If politicians want more trust from voters, they need to start behaving with civility and respect


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If the politicians took a higher road, at least there would be pressure on the media to follow.
AAP/Mick Tsikas

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

This is an edited extract of The Knowledge Solution, out July 2 from mup.com.au.


It is a paradox of our modern democracy that we have the conditions and tools to enable our political system to work better than ever before, yet all that seems to be discussed today is its dysfunction.

In this country, people are, for the most part, relatively well educated and prosperous. In theory, that should encourage an interested and alert citizenry. The communications revolution empowers the electorate — or should. So much more information is available and instantly attainable than only a generation or two ago, including tools for monitoring events and debates and thus improving interaction and accountability. Today’s plethora of opinion polls ought to be positive for the process, providing constant feedback to decision-makers about what people think and want, and channels for voters to express their opinions.

Yet much of what should facilitate a smooth-running, engaged political system has helped corrode it. In politics, as in other aspects of life, abundance can be good but excess is often harmful. You can end up with too much of everything, and I think that’s what we’ve got in politics today.

We’re lumbered with what has been dubbed the continuous campaign, and that means, as Hugh Heclo, who was an academic expert on US democratic institutions, wrote in Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann’s The Permanent Campaign and its Future: “[e]very day is election day”.

The leaders never hang up their high-vis vests. This is debilitating for decision-making because, as Heclo notes, there is a difference between “campaigning” and “governing” — and it is exhausting for the public.

Leaders always have to strike a balance between the time they spend with their feet under the desk and the days their boots are on the road, but things seem out of kilter. The permanent campaign encourages short-termism and puts the focus on the immediate media grab and headlines. It fans the politics of negativity, accentuates the adversarial and makes for hyper-partisanship. And it stretches the patience and concentration of voters.

The modern 24-hour news cycle both enables and fosters the permanent campaign, providing platform and spur. Political leaders have given up previous aspirational talk about “not feeding the media beast”. Tony Abbott tried that (for a nano-second) and it did not work too well. Now they argue that if they leave a gap, their opponents will fill the vacuum. Seeing so much of their politicians close up (and often too personal for comfort) has alienated voters, rather than made them to want to involve themselves in the political process.

The ability always to command attention, when there is so much airtime available, also helps small players turn themselves into minor political celebrities. It’s a sign of the times that as voters have increasingly looked to minor parties, these often come with a personal branding. They have been based around individuals, whose names they have taken — Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, the Nick Xenophon Team (subsequently the Centre Alliance), the (now collapsed) Palmer United Party, the Jacqui Lambie Network. “Name” parties fit this age of celebrity. If they had been born in today’s world, the Australian Democrats might have been “The Don Chipp Party”, after their early leading light (and conveniently shortened to “Don’s Party”).

Far from providing a sophisticated channel of community feedback, constant polling has come to be a whip hand over leaders, especially if they are going through a difficult period. This can restrict their room to breathe — that is, to lead — and it is made for the media’s “horse race” coverage of politics.

It means policy is often framed with an eye to how it will go down in the short term, a point that bureaucrats are forced to take account of in their advice to government. At the same time, polling is used as a tool of advocacy, with special interests commissioning polls that seldom fail to get the results they want and will almost always find a market in the media. With the rise of cheap robo-polls, there is a lot more “junk” polling around.

The professionalisation of politics has been building for decades. It has penetrated everything: ministerial offices, messaging, campaigns, the recruitment of candidates, the operation of interest groups and the explosion of a commercial lobbying industry. The more politics is professionalised, the more “insider” it becomes, in the preoccupation with daily “tactics” and in its gene pool of players.

An increased proportion of parliamentarians comes from the political class, having served as staffers to MPs before preselection. The grip of factions within the parties and the shrinking size of the major parties foster the closed shop, giving a leg-up to the insiders when it comes to preselections.

The well-documented decline in the public’s trust in the political system not only makes governing more difficult, but also puts off potential political recruits. When we turn from excess to deficit, what’s lacking — and has been falling for some time — is this elusive but vital quality of trust, the bedrock of a democracy that’s in top health. A recent paper published by the Grattan Institute, A Crisis of Trust, examines the surge in the minor party vote. It concludes:

Culture and economics are insufficient to explain the rise in the minor party vote. The best evidence is that the rising minor party vote is largely driven by declining trust in government: the growing belief that government is increasingly conducted for the interests of the rulers rather than the ruled.

The matter of “respect” is core. From there we can segue to trust. So if we think about what can be done to improve the situation — recognising that it’s only a limited amount and might be beyond the players anyway — let’s begin with the challenge of politicians winning respect, and go to a very basic level.

Politicians behave badly and — thanks especially to the all-pervasive media and that decision all those years ago to allow the televising of parliament — ordinary people see and hear this, and they hate it. In a March 2018 speech, Australia’s former chief scientist Ian Chubb put his finger on it:

I can see on television the people we employ to work in our interests behave in a way we would not tolerate in our own small children. Sadly at a time when trust is so low, contempt so high, it appears they don’t even try to get better. They seem not to understand that trust is what we give them when they earn it, not what they get because they are where they happen to be.

