Viewpoint by Dr Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake
The writer is an anthropologist affiliated with the International Center for Ethnic Studies in Colombo.
COLOMBO (IDN) – The Covid-19 narrative has colonised the world, shutting down the global and local economy and society, with a face mask as its telling symbol.
In strategically located Sri Lanka, more people have died of random elephant attacks or in car accidents than from Covid-19, which has claimed a grand total of fifteen lives in the past year on this island of just over 21 million people.
However, livelihoods, education and good governance – including the right to protest – have been dealt a massive blow by the Covid-19 curfews recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and its partners.
Beneath the Covid-19 mask, there are signs of a full-blown hybrid Cold War unfolding in the Indian Ocean region, as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pivots with all the pomp and circumstance of visiting royalty to South and Southeast Asia (in the week October 25-30), seemingly to re-set and re-boot Euro-American colonialism.
The visit of Pompeo is scheduled to take in India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia, which recently refused to let US maritime surveillance (P8-Posidon) spy planes land and refuel in its territory. As Dino Patti Djalal, a former Indonesian ambassador to the US, said: the “very aggressive anti-China policy” of the US has unnerved Indonesia and the region.
Indeed, there are increasingly good arguments to suggest that a Third World War has commenced beneath the Covid-19 mask, banner and narrative to distract the global media and public: There are for instance multiple proxy wars ongoing at this time in the world – particularly along the borders of several countries in Asia (China, Iran, India, Russia), and the Indian Ocean region, which is considered the world’s trade and energy “superhighway”. As the Asian region has emerged as an economic and technology powerhouse and growth centre, religious and ethnic identities too have been increasingly weaponised by external parties – a tried and tested hybrid war tactic.
Preparations for full on ‘hybrid war’ in the region have been ongoing for some time. Strategically located Sri Lanka has witnessed staged suicide attacks against coastal churches and luxury hotels by a minority religious community against another, although there was no apparent history or motive for the violence on the island. The attacks were mysteriously claimed by the Islamic State (IS).
The April 2019 attacks on coastal churches and hotels were directed at the country’s economy and society as part of this hybrid war and happened one month before US Acting Secretary of Defence Patrick M. Shanahan’s planned trip to Sri Lanka to sign a controversial Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact and discuss the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the government of Sri Lanka. That trip was however aborted amid protests against both agreements, as well as Cardinal Malcom Ranjith’s statement that the Easter Sunday attacks that killed 256 people were caused by foreign actors and networks that profit from chaos and selling arms.
This year and this time around, citizens in Sri Lanka have been well prepared and placed in a convenient Covid-19 curfew and lockdown as the “second wave” of Covid neatly coincides with Pompeo’s visit to the island. The Covid curfew would ensure that no unruly protests take place.
An initial partial lockdown of the citizens of Sri Lanka came into effect shortly after a US delegation flew into the island in a special US Air Force plane ahead of Pompeo’s visit, despite the country’s airports having being sealed due to Covid-19 for months.
The curfew does not make any policy sense if we follow the local and national data for Sri Lanka. According to WHO, seasonal flu kills more than 7000 people annually in Sri Lanka, compared with the 15 who have died from Covid-19. Nevertheless, the Covid-19 psychosis narrative and curfew has dealt a massive blow to the island’s already ailing democracy, press freedom and, of course, its debt-trapped economy and society.
Sri Lanka is increasingly in the crosshairs of big power rivalry as a new great game unfolds in the Indian Ocean region. The world appears to be pirouetting away from a declining Euro-American-Atlantic axis towards the rising Asian and Indian Ocean region led by China, with India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi increasingly in lockstep with the Christian fundamentalist Donald Trump regime, as world religions are weaponised amid a propaganda infodemic against China and other emerging economies (BRICS).
The Covid-19 narrative has turned science on its head in large swathes of the Global South – in particular in Asia and Africa – where the current strand of the virus is milder than seasonal flu. Though the facts and science tell us that data and context matter, science appears to be in abeyance at this time of hybrid propaganda war.
Significant differences in data among countries, especially between countries in the Global South and in the northern hemisphere, that indicate the need for country and region specific policy responses have been ignored and countries like Sri Lanka have been subject to socially, politically and economically devastating curfews on the instructions of WHO.
