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, May 27, 2012

India seeks to strengthen ties with Burma

The number one rising power today is China - well tracked and discussed in news accounts. Second, though much quieter in terms of coverage as yet, is India - the world's second most populous country and largest democracy. The two countries have between them, nearly 2.6 billion people, around 38 percent of the total world population of 7 billion.

China's government seems torn with conflicting policies both internal and external. Truly focusing on internal stability while raising living standards, the government repeatedly raises concerns over its human rights - dissidents abound, and the heavy hand in Tibet are examples. Externally, while loaning the US trillions and acting responsibly on global trade, China indulges itself with provocative positions - ie, sabre rattling over Taiwan, and expansive claims in the South China Sea, neutrality concerning abuses in Syria and provocations from Iran, little leadership with North Korean threats to its neighbors, etc.

China grapples with its southwestern province of Tibet, which in turn claims sovereignty.

India, on the other hand, seems to have a more consistent record of trying to quietly build or strengthen ties with its neighbors - addressing old wounds, setting a new or different framework for finding mutual benefits. While India's tensions remain sharp and deep with Pakistan, on nearly every other front the country has maintained a lower and neighborly profile in contrast to its northern neighbor.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in talks with Pakistan’s first female and youngest foreign minister, 34-year-old Hina Rabbani Khar.

This past week, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Burma (or Myanmar) which has itself been moving towards greater democracy and benign governance. According to one account, business ties between the neighboring countries have been weak since the Myanmar military nationalized Indian businesses and expelled hundreds of thousands of ethnic Indians after taking over in 1962.

Since that low point, investment and trade have slowly increased, but the change since Burma's new political tolerance began in the past year, the pace has quickened. India is funding the new port in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State in Myanmar - a strategic decision benefiting both countries, as the port is part of a $214-million river and road network that will carve a trade route into India's landlocked northeast.

India funding a new Myanmar port at Sittwe

The port will strengthen India's reach into its easternmost province of while increasing Myanmar's shipping capacity.

The easternmost region of India consisting of what is known as the "Seven Sister States" (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura), Sikkim, and parts of North Bengal. Northeast India is ethnically distinct from the rest of India and has strong ethnic and cultural ties with East Asia and Southeast Asia.

Nothing earthshaking - these trade negotiations and projects, but such a contrast to the violence still rising in Syria, now spilling in turn into Lebanon.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Sri Lanka and remembering ...

Sri Lanka, a small tear-drop shaped island country off the coast of India has a population of 20 million, and boasts a diverse range of cultures, languages and religions. The Sinhalese people form the majority of the population; Tamils, who are concentrated in the north and east of the island, form the largest ethnic minority.

From Wikipedia, we read, "As a result of its location in the path of major sea routes, Sri Lanka is a strategic naval link between West Asia and South East Asia. It was an important stop on the ancient Silk Road. Sri Lanka has also been a center of the Buddhist religion and culture from ancient times, being the nation where the Buddhist teachings were first written down as well as the oldest continually Buddhist country.

This past weekend, Sri Lanka marked the three year anniversary of the ending of its civil war. On this small island, the (Hindu-oriented) Tamil minority ethnic group had fought for a separate homeland from the larger (Buddhist-identified) Sinhalese population for decades, with approximately 100,000 people dying between 1972 and 2009.

Historical concentration of the minority Tamil population ringed along the west-north-east coasts

In the final months of the war - spring 2009, Sri Lanka's military dealt increasingly effective blows, and rather surprisingly crushed the "Tamil Tigers" in a series of final battles in late May of that year, bringing about a total military defeat.

The Sri Lankan forces slowly separated and isolated the Tamil Tiger armed forces into a smaller geographic area before finally crushing the armed resistance in dramatic battles May 19 and 20, 2009.

Rights groups say up to 40,000 civilians alone died in these final months of vicious fighting, and since the final military victory, the issue has become how to reconcile, how to move forward, how to better address the aspirations of the defeated minority Tamil population, and ultimately stitch together a cohesive society.

Building this path of reconciliation between parties and populations is outside the headlines of course, but critical for Sri Lanka's future. And it is a story that many nations have had to tackle, some successfully and others not. We can list a dozen such situations with ease. America's civil war in the 1860s; Russia in the 1910s and 20s; Spain's in the 1930s; Greece in 1950's; India and Pakistan and later Bangladesh in the 1940s and 60s; Nigeria in the 1960s; Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda in the 1990s; Sudan's in the 1990s and 2000s as well as Somalia's descent into anarchy in the same period. Then there's Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the latest in Libya and the emerging conflict in Syria.

