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Former South Yemen President To Continue to Call for Secession

In an interview with Al-Monitor, former South Yemen president Ali Salim al-Beidh discusses the nature of the Southern Movement, his position on the Gulf Initiative and relations with the US, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Supporters of Yemen's separatist Southern Movement hold up posters of former president of South Yemen Ali Salem al-Beidh during a rally in the southern port city of Aden January 27, 2013. The rally was held to call for the secession of Yemen's south. REUTERS/Yaser Hasan (YEMEN - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTR3D1UU

Ali Salim al-Beidh, who was born in 1939, was the president of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) and the secretary general of the Yemeni Socialist Party that ruled from 1986 to 1990. It was Beidh who signed a unity agreement with the Yemen Arab Republic's (North Yemen) President Ali Abdullah Saleh, establishing the Republic of Yemen on May 22, 1990. On May 21, 1994, a war broke out between the two sides and ended on July 7 of the same year with the defeat of the south, as northern forces took control. On May 21, 2009, responding to calls from the Peaceful Southern Movement, Beidh announced his desire for a split between the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, which he represented given that he was president when the unity agreement was signed, and the Yemen Arab Republic. Al-Monitor's correspondent met with Beidh in his office in Beirut, and asked him about his demands for secession, his position on the establishment of a federal region, the national dialogue and relations with the Houthis, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Russia.

Al-Monitor:  Mr. President, what are the reasons behind your call today for the secession of southern Yemen from the north, after you chose to unify in 1990?

Beidh:  We called [for secession] on May 21, 1994, after the [north] launched a war against us and their forces and militias entered the south on May 5, 1994. Approximately two weeks after that, we were forced to call for a split between the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen and the north.

We are a state that had entered into an agreement with another state consciously and in a well-thought-out manner, based on a dialogue that lasted 18 years. We were two independent countries and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen was a member of the UN Security Council. The unified Yemen became a member of the Security Council as a result of our membership. The truth is we had great ambitions for unity, but we found that our brothers in Sanaa did not have the capacity to accommodate this unity. We tried with all our might to form a civil state, but the other side in Sanaa did not want this. No one in Sanaa — which is ruled by an alliance of tribes, the military and Islamists — was capable of [helping us] achieve this goal. None of these forces wanted a civil state, and we were unable to persuade them to do so.

Moreover, they assassinated nearly 150 of our officers and soldiers. After that, they launched a war against us. The war took place entirely in the south and lasted from May 5 to July 7, 1994. We announced our secession because they did not abide by the written agreement signed between us and them. Moreover, the constitution for a unified Yemen was applied without holding a referendum in the south. They didn't seek the opinion of the people of the south regarding the unity, and they didn't give us the chance to hold a referendum. We realized there was a conspiracy in Sanaa, where they said they wanted to "return the branch to its root." To them, we were the branch and they were the root. This process and this mentality is tribal and Sabean, and is based on looting and plundering, and the idea that it is the most clever one who governs. In the end, the tribes, the armed forces and Osama bin Laden's organization (al-Qaeda) mobilized their troops against us.

Al-Monitor:  What did you do after your military defeat?

Beidh:  The people did not remain silent about this occupation. We resisted the Yemeni occupation in many ways, through the division of labor and through popular committees, most notable on July 7, 2007, when we announced the Peaceful Southern Movement in the south. Since that date, we have taken to the streets to hold sit-ins and peaceful protests to restore our nation and our national identity.

Al-Monitor:  Why did they launch a war against you in 1994? Was it because you announced secession?

Beidh:  No. We announced secession two weeks after the war [began].

Al-Monitor:  What are the fundamental differences between the two sides?  

Beidh:  They were not willing to form a civil state and did not want to implement the agreement we signed with them. President Saleh formed the Al-Islah (Reform) Party with Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar. This is an Islamist party. They considered the people of the south to be communists, and thus they all formed alliances among themselves to get rid of us. Meanwhile, we entered into the unity agreement and worked with them on the basis that we are a single state and a single people. Yet, they carried out acts that undermined this unity and occupied the south. Since that time (July 7, 2007), we consider the south to be occupied. Today, the people are expressing their views in a civil, peaceful and civilized manner in order to restore their state and their identity.

