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EDITORIALS

Habitual offenders
Such MPs should be voted out by the people
The manner in which unruly members have been disrupting the proceedings of Parliament time and again needs to be severely condemned. Over the years, The Tribune has always been voicing opposition against the MPs who repeatedly disrupt the proceedings instead of discussing vital issues before the country and, in the process, bring down the dignity of the House.

EARLIER STORIES

Punjab budget
February 20, 2009
Offensive against Naxalites
February 19, 2009
Appeasing the Taliban
February 18, 2009
Carry on, Pranab
February 17, 2009
More open to FDI
February 16, 2009
Pitfalls of democracy
February 15, 2009
One step forward
February 14, 2009
Amarinder’s expulsion
February 13, 2009
Violence in the House
February 12, 2009

THE TRIBUNE SPECIALS
50 YEARS OF INDEPENDENCE

TERCENTENARY CELEBRATIONS



Back from the brink?
Recovery may take some time
While it is hard to hazard a guess about the shape of economic things to come, Mr P. Chidambaram, former Finance Minister, did predict recently that an economic recovery could begin in October. He might have been surprised by Cabinet Secretary K.M. Chandrashekhar’s disclosures, reported in the media, that key industries like cement, steel and automobiles are already showing “signs of a turnaround”.

Tamil tango
AIADMK revives race for Congress hand
I
N extending an open invitation to the Congress party to jettison the DMK and join hands with her party, AIADMK chief J Jayalalithaa may have upset the electoral calculations of all parties in Tamil Nadu. A shrewd strategist known for her formidable resourcefulness, Ms Jayalalithaa is unlikely to have made the pitch unless she was confident of the move yielding political dividends — even if the Congress doesn’t fall for her.

ARTICLE

In the arms bazaar
Thanks to politicians, there’s corruption in defence deals
by N. Vittal
The Tribune in its issue of February 7, 2009, carried an article, “In the arms bazaar”, by noted defence analyst K. Subrahmanyam. Mr N. Vittal, former Chief Vigilance Commissioner, Government of India, has, at our invitation, sent the following article commenting on the vital issues raised by Mr Subrahmanyam.
— Editor-in-Chief

ANY whiff of corruption relating to defence procurements becomes headline-grabbing material. It provides excellent grist to the mill of political battles. There are special reasons why corruption in defence procurement attracts special attention. Defence is directly connected with national security, and any case of corruption is seen as compromising national security.

MIDDLE

Tomboy reminiscences
by Ruchi Sharma
I
T is usually the boys and men who celebrate Diwali by burning their ammunition of crackers with great gusto. Burning crackers is usually thought of as belonging to the male domain while girls are given an odd sparkler or two to play with. So I was in for a surprise when my neighbour's 10-year-old daughter undauntedly took to this light and sound sport.

OPED

Manpreet Badal joins issue with The Tribune
Defends decision to present vote-on-account instead of the budget
We have received the following comment from the Punjab Finance Minister, Mr Manpreet Singh Badal, joining issue with The Tribune on the editorial titled “Punjab budget: Casualty of pre-poll politics” published on Friday, February 20, 2009.
— Editor-in-Chief

IN the nineteenth century, the famous Anglican and conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli remarked, “Ignorance can never settle a question”. I am neither an Anglican nor a Conservative, but I think the quote speaks volumes on the uninformed debate on the issue of presenting or not presenting a regular budget for Punjab in the next fortnight or so.

Afghanistan slipping out of control
by Kim Sengupta
A
grim picture of spiralling violence and a disintegrating society has emerged in Afghanistan in a confidential Nato report, just as Barack Obama vowed to send 17,000 extra American troops to the country in an attempt to stem a tide of insurgency. Direct attacks on the increasingly precarious Afghan government more than doubled last year, while there was a 50 per cent increase in kidnappings and assassinations.

Stalemate over Myanmar
by Rena Pederson
Naypyidaw is a city constructed out of fear. This city reportedly was created by Myanmar’s brutal dictators on the advice of astrologers and built in part by forced labor. Worried they might be vulnerable to attack in Rangoon, a port city, they abruptly moved the government 250 miles to the north three years ago and modestly named the new capital “Abode of Kings.”

