Razor-wire imperialism

From Guantanamo to Kumingting to Campsfield, detention without trial is used to divide and rule. John Hutnyk calls for an international working class response

The resurgent idea of the concentration camp should worry everyone. No doubt we all have picked up along the way some idea of their horrors. Whether the German camps in World War II, or the gulags of Siberia, or even the strategic hamlets of the US ‘police action’ in Vietnam, camp detention degrades us all.

Such horrors can be seen on TV or at the movies, and increasingly contemporary versions can be read of in the press - from the offshore ‘Pacific solution’ and remote desert prisons for immigrants in Australia, to the US razor-wire Camp X-Ray for the Taliban at Guantanamo in Cuba. We are seeing more and more examples, not less.

This article is inspired by the recent success of the Anti-Internal Security Act Campaign in Malaysia, where Reformasi activists held at Kumingting Camp were released after more than two years in detention. As will be shown, however, this success, while welcome, is only a minor victory in a struggle that must be taken up everywhere - the camps are not unique to Malaysia. They have been, and are, a key component of capitalist imperialism - as the British, Australian and US cases show.

Razor-wire enclosures come in several different, but closely linked, forms, and in all cases their use is wholly political. Whether designed to manage the flow of workers into the advanced capitalist enclaves of Europe, America or Australia (asylum and immigration centres) or more explicitly to house political detainees and vanquished enemies or combat alleged threats of the new ‘war on terror’ (Guantanamo, Terrorism Act, ‘homeland security’), the logic is the same. The razor wire is ostensibly designed to control minds and suppress the people.

In Britain, the ‘asylum and immigration system’ is the formal name given to a regime that legislates for the detention of potential settlers and workers, and, along with forced dispersal, deportation and general intimidation - the demonisation of whole communities - this system is intended to work to control population and as such is a political infringement upon the whole working class. Over 1,500 people, mostly asylum-seekers, are presently locked up in detention camps and prisons within Britain and abroad, and have been detained without trial, without time limit and without automatic recourse to bail or public appeal. The detention centres, prisons and asylums are where the New Labour government locks up those who slip through the net of Fortress Europe - where borders and boundaries are set up by the state to limit movement, while capital and goods can move at will (commodity fetishism again). At the present time there are plans to build new detention centres in the UK with a target capacity of 4,000 and the European Union has approved the development of pilot ‘safe haven’ camps overseas, where refugees will be held within the countries they are trying to escape, or nearby (The Guardian June 21).

The constant escalation of talk about such schemes continues to encourage a public fear of ‘foreigners’, and by targeting refugees as a ‘problem’ and asylum-seekers as likely to ‘abuse the system’, people in need become the handy scapegoats with which to brand all immigrants and settlers as unwelcome.

Against this, it is an article of principle that freedom of movement should be accepted, even encouraged and condoned, and as part of our international context should apply to everyone, not just those subject to persecution in their ‘home’ states. Everybody should have the option of travel so that they might chose to move to, settle and work anywhere they like in the world. If capital is free to move across borders, it stands to reason that people, who, as workers, create the value of capital, should also be free to move. The detention centre system is a blockage to workers’ movement, and as such it is as political as the gulags - the fight against them must be taken up as a political fight of the entire class, internationally.

This applies to the more explicitly ‘political’ forms of detention too. If not targeting and demonising asylum-seekers, then the camp mentality targets ‘terrorists’ - on Guantanamo’s Camp X-Ray and since the opening of the global ‘war against terrorism’ there has been a remodelling of the technology of detention camps and it is in our interests to ensure they cannot be used against anyone - not muslims, not even (alleged) criminals, and certainly not against those fleeing political persecution. We should also beware that one day George Bush and Tony Blair may want to put us in such camps - it has been tried before.

Reinventing the McCarthyism of the cold war for new times, the Patriot Act and ‘homeland security’ in the USA gives the state sweeping powers of arbitrary arrest and detention of non-nationals suspected of being involved in terrorism. In Britain, under the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act of 2001, police powers of arrest and detention are triggered by mere suspicion that someone may be involved in ‘terrorism’ - including conduct that in itself does not constitute a criminal offence, such as, perhaps, support for a ‘proscribed’ international organisation. The detention of any “foreign national” for an indefinite period without charge or trial because they may be “reasonably” believed to have “links” with terrorism, or are thought to be “a risk” to national security, is the thin edge of an anti-democratic and racist wedge that threatens us all. These attacks upon democracy makes it a potentially detainable offence to advance a “political, religious or ideological” cause, which would include a good many more people than you or I would like to see sent to the salt mines.

