new internationalist
issue 256 - June 1994

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Blind eyes
Cover of the NI Issue 253 There were two additional issues that deserved some attention in your issue on East Timor (NI 253). The first is the creation of the Suharto junta in Indonesia itself. General Suharto took power in Indonesia after an attempted coup by the communist PKI in September 1965 failed, and the Right retaliated with an all-out killing spree that left at least 500,000 dead. It is well documented that at that time Western diplomats deliberately turned a blind eye to the killings: Indonesia has since been a haven for Western capital and arms.

The second is the question of what is going on in Irian Jaya (West Papua) which has also been swallowed by the vast Indonesian archipelago against the wishes of its people. Contemporary reports suggest that what is going on there is slower and more subtle than in East Timor. But the desired end result by the rich generals in Jakarta is the same: the eradication of the people and their culture.

Tom Farrell
Dublin. Republic of Ireland

Unfortunately the reviewer of Branka Magas's The Destruction of Yugoslavia:Tracing the Break-Up (NI 253) is not quite right when s/he says that Bosnia's Muslims are the first people in Europe to face genocide since World War Two.

The first victims of Serbia's policy of wholesale genocide were the non-Serbian populations of those areas of Croatia occupied by Serbia during the invasion of 1991-92. Much of the area now occupied by Serbia had a Croatian majority before the war, including the whole of eastern Slavonia; there were also considerable numbers of Hungarians and other minorities. All of these people have either been slaughtered or driven out, leaving only the Serbian minority behind (remember Vukovar?).

The United Nations Protection Force has been in this country for almost two years now; their prime mandate is to return refugees to their homes. The total number of Croats and Hungarians returned to their homes by the UN is zero.

As your moving issue on East Timor shows, this is not the only part of the world where the UN has tolerated genocide or even lent its tacit support. But what else can we expect when the UN chooses to hide behind euphemisms like 'ethnic cleansing'?

Marc Jeffery
Zagreb, Croatia

A new basis
Having worked as a street educator with street children in Guatemala City, the article 'Home Truths' in your issue on Prostitution (NI 252) had special significance for me. Of all the girls I knew on the streets, 99 per cent used sex as a means of survival. Many of these girls fled their pueblos in their early teens in search of a better life; some were ordered by their parents to leave their homes to make money; most did not realize that their survival would depend on their ability to market their sexuality. They see schoolgirls in uniform and envy that position; they feel shame at having to sell themselves. If this is the case, then why, as Black points out, are many efforts to save or rehabilitate "fallen girls" conspicuously unsuccessful'? From what I have seen, the reason for this failure is that girls begin to see themselves as valuable only in terms of their ability to provide sex. Once this happens, they feel worthless. My biggest fear is that through the legalization of prostitution the law will teach them that society assigns them that worth as well. A new basis for identity and survival must be offered, one which relies on education and cultural identity rather than sex.

Kristina McNeff
Tucson, Arizona, US

Readers may like to know the official UK Government 'line' on East Timor. I quote from a letter sent by the Overseas Development Administration: 'It is quite wrong to suggest that the widespread abuses of human rights in the 1970s persist in East Timor today. Indonesia's more recent human-rights record may not be perfect. But progress is being made and crucially the Indonesian Government has declared its commitment to human rights.'

I am sure this 'commitment to human rights' must be greatly appreciated by the East Timorese people still under constant attack and harassment! I am sending copies of relevant parts of your last issue to the ODA and await their response.

Sue Robertson
Edinburgh, Scotland

[image, unknown]
cartoon by VIV QUILLIN

Not North or South
Your substitution of North/South for rich/poor as applied to countries is deplorable. Not only is it an abuse of the English language, it is very insulting to residents of Australia, Aotearoa/NZ and South Africa.

Most of the poor countries are in the Northern Hemisphere. Most of Africa, all of Central America, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Burma, the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Somalia, Ethiopia, Venezuela, Mexico, Haiti, Cuba - all very securely NORTH. Will you want to refer to Siberia as the 'South' if it gets any poorer?

Words have specific meanings and I suggest you use them correctly.

David L Giles
Broadford, Australia

Obscene review
I disagree with the five-star rating review of the album called Born to Choose (NI 251), a group of tracks all with pro-abortion themes.

It amazes me that the reviewer seems not to appreciate the irony of what she writes: the title Born to Choose when abortion kills the unborn, and they have no choice, and that the album's proceeds are earmarked for women's health organizations, when abortion is harmful to women's health.

The illustration is quite simply obscene. The review is an aberration in a magazine committed to social justice.

Michael Leydon
Gisborne, Aotearoa/New Zealand

The first liberty
How can so many intelligent writers on Liberty (NI 249) suffer from the same blind spot? All the talked-about freedoms (of speech, assembly, information etc.) pale into insignificance when compared to the freedom to use the earth itself. Our so-called human-rights advocates continue to ignore what Henry George pointed out a century ago - that land and natural resources should be the equal and common inheritance of all humanity. Tolstoy and Einstein also threw in their support for George's proposed imposition of full taxation of land values, which would bring about land justice as well as paving the way for the elimination of taxes on production.