 


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Habitual offenders
Such MPs should be voted out by the people

The manner in which unruly members have been disrupting the proceedings of Parliament time and again needs to be severely condemned. Over the years, The Tribune has always been voicing opposition against the MPs who repeatedly disrupt the proceedings instead of discussing vital issues before the country and, in the process, bring down the dignity of the House.

The Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Mr Somnath Chatterjee, has often voiced anguish over the misbehaviour of a large number of habitual offenders. Thursday’s disturbance in the House prompted him to say, “You don’t deserve a paisa. This House should be adjourned sine die permanently. This is the only way to save public money.” Going a step further, he said, “All of you must be defeated in the elections.”

We, as a newspaper, would endorse the Speaker’s view that the MPs whose conduct is questionable should be voted out by the people in the forthcoming elections. Clearly, those who don’t understand Parliament’s importance and their own role have no right to continue as such. They indulge in indecent and rowdy behaviour despite taking a vow not to do so when the House is in session. Such behaviour brings down the quality of public discourse in the country.

Parliament’s principal function is to ponder upon issues, inform and educate public opinion about them, sift facts from prejudice, reconcile differences and, if that is not possible, ensure that the majority opinion prevails and the minority is ensured the chance to win another day in fair debate. This is the essence of democracy. However, what present-day representatives are doing is quite antithetical to the concept of democracy.

The solution to the problem does not, however, lie in adjourning the House sine die but in the hands of the people themselves. As Mr Chatterjee aptly said, the people need to identify those MPs disrupting the proceedings and defeat them at the hustings. The suggestion for punitive fines for disruptionists is inadequate, because they will promptly pay up the fine from their respective party funds and continue their antics.

If accountability needs to be enforced on them, their daily allowance and perks should also be cancelled. The Speaker should not hesitate to debar them, if necessary. Recalcitrant members should be made to realise that they cannot get away with their antics and hold Parliament to ransom.

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Back from the brink?
Recovery may take some time

While it is hard to hazard a guess about the shape of economic things to come, Mr P. Chidambaram, former Finance Minister, did predict recently that an economic recovery could begin in October. He might have been surprised by Cabinet Secretary K.M. Chandrashekhar’s disclosures, reported in the media, that key industries like cement, steel and automobiles are already showing “signs of a turnaround”.

Mr Chandrashekhar’s hopes of a revival may appear to be a little premature, but these could, much to the advantage of the ruling UPA coalition, help lift the drooping economic sentiment a bit as the country prepares to go to the polls. The Cabinet Secretary attributes the industrial pick-up to a surge in rural demand triggered by steady hikes in the minimum support prices of agricultural produce and the increased spending on the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, Bharat Nirman and other infrastructure projects.

These schemes, if implemented in right earnest, should boost rural incomes. However, the latest data of the Central Statistical Organisation, released on February 9, paints a different picture of the rural economy. Agricultural growth, according to the CSO, will fall to 2.6 per cent this year against a healthy 4.9 per cent in the last fiscal.

Besides, it is too early for the recent economic stimulus packages to make an impact, especially when banks are still averse to lending to risky businesses and interest rates remain uncomfortably high. The only silver lining in an otherwise gloomy scenario is the fall in the oil and other commodity prices.

Inflation has slipped to below 4 per cent and this should drive the RBI to cut its key rates. Much of the world is in recession. Corporate profits are sinking as troubled banks ask for bailouts. India and China are widely expected to lead the global recovery but it may take more time than what the Cabinet Secretary would like everyone to believe.

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Tamil tango
AIADMK revives race for Congress hand

IN extending an open invitation to the Congress party to jettison the DMK and join hands with her party, AIADMK chief J Jayalalithaa may have upset the electoral calculations of all parties in Tamil Nadu. A shrewd strategist known for her formidable resourcefulness, Ms Jayalalithaa is unlikely to have made the pitch unless she was confident of the move yielding political dividends — even if the Congress doesn’t fall for her.

Yet, in doing so, she has raised the stock of the Congress as the national party that can choose which of the two dominant regional forces it wants to ally with. This can only mean that Ms Jayalalithaa rates the Congress as the front-runner in the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections with the edge to tilt the balance decisively for or against either of the Kazhagams in Tamil Nadu.

