Fanning the flames
Posted: Sunday, December 8, 2002
by Suzanne Mills, www.newsday.co.tt
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Newsday's senior political and parliamentary reporter, Ria Taitt had, in her usual unaffected fashion, come directly to the point.
We were discussing the controversy over the Prime Minister's failure to meet the Ethiopian Crown Prince, Zere Yacob Asfa Woosen, a mini bacchanal I seemed to have sparked in this very space a fortnight before.
"You started the fire," she had remarked. "Now you want to put it out?"
Ria's assessment of my feelings was not far off target. Indeed, I did not want to see the flames of the debate over the grandson of His Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie fanned by a lot of hot air into a conflagration. I had never intended to roast the Prime Minister either, just light a little "fire" under this administration, make it explain what was being seen by many as a neo-colonial attitude.
I didn't want the talk about the Prince though, to cease totally, just to simmer down. Though the outrage of some Rastas was singeing the Prime Minister, I thought the discussion to the nation's benefit. The row had brought to the fore, the marginalisation of the Rastafarian and TT society's prejudices toward him. Thus, beyond the din of the fury, there was perhaps the faint sound of an approaching, slightly brighter red, yellow and green future.
I also felt no particular concern for the heat that Manning was taking. The Prime Minister could take care of himself after three decades in politics. Furthermore, I had given him the opportunity to respond to my queries of his administration's treatment of the Prince. Manning's explanation for not seeing Zere Yacob, contained in his carefully drafted parliamentary note, had been published in the daily Newsday. Even the Prince said he had felt not, the least slighted by Manning.
In addition, what really knew we of this Ethiopian monarch, of his source of income, his politics, save that there was a move to reinstate him, an option rejected by the majority of Ethiopians years ago? Zere Yacob Asfa Woosen was heavily guarded, making access to him nigh impossible. He had held no press conference, had opened himself to no probing. Perhaps the PM had been right not to grant him an audience.
"The Monarchy has been abolished in Ethiopia and therefore, the Crown Prince is not recognised by his own government," Manning had written. "If therefore he receives any official recognition in Trinidad and Tobago, either directly or tacitly, we run the risk and are likely to run afoul of a friendly government in the Gov't of Ethiopia."
Manning's Ministry of Foreign Affairs had advised him not only to refuse to meet the Prince, but also to give Zere Yacob, no "official recognition in TT." The word "official" had been underlined by Manning in his neat note. No one in his executive could meet the Prince, which is why he had sent Fitzgerald Hinds, the PNM backbencher to greet Zere Yacob.
The Prime Minister's reasons for not meeting the Prince seemed reasonable enough under all the circumstances. Nevertheless, I still had a nagging feeling that there was more in this Manning mortar than the protocol pestle, even if I did not care to stir the Zere Yacob pot any longer.
What was bothering me was that I knew that Manning could have — if he had so desired — ignored the advice of his Foreign Ministry. How had I come to this conclusion? I had witnessed the Prime Minister a few years ago run tacitly afoul of another friendly Government. And under ironically similar circumstances!
I recalled that months before he lost office in 1995, the Manning Government had permitted the Dalai Lama to come to TT after the Chinese Government, through its Embassy in Port-of-Spain, registered its objections to the visit. China did not wish the exiled Tibetan to be granted a visa.
Nevertheless, the PNM not only gave the Dalai Lama permission to enter our shores; it participated in his visit.
I was not comparing the Dalai Lama to the Crown Prince, though arguably for the two groups that brought them both to TT, each man was of equal importance: they were both considered spiritual leaders in exile.
Zere Yacob had to leave Ethiopia when his grandfather, the self-proclaimed descendant of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, was overthrown and killed in a socialist coup. When socialist rule ended, the people of Ethiopia voted for a federal democracy. The Dalai Lama had been expelled from Tibet after China's absorption of the tiny Himalayan nation and would only be allowed to return if he acknowledged he was a Chinese citizen.
Whatever their opinion of the rights of each man, Manning and the PNM were not allowed to practise "Orwellian" diplomacy, to deem one exile more deserving or holier than the other, one government worthy of more respect than the other. Diplomatic relations with the Governments of China and Ethiopia meant that TT was not permitted the luxury of deciding that the Dalai Lama deserved to rule Tibet, but that the Crown Prince was persona non grata in Ethiopia.
That the PNM might unevenly apply the rules of protocol however, was quite
conceivable. It was the favourite game of many governments. The George Bush-led Republicans' war on terrorism was a good example of this sort of flexible foreign policy.
One would have thought though, that Manning would not have wanted to run afoul of the friendly government of China: TT had more than benefited from its friendship with the powerful Asian nation. If the PNM Government were practising expedient diplomacy, surely China would be an ally, not a foe.
However, on the other hand, the Dalai Lama cause was of greater celebrity; it enjoyed the support of not only Hollywood actor Richard Gere, but of TT's more influential citizens. The group that brought the Tibetan monk had been comprised of social and intellectual heavyweights. But, who, just tell me who, had ever heard of the Ethiopian Peace Foundation and its campaign to reinstate the Crown Prince!
I wondered if I was again being too hard on the Manning Government. Maybe, the Prime Minister had learnt a harsh diplomatic lesson from the Dalai Lama visit; maybe there had been repercussions to his administrations' actions about which, we had never learnt.
I did not wish to fan further the flames of the Crown Prince controversy. However, Manning's explanation of his behaviour towards Zere Yacob had raised yet more questions about the way we viewed the world from our little Caribbean island in the sun. One such was, did we regard the Dalai Lama more because the Western world deemed him an important religious and political leader?
I had another question for our Prime Minister. Would Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, be granted a visa to visit TT? Or, would the PNM follow England's lead and ban him?
Suzanne Mills is the Editor of the daily Newsday.
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