World

Mashrou’ Leila’s festival ban. UN condemns tragedy in Idlib. Timor-Leste gas treaty finally approved. Deforestation in the Amazon. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Lebanese band’s concert cancelled over threats of violence

Hamed Sinno, lead singer of Mashrou’ Leila, performing in London in March.
Credit: Burak Cingi / Redferns

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Syria: The last major rebel holdout in Syria is Idlib province, a fertile region in the country’s north-west that was known before the war for its olive oil. Since 2015, the province has attracted evacuees from other rebel-held areas and its population has doubled to more than three million. Some parts are now held by the Syrian army, with others held by a mix of rebel groups, including jihadists linked to al-Qaeda and nationalists backed by Turkey.

Last September, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, made a deal to set up a demilitarised zone in Idlib. Erdoğan wanted to prevent more Syrian refugees fleeing to Turkey, and Putin, a strong backer of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, hoped the deal, which included clearing the province of jihadists, would weaken the rebel groups.

But the truce has ended.

For three months, the Assad regime, backed by Russia, has attacked the province, including Russian aerial bombardments that have targeted schools, hospitals and marketplaces. At least 400,000 people have been displaced. Estimates of the death toll range from 450 to several thousand. In the past few weeks, the bombing has intensified. On Tuesday, the United Nations said at least 17 villages in the province had been destroyed.

Turkey has protested but done little to intervene. It wants Russian support to seize border territory elsewhere in order to keep Syrian Kurdish forces at a distance. It also does not want to disrupt its purchase of a new Russian air defence missile system.

The assault on Idlib has been one of the biggest campaigns of the eight-year Syrian war, yet the international community has fallen silent. The United Nations human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, said the world had greeted the atrocities with a “collective shrug”.

“This is a failure of leadership by the world’s most powerful nations, resulting in tragedy on such a vast scale that we no longer seem to be able to relate to it at all,” she said.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Timor-Leste: In July 2002, two months after the Timorese achieved independence, the island nation began negotiations with Australia on the fate of the Greater Sunrise oil and gas fields, a reserve beneath the Timor Sea worth an estimated $50 billion.

Seventeen years later, Australia’s parliament finally approved a treaty this week to carve up the deposits. The deal, signed in New York in March last year, gives 80 per cent of the proceeds to Timor-Leste if the gas is piped to Australia for processing and 70 per cent if it is piped to Timor-Leste – with Australia receiving 20 or 30 per cent, respectively.

The deal ends a sorry saga in which Australia first helped Timor-Leste to secure independence and then spied on the nation in 2004 during negotiations over the Greater Sunrise deposits, which remain crucial to Timor-Leste’s future.

The spy who exposed the bugging operation, known as Witness K, and his lawyer, Bernard Collaery, are facing criminal charges in Australia for revealing state secrets. On Tuesday, a day after parliament approved the treaty, the spy case was back in the Magistrates Court in Canberra. Proceedings have been slow as the lawyers wrangle over how to proceed and what should be made public. Collaery’s lawyer has requested his case be heard separately in the ACT Supreme Court. Further closed hearings are scheduled for next Tuesday.

But the problems facing Timor-Leste remain. Its oil revenues from existing fields are dwindling, and it has reportedly been drawing down on its sovereign wealth fund. It is pressing ahead with a controversial plan to build expensive facilities such as a refinery, a plant and seaports in the south to develop the Greater Sunrise resources. Critics say the project is not viable and could run the wealth fund dry. According to the World Bank, 42 per cent of Timor-Leste’s population of 1.3 million live below the poverty line.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Lebanon: In 2008, a group of students at the American University of Beirut decided to form a band as a temporary respite from the pressures of the country’s tense, claustrophobic politics. They called themselves Mashrou’ Leila, or “overnight project”.

But the band has since become one of the best known in the Arab world. Its lead singer, Hamed Sinno, is openly gay, and his lyrics, while elusive at times – including references to Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman and the scriptures – have not shied away from discussing his sexuality, homophobia, corruption, militarism and sectarianism.

Mashrou’ Leila have been banned from performing in Jordan, and the display of a rainbow flag at a show in Egypt led to multiple arrests, but the band has now run into trouble in Lebanon, which typically prides itself as the most socially liberal Arab country.

On Tuesday, the Byblos festival, one of Lebanon’s biggest music events, cancelled a concert by the band scheduled for Friday, saying this was necessary “to prevent bloodshed and preserve security”. The move followed heavy criticism, mainly from the country’s Christian community, including claims by Byblos’s Maronite Catholic church that the band’s songs “violate religious values”. On social media, critics described the band as satanic and threatened to use violence to stop the show.

Human rights groups said the cancellation demonstrated the country’s growing intolerance towards the local LGBTQIA community and criticised the government’s failure to guarantee the safety of the festival.

An Amnesty International spokeswoman, Lynn Maalouf, pointed out that the band had played the same songs at the same venue only three years ago.

“[This] is an alarming indicator of the deterioration of the situation with regards to freedom of expression in the country,” she said.

Mashrou’ Leila, whose members are of different faiths, said their lyrics had been “cherrypicked … and twisted into a meaning very far from what the songs are actually about”.

“This is neither a satanic band ... nor does it have any secret agenda,” the band said.

SPOTLIGHT: Cutting the Amazon

Brazil: About two weeks ago, a band of about 50 heavily armed illegal goldminers marched into a remote section of the Amazon rainforest and killed Emyra Waiãpi, an indigenous tribal leader. The miners occupied Waiãpi’s village, whose population fled. Police were sent last weekend but details remain patchy due to the area’s inaccessibility.

This bold attack on a local leader was seen as a predictable consequence of the election of Jair Bolsonaro, a former military officer who recently likened Brazil’s indigenous peoples to “cavemen”. Bolsonaro has promised to build a highway through the Amazon and to allow mining on indigenous lands, which make up 13 per cent of Brazil’s territory. It appears he is emboldening – or ignoring – the miners, loggers and farmers who for decades have been unlawfully destroying Brazil’s rainforest.

Last week, government data showed that deforestation has surged since Bolsonaro came to power on January 1 this year. More than 3700 square kilometres of forest was lost up to July 22, and the rate has been increasing. The main culprits are believed to be beef farmers, who bulldoze the trees and burn them to start raising cattle.

Bolsonaro said the government data, based on satellite imagery, was “a lie”. He has cut the budget of Brazil’s environmental agency by 24 per cent and plans to remove laws allowing authorities to combat loggers. He defended his policy at a briefing with foreign reporters last month, saying, “You want the indigenous people to carry on like prehistoric men with no access to technology, science, information, and the wonders of modernity.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 3, 2019 as "Security fears lead to festival ban". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.