Each has had to deal with, or will face, reconstructing a society with more active leadership, tolerance, addressing grievances, and healing trauma.

In Sri Lanka's case, the record has been mixed. A militaristic triumphalism appeals to some and remains a force today, while the harder bridge building and healing efforts continues to be elusive. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently stressed the importance of demilitarizing the northern part of the country and holding provincial elections there, as well as the protection of human rights, including the protection of the press, having the government create space for Sri Lankan civil society, and “generally the creation of an environment that is inclusive.” Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister had last week presented Clinton with “a very serious and comprehensive approach” to the implementation of recommendations from Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2011 to investigate and address the issues that led to the 1983–2009 conflict. The meeting occurred because demands for an international tribunal had been called for as critics accused Sri Lanka of foot-dragging on these issues until now.

The northern city of Jaffna - the most populous among the Tamil minority - has potential for growth and development.

The former Sri Lankan army chief, Sarath Fonseka, who had spent nearly two years in prison after running a failed campaign for president, was freed on Monday. His release came as the Sri Lankan government has been increasingly criticized for trampling on civil liberties and human rights. Sri Lankan television showed General Fonseka leaving prison on Monday afternoon as a jubilant crowd greeted him with firecrackers and cheers. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had jailed the general in 2010, signed an order last week pardoning him from serving the remainder of his sentence. Fonseka had in the past three years at times criticized other commanders for aggressive actions against the Tamil's and in any regard had been considered a major rival of the current president.

Former Sri Lankan general Fonseka upon being released from prison

On the other hand, looking at reconciliation from a generational standpoint, there have been more attempts at bridge building. Younger Sri Lankans are more enthusiastic about building a unified society perhaps than those more entrenched in their perspectives. Canada's National Post notes that one of the most promising efforts at reconciliation comes in the form of Sri Lanka Unites, a group that brings young adults from both sides together for conferences and shared activities. This August, the group will hold a leadership conference in the city of Jaffna, in the heart of the war-torn north. It is expected to draw 500 top student leaders, including 50 from the diaspora (of whom 15 will be from Canada). It is believed to be the first national event of any kind to be held in Jaffna since the end of the civil war.

Sri Lankan sports focus on cricket may also be an avenue for bridge building

A Tamil newspaper reported yesterday that a four-member squad Friday morning attacked the secretary of the Jaffna University Student Union (JUSU) using iron-rods near a Sri Lanka Army camp at Kaladdi in Jaffna. The 25-year-old student leader was on his way to the University in a bicycle to observe Mu’l'livaaykkaal Remembrance. Despite the threats by the Sri Lanka military intelligence, the students of Jaffna University went ahead with the memorial event stating that it was their democratic right to mark the remembrance day and protested against the military operated administration of civil affairs in the peninsula. Tension prevails at the University of Jaffna where students have gathered in thousands.

Jaffna University students at a remembrance event commemorating the struggle in the north of the country and a slow pace of reconciliation.

The key for Sri Lanka is how the nation will choose to remember their civil war - to acknowledge the issues and tensions and consciously seek to address them for the collective good, or "ignore" or minimize the past, leaving it open for a tragic relapse.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ukraine, Poland, football and boycotts

It wasn't supposed to work this way. The Ukraine and Poland had been chosen to co-host the Euro 2012 football contests - a series of matches in soccer that is highly sought after among the European states for the boost of fans and visitors and the opportunity to showcase the host nations' progress.

The event - sixteen nations football teams in a playoff schedule between 8 June and 1 July 2012 - was the first for either nation. The host cities Warsaw, Gdańsk, Wrocław, Poznań in Poland, and Kiev and Lviv in Ukraine are all popular tourist destinations, while two other Ukrainian cities, Donetsk and Kharkiv have a chance to shine.

Poland in red and white, while Ukraine is in yellow and blue

The responsibility of the host nations require the expansion and modernisation of roads and transport links, as well as stadium upgrades. Six of the eight venues are brand new stadiums currently being constructed ready to open in advance of the tournament; the remaining two (in Poznań and Kharkiv) have undergone major renovations to improve them. So this is a big deal, but now there is talk among leading European nations of boycotting the tournament.


