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, August 23, 2015

The origins of the major Baltic Sea cities

Of the five major cities lying more or less along the 60th north parallel, four are connected to the Baltic Sea. Trading and fishing were the common threads for three of these cities which grew from humble outposts.

Some of the early groupings of peoples and societies in the Scandinavian/Denmark/Baltic Sea region during the years of 1200-1400. Note that Helsinki and St.Petersburg don't show up yet. Graphic from "Scandinavia1219" by MasterOfHisOwnDomain in Wikimedia.

Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn was an early trading center between the Russian and Scandinavian peoples. Though the town site had less than 1000 inhabitants right up into the middle of the 14th century (1350), it had become a prize and "base camp" for the Teutonic Knights and the Kingdom of Denmark during centuries-long expansion, some of which is referred to as the "Northern Crusades." These religiously inspired blends of conquest and piety occurred in the early 13th century when Christianity was forcibly imposed on the local population. Nonetheless, by the late 1400's, the population of Tallinn was 6000-7000, and well on its way to being the capital city of what we know as Estonia.

So, if nothing else, one can look up what the "Northern Crusades" was all about. By the way, name 'Tallinn' is actually derived from the Estonian words 'taani linnus,' meaning 'Danish castle.'

Stockholm, Sweden

The name Stockholm is first heard of in the Chronicle of Eric (Eriks krönikan), probably written in the early 1300s. According to this chronicle Stockholm was founded by Birger Jarl in 1252 - the name Stockholm refers to the town in between the bridges.

According to the website,, Stockholm was built much because of the waterways. "The land was high in these days, making it impossible to travel by boat or ship between Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea. Instead, everything on the vessels, brought for the purpose of trade, had to be reloaded in Stockholm. The goods transported were; iron, copper, tar and fur. Being located in a strategic spot, as it were, trade was an important factor, and, therefore, it became vital to fortify the islands of the inner city with a wall."

Stockholm (big pink area) is the consolidation point of Lake Malaren to the West, and the Baltic Sea to the East. Graphic at

Helsinki, Finland

With the two older cities now referenced, modern day Helsinki came into being when Sweden’s King Gustavus Vasa founded the town on the mouth of Vantaanjoki River in 1550 to compete with Tallinn for Baltic Sea trade. King Gustav intended the town - originally called Helsingfors - to consolidate trade in the southern part of Finland and provide a competitor to Reval (which was the name for Tallinn early on). Info from

Russia conquered Finland in the early 1800s, with Finland regaining its independence only in 1917 as the first World War commenced. Early during the Russian rule, and after a great fire in 1808 destroyed much of the town, a German architect, Carl Ludwig Engel, gave Helsinki its wide layout - known as "Empire" style, including tree lined avenues, and space between buildings, so the wooden structures would not be prone to fires. Interestingly, Engel had previously held the position of town architect for Tallinn ...

Senate Square in Helsinki, the legacy of Carl Engel. Photo from

St Petersburg, Russia

The youngest city of these major 60th parallel north metropolis's, St Petersburg was founded by Tsar Peter the Great on 27 May 1703. Saint Petersburg was capital of Russia for more than two hundred years (1712–1728, 1732–1918), before the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 moved the capital to a more distant and safer location at Moscow.

In the convoluted history of the lands bordering the Baltic Sea, Sweden held much of Estonia, including Tallinn at the time called Reval, as well as the town of Nyen. Russia gained that land and city as the new century began, and the Tsar Peter the Great took the Swedish fortress of Nyenskans and the tiny accompanying settlement of Nyen, on the Neva river with plans already in mind. Graphic from

From, we read, "Peter himself went to Amsterdam and pretended to be a simple worker serving [the Russian embassy there] - just to get the taste of real life and first-hand experience. On his return to Russia, Peter was determined to build a true European city in his own country, something like Amsterdam, his favorite at the time. He knew he couldn't improve Moscow, which was definitely Russian, so he decided to built a new city. Peter chose nice a strategic spot at the shore of Baltic Sea, which was a desolate swamp, uninhabited no man's land."

True to his decisive character, Peter ordered [...] thousands of peasants to the area and cover the swamp with the ground. Many people simply died because of the hard manual labor and cold. The obsessive attempt to replicate Amsterdam on the swampy land worked out, after years of work and several thousand deaths. After the city was built, Peter ordered the rich merchants and intellectuals to move there from Moscow. Those who refused, risked getting out of favor with the emperor, so many followed the orders. That is why nowadays St. Petersburg is sometimes called the city on bones."

The tidy look of this map of St Petersburg hides the cost of its construction. Nevertheless, the Tsar had his modern city on the Baltic Sea, here looking west through the Gulf of Finland. Graphic from For a more detailed history of St Petersburg and its Swedish roots, read here.