In a typical double play, the ‘war on terror’ opens up the possibility of locking away those who threaten the ‘homeland’ with the prospect of political alternatives and those who protest against the devastation imperialism brings to the other side of the international division of labour. Freedom requires the incarceration of others. Security equals war. Nation equals jail. Humanity equals inhumanity. New Labour has lost no time in reintroducing a full raft of imperialist, even totalitarian, legislative measures that impact primarily upon minority and working class communities. Initially the targets are so called “foreign nationals” who can be detained without trial on minister Blunkett’s “reasonable suspicion”, but as the hypocrisy of this demonisation escalates, the consequence is that everyone in Britain - loyal royal subject or not - is placed in jeopardy. The concentration camps must be defeated.

Malaysian camps

The image of detention has become a media standard. Few, however, experience the comforts of such a camp and come out to tell the story - Tian Chua of Malaysia is one of the few. On release from Kumingting detention camp in June this year, Chua said he had merely “exchanged one small jail for a larger one”. Political expression is at a premium in Malaysia. Interned for two years and three months without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA), Chua was spuriously accused of plotting an armed uprising; he was beaten, denied food, visitors and communications.

Chapter and verse could be cited about the camps at Buchenwald, Dachau and Auschwitz, but in each case the general point that detention is an ideological weapon as well as a political tool is already explicit. The image of the camps is cultivated in a dubious historical remembrance - selective and sensational, demoralising.

(To those who object to the conflation of the detention centres with concentration camps, the example of the Australian ‘Pacific solution’ should be borne in mind as a ‘final solution’ that abandons people fleeing political and economic austerity to death at sea, rather than by gas chamber. For an Atlantic example: “On June 20, a boat packed with hundreds of African would-be immigrants sank off the city of Sfax on Tunisia’s eastern coast, with only 41 of about 250 on board believed to have survived” (Herald-Sun June 30). Additionally, the modern substitution of the SS with employees of the Wackenhut Corporation does not seem to significantly alter the character of the camps.)

Conveniently the threat of detention silences dissent, engenders despair, occupies activists’ time, dissuades new recruits - its publicity acts in the old Spanish inquisition model of ‘showing the instruments’ - as Giorgio Agamben says, the “display of weapons” characterises the police in all eras: the display of the police power, beyond the law, is made public in the most visible way (G Agamben Means without end: notes on politics, Minneapolis 2000, p105).

Outside the Penang Museum in Malaysia today you can still see an old bullet-ridden Rolls Royce that once was used to ferry viceroys about the Malayan peninsula. The explanation offered for this exhibit, however, is somewhat vague. The bullet holes were earned at the assassination of the high commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney, in October 1951. What is not noted is that this was the highest-level kill achieved by communist insurgents during the so-called Malayan ‘emergency’. What happened in the villages during this ‘emergency’ should be of concern - wholesale detentions that set the model for strategic hamlets in Vietnam.

Malaya was the most profitable part of the empire in the years between World War I and World War II. But with grave shortages of rice and cloth, a malaria epidemic, collapsed plantation and mining infrastructure, this once most lucrative colony became the most difficult to rule. The local Chinese-led communists joined with the Malay community in a mass non-cooperation movement.

Of course international solidarity on the part of mainland Chinese was cast as ‘infiltration’ for propaganda purposes, and when support for the Malay communists came from Britain, this was concealed.

Out of the mass non-cooperation movement there developed popular support for the Communist Party of Malaysia. In reaction to the British declaration of a state of emergency in June 1948, an insurrection began, led by Chin Peng. This insurrection was self-consciously known, on the part of the Chinese and Malays and their international supporters, as a revolutionary war. On the British side it was characterised merely as ‘the emergency’, which was a calculated reference to alibi the declaration of special police powers above and beyond conventional law (non-war, non-Geneva Convention, as now occurs with Guantanamo Bay and the US failure to extend any rights to captured combatants).

