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, 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.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Turkey follows its own course: disappointing the West, infuriating its Kurdish citizens

One hesitates to write even MORE on the ISIS attack on a Syrian town, Kobani (or Korbane), located on the border with Turkey, but there are a few points worth emphasizing.

The situation

The town sits on the Turkey/Syria border - quite a new city, beginning in 1912 as a railway station. Before the Syrian civil war erupted nearly three years ago, its population was 44,000 and distributed among Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, and Armenians. Of interest, it was built by Germany, as part of the Berlin-Baghdad railway. (As the first World War raged, Armenians fleeing vicious fighting in eastern Turkey found shelter here - setting up a fascinating sidetrip into the raging controversy about an Armenian genocide by Turkey of old.) In 2012, as Syria was disintegrating,Syrian Kurds took control of the city as a base from which to fight against President Assad, as well as fend off the more extreme of the Islamist groups.

Called Ayn al-Arab by Arabs, and Kobani by Kurds, pictures of this town before the recent ISIS attacks are not easy to find ... Photo from

Today, of course, the whole world is aware that the town is under siege by ISIS forces, who have already overrun the many villages around the region. The result, so far, is 400,000+ residents of the region are now on the move (internally displaced refugees), with 100,000+ of that number having fled across the border into Turkey.

As in any conflict, the fleeing precedes the fighting. Here Kobani residents (and from the surrounding countryside) stack up against the border with Turkey, waiting to get in. Photo from

If one just accepts the main thrust of Western coverage of this situation, we will be pulling our hair out, asking why our Western ally Turkey - a NATO member, and EU candidate - isn't leaping to the defense of the mainly Kurdish fighters in the city defending it against the ISIS advance. Subsequently, we are exasperated and bewildered by Turkey's lack of response.

And we've been treated again and again to three major types of images: Refugees watching their city falling slow motion to the fanatical ISIS, a rather lethargic line of U.S. jets merely pestering ISIS with a take-out of a vehicle here and there, and finally, a row of Turkish tanks squatting on the same hillside awaiting further orders.

A view of the hostilities from inside the Turkish border. Photo from

An explosion from a U.S jet strike in the city. Photo from

The most baffling, and well photographed, image of the past two weeks. Turkish tanks in a line near the border of Syria, facing Kobani. Meant to intimidate ISIS?, project potent power to the world?, or simply content (on order of the government in Ankara) to watch two of Turkey's foes fight each other. Photo from

What is going on?

The Turkish calculation

Simply put, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan doesn't view ISIS as his most immediate threat. Rather, he views Turkey's Kurdish population as potentially a bigger concern, most likely to his own power.

Turkey President Erdogan, walking a tightrope between the Syrian conflict (he wants Assad out); ISIS (he wants Western allies to handle it), and the defense of Kobani (he's not in a hurry to help the PKK Kurds).

Turkey's current boundaries, as so many others in the Middle East, are arbitrary, and in this country's case, include a broad swath of ethnic Kurd lands. Their inclusion in Turkey for nearly 100 years (based in the agreements after World War 1) has long been a struggle. Wikipedia puts it thus, "During the 1970s, the [Kurdish] separatist movement coalesced into the Marxist–Leninist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has since been listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey and a number of allied states and organizations around the world, including the United States, NATO, and the European Union. From 1984 to 1999, the Turkish military was embroiled in a conflict with the PKK." With the capture of the PPK leader, Abdullah Öcalan in 1999, the violence has since then tapered off, with desultory efforts by the government to unite the country in various manners.

Kobani, Syria - a Kurdish city located right on the border with Turkey. Go south from the "Y" in Turkey, heading to the "R" in Syria, and the town is right where that little bump is in the border. It is being defended by Kurds primarily aligned with the PKK. But one must admit that in spite of almost breathless Western concern for the city and its population, most of the residents have long fled, and the city isn't an ancient one.

From a Voice of America article, "Kobani was a test case for Kurdish autonomy, said Professor Ibrahim Sirkeci of Regents University in London. “They set up communes there. So it was kind of a little self-rule case study,” said Sirkeci. ... Kurds in Turkey have reacted angrily to Ankara’s stance and accuse the government of supporting the Islamic State. Riots in several cities have killed scores of people.

Kurdish separatists known as the PKK fought a decades-long war against the Turkish state, until peace talks began last year. Professor Sirkeci said Ankara is wary of strengthening the Kurds. “If you support PKK or fight against ISIS today in northern Syria, that will mean directly strengthening the PKK, and making it a stronger party in the negotiations, particularly within Turkey as part of the peace process,” he said.

Ankara does not share the Western view of the Kurds as allies, according to [Michael Stephens, head of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar]. “They have made a calculation that ISIS and the administration of Kurdish Syria are both bad guys, and if ISIS wins it’s probably the lesser of two evils,” ...

He said allowing the fall of Kobani would backfire on Turkey. “I think in the long run it’s a disastrous policy simply because there are two other Kurdish cantons [in Syria], much larger with much better defenses, which won’t be taken. And are those going to be friendly to Turkey in the future? Absolutely not,” said Stephens."