For long, both the AIADMK and the DMK swore by the conventional wisdom that the party which allied with the Congress would sweep the polls in the state. As a result, both parties vied to win over the Congress, and the Congress had the upper hand in choosing a party for a piggyback ride.

Though resentful of being picked and dumped at will by the Congress, the DMK and the AIADMK had no option until the BJP emerged on the national scene. But, now both parties have had their turns with the BJP, and it seems that the Congress has re-emerged as the prized ally for both the DMK and the AIADMK.

The vote share of the DMK and the AIADMK being almost level, even after sewing up an alliance with the state parties and caste formations, neither party can hope for victory without the Congress. The Congress party must be flattered that it has regained its lost status as the preferred national party over the BJP. This not only puts the third front proponents, such as the Left, in a dilemma but also makes it riskier for the DMK to pull out of the UPA on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue.

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Thought for the Day

In seeking wisdom thou art wise; in imagining that thou hast attained it,
thou art a fool. — Lord Chesterfield

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In the arms bazaar
Thanks to politicians, there’s corruption in defence deals
by N. Vittal

The Tribune in its issue of February 7, 2009, carried an article, “In the arms bazaar”, by noted defence analyst K. Subrahmanyam. Mr N. Vittal, former Chief Vigilance Commissioner, Government of India, has, at our invitation, sent the following article commenting on the vital issues raised by Mr Subrahmanyam.
— Editor-in-Chief

ANY whiff of corruption relating to defence procurements becomes headline-grabbing material. It provides excellent grist to the mill of political battles. There are special reasons why corruption in defence procurement attracts special attention. Defence is directly connected with national security, and any case of corruption is seen as compromising national security.

Defence budgets are huge, running into thousands of crores, and there is always suspicion of massive kickbacks in procurements. More important, if the top brass in defence are perceived to be corrupt, it will seriously compromise the morale and the fighting spirit of the defence forces right down the line, including the jawans. This will greatly weaken the nation.

Unfortunately, there are two factors that provide an ideal environment for perceptions of corruption. The first is the extensive culture of secrecy in all matters relating to defence. Lack of transparency provides an ideal breeding ground for corruption. The second factor is the element of technology and the continuous upgrading of weapon systems.

Historically, wars have been a catalyst for technological breakthroughs and especially in our times of modern technology the success of defence forces depends critically on the availability of the latest weapons and other equipment.

A country of India’s size cannot afford to be totally dependent on weapon systems from abroad. For strategic reasons there must be a healthy balance between the development of indigenous systems and the imported ones so that our country is not subjected to technological blackmail from abroad.

Thanks to our excellent scientific and technical manpower, India itself has the potential to become an effective producer and supplier of weapon systems. The network of laboratories under the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has a very important role in ensuring the strategic strength of our defence forces.

There is, however, a continuous problem between the desire of the defence services for the latest in the weapon systems and the development of indigenous systems through our own R&D. The procurement process in defence takes time and there has always been a general perception that it is the delays caused by red tape in procurement procedures which lead to the lapsing of the funds provided in the budget for defence procurement.

In his very perceptive article (The Tribune, February 7), one of our leading strategic thinkers, K. Subrahmanyam, has highlighted three important aspects of defence procurement, including the aspect of corruption. The first is corruption in defence procurement, a world-wide phenomenon.

Secondly, it is the politicians, and not the procedures, which are to be blamed in the case of corruption in defence procurement. Thirdly, “our politicians are yet to realise that corruption allows terrorists to penetrate our borders, explosives to be landed on our shores, leads to misgovernance, slows down our development and economic growth and delays weapon and equipment procurement vitally needed for our national security. Political corruption is as big a threat to our nation as jihadi terrorism.”

As Central Vigilance Commissioner, I had to enquire into some aspects of corruption in defence procurement. The CVC was entrusted in February 2000 with an enquiry into the claims made by Mr Jayant Malhotra, Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha), in December 1999 that in spite of the ban on Indian agents in weapons procurement imposed in 1989, the agents or middlemen were present in practically every major case of defence procurement even after the ban.

