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 "

Monday, May 30, 2011

Burmese Nobel Peace Prize winner plans tour of country

Aung San Suu Kyi

A celebrated "conscience" of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi is planning a "political tour" of Burma (officially called Myummar) to begin in June. Now 65, this daughter of a Burmese ambassador to India, and married to an Englishman, returned to Burma to care for her ailing mother. By chance, it was 1988, the year of mass protests when thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators were shot dead on the streets of Burma's capital city, Rangoon.

History is replete with attempted uprisings - including this 1988 Rangoon demonstration against the military rulers.

A month after the massacre Mrs Suu Kyi addressed a crowd of half a million people on the steps of Rangoon's Shwedagon Pagoda. With a group of allies – mostly former generals – she founded the National League for Democracy and won a landslide election victory in 1990.

Suu Kyi able to draw thousands to her political vision.

Mrs Suu Kyi should have become prime minister but the army, which has ruled Burma since 1962, ignored the result. Alarmed by her popularity (they had already placed her in custody in 1989), she has spent 14 of the last 20 years in jail or under house arrest.

Aung San Suu Kyi was released just the past November from 7 years of house arrest. In 2003, Her convoy was attacked by a junta-backed militia in an ambush apparently organized by a regime still frightened by her popularity. She was arrested along with many party activists and moved back to her Rangoon home placed under house arrest for a third time. The junta said four people were killed in that attack but her National League for Democracy party put the toll at nearly 100.

Suu Kyi in house arrest. When first put under house arrest in 1989, she was offered freedom if she left the country, but she refused. One of her most famous speeches is the "Freedom From Fear" speech, which begins: "It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it." She also believes fear spurs many world leaders to lose sight of their purpose. "Government leaders are amazing", she once said. "So often it seems they are the last to know what the people want."

The tour will be a test of both Suu Kyi's popularity following an election that has left her sidelined from politics, and of her freedom to travel around the country unhindered by the authorities. Suu Kyi's party was disbanded for opting to boycott the November vote because the rules seemed designed to bar her from participating, and the party now has no voice in the new parliament.

Burma, or Myanmar, is a Southeast Asian country, 89% Buddhist

Burma, neighbor to Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand

Burma, or officially known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar,is a country in Southeast Asia, bordered by India to the West and Thailand to the east. It is slightly smaller than Texas and has a population of over 53 million. It was a British colony as part of British India until 1948 when it achieved independence. Under military rule from 1962 on, the military orchestrated elections in 1988, but as noted above, retracted the process and has ruled harshly since. The United Nations and several other organizations have reported consistent and systematic human rights violations in the country, including child labor, human trafficking and a lack of freedom of speech.

Buddhist monks in one of many confrontations over the past decades with the harsh military rulers.

Burma's line of military rulers have been accused of enriching themselves (and protecting banks also involved) on proceeds of drug trafficking

The most recent version of its ruling elite - the State Peace and Development Council - was dissolved in 2011 following another general election in 2010 and subsequent inauguration of Burma's first civilian government.

So this is now a test, will one of its most famous citizens - with world recognition - be able to move the country via this political tour to re-establish a party and participate in its governance? It is worth watching, and hoping for,over the summer.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Why does a European get the IMF post?

With the sudden departure of the International Monetary Fund's head, Dominique Strauss Kahn, after his arrest in New York for alleged sexual assault, a quick review of the institution is in order. The International Monetary Fund is an organization based in Washington DC that oversees the global financial system - tracking and influencing economic policies of its member countries, especially in regard to exchange rates and the balance of payments issues. It is also a provider of loans with varying levels of conditionality, mainly to poorer countries, though recent debt stresses that Greece and Ireland have experienced highlights its assistance to developed countries.

The International Monetary Fund was conceived in July 1944 and came into existence in December 1945 when 29 countries signed the agreement. As the world began to recover after WWII the goal was to stabilize exchange rates and assist the reconstruction of the world’s international payment system. Countries contributed to a pool which could be borrowed from, on a temporary basis, by countries with payment imbalances.
Western Europe's recovery after World War II was assisted by the fledgling IMF

With its origins in the ruins of Western Europe, one confidence building aspect was that a European would head the organization, while the largest donor and supporter at the time - America - would provide the location. Nearly 70 years later, IMF describes itself as “an organization of 187 countries (as of July 2010), working to foster global monetary cooperation, secure financial stability, facilitate international trade, promote high employment and sustainable economic growth, and reduce poverty.”

France's current Finance Minister, Christine Legarde, has been rallied around by European countries to replace the disgraced Dominique Strauss-Kahn as the new IMF director.

Over the several decades, the IMF has grown in importance as the numbers of member countries increased, and the pool of money collected by member nations allowed the institution a very strong ability to establish terms of loans, debt relief and aid to poorer countries.

