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 "

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Sounds and the Fury

Last week, UN speeches elated, shook, and infuriated the world's peoples. And the US made serious charges against Pakistan, stating the country's intelligence service, the ISI, aided a tribal network affiliated with al-qaeda to attack the US embassy in Afghanistan.

Unprecedented, the Palestinian movement, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, presented papers to the UN Secretary General, requesting that a Palestinian State be formally recognized. Palestinians were elated, Israel rebutted, and the US promised to veto the move if it ever came to a critical vote. Both the US and Israel called for a return to direct peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel, but the complications are many. Israel is not about to give up critical sections of the West Bank where boundary changes would provide improved security to the nation, and of course, there are now substantial Israeli settlements in the region.

Abbas delivers papers requesting Palestinian statehood to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon

The Palestinian position, while wildly applauded by its population (as well as up to 140 likely votes of support among the 190 + nations in the UN), leaves fundamental questions unanswered. Hamas, which controls a portion of the Palestinian areas has made the destruction of Israel a cornerstone of its political platform, and the Palestinians retain language that says the occupation must end. What occupation? Of the land once the homeland of Palestinians - ie, the whole land of Israel.

Teatree isn't sure how any of this is resolved by a declaration of nationhood, nor how the UN vote creates change on the ground. But, what it has done is strengthen Abbas' hand in the eyes of the Palestinians, perhaps giving him a much stronger platform on which to negotiate with the Israeli's - who have asked to restart direct negotiations. At the same time, his UN action may also have given him a stronger position viz a viz hardline Hamas at least with many Western nations.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and Palestinian President Abbas confer ...

Another speech at the UN, this time by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad caused a protest walkout of diplomats from up to 30 countries. In his speech, which has become somewhat of a theatrical performance each year, the Iranian leaders said he believes - as an engineer - the World Trade Center towers could not have been brought down by aircraft, that it had to be some sort of planned explosion.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad once again pounding the UN pulpit

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Two U.S. diplomats who specialize in the Middle East - White House adviser on Middle Eastern affairs Dennis Ross and Special Envoy for Middle East Peace David Hale walked out on Ahmadinejad, and were followed by diplomats from more than 30 countries. They included the 27 European Union members, Australia, New Zealand, Somalia, Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino and Macedonia.

Another eruption of much rarer strong words were aimed at a nation 8 thousand miles away from the UN dramas. The speaker was Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen who accused Pakistan's Intelligence service (ISI) of aiding an attack by the Haqqani tribe of attacking the US embassy in Kabul. In this strong public accusation, Admiral Mullen gave details that US intelligence had intercepted cell phone calls during the 8 hour attack in Kabul, from Haqqani fighters to the ISI, asking for advice and tactics. Earlier before Congress, Mullen had called the Haqqani network of militants a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's intelligence agency. US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, at the same Congressional hearing, also decried Pakistani support for the Haqqani network. Panetta said the message was delivered recently by new CIA Director David Petraeus in a meeting with the head of the Pakistani intelligence agency. While Mullen is soon to retire, Panetta and Petreaus are current Obama administration picks. All are heavyweight leaders who have calculated the value of making these statements in such a public way.

US Defense Secretary Leon Panneta left and Admiral Mullen right

These are dicey, undiplomatic statements directed at a country with 100's of nuclear weapons, directly fighting internal Islamic uprisings which in turn are intertwined with the NATO fighting next door in Afghanistan. They are also not off-the-cuff remarks, which means that though the White House itself can still distance the US from Mullen's words, it is likely that the verbal attack was meant to send a clear message, especially when Panetta and Petreaus are associated with them. It has also placed high pressure on Pakistan's 33 year old foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar, as well as the byzantine Pakistani governing factions.

Pakistan's foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar denied ISI support for Haqqani and warned the US about accusing Pakistan of colluding with a common enemy.

The US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan under attack last week

Sirajuddin Haqqani is head of the Haqqani network and believed to be the main bridge between Al Qaeda, Afghan Taliban, and militant outfits in North Waziristan. Known among jihadis as “Khalifa” and the “soul of Jihad.”

So a week of sound and fury ...