It was notable that when the March 2018 scandal broke around Australian cricketers cheating in South Africa, commentators and members of the public immediately drew parallels with politics, where there is plenty of “cheating” with the truth. Then there is the cricketers’ “sledging” culture and the politicians’ similar practice.
Malcolm Turnbull told a news conference:

I think there has to be the strongest action taken against this practice of sledging. It has got right out of control, it should have no place … on a cricket field.

But when a journalist interjected, “Doesn’t it happen in parliament?” Turnbull let that pass without responding.

It’s a source of perennial wonderment to me that MPs are aware they are disgusting and infuriating the public by often conducting themselves, especially in parliament, like out-of-control adolescents, but they fail to curb this conduct.

Maybe it is the adrenaline of the chamber. Perhaps it is the pursuit of the parliamentary point. And admittedly, we are all living in a world where “anything goes” a lot more than was once the case. Whatever drives MPs, behaving in a manner that would be unacceptable in almost any other workplace is costly to them and to the political process — and could be easily changed by a bit of collective restraint. Sure, parliament will always have its moments, but chaos and insult-throwing should not be the norm.

This awareness should be extended to entitlements. The rules for these have been tightened in recent years after various scandals, and there is now an oversight body. But there is still an inability to understand the sniff test. The companion who accompanies Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to functions around Australia has been sponsored by the taxpayer to the tune of $35,000 over three years, which is within the parliamentary rules. Yet his assets do not appear on the MPs’ register of interests, as would those of a spouse or partner, because she has not defined him as her “partner”.

Parliamentarians should be paid well and have reasonable entitlements. But they should not try to have things every which way, and the public would respect them more if sometimes they, or those attached to them, put their hands in their own pockets.

Politicians’ reputations would also be enhanced if there were a better balance between partisanship and bipartisanship. It’s hard, made more so by the continuous campaign. But MPs will point out that behind the scenes — in committees, parliamentary special interest friendship groups and the like — there’s quite a bit of constructive working together.

It’s usually a different picture in the public arena. Voters would like to see some acknowledgement from time to time that the other side has had a good idea, and more co-operation on worthy projects. This would not at all diminish robust partisanship on core differences, and would improve the chances of achieving desirable reforms.

Politicians could alter the tone, as I have argued above. And they could better organise their workloads, and those of their offices. I appreciate how ministers have to keep up with the fast news cycle, but do staffers routinely have to be up at 4.30am? Do ministers have to make as many media appearances as they do, especially when often they are repeating the same “lines” that have been issued to them, or answering questions on someone else’s portfolio about which they have no personal knowledge? Is it necessary in non-election times to run around the country quite so much?

Excepting the positions of prime minister and treasurer, the job of most ministers is not bigger than that of a CEO of one of the top Australian companies. I suspect they could pare back their workload and their travel by say, one-fifth, and nobody would be saying they were not working diligently. They might even be more efficient.

When we consider how political parties should change to improve our democratic system, the answers run into vested interests, as well as the nature of modern society. Few people want to join the major parties. It’s not just that they are discouraged by factionalism and the powerlessness of the membership. More fundamentally, they have many other calls on their time, and (except for the truest of believers) organisations such as political parties have gone right out of fashion. When they want to be politically engaged, people nowadays tend to be more interested in specific issues, and limited activism or gestures (such as donating to GetUp), than in committing to what is often the drudgery of party membership.

Nonetheless, the withering of the major parties has dangers. Two examples make the point. It contributes to narrowing the sources from which parliamentary candidates are drawn. And with the ALP rank-and-file now having a 50 per cent say in the choice of party leader, a reduced base which is down to the hard core of that party could tilt the vote towards a candidate who has limited appeal to the broad electorate.

These parties will never be what they once were. But their leaders should try harder than they have for some improvement. Neither Bill Shorten nor Malcolm Turnbull has distinguished himself in this regard. An obvious step is to reduce the factional grip on pre-selections. But this must be genuine: it’s no good having “democratic” pre-selections effectively undermined by branch stacking.

There are other obvious, related, areas for change to improve faith in the system, such as more accountable, transparent and timely disclosure for political funding. Some attention is being given to these and they shouldn’t be particularly difficult.

Much talked about is the decline in the share of votes that major parties get, and the rise of the minors, whether they are born out of an issue (the Greens), or they are fundamentally a vehicle for protest and often based on a “name”. At one level, this can be seen as part of the fragmentation of modern life, that is also reflected in areas as diverse as the media and the industrial relations system. The fall in the vote for the major parties also reflects the “detribalisation” of politics and social mobility. People don’t “inherit” their vote from their parents as so many once did.

