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Those who dare to resist empire

August 24, 2007 | Page 9

John Pilger, Freedom Next Time: Resisting the Empire. Nation Books, 2007, 384 pages, $16.95.

PHIL GASPER reviews journalist John Pilger's new book on struggles for justice taking place around the world.

THE GUARDIAN newspaper in Britain has called John Pilger "the most outstanding journalist in the world today."

For over 40 years, the Australian-born Pilger has been covering the world's major conflicts, from Vietnam to Iraq, and exposing the brutal ways in which the world's most powerful countries maintain their dominance. He has also given a voice to the victims of the system, both in the poor countries of the south and in the wealthy ones of the north, highlighting their many struggles for dignity and justice.

Freedom Next Time focuses on five countries where people are still struggling for justice. In two of them--India and South Africa--formal freedom has been won, but the mass of the population continue to face poverty and oppression at least as bad as in the past as a consequence of their own political elites embracing neo-liberal economic policies.

In India, for example, privatization and reliance on the "free market" has only benefited a privileged minority, while "entrench[ing] a chronic underdevelopment largely invisible to the educated classes and the outside world." Half of the country's children are undernourished, while "the so-called consumer boom in India has embraced, at most, 15 percent of the population."

While spending on private health care by the wealthy is "among the highest in the world," India as a whole spends less than one percent of its GDP on health, and ranks 171st out of 175 in the United Nation's ranking of health services.

In South Africa, which in the early 1990s witnessed the magnificent victory of the anti-apartheid struggle, the continuing inequality is, if anything, even more striking, leading Pilger to title his chapter "Apartheid Did Not Die."

Despite the establishment of Black majority rule and well over a decade of an African National Congress government, poverty has continued to grow. "In the 'townships,' conditions are described as 'desperate,' with more than five million hungry children and a health system unable to cope with epidemic disease such as AIDS and tuberculosis."

But South Africa's new Black elite (sarcastically called by locals the "waBenzi," because their preferred mode of transport is the Mercedes Benz) is also beginning to face renewed struggle from below. "Community uprisings are common again as townships and squatter camps are torched, along with the buildings of authority. In the global apartheid created by modern economic imperialism, today's South Africa provides both a specter and a warning."

Two other chapters describe in detail the realities of military occupation in Palestine and Afghanistan. Pilger quotes the late Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said, who in 2001 described Israel's repression of the Palestinians as "The Last Taboo." "The extermination of the Native Americans can be admitted, the morality of Hiroshima attacked, the national flag [of the U.S.] publicly committed to the flames. But the systematic continuity of Israel's 52-year oppression and maltreatment of the Palestinians is virtually unmentionable, a narrative that has no permission to appear."

In the U.S. and other Western countries, politicians and media pundits express outrage at Palestinian suicide bombers, while ignoring both Israel's even more lethal acts of state terrorism and the daily humiliations, human rights abuses and brutality of its occupation of Palestinian lands.

Throughout the book, Pilger exposes the hypocrisy, double standards and lies of the world's most powerful governments. The Bush administration claims to have liberated Afghanistan, even though brutal warlords now run most of the country and U.S. troops regularly kill more civilians than the Taliban insurgents they continue to fight.

The hypocrisy, double standards and lies find no better illustration than the case of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, described in Pilger's first chapter. The entire population of what was once a tropical paradise was illegally and coercively expelled by the British government in the late 1960s and early 1970s as part of a secret deal that allowed the U.S. to establish a naval base on the island of Diego Garcia.

Pilger quotes from government documents that show that British officials were quite aware they were violating international law and committing crimes against humanity. They openly discussed among themselves the best way to lie about this in public, even concealing from the islanders the fact that they were British citizens.

Pilger contrasts the case of the Chagos Islanders with Britain's war to recapture the Falklands in 1982. "The Falklands and the Chagos each had a population of 2,000 British citizens. One population was white, the other Black. While the Argentine invasion of the Falklands was furiously resisted by British forces sent 8,000 miles for the purpose, the American invasion of Diego Garcia was accommodated in every detail by the British government, which even arranged for the inhabitants' expulsion."

The heroes in Pilger's book are the ordinary people who continue to fight against the injustices he describes, even when the odds seem insurmountable--the Chagos Islanders who continue to demand their rights, a Palestinian doctor in Gaza who performs plastic surgery on children disfigured by plastic bullets, an Israeli father whose young daughter was killed in a suicide bombing but who now campaigns against the Israeli occupation, and many others.

"Once I believed," writes Pilger, "that if only those with power and responsibility had seen what I had seen, the horror and degradation of war, they would act otherwise. That was naive, for only the power of popular dissent changes their course, or rids us of them." Pilger's reporting in Freedom Next Time is invaluable for the light in throws on the crimes of the powerful and can only help to strengthen the popular dissent that is needed to stop them.

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