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, December 28, 2014

2014 ends as ISAF combat mission in Afghanistan is completed

In the last Teatree post of 2014, it seems that the official close today of the ISAF combat mission in Afghanistan, is an appropriate ending note to a particularly dark year.

Afghanistan the map in pale yellow. The impoverished country has a population of just over 30 million, and has seen nearly unrelenting violence since the late 1970s. Graphic from

ISAF stands for International Security Assistance Force. It was created in December 2001 in a conference taking place in Berlin, Germany. From the ISAF website we read, "Afghan opposition leaders attending the conference began the process of reconstructing their country by setting up a new government structure, namely the Afghan Transitional Authority. The concept of a UN-mandated international force to assist the newly established Afghan Transitional Authority was also launched at this occasion to create a secure environment in and around Kabul and support the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

These agreements paved the way for the creation of a three-way partnership between the Afghan Transitional Authority, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and ISAF. On 11 August 2003 NATO assumed leadership of the ISAF operation, ending the six-month national rotations."

Since 2001, the ISAF coalition has grown and dwindled, peaking with about 50 contributing nations and at one time 130,000 combat troops. In the map, one can see the kaleidoscope of national flags - both RC (regional commands) and PRTs which stands for Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Map from

With ISAF dominated by the U.S. in terms of soldiers and funds, the coalition battled Taliban fighters, al-qaeda, Pakistani-based Islamists, and various militants from around the world who were drawn for a variety of reasons. In the 13 years of combat, the U.S. lost 2356, the UK lost 453, Canada lost 138, while all other coalition partners in total lost 538. (Statistics from, and

Looking at a graph of ISFA fatalities by month, one might assume the war is winding down ... Graphic from

The death toll among Afghan forces and civilians was, of course, much higher, without minimizing the brutality that the Taliban had brought to the nation before ISAF moved in. The reduction in ISAF casualties reflects the increasing role that frontline Afghan forces have taken on, a force that now consists of over 350,000 personnel.

It always seems as though meticulous records are kept of some combatants, and civilian tracking comes late and vague. In a recent article by The Guardian in the UK, we read, "This year is set to be the deadliest of the war, according to the United Nations, which expects civilian casualties to hit 10,000 for the first time since the agency began keeping records in 2008. It says that most of the deaths and injuries are caused by Taliban attacks."

The article continues, "As Afghan forces assume sovereignty, the country is without a cabinet, three months after Ghani’s inauguration, and economic growth is near zero due to the reduction of the international military and aid juggernauts. The United States spent more than $100m on reconstruction in Afghanistan, on top of the $1tn war effort."

New infrastructure - concrete tubes (for sewer and water) are being finished by hand, in front of newly built buildings. Photo from

Newly elected Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, faces immense challenges on top of fighting an insurgency that seems as potent as ever. Government corruption, warlords, education, health services and a viable economy top the domestic list. Photo from the Washington Times

What is next?

A residual support mission of some 13,000 military personnel (11,000 from the U.S.) will remain to support the Afghan military effort. Prognostications regarding the future of this country vary. One reads that the Taliban are merely waiting until the ISAF forces go home, and the fight resumes in 2015. The question really becomes one regarding the abilities of the Afghan forces themselves to maintain order and security ...

Afghan forces - will they follow the disastrous national Iraqi army meltdown, or stand up like the regional Kurd peshmerga? Photo from

If there is one unexpected new ray of hope, it comes out of the tragedy that occurred in Pakistan less than two weeks ago. The massacre of school children in Peshawar has at least temporarily galvanized the government there against the lawless tribal regions along the Afghan-Pakistani border. If these two governments could truly build an effective alliance, safe havens for militants would be drastically reduced.

Can Pakistan establish control in the orange zone shown here? (though the lawless regions extend southwest all along the Afghan border) That may be key to Afghanistan's own chances for success. Photo from

The Afghan elite who make up the nation's parliament. Is there enough seriousness represented here to search for the good of all segments of society? Photo from

Teatree hopes so, but Teatree is not reassured.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Pakistan mourns its children, and executes prisoners

On December 16, Taliban gunmen from a notorious Pakistan militant group - the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP - stormed a military run school, murdering 141 people, including 132 children. The massacre of children sent shock waves through Pakistani society and the whole world.

The slaughter occurred in the major northern city of Peshawar, population over 3 million, hosting numerous military camps and strategic forces. Graphic from

The event was a grim reminder of the Islamic separatist movement in Chechnya, Russia attacked and held over 1000 students and teachers hostage for three days. In that case, over 385 hostages died (156 children) in a flareup of violence that sparked an assault by Russian security forces.