While the big parties (including here the Nationals as part of the Coalition) are diminished, we should remember that they are not dead. Federal electors still strongly support them. In the three most recent state elections — Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia — the outcomes were majority governments. For some voters, their decision is a choice between a desire for stability (represented by a vote for a major party) versus the urge to express their disenchantment (through an “insurgent” party).

There is no miracle cure for the lack of political trust that is now such a problem. That reflects not just political behaviour, but the more general cynicism of the times and an absence of faith in government. We seem as a community to be in a more bleak frame of mind than in some other periods. Contrast the mood now with that of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when voters were turning to Labor, optimistic that an ALP government would effect important change. If the polls are to be believed, Labor is well-placed to win the next federal election, but people aren’t thinking of a new government in anything like transformational terms.

Leadership can be an antidote to cynicism, though in contemporary politics perhaps only a partial one. Take the example of Bob Hawke as prime minister. People liked him and related to him, and he to them. And remember the commitment to reconciliation in his “reconciliation, recovery and reconstruction” mantra for the 1983 election.

Voters want both an agreed framework within which the political arguments are conducted, and where possible consensus around some of the paths forward.

The reader might well ask why I am putting the weight for spearheading reform on politicians, rather than, for instance, advocating as the priority that the media get its house in better order. I accept some will see this as a cop out, coming from a journalist. The reason is that I think in practical terms it is a fairly hopeless cause to look to the media as the lead agent of change that will promote trust and put our democracy into healthier shape. The collapse of the old business model in the media industry, fragmentation of the market, the nature of news in the modern world, the celebrity culture — all work against that. But if the politicians took a higher road, at least there would be pressure on the media to follow.

The ConversationOur democratic system is resilient but under strain. As we view it, the critical thing is not to let cynicism get the better of us.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Accountability is key to building trust in Australia’s intelligence community



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The Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent “war on terror” had a transformative impact on the handling of secrecy and surveillance activities in government programs.
Shutterstock

Daniel Baldino, University of Notre Dame Australia

Intelligence doesn’t have to be, and rarely is, James Bond-esque. Indeed, 007 is the world’s worst spy: everyone knows who he is, meaning he is compromised, exposed and susceptible to blackmail before he even arrives to save the day.

But the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, and the all-encompassing “war on terror” that followed, did have a major transformative impact on the handling of secrecy and surveillance activities in government programs.

One impact has been the growth of executive authority in national security. This has exacerbated demonstrable tensions between civil liberties, trust and secrecy. As noted by former ASIO chief David Irvine, the public will always have some degree of suspicion regarding the secret function of intelligence agencies.




Read more:
Explainer: how the Australian intelligence community works


There is much to be gained by having an electorate better educated in the work of the Australian Intelligence Community (AIC). An informed public is better placed to question or accept the need for Australia’s intelligence agencies. This extends to the merits of expanding budgets, powers, oversight and responsibilities.

A war of choice

In the botched hunt for Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) stockpiles in 2003, the “slam dunk” assessments used to build a preemptive war rationale corroded public confidence in political leadership and the intelligence industry.

The WMD fiasco was accompanied by an inexhaustible antagonism around the world about the role of spies and intelligence agencies.

It is now widely accepted that Iraq has been a strategic disaster. Yet many core public debate points remain conflicted and uncertain. To what extent should an intelligence “failure” be traced back to failings in domestic leadership, a selective approach to intelligence estimates and a culture of political spin that seeks external scapegoats?

Cynicism about the credibility of the intelligence sector has not abated. US President Donald Trump, a conspiracy theorist who famously questioned former President Barack Obama’s citizenship, has maintained his theories into the Oval Office. Trump has both embraced and distorted the term “Deep State”. This emotive term is based on the idea that security elites and institutions are deliberately attempting to undermine (or potentially overthrow) the government. Trump has even claimed that America’s spies are acting like Nazis.

His imagery of a corrupt, rogue and monolithic intelligence bogeyman out to topple him is downright bogus. But its rhetorical simplicity plays into the public’s pre-existing fears about a shadowy political world.




Read more:
Why does a president demand loyalty from people who work for him?


At the same time, push-back against Trump’s political tactics and self-serving showmanship doesn’t mean the intelligence community should be immune from criticism and accountability.

The CIA, for instance, has a lengthy history of pushing or breaking moral and legal boundaries in locations such as Latin America. Ditto the Iran-Contra affair.

US intelligence has also been accused of monitoring human rights workers and harassing civil society groups and social dissenters engaged in legitimate political activities.

Likewise, in Australia in 1977, the Hope Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security unearthed deep-seated problems with principles of propriety, including legality, within ASIO.

The end result of inquiries into the actions of the intelligence community often raises more questions than answers, which feeds public mistrust and anxiety about intelligence and the function of government.

As we have matured, successive Australian governments have extended and deepened the responsibilities of the intelligence community. It is imperative that future boundaries set for our intelligence agencies are not crossed. For example, we should ensure that the AIC collects information as needed, not just because it can.

Unnecessary snooping is just one area that speaks to the broader importance of oversight, accountability, and an educated and understanding electorate.

