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, November 27, 2011

Democratic Republic of Congo holds election

A very large election is taking place in one of the largest countries in Africa. The Democratic Republic of Congo has over 11 candidates running for President, and more than 18,000 candidates running for its 500 member Parliament. The voting will take place Monday, and counting over several days will follow. The election itself is the only the second Presidential election in more than forty years due to a decades-long rule by Mobutu Sese Seko during the 60s -90s.

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The Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, and earlier as the Belgian Congo colony, has a sad and suffering past and a challenging future.

With a marginal road infrastructure, over 60 helicopters and 20 planes are being used to distribute 4400 tons of ballots around the country. Kinsasha, the capital city is producing a voting pamphlet highlighting over 1500 candidates alone. There has been election violence already, with at least three people killed in the capitol on Saturday.

Supporters of the main presidential rivals, 79yr-old opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi and 40yr-old incumbent President Joseph Kabila, gathered for rallies that had been scheduled near to each other. Scuffles erupted and police fired tear gas and live ammunition to break up the crowds. Police later delayed Mr Tshisekedi at Kinshasa's airport until late on Saturday forcing him to miss his final rally.

The European Union observer mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo criticized both the police and the various candidates over the pre-election violence. "The mission deplores the chaotic and improvised management of the last political meetings by many presidential candidates, and by the Kinshasa authorities which restrained freedom of opinion, meetings and demonstrations," it added.

The United Nations too, criticized the security forces. "The security forces should refrain from any acts that could heighten tensions and create any difficulties on the eve of elections," Mr Tshisekedi, in turn, accused the head of the UN 20,000-strong peacekeeping mission in Congo, American diplomat Roger Meece, of favoring the Kabila government.

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The Democratic Republic of Congo is nearly two thirds the size of Western Europe, the 2nd largest country in Africa, and with 71 million citizens, the 4th most populous on the continent. From Wikipedia, "Despite the country's size, transport infrastructure is very poor. Of 153,497km of roads, only 2,794km are paved. There are around 4,000 km of railways but much is narrow-gauge track and in poor condition. Waterways are vital to transport goods but journeys can take months to complete. Overcrowded boats frequently capsize, while DR Congo has more plane crashes than any other country."

The diversity within and history of the DRC is jaw dropping. Kinsasha, its capitol, has a population of over 10 million. Moving away from its urban centre, much of the rest of the countryside is isolated and rural. The country holds vast mineral wealth and numerous mining operations, while at the same time, its rainforests are home to Pygmies and gorillas.

Much of the country's population lives a rural village lifestyle, albeit with a higher than average setting of insecurity and violence

Walking and carrying on a personal scale. Distinctive dress.

The country was first made famous by the famous explorers Dr Livingstone and Sir Stanley ("Dr Livingstone I presume ...")and was the jungle setting for Joseph Conrad's book, "Heart of Darkness." The US CIA was implicated in behind the scenes maneuvering which resulted in the country's first popularly elected president, Patrice Lumumba, being removed from power in the early sixties.

Lumumba believed that the Belgian government was intent on maintaining its access to rich Congolese mines, and that secessionist violence erupting in the south was related. Concerned that the United Nations force sent to help restore order was not helping to crush the secessionists, Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union for assistance, receiving massive military aid and about a thousand Soviet technical advisers in six weeks. The U.S. government saw the Soviet activity as a maneuver to spread communist influence in Central Africa.

Within general chaos, Lumumba lost control of of the majority of his armed forces, and fled into the countryside. However, he was eventually captured by the military, which was led by Mobutu Sese Seko, and then executed.

The country's first short-lived president, Patrice Lumumba

The notorious Mobutu Sese Seko, the second president of the country

After a few years of continued unrest, Mobutu solidified control of the country, enjoying the support of Western democracies because of his staunch opposition to Communism. Western powers believed him to be a roadblock to Communist schemes in Africa, but Mobutu of course, in the decades following, became synonymous with corruption, nepotism, and excess. Mobutu's legacy was the ransacking the country for personal wealth, while simultaneously depriving the nation of any sense of self governance, unifying institutions or infrastructure. When the Cold War between the Western Powers and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989-1991, the West's tolerance of Mobutu also disappeared. Mobutu was cornered into power-sharing, and Zaire itself descended into a multitude of armed factions and instability.