But in the Chechen tragedy, there was violence from all corners, including a major fire that caused the fatalities of over 100 of those killed. In the case of Pakistan, it was cold blooded killing by adults of the school body, ordered to send a message to the Pakistan government and military that attacking the TTP in its tribal strongholds was to attract vengeance. Finally after more than eight hours of intense fighting, security forces secured the school saving 960 pupils and staff.

Parents escort their children away from the school ... One Reuters article described the attack thus, "Wounded children taken to nearby hospitals told Reuters most victims died when gunmen, suicide vests strapped to their bodies, entered the compound and opened fire indiscriminately on boys, girls and their teachers." Photo from

Pakistan ready to pull together?

There were immediate cries of outrage from all levels of Pakistani leaders - politicians, military - and even some major Pakistani-based Islamic militant groups such as the The Afghan Taliban (who fight in Afghanistan but leave Pakistan alone). Pakistan's Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, told reporters in Peshawar “This is a decisive moment in the fight against terrorism. The people of Pakistan should unite in this fight. Our resolve will not be weakened by these attacks.”

But the bloodshed is a reminder of the long and deadly game the Pakistan military and the country's intelligence agency (ISI) have played. There are several Sunni militant groups operating in Pakistan with the tolerance of the Pakistan military and ISI which created a militia network over thirty years ago to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and to dominate Afghanistan itself. Besides the Afghan Taliban already mentioned, another major Islamic group, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, operates freely in the nation, even though it is officially outlawed, because it focuses on fighting India. This group in 2008 assaulted the Indian city of Mumbai over four days and killed over 170 people. As one article from Bloomberg News notes, "One of its founders, Hafiz Saeed, lives openly in Lahore and has been a frequent user of social media."

Hafiz Aseed, founder of the outlawed militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, lives openly in Lahore. This group is tolerated as it rages against Pakistan's neighbor India. Photo from

Moreover, besides the extremists themselves, the stream of trouble runs much deeper. Extremist mosques remain open and thrive in major cities, while a large network of Islamic madrassas (religious schools) indoctrinate young Pakistanis by the tens of thousands.

Islamic fundamentalist schools at work. Photo from

For now the Pakistan military has flailed angrily into some tribal strongholds killing scores of extremist fighters in the past few days. More chillingly, the government lifted a moratorium on the death penalty for convicted terrorists and just two days after the school attack, hung two who were on death row. As a BBC article reported, "The home minister for Punjab province, Shuja Khanzada, told Associated Press: "Today's executions of terrorists will boost the morale of the nation, and we are planning to hang more terrorists next week." Indeed, four more were hung within a week of the attack, and the government boasts that up to 500 terrorists in its custody could be executed in the coming weeks.

Anger at terrorists is opening up the likelihood of repeated executions. Photo from

So it looks like a lot of angry reaction - military operations and hangings. But a serious attempt to change the uneven treatment of militant factions, shut down the incendiary rhetoric even today at some of Pakistan's mosques, and disband the widespread indoctrination labeled as teaching at fundamental Islamic schools (ie. work at building a civil society) has yet to surface.


And so, even as Christmas is celebrated by Christians around the world, there seems even less peace than ever before. Once again, Teatree posts a song that speaks of faith and hope, written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the dark days of the civil war in America 149 years ago. One must admit that the powerful lyrics seem to speak with an even lonelier voice than in the past.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,

and wild and sweet
The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along
The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound
The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn
The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;

"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men."


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement

Teatree tends to think that Asian matters often suffer a disconnect with the West, at least with Americans. Which is a shame as China's recent prosperity along its Coast, impact on world trade, and its overall vast population (1.1 billion) should keep us engaged.

Thus, a moment on Hong Kong's "Umbrella Movement" (it finally has a name).

Where is Hong Kong? Let's start with its general location in context to China, the country. Graphic from

Hong Kong itself is a metropolis on an island part of what is called the New Territories - a peninsula off Chinese mainland.

Hong Kong is a rich, affluent metropolis with a long history of global trade under a capitalist economic system. Nonetheless, it also grew as part of Great Britain's empire at its zenith. Great Britain at the time "negotiated" a lease from a weak Chinese government in 1898 for 99 years. The return of Hong Kong to a patient China in 1997 was a big event. Photo from

Hong Kong's recent history

From wikipedia, "As a result of the negotiations and the 1984 agreement between China and Britain, the British colony Hong Kong was returned to the People's Republic of China and became its first Special Administrative Region on 1 July 1997, under the principle of "one country, two systems".

