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 "

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Fear now stalking Syrian people

A Syrian mother of six who opened the door to a secret policeman in the border town of Deraa just had time to scream "Israelis are more merciful than you" before he shot her dead, relatives said .... so reported Reuters today, as the Syrian government headed by Bashir Assad began to savagely repress protests in several of its cities.

Um Omar, 42, was buried in her own backyard -- Muslim tradition barred putting her body among 22 male corpses kept in a refrigerator truck awaiting burial. "They have no fear of God. As Um Omar said before she died, if we had Israelis besieging Deraa, they would be more merciful," said her cousin Ibrahim, 52, from the Masalmah tribe.

Tanks from an unit headed by Bashir Assad's brother, have been sent to Deraa

Enraged residents say at least 40 tanks of the ultra-loyal Fourth Mechanised Brigade, commanded by Assad's brother Maher, have deployed in Deraa, near the border with Jordan. As the army siege enters its fourth day, the town is in lockdown. Snipers are prepared to shoot anyone venturing into the streets. Few risk going to the local state hospital, now occupied by troops, as residents say hundreds of people wounded during six weeks of protests have been taken into custody from the hospital. Secret police are also said to be whisking bodies out of the morgue to prevent funerals that might spark further unrest. Even the pharmacy store shelves across the city have been emptied of basic medicines by Assad's loyal forces to prevent treatment.

The early mass protests in various Syrian cities are now in danger of becoming a thing of the past. Syrians place their lives at risk to congregate.

More than 450 people have allegedly been killed since the pro-democracy protests began nearly six weeks ago. However, even as the control tightens, cracks in Syria's ruling elite are seen. 200 Baathist party members have resigned in protest over the government crackdown (though as there are an estimated 1 million party members, it is relative). Perhaps of more importance are reports surfacing of some soldiers refusing to fire on protestors, along with instances - unconfirmed - that some refusing to obey orders have been executed on site (vague similarity to the account of deserters within Wehrmacht army in the 1940s, being memorialized today). The majority of troops are Sunni Muslims, but most officers belong to the same minority Alawite sect as Assad.

Another article noted that Assad's decision to storm Deraa echoed his father's 1982 attack on the city of Hama to crush an uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Up to 30,000 people were killed at that time, and Deraa residents are asking whether another Hama is emerging.

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Syrian map showing the city of Hama[h] in the north where a large massacre once occurred and the city of Deraa (Daraa) in the very south, now "out of sight" from the world's eyes.

Stepping away from the up-front horror of violent repression, a deeply divided UN Security Council failed to agree on even a mild EU-proposed statement condemning Syria's violent crackdown against protesters. The draft proposed by France, Britain, Germany and Portugal was opposed by several within the 15-member council. Russia insisted that events in Syria did not constitute a threat to international peace. China and India called for political dialogue and peaceful resolution of the crisis, but stopped short of condemning the violence.

The UN Security Council will be headed by Turkey in June 2011, which has recently placed some proposals before Syria as a way out of its repressive predicament.

In another irony, a vote in three weeks (May 20) could place Syria on the U.N. Human Rights Council. Despite U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calling for an independent investigation into the Syrian crackdown, he is apparently not yet contemplating doing much about blocking Syria’s path to the position.

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The UN Human Rights Council meets in a room with a striking ceiling. The Council's record of outrageous declarations and arguments, along with the makeup of its members, is regularly (and unfortunately) pointed to as an example of UN hypocrisy and irrelevance.

"That's not really for the secretary general to suggest to a member state," said Martin Nesirky, a spokesman for the secretary-general, when asked if the U.N. chief would ask Syria to drop out of the running for the post. Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian human rights activist based in Washington, called on the secretary-general "to have a greater sense of decency and courage, and to realize that his position gives him a certain moral authority and puts him exactly in the position to tell the Assads that their candidacy at this stage is unwelcome."