Sunlight as disinfectant

The overall mandate of the AIC is to provide the government with “information” to better enable it to understand the issues confronting it. This, in turn, is meant to facilitate coherent policymaking.

However, good intelligence will not automatically guarantee good policy. Intelligence, after all, is an imperfect science and just one of the tools available to policymakers.

The task of intelligence agencies is not an easy one. Indeed, large budgets, hardworking staff and all the expertise in the world cannot ensure that a threat, or opportunity, will be recognised or acted upon in a timely fashion. Connecting the dots will rarely result in an end-product of absolute certainty.

At the same time, the demands of policymakers should not distort or corrupt intelligence – intelligence must inform policy (not visa versa). Intelligence agencies must “speak truth to power”. Integrity and candour, rather than ideological or personal loyalty, remain core prerequisites in dealing with political leaders.

Yet, the appearance of accountability does not necessarily de-politicise national security. Nor does it prevent overt political pressure, or the manipulation of intelligence operations to justify preordained political conclusions.




Read more:
The new Department of Home Affairs is unnecessary and seems to be more about politics than reform


In June 2017, Malcolm Turnbull’s government rolled out the largest and most significant changes to the AIC since its creation.

Checks and balances on government error and excess should remain a vital trademark of a healthy democracy. In this sense, a number of the proposed reforms should be applauded. This includes boosting the role and resources of both the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, as well as Office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security.




Read more:
Intelligence review must tackle anxiety around information-gathering, privacy and security


These changes also attempt to resolve questions about whether the boundaries and operational principles between agencies can be more clearly drawn. There are hopes the establishment of a new Office of National Intelligence (in place of the Office of National Assessments) will assist in greater co-ordination and complementary cross-agency efforts.

Of course, much of the devil remains in the detail. And a number of oversight gaps remain, including how to best protect whistle-blowers who expose unethical or illegal behaviour. We are also yet to see the implementation, execution and performance outcomes stemming from this major reform exercise. Further, the simultaneous announcement of new Home Affairs arrangements will demand equal critical scrutiny.

The ConversationIt’s been mooted that intelligence successes are often overlooked, while intelligence failures are widely broadcast. Popular misconceptions, polarisation and arguably excessive secrecy arrangements mean that the AIC will continue to operate in, and need to be responsive to, a backdrop of public misgivings, political point-scoring and conspiracy theories.

Daniel Baldino, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Notre Dame Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Trust is the second casualty in the war on terror



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The challenge for legislators, courts and the wider community is to ensure any interference with privacy is minimal, rather than merely lawful.
Shutterstock

Bruce Baer Arnold, University of Canberra

This article is the second in a five-part series exploring Australian national security in the digital age. Read part one here.


Contrary to doomsaying by pundits or empire-building by politicians and the surveillance-industrial complex, the so-called War on Terror doesn’t mean we should – or must – kiss goodbye to our privacy.

It also doesn’t mean we can forget the accountability of governments, officials and service providers. Nor does it mean we should abdicate responsibility for our own actions.

In thinking about terror and other aspects of national security, we need to consider how increased citizen surveillance affects our trust in government institutions and their private sector proxies.

Respect for privacy – essentially freedom from inappropriate interference – is what differentiates liberal democratic states from totalitarian states and terrorist groups. That respect is a fundamental value. It requires trust by ordinary people and officials alike that government and their proxies will abide by the law, remain accountable and not mistake what is expedient for what is necessary.

That trust has been eroded in recent years by the national security philosophy endorsed by both Labor and the Coalition.

The view from the bunker

National security policymakers and operatives, along with many privacy analysts, have a bleak view of the world. We recognise that Australia spies on friendly and unfriendly countries alike. They spy on us. That’s a function of being a state. Non-state groups also seek to harm or gain advantages – that’s not new.

The challenge for legislators, courts and the wider community is to look outside that bunker and ensure any interference with privacy is minimal, rather than merely lawful. At the moment, we are not doing well. It is unsurprising that law-abiding people are emulating Malcolm Turnbull by embracing privacy tools such as Wickr and Snapchat.

Lawmaking in Australia over the past two decades has involved a step by step erosion of privacy. The scale of that erosion has not been acknowledged by bodies such as the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC), which consistently fails to rebuke bureaucratic opportunism.




Read more:
The new data retention law seriously invades our privacy – and it’s time we took action


The former Victorian Privacy Commissioner notably stood up to the premier and officials in his state, which is what we would expect from a privacy watchdog. Sadly, his willingness to speak truth to power was exceptional.

Protection against invasions of privacy has been progressively weakened in the name of “national security”. This can be seen in the removal of restrictions on the sharing of information by agencies, pervasive biometrics such as the government’s new facial recognition system and mandatory retention of telecommunications metadata. We see the militarised Home Affairs Department seeking to co-opt ASD – our most important spy agency – for warrantless access to the electronic communications of every Australian, rather than just ‘hostiles’ overseas.