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Language and Borders

Our world of nation states is full of examples where languages and borders do not match up. In Africa, the legacy of European colonialism has left a trail of tensions and headaches. In India, an unwieldy democracy lumbers along. In China, language and the ethnic groups that consider them their mother tongue co-exist reasonably well if only because government policies forcefully make it work. Even in Canada, the English speaking provinces and French speaking Quebec periodically have their issues.

Today, however, one of the longest lasting delays (459 days) in establishing a government due to differences in parties due to language, is found in Belgium. A small country in Northern Europe, 6 million Dutch-speaking Flemings have long been in conflict with the 5 million Francophones living in southern Wallonia and Brussels. There has been despair whether this country could even hold together.

The stark linguistic divides in Belgium

A "final" meeting between 8 parties, but principally divided along the line of Flemish-Franco populations, occurred today and a thorny resolution over how the bilingual central Brussels district would be addressed was hammered out. The country's king, Albert II, even rushed back to the country from southern France ahead of that meeting.

Queen Paola and King Albert II of Belgium

The country has been run by a caretaker government since elections in June 2010, due to a deadlock in trying to form a coalition. The Dutch-speaking Flemish handed the most votes in the June 2010 election to the Flemish N-VA party, which takes the position that Flanders should be more autonomous if not independent.

The solution? The one electoral district around the capital that always straddled that north/south line had taken advantage of being a "swing" voting block, allowing Francophone Brussels politicians in fact to run most of the show. Under the agreement, the district will be largely split along linguistic lines. (Not a particularly breathtaking breakthrough after 14 months of effort ...)

The delay in establishing a new government had begun to downgrade the economic rating of the country (sound familiar?) Standard & Poor's had a negative outlook on the country's debt rating in place since December 2010, while Fitch Ratings took the outlook down to negative in early March 2011. There are apparently still many economic and social issues to be hammered out by the parties, but the breakthrough over the language divide was the key one.

The major cities of Belgium, including the world famous Brussels as its capital

Behind the disagreement, lies one large irony for this small European country of 11 million. Brussels, Belgium's capitol, is home to most of the institutions of the European Union, including the European Parliament - the legislative chamber of the European Union (EU) - 27 states with a variety of languages and cultures.

The EU presence consists of a number of buildings, primarily the oldest, the Paul-Henri Spaak building, which houses the debating chamber and the President's offices, along with the Altiero Spinelli building which is the largest. The buildings are located in the European quarter in the east of Brussels. The complex is not the official seat of Parliament, which is in Strasbourg, France, but as most of the other institutions of the European Union are in Brussels, Parliament built the Brussels complex in order to be closer to their activities. A majority of the Parliament's work is now geared to its Brussels site

The Paul-Henri building

Let's hope this little country gets it's act together perhaps as an example to many other larger nations with deep internal rifts. In the meantime, what are two famous foods of the country?

Belgian waffles!



Sunday, September 11, 2011

The US remembers 9/11

The attacks came 10 years ago today, preceded by Al-qaeda attacks on US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in1998, and a suicide attack against a US destroyer, the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. Earlier, in 1993, the twin towers had been blasted at their base by individuals enamored with their violent, nihilistic viewpoint, cloaked and grounded in a narrow interpretation of Islam.

10 years later, the 2nd grade children President Bush read to that morning in Florida are in their senior year of high school. Many high schoolers in 2001 volunteered for duty with the US military, and today are out making their way in a deep recession. Many others, of course, have died or been injured in the course of the "long war" against terror.

So much patriotism, vitriol, fleeting unity, and stirred passions have impacted and shaken the nation we live in today. And yet, discomfited as a people, Americans seem to have found a way again to slow down a bit, and remember the victims of those attacks and the bravery of others shown in so many ways.

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Teacher Sandra Kay Daniel and former students' from her second grade class at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla., witnessed the moment when President George W. Bush learned America was under attack on Sept. 11, 2001. Now seniors in high school, Natalia Jone-Pinkney, Chantal Guerrero, Mariah Williams, and Lazaro Dubrocq

There are now two square pools, each with a waterfall cascading into a smaller center where the footprints of the towers stood.

