ISLE FULL OF NOISES - Malta and the Commonwealth

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By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray sunandadr@yahoo.co.in
  • Published 4.02.12
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A blistering attack on the Commonwealth Secretariat in the paradoxical “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” style made sense in the greater paradox of a country where Roman Catholics pray to Allah and the Virgin Mary is the Sultanah. The occasion was the Commonwealth Journalists’ Association’s ninth conference; the speaker a veteran Canadian diplomat, Hugh Segal, who takes very seriously his mandate as “special envoy for Commonwealth renewal”; and the scene the island of Malta where geography is destiny.

No wonder the isle is full of noises. But no echo lingers of the clamour I remember from 1950s England when the legendary Dom Mintoff sought to convert 316-sq-km Malta into an English county or London borough. As for the George Cross awarded for Maltese “heroism and devotion” during World War II, it’s like Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s knighthood; not rejected like Rabindranath Tagore’s but not mentioned either. Once it was de rigueur to speak of Malta GC. Jilted by the British, Mintoff became one of the most militant non-aligned leaders. Harking back to the Arab past, he made Arabic a compulsory school subject, called the Mediterranean Sea by its Arabic name, the White Sea, and exchanged national decorations with Muammar Gaddafi who gave several million dollars to compensate for the closure of British and Nato bases. A historian wrote that “after 900 years of being linked to Europe, Malta began to look southward. Muslims, still remembered in folklore for savage pirate attacks, were redefined as blood brothers.”

If Malta really had been Arab or Ottoman or even Third World, the current political crisis — dwarfing the Commonwealth’s problems with a secretariat that is not seen as sufficiently assertive in the right causes — would have been easily explained, and as easily resolved. Any Asian prime minister would have found ways of improving his one-man majority in a 65-member parliament that don’t seem to occur to Lawrence Gonzi, elected in 2004 and re-elected four years later. Nor did anyone suspect conspiracy and collusion when Franco Debono, a ruling party member, precipitated the crisis by abstaining on the Opposition’s no-confidence motion. In Asia, people would at once have speculated on the price. Amidst Malta’s picturesque cobbled streets and the baroque palaces and cathedrals of muscular Christianity, the simple explanation that Debono is a political maverick suffices.

There were no whispers either of ulterior motive when Michael Frendo — the British-educated legislative speaker and former foreign minister, who lost out to Kamlesh Sharma for the post of Commonwealth secretary-general — saved the government with his casting vote like Somnath Chatterjee. The genial Frendo explains he followed Westminster precedent. He also says how astonished Maltese Catholics, more than 90 per cent of the 4,00,000 population, were when Malaysians objected to Christians praying to Allah. It’s the only word for god in Maltese which is so peppered with Arabic that an Arab can follow the language. Apparently, it doesn’t work the other way.

Contemporary Malta may not be part of the Islamic ummah, as Mintoff’s aspired to be, but sees itself as a bridge between Europe and North Africa 284 km to the west. Frendo and his diplomatic consultant, a former ambassador impeccably attired in a dark three-piece suit, have already established contact with the new Tunisian legislature and expect to visit Tunis soon. Though next on the list, Libya is a touchy subject for several reasons. While only an ageing few remember Mintoff’s almost hysterical pleas to Britain, his Libyan courtship has left behind an embarrassing memory because, this time, the Maltese felt not only rebuffed but cheated. They defied American wrath to do business with Gaddafi, but when sanctions were lifted and the time came for prizes, he bestowed favours and contracts on more important Western clients. That uneasy relationship came to haunt Malta early last year when two Libyan air force colonels flew their Mirage jets to the island seeking asylum. Forced to play host to some 20,000 refugees fleeing North Africa (1,600 still remain), Malta is determined to be the launching pad for foreign enterprise in the new Libya.

Ironically, the only European Union member with a Semitic language is also the most English. British rule has left an indelible imprint. First names like Abigail and Pembroke hardly go back to St Paul’s shipwreck or the Knights of Malta, and driving is on the left. The Times is as magisterial as when the Hon. Mabel Strickland, a large presence even in England, ran it. English is an official language, with Maltese. Malta’s high commissioner in London, Joseph Zammit Tabona, a former chartered accountant, owes his English accent to the school in Malta patterned on an English public school that he attended. Like the branch of Harrow in Bangkok, they caned local boys for speaking in their mother tongue in the school premises. Tabona says that to add injury to insult, the caning was with the nail-studded sole of a shoe.

Mirroring India’s chequered history and demographic complexity, Malta is not an inappropriate place for CJA members to elect ethnic Assamese but London resident, Rita Payne, now chairman of the British branch, its international president, and engage in robust debate on the future of the 54-member multicultural Commonwealth. Session themes ranged from hi-tech journalism to democratic deficits, sporting scandals to the world after Rupert Murdoch. If an exceptionally large Bangladeshi contingent that included people with only tenuous links with the media and not particularly interested in the proceedings was a surprise, not so the offstage expressions of disappointment at what is seen as the secretariat’s reluctance to take initiatives at a time when the threat of internal atrophy is compounded by China’s formidable advances in several Commonwealth countries. The rare show of unity when India and Pakistan combined forces to support Sharma’s re-election in 2011 is brushed aside. Naturally, no one dreamt of opposing such a formidable alliance! But some now compare what was initially taken for a commitment to the Commonwealth’s future growth and strength by the club’s most populous member, which also happens to be the world’s largest democracy, and whose leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, created the modern Commonwealth, to Bangladesh’s global record for providing peacekeepers.

It would have been unthinkable for Segal, who is already spoken of as the possible next secretary-general, to make such an unworthy comparison. On the contrary, he reiterated his admiration and affection for the present incumbent and his delight at the renewal of Sharma’s tenure. But Segal’s lunchtime address forcefully articulated discontent on two counts. First, the secretariat’s alleged delay — or “suppression” — at the Perth conference last October in making known to the world the 106-recommendation report of the Eminent Persons Group set up in 2009 “to undertake an examination of options for reform in order to bring the Commonwealth’s many institutions into a stronger and more effective framework of cooperation and partnership”. Second, the indifference of many heads of state and government to the report’s vital clauses, especially the proposal for a commissioner on the rule of law, democracy and human rights.

His sobriquet of “il-Perit” (the architect) and two stints as prime minister forgotten, Mintoff, languishing in a care home, is virtually the man who never was. A legend from that era concerned John Gunther, the American writer of the “Inside” books (Inside Europe, Inside Asia) that were famous before Fodor and Lonely Planet grabbed the travel market. It’s said that diving into an underground shelter in Malta during an air raid he met Lord Mountbatten who exclaimed, “Now you really are inside a country, John!” Mountbatten, like Nehru, helped to shape the multicultural Commonwealth that also addresses the challenge of identity Mintoff tried to grapple with. An awareness of that unique virtue could explain the participation in this week’s CJA conference of so many high-ranking Maltese dignitaries.