Al-Monitor:  You said earlier that you are a single people and a single state, and before the unity there were two republics, North Yemen and South Yemen, both were called Yemen. Now you are saying that there is a Yemeni occupation and you are demanding the restoration of your national identity. Do you have an identity other than Yemeni?

Beidh:  Now we are two peoples and two states with two [different] identities. We wanted to be a unified state and a unified people, as a result of our belief in Arab nationalism. We gave our republic the name "People's Democratic Republic of Yemen," and we Yemenized the south. Previously, it was called South Arabia. All of these areas — the southern and eastern provinces of today's Yemen — were once referred to as protectorates and sultanates of South Arabia, and later the Federation of South Arabia. When we gained independence from British colonial rule on Nov. 30, 1967, we, as a "nationalist front," imposed the Yemeni identity on the state without a popular referendum, and named it the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen. Not all of the southern forces agreed on this name. The "nationalist front" — which assumed power — chose this name, while some objected to it. Qahtan al-Shaabi, who later became president, suggested that we name the country the Republic of South Yemen and not South Yemen. We disagreed on this matter, and some of our brothers born in the north were with us, and eventually we adopted the name of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen.

Al-Monitor:  You talked about restoring the identity of the south. How does this identity differ from the Yemeni identity?

Beidh:  We are the ones who imposed "Yeminization" on the south, as a result of an Arab nationalist consciousness. However, the people of the south do not consider themselves Yemeni. South Arabia existed for thousands of years. Following the unification, we realized that we are two peoples and two states, with two identities and two ways of thinking. We are not a single people.

Al-Monitor:  I've read that you in the south, as a result of the bloody disputes within the leadership of the ruling Socialist Party and the collapse of the Soviet Union, were forced to unify with the north as a result of poor governance and a lack of international backing. Is this true?

Beidh:  No, this is not true at all. We were doing very well. Even on the economic level, we had financial reserves of hard currency in Aden's central bank, something that did not exist in Sanaa. These reserves, which were ours, were used in Sanaa. After the unification, we reduced the value of our currency (the southern Yemeni dinar) by 13% so that we could have the same currency [as the north]. They, however, never implemented this, and canceled the dinar and continued to use the northern Yemeni riyal. But because of the mentality of rulers in the north, who were not interested in implementing the agreements, the process failed. This is despite the fact that we carried out many reforms — economically and administratively — prior to unification. I take personal responsibility for pushing the country toward unification, at a time when others had reservations.

Al-Monitor:  Do you think that there are many local, regional and international obstacles facing the decision to separate or secede? Why don't you support the establishment of a federal region, which some in the Peaceful Southern Movement have called for, and is also supported by the Houthis and perhaps the General People’s Congress?

Beidh:  No, we do not agree to the proposal of establishing a federal region. Our people take to the streets daily to demand the restoration of their identity and their state. We demand that a referendum be held in the south. The people of the south have three choices: unity, a federal region or secession. Let the people decide their own fate. You see how the people today are taking to the streets, what do these people want? Are they being paid money or do they support a cause? You saw the recent million-man rally. What do we consider this? Don't these people have rights to their land and their identity? We support them but we cannot impose anything upon them. We walk with them and stand behind them. We all want secession, and we'll let the coming generations decide for the future if they want unification or not. Unity was demolished in 1994, when war was waged on the south. They buried us with artillery and tanks. Before unification, the state apparatus in the south had 600,000 employees, while there were only 200,000 in the north, despite the differences in population. These 600,000 employees were thrown to the street, they were dismissed from their jobs after the war. They remained in their houses without work.

Al-Monitor:  Why does the regime in northern Yemen want to control the south, against the will of the people there? What are their ambitions and what are the main resources in the south?