President Obama and First Lady Michelle walk with former President Bush and wife Laura around the New York City pools.

The victim's families and others who simply made the trek to the dedication also reflected and engaged this history ...

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Elle Jackman,6, helps her mother, Iris Jackman, do a rubbing of her aunt's name, Brook Alexander Jackman

Robert Peraza, who lost his son Robert David Peraza in the attacks at the World Trade Center, pauses at his son's name at the North Pool of the 9/11 Memorial

Former President Clinton speaking at the Shanksville, Pennsylvania site where Flight 93 plunged to the ground as its passengers fought against the highjackers on September 11, 2001

Sunday, September 4, 2011

What is the weeks most important development?

Trying to recognize what is merely convenient and repetitious from the Western news services and that which is worth noting is rather tiring. One could point to the continuing Syrian repression and Turkey's growing anger at its neighbor as newsworthy. Then again, Turkey is also angry these days over Israel's flotilla actions a year ago - enough to expel Israel's ambassador. It is also angry at the UN for a report that recognized Israel's right to blockade Gaza in order to intercept military weaponry and material that could be used against Israel.

Then of course, there is the daily drama in Libya, as the new NTC (TNC) National Transitional Council accepts recognition of the nations as Libya's new government, accepts substantial funds from frozen accounts, receives offers to help get the oil flowing once again, all the while searching for Gaddafi and sons, securing the country, treating the wounded, and restarting its economy.

Next, there is the famine in East Africa. The latest country to be added to the list of distressed or decimated ones is Eritrea - a secretive country. Just today word is leaking out that its citizens are seeking refuge in Ethiopia from hunger and deprivation due to failing crops. The crisis as a whole is woefully under-reported.

Likewise, the Republic of South Sudan. It has issued a new currency even as it struggles to govern areas where there are traditional tribal hostilities (and ones fueled quietly by its northern neighbor, Republic of the Sudan). Somewhat surprisingly, the world's newest nation announced its capital was to be located in Ramciel, not Juba its largest and most well known city. In the very geographic center of the Republic of South Sudan, Ramciel (or Ramcel or Ramshel) is where the late South Sudanese leader John Garang envisioned the capital. “It is a beautiful land,” said Barnaba Marial Benjamin, South Sudan’s information minister. “This is a long-term plan for a capital while we continue with our priorities.” The government considered keeping the capital in Juba, but had trouble finding the 12-square-mile site needed for new government buildings. The principal ethnic group in Ramciel is Dinka, who have been among the staunchest backers of independence.

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A fitting example of our limited knowledge of the Republic of South Sudan. A time consuming internet search for a map locating Ramciel, Ramcel or Ramshel reveals none (and Teatree notes others have remarked on the same lack). The new capital is in the east of Lakes state, just south of Unity state and west from Jonglei state.

But for the news of this post, let's return to India once again. A visit on Sunday, September 4 was begun between India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his counterpart in Bangledesh. Sheikh Hasina is that country's Prime Minister, and is meeting Singh in the Bangledeshi capital Dhaka.

Sheikh Hasina, Bangledeshi Prime Minister

The two day visit will be the occasion of signing up to 15 previously negotiated agreements between the two countries stemming from a 1974 Land Boundary Agreement to address major long-standing issues: the exchange of enclaves and adversely possessed lands, and demarcation of 6.5 km of unclear border.

India and Bangledesh

The agreements represent the sinews and connecting tissues that are the stuff of neighborly relations - unpretentious, yet mutually beneficial Addressing tensions in a positive manner, they range from a 15-year interim water sharing agreement on two rivers to the import of 250 megawatt of electricity from India. One protects the Sundarbans - a world famous set of mangrove forests, and another extends cooperation in fisheries.

The Sundarbans - a world recognized forest of mangroves along the Indian-Bangledeshi border

Rounding out the 15 memorandums of understanding are several regarding renewable energy sectors and a joint venture on a coal-fired 1,320-MW power plant in Bangladesh. Finally in the field of education, further cooperation between Dhaka University and Jawaharlal Nehru University will also be initiated.

Bangledesh's premier Dhaka University

Hats off to India and Bangledesh for moving forward.