Hong Kong has a different political system from mainland China. Hong Kong's independent judiciary functions under the common law framework. The Hong Kong Basic Law ... stipulates that Hong Kong shall have a high degree of autonomy in all matters except foreign relations and military defence. The declaration [also] stipulates that the region maintain its capitalist economic system and guarantees the rights and freedoms of its people for at least 50 years after the 1997 handover. The guarantees over the territory's autonomy and the individual rights and freedoms are enshrined in the Hong Kong Basic Law ... but is subject to the interpretation of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPCSC).

The leader of Hong Kong, the Chief Executive, is currently elected by a 1200-member Election Committee, though Article 45 of the Basic Law states that "the ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures."

And hence the trouble begins ...

In late August, the "Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPCSC)" decided to change some nomination and election procedures. "While notionally allowing for universal suffrage, the decision imposes the standard that "the Chief Executive shall be a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong," and stipulates "the method for selecting the Chief Executive by universal suffrage must provide corresponding institutional safeguards for this purpose".

In a nutshell, while voting was allowed, it was for party approved nominees only, and the final decision between the top two vote getters would rest with the national government (via whatever Standing Committee it chose to exercise power through).

On to the streets came young protesters - perhaps the most interesting dynamic being their young ages, their social media connectedness, and their desires for "real democracy" based on one person one vote.

The Western media picked up on this wave of protests, and we've seen the pictures of sit ins, stand ins, police removing protesters, re-occupation, negotiations, new police sweeps, etc.

Hong Kong streets taken over by democracy protesters. Photo from

Hong Kong police breaking up demonstrations. Photo from

Where will it end?

This is a good question - the outcome is uncertain, though significant change to the Chinese government's position is increasingly unlikely. The protest itself then is likely to dissipate or be strongly suppressed, but the questioning, the awakening, and the resolve contained therein may emerge at another time. There is a new generation of mainly under 30s who took the "one nation, two systems" seriously and don't want to loose the freedoms they have grown up with.

Young, connected, and not interested in a "fake" democracy. Photo from the Telegraph UK

The recent record of protests is mixed - significant change is pretty rare.

* Remember 1989 when Chinese authorities crushed a significant uprising at Tiananmen Square.

* Yet beginning that same year, there was the avalanche of protests across the decaying Soviet Empire that resulted in the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

* In 2009, a "green revolution" in Iran flared and was subdued.

* In 2011, a wave of protests across the Arab world (the Arab spring) sputtered, then died in perhaps of the involved countries except Tunisia. Syria represents the worst case scenario where the protests morphed into a savage ongoing civil war, fed by regional powers in a proxy conflict.


The Umbrella Movement refers to the items protesters used to protect themselves from police. Photo from

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Some individuals caught within larger events

A rather vague theme this time, but I think I'm trying to recognize individuals, who in turn represent the human face of larger forces and events. Hang in there.

A teacher trainee stands up

In Germany, from a report by the German news agency, Deutche Welle, "Tugce Albayrak, a German citizen of Turkish origin, was the victim of a violent attack earlier this month. Reports indicate the student from Gelnhausen intervened on behalf of two girls who were being harassed by three males near the restroom area of a McDonald's restaurant. Thereafter, and in circumstances that have yet to be clarified, the scene shifted to the fast food restaurant's car park, where an 18-year-old male punched her, causing her to fall and hit her head on a stone."

Since that incident (and after this rather dry reccounting), her decision to step in has created a frenzy of attention, right up to the German President, Joachim Gauck, being called upon to posthumously award her the Federal Order of Merit. In gathering a bit of her background, Ms Albayrak, 23, and a teacher trainee, we find the longer story.

Tugce Albayrak, a second generation German citizen, from an immigrant Turkish family. Photo from

From an article by the UK Guardian, "The Albayrak family arrived in Germany in the late 1970s – following the route of many a Turkish Gastarbeiter, or guest worker, before them – from an Anatolian village called Bahadin, and settling in the western state of Hesse.

“Tugce’s grandfather had been working at the Opel carplant in Russelsheim for several years ... his wife joined him and decided to bring the five children over,” At the start, life was hard. “It was us, the Turks, and them, the Germans,” she said. “Integration did not exist” said one of the original five children. By and by, all five children gave birth. There were to be a succession of nine boys before Tugce came along in 1991. “She was our first princess,” says Uncle Yasni. “We treasured her all the more for that.”

Tugce’s parents – her father works at a car plastics production plant and her mother as a clinical assistant – were seen as particularly exemplary amongst the Turkish diaspora for the way they encouraged their children’s education – something they had no access to themselves. Tugce was in her second year at university, training to be a secondary school teacher of German and ethics. “She was a very good student and an extremely popular person,” a university spokeswoman said."

A bright light in what is mainly a more somber story of Germany's Turkish workers not integrating well, and not being well received over the past several decades.