Ukraine's political leaders and elites have, unlike Poland, since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990, been unable to find common enough ground to govern with singular purpose. Perhaps the most fundamental division is that of vision. After 22 years of independence, the leadership is still stumbling over whether to orient east towards Russia and retain historic close ties with that nation, or look west and seek to build a more modern and participatory democracy in line with Western Europe.

From 1990-2004, two Presidents ruled over a government coping to change from a political satellite of the Soviet Union with its resources and economy deeply oriented to serving Russia, into a more competitive, self sufficient nation within the larger European setting. But over time, corruption, power, and control became more obvious, and in 2004, the political disarray finally emerged in full display.

In 2004, the Orange Revolution shook the increasingly manipulative government ...

In 2004,Viktor Yanukovych, then Prime Minister, was declared the winner of the presidential elections, which had been largely rigged, as the Supreme Court of Ukraine later ruled. The results caused a public outcry in support of the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, who challenged the outcome of the elections. This resulted in the peaceful Orange Revolution, bringing Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko to power, while casting Viktor Yanukovych in opposition.

The 2004 revolution and subsequent short Presidential rule of Yushchenko was viciously challenged. Yushchenko was poisoned in an apparent assassination attempt in late 2004 having ingested hazardous amounts of TCDD: the most potent dioxin and a contaminant in Agent Orange, and suffering disfigurement as a result.

Yanukovych returned to a position of power in 2006, when he became Prime Minister in the Alliance of National Unity, until snap elections in September 2007 made Tymoshenko Prime Minister again.

Yulio Tymoshenko, two time prime minister ...

Yanukovych was elected President in 2010, and this time engineered a criminal charge of malfeasance in office on Yulia Tymoshenko. In October of 2011, she was convicted of assorted bribery, misuse of state funds, etc, and sent to prison for a seven year prison term.

Current President and former Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych

In April this year, Tymoshenko began a hunger strike accusing the state of poor treatment and beatings, which eventually forced the attention of European leaders. A German doctor was brought in and is now in charge of her convalescence, but on the political front, the trial itself along with the prison treatment brought about several European leaders saying they should and would boycott the Euro 2012 tournament.

Current political prisoner Tymoshenko, now recovering in a prison hospital under the care of a German doctor for the weakening of her health due to a hunger strike ...

So here we are! Football, boycotts, revolving door leadership - all after two decades of trying to move the country forward.

Click on image for full picture

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine continues to maintain the second largest military in Europe, after that of Russia. The country is home to 46 million people, 77.8 percent of whom are ethnic Ukrainians, with sizable minorities of Russians (17%), Belarusians and Romanians. The Ukrainian language is the official language in Ukraine. Russian is also widely spoken. The dominant religion in the country is Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which has heavily influenced Ukrainian architecture, literature and music. There are some amazing Communist era statues and memorials, as shown here, highlighting differences in vision that still bedevil the country.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The latest Chinese dissident

When considering writing anything about China (or India), the challenge is to avoid generalizing - as, after all, each country has over a billion people. On the other hand, one can say probably anything about human behavior in either of the two countries, and be likely to have accurately described at least one individual ...

Chen Guangcheng, a Chinese activist shown here in dark glasses with his wife, Yuan Weijing, and TWO children, son Chen Derui and daughter Chen Kesi. The second child, daughter Chen Kesi, was welcomed by Chen and Yuan in defiance of China's one child policy.

So the latest media frenzy is over a Chinese activist, Chen Guangcheng. That he is blind adds to the media interest. Over the past week, the story erupted that the 40 year old activist escaped from house arrest on April 22 at night climbing over his compound walls, and slipping past "multiple cordons of guards." A chain of human rights activists then smuggled him into Beijing, where he reached the U.S. Embassy.

Guangcheng's route from house arrest in his home town of Dongshigu to possible freedom in Beijing, 300 miles north. Note the town of Linyi just to the south of Dongshigu - more on that city later.

Guangcheng apparently spent six days in the US embassy, infuriating the Chinese leadership who regard the American involvement as unwelcome meddling in their internal affairs. The US Ambassador to China, Gary Locke, former Washington state Governor (and of Chinese origin himself) was verbally attacked for being a key player in the drama, with one main official Chinese newspaper calling him "a backpack-wearing, Starbucks-sipping troublemaker."

