North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Australia elects first woman Prime Minister

Julia Gillard, at her home in Altona, Australia

Australia has its first woman Prime Minister leading the country - 48yr old Julia Gillard. She won a quick vote in her own party over the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, partly because of a dispute over Australian mining policy, coal and its contribution to carbon emissions. ["Australia is the world's top coal exporter and among the highest per-capita emitters of planet-warming carbon dioxide, with coal used to generate about 80 percent of electricity." from an article written about her, a mix of probable fact and definitely some opinion...] She is seen as someone who can work with the mining industry while at the same time, introduce policies that reduce the amount of coal being mined.

So who is Julia beyond her penchant for renewable energy and a warmer personality than that of her predecessor, Kevin Rudd? First of all, she was born in Wales, Great Britain. She suffered from bronchopneumonia as a child, so her parents were advised it would aid her recovery to live in a warmer climate. The family chose to migrate to Australia in 1966, settling in Adelaide. She wanted to be a school teacher, but people talked her into law because "she loved debating." Gillard's partner since 2006 is Tim Mathieson. She has never married and has had no children. Gillard is a "non-practising Baptist" and "not religious". She lives in the south western Melbourne suburb of Altona and is a very public supporter of the Western Bulldogs Australian football club. (See Wikipedia ...)

Gillard in her opening interview said,
"I am truly honoured to lead this country which I love.
I am utterly committed to the service of our people.
I grew up in the great state of South Australia. I grew up in a home of hardworking parents. They taught me the value of hard work. They taught me the value of respect. They taught me the value of doing your bit for the community.
And it is these values that will guide me as Australia's Prime Minister.
I believe in a Government that rewards those who work the hardest, not those who complain the loudest.
I believe in a Government that rewards those who, day in and day out, work in our factories and on our farms, in our mines and in our mills, in our classrooms and in our hospitals, that rewards that hard work, decency and effort.
The people who play by the rules, set their alarms early, get their kids off to school, stand by their neighbours and love their country.
And I also believe that 'leadership' is about the authority that grows from mutual respect shared by colleagues, from team work and from hard work, team work and spirit.

So, just as we all can hope for Kyrgystan and local leaders, I wish Julia well in her leadership role.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The US General and His Boss

Obama and his General in an earlier meeting.

I'd rather write about other North American items, but this one is in the news after all, and it does have significance. General McChrystal is the top military commander overseeing both US and other NATO forces in Afghanistan. The struggle there against Al-qaeda, the Taliban, and Islamic extremism in general has very high stakes. For unknown reasons, the General allowed Rolling Stone magazine to do an interview with him and his staff over the course of several weeks, and the result will come out in the latest RS edition within days. It contains disparaging remarks about President Obama - who has the important role of US Commander in Chief over all US armed forces - the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, and other US individuals involved with both military and political negotiations in South Asia. President Obama has called McChrystal back to the White House, and McChrystal's job is on the line.

The BBC puts it this way, At the White House meeting on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Gen McChrystal is expected to face:
* Joe Biden. Gen McChrystal had mocked the vice-president when asked a question about him. "Are you asking about Vice-President Biden? Who's that?"
* Karl Eikenberry. Gen McChrystal said he felt "betrayed" by the US ambassador to Kabul during the long 2009 White House debate on troop requests for Afghanistan
* James Jones. One of Gen McChrystal's aides says the national security adviser is a "clown stuck in 1985"
* Richard Holbrooke. Gen McChrystal says of an e-mail from the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan: "Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke... I don't even want to open it"

The article also appeared to be critical of the president himself. Referring to a key Oval Office meeting with Mr Obama a year ago, an aide of Gen McChrystal says it was "a 10-minute photo-op". "Obama clearly didn't know anything about him, who he was... he didn't seem very engaged. The boss was pretty disappointed," the aide says.

The issue is not whether McChrystal's opinion is correct on any or all of these characterizations or not, nor is it just about Obama vs the General. It is about the clear subordination of the US military to the elected leaders of the country. The parallels of this structure go back most famously to President Harry Truman during the 1950s Korean War recalling and dismissing a huge World War II hero and top general, Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur had criticized the strategy and direction of the White House publicly, and in that case, Truman acted decisively.

So, without dwelling on it, we should hear how President Obama decides to handle this challenge in a day or two. Even that length of timing seems unnecessary.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Coulibay from Mali

Koman Coulibaly has rocketed from anonymity as a soccer referee from one of the world's poorest countries, Mali in West Africa, to one of instant hostile global fame in the World Cup for a poor call going against the US team. Yes, it was a bad call, yes, Coulibaly has long soccer experience and "can do better," but still it can't be much fun to be in the spotlight for a mistake rather than an accomplishment.