In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, hundreds of thousands of Hutus fleeing that small country in fear of retribution moved into Eastern Zaire. When Mobutu's government issued an order in November 1996 forcing Rwandan Tutsis to leave Zaire on penalty of death, the ethnic Tutsis in Zaire rebelled. From eastern Zaire, the rebels and foreign government forces under the leadership of President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and the Rwandan leader Paul Kagame launched an offensive to overthrow Mobutu,and marched west toward Kinshasa. Laurent Kabila, a Zairean Tutsi, led the actual armed forces to victory, declared himself Zaire's new President, and changed the country's name.

The newly named DRC soon became engulfed in what is referred to as the "Second Congo War." It spread quickly from 1998 on, devastated the country, and at its peak involved nine African nations and some twenty armed groups. Laurent Kabila was himself assassinated in 2001, but his son Joseph (the current president) took over the office at that time. The war is the world's deadliest conflict since World War II, killing 5.4 million people since 1998. The vast majority died from malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition. (And one of the least reported wars among the Western media ever ... Teatree.)

Current DRC President Joseph Kabila

While the Second Congo War has significantly diminished today, conflict in the east of the country still takes its toll. Over 123,000 people alone were internally displaced in early 2011 due to sporadic fighting, and these people are hoping the elections this time will also increase the likelihood that they can return home under more peaceful conditions.

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A refugee camp in eastern DRC for internally displaced people.

Tomorrow's election is the first occasion after the "formal" end of the large scale internal fighting of the Second Congo War, and if there is a Christmas wish to offer, it should be that whoever wins, he embarks on a sincere effort to stabilize and develop the country for the general good of its citizens.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

China's dissidents

Stories from China shouldn't be that hard to find, and considering the size and potential of the country in geopolitical terms, nearly any story would likely be news worth reading. Nevertheless, it is easy to overlook China in favor of what Teatree is more familiar and interested with.

China is actually quite close in size to the United States. Its population of 1.34 billion is four times that of the US

An artist dissident however captures my attention, and so here's a brief look at Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. A "facts only" review of WeiWei might go like this:

"Ai Weiwei (born 18 May 1957) is a Chinese contemporary artist, active in sculpture, installation, architecture, curating, photography, film, and social, political and cultural criticism. Ai collaborated with Swiss architects as the artistic consultant on the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympics. As a political activist, he has been highly and openly critical of the Chinese Government's stance on democracy and human rights. He has investigated government corruption and cover-ups, in particular the Sichuan schools corruption scandal following the collapse of so-called "tofu-skin schools" in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In 2011, Weiwei was arrested at Beijing airport in April, then held for over two months without any official charges being filed, though finally officials alluded to their allegations of "economic crimes" (tax evasion)."

54 yr old Ai Weiwei (apparently Ai is the family name)

What makes this story begin to take off is to hear a bit of the laws Weiwei has to navigate in fighting against the charges. In order to challenge the official charge of tax evasion (which has been set at the equivalent of $2.4 million in back taxes) Weiwei apparently has to pay the tax bureau up front $1.3 million in order to even secure the right to read the formal administrative review of his case. Interesting laws in China ...

The story twists further however, as Chinese all around the country raised that money with small donations sent to him online. And Weiwei says that if he wins his case against the tax bureau, he'll repay each of those who donated.

Weiwei just a few days ago walking to his lawyer's office in Beijing to discuss the tax evasion cases

Having become somewhat of a public figure, Weiwei, surrounded by television reporters outside the tax bureau, said tax authorities told him they will “carefully handle” an administrative review in which a panel re-examines the merits of an official decision to bill him 15 million yuan.