He also highlighted some cases of irregularities in defence procurement as brought out by the report of the CAG. The then Defence Minister gave an assurance that the issues raised by Mr Malhotra would be enquired into by the CVC.

In fulfilment of this assurance, the CVC had to enquire into the issue whether there were indeed middlemen in the procurement of weapon systems after 1989 and all cases of purchases of more than Rs.25 crore should be examined from the point of view of corruption. The CVC gave an interim report in August 2000 and the final report was submitted on March 31, 2001.

On the question whether there are middlemen, the CVC, applying the principle of preponderance of probability, reported that there were indeed middlemen in cases after the ban was introduced in 1989. The CVC also recommended that the government might specify the conditions for recognising agents or middlemen in weapon procurement systems to bring in greater transparency.

The real culprit in the whole issue is the blanket of secrecy in defence procurement. It was ironic that even though the matter was raised in the Rajya Sabha and the minister gave an open assurance about the CVC inquiry, the CVC had to grade this report as secret.

This was because practically all the 500-plus files studied for the inquiry were classified as either secret or top-secret. From the point of view of propriety and the rules, the CVC had no alternative but to classify the report as secret.

It was left to the government to declassify the report as it was, after all, the result of a debate and assurance in Parliament. In spite of the Public Accounts Committee requesting the government to declassify the report, the government did not do so.

One result that came out of the report was that the government accepted the need for transparency in identifying and approving agents for weapons procurement. Many of the international companies supplying weapons cannot afford to have a separate office in India and have to depend on their local agents.

The agents have to provide the requisite information on the technical aspects of the systems to the authorities concerned with the procurement process. The suspicion that they will be used for bribing the authorities concerned may not be valid in all cases. The government issued an order in September 2001 laying down the conditions for the approval of agents.

Greater transparency in the procurement process will reduce the scope for corruption but the problem is the fear of compromising national security. Can there be greater transparency in the case of non-lethal systems procurement? Transparency International has suggested the idea of integrity pacts with suppliers to reduce corruption. This is an idea worth trying.

The other issue of political corruption highlighted by Mr Subrahmanyam is far more serious. Politics in India has become a mega business, requiring humungous amounts of funds. In a recent byelection in Tamil Nadu, for instance, there were allegations that enormous amounts of money were paid to the voters directly even to the extent of Rs. 7000 per vote.

Thanks to our current culture of coalition politics, political parties look upon government departments as a money-spinnng machine for party funds. An idea about the gargantuan levels of black money and money stashed abroad was highlighted in the Swiss Banking Association’s report of 2006. According to the report, the five countries’ nationals who top the deposits held in banks in the territory of Switzerland are:
India— $1,456 billion
Russia—$ 470 billion
UK—$ 390 billion
Ukraine—$ 100 billion
China—$ 96 billion

In other words, India with $1,456 billion or $1.4 trillion has more money in Swiss banks than the rest of the world put together. Simply put, these are monies – doubtless of questionable origins – that are meant to and continue to remain outside the ken of public knowledge and reach.

Systematic efforts to reduce the presence of black money in our system are, therefore, a national priority to safeguard our country. The political class benefiting from the present system will not take the lead. This will have to come from the people, NGOs and institutions like the judiciary, the Election Commission and the CVC.

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Tomboy reminiscences
by Ruchi Sharma

IT is usually the boys and men who celebrate Diwali by burning their ammunition of crackers with great gusto. Burning crackers is usually thought of as belonging to the male domain while girls are given an odd sparkler or two to play with. So I was in for a surprise when my neighbour's 10-year-old daughter undauntedly took to this light and sound sport.

Leading the contingent of the boys and girls in the neighbourhood, the girl was enjoying her stardom. One after the other, crackers were being burst under her direction. Each successful take-off of a rocket would produce the same joy and glee like the launch of Chandrayaan as it disappeared in the universe.

The feeling of comradeship in the children was no less than that of scientists who monitored the course of the mooncraft. Having finished all their stock of crackers there was a certain dampening of spirits, when the girl came up with the idea of burning the cardboard boxes which contained the crackers.