So what about Mali - Mr Coulibaly's country where he is a financial enforcement inspector in his day job. It is the largest country in West Africa in acres, not in population, and one of the world's poorest. Like Egypt and the Nile (I didn't know this), Mali is a country that is intimately related to a great river--in this case, the Niger. In addition, Mali is the location of legendary Timbuktu. 90% of its people live in the southwest part where the river is, and much of the Northeast is actually part of the Sahara desert. The Malian population is quite young: 46 percent are less than 15 years old, and only three percent are age 65 or older (compare to Japan)

Which brings about an important aspect of many countries of the world - their water. Egypt, since it has been referred to, has a 50-year old agreement on water rights regarding the Nile River on which it depends, with its up-river neighbors of Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Uganda, Democratic Congo, Tanzania, Rwanda. Sharing and negotiating is key. This is one of 3000 agreements around the world between countries sharing 260 water basins.

In Mali, water management is rather rudimentary. It has few modern village drinking wells, and the US Peace Corps and other aid agencies (and church groups) are active in well drilling projects (not for oil, for water). Clean, sanitary drinking water is HUGE for any country. On a larger scale, Mali is one of nine countries that share the Niger river basin (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad) and who are all signatories to an agreement that led to the creation of the Niger Basin Authority (NBA). Between wells and larger projects, these are the behind-the-scenes basic development challenges of many poorer countries.

The last item of note is one town in Mali called Mopti, which in turn is called the Venice of Mali. See the posted picture as well as more at a personal travel blog

This is Coulibaly's world, and I wouldn't have known it except for his poor soccer call. Thanks Coulibaly and have a nice day ...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Seven Stans

Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan: seven nations located in a swath through Central Asia. Why do they all have a common "last name"? Stan is apparently an ancient Persian and/or Farsi word meaning country, nation, land, or place of, so, the country name of Afghanistan would then mean "homeland" of the Afghans, or place of the Afghans.

The first five mentioned were former satellite, neglected Republics in a Soviet Union dominated by Russians until that dissolved in 1991; when the Indian subcontinent colony gained its independence from Britain in 1947, fighting broke out between two great populations - Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. Greg Mortenson's book Three Cups of Tea gives a glimpse of just a few of Pakistan's challenges, but a positive one. Only Afghanistan remained an independent nation (kingdom?) through the 18-20th centuries until the last 30 years. We pretty much know the story of the country since then: a Russian invasion, mujahideen resistance and ousting of the Russians, a period of neglect and fighting between warlords, the fanatical Taliban takeover, the US overthrow of that lot, and now 100,000 Western troops fighting Islamic extremists amid endless ethnic and religious jockeying ...

But today, the news is mystifying ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan between some Uzbeks living in the country but more related to Uzbekistan, and the Kyrgyz who seem to suddenly distrust their Uzbek neighbors though they've lived together for the last 5 generations. So the headlines are about violence and death for over 200, while the bigger disruption are the 10s of thousands of Uzbeks uprooted from their homes and fleeing across the border to a country that has a name that describes them better.

As a Canadian saying goes, "they can do better than that!" And my use of the word mystifying only refers to us, as there may be true grievances and principles involved. Let's say there are. But as the 30-year old civil war of Sri Lanka showed, small nations tucked in corners of the world can pretty much grind themselves to ruins and the larger world will simply walk around them. Only when "vital interests" of a powerful nation are threatened, do these intense but small conflicts gather more attention (which in itself is not always a good thing). Let us praise all those small nations who find themselves with wise leaders who have little personal ambition but compassion for the citizens. Let's pray for Uzbek and Kyrgyz leaders who could step in and address the wounds and hurts of this flareup.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Time to catch our breath ...

A quiet few days around the world, if you can overlook significant ethnic and political unrest in Kyrgyzstan between Uzbeks and ethnic Kyrgyz. So let's start by saluting the African nation of Ghana. A small country of West Africa that has seen its soccer team beat Serbia in the World Cup to become the first African soccer team to win a match on the Africa continent, which is the first time the World Cup has been held in Africa ... Ghanians can be proud of their country's direction, it is admirably stable - since 1981 anyway. It has an exuberance that extends through sports and beyond (Ghana even had an entry in the Vancouver BC 2010 Winter Olympics) with relatively effective governance (Ghana has lifted itself to its highest ranking ever on the table of African countries with good governance. The ranking, issued by the World Bank in its annual report on governance entitled, Good Governance 2007). So good for you Ghana!