“I’m speaking up, not for myself, but for those who have no voice,” Ai, 54, told Reuters in an interview at his home and studio in northeastern Beijing. “I hope that when society looks at me, they’ll remember that I’m not an individual case,” he said. “Many people don’t understand why they can’t be with their children, they aren’t able to see the people they want to see. Their voices will never be heard,” he said.

In an interview with CNN, Ai said he had little hope of winning a court case but he hopes to score a moral victory over the government:

Weiwei's wide ranging art

Weiwei challenges a lot of the status quo in not too subtle ways ...

Weiwei's recent nude photography work has placed him in further trouble with authorities who are now charging him with pornography.

However, from a Chinese blogger, let's hear a different perspective:

[Ai Weiwei symbolizes the “political dissident” that the Western world supports with all their might. All Chinese people who are interested in politics know who he is. Ordinary Chinese who never heard of him or cannot recall who he is mostly have no interest in his kind of games of political opposition.

The West has supported many Chinese “dissidents.” The Western press once widely called Wei Jingsheng “the father of Chinese democracy.” That “father” is now in some corner of the United States carrying out “small actions” that Western reporters don’t even bother reporting on.

Ai Weiwei​ is just the freshest name on a very long list of people who have mostly been forgotten. The West supports Ai Weiwei and the others on the list, so small circles of people who surround them form in Chinese society. People like Ai Weiwei shouldn’t think that the reason those small circles don’t extend to all of society is all because of “government repression.” True popular sentiment cannot be suppressed. Over the past 30 years, “Ai Weiweis” have periodically sprouted up only to crash to earth like a meteor. Contrary to their predictions, China has only continued its rise. Their elimination through this great progress is the true trend of society.]

Regardless of the sobering blog viewpoint above, there remains, with or without Western support or awareness, an equally true stream of resistance and independent thought among the Chinese. The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, for example is another Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. Liu was enduring his fourth prison term, when given the award. He is the first Chinese citizen to be awarded a Nobel Prize of any kind while residing in China, and the third person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while in prison or detention. (Germany's Carl von Ossietzky (1935) and Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi (1991). Liu is also the first person since Ossietzky to be denied the right to have a representative collect the Nobel prize for him.

Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia - equally suffering from separation during Liu Xiaobo's prison time.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Now it is up to Italy

Oh dear - more economic troubles make the headlines. How boring, dreary. Isn't there a good human interest story out there? Despite all our wishes, this week we'll probably have to go with Italy - the third largest economy in the Eurozone behind Germany and France - that is now facing its own economic crisis.

Italy has a population of 60 million. However, the demographic math is grim: Italians represent Europe’s oldest population, are now living 30 to 40 years beyond retirement. But Italians make only 1.3 babies per couple, a record European low. The potential workforce, therefore, is shrinking at the same time that the number of needy pensioners is on the rise.

Now that Greece has been brought to the point where it is seriously addressing its budget and societal issues, Italy becomes the next biggest worry among the developed countries of the world due to its high debt. Though Italy's annual budget deficit is quite low, public sector debt is over 110% of GDP, which is giving cause for concern. The problem is that it is quite difficult to reduce this debt given how much the country must spend simply on interest payments.

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Italy's immediate economic crisis is its questionable ability to pay down more than just the interest on its large debt

There are a number of reasons Italy has a tough future in front of it ... poor competitiveness with other modern economies, a combination of political instability, corruption and poor productivity growth, an aging population, all of which leads to low consumer confidence which when combined with austerity spending cuts could result in a recession.

With all this in front of the nation, the current embattled and provocative Prime Minister Berlusconi agreed to resign upon Parliament passing spending cuts designed to address the country's structural economic problems. That occurred Friday in Italy's Senate and on Saturday in Italy's House, resulting in his resignation hours later.

Public sector unions have led the opposition to government attempts to reduce spending.