The bonfire of the boxes meant the bursting of one or two crackers left in the boxes. Then the girl suggested they burn dried branches lying here and there and revolve them giving the semblance of sparklers. As I watched her, I was reminded of my childhood days. Like her, I too was a tomboy. I remembered the rumble and tumble which I would be involved in with the boys.

When I had entered middle school, I became a member of the Students' Literary Club. The play 'Cinderella' was to be put up on the Founder's Day of the school. It was to be directed by the office-bearers of the club under the stewardship of senior teacher of English, Ms. Smita Kapoor. The President of the Literary Club zeroed in on me to play the role of Cinderella. However, Ms. Kapoor took an instant dislike to me.

She said, “Your deportment, mannerism and gait are most unladylike. You do not carry yourself gracefully. Act like a lady.” So began days and hours of practice of climbing up and down the stairs like a prim and proper lady. I, who had always been tomboyish, found it difficult to adopt a different persona.

Ms. Kapoor would shout and give vent to her exasperation. Things came to such a pass that Ms. Kapoor said, “We'll have to look for a substitute if you do not polish up your act.”

It was not that I was not trying hard enough but I did not know how to act the dainty, delicate damsel. With plenty of practice I was able to pull off the performance well. It was a turning point in my life. I wondered whether the girl too would acquire feminine wiles the hard way.

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Manpreet Badal joins issue with The Tribune
Defends decision to present vote-on-account instead of the budget

We have received the following comment from the Punjab Finance Minister, Mr Manpreet Singh Badal, joining issue with The Tribune on the editorial titled “Punjab budget: Casualty of pre-poll politics” published on Friday, February 20, 2009.
— Editor-in-Chief

IN the nineteenth century, the famous Anglican and conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli remarked, “Ignorance can never settle a question”. I am neither an Anglican nor a Conservative, but I think the quote speaks volumes on the uninformed debate on the issue of presenting or not presenting a regular budget for Punjab in the next fortnight or so.

As Finance Minister of Punjab, I had to take a decision whether to opt for a vote-on-account or whether to present a` regular budget. I not only took the decision, but keeping in view our commitments to ensuring transparency, I also made the decision public enumerating the various reasons that contributed towards arriving at that decision.

However, in a politically surcharged climate, it seems that not just the politicians but even a section of the media went into poll mode preferring to focus on personality aspects and politically-oriented criticism. I would have been happy to receive comments of economists or budgetary experts on the pros and cons of the decision to opt for a vote-on-account. However, even the media focused only on political comments sourced from those who are either oblivious to the realities or prefer to ignore the interests of the people of Punjab.

Punjab is not the only state to opt for a vote-on-account during the current situation. There are one dozen states in India, including Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Jharkhand who are opting or have opted for a vote on account. However, the editorial in The Tribune (February 20, 2009) conveniently ignores this part. Either it is unaware or it is a deliberate hiding of facts. That is for The Tribune to explain.

The annual plans of Punjab and a host of other states have not been approved so far by the Planning Commission. It has been argued in some sections of the media that the budget can be presented without taking the annual plan into consideration!

For those who are unaware, let me elaborate. The Planning Commission prescribes the extent to which the state can opt for market borrowings. It also defines the Central plan assistance as well as additional Central assistance that the state can expect during the year.

Is it advisable to prepare a budget without having these guaranteed resources? This goes against the very fundamentals of the budgetary process. And, I chose to remain committed to certain fundamentals rather than present a budget merely to earn accolades in the media.

Second, the recommendations of the pay panel are yet to be received by the state government. The recommendations will be submitted to the Punjab government in the first week of March. It is only after the receipt of the recommendations of the pay panel that the extent of pay liability would be known. It could range anything between Rs 1800 and Rs 2300 crore.

Should the state budget be presented without taking the report of the pay panel into consideration? Can the state ignore a whopping allocation of such a large amount knowing fully well that the recommendations are expected within the next 10 days? If the state government were to go ahead with the budget without making allocations for the pay panel, then the sanctity of the budget would be lost.

Third, the state government should always focus on taking benefits from Central schemes. As soon as the Union budget is presented, the state government and its officials start focusing on schemes and programmes from which their respective state can benefit. We, in Punjab, particularly during the past two years have been focusing on Central schemes and programmes which can benefit the people of Punjab.