Indian girls fight back

In India, where there exists a common sentiment of disdain for women, two young sisters resisted the verbal and physical abuse of three young men on a public bus.

From, "footage of two Indian sisters has emerged showing them beating three men with belts who allegedly tried to molest them on a bus. The men are reported to have blown kisses and passed notes before subjecting them to lewd comments.

The sisters, Aarti and Pooja, were then reportedly thrown off the vehicle as it was still moving and further assaulted. No one came to their aid throughout the incident and a fellow passenger apparently said: "Leave these boys or they will rape you or pour acid. They will kill you and no one even get your bodies."

The two sisters, Aarti and Pooja Kumar, 22 and 19, after being discouraged by police from pursuing their case, have suddenly become social media heroines. Photo from

Unfortunately, the article continues, ""Passengers in the bus stopped us from calling the police. We were thrown out of moving bus & then conductor told us to file police complaint, but by that time they had all escaped." Police have said the matter is under investigation but have drawn criticism for their slow response. The girl's father, Rajesh Kumar, said officials were even trying to pressurise them not to pursue the matter."

Since the event has become internationally known, we learn (from the ib times in the UK) "The three alleged assailants have been arrested and remanded in custody for 14 days but residents in their village of Kandla have mounted a protest demanding their immediate release. ...Meanwhile, the bus driver has also been suspended for failing to take action during the fight."

A young American boy offers free hugs

In the US, tensions from the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, following a grand jury decision to not indict a white police officer who shot and killed a black teen in an altercation, broke across the nation with street protests. In Portland, Oregon, a 12 year old boy offered free hugs as an alternative to angry actions.

From an article in the UK Daily Mail, a 12-year-old black boy, Devonte Hart, with tears in his eyes, embraced a white police officer, Portland Police Sgt. Bret Barnum (Photo from article)

Kenyan laborers pay dearly

In Kenya, repeating a bus massacre from just 10 days earlier, over 30 Kenyan quarry workers near the northeast city of Mandera where rounded up by al-Shabab extremists, asked what their religion was, and those not Muslim were executed.

Victims being removed from scene of the attack. There were no heroics here, just innocent workers caught up in a vicious war where militants perpetrate incidents and the security forces apparently not up to the task. Photo from

The incident like most of the above has quickly mushroomed into a larger event. From the UK Independent, "Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta, has scrambled to restore confidence in his leadership with a security reshuffle after Islamist gunmen shot and beheaded 36 labourers at a quarry in north-eastern Kenya in the second such massacre in less than a fortnight.

Amid growing criticism over his failure to tackle the security threat, Mr Kenyatta fired his Interior Minister, replacing him with the opposition figure and retired army General Joseph Ole Nkaissery, and accepted the resignation of the national police chief David Kimaiyo. ...

The attacks have highlighted the Kenyan government’s failure to provide security in vulnerable and remote border areas, where decades of underinvestment in public security have left the police thinly spread, and militants are able to move easily across the porous border from war-torn Somalia, either by paying off underpaid police officers or by avoiding the scarce patrols."

PS. Kenyan President Kenyatta, of course, is himself in danger of being tried by the International Criminal Court in the Hague for his role in inflaming ethnic violence after the country's 2007 presidential election.

Teatree can think of many others who could have been noted here .. a list of individuals caught up in larger struggles, some emerging as momentary heroes, while others dying.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

US illegal immigration challenges mirror those faced in many countries

This week's U.S. Presidential executive action on illegal immigration has highlighted the similarities between the U.S. and many countries around the world wrestling with borders, refugees (from not only military conflicts, but from economic and political crises), and appropriate responses.

Also similar to any effort among individual countries to develop and implement border and immigration policies, the controversy among political factions is often intense and filled with factions.

In the case of the U.S., the issue is often cast as another Democrat/Republican conflict, but President Obama's actions this week underscores the intent of the most recent Presidential effort by G.W. Bush, who championed the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007. The fact that the comprehensive bill failed to be enacted by Congress highlights why President Obama seven years later felt it worthwhile to push the issue via executive action.

Individuals attempting to leave their own countries and enter others by any means, are overwhelmingly seeking refuge from conflict, oppression, or to better their lives. Many instances of attempts to cross seas are risky and often fatal. Here an overloaded boat from North Africa is intercepted by Maltese and Italian officers. Photo from

U.S. President Obama took actions that shield approximately 4 million illegal (to lower the word choice temperature, let's use "unauthorized") immigrants from the looming possibility of deportation - specifically offering the possibility of a three year reprieve from deportation if one qualifies. At the same time, the border patrol (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)) search for unauthorized individuals would concentrate on felons, not those having arrived in childhood, or who have US born children (hence the soundbite "felons, not families"). As a result of this decision to not deport certain segments, there would be more flexibility for obtaining better paying jobs and many other positives, or so the narrative goes.