Points of modern Syrian history

Granted independence from France in 1944, Syria remained unstable for decades (though not unstable enough to prevent it waging two wars with Israel in 1948 and 1967) with a series of coups and counter coups until Hafez al-Assad emerged as the strong man and eventual dictator, ruling from 1970 to 2000. The country cultivated close links with Iraq, with a vaguely similar Baathist party doctrine as the basis of governance in front of one man power. Syria dominated its small neighbor Lebanon for decades, culminating with it being accused of assassinating Rafik Hariri in 2005 who was leading Lebanon on a more democratic path. Currently it is a strong supporter of Hezbollah in Lebanon as its proxy. (See January 19, 2011 Lebanese focus in this blog)

A reminder in Syria's Golan Heights of its record of conflict with Israel.

Bashir Assad, son of Hafez, and another example of a family elite retaining dictatorial power through the generations, maintains close ties with Iran. Last October in Tehran, he was awarded with Iran's highest national medal by his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Bashir, friend of Ahmadinejad, receiving a high award in Iran.

The ordinary people of Syria, in essence, haven't had a "voice" for decades, and if it is to surface, it appears that much more violence and bloodshed will accompany it.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Nigeria successfully jumps a hurdle

Nigeria this week held a presidential election. The incumbent President, Goodluck Jonathan, won an outright victory with enough votes to preclude having to take on a runoff election with the candidate receiving the second highest number of votes.

President Jonathan voting

In the midst of so much news and violence about succession and power transfer in Africa (Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Ivory Coast), there is much to be hopeful in regards to this event. Nigeria is the largest country, population wise, in Africa, about 154 million. It has long suffered a string of third world development issues - corruption, coups, ethnic and religious violence, and a vicious civil war (Biafra).

Nigeria set in West Africa

Yet many Africa observers are beginning to wonder whether Nigeria, with this election, might be turning the corner. The election process was nearly unanimously considered the cleanest and transparent in the recent years. While the outcome set off riots in the country's north, and Jonathan's opponent, Muhammadu Buhari, has said he will contest the results in court, the institutions and most importantly, President Jonathan have not fanned further passions, but have sought to cool the aftermath with a greater view of the nation in mind.

Attahiru Jega, Independent National Electoral Commission Chairman, reads the results sheet before he declared Nigeria's incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan as the winner of the presidential election, in Abuja, Nigeria, April 18, 2011

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A broad divide between Muslim pastoral tribes to the North, and Bantu forest tribes to the south have long been the source of tensions in this country. Oil production in the South has concentrated wealth in certain groups with others missing out on any national wealth.

From a Voice of America article, "The country will vote again to elect state governors on April 26, and Jonathan has asked Nigerians to conduct themselves peacefully throughout the poll, lest they mar the goodwill the country earned by holding a free and fair presidential election. In his victory speech, Jonathan said the internationally-acclaimed vote has allowed Nigeria to take its rightful place in the community of nations. "We have reiterated our faith in democracy which underscores our determination to join the free world where only the will of the people is the foundation of governance," said Jonathan. "We will not let you down."

Voting queue in Southern Nigeria, from where the President was born.

Northern tribal members in Parliament are likely to be Muslim and the long history of tensions between all ethnic groups have still to be overcome.

In many respects, according to one respected voice, Nigeria is already taking a more strident position in international affairs. President Jonathan has been unusually outspoken in favor of military reforms for the tiny, drug cartel-troubled state of Guinea-Bissau for example.

Nigeria's military serve under the UN peacekeeping missions in several African countries

The President also inserted himself into the center of last month's Ivory Coast conflict. Nigeria co-sponsored a United Nations resolution for a military intervention to remove the country's incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, when he refused to concede a November 28 election. In contrast, Africa's wealthiest and most influential nation, South Africa, offered Gbagbo a power-sharing agreement that Ivorian and Nigerian leaders harshly criticized.

Nigeria has oil resources that has familiarly been both a blessing and curse for the nation. If a sense of nationhood can be further defined in a positive way, the revenues could provide the country with a firm base. Nigeria could see further investment from abroad, which could mean promise for this nation, along with South Africa, being the two sub Saharan leaders of the continent.

So, let's take a quick look at one other positive aspect of Nigeria - one of the country's [many] national dishes is called Jollofnigeria - essentially a local rice plus chicken.

Jollof rice probably originated from rice dishes eaten by the Wolof people of Senegal and Gambia, but its popularity has spread to most of West Africa, especially Nigeria and Ghana. Based on rice, tomatoes and usually meat or fish, it is believed by some to be the origin of Cajun jambalaya.