Ongoing erosion cannot be justified. It has been persistently criticised by conservative bodies such as the Law Council of Australia and civil advocates such as the Australian Privacy Foundation.

Balances, not bullets

Privacy is not contrary to national security. It is a matter of balance, rather than an absolute.

Australian law (like that in the UK) has always allowed data collection, potentially on a mandatory basis – such as the Census. The law has always allowed overt or covert surveillance by officials, such as the undisclosed opening of mail or recording of conversations.

But such invasions must not be arbitrary. They must be restricted to those rare circumstances where disregard of privacy is imperative, rather than merely convenient. They must take place within a framework where there is some independent oversight to prevent abuse. Oversight fosters trust.

Such oversight might, in the first instance, consist of the requirement for a warrant, given our trust that courts will not rubber-stamp official abuses. It might involve systemic oversight by specialist bodies such as the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM).

Asking the right questions

Australia does not have a discrete Bill of Rights under the national Constitution, although there have been cogent proposals from experts such as Bede Harris.

Privacy law is incoherent, with significant variation across states, territories and Commonwealth, and major holes in data privacy. Some states do not have a discrete Privacy Act, an absence that would be understandable in 1850, but is disquieting in 2018.

As a society, we expect officials will always do the right thing. Trust is fostered by laws that are necessary, transparent and properly implemented (for example, through the independent oversight noted above).

In thinking about these social objectives – more than just “winning” a conflict that may last across generations – we need to ask some hard questions about public and private responsibility.




Read more:
How the law allows governments to publish your private information


The first question we must ask, as citizens, is whether privacy – and law – is something that should always be sacrificed when there is a perceived threat to national security. We should acknowledge that not all threats are equally serious. We need informed public discussion about the need for and appropriateness of governments restricting use of private encryption tools and requiring that service providers offer law enforcement officials secret back doors into private communications.

Another question is whether officials should access private communications simply by asking service providers, without the discipline provided by a warrant. Can we tell if there have been abuses of our privacy? Watchdogs such as the OAIC and the INSLM need stronger protection from political pressure) and more resources, on the basis that an underfed and frightened watchdog is ineffective.

What’s more, we need to question to what extent we should trust governments and officials that are hostile to public disclosure. This hostility is exemplified by the Commonwealth Public Service Commissioner’s characterisation of FOI as “very pernicious” and the two years the OAIC spent in budgetary limbo, following efforts by the Abbott government to shut it down.

The ConversationThere are times when it is in everyone’s interests not to share secrets. That isn’t always the case, and we must ensure our governments, which exist to serve us, are accountable.

Bruce Baer Arnold, Assistant Professor, School of Law, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Nepal Christians Fight for Burial Rights


Nearly 200 graves face demolition.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, January 25 (CDN) — Three years after the death of a Christian who was a captain in the Nepal Army, his widow, Gamala Guide, faces fresh grief.

The grave of her husband, Narayan Guide, is threatened with destruction as authorities of Nepal’s most powerful Hindu temple are reclaiming the forested land where it is located.

“What kind of strange country is this that doesn’t allow its own citizens to rest in peace?” the 55-year-old recently asked leaders of the Christian community in Kathmandu. “Please do something to stop the desecration, or my husband will die a second death.”

At least 200 graves, many of them unmarked due to Christians’ fear of discovery and destruction, could share the same fate. The Pashupatinath Area Development Trust, the organization administering the Pashupatinath temple that dates back to the fourth century AD, has begun renovating the shrine as Nepal celebrates 2011 as its “tourism year” with the goal of attracting 1 million visitors. The temple has been declared a world heritage site by UNESCO.

“In the late 1980s, the government gave us 292 hectares of land to develop the Pashupatinath temple,” said Ram Saran Chimoria, director of the trust. “We have accordingly drawn up a five-year plan that will renovate the main shrine and beautify its surroundings. The forested land adjoining the temple will be used to grow plants considered sacred by Hindus.”

Chimoria said part of the forest is also meant to be used for Hindu burials.

“A Hindu sect called the Dashnami, which has 10 sub-groups under it, buries its dead here, as Muslims and Christians do,” he said. “Since Pashupatinath is a Hindu temple, the 10 sub-groups are allowed to bury their dead here. But other communities also began burying their dead here, first pretending to be the Dashnami and then clandestinely. This is against Hindu traditions, and the temple is seeking to reclaim what belongs to it. It is the responsibility of the government to allot burial grounds to non-Hindus, not the trust’s.”

The burial ground lies opposite Arya Ghat, a cremation ground at Pashupatinath, where bodies are burned on pyres according to Hindu tradition. Known as the Sleshmantak Forest, it is a steep and nearly inaccessible wooded tract where monkeys and foxes roam. Locals advise visitors not to wander into the forest alone, even during day time, for fear of robbers.

“I attended several burial rites there,” said Chirendra Satyal, spokesman of the Catholic Assumption Church of Kathmandu Valley. “They were all low-key. Many of the graves are unmarked to avoid detection. The burial ground is used as a garbage dumping site, and at times foxes dig up the buried bodies. There are also cases of bodies being dumped on top of one another.”