The southern border between the U.S. and Mexico is often a stark contrast between a relative dispersed and orderly US side (to the left in this picture, near San Diego, CA) while the Mexican side is teeming, and often full of conflict (to the right, Tijuana, Mexico). Photo from

The anger and resistance to the President's actions stem from a variety of concerns. There seems to be little denial that the U.S. legal immigration system (work visas, green cards, guest worker programs, citizenship requirements, quotas per country) is in need of reform, not to mention illegal immigration, but the complete package to reform immigration (both legal and illegal) is elusive to put it mildly, mainly due to the nearly infinite set of factors and possibilities.

Much of the political resistance to unauthorized immigration focuses on the U.S.-Mexican border, with Mexicans being the largest national immigrant group in the past years. Interestingly, the peak in 2007 coincides with the beginning of the U.S. recession that has subsequently depressed the possibility for unauthorized individuals to find work upon arrival. Graphic from

Legitimate concerns over President Obama's actions are several - does he have legal authority to offer social security numbers or work permits - though he does have the authority to practice discretion in what border agents should prosecute. But perhaps the biggest issue is whether his go it alone approach (without Congressional approval or involvement) represents a pyrrhic victory that sows seeds for court action and possible reversal, or even contradictory legislation from a Republican Congress.

Interestingly, actual border security across the U.S. Southern border is less of a factor in this latest initiative than previously. Many experts believe significant progress on border security has been made. In fact, the U.S. President is also calling for increased security efforts in conjunction with his shielding millions from deportation. The unauthorized immigrant debate has become more focused on economic costs and benefits linked to the sizable underclass already here in the shadows. The ongoing debate over citizenship, rights, and a desire to diminish the festering consequences of millions living in the U.S. without legal status has been given a jolt. Photo from

Points to consider

Unauthorized immigrants may be enjoying better economic lives in the U.S. than in their home countries, but Teatree leans towards this being an unfair permanent underclass - a formidable sized population that businesses can take advantage of and have. All the more reason to reduce the unauthorized pool of individuals living in the U.S. while strengthening the legal immigrant program.

Farm workers come to mind as representing a permanent underclass that businesses rely on. So what should a guest worker program look like? One that maintains workers specific safeguards as to health and safety without fear of deportation, while perhaps diminishing in numbers over time .... Employee verification programs are currently available that would greatly reduce unauthorized immigrant employment, but businesses are against their use, as are many Democrats. Roughly 1.4 million farmworkers are employed on U.S. crop farms annually. Illegal immigrants account for as many as 60 percent or more of them, according to Ronald Knutson, a Texas A&M University emeritus professor in an article found here. Photo from

With a weak U.S. job market, will the increase of over three million individuals more able to look for better work conflict with new legal immigrants or low skill workers already seeking those often low wage jobs?

The recent surge of nearly 50,000 women and children (in this case a woman and her two children from Guatemala) may have contributed to the U.S. President's decision to poke the hornet's nest. Photo from

A naturalization ceremony - these fortunate folks are full U.S. citizens, no need to live in the economic and judicial shadows, and in Teatree's opinion, represent the way to go in addressing immigration. A healthy, out-in-the-open increase in legal immigration is the process that moreover has consistently been a bright point in U.S. history. Photo from

Regardless, for those unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., often with decades and multiple generations involved, perhaps the President's provocative actions will spark some progress across the broader front of border security, citizenship, and compassion for what is in this country, a history of peoples seeking a new life and opportunity.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Hungary and the new "Putinism"

Hungary is a relatively small country in Central Europe (similar to Maine in the US), with a population of nearly 10 million. Its current modest size and numbers belies its influential history as part of a major European empire from 1867-1918.

Hungary today is small, but has a unique history within Europe complete with a distinctive ethnicity and language (called Magyar). From the BBC, "Hungary traces its history back to the Magyars, an alliance of semi-nomadic tribes from southern Russia and the Black Sea coast that arrived in the region in the ninth century." Graphic from

Hungary as part of the Austria-Hungary empire reached into every neighboring state for 50 years. Graphic from

A short review of modern history.

After World War 1, the empire which had fought with Germany against Western allies, was dismembered, and after World War II, in which its leaders sided with the Axis powers (albeit fitfully and at times under great coercive pressure), was swallowed up as a Soviet satellite. All in all, a remarkably poor set of choices in the two wars, and a bitter consequence under Communist rule for another 50 plus years.