Upon hearing the news, crowds erupted in cheering and applause Berlusconi, one of Italy's richest men and the owner of a large portion of the Italian media, was booed and heckled by crowds as he was driven to and from the presidential palace. Shouts of "Shame!" and "Buffoon, buffoon!" were directed at his motorcade.

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Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, shown here preening at a group photo at a G20 summit in Cannes, France on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011. (Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to the left and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the right.) Berlusconi was involved in numerous sexual scandals during his 17 year political career.

So a little emotional catharsis, and now we can hope that a new Prime Minister can lead the country through what will be a painful process of reducing its spending to within the capacity of its economy, while forcefully acting on corruption and entrenched factions enriching themselves.

Who's next?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Greece debt brings its government to the edge

The debt which Greece finds itself burdened by, continues to threaten not only the country's own identity as a sovereign state, but is dragging the 27-member European Union into unwanted tension.

Greece is a developed country in Southeast Europe "with an advanced, high-income economy and very high standards of living. Greece has been a member of the European Union since 1981 and the eurozone since 2001, NATO since 1952,and the European Space Agency since 2005. It is also a founding member of the United Nations, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation." (Wikipedia). Its biggest problem is that it can't pay its bills - Teatree.

Last week, the wealthy nations within the European Union - notably Germany and to a lesser extent France - negotiated a tough deal with the Greece government whereby a large loan from the EU (or more precisely Germany and to a lesser extent France) would be provided to Greece's creditors - and thereby, hopefully, calm the fears that Greece might not simply be able to pay off all that it owes over time. In exchange, further severe cuts in Greece government spending would be required (drops in pensions, welfare, infrastructure projects, investments in education, presumably military outlays, paying to maintain embassies around the world, etc, as well as all creditors having to take a 50% loss on their loans. (The theory is that the creditors would be more or less happy to count on getting half their money back, rather than the risk of losing it all.)

Who exactly holds Greek debt? The following, given in billions of Euros

Greek Banks 56

Other European Banks 50

ECB (European Central Bank) 50

Central Bank of Greece 10

Greek Social securities/other government 30

Other Investors (this is a very BIG category...) 120

Total Government Bonds 260

+ EU/IMF loans already disbursed 53

Total debt 313

After agreeing to the deal, the Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou surprised all the European world by announcing that he would actually have to hold a referendum within Greece and let the people vote on whether they would agree to the conditions for a more secure, albeit diminished financial future. Infuriated, EU leaders - mainly Germany and to a lesser extent France - voted to hold up a scheduled installment of further loans to prop up the government until after the referendum scheduled for early December.

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou

Within 48 hours, Prime Minister backed off his referendum idea, and proposed a unity government (with the main opposition party) be formed to govern once the new terms of the loans were in place. Today, however, the opposition party, New Democracy (which is Greece's major conservative party) led by Antonis Samaras, rebuffed the offer and said Papandreou should step down as Prime Minister and new elections be called. Many Europeans aren't real impressed with Samaras's move, thinking the cost and turmoil of another election isn't exactly what the country needs at the moment ...

Antonis Samaras, leader of the conservative New Democracy opposition party isn't so sure they want to join in a disgraced unity government.

As one set of suits talks to another set, the risks are that a floundering in Greek with no agreement will necessarily bring other countries - not Germany or France this time, rather Italy and Spain - into a very weakened state themselves and the domino effect would ensue. This all seems dire (though not out of the question) and at the very least, the EU might find itself a 26-member Union, with Greece out of the Eurozone, returning to using its own currency and struggling with moribund, Moldovian-type economy for the near and medium term future.

A long time ago, Greece had its golden age, then fell apart. It might happen again.

Greece default will stress a lot of treaties and alliances with its Mediterranean neighbors

Greece has many many problems - observers widely cite the "culture" of ordinary citizens and businesses evading legitimate income and business taxes, as well as having to put up with bribery for permits and every other instance where government officials interact with citizens and businesses. As one author recently put it, "the real test is whether Greek citizens are willing to act as though they live in and contribute to a modern Western society."