Caught up in the hourly drama of what to do with Guangcheng, US Ambassador to China, Gary Locke, on the phone, with translator and Guangcheng in a limousine.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a high-level meeting scheduled before Guangcheng made his escape, so tensions were higher at the meeting itself, now that both the US and China had to save face and deal with this one individual in the middle of larger discussions around loans, debt, trade, human rights in general, and security matters. Just before she arrived in Beijing, an "understanding" was announced that Guangcheng would receive treatment at a Chinese hospital (he had injured himself during the escape), and that arrangements were being made for him to come to the US (and his family) to pursue studies at an American university in the near future.

Amid the furore, pomp and circumstance of a high-level state-to-state visit went on.

As of today, after Clinton left Beijing to return to the US, journalists are writing articles of concern that perhaps Guangcheng may not be able to leave China after all ... The question, as we noted in another post on Chinese dissidents (November 19, 2011) is whether Guangcheng's moment of fame in the Western press is over, and his issue is equally forgotten. Oh yes, hard to find among all the reports this past week, was what exactly was Guangcheng's issue of dissent?

What was Guangcheng protesting or over what issue had he become an activist?

Chen Guangcheng exposed the systematic use of forced abortion and sterilization in Linyi City in 2005. He was challenging the day-to-day implementation of China's one child policy - in place since 1978. From Wikipedia, we can read a very studiously "neutral" overview of this policy: The Chinese government refers to it under the official translation of family planning policy. It officially restricts married, urban couples to having only one child, while allowing exemptions for several cases, including residents of Hong Kong and Macau, foreigners living in China, rural couples, ethnic minorities, and parents without any siblings themselves. A spokesperson of the Committee on the One-Child Policy has said that approximately 35.9% of China's population is currently subject to the one-child restriction... It was created by the Chinese government to alleviate social, economic, and environmental problems in China, and authorities claim that the policy has prevented between 250 and 300 million births from its implementation until 2000, and 400 million births from 1979 to 2011. ... A 2008 survey undertaken by the Pew Research Center reported that 76% of the Chinese population supports the policy."

Other views of the one child policy

One result of China's one child policy is a very high male to female ratio. (Pink = Female higher than male;
Green = Equal; Blue = Male higher than female). A Time magazine article notes that a recent study published in the British Medical Journal found China still has 32 million more boys than girls under the age of 20. The total number of young people is a problem as well; factories have reported youth-labor shortages in recent years, a problem that will only get worse. In 2007 there were six adults of working age for every retiree, but by 2040 that ratio is expected to drop to 2 to 1. Analysts fear that with too few children to care for them, China's elderly people will suffer neglect.",8599,1912861,00.html#ixzz1u1tR3XBy

Guangcheng clearly takes a much darker view than the official Chinese government, the curious study by PEW, and the demographics noted in the Time magazine article. After his 2005 act of resistance by publicizing how the policy was implemented in Linyi city, he was jailed, tortured and denied medical treatment for the next four years. After being released from prison in 2010, Chen was placed under house arrest and closely monitored at his home village. He and his wife then attempted to communicate via video tape and written communication. The government responded by beating Chen and his wife, confiscating documents and communication devices in their possession, cutting off electric power, and installing metal sheets over the windows of their house... The summary here comes from several articles and reports - one can choose what level of emotion and wording to believe, but the gist is clear enough. (See for a detailed account)

Let's think about this a minute: A government policy that forces women to have abortions or be sterilized "for the greater needs of society," as the state perceives it.

Guangcheng with daughter in their home, in this frame taken from video footage during his house arrest years. Having that second child, a daughter no less, was a much greater "statement" than us Westerners readily understand.

So on we go, China being a major rising power, clearly unready to allow significant dissent from its official policies. The other nation in the drama, the US, is trapped into a complex set of policies with China. One policy of encouraging trade and development - the result is the vast quantity of Chinese goods sold in the US is calculated on the premise that economic growth would eventually transform Chinese governance into an enlightened form (not sure we're there yet). On the other hand, the US is borrowing major amounts of money from China to fund its own deficit spending, even while maneuvering militarily to slow China's Pacific territorial claims, and counter its forceful search for global resources in other parts of the world.