To the credit of Hungarian people, they rebelled against Communist rule in 1956, though the movement was crushed. The ripples of defiance were felt again in 1968 in neighboring Czechoslovakia with its "Prague Spring" (a term applied to the short lived "Arab Spring" seen in several Arab nations another 45 years later). But only after 1991, was Hungary able to develop a modern Western style democracy, free market economy, and become a member of both the European Union and NATO.

Budapest, Hungary's capitol, is one of the larger cities in the EU, and straddles the Danube river (Buda on one side, Pest on the other). It now thrives as a financial hub along with being one of the most visited tourist destinations in Europe. Photo from

And the story of Putinism being coined as a term linked with Hungary?

Since the worldwide recession in 2008, Europe as a whole has suffered with stagnant economies, high unemployment, and financial strife among neighbors. Hungary has been no exception, but what has emerged in the past few years, under the leadership of its 3rd term Prime Minister, Victor Orban, is a government increasingly skeptical of Western values and abilities, and increasingly sympathetic to Russian President Putin's assertiveness and nationalism.

Young Mr Orban in 1998 at the age of 35, less than a decade after Communist rule, began his first term as the Prime Minister of Hungary. Photo from

Mr Orban leads the national conservative ruling party Fidesz. At 35, in 1998, Orban became the second youngest prime minister of Hungary. In 2002, he sat in opposition in the parliament for eight years. In 2010, he again took the reins of Prime Minister for a second term, and made some controversial changes to Hungary's constitution that created conflict with the larger framework of the European Union. In April 2014, Orban's party won a new round of parliamentary elections, giving him a formal 3rd term as Prime Minister, though with increasing concerns from other European heads.

Orban now openly muses over the relative attractiveness of Russian President Putin's assertiveness and nationalism (seen in Putin's popularity over his actions with Ukraine) to what he perceives as weakness and timidity of the West. As a recent New York Times article describes it, "Vladimir V. Putin’s combative nationalism is more popular here than what many see as Western democratic sclerosis."

The NYT article continues, "In a speech this summer, Mr. Orban declared liberal democracy to be in decline and praised authoritarian “illiberal democracies” in Turkey, China, Singapore and Russia. He traced his views to what he portrayed as the failures of Western governments to anticipate and deal adequately with the financial crisis that started in 2008 and the ensuing deep recession. He called that period the fourth great shock of the past century — the others being World War I, World War II and the end of the Cold War — and the impetus for what he called today’s key struggle: “a race to invent a state that is most capable of making a nation successful. ... Hungary, he said, will be “breaking with the dogmas and ideologies that have been adopted by the West” and will instead build a “new Hungarian state” that will be “competitive in the great global race for decades to come.””

Orban today, shaking hands with apparent new enthusiasm for Russian President Putin. Photo from www.huffingtonpost.

It is a former German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, who refers to Orban as “the only Putinist governing in the European Union ...”

While the NY Times predictably leans hostile towards nationalistic views, even the conservative magazine, The Economist writes, "Mr Orban’s centralisation of power has drawn protests from the European Union, America’s State Department and human-rights groups. Corruption has worsened, says Transparency International, a watchdog. More than a third of the population live at or below the poverty line. The situation of the Roma, the largest minority in the country, remains as parlous as ever. In Miskolc a slum-clearance programme has made many homeless.

Mr Orban outlined his longer-term vision in a much-noted speech on July 26th in Baile Tusnade, in neighbouring Romania. Hungary, he explained, would become an “illiberal state”. Speaking admiringly of Russia, China and Turkey, he said Hungary would remain a democracy, and not reject liberal principles such as freedom of speech, but would be based on “a different, special, national approach”. The approach, say critics, was evident earlier this month when police raided the Budapest office of Okotars, an NGO that manages funds from Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein, and confiscated computers and documents for alleged financial mismanagement. Okotars strongly denies the charge. The police raid was “completely unacceptable”, thundered Vidar Helgesen, Norway’s minister for Europe."

Cartoon in The Economist article of September 27, 2014, titled "Orban the Unstoppable."

A voice from the past, Mikhail Gorbachev himself said at a recent 25 year commemoration of the fall of the Berlin wall, that a new cold war may be emerging, in part due to Western triumphalism against Russia when it was at its weakest in the 1990s, coupled with an inability to cope via vigorous and meaningful dialogue to solve conflicts ranging from Syria in the Middle East to Ukraine in eastern Europe.

Mikhail Gorbachev, now 83, being interviewed while marking the fall of the Berlin Wall (Brandenburg Gate in the background). Photo from The Guardian UK

So, not all is well in Europe, a muscular nationalism is re-emerging in a number of countries. This new perspective brings with it rising ethnic tensions and a distrust or skepticism regarding, perhaps not the ideals of the European Union, but the willingness of said EU to effectively implement those ideals, or even defend and promote them.