Indeed criticism has emerged over the past 30 years that the European/American perspective on economies was somewhat overpowering when nations sought loans. For example, the IMF would typically state terms that would essentially require a country (in exchange for the loan or debt relief) to structure its economy to engage in international trade while the country preferred to protect and nurture its own internal economy. Food security, impact on environment, dollars to spend on health and education all have been pointed to as deserving more consideration in an IMF loan, rather than the emphasis on global trade and export.

International commodity trading is the apparent preference for IMF structured loans

Food security, health, and education first, say many poorer nations, then trading as it develops from our internal surpluses

Such international trade often tends to benefit those nations with sophisticated manufacturing and agricultural infrastructure, providing critics the opening to say the IMF was acting on behalf of the status quo (ie. the US and Western Europe. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton, during a speech at United Nations World Food Day, October 16, 2008 noted this shortcoming, "We need the World Bank, the IMF, all the big foundations, and all the governments to admit that, for 30 years, we all blew it, including me when I was president. We were wrong to believe that food was like some other product in international trade, and we all have to go back to a more responsible and sustainable form of agriculture."

So, while much of the criticism has centered around developing nations vs the developed world, or around capitalist vs socialist perspectives, the newest voices of concern is now coming simply from four countries, three of whom hold the most vibrant economies today and widely expected to grow the most in the next few decades. BRIC stands for Brazil, Russia, India and China - the group is now asking if its time to broaden the traditional choice of the IMF head position from Europe to other parts of the globe.

Brazil's swelling middle class a product of the nation's vibrant growth.

While India has a long ways to go on many fronts and its middle class is often overlooked in world media, its potential is huge.

China's surge in contrast is nearly front page reading in every Western media.

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Russia is a bit of the odd man out in BRIC, in that its middle class remains under stress, and the population of Russia as a whole is stagnant. But its oil wealth fuels its economic prowess.

While it is unlikely this round that the IMF vacancy will be filled by any other than a European, the changing global economic power adds pressure that someday, it will.

PS. The World Bank, also headquartered in Washington DC and another powerful global lending institution is by tradition headed by an American.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

England's Queen visits Ireland

Queen Elizabeth made an historic visit to Ireland this week - the first in by British royalty in over a century.

The New York Times reported it this way, "While the queen has no formal political power, her visit ... offered powerful symbols of reconciliation and drew broad acclaim among Irish politicians. Her status both as head of state and as the most respected member of Britain’s royal family was taken by her hosts as imparting a particular gravity to her words, sealing a closeness that has grown in recent years. Virtually every word and gesture — down to wearing Ireland’s distinctive emerald green when she arrived — seemed to have been weighed in advance to avoid any impression of royal hauteur.

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On Monday evening, May 16, to begin a 4 day state visit, Queen Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip landed at Ireland's Casement airport named after Sir Roger Casement, hanged in an English jail in 1916 for his part in the Easter Rising. She wore green - Ireland's color.

On Tuesday, in another historic gesture, the Queen laid a wreath at a memorial in Dublin to those who died fighting for Irish independence. Republican protesters set off fireworks and scuffled with police near the Garden of Remembrance during the ceremony.

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The Queen, accompanied by Ireland's President Mary McAleese, at Ireland's Garden of Remembrance

It was at the official dinner, Wednesday, that the queen spoke the words that have been taken as the central message of her trip. “To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past, I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy,” she said. “With the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.”

The Queen speaking in the Dublin Castle at the official dinner

... For some Irish people the strains of the British anthem “God Save the Queen” wafting over their capital seemed to offer what might once have seemed an improbable refrain in a land that reviled the British monarchy for centuries. Ireland’s bloody war of independence led to the establishment in 1922 of the Irish Free State on territory that excluded Northern Ireland, which was then riven by deep unrest for decades."

London's Daily Mirror observed "It takes two to further the cause of peace, and in this case two women. The Irish President Mary McAleese is a Catholic nationalist, whose family were burnt out of their home by [English] loyalist gangs. This was difficult for her too.

London's Daily Mirror reported, "During her reign she has made 95 state visits but never, surely, one as historic and significant as this. It is a measure of a relationship scarred by deep wounds, suspicion and hatred that no British monarch has set foot in Ireland for a ­whole century.

But she did it. And she did it to perfection. She did it with great tact, good cheer and with remarkable stamina. But most of all she did it with supreme ­humility.

She wore emerald green when she landed at an airport named after an Irish rebel ­who’d been executed by the British. She bowed her head at a memorial to men who ­dedicated their lives to ­challenging the British crown – the forerunners of the IRA. The Queen doesn’t normally bow to anyone."

The Queen at Cork's market and greeting the crowds

During the four day visit, heavy security was present, but on the last day, in Cork, the Queen was able to visit the Irish people in a famous market. Here,she was greeted by the largest crowds seen on the trip, with people hanging from lamp posts and a couple even waving union jacks, an extremely rare sight in Ireland. "I didn't really see the point at the start, but seeing how well it's gone, I can see it's a step forward," said Ger Eagan, a 24-year-old Cork music student. "It won't change the hardliners, but it sends a signal to everyone else that we have moved on."

