parliament, notably a nationwide goods and services tax to replace multiple state sales taxes. His failure to punish failings in his own side, such as a pay-your-way entry scam to medical schools in a BJP-ruled state, add to his political difficulties. On Tuesday, 40 Indian writers returned their state awards and prizes in protest at rising intolerance.

3 . Mahathir hypocrisy

Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, gets deeper into trouble over the woes of 1MDB, the state investment fund he supervises. 

Last Friday the Malaysian central bank announced it had recommended criminal proceedings over the fund, advice that Najib’s attorney-general immediately rejected. Just earlier, the nine sultans of Malaysia’s states, who take turns as king, said the 1MDB scandal was “adversely affecting the world’s view of Malaysia”.

It sticks in the craw, though, to see former PM Mahathir Mohamad jumping into the anti-corruption clamour against Najib. As the veteran Sydney University political scandal analyst Rodney Tiffen pointed out this week, Mahathir was prime minister in 1993 when the “aid for arms” scandal broke in London, with the British Tory government accused of giving massive loans to a Malaysian hydro project in return for arms deals. 

Najib was Mahathir’s defence minister then, as he was in 2002 when he clinched an even more scandal-shrouded deal to buy French submarines. So Mahathir can hardly plead ignorance about Najib when he helped push him into the prime ministership in 2009. 

4 . China tempers North Korea slurs

On Chinese internet and social media, it’s no longer okay to refer to the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as “little fatty Kim the third” or to post images of him, touched up with lipstick and rouge or in unlikely positions.

Beijing has moved to end its estrangement from North Korea somewhat. For Kim Jong-un’s big parade last Saturday to mark the 70th anniversary of the Korean Workers’ Party, Xi Jinping sent a Politburo Standing Committee member Liu Yunshan, the highest-level Chinese official to visit Pyongyang since Kim succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il, four years ago. On Monday, Beijing’s state-run Global Times headlined: “Some Chinese People’s Making Fun of North Korea Does Not Show Self-Respect.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 17, 2015 as "No farewell to arms as Syria mobilises".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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