Apparently Putin's unilateral land grabs in this post Cold War age have sparked admiration not only condemnation. Not exactly what most people expected after the collapse of Communism 25 years ago as the Berlin Wall came down.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Insecure Iran

This post is not earth-shaking, portending some trend or movement of some sort.

Just another mystifying act by the Iranian theocracy which apparently views its women who watch volleyball as a threat. At least that's how some view the story.

Iran, a major Middle East power with a population 77.5 million people has nuclear aspirations, funds terror groups across the region, but is apparently very insecure (tolerant?) at home. Graphic from

From Lebanon's Daily Star, "An Iranian-British woman detained while trying to attend a men’s volleyball game in Iran has been found guilty of spreading propaganda against the ruling system and sentenced to a year in prison, her lawyer said Sunday.

Britain immediately raised concerns about Ghoncheh Ghavami’s trial. The case highlighted the limits to free expression inside Iran and efforts by authorities to enforce strict interpretations of Islamic norms despite a policy of greater openness pursued by moderate President Hassan Rouhani.

Ghavami was detained in June at Tehran’s Freedom Stadium after trying to attend a men’s volleyball match between Iran and Italy. Women are banned from attending male-only matches in Iran. Ghavami was held along with the other protesters for a few hours before being released. She was detained again a few days later.

Iran’s judiciary spokesman, Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi, has criticized reports linking Ghavami’s arrest to volleyball, saying last month: “Her case has nothing to do with sports.”

Say what?

Ghoncheh Ghavami, British-Iranian, gets a year in prison. Photo from

Iran of course, has at least one other prisoner in question that has become a minor case of notoriety in the US. Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American Christian pastor was detained in Iran in the summer of 2012, and is currently serving an eight year term in prison, "reportedly on charges of undermining national security through his Christian evangelistic activities in Iran in the early 2000s."

Saeed Abedini, with wife Naghmeh, and children Rebekka and Jacob. Photo from

Just a couple more sad instances that can be researched at your leisure.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Election Sunday ...

October 25 ... lots of elections occurring today, a few of which may prove memorable.

Four national elections to note:

Brazil is conducting a presidential election, so one can first note that anytime there is a "decent" (ie, fair and transparent) process, that stands in great contrast to dictatorships, sham elections, and civil war.

In this case, voters are being asked to either return current President Dilma Rousseff of the left-leaning Workers Party (PT) or promote centrist Aecio Neves of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) to the high office. As the BBC puts it, "Both candidates have pledged to kick-start Latin America's largest economy and make it more competitive."

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (left) and candidate Aecio Neves (right). Brazil is the largest and most populous country in South America, and 140 million Brazilians are expected to vote. Photo from the BBC

Rousseff is credited with government spending that has lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty, but also criticized for overspending on international sporting events - the recent World Cup and the 2016 summer Olympics.

Voters in Brazil queue for polling booth. The older Teatree gets, the more he realizes that orderly vote casting, where citizens believe in the process, is not a given in much of the world. Photo from the BBC.

Outcome: It appears Rousseff has eked out a narrow victory

Tunisia is also holding elections. This is the country that ignited what the world has come to know as "the Arab spring" (which unfortunately degenerated badly in most cases.) In this election, voters will elect representatives to a five-year term in parliament, and it is the first chance under a new constitution to weigh in since the long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in 2011.

Tunisia is the northern most African country, population around 11 million, and the lone remaining positive example of what was dubbed the "Arab Spring" (where Arab nations would throw off dictatorships and oppressive rule for more responsive governance. Instead, civil wars, unrest, and clampdowns across most of these nations was the result.)

For a Westerner, this queue of western dressed Tunisians is a hopeful sign. Photo from BBC

Two leading parties likely to do well are 1) Ennahada, the moderate Islamist party that has governed Tunisia since 2011 and oversaw the writing of the new constitution. Critics call it the local version of the Muslim Brotherhood, while the party itself considers it to be pragmatic, tolerant, a promoter of women's rights, and is not even putting up a presidential candidate. 2)the party Nidaa Tounes, is being led by an 87 year old Beji Caid Essebi. This is a secular party, but Essebi was a longtime government leader in the decades past.

Hopes are high across the country that Tunisia can forge a positive approach to governance in the years ahead, avoiding the disasters of so many other Arab political movements in the past 5 years. Al Jazeera, the news organization, has a nice article on the many parties and new constitution here.

Outcome: None yet, though there was heavy voter turnout which in itself is considered as positive.