An increasingly angry Christian community, tired of petitioning the government for an official burial ground, is now seeking stronger measures.

“Nepal became secular in 2006, and two years later, we petitioned the prime minister, the culture minister and the top human rights agency in Nepal, saying that in a secular democracy Christians should have the same rights as others and should be given their own burial ground,” said C.B. Gahatraj, general secretary of a Christian committee formed to provide recommendations to parliament, which is drafting a new constitution. “We understand the temple’s position. But the state should understand ours too.”

The committee had identified forested land on the outskirts of the Kathmandu Valley, in an area called Duwakot, and proposed that it be given to them.

“We would make it one of the most idyllic sites in Nepal,” said Gahatraj. “It would have gardens and would be an attractive destination for tourists as well. But so far, there has been no response from the state.”

Believing the time has come for stronger action, Christians plan to discuss the issue with 22 major parliamentary parties on Sunday (Jan. 30).

“At the meeting, we will present our case again,” Gahatraj said. “We also want the trust to suspend the demolition drive till we are given our own land. If there’s no result, we will internationalize our case by taking our problem to international rights organizations and the United Nations.”

As the first such public protest, on Feb. 15 at Maitighar Mandala, one of the most prominent areas of the capital, the Christian community will begin a “relay hunger strike.” Christians are also beginning the first-ever Christian census this year to ascertain their true position in society.

“We estimate there are about 2 million Christians now [out of a population of nearly 29 million],” Gahatraj said.  

Catholics, however, form a tiny fraction of the Christian community. Satyal assessed there were about 7,500 Catholics. In 2009, three women were killed at the Assumption Church when a militant underground organization planted a bomb there. All three had to be cremated.

“Land is a premium commodity in Kathmandu Valley,” said Anthony Sharma, Nepal’s first Catholic bishop. “When the living don’t have land, it is futile to seek land for the dead. We have accepted cremation for Catholics in Nepal in keeping with acceptance worldwide.”

But even the cremation is dogged by discrimination.

“The Arya Ghat cremation ground at Pashupatinath distinguishes between upper castes and lower castes,” the bishop said. “If Christians are taken there, they would be treated as lower castes. So we have organized our own cremation site in Teku [in a different part of the town].”

Madhav Kumar Nepal, who resigned as prime minister on June 30 but leads a caretaker government, was regarded as having a soft spot for Christians. After the attack on the Assumption church, he was among the first state officials to visit the injured in the hospital and kept his promise to bring the culprits to justice, with police managing to arrest the blast mastermind.

Nepal resigned last year under pressure by the largest opposition party, and since then the turbulent republic has remained under a powerless caretaker government, unable to make any major decision.

With the squabbling political parties unable to form a new government and a political deadlock spilling into its seventh month, there are now new fears about the prospective constitution, which is expected to consolidate the secular nature of the nation. The constitution was to have been completed last year, but as the bickering parties failed to accomplish the task, the deadline was extended to May 28.

The delay has enabled a spurt in activities of Hindus calling for the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion. If Nepal’s May deadline fails as well, Christians fear it could be impossible to obtain their own official burial site.

Report from Compass Direct News

False Charges Filed against 47 Christians in Pakistan


Police try to extract bribe after attacking home; in Rawalpindi, militants attack chapel.

VEHARI, Pakistan, April 8 (CDN) — Police here filed false charges of alcohol possession against 47 Christians, including women and children, on March 28 in an attempt to intimidate and bribe them, Christian leaders said.

Police broke into and ransacked the home of Shaukat Masih at 10:15 p.m. on Palm Sunday, manhandled his wife Parveen Bibi, and threatened to charge them and 45 other area Christians with alcohol possession if they did not pay a bribe, said attorney Albert Patras. The Christians refused.

Those charged include two children and eight women. Patras said that three of the 37 Christian men, Shaukat Masih, Moula Masih and Shanni Masih, secured pre-arrest bail and thus averted detainment by Dane Wall police in Vehari, in Punjab Province. None of the others named in the First Information Report is being held either.

“Police are not interested in their arrest, instead they were trying to extort some money from the destitute Christians,” Patras said. “Police thought that Christians, being a soft target, would readily be bribed to save their families, particularly their girls and women.”  

Non-Muslims with a permit are allowed to possess and drink alcohol in Pakistan, while alcohol is forbidden to Muslims in Pakistan. Shaukat Masih has a government permit to keep and drink alcohol, Patras said, thus making the possession charge baseless.

“No longer using just ‘blasphemy’ laws, police and fanatical Muslims have begun to use alcohol laws, Section 3/4 of the Pakistan Penal Code, to persecute the destitute Christians of Pakistan,” Patras said. “Only Christians in Pakistan are allowed to keep and drink alcohol, so Pakistani police can apprehend any Christian and then level section 3/4 of PPC against him or her.”

