Burma, Iran and Pakistan via Queens of the Stone Age

Soundtrack for this post: ‘Goin’ Out West‘, ‘Go With the Flow‘, ‘Leg of Lamb‘ and ‘The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret‘ by Queens of the Stone Age.

There’s been an unrelenting parade of good news streaming out of hitherto pariah state Burma/Myanmar over the last twelve or so months.  In November 2010 a widely discredited election was held and, days later, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from detention.  Many figured her freedom would be limited and short-lived.  But in the last quarter of 2011 there were a number of surprising developments.  President Thein Sein, seemingly responding to the concerns of the Burmese populace, put the kybosh on a Chinese plan to produce hydroelectricity for Yunnan province by damming the Irawaddy.  Then in October around 200 political prisoners were released from the country’s jails.

Burma observers are much too cynical to imagine such moves don’t have an ulterior motive, and the motive generally agreed upon is a desire to move away from Burma’s utter reliance on China.  Burma is ‘Goin’ Out West’, as in this Queens of the Stone Age take on the Tom Waits song.  West in terms of making concessions to tempt – or allow – Western countries to soften and/or remove sanctions; and west in its immediate neighbourhood, by looking to India to balance China (the Chinese hydro snub was closely followed by a state visit to India).  This new turn has likely come from the realisation that a great line in this song, “I’m gonna do what I want, and I’m gonna get paid”, just ain’t true.

The reason Burma gets the ‘good’ mantle this week in particular is because the positive announcements have just kept coming.  Pessimists have pointed to the parlous states of relations between the central Burman administration and various ethnic minority rebel groups as reason for caution about Burma’s progress.  If anything, things had deteriorated in this arena (they were already pretty bad) since the change in government.  The announcement just over a week ago that the government had signed a peace pact with the Karen rebel group was therefore particularly significant, particularly when combined with other developments – all of them happening just this week: more political prisoners released, the United States to reinstate diplomatic ties and Aung San Suu Kyi’s registration to run in April by-elections.

Although a cover, ‘Goin’ Out West’ is, to me, a prototypical Queens of the Stone Age song with its driving rhythm, angular guitars and swagger to burn.  The subject matter also fits in well with their macho-druggy desert aesthetic (refer ‘Go With the Flow‘ – both song and video).  I think of Queens of the Stone Age (Queens to their friends) as the thinking male teen’s dream band.  They scratch a particular itch, often associated with pubescent masculinity, to lose yourself in mindless, relentless, heavy head-bangery.

Speaking of mindless machismo…Iran and Israel/American continue to ramp up their stand off.  Things are tense now, but they could get really bad after the Europeans meet on Monday to rubber stamp their Iranian oil embargo (in response to Iran’s nuclear program).  We will then see how genuine Iran was when it threatened to retaliate by closing the Straight of Hormuz.  That threat has been described as a kamikaze one, a concept that doesn’t really work at the country level.  The stand off is also proving damaging on the domestic front for Obama.  All in all, it’s looking to be a lose-lose.

I don’t know about you, but all these protestations that no one’s about to attack Iran are starting to make me nervous. The Queens song ‘Leg of Lamb‘ is not easily interpreted, but talking as it does of head cases, truth freaks with lies and not wanting to follow the laws of man, it seems fittingly downcast and cynical.  Oh and it has the line “It’s so hard to win, when there’s so much to lose”.

The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret‘ is another wonderfully enigmatic song, shrouded in Machiavellian secrecy and distrust.  Pakistani politics is similarly murky.  At the moment it is like a grizzly car wreck: ugly and totally compelling.  Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani appeared in the country’s supreme court this week in the latest installment of civil-military wrangling that has beset the country since its independence.

Pakistan’s military has historically opted for straightforward coups rather than the current judicial theatrics.  Following last year’s ‘memogate’, wherein President Asif Ali Zardari reportedly sought US support to forestall an impending military coup, perhaps they are looking for more sustainable and internationally acceptable modes of dominance.  Many believe the current pressure will force the government to call early elections.  Military man and former President Pervez Musharraf is lined up to run in those elections, and has announced an alliance with popular ex-cricketer Imran Khan.  Mysterious memos, shady dealings…the art of secrecy is alive and well in Pakistan.

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