When Afro-Americans were given their 'freedom' after the American Civil War they soon realized that it meant little to them as long as someone else 'owned' their share of the Earth. In the industrialized North today, it is crippling land prices and rents going into private pockets which similarly curtail our freedom.

Karl Williams
Melbourne, Australia

Horror unsanitized
I feel I must defend what amounted to good journalism in response to Simon Munro's letter criticizing the issue on Human Rights (NI 247) for being too shocking.

It is the role of television, politics and religion to gloss over hard truths and to make us all feel comfortable in our ignorance. Though the printed word has generally suffered the same fate, it should not be allowed to do so without a fight.

I recall being in a minority with newspaper colleagues many years ago in England over this very issue when the consensus on whether or not to print what the National Front said in private - i.e. its real agenda as opposed to its public pronouncements - was that it was far too offensive for 'public tastes'. I still believe the organization would have garnered fewer votes had people been given a clear picture of its true aims.

Anyone who wants a sanitized version of horror can find it with no effort. So please NI, for those of us who read the magazine because it provides the often-unpalatable truths, never depart from your chosen path.

Christopher Innocent
Emu Plains, New South Wales, Australia

The views expressed in these letters are not necessarily those of the New Internationalist

Letter from Lagos

Fuel today, gone tomorrow
Stuck in a petrol queue, Elizabeth Obadina contemplates
Nigeria's national petrol shortages.

Illustration by MIRIAM McCURDY For the first time ever my three kids travelled to England by themselves for the Easter holidays. My anxiety levels were high. Would they manage to negotiate the maze of officialdom and touts at the international airport without being either relieved of their passports or their sterling pocket money? Would British Airways bump them, as naira ticket holders, off the flight in favour of passengers holding tickets bought in hard currencies? The airline had been waging war for weeks on passengers who refused to buy their tickets in dollars or pounds because the Government refused to convert British Airways' substantial naira profits into scarce foreign exchange. Would my daughter, a diabetic, pass out in the airport and would her brothers be able to cope if she did, because no-one else would know what to do?

We set off on the ten-minute drive to the airport at 9.OOpm. Ample time for a flight not due to leave until nearly midnight. But at 10.00pm on a Saturday night we were enmeshed in the traffic jam to end all traffic jams just two miles short of our destination. Should we get out and walk? With luggage? Around an unlit airport perimeter road? And why the traffic jam anyway? Even Lagos has times and places when the traffic could be expected to flow freely and this was such a time and place.

We had fallen foul of a dreaded fuel queue, if queue is the word to describe the average Nigerian's desperate battle for petrol once word gets around that such-and-such a station has received a fuel delivery. In this case the filling station on the airport access road had received fuel. The airforce boys' had not yet arrived to whip motorists into an orderly line - to preserve access to their base - and frantic cars were besieging the pumps from all directions. Here and there children's heads popped out from behind car boots and bonnets or poked through the thickening, neon-lit fumes from car exhausts. Swinging empty plastic jerrycans, these children had been sent out to try their luck with the petrol-pump attendants who are under strict instructions not to sell fuel in jerrycans.

Just a few months ago there was a dreadful disaster in the central Nigerian city of Jos, when an overpressed attendant dropped his fuel can amongst the throng of jerrycan customers and besieging vehicles. The petrol was immediately ignited by the running car engines and the whole station blew up like a fireball, burning customers, staff and neighbours beyond recognition. Since then the law against selling in jerrycans has been enforced, with the result that motorists siphon petrol from their tanks and store it in jerrycans at home against the inevitable day when fuel is once again in short supply.

Nigerians simply can't understand why the one resource the country wallows in - top quality crude oil - is in such constant short supply. Shortages in the north of the country have been chronic for years as petrol dealers collude with smugglers to ship Nigerian petrol into francophone West Africa, where it sells for more than 10 times the price it fetches at home. The IMF says Nigeria should raise its petrol prices to raise revenue at home and stem smuggling. Nigerian petrol costs less than 14 US cents per litre and is among the cheapest in the world. But Nigerians, who for the most part only earn between 15 and 20 US dollars a month, aren't prepared to pay anything more for their petrol. Such a rise is just a cue for price increases and inflation is already running past 100 per cent. Besides which, they reason, why should the fruits of oil sales which provide around 90 per cent of Nigeria's income, be limited to the tiny ruling clique of military officers, government officials and businessmen who control the economy? Nigeria's oil is its national cake from which everyone expects a cut. The army had to be brought onto the streets in 1988 to control the protests which greeted former president General Ibrahim Babangida's six-per-cent petrol price increase. Since then the economy has grown steadily worse and the military hold on power more tenuous. No ruler relishes courting chaos by tampering with fuel prices.

But the professionals in the oil business are united in their concern to raise the money needed to rehabilitate the four refineries, most of which are barely operational. Without such major investment, they argue, there may indeed be oil today and for some years to come but there certainly won't be any fuel for sale tomorrow. And on the subject of tomorrow, Sunday morning found the kids in London and Tunde and me engaged yet again in Nigeria's newest national pastime: sitting in a petrol queue.

Elizabeth Obadina is a freelance writer and journalist living in Lagos.

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