A growing number of Asian countries, forced to deal with thousands of impoverished refugees and financial losses of a billion dollars or more, are beginning to question the hard line the United States and other Western countries are taking in the Persian Gulf crisis, according to diplomats and other officials here.
In their view, this erosion of support in at least six Third World countries, including Washington’s staunchest allies in Asia, could undermine the solidarity shown in the United Nations after Iraq’s troops overran Kuwait and overthrew its rulers.
Hundreds of thousands of workers from these countries, who had been sending home much of their pay, were uprooted by the military crisis. Many have fled to Jordan, where they have been crowded into inadequate refugee facilities, and many others are still in Iraq and Kuwait, seeking help from their respective embassies.
Already, the financial toll has led several governments to question the West’s military buildup in the region.
The Philippines, which had 60,000 workers in Kuwait, is one of the countries hardest hit by the crisis, and Foreign Secretary Raul Manglapus came to Baghdad this week to meet with Iraqi officials.
“Right now,” he told an interviewer before heading on to Kuwait, “we feel very strongly that we would like to see a peaceful solution here. Any hostilities in this region would make the situation very much worse.”
War, he said, would threaten not only the Filipinos in Iraq and Kuwait but an additional 350,000 working in Saudi Arabia.
Manglapus stopped short of saying support for the U.S. position is eroding in the Third World, but he indicated that his government is not at all pleased with a recent American decision to block a Philippine shipment of emergency food supplies to its nationals in Kuwait.
Diplomats from other Asian countries have been much harsher in their criticism of the U.S. position. A senior Asian diplomat, who asked anonymity, said:
“When the West talks about hostages and third-country nationals, they’re really talking about blue eyes and white skin. My God, there are half a million Asians stuck in Kuwait today, and they don’t have enough to eat. These people here--the so-called hostages--I sympathize with them; they’re being denied the right to leave. But much above the freedom of movement is the right to live.”
The trapped workers’ desperation is on display daily in front of half a dozen besieged embassies and at makeshift refugee centers established in the Jadiryah district. Rickety pickup trucks, minibuses and family cars, all flying a flag, arrive daily in ragtag convoys.
They bring in Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, Thais, Filipinos and others, people from countries that rank among the world’s poorest. They are hungry, broke and afraid--too afraid, they say, to give their names.
“I lost everything,” a Filipino who had been working at a Kuwaiti beach resort said outside his embassy in Baghdad.
Like many of the others, he had all his savings in a bank, and the banks have been sealed by the invaders.
“Food is running short in Kuwait now,” he said. “There’s only very little in the department stores. Anyway, I can’t afford it. So I came here. Hopefully, I can go to Jordan now, and then home.” A mechanic from Sri Lanka, squatting in the street crowded with his countrymen and littered with bundles containing their possessions, told a similar story.
He and 80 other Sri Lankans, along with hundreds of other Asian workers, had been left to fend for themselves when their Lebanese employers, owners of a Kuwaiti transport company, fled to Beirut. They were forced to sell virtually everything they had to raise money to get out.
The mechanic said he sold his audio-cassette player in order to buy a ticket for the 10-hour bus trip to Baghdad. Here, he said, he sold his videocassette recorder in order to raise money for the fare to Jordan.
This practice has transformed the streets outside the embassies into survival markets.
In Jordan, the mechanic said, he will throw himself on the mercy of his government in the hope that it will get him home to Colombo. He has nothing left to sell but his clothes, he said.
“It’s a mess, really,” said Kamal Nain Bakshi, the Indian ambassador in Iraq.
The Indian Embassy has been flooded with tens of thousands of the 180,000 Indian workers who were in Kuwait at the time of the invasion.
“These people come here,” Bakshi went on, “and what do I do with them? We give them three dinars a day (about $9 at the official rate), but that is not enough to pay their way. It is only enough to keep them here. When the first of them came, I offered our badminton court. It’s choked with people now. Then, I offered our school. And now it’s choked. I’m running out of things to offer.”
Bakshi estimates that there are as many as 4,000 Indians stranded between Kuwait and Baghdad in the Iraqi port of Basra. There are 3,000 more between Baghdad and the Jordanian border, and as many as 15,000 stuck in Amman, the Jordanian capital.
“The numbers are enormous,” he said, “and it’s starting to take its toll on many of our governments.”
India supported the U.N. resolution calling on Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, but there are ancient trade and family ties between the two countries.
India’s foreign minister, Inder Gujral, was the first senior foreign official to visit Iraq and Kuwait after the invasion, and he is known to have endorsed a political end to the crisis in his meetings with the Iraqi foreign minister, Tarik Aziz.
In light of the visits by Gujral and Manglapus, the Philippine foreign minister--and others are expected--analysts here feel that President Bush is running the risk of creating new East-West divisions, particularly if the crisis endures.
The Philippines, where the United States has two big military bases, has sided consistently with the United States on most major questions taken up at the United Nations. And the Philippines, like other Asian countries, is heavily dependent not only on the money sent home by workers in the Persian Gulf region but on oil from the region as well.
“The economic burden is obvious on both these levels,” Manglapus said.
En route to Baghdad, Manglapus stopped in Iran to arrange an alternative source of oil, and he indicated that higher oil prices are inevitable because of the crisis.
On the subject of the U.N. resolutions sanctioning the blockade of Iraq, Manglapus was less than enthusiastic.
“As a member of the United Nations,” he said, “we must accept our responsibility.”