Our budget had tried to maximise the benefit which can accrue to the state by tailoring our schemes for Central assistance based on the Union budget. It is widely expected that the Union government would also announce a sharing of burden with regard to the pay panel. Should we ignore this factor?

Fourthly, the entire global economy is in a flux. During the next few weeks, the Union government is expected to announce a stimulus for the economy. The Punjab government, too, will take measures to provide such a stimulus. But the extent of stimulus and the focus of the Union government ought to be considered before announcing any concessions or additional resource mobilisation in Punjab.

This is particularly so since the small and medium sector in the state has been severely hit by the global crisis. We wish to tailor our stimulus package with that of the Central government.

And, finally, I reiterate the facts concerning the meeting of the Planning Commission. Punjab was one of the states which received a letter from the Planning Commission that the meeting scheduled to discuss the annual plan on February 24 has been postponed. If anyone has doubts I have no hesitation in making the letter public. The letter also stated that the meeting would be held in the first week of March. This was the proverbial last straw.

It was in light of these factors that the decision to opt for a vote-on-account was arrived at. Had we ignored the plan, the recommendations of the pay panel as well as waiting for the announcement of the Union budget and the stimulus, the entire sanctity of the budget would have been lost.

It would have been easier for me as Finance Minister to present a rosy budget with an eye on the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections and then gloat in the aftermath of accolades of having presented an election-friendly budget. I chose not to do so.

I would rather preserve the sanctity of the budget and proceed step by step in the budgetary process after examining the totality of the situationto be taken into account. To quote Disraeli again, “The most dangerous strategy is to jump a chasm in two leaps”. That is what many in the Opposition and some sections of the media are advocating.

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Afghanistan slipping out of control
by Kim Sengupta

A grim picture of spiralling violence and a disintegrating society has emerged in Afghanistan in a confidential Nato report, just as Barack Obama vowed to send 17,000 extra American troops to the country in an attempt to stem a tide of insurgency. Direct attacks on the increasingly precarious Afghan government more than doubled last year, while there was a 50 per cent increase in kidnappings and assassinations.

Fatalities among Western forces, including British, went up by 35 per cent while the civilian death toll climbed by 46 per cent, more than the UN had estimated. Violent attacks were up by a third and roadside bombings, the most lethal source of Western casualties, by a quarter. There was also a 67 per cent rise in attacks on aircraft from the ground, a source of concern to Nato which depends hugely on air power in the conflict.

The document, prepared by the Pentagon on behalf of the US-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in Afghanistan and seen by The Independent, also reveal how swathes of the country have slipped out of the control of President Hamid Karzai’s government. According to a poll taken towards the end of last year, a third of the population stated that the Taliban had more influence in their locality.

The growing unpopularity of Mr Karzai, along with accusations of corruption against figures associated with his government, has led the new US administration to repeatedly warn the Afghan President he will lose Washington’s support in the coming national elections unless there are drastic changes. The military “surge”, say US officials, must be accompanied by significant improvement in governance with Mr Obama describing the Karzai government of being “detached” from what was going on in his own country.

Mr Obama acknowledged that the reinforcements, with the total numbers of extra forces expected to rise to 30,000, had been sent because “urgent and swift action” was required “to stabilise a deteriorating situation … in which the Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan and al-Qa’ida threatens America from its safe haven along the Pakistani border.”

Mr Karzai was informed of the new deployments in a telephone call on Tuesday. The Afghan leader had complained publicly at the weekend that he had not heard from the US leader since the inauguration almost a month ago.

The new US administration had indicated that it was prepared to talk to Iran about the Afghan situation and yesterday, Italy, which assumes the presidency of the G8 this year, said that Tehran would be invited to participate in a summit on Afghanistan. The Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said: “We want to consider how to involve Iran, not whether to involve Iran.”

Meanwhile, eight years after “liberation” and the fall of the Taliban, many Afghan people still lack basic amenities. Across the country 38 per cent of the population did not have access to medical facilities with the figure rising to 44 per cent in rural areas.