Given the deficit of reason and science that has characterised the Covid-19 policy response in much of South Asia, historical and colonial precedents come to the fore: Pratik Chakrabarti, director of the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Manchester, has noted: ”The instances of pandemic control in South Asia in the colonial past illustrate the precedents of how political and social power operates in such times. Colonialism provided the first model of using scientific means of pandemic control for the large-scale and often coercive regulation of people’s lives and livelihoods. This model has been useful for states in the current crisis. In times of crisis, postcolonial governments, health officials, and privileged citizens keep returning to these familiar patterns of self-preservation, which often add to the suffering of the most vulnerable.”
In imposing strict Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, heedless of the human suffering and death due to starvation as a result of lost livelihoods that a curfew with less than four hours’ notice would cause, the Indian government invoked the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897, originally passed by the British government during plague outbreaks. This was a unique act, designed specifically to control an epidemic outbreak, giving special powers to the state, which is partly why it has appeared relevant for Covid-19.
The US in the Indian Ocean
Meanwhile, as the Covid-19 show unfolds, the US has been talking up another narrative: a ‘rules-based free and open Indo-Pacific”, having re-jigged and renamed the Indian Ocean as the Indo-Pacific with India’s willing consent, but we may well ask who would benefit from the rules that the US envisages for the region?
After all, the US has not signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), which has been described as “the constitution of the oceans.” UNCLOS was finalised in 1982 with 320 articles and nine annexes and arguably represents the most holistic codification of international law in history. One hundred and fifty-seven nations have signed the treaty and agreed to its wide-ranging provisions on topics such as coastal sovereignty, conservation and ocean resource management, and freedom of the high seas. However, the US has not signed but has been lecturing Sri Lanka on maritime domain awareness (MDA).
Moreover, the US does not have a border in the Indian Ocean, hence it is pertinent to ask: whose rules are these and how would a US rules-based order benefit Indian Ocean coastal communities, the great majority of which are impoverished and living beneath the poverty line in Covid-19 lockdowns?
Over the years, impoverished littoral communities of the Indian Ocean have watched their fish stocks depleted by distant water fishing nations (DWFNs) from Europe and East Asia, with France and Spain having been the chief culprits for decades. Now, in Covid-19 lockdown in fishery harbours, one may well ask: whose rules-based order is this anyway?
The US and EU have been upping the ante against China in the discourse about a “rules-based Indo-Pacific order”, even as they continue to loot the living and non-living mineral resources of the Indian Ocean, while India in full blown Covid-19 meltdown flexes its muscles against China following a script and plot crafted for it Washington. Thus. the Indian Ocean has been re-named the Indo-Pacific without a murmur of protest from India, the only county in the world with an ocean to its name, yet colonised to the hilt.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is the latest addition to the EU chorus on the free and open Indo-Pacific, saying: “It is already foreseeable today that, more than anywhere else, the shape of tomorrow’s international order will be decided in the Indo-Pacific. Germany should not be an observer and thus play an active role, a rules-based order should be the ethos of the German foreign policy on Indo-Pacific.”
For the first time, the German government has released a 70-page strategic policy guideline for the Indo-Pacific. While Germany is not an Indo-Pacific nation, many European states are joining the Indo-Pacific axis for the enormous trade potential in Asia, a departure from the Atlantic axis. The EU perceives China as a “systemic rival” promoting alternative models of governance.
Meanwhile, the US has recently used military bases in Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia to operate P-8 flights over the South China Sea, according to military analysts. China, which has one foreign military base to 800 US military bases overseas and is surrounded by US bases, has ramped up military exercises this year, increasing the tempo of naval freedom of navigation operations, submarine deployments and surveillance flights.
The P-8, with its advanced radar, high definition cameras and acoustic sensors, has been mapping the islands, surface and underwater realms of the South China Sea for at least six years. Carrying sonobuoys and missiles, the planes can detect and attack ships and submarines from a long range.
With the Covid narrative, colonialism – including media colonialism – is holding sway.
We are seeing a re-set of US-led colonialism with Europe in tow in the Global South today as China and the BRICS economies are being attacked and trade and transport shut down in the name of Covid-19 – all to bail out the crumbling and imploding US and EU NATO compact which has started the hybrid Cold War – Third World war on China and the rise of Asia.
Chagos Islands and Diego Garcia Military Base
On February 25, 2019, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled in one of the most important and long-awaited cases of its history: In what has been termed ‘a blockbuster judgment’ the United Nation’s highest court rejected the United Kingdom’s claim of sovereignty over the Indian Ocean, Chagos Islands, and determined that Britain must return the islands to its former colony, Mauritius, ‘as rapidly as possible’.