Under Colonel WN Gray, appointed direct from Palestine as commissioner of the Malay police, the force expanded to 73,000, plus 17,000 “auxiliaries and Kampong guards” by 1952 (A Stockwell in Anderson, David and Killingray Policing and decolonisation: nationalism, politics and the police 1917-65 Manchester 1992, p110). Gray oversaw the introduction of resettlement and gave the Malay police the major role in defence of ‘new villages’ in order to separate the people from the communists - and food and information.

Stockwell writes: “The emergency regulations gave the police extraordinary powers of search and arrest, control of the movement of persons and traffic, and the authority to impose curfews ... in late 1951 it was estimated that some 6,000 persons were being held in detention without trial” (ibid p113, citing O Lyttelton The memoirs of Lord Chandos London 1962, p372).

Detention without trial was the mainstay of the ‘security’ and ‘anti-terrorism’ programme of British rule, even as the insurgency became a war of attrition that effectively drained the colony’s profitability. The combination of communist insurgency and the international climate of anti-colonial pro-independence negotiations meant the British played their old divide-and-rule routine even in the run-up to an inevitable independence.

In July 1955 the Malay leader, Tunku Abdul Rahman, headed a coalition of the UMNO (United Malay National Organisation), MCA (Malay Chinese Association) and MIC (Malay Indian Congress) to victory in the first ‘federal’ election of the Malay colony. As the British debated handing over internal security and policing to the new chief minister, Tunku Rahman suggested an amnesty for the communists and with Chin Peng opened talks (A Stockwell in Anderson, David and Killingray Policing and decolonisation: nationalism, politics and the police 1917-65, Manchester 1992, p120). Chin Peng wisely offered peace as soon as independence, and control over security, was achieved. The British moved to forestall such alliance-making by granting Tunku immediate control of internal security through a ‘guided’ police service commission.

After independence in 1957 a gradual Malaysianisation of the upper echelons of the still predominantly Malay police force was implemented and Stockwell reports that the Malaysia police retained “a paramilitary role, [it] is centrally organised and has extensive powers of arrest of persons and seizure of property ... like its predecessor it has been accused of acting as the instrument of repressive government, infringing civil liberties and neglecting ‘normal policing’” (ibid p122). The continuity of colonialist methods is shown in the fact that there have been 4,000 ISA arrests since independence: cases in 1987 numbered 106; in 2001-2002 over 60. These numbers are not as extensive as during the emergency, but the same strategy prevails in the absence of any form of insurgency - the ISA used as a tool of ideological repression. More rule than divide today.

When Tian Chua says he has swapped one prison for another, he refers to this heritage of so-called post-colonial Malaysia, where the ruling clique has adopted the policing strategies of British colonialism. Chua was originally detained with six others as part of a crackdown on Reformasi opposition leaders by Mahathir. Subsequent to September 11 2001, Mahathir has tried to present himself as a moderate muslim, yet curries favour with the US administration, detaining at least 170 alleged muslim ‘terrorists’ under the ISA laws - so similar to those adopted in Britain today. As I write, there are still 99 detainees being held at the Kamunting detention camp without trial.

Mahathir has been working closely with the British and US administration to set up a regional ‘counter-terrorism’ centre in Kuala Lumpur (L Fekete ‘Cynical manoeuvres in the war against terror’ CARF 2000: 69, p12). Although the government alleged the present detainees have been involved in terrorist activities, no evidence has been produced to substantiate this allegation. Some of these detainees have been held without trial for almost three years. They languish in Kumingting while Chua tries to mobilise a campaign to demand their release. It cannot be stressed enough that they have not been charged, and they have not been tried. The ISA law under which they are held is a political law of suppression, incompatible with even the most rudimentary forms of democracy - and such laws are being adopted worldwide.

As with those who cross the borders of Fortress Europe or are interned in similar camps or prisons in Burma, Indonesia, Australia, the USA, these laws ensure people who protest are subject to political repression. In this respect detention degrades us all - the struggle must be international against the camps.

Detention without trial

Having lost interest in the age-old sport of taunting ‘communists’ (with the House Un-American Activities Committee, witch-hunts and persecutions of the McCarthy period), the technology of detention camps awaited a new crop of recruits - mostly they turn out to be muslims, whether refugees from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, or alleged ‘terrorists’. To release those who have been detained without trial must be a first priority. If the detainees in any of the camps at Guantanamo, Kumingting or Campsfield have committed any kind of ‘crime’, there has been more than enough time to charge and try them - if they have not been charged and tried by now, they must be set free. They should not have been detained in the first place. To continue to ignore the atrocities of these criminal incarcerations makes us guilty of far worse crimes against ourselves than any enemy, real or imagined, could commit.

