Tragedy aboard the Nerpa

Twenty die in an accident on a nuclear-powered submarine that might have been leased to India

There were four times as many people on board as there should have been. And an accidental burst of fire-suppressant gas suffocated twenty of them to death. The Nerpa, an Akula-II class nuclear submarine that was undergoing sea trials in the Sea of Japan has returned to its base on Russia’s Pacific coast.

According to some media reports, the Nerpa was to have entered service in the Indian Navy as INS Chakra, under a ten-year lease from Russia. This would allow the navy to train its personnel ahead of the launch of the Advanced Technology Vessel, India’s indigenous nuclear submarine. But both governments have been cagey over the existence of such a deal, although 40 navy personnel were supposed to have left for Vladivostok earlier this month. However, the Indian Navy has officially denied that the Nerpa had Indian crew members on board.

Update: 1. From Information Dissemination & 2. The list of casualties released by Russian authorities does not have any Indians (via BRF)

A naval standoff between Bangladesh and Burma

A new territorial dispute in the Bay of Bengal

The Burmese navy has withdrawn two of its warships from an area in the Bay of Bengal 50 nautical miles south-west of Bangladesh’s St Martin’s Island. Bangladesh is to withdraw its four ships after the intruding commercial gas exploration ships leave the scene. (via Information Dissemination)

It appears that the standoff ended without shots being fired. But not before a war of words.

Bangladesh’s foreign minister Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury said he had warned Myanmar’s envoy to Dhaka that “all steps would be taken to protect the sovereignty and territory of Bangladesh.” [AFP]

A senior official from Myanmar’s military government said they were open to talks, but insisted that oil and gas companies were operating inside their territory and far away from the disputed sea boundary. “We will try to solve this peacefully, but we are also ready to protect our country if needed … we will not tolerate being insulted, although we do want good will. We will continue with exploration,” [AFP]

How do you help a country like Burma?

The tricky business of delivering aid to victims of a natural disaster who are also victims of a repressive regime

A closed regime. Media controls. A category 4 cyclone. Damaged infrastructure. Broken communication links. Death toll first in the hundreds, rapidly upped to the tens of thousands.

From ReliefWebIt’s highly likely that the Burmese junta can’t cope with the disaster. Worse, its isolation is making a bad situation much worse. The international response is hobbled by the lack of communication channels, common frameworks and operating procedures.

India was among the first to respond. India’s military base at Port Blair, in the Andaman & Nicobar islands has some capacity address humanitarian disasters in the Bay of Bengal region. But while India dispatched INS Rana and INS Kirpan with emergency relief material—tents, medicine and food—the lack of communications (and previously agreed contingency plans) means that at the time of sailing, the ships didn’t quite know which port they could access.

The foreign ministry states that India is considering “further immediate relief and medical supplies, including by air”. Thailand is reportedly preparing to send supplies by air. Burma has also accepted Australian help. These responses will be constrained by Burma’s capacity to co-ordinate the use of its airspace, airports and landing strips. According to some weather reports, Cyclone Nargis could be followed by an even stronger cyclone, adding in a factor of urgency to this matter.

Ultimately, the delivery of relief supplies to the affected people depends largely on the Tatmadaw, Burma’s armed forces. The scheduled referendum introduces a political complication. That the junta is deeply unpopular is clear enough: but a botched response to the cyclone might well break the camel’s back. [Cyclone Bhola struck East Pakistan in late 1971, also ahead of elections, and set off a chain of events that led to the birth of Bangla Desh]

The problem is—the generals know this too. They could decide that the presence of foreign volunteers, media and military personnel is a risk to the survival of their regime, even if it means that the humanitarian response suffers as a result.

The toughest question for India and the rest of the world is should the world’s humanitarian response become an instrument to effect political change in Burma? For, isn’t releasing the Burmese people from the clutches of a brutal, repressive regime also, in the end, a humanitarian act? The answer is yes. As The Acorn has argued before, doing so is in India’s interests.

Related Links: NASA’s Earth Observatory has “before and after” images of the affected area; a briefing from the Global Disaster Alert and Co-ordination System

More Chinese guns for Mugabe

And military advisors too

The six containers full of small arms that China shipped to Zimbabwe are somewhere off the coast of Africa. Durban in South Africa, the original transit port, didn’t work out. Someone tipped off Noseweek, an appropriately named South African magazine, about the contents of the cargo on the Chinese ship An Yue Zhang, and hell began breaking lose. The transport workers union prevented their unloading. A local bishop got a court order restricting its movement. And a German bank, which is owed money by the Zimbabwean government, acquired a court order to seize the cargo.