In our world replete with hardened stances, and long-held wrongs, the actions of reconciliation are rare and thus all the more worth our applause.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Nakba Day and the "shabiha"

In the dangerous ideologically-convoluted world of the Middle East, a myriad of events and movements swirl on. Two splinters of action coincided on May 15. One was the remembrance by Palestinians and nearly all the Arab world of Nakba - the day of Catastrophe in 1948 when Israel formally declared its existence. On this most recent day of remembrance, unprecedented "people power" protests occurred along Israel's northern borders with two Arab neighbors. Thousands of Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria were given access to the Israeli border by their respective host governments, and unruly protests took place ending with 14 dead.

In Lebanon, thousands took a three hour bus ride from a major Palestinian refugee settlement to the border, where the Lebanese army attempted to control the crowds to prevent violence. Initial media reports were unsettled on where deaths occurred - some point to 10 deaths at the Lebanese border (4 elsewhere), and either attributed to Israeli Defense Forces (the IDF) or Lebanese forces. (Other initial reports place more of the deaths at the Syrian-Israeli Golan Heights site of protests.)
One confrontation took place in Southern Lebanon, along the UN patrolled border with Israel.

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Along the way to the Lebanese-Israeli border, water and food are handed out to protestors.

Individuals of all ages participated

The Lebanese army prevented most protestors from approaching the fence.

In Syria, large crowds of Palestinians (also living in marginal refugee settlements for the past 62 years) converged on the Golan Heights - something that in the past, the Syrian government did not allow. In this situation, the Syrians did not attempt to meaningfully control the crowds, with resulting violence and injuries. (Somewhat mysteriously, reports are that IDF soldiers were instructed that if need be, shoot at protesters legs, no lethal aiming. A hobson's choice for ground troops. Why were IDF officers taken by surprise or not better prepared with modern crowd control equipment.) Regardless of the IDF response, many observers concluded that Assad's government encouraged the incident to divert attention to their own internal repression of protesters. The US later delivered a note of rebuke to the Assad government for allowing this incident to occur.

A sorting out of the incidents is likely to take some time amid charges and counter-charges.

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Another Nakba Day protest occurred in the UN patrolled Golan Heights

Israeli soldiers eyeing an unprecedented number of Palestinians converging on the fenced border

Protestors climb the Israeli-Syrian border fence

The Western press has been quick to link these mass protests with what is also called the "Arab Spring." This movement (if one discounts the 2009 chaos in Iran when hundreds lost their lives protesting Ahmadinejad's governance) began 4 months ago in Tunisia, where a decades old government was toppled by common people seeking a new voice and democratic reforms. The movement swept into Egypt, topping Hosni Mubarak from power, then erupted in a number of other countries: Libya, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, Yemen, Gaza, Iran, and Syria. As it turns out, the movement has faltered, with especially bloody responses in Libya, Yemen, and Syria.

The second action of note also has to do with borders. While Syrian authorities allowed Palestinian access to the Israeli frontier, other Syrians were fleeing their country for the "relative" safety in Lebanon. In one report, following the pattern set in Daraa, Homs, and Latakia, tanks moved in to Talkalakh, a town of about 70,000 residents, leaving behind a scene of destruction and death. Residents interviewed by The Associated Press as they crossed into Lebanon said their town, which has held weekly anti-government rallies, came under attack by the army, security forces and shadowy, pro-regime gunmen known as "shabiha." In contrast to the Israeli predicament of holding back Palestinians crossing the frontier, there was no restraint by Assad's forces, with indiscriminate firing, corpses left on the street, and even fleeing civilians shot down.

Syrian citizens fleeing from their own country to avoid government bloodshed

Talkalakh, the latest Syrian town being demolished by Assad and his shabiha

So what do we have?

In Syria, the past few days have seen Palestinians given access to the Israeli border, while Syrians themselves are fleeing into Lebanon from internal repression!

The Arab uprisings - successful in Tunisia and Egypt - have undertaken a hopeful reconstituting of a more democratic governance. We can with good will wish the populations of these nations success after throwing off dictatorships. The verdict is still out as to what the new voice will sound like.

The odds of new Arab voices in Iran, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain have shrunk considerably, notwithstanding the selective support for one such overthrow of the suddenly odious Gadaffi.

We are learning that in nearly every Arab country experiencing protests, there are undercurrents of sectarian tensions. As in Iraq, where a Sunni minority governed a Shiite majority and a sizable third segment of Kurds, the Syrian leadership, ie. the Assad family, is from a decided minority tribe (the Alewite is a nominally Shiite offshoot) controlling a Sunni majority. It is reported that most of the shabiha are from the Alewite tribe... Bahrain's majority Shiite population is governed by a Sunni line of royalty.

Where sectarian tensions are not dominant, Islamist parties and other religious groupings strive with one another. In Gaza, Hamas is confronting Salafists, and in Egypt, Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood are jockeying for position between themselves and others, with more serious and violent clashes with a sizable Coptic Christian minority.

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Pro-Assad forces known as shabiha (circled), "assist" regular Syrian forces in rounding up protestors