Patras, head of the Society for Empowerment of the People, told Compass that Sub-Inspector Irshaad-ur-Rehman of the Dane Wall police station, along with two other policemen illegally ransacked the house of Shaukat Masih and Sadiq Masih and threatened to file alcohol charges against them if they refused to pay the bribe.

Besides the alcohol accusations, police also filed charges against the Christians for interfering with police, attacking in the form of a mob, theft, confronting police and engaging in terrorist activities, Patras said.

Patras said that Rehman filed the false charges against the Christians only to protect himself and his cohorts against accusations over their attack on the household. Rehman was not immediately available for comment.

Khalid Gill, head of Lahore zone of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) and chief organizer of the Christian Liberation Front of Punjab Province, said that police violated the trust of their office.

“Keeping alcohol and drinking is taboo in Islam,” Gill said, “but Christians are issued permits to keep and drink alcohol. Now besides the discriminatory blasphemy laws of Sections 295-A, 295-B and 295-C of the penal code, fanatical Muslims and police have found this new way to harass and extort money from innocent, impoverished Christian families.”

The Rt. Rev. Bishop Naeem Essa condemned the police action, concurring with the other Christian leaders that Muslim extremists and police accustomed to using Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to unjustly jail Christians have found a new means of antagonism.

“Now they have grabbed a new weapon in Section 3/4 of the penal code to financially, socially and legally terrorize the weak Christians of Pakistan,” Essa said.

Armed Attack on Chapel

In another Easter week incident, in Rawalpindi law enforcement agents secured the liberty of Christians held hostage by several armed Muslim militants, including at least five burqa-clad women, who attacked a church building after a Good Friday (April 2) service.

APMA’s Gill said the assailants armed with automatic rifles and pistols desecrated Gordon College Chapel of Robinson Community Development Ministries (RCDM) Church and ripped apart books, including the Bible. The assailants also entered nearby residences and reprimanded adults and children for their faith in Christ, besides looting many of the homes, Gill said.

Eyewitnesses said that while two Christians, Shaban Gill and Imran Nazir, were scaling the wall of their property to enter their home, the Muslim militants opened fire on them. Gill managed to escape but Nazir was hit, and the militants held his wife and two daughters, one 4 years old and the other 18 months, at gunpoint.

A heavy contingent of police from City Police Station Raja Bazaar arrived at the scene, and with the help of local Christians broke down doors and gates to make their way into the property and its adjoining residential area. Police secured the liberty of all three Christian hostages and arrested at least 10 suspects. 

Nine of the suspects have been identified as Mushtaq Ahmed, Amjad Zaman Cheema, Dildar Hussein, Muhammad Anwer and Saqib Ali, along with the burqa-clad Nusrat Bibi, Shahnaz Bibi, Irum Bibi and Fatima Bibi.

Police were initially reluctant to file charges against the arrested Muslims but eventually did so under the pressure from Christian rights activists Robinson Asghar, head of RCDM. 

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Spike in Anti-Christian Violence Feared before Burma Elections


Attacks on Christians seen as politically expedient in majority-Buddhist nation.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, January 21 (CDN) — As Burma’s military junta gears up for its first parliamentary election in two decades this year, observers fear attacks on the Christian minority could intensify.

Mungpi Suangtak, assistant editor of a New Delhi-based news agency run by exiled Burmese journalists, the Mizzima News, said the Burmese junta has “one of the world’s worst human rights records” and will “definitely” attack religious and ethnic minorities more forcefully in the run-up to the election.

The military regime, officially known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), pledged to hold the election this year, and analysts believe polls will be held after July in the country, also known as Myanmar.

Suangtak told Compass that the Buddhist nationalist junta would target Christians particularly in Karen state, bordering Thailand, and in Chin State, bordering India and Bangladesh.

Many Christians are part of the Karen National Union and the Chin National Front, armed resistance groups that have been demanding freedom or autonomy for their respective states for decades, and therefore the junta sees the Christian minority as a threat, said Suangtak.

There are over 100,000 Christian Chin refugees in India who have fled the junta’s attacks in the past two decades, according to Human Rights Watch.

Christians in Karen state are not safe. A Karen Christian worker living in the Mae La refugee camp on the Thailand-Burma border told Compass that ethnic Christians were facing human rights abuses by the junta “on a daily basis.” Most recently, Burma army soldiers attacked a church, murdered a local farmer and injured others in Nawng Mi village on Dec. 19, 2009, reported Burma Campaign UK.

Parts of Karen state fall under the “Black Zone” – identified by the Burma army as an area under the control of armed resistance groups where its soldiers are free to open fire on anyone on sight – and the junta has been launching indiscriminate attacks to take control of village after village, said the Karen Christian.

“Those who are not able to flee across the border during such attacks are either killed or forcibly relocated in and confined to temporary camps set up by the junta,” the Christian said. “Since the army litters surrounding areas with landmines, many local people die or get injured while trying to run away from or coming to the camps to look for their relatives.”