Realising that things were getting rather sticky in Durban, the ship quietly slipped away (or “disappeared”), reportedly to Maputo, Mozambique. But Mozambique has refused to allow it into its waters, pointing out that it was bound for Luanda, Angola anyway. The United States officially entered the fray today and “American diplomats have been instructed to press authorities in at least four nations—South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia and Angola—not to allow it to dock”. The Bush administration intends to send a special envoy to the region this week. There are reports that a new consignment of arms will now be delivered by air instead.

China’s foreign ministry has been silent. That’s probably because it didn’t know much about the deal, or more likely, is unable to do anything about it. Poly Technologies Corporation (its Chinese phonetic, “Baoli”, means “to keep the profit”) is not only run by the People’s Liberation Army—its long-time chairman is Major-General He Ping, Deng Xiaoping’s son-in-law. The company sells arms to those who can pay for them, mainly “to keep the profit”. Pakistan’s Ghauri missiles are produced using technology sold by Poly. Why, Poly even tried to smuggle AK-47s to the United States in 1996. Zimbabwe is small beer.

Poly Technologies’ export consignment was hardly unusual—and almost certainly not illegal—but the timing couldn’t be worse. Robert Mugabe is using state machinery to suppress political opposition. China is facing an international public relations debacle with the Olympic torch and Tibet. It’s backing of the Sudanese regime had already attracted international opprobrium. To be caught selling six containers of small arms to yet another thuggish African dictator at this time…well, the folks in Beijing are living in interesting times.

But while the arms shipment itself is beginning to catch the world’s attention, a more disturbing revelation relates to the presence of “Chinese soldiers in their full military regalia and armed with pistols checking at the hotel (in Mutare, Zimbabwe’s third largest city)”. What were uniformed Chinese military personnel doing in Zimbabwe? Surely, the Chinese foreign ministry can’t repeat the old mantra about “non-interference in the internal affairs” of Zimbabwe?

It’s all so cold war. It’s also something that Africa can’t afford. As Hope, a Zimbabwean blogger at Sokanwele writes:

The unfortunate side-effect of the deep resentment is some xenophobia towards the new Chinese people, and our local Chinese population, who have lived in our country for years, suffer too. But at the end of the day I think – I hope – that those new traders are just like all human beings in the world, craving freedom and maybe seeing Zimbabwe, ironically, as a way to escape the lack of freedom in their own country. I think maybe we have something in common with them in that respect.

But if the Chinese government is actually sending in soldiers, and actively lending some level of military support – advice or otherwise – to Mugabe’s efforts to subvert democracy and cow the population, then their involvement must be exposed. [Sokanwele]

Everyone knows how hard it is to stop mass killings once they start. The prudent course of action for the international community is to suspend arms deliveries to Zimbabwe until the political crisis is sorted out. It is up to China whether it wants to be part of the solution.

Update: According to SIPRI Arms Transfers Database, China was Zimbabwe’s biggest arms supplier. Among the big ticket items it supplied 12 K-8 fighter planes at US$240 million between 2005 and 2006 (excludes small arms).

J Peter Pham has more details at World Defense Review

At a time when the thuggish regime of Robert Mugabe is universally shunned by the civilized world, not least for its crackdown on the political opposition, the PRC has literally handed Zimbabwe the tools of repression: PLA’s definition of “mil-to-mil” relations includes providing a radio-jamming device for a military base outside Harare that prevents independent stations from trying to contradict state-controlled media. As one statement from the Paris-based nongovernmental organization Reporters san frontières noted, “Thanks to support from China, which exports its repressive expertise, Robert Mugabe’s government has yet again just proved itself to be one of the most active predators of press freedom.” For Beijing’s military-industrial complex, however, it may just be a matter of “customer courtesy” for a very reliable client. In late 2004, Zimbabwe paid an estimated $200 million for twelve FC-1 fighter jets and 100 military vehicles. In 2005, it spent $245 million on a dozen K-8 light attack aircraft (the K-8 is the export version of the Hongdu JL-8 jointly developed by the PRC and Pakistan). Last year, for $120 million – an amount that could have fed the entire country for three months – Zimbabwe’s octogenarian president purchased six training aircraft for his air force from the China Nanchang Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation. [WDR, Jun 07]