Some quick updates:
The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continues, now nearly 6 times the amount of oil has spilled than the Exxon Valdez and has moved to 4th largest spill ever. (Still just one or two very large tankers worth ...) BP, the company owning the oil and being held responsible for the costs of cleanup and damage claims, is under more serious pressure by the US Government and the Coast Guard to take stronger measures. Over the course of 55 days, several deficiencies in management have surfaced, such as not having enough tankers on hand to methodically collect the volume being collected, and growing instances of slow claim payments, if not reluctance. The US media, on the other hand, seems to have run out of steam in reporting, now reduced to breathlessly reporting when tar balls end up on Alabama, then Florida, and we'll get another spike in coverage if oil makes it around to the East Coast. What else really can a crackerjack reporter report? BP is working through its plan, oil is killing birds and wildlife, President Obama has already shown solidarity with the people and anger at the company several times over. Now its becoming grim, with complete containment unlikely until August when relief wells can cap the bore hole.

The North Korea/South Korea standoff is just that, some discussion is taking place at the UN Security Council.

The Israeli flotilla incident continues to wind towards a re-figuring of how to make a sea blockade of Gaza more sustainable, less confrontive in practice. But larger hostilities still lurk behind the immediate incidents.

Remember the horrendous Haitian earthquake from January? The media coverage has long moved on, but the rebuilding and cleanup efforts continue. Likewise the tropical storm damage in Guatemala is in its cleanup and rebuilding phase. These are the long term processes that see little coverage, but where positive stories abound.

Other issues loom, but it seems for now, as we head towards the summer solstice on June 21, that the World Cup tournament will be a happy respite from existing issues. Go Ghana, and compliments to South Africa for a successful beginning to the games!

Test: Find Ghana and Kyrgystan on the map

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Healing a Bitter Legacy

The Balkans is an area east of Italy just across the Adriatic Sea, sometimes referred to as Southeastern Europe. For nearly 8 decades, Yugoslavia was a major nation within the Balkans containing a variety of peoples and identities, but in the early 90s, broke up into 6 independent states during what is called the Yugoslav wars. The bitterness and violence of that conflict still reverberate today, with genocide trials taking place at the International Court of Justice in the Hague, Netherlands. The conflict taught many Americans and Europeans anew the term "ethnic cleansing" so soon after the tensions of the Cold War were apparently receding. It was also a jarring revelation that modern technology and communication would not necessarily ease cultural differences, rather that modernity and savagery could so easily intertwine (think snipers picking off civilians while listening to their favorite artists on their walkmans).

Out of that conflict, six new nations emerged, with Slovenia leading the way, escaping nearly all the conflict of the other neighbors, with independence secured by 1992. It has moved steadily on, joining the European Union in 2004. Its immediate neighbor to the south, Croatia, had a more traumatic birthing, with several years of fighting between its resident Serbs and Bosnians intermixed with Croatians, but eventually realizing a cessation of conflict over its independence in 1995. Its goal of European Union membership since then, however, has been on hold due to a boundary dispute with Slovenia.

Just this week, after 16-17 years, this disputed boundary claim between the two countries - a tiny access port to the Adriatic Sea claimed by Slovenia at the bay of Piran (close to the Italian city of Trieste, see map) - is moving towards resolution. A national referendum by Slovenes ended in a favorable vote to bring the dispute to an international court for arbitration. A nice referral between two countries (don't you think?) who see the value of settling borders peacefully, concentrating on building up their economies to secure a better future for their next generations. (Also, Slovenia has an acapella choir, the Perpetuum Jazzile, who not only produced a breathtaking rendition of "Africa," by Toto - - but have now sung and recorded the South African national anthem in honor of the that nation hosting the 2010 World Cup)

Border disputes abound among the jostling 188-194 countries in the world today: wrong placement, no placement, ignored boundaries, armed borders - some having to do with national borders, others with even smaller divisions - the famous Berlin/east Berlin wall of the Cold War era, Kosovo a remainder of the 1990s Yugoslav Wars, the West Bank between Palestinians and Israel, the Kashmir flashpoint between India and Pakistan, the divided island of Cyprus, and the Armenian corridor to Nagorny Karabakh. All these represent opportunities for peaceful resolution, or if not, festering and flaring conflicts. I hope that Slovenia's recent move towards resolution with Croatia is noted and imitated.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

How about we learn this guy's name, and a bit about Japan's last 30 years?