The ICJ ruling deemed UK’s occupation of the Indian Ocean archipelago that houses the secretive US Diego Garcia military base which is illegal under international law. Not many Sri Lankans or Maldivians have heard of the Chagos Islands, although they are not too far from the southern coast of Sri Lanka. This is because the islands – occupied by a huge US military base after the eviction of its inhabitants – have been effectively blacked out of Indian Ocean maps.
Although the unravelling of European empires was one of the formative moments of the modern world-system, including the birth of South Asian states, the ICJ ruling that the UK should end control of what it terms ‘British Indian Ocean Territory’ (BIOT) in 2019 underlines the fact that the process of decolonisation is far from complete.
The UK took control of the Chagos Islands from Mauritius 50 years ago. The British government then evicted the entire population before leasing its largest atoll to the United States to build the Diego Garcia military base. Mauritius was in the middle of negotiating its independence from the UK at the time and repeatedly condemned the deal. In February 2017, the UN General Assembly asked the ICJ to offer its opinion on whether the process had been concluded lawfully. Mauritius argued that it was forced to give up the islands in 1965 in exchange for independence.
The ICJ ruled that the islands were not lawfully separated from the former colony of Mauritius: When the UK broke off the islands from Mauritius in 1965, it violated UN Resolution 1514 (XV) on decolonisation that argued against the break-up of colonies.
The ICJ ruling puts the US naval base in question and has implications for Sri Lanka and other small island nations in the Indian Ocean. In a recent report, the Heritage Foundation noted that a US marine logistics hub is in the works in Trincomalee, a deep-water natural harbour in northern Sri Lanka coveted by competing big powers in the Indian Ocean.
The United States has faced legal challenges to its Diego Garcia naval base for the past five decades. The bereft Chagossians took their case to British courts, hoping to exert pressure to return the islands to them. Subsequently, the attempt by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the United Nations to constitute the Indian Ocean as a ‘zone of peace’ posed a challenge to US operations on the Chagos Islands.
In 1970, the Non-Aligned summit in Lusaka, Zambia, declared that the Indian Ocean must be a “zone of peace from which great power rivalries and competition, as well as bases” must be excluded. The United States attacked this idea. Admiral Elmo Zumwalt told the US Congress in 1974 that the USSR stood atop the “central part of the West’s energy jugular down to the Persian Gulf”. For that reason, the Indian Ocean – and Diego Garcia – has “become a focal point of US foreign and economic policies and has a growing impact on our security”.
For years, the Diego Garcia base has been vital to the US military, serving as a landing spot for bombers that fly missions across Asia, including the South China Sea. The ICJ ruling which is “advisory” raises questions about the base, as the UK has a history of following ICJ rulings. CNN quoted Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, saying that the Indian Ocean base was “very important to US operations in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean” and its loss could have a major impact, forcing the US “to change logistics support” in the region.
“It wouldn’t weaken (US military strength) necessarily but logistics are everything,” he added. Diego Garcia was used to guide tactical aircraft supporting US military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq and featured remote satellite tracking stations, an Air Force Space Command and Pacific Air Force support and logistics teams.
The Non-Aligned Movement and South-South cooperation appears to have suffered a setback as the Covid-19 global media narrative remains controlled by powerful business tycoons and Euro-American and QUAD allied political interests. However, to understand and counter the current global Covid-19 mask and disease we may look at the history of the Cold War in the Global South.
Aside from weaponization of ethnic and religious identity politics to divide, rule and loot valuable natural resources from Africa and Asia, Cold War hybrid war tactics included mysterious assassinations of leaders of de-colonization movements, nationalist or socialist leaders and coups as with the mysterious, contested assassinations of India’s Mahatma, Burma’s Aung San and Sri Lanka’s SWRD Bandaranaike, the coup against Iran’s democratically elected Dr. Mossadeg in 1950, the ouster of Suharto and the decimation of the Communist Party of Indonesia, the assassinations of Patrice Lumumba in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso and many other third world leaders who set the stage for and/or led the Non-Aligned movement and struggles to de-colonize national assets during the Cold War which saw CIA, British, French and Belgians engaged in proxy wars in the global south against post-colonial liberation movements. There is a hidden history of the Cold War proxy war in Asia and Africa yet to be written in order to understand the present global crisis and disease. [IDN-InDepthNews – 31 October 2020]
Photo: B-52 bombers on the tarmac on Diego Garcia. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Nathan G. Bevier-
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