Beidh:  First of all, the area of the south is 332,970 square kilometers [128,560 square miles], while the north comprises 195,000 square kilometers [75,290 square miles]. The south has oil and gas reserves that are not present in the north. Furthermore, the 2,000 kilometers [1,243 miles] of coastline along the Arabian Sea is all in the south; the north only has a small coastline along the Red Sea. Our coastal areas have an abundance of the best types of fish, and there are Japanese companies that invest in these resources. All of our resources are currently in the hands of a group of influential men from the military, the tribes and Islamists in the north. These are the ones who oppose the secession of the south and refuse to let the people decide their own fate. The people of the north are not concerned about this.

Al-Monitor:  Current President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is from the south. Do you have any relations or contacts with him?

Beidh:  He was born in the south. The social situation in Sanaa is as follows: no one can rule unless he has a support base consisting of influential powers. This is what allows someone to become president, such as President Mansour Hadi and Prime Minister Mohammed Basindawa. They act as though they can do anything they want. The people of the south know these people and their abilities. Mansour Hadi was the vice president under Saleh for seven years without an official appointment, and then he was appointed president. Mansour Hadi and Basindawa cannot rule, and effectively they are not ruling. Hamid al-Ahmar has more authority than either of these two, and all of the tribal sheikhs and military men have more influence than Basindawa.

Al-Monitor:  What about the influence of former President Saleh, had it ended?

Beidh:  No. Saleh still has influence and the current situation is characterized by a division of influence between Saleh and the Al-Islah Party.

Al-Monitor:  What about the National Dialogue Conference, why did you refuse to participate?

Beidh:  These dialogues produce nothing, despite all of the international and Gulf support they receive. We refused to participate in the National Dialogue Conference because it is based on the idea of unity between the north and the south, and we object to this. Second, there is nothing about the southern issue in the Gulf Initiative. We are aware of the international position, but we will maintain our rights using peaceful means and will continue with our peaceful movement day in and day out. We are calling for a dialogue between the north and the south based on the dialogues that were carried out between us and them after we announced secession in 1994. At the time, there were two delegations, one from the north and one from the south, holding a dialogue in Geneva. The Security Council issued two resolutions at the time, Resolution 924 and Resolution 931, and in June 1994, they said that unity cannot be achieved through force. Since that time, we have lived under occupation. We have grown tired [of the situation]; some of our people have been martyred or injured, and many have been imprisoned. To this day, whenever there is a peaceful protest it is subjected to gunfire from the security forces and is repressed by tanks. There is total international silence when it comes to the suffering of the people of the south, who have persisted in their struggle. No one, myself included, can counter this strong desire for independence that is present among the public.

Al-Monitor:  To what extent are there disputes within the Peaceful Southern Movement regarding the establishment of a federal state, secession and participating in the National Dialogue Conference? And how is this reflected on the street in the south?

Beidh:  We have participated in dialogue with our brothers from other southern leaderships — former South Yemen President Ali Nasir Muhammad, former South Yemen Prime Minister Abu Bakr al-Attas and Abd al-Rahman al-Jifri, the head of the League of the Sons of Yemen Party — since 2009. These leaders have rejected our calls for secession and agree to remaining unified and propose establishing a federal region. They justify this stance by saying that we are unable to restore the state, after the armed forces were dissolved. Yet, we cannot accept maintaining unity with Sanaa, even for a single day, after 1994. If we accept this, we will never be able to secede in the future. But the people have taken to the streets with the slogan "No to unity … no to a federal region."

Al-Monitor:  Shouldn't leaders guide the masses, since they are aware of the political reality and the international and regional balances, instead of standing behind the masses, which are often less aware and more enthusiastic?

Beidh:  We do not want anything from the international community or the Gulf states. Let us have our land, we don't want anyone's help. We can rebuild our state using our own resources and our own capabilities.

Al-Monitor:  How can you restore the state via the Peaceful Southern Movement?

Beidh:  Of course [we can do this] through the Peaceful Movement. Yet, if they don't respond to our demands or listen to us, the people will be forced to adopt other methods in their struggle. Regarding the Peaceful Movement that has continued since 2007, who is organizing it, leading it and pushing people to participate in the millions? The people are carrying out gatherings themselves. They are organizing these rallies and there is spontaneous participation, they have leaders and cadres that are better and more active than us. We, the leaderships abroad, are all over 70 years old, we don't want to rule, we'll leave that to the youth.

