Top Issue 1-2024

9 May 2002 Edition

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Right-wing Dutch leader assassinated

Dutch political leaders have decided to press on with the country's 15 May general election after right-wing leader Pim Fortuyn was gunned down on Monday. While the Dutch prime minister appealed for calm, extreme right-wing supporters fought with riot police near the parliament.

Fortuyn was shot six times in the head, neck and chest by a lone assailant outside the radio station in Hilversum, a town about 12 miles southeast of Amsterdam and died in the parking lot of a radio station where he had just given a campaign interview. He died nine days before the election, in which his racist and anti-immigration party, Pim Fortuyn's List, named for its 54-year-old leader, was expected to win up to 28 of the 150 seats in the Dutch parliament.

Police said they arrested a 33-year-old white male suspect, a Dutch citizen, but they did not release his name or a suspected motive.

His killing was the first assassination in modern Dutch history and sent shock waves through the Netherlands, where most political leaders go without bodyguards and many ride public transportation.

A former academic and columnist, Fortuyn stormed onto the political stage in March when his party won 35% of the vote in local elections in Rotterdam, a port with a large immigrant population. His success led other parties to pledge to re-examine the country's generous refugee policy. About one person in eight comes from a non-Dutch background, and nearly half of those come from Islamic countries.

Fortuyn dictated debate during the election campaign, with verbal attacks on the growing Muslim population and strident criticism of the government. He called Islam a "backward" culture and said the Netherlands should reconsider its law guaranteeing freedom from discrimination.

His rise mirrored a right-wing resurgence in several European countries, highlighted by the surprise showing in France of anti-immigrant candidate Jean Marie Le Pen in the first round of presidential elections. Le Pen was soundly defeated on Sunday 6 May run-off vote by incumbent Jacques Chirac.

Fortuyn's platform seemed out of place in the Netherlands - the first country to legalise gay marriages, regulate prostitution, approve and control euthanasia and tolerate the over-the-counter sale of marijuana.

Aung San Suu Kyi freed

Burma's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi met foreign diplomats on Tuesday 7 May as she began the long struggle to rebuild Burma's democracy movement and push for political change after her release from house arrest.

Myanmar's - the official name of Burma - military government freed Suu Kyi on Monday 6 May after 19 months under house arrest. The Nobel peace laureate must now try to resolve divisions over strategy in the democracy movement and push the ruling generals to implement real change.

"Both sides agree that the phase of confidence building is over," Suu Kyi said shortly after her release. "We look forward to moving across to a more significant phase." But she stressed economic sanctions - affecting foreign investment, aid and tourism- should remain in place till the end of the military dictatorship.

The junta has been holding secretive talks with Suu Kyi since October 2000 in a bid to break the political stalemate that has gripped the country for more than a decade but many analysts remain unconvinced the military dictators are serious about their promise to work towards democracy. Diplomats said Suu Kyi's release - plus pledging to crack down on rampant production of opium and methamphetamines - was widely seen as an attempt by the generals to get international sanctions lifted, rather than the start of genuine momentum for political change. They say the government is desperate for an end to Myanmar's economic isolation.

The military has ruled Myanmar for four decades. Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won elections in 1990 by a landslide but the military refused to hand over power.

Suu Kyi was held under house arrest from 1989 to 1995 and was detained again in September 2000 after a series of frustrated attempts to leave Yangon to visit party members.

East Timor refugees come home

The election of former guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao as president of East Timor has opened the door to real change in the former Indonesia colony. More than 6,000 refugees - around 260,000 East Timorese fled or were forced into West Timor by pro-Jakarta militia and Indonesian troops after the territory voted for independence in 1999 amid bloodshed and intimidation - are coming back home. Many of the returnees say they feel their future is more secure because Xanana Gusmao is now in power, but at least another 55,000 remain in camps throughout the province.

"Most refugees see Gusmao as key to the future stability of East Timor", said UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman, Jake Morland. The UN representative added that thousands more were expected to return before 20 May, when the UN administrators, who have been governing East Timor since the independence ballot, will hand over the reins of government to a democratically elected assembly and president.

UN officials say the biggest obstacle for potential returnees is a propaganda campaign by some militia leaders seeking to convince refugees it is too dangerous to go home. Some refugees hold links with the former Indonesian regime in East Timor and fear reprisals if they return, while others are waiting for pension payments by the Indonesian government

However, to reinforce the message of goodwill, Gusmao chose Jakarta for his first post-election trip and personally invited President Megawati Sukarnoputri to attend East Timor's formal independence celebrations this month.

East Timor's president-elect Xanana Gusmao has clearly stated that his priority was to give his people a better life rather than engaging in a policy of revenge.

40,000 protest Basque arrests

Ten members of Basque pro-independence political party Batasuna (formerly known as Herri Batasuna) were jailed on Friday 3 May as part of a police operation headed by Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón.

Supporters of Batasuna took on to the streets to express their opposition to the arrest of their comrades all over the Basque Country. Arnaldo Otegi, Batasuna's national coordinator, said on Tuesday morning that the repressive policies of the Spanish government - aimed at criminalising all expressions of Basque nationalism - reinforce his belief that a "new democratic context is necessary to create enough space for a different political project". The possibilities for democratic and political expression within the Spanish state are being "more and more constrained", he said.

The Spanish media pointed out that the operation formed part of Garzón's investigations into ETA's financial structures. During this investigation, initiated by Garzón in 1998, the Spanish judge closed the newspaper EGIN, radio station EGIN Irratia, and imprisoned Basque political, cultural, social and language activists.

Garzón's operation against Batasuna is taking place at the time when the right-wing Spanish government is trying to push through parliament new legislation, aimed at banning Batasuna or any Basque pro-independence political organisation.

In a demostration in Bilbao on Sunday 5 May under the banner "Faxismoari stop. Demokrazia euska herriarentzat", ("Stop fascism, democracy for the Basque Country"), 40,000 protested the attempts by the Spanish government to ban any group related to Basque separatism.

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