— By arrangement with The Independent

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Stalemate over Myanmar
by Rena Pederson

Naypyidaw is a city constructed out of fear. This city reportedly was created by Myanmar’s brutal dictators on the advice of astrologers and built in part by forced labor. Worried they might be vulnerable to attack in Rangoon, a port city, they abruptly moved the government 250 miles to the north three years ago and modestly named the new capital “Abode of Kings.”

It is from here that the generals ordered that monks peacefully protesting gas prices in 2007 be beaten, shot and imprisoned, and here that they hunkered down in their mansions and thwarted international efforts to help after Cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy Delta last year and ravaged the lives of millions.

Few reach this remote city: Permission is required to come by plane, and a new superhighway was built primarily for government officials. Most travel the six-plus hours from Rangoon over a bumpy two-lane road shared by plodding ox carts and bicycle riders.

Much of rural Myanmar still functions without electricity; families get by as they have for centuries, with hand pumps for water and cooking fires. Only the tea shops in villages have TVs, which run on generators. People watch soccer and maybe the news on al-Jazeera, then walk home in the dark.

Near Naypyidaw, however, the skies come ablaze. A huge new power station makes electricity available for the generals at all hours. The rutted road turns into an eight-lane highway lined by lights. Nearby, a reproduction of Myanmar’s most hallowed site, the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, is being constructed as the generals race to show their piety.

At first glance, the capital looks almost normal. There’s a new mall sporting cheap Chinese goods, a zoo where children can feed elephants, modern high-rise apartments, a luxury resort with a golf course. But there are also guards everywhere — in towers, on corners. And people along the side of the road seem to be watching everyone else — intensely.

In recent weeks, reports surfaced that the junta is building a series of tunnels under the capital. Rumors swirled: Are they part of a nuclear project? Escape routes? An underground gulag?

On one level there is a plastic veneer of modern life. Local TV channels show smiling young models singing about “Kiss Me” shampoo, and billboards advertise laptops. There’s even a Starbucks-style coffee house in Rangoon.

Yet on another level there is rampant poverty, disease and sex trafficking. People in famine-stricken areas pay a nickel for rats to eat. In the northern no-man’s land, miners are paid with opium and pass along HIV via group needles.

In the largely Christian Karen villages that the junta is systematically destroying, the women are raped and children are forced into the military as human mine detectors.

In the Mandalay area farther north, the monasteries where the monks’ Saffron Revolution began in 2007 are still under heavy guard. The worship places are silent, abandoned. South in the delta area battered by Nargis, people struggle to get by — haunted, they say, by the ghostly cries of those who were swept away.

Though the government has trumpeted its help, most of the assistance has come from nongovernmental organizations, churches and monasteries.

Here in Naypyidaw, ruling general Than Shwe recently claimed he was so busy accepting the credentials of some new ambassadors that he did not have time to meet with U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari about democratic reforms. Gambari left after being rebuked by Prime Minister Gen.

Thein Sein, who demanded the lifting of international economic sanctions on Myanmar and called them a “human rights violation.” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon put a diplomatic spin on events, saying Gambari had “good discussions there even though one may not be totally satisfied.”

Gambari is supposed to brief the Security Council on Friday. Members should be told what the generals did as soon as he left: closed more churches in Rangoon, refused to let lawyers visit some of the country’s more than 2,100 political prisoners and extended the arrest of an 82-year-old opposition leader.

Naypyidaw symbolizes the stalemate over Myanmar: The generals in their labyrinth have created a surreal reality and defy world opinion. The international community lets them get away with it by failing to produce an effective, moral, organized response.

It is up to the Obama foreign policy team to put more backbone in the U.N. efforts. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks this week about sanctions drew new attention to the issue. The Obama team has the chance to calibrate financial sanctions so they squeeze the generals and their money-laundering cronies.

It can insist that verifiable benchmarks of real progress, such as the release of political prisoners, be met before development favors are done for the junta. And it can remind the world that the election scheduled for 2010 shouldn’t fool anyone. It is being engineered to ensure the generals’ hold on power, meaning business will continue as usual in Naypyidaw.

— By arrangement with LA Times-Washington Post

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