(Picture of Japanese "mall sirens" - courtesy of, which leads to an interesting site

A short theory about Americans knowing world leaders. We're better with fewer syllables, anything beyond 5 and we glaze over. Hence, George Bush or Al Gore were the best and had feverish supporters to show for it; Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Joe Biden, John McCain were all quite good, or at least understandable; Sarah Palin, Dalai Lama, okay though not equivalent; Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, Queen Elizabeth, tolerable, but no more. Nicholas Zarkozy for example with six syllables is simply too much, and Iceland's foreign minister Össur Skarphédinsson has no chance.

Which leads me to Japan's new Prime Minister (its 5th in 5 years), Naoto Kan. It's not that hard a name - four syllables, try memorizing it. And think a bit on Japan. It has the world's second largest economy, rising from the ashes of World War II on the backs of a generation that is now rapidly disappearing from the scene. That generation, young adults as WWII ended, saw the effects of atomic weapons first hand, faced a wrenching reappraisal of their Emperor (from divine down to human) similar to living with their homeland as a defeated aggressor rather than a divinely appointed ruler of the world under the modern concept of hakko ichiu (see wikipedia...). This was the generation that bent to the task, rebuilt, sacrificed, established worldwide trading systems, became workers staying loyal to one company for a career, and have now handed off leadership to a new generation, one equivalent to the US baby boomers. Would it be safe to say that the majority of Americans are more familiar with the story of Japan of the 30s through the 70s, than they are of Japan's story of the last three decades?

Speaking of US baby boomers, the differences in Japanese and US population demographics are several and significant. The Japanese population of 127 million is very homogeneous (98+% pure Japanese), unlike the kaleidoscope of the U.S. mix of 300 million (66% White non-Hispanic, 15% Hispanic/Latino, 13% Black, 4.4% Asian). Japan is rapidly aging, nearly 25% of the population is over 65 years old, causing tensions in the care of the elderly balanced by the burden of the working young to provide those social funds (contrast to the 12.8% of the US population over 65).

Which returns us to Naoto Kan, whose hobbies are go, shogi and mahjong... (which reinforces the point that I know nothing about a lot). He considers himself a man of the people, no special connections, no family elites. His political history has ups and downs, successes and a scandal here or there. What we might remember best, though, when we hear his name, is that beyond "pokemon," "hello kitty," and Ninja Warrior, a lot of us have very little awareness of this Island nation and its modern changing characteristics.

Turkey's crossroad

Turkey's unofficial sponsorship of the aid flotilla to Gaza, and its vocal fury regarding the aftermath is worth noting. A BBC article describes Turkey as "famously a country where you can drink, dress lightly and party, especially in Istanbul and the Aegean coast." The population that is approaching 80 million is almost entirely Muslim, but very diverse in the way they practice their faith. Modern Turkey's George Washington is Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) who after WWI led a consolidation and secularization of the country into its modern form. Turkey has been on the edge of full European Union membership for decades, and is a NATO member. Its ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has a moderate Islamic orientation with a public stance for continued tolerance and freedom (the constitution does not favor any religion).

But, as elsewhere, a narrower, pietistic brand of Islam is making headway, in this case championed by the IHH (an Islamic aid charity who organized the 6 ship flotilla to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza). The AKP's deliberate decision to loudly support a contentious direction of action, publicly call for a review of its ties to Israel, and orchestrate a vocal burial - see picture - of the Turkish activists killed on one of the aid ships, are all bringing attention to the country's foreign and domestic policy drift, possibly reflecting a more strident Islamic orientation. (In contrast, South Korea very significantly lowered its public, strident proclamations regarding North Korea's provocative sinking of its ship two weeks ago).

Just a couple more points regarding the Israeli interception of aid ships to Gaza. On Friday, June 4, Israel intercepted another aid boat without incident, while the peace activists on board the Rachel Corrie made their point (Rachel Corrie being a young woman accidentally crushed by a bulldozer while protesting in Israel on behalf of Palestinians). Israel continues to make a lonely though compelling case (click link to read an opinion by Israel's ambassador to the U.S titled, "An Assault, Cloaked in Peace", drowned out by shouting in the EU Parliament for example, and a particularly pathetic outburst by an iconic White House reporter, Helen Thomas. Thomas, long a thorn in the side of successive U.S. Presidents, when asked about the Gaza incident, said Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and "go back home to Poland, Germany, America and everywhere else." At 89 years old, one would think she would have personal memories of the shock of the Holocaust in real time ...