The new concentration camp detentions are an ideological weapon as well as a political tool. The opportunist uses of detention vary: in the one case we might find it used to deter others from the dissenting views that the detainees are held for, as I think we see in Malaysia. In another case we can see detention given a high profile in order to placate an already placid public, as in Britain where the detention of asylum-seekers and ‘terrorists’ is given much publicity (this spurious link is explicitly made, even though it has no empirical basis in law beyond a few traces of castor oil bean extract at an asylum-seeker’s flat - tanks deployed at Heathrow in response). The numerical incidence of detention here is insignificant in terms of government calculation of some sort of deterrent effect on asylum claims or immigration in general. It is a shameless appeal to the mass voting public, via the tabloid press, that alibis detention.

A third use of detention silences opposition leaders. The British used this tactic in India against the non-cooperation movement, even locking up Gandhi, and this is a part of the rationale behind the so-called anti-terrorist detentions in the US and the UK. As we have seen, detention can also take the form of the strategic hamlet: the village protected from itself. We often see this as capitalism responds to its critics.

A double campaign

Against the detention camps in our minds that excuse the demonisation of people as queue-jumpers, terrorists, communists, asylum-seekers, migrants, the slippage to all of us must be made clear. Against the detention camps in the concrete - at Campsfield; surrounding Fortress Europe; being built by New Labour; and internationally from Kumingting to Guantanamo Bay. The double prisons demand a break-out from the razor-wire security fences everywhere.

The campaign against the camps must be political. The liberal assurance that due process will sort out the true terrorists and illegal immigrants from those who ‘have no reason to worry’ is as naive as it is stupid - the bourgeois legislative process is patently faulty, as numerous examples show, and the definition of ‘illegal’, and indeed ‘terrorist’, is dubious in the extreme (who, and how, can a person be considered ‘illegal’ just through fact of travel?). Of course the government, keen to ensure its everlasting rule, will use all and every means it can to prevent challenges to that rule. The new security legislation in Britain empowers it to act to suppress any ‘political’ or ‘economic’ threat to its dominance.

Capital is necessarily an anti-democratic force, and its use of a farcical version of vote-every-four-years, forget-me-not ‘democracy’ is maintained through spin, degraded education, tamed media and lack of vision, backed up with armed force - in the interests of short-term profit and long-term rule. Of course the government will say, ‘If you have nothing to hide, no need to worry’, but history is replete with examples of whole communities, whole nationalities, being demonised on the basis of ‘terrorism’, without justification.

Sending people to detention centres without trial constitutes a political attack upon us all; that the detention centres contain the political and the economic detainee at the same time should indicate why this is important to communists - the political and the economic are combined, someone once said. The old tactic of the bourgeoisie is one that aims to exploit divisions in the class, encouraging racism against workers who come from ‘elsewhere’ - as if that difference were more significant than shared exploitation by the bosses. Against this, and the new anti-terrorism legislations, here and abroad, a defence of the democratic rights of those sections of the working class who are to be the immediate target of these measures - asylum-seekers, settlers, minority communities - must be seen as part of the struggle for the democratic rights of the entire working class. Without this struggle, the political expression so necessary for any serious mobilisation of the people is under threat.

As a matter of principle, communists should be against all restrictions on migration and political expression, whether that of political refugees or of so-called economic migrants (as if these categories were really borne of different means). Border controls are fundamental to the refusal of capitalism to countenance an integrated labour market. Were workers on either side of the international division of labour not so separated, the polarisation between reserve armies of labour and active workers would tend to be eroded, and with progressive consequences for the class struggle - as Marx noted, when he wrote: “Workers of the world, unite”.

The potential of that slogan becomes clear when we are confronted with immigration law, detention and the camps - a key dimension of our struggle. The abolition of immigration controls, and opposition to any initiatives that support such controls, must be an immediate aim. Detention centres are fundamentally an attack upon all workers as a class - they restrict the freedom of movement and freedom of expression of labour in a world where capital moves and speaks unhindered. This cannot go on.