As we leave these four major cities, we should remember that Sweden in its glory days looked eastward to the Baltic Sea where it's empire collided with Russia's western expansion plans. The other major northern city, Oslo, Norway, was the center of the Norwegian vikings, along with their Denmark "cousins." These peoples looked westward for their expansion and have a different history.

Another post for that city and people ...

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Five far north cities

Previously, we looked at the 60th parallels - 2/3s of the way from the equator to either the north or south poles. A cold and stormy ocean is found in the South, while in the north, mainly wilderness and small villages.

But there is an amazing regional exception - five major cities, four of whom are capitals of nations, are located in a cluster along the 60th parallel north.

Oslo, Norway; Stockholm, Sweden; Helsinki, Finland; Tallinn, Estonia, and the major Russian city of St. Petersburg. All lie in a nearly straight line close to the 60th northern parallel. Their combined population is approximately 10.3 million individuals (Oslo is 1.5 million, Stockholm is 2.1 million, Helsinki is 1.2 million, Tallinn is .4 million, and St Petersburg is 5.1 million) Graphic from

Once we realize how unique these population centers are, in that they lie so far north, we can appreciate anew the concept of the "Nordic" countries, and for that matter the Baltic sea with which they all touch.

While Oslo, Norway, technically is situated on the east edge of the North Sea, the rest are on this shallow Baltic sea. Photo from

Urban life in these major population centers is much like any other modern metropolis, though nowhere else do such large numbers of people live with dark cold winters, and celebrate with such fervor the summer solstices. (Teatree notes, of course, that there two smaller, but still notable cities: Anchorage, Alaska, and Reykjavik, Iceland.)

Helsinki citizens celebrate the summer solstice with historic costumes and symbols. Photo from

Stockholm, Sweden, like any other major modern city, experiences tensions of income inequality, and more recently, rising ambivalence towards an unending stream of immigrants that soak up social benefits. Photo from

It is not all spectacular summers and touristy scenes, as this modest Oslo neighborhood in winter shows. Photo from

At least a sunny day during the winter, here in St Petersburg, lifts the spirits during the "frozen months." Photo from

And Christmas in these lands (Tallinn, Estonia) is the quintessential setting. Photo from

There are likely a few more nuggets of interest in this concentration of northern population before we leave them behind.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The 60th parallel north

When looking at a globe, the 60th parallel north is pretty far up the curve towards the North pole, in fact 2/3rds of the way. The Arctic circle is still further north, its parallel is 66 + degrees and it is the line where the sun disappears for 24 straight hours in the winter and stays above the horizon for one full day during the summer.

In Canada, the 60th parallel north is also the line delineating the country's territories from its provinces. Graphic from The Economist.

What is most interesting is to compare the 60th parallel south with that of the north. Looking at the globe again, there is essentially no land mass on the 60th parallel - just ocean. (Though the continental Antarctic land mass of the Southern pole is rather phenomenal itself.)

The 60th parallel south is all cold water ... Graphic from

Another thing about the 60th parallels - both north and south. This latitude is where the Arctic and Antarctic polar air masses sink to the earth in a somewhat closed cell or loop (see graphic below). And where there is no land mass to interfere with or influence that sinkage, ie. the 60th parallel south, it is also especially windy besides being cold. A fascinating read on the science of south swells here.

Warmed air on the equator is eventually mixed with the cold polar air. Their mixing tends to occur most dramatically at certain latitudes.

One last point. Earth's land masses at the equator are traveling a lot faster than their counterpart masses at the 60th parallel north (as there are no land masses at 60th parallel south), because they have a lot more distance to travel in a 24 hour period. Hence, the very quick sunrise and sunset at the equator - a matter of 15-20 minutes from dark to light and vice versa. That is on top of the length of daylight varying little compared to that experienced at the 60th parallels.

The Peter and Paul Fortress at St Petersburg, Russia, in front of a long lingering sunset due to the city's 60th parallel location. Photo from

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The die is cast on Iran ...

After this post, following a string of posts which has morphed into rather dire commentaries on world conflicts, Teatree is changing direction for the coming year. Stay tuned. But in a fitting end-piece to the past couple of years, we return to the Middle East with its civil, Jihadist, and proxy wars, both current and potential.

In the news this past two weeks is the agreement between Iran and a group of five nations who have permanent seats on the UN Security Council (US, Great Britain, France, China, Russia) plus Germany regarding Iran's nuclear program.

Iran has long maintained it has a right as much as any nation to utilize nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, and maintain sovereign rights to privacy. The West in general and Israel in particular are opposed to Iran gaining such operational and technological expertise given Iran's track record of supporting extremist groups as well as publicly calling for the destruction of Israel and denying the Holocaust. In the end, it is the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons as an outcome of developing nuclear expertise and facilities that fuels the angst.