Ukraine is holding snap elections for its parliament that are likely to cement current President Poroshenko's call to orient the country towards the European Union. The outcome, if anticipated to be pro-Western, may further inflame tensions with Russia and pro-Russian separatists.

Ukrainians are taking this round of voting seriously, sensing a real crossroads ahead. Photo from

Outcome: Pro Western candidates have been given strong support.

Uruguay is also holding elections this Sunday, with al Jazeera describing the two candidates as left-wing Frente Amplio party leader and former president Tabare Vazquez challenged by Luis Lacalle Pou from the conservative Partido Nacional party. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this election is that the most popular person in the room is the President in charge now, Jose Mujica, who is barred from another term. Mr Mujica over the past four years has donated most of his salary to aid the poor, lives on a farm in the outskirts of Montevideo where he and his wife "cultivate chrysanthemums for sale." He declined to live in the presidential palace and has kept an old Volkswagen Beetle for transportation.

Uruguay is a small country in South America with just 3.5 million. Map from

Immediate past president Mujica and his now famous blue Beetle." Poster from

Outcome: Inconclusive - a second and final round is scheduled for November 30, though candidate Vazquez received the most votes today.

Compliments to all the governments and citizens who today showed they can address governance peacefully.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

New leaders in Australia and Indonesia provide an opportunity to strengthen ties

On the surface, Australia and Indonesia are as different as can be. Indonesia has a large variety of South Asian cultures and ethnic groups, and is a Muslim country. Australia has a legacy of British colonization, and a decidedly Western perspective. One has a population 10 times that of the other.

Australia and Indonesia, close neighbors but different societies. Australia straddles a continent with 23 million citizens, while Indonesia is comprised of a complicated land base of 18,300 + islands, holding a population of 250 million. Map from

Yet both are democracies, and have shared interests in economic development, trade, and South Asian stability.

For many Westerners, we're likely more familiar with Australia and the Sydney Opera House, than Jakarta, Indonesia's capitol city. Here is Jakarta, modern and packed with approximately 10 million residents. Photo from

So today we are watching the inauguration of a new Indonesian leader attended by a fairly new Australian prime minister. Good for them as they attempt to strengthen ties and trust, as there are also strains between the two countries.

Australia's 28th Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, leads the nation's Liberal party, and has shown a strong and continued interest in Aboriginal issues. At the same time, he has also been an advocate for limiting illegal immigration and staunchly turning back asylum seekers attempting to reach the country by boat. Photo from

For Australia's part, Tony Abbott, Australia's Prime Minister has offered these words regarding Indonesia, "Australia wants the new president to succeed – because a strong, prospering, democratic Indonesia has so much to offer the world," ... "It has the world's largest Muslim population, it is the world's third largest democracy and, along with India, it's the emerging democratic superpower of Asia," he said. Abbott states that his foreign policy focus is regional; "more Jakarta, less Geneva" though Australia has once again sent military forces to Iraq to battle ISIS.

Indonesia's new President is Joko Widodo, former governor of Jakarta, the special capitol region of the nation. Known in Indonesia as Jokowi, he is only the 2nd directly-elected leader of this nation, and part of his popularity is from distancing himself from the old style of past leadership. He has maintained an active interaction with the Indonesian public, is an advocate for the marginalized, and more or less recognized as an authentic populist president with humble beginnings.

Mr Widodo and his wife Iriana after casting their votes in the recent election. Photo from

Points of interaction between the two countries

Two Bali bombings - one in 2002 that killed 242 people and injuring 240 more, and the other in 2005 that killed 20 and injured over 100 - highlight Indonesia's challenge of extremist Islamist groups, and its tourist industry, of which Australians are a key component.

This memorial commemorating the terrorist attacks in 2002 on the tourist island of Bali in which 88 Australians died, has created a shared point of history between the two nations. Photo from

Asylum seeking via boat from Indonesia to Australia is a current bone of contention. Australia has a rather strong detention policy for those who make it to Australian soil. A major flashpoint for this activity is on Christmas Island - Australian territory close to Indonesia.

Asylum seekers arriving in dangerous overloaded boats to Australia's Christmas Island is not something new, nor limited to Indonesians (Vietnamese and other nation's refugees are also seeking Australia's shores). Here Australian coast guard members rescue asylum seekers in a 2001 incident. Photo from

An ever expanding detention center on Christmas Island has been the scene for protests and repeated closure attempts, but the issue and infrastructure remain. Photo from

Christmas Island - the map view, from

So, there are the two nations - lots of differences, issues, but neighbors nonetheless, and democracies to boot, which implies a respect for citizens and responsive governments. Not a bad couple foundation bricks to build on.