The PKK has labeled its forces People's Protection Units (YPG) while the Kurdish fighters in Iraq are called Peshmerga. Kurds across the two lands - the autonomous Kurd region in Iraq, and the eastern portion of Turkey - both freely utilize women as fighters and support personnel (similar to Israel).

Female YPG fighters and commanders in the PKK. Photo from

For women fighters or for men, there is no mercy shown to any captured by ISIS.

A reminder of the brutish savagery of ISIS. Here a happy extremist holds the head of a female Syrian Kurd fighter. Photo from

So, there we stand.

* The Kurds of Turkey (and apparently those in Northern Syria) are NOT those of the Kurdish lands of Iraq.

* Erdogan has already angered Turkish Kurds by preventing a flow of Kurdish fighters wanting to cross back into Syria to defend Kobani, as well as controlling the extent of arms and ammunition heading to the Kurds in the besieged town.

* Though Turkey has provided safe haven for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, including Syrian Kurds, Erdogan has now sent the message to the Kurds of Turkey that the Kurds of Syria are NOT worth Turkish blood.

* Thus he risks a general re-alienation of the eastern portion of his country negating prior efforts to integrate Kurds into the mainstream of Turkish society.

* Kobani may yet be lost to ISIS, a massacre of the remaining population in the city may or may not happen. Journalists report that several hundred elderly remain trapped in the city, but solid numbers and facts are hard to come by.

* The fate of Kobani is hardly the end of the conflict with ISIS, but it may represent the beginning of a much bigger internal problem for Turkey.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Latvian anxieties influence its latest election

It is fall in Northern Europe - and real fall in one of the Northernmost European countries not on the Scandinavian peninsula.

The three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Summer is short, and now it is over. Graphic from

In Latvia, the middle of the Baltic three, an election just took place that resulted in a return of a center-right coalition to governance, consisting of three parties, the Unity party, the Nationalist Alliance and the Union of Greens and Farmers.

What's the significance?

From a Reuters news article, "Years of austerity after the global financial crisis have dented the coalition government's popularity. But the conflict in Ukraine has shifted focus from the economy to security in a country where ethnic Russians make up almost 21 percent of voters and have heavily backed the pro-Russian opposition Concord party.

Augusts Brigmanis, leader of the Union of Greens and Farmers summed it up this way, "That is what the voter expects from us: stability for the country, a steady political course and Western values, and we will guarantee that..."

Mr Brigmanis, the 62-yr old leader of the Union of Greens and Farmers party. Photo from

Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma stated, "This election is different because of what is going on in Ukraine ... The situation is escalating there again and people are worried what will happen because we have a border with Russia." Straujuma has increased defense spending and joined Baltic neighbors Estonia and Lithuania in pressing for a bigger NATO presence in their nations.

Laimdota Strujuma, leader of the Unity party and currently the Latvian Prime Minister, has emphasized suspicions regarding Russian restlessness across a number of former USSR satellite nations.

The coalition upped its number of seats in Parliament to 61 from 47, while Harmony (or alternatively called Concord), a center-left party garnered 24 seats. While this opposition party espouses "equality, justice and solidarity," it is perceived as a pro-Russian party in a nation where ethnic Russians comprise over 21 percent of Latvia's population.

It might not have gone this way without the Russian meddling in Ukraine and the bold takeover of the Crimean Peninsula. Now, the large majority of Latvians are in no mood to ignore Russian assertiveness.

A couple interesting points.

What is a Green Party doing in a centre-right coalition? For that matter, what is the connection between Greens and farmers?

Apparently, the Green party in Latvia is much more centrist than leftist as in much of Western Europe. And from Wikipedia, "Latvians are supportive of traditional small farms and perceive them as more environmentally friendly than large-scale farming: Nature is threatened by development, while small farms are threatened by large industrial-scale farms. This perception has resulted in an alliance between green and farmer's parties, which is very rare in other countries."

Latvia has steadfastly supported its small farm heritage. Photo from

(This sounds vaguely similar to Modi's concerns clear around the globe in India, where he steadfastly supports space for India's myriad small farmers facing industrial, transnational food industries in so much of the West.

Winter in Latvia is tense, from a geopolitical legacy.

From a Policy Review source, we read, "Latvia is one of the most energy import dependent countries in the EU. With the exception of peat and timber, Latvia had no significant domestic energy resources and received 93% of its imported energy from Soviet republics in 2007."

Mechanized peat harvesting in Latvia. Photo from

It also has a large legacy of Soviet era apartment blocs with inefficient heating and power designs. So Latvia is very much aware of its over-dependence on Russian gas supplies and is working steadily to increase diversity in its sources.

Old Soviet era apartment blocks in Liepāja, Latvia. Photo from

Well, let's keep Latvians in mind as winter approaches. They are nervous about Russian energy reliability, as much as they are about the Russian state agitating among the 20 percent of the population that is Russian. And by happenstance, Latvia is poised to take over the European Union's rotating six-month presidency in January.

A couple more pictures of this country of just two million.

Riga, Latvia's capital. Photo by Aleksandrs Kendenkovs, courtesy of the Latvian Institute,

Winter in Latvia - heating and energy are important. Photo from

PS. Another rarity, Latvia's Defense Minister,Raimonds Vējonis, is from the Union of Greens and Farmers party ..