There is straightforward Islamic hostility to be sure towards Jews, not just Israeli government policies. But even in this day of tolerance and respect trumpeted in the West, there remain pools of anti-Semitism lying close to the surface. That this attitude is not just among aryan ideologues and "redneck" racists is perhaps the most troubling of all

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


Tropical storm Agatha roared from the Pacific across Guatemala early this week, and the death toll rose above 150. A sinkhole developed right in Guatemala City which is eerie.

What is a sinkhole anyway? Wiki describes it as follows: "A sinkhole, also known as a sink, shake hole, swallow hole, swallet, doline or cenote, is a natural depression or hole in the surface topography caused by karst processes - the chemical dissolution of carbonate rocks[1]. Sinkholes may vary in size from less than 1 to 300 metres (3.3 to 980 ft) both in diameter and depth, and vary in form from soil-lined bowls to bedrock-edged chasms. They may be formed gradually or suddenly, and are found worldwide. These terms are often used interchangeably though many will distinguish between those features into which a surface stream flows and those which have no such input. Only the former would be described as sinks, swallow holes or swallets. A sinkhole on a glacier is termed a moulin or glacier mill."

Now you know - interesting point is from a current National Geographic magazine showing a glacial moulin descending a mile deep into a Greenland glacier.

Oh yes, unfortunately there is likely to be more text, pictures and interest in the sinkhole, than the 150 deaths which are truly regretted. I'll try to make up for this with some worthwhile development and aid stories in the future.

Aid flotilla, Israel, and piracy,

Heading down the very twisted path of trying to make sense of Israel and its neighbors. The incident which happened Monday is straightforward and tragic, the history that led up to it is not. A flotilla of ships with humanitarian supplies attempted to reach Gaza (a small enclave ruled by Palestinians within Israel's borders)from the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean. Israel had warned it would not allow the fleet of 6 ships carrying 10,000 tons of supplies to directly dock, saying those ships must first be diverted and searched for contraband. The fleet, with around 700 pro-Palestinian activists, attempted to steam through, Israeli commandos rappelled onto the ships to seize them, and on one of the ships, nine activists were killed in ensuing violence. Condemnation of the excessive force, or harshness of the response followed, Turkey withdrew its ambassador to Israel, a UN security council meeting was arranged, Israel was defiant. Now, two days later, Israel is deporting the 690 or so activists, has yet to decide what to do with the ships, and the political aftermath is still emerging. You can stop here if you wish.

Why was there a blockade? Israel imposed one in 2008 after Hamas violently ousted the leadership of the other Palestinian political structure (Fatah) from the Gaza strip. Hamas has declared its goal of eliminating Israel as an entity. Israel declared that all material headed into this enclave would be searched, pointing to the rocket and arms smuggling going on across the Gaza/Egypt border. Already this narrative would be challenged fundamentally by various viewpoints, so to read deeper into the blockade reasoning, one needs to also be aware of the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the 2000 Camp David summit before that, the 1993 Oslo accords, the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the 1967 war, the 1948 Year of Independence (or Catastrophe depending on one's viewpoint), the Holocaust (denied by some in the Middle East including Hamas leaders), Zionism. All of this creates the maelstrom of Middle East politics - Wikipedia and libraries of books on the subject are there for further reading.

Ponderments: The aid flotilla was clearly making a political point. The activists were from dozens of countries and their presence was meant to deter Israeli action while drawing world attention to the issue (the tonnage of aid was a drop in the bucket and there could have been more if 650 activists had been replaced with supplies). The Israeli response was a given: the flotilla would be stopped. Israel was not about to allow a precedent of unchecked material to enter the Gaza strip as another pipeline for illicit materials would then be in place. Why weaponry choice of the Israeli commandos began with paintball guns (non-lethal) and pistols as backup is a mystery, but regardless there was violence, 9 people were killed. Were there shades of activists? Many humanitarians, and some extremists spoiling for a fight and a chance at martyrdom?

Two other points: The US was surprisingly cautious - wanting details and further explanation, resulting in a UN proclamation that the incident be investigated. It "regretted" the loss of life, which is a diplomatic stalwart, while nearly the same day, welcomed the news that one of its predator drones over Taliban land had killed an Al-Qaeda leader (along with a few wives, children and grandchildren - 9-10 in all). So nine here, ten there - some are regretted, some not.

Back to the Israeli choice to use paintball guns and then pistols as backup. There has been a lot of care by shipping nations when it comes to addressing piracy off the coast of Somalia. No undue bloodshed is wanted, so there are acoustic weapons, teargas, stun grenades, a whole arsenal of weapons that are commonplace non-lethal choices for trained commandos to use in confrontations. An ascending variety of these options was not chosen by Israel - I assume they were sending a message of their own.