Over 150,000 refugees from Karen and neighboring Karenni states of Burma are living along the Thai side of the border, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. More than half of them are Christian.

A representative of the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), which trains and sends teams of local people to help victims of the junta’s attacks inside Burma, said youths have been forced to become Buddhists in Chin state, where over 80 percent of the people are Christian.

Printing of Bibles is restricted, and churches are destroyed on a regular basis in the state, the source told Compass on condition of anonymity.

Access for foreign visitors to Chin state is, with some exceptions, prohibited, and the state is widely acknowledged to be the poorest part of the country, said Rogers.

“According to one Chin, the reason Chin state is denied resources, and foreigners are denied access, is specifically because the overwhelming majority of Chins are Christian,” stated a 2009 report by London-based advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). “The SPDC has, it is believed, taken a deliberate decision to discriminate against Chin Christians.”

The report cited a Chin Christian man who had served in the Burma army who faced discrimination.

“I had a colleague who was a Chin who became a Buddhist and he was promoted,” the Christian says in the report. “I was told to change my religion if I wanted to get promotion. I refused to convert.”

The report also quoted a Chin Christian as saying that students from a Christian youth fellowship at a university in Kalaymyo, in Chin state’s Sagaing Division, collected funds among their own community to construct a small church.

“However, in 2008 and again in 2009, ‘extremist Buddhists’ destroyed the church building, and when the students reported the incident to the local authorities, the youth fellowship leaders were arrested, detained and then released with a warning,” he said.

Religious Pretext

Suangtak said successive governments in Burma have promoted Buddhism since General Ne Win took power in 1962, leaving Christians insecure.

“There is a general feeling in Burma that the state represents Buddhism, and most Christians, particularly from conservative sections, cannot trust the regime,” said Suangtak.

Benedict Rogers of CSW said the junta doesn’t differentiate between individual Christians involved in armed struggle and ordinary Christians who have not taken up arms.

“And when it attacks villages in conflict zones, churches and pastors are often among the first to be attacked,” Rogers said.

A Christian worker from Burma’s Mandalay city, however, told Compass that thus far he has heard no reports of any major anti-Christian incidents there. He said he was hoping the junta would try to woo people with peace rather than violence.

“But nothing can be said about the unpredictable junta,” he said, adding that it was difficult to receive or send information in Burma. “Even in cities, the information infrastructure is limited and expensive, phones are tapped and e-mails are monitored. And the press is owned by the state.”

Rogers, deputy chairman of the human rights commission for the U.K.’s Conservative Party, said the Buddhist nationalist regime “distorts and perverts Buddhism for political purposes and is intolerant of non-Burman and non-Buddhist ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims.”

Of the 56 million people in Burma, around 89 percent are Buddhist, with only 4 percent Christian.

Given that the junta merely uses religion for political power, it doesn’t target Christians alone, Suangtak said.

“The junta has no respect for any religion, be it Christians or Buddhists, and anyone who opposes its rule is dealt with harshly.”

Burma was ruled by military regimes from 1962 to 1990; at that point the National League for Democracy party, led by Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won the parliamentary election. But the regime seized power again by imprisoning members of parliament after the election.

Rogers, who has co-authored a soon-to-be-published biography of SPDC chairman Senior General Than Shwe, said that while the armed groups are not perfect, they are essentially fighting to defend their people against a “brutal regime” and are “not in any way terrorists.”

“The armed groups have sometimes launched pre-emptive attacks on the military, but they have never attacked non-military targets and have never engaged in indiscriminate acts of violence,” he said. “Even the pre-emptive acts are conducted for defensive, rather than offensive, purposes.”

Rogers added that resistance groups were fighting to defend their people.

“Individual Christians who have joined the armed ethnic groups do so out of a perfectly biblical concept of just war, the right to defend your people from gross injustice.”

Added an FBR source, “In Burma, no one protects except the pro-democracy resistance groups, and all relief inside the country is only possible because of them.”

International Disrepute

The 2009 annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom states that Burma’s military junta had “one of the world’s worst human rights records.”

“Burma’s Christian populations face forced promotion of Buddhism and other hardships in ethnic minority areas where low-intensity conflict has been waged for decades,” the report states. “In addition, a new law passed in early 2009 essentially bans independent ‘house church’ religious venues, many of which operate because permission to build church buildings is regularly denied.”

The report also pointed out that in January 2009, authorities in Rangoon ordered at least 100 churches to stop holding services and forced them to sign pledges to that effect. Burma, which the ruling junta describes as “The Golden Land” on its official website, has been designated as a Country of Particular Concern by the U.S. Department of State since 1999.

Even after the 2010 election, little is expected to change.

The FBR source said the election was not likely to be free and fair, pointing out that the new constitution the junta adopted after an apparently rigged referendum in 2008 virtually enshrined military power.

“However, having an election is better than not having one at all,” the source said.

Report from Compass Direct News