Al-Monitor:  On the regional or international level, who is supporting or understanding of your cause?

Beidh:  There are international interests involved and we understand these interests. We in the south are not against ensuring the interests of these countries. We are making efforts so that our voices reach the superpowers and we want to have relations with all states, including neighboring states, Gulf states and others.

Al-Monitor:  What about al-Qaeda, is it present in the south and who is supporting it?

Beidh:  The south does not produce such ideas. During British colonial rule, the people of the south were in better shape than they are today; there were schools, courts and services, and civil and human rights were respected. However, the current government does nothing but looting. However, the people of the north are not to blame, and we do not want there to be any hostilities between us and them. We have close ties [with the people of the north] and we want good neighborly relations in the future.

Al-Monitor:  What are the forces that you are allied with internally? It has been said that you are allied with the Houthis.

Beidh:  No. The Houthis are located in the northern part of the north and we are in the south. They have their own issue and their own problems with the northern regime and the nature of their cause is different from that of our cause. They have fought six wars with the regime in Sanaa and they are expanding. We strive to expand our relations with all powers and broaden the line-up in the south on the basis of liberation and sovereignty.

Al-Monitor:  It is said that Iran supports you. Is there any truth to this?

Beidh:  This talk is completely untrue.

Al-Monitor:  South Yemen supported Iran during its war with Iraq (1980-1988), while north Yemen supported the regime of former President Saddam Hussein. Does Iran not support you to return the favor?

Beidh:  No, our position was not one of support for Iran. But we were against resolving the conflict by force. Even when I visited Baghdad I spoke with Saddam Hussein before the unification and told him that I was against resolving issues between peoples by force. The north, however, sided with Iraq and sent troops that fought alongside Iraq at the time.

Al-Monitor:  How are relations with Saudi Arabia today? Do you believe that they contributed in supporting the Yemeni regime and the failure of unity, especially given that there is talk that they supported you in the 1994 war?

Beidh:  Yes, Saudi Arabia supported us in the 1994 war and provided assistance. We had good relations. Today, however, there are no direct relations, but we hope to make contacts with them and are prepared to establish relations with Riyadh.  

Al-Monitor:  But it's well known that Saudi Arabia supported the Yemeni regime during President Saleh's era, and likewise today in the era of Mansour Hadi. They also support Ahmar and the Islamic Al-Islah Party, and they have an interest in maintaining this regime, which serves their interests.

Beidh:  Saudi Arabia’s interests with this regime involve stopping their evil deeds; Saudi Arabia has known these forces since 1962. Saudi Arabia’s interests lie with the south, not with the north, and involve the establishment of a civil state in the south. Saudi Arabia has much experience with the Yemeni regime, and it has tools there that can benefit all parties.

Al-Monitor:  What about the US position on your cause? Do you have contacts with Washington?

Beidh:  For a long time, we have been sending messages to the Security Council, the US administration, major states and the Gulf countries to explain our cause. However, the international position, including that of the Gulf, supports the Gulf Initiative. We are not included in this initiative and it ignores the issue of the south.

Al-Monitor:  Washington supports the Yemeni regime and its rumored that there are US military bases in Yemen, and they intend to establish a base in Aden to fight al-Qaeda and terrorism. What is your position on the drone raids that have been carried out in Yemen, and which have resulted in civilian casualties?

Beidh:  According to our information, the Americans are present at the Anad air base in the south. We, however, do not know the size of these forces. We are against strikes that hit civilians, but we support cooperation with any country when it serves the interests of the south. We support stability in the region, the fight against terrorism and economic cooperation.

Al-Monitor:  What is the Russian position on your cause? Does Moscow still support the Gulf Initiative? Do you have any contacts with them, especially given that you were in strong alliance with the Soviet Union, by virtue of the fact that you were a Marxist party?

Beidh:  We do not know their exact position. We are trying to communicate with them to convince them that our cause is just, and to ask for their help in restoring our state according to international law.

Haytham Mouzahem is a Lebanese analyst specializing in Middle Eastern and Islamic affairs. On Twitter: @haytham66

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