Iran, with a population of nearly 80 million - similar to Germany - has large oil reserves, substantial military power, and a history of aggressive actions towards its neighbors that coincides with the ascendency of its theocratic rulers. Graphic from

The ambitions of Iran since 1979 when the Islamists came to power, have always included a construction of a strong theocracy, hostility to the West, death to America, annihilation of Israel, and in general the aggrandizement of the nation as a regional if not global power by whatever means necessary.

The West, led by the US but in general throughout the European Union, has slapped harsh economic sanctions on Iran for defying calls for openness and transparency in regards to inspecting the country's supposedly peaceful nuclear infrastructure. Indeed, there is little disagreement that Iran has moved towards nuclear weapons with various secret programs, facilities, and general research trajectories that strongly point towards developing weapons grade nuclear material in spite of its denials. For an exhausting comprehensive timeline of Iran's nuclear ambitions and world reaction, go to

But here we are, the UN Security Council has endorsed the P5+1 deal with Iran, and sanctions may soon be ending. The agreement limits Iran's capabilities for another decade to build enough highly enriched material that could be used to make nuclear bombs, and allows inspections of facilities if so desired - all this in exchange for a removal of harsh sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy over the past several years. Critics of the agreement call it a disaster that will lead to Iran becoming a nuclear power over time, while proponents of the deal say it avoids the scenario of a future war to prevent Iran becoming another possessor of nuclear weapons ... kind of.

Negotiators lining up for the photo shoot as deal is reached. From left, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, and US Secretary of State John Kerry. Photo from

Key Agreement Points

Proponents of the deal say that the numbers of centrifuges Iran is allowed (items that can enrich nuclear fuel to a level that allows a nuclear bomb to be assembled) along with inspections slows any plans to create a bomb, giving nations time to slap sanctions back into place ... or take more forceful action. At the same time, the amount of enriched nuclear material Iran already has accumulated is to be greatly reduced, with the majority shipped out of the country.

One key and controversial component of the agreement is the ability of inspectors to enter nuclear sites to test and monitor the acceptable actions under the agreement as well as note any prohibited actions. The actual access procedures are long and complicated, a detailed review can be found here in a CBS news article. Some sites are well known and accessible while Iranian military sites where nuclear enrichment might be conducted are "negotiable."

Here, our old friend, Iranian ex-president and holocaust denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, talks with Iranian nuclear technicians in front of nuclear centrifuges which are at the heart of the inspection controversy. Photo from

Four ways to assess the results

Will Arab neighbors, in particular Saudi Arabia and its allies, begin to bulk up their own nuclear research, with the potential of a destabilizing regional arms race.

Will Israel be placated over the next year with new assurances of US support and defense.

Will Iran follow the agreement - inspections as requested/demanded by UN international inspectors. (Teatree remembers the long drawn out cat and mouse game played by Iraq's Saddam Hussein, and the hundreds of ways inspections were foiled.) And will the nearly month-long grace period between inspection demands and deadlines for compliance be effective.

Will a near-future removal of economic sanctions against Iran's rulers and businesses quickly turn into a boost for Iran's various proxy militias and dependent regimes (such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Assad's fragile Syrian regime, and for that matter, the Houthis in Yemen).

But the die is cast so to speak, and we will know more clearly by the end of 2015 whether this agreement has ceded power to an aggressive Islamic theocracy, or induced Iran into acting more constructively.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, far from attempting to project a more positive image after the nuclear agreement, declared in a recent Reuters article "U.S. policies in the region were "180 degrees" opposed to Iran's, at a speech in a Tehran mosque punctuated by chants of "Death to America" and "Death to Israel". In this photo from, Khamenei greets his friend, Hamas leader Ismail Haniya

Future posts - we'll be leaving the world of woes behind for perhaps a year - and introduce ourselves to little outposts around the globe that are near the Arctic circle. Perhaps we can interweave a bit of climate change discussion into the stories.

Photo from

Saturday, July 4, 2015

What do Greece and Puerto Rico have in common

Greece and Puerto Rico have been in the news this past week, both having spent or borrowed more than their ability to repay ... sound familiar?

Greece, of course, has been well covered in the world media. A leftwing politician, Alexis Tsipras, rose to power six months ago by promising Greek citizens that it was the International Monetary Fund, Germany, banks, and a collection of other villains that had conspired to hold Greece down in a particularly annoying form, by demanding that the country repay its debts.

Greece, a country with a population of 11 million and an economy the size of the US state of Connecticut. Graphic from

Teatree agrees that there are a few valid points made by Tsipras, or at least one. The average Greek citizen is the one who is being hurt disproportionately, and pensioners specifically, by debt repayment terms. At the same time, those earlier leaders who made decisions to borrow and spend without addressing revenue and fighting Greece's culture of avoiding taxes, are likely already at their second homes elsewhere in the world.

A pensioner exhausted emotionally and physically, waiting at a bank with many fellow Grecians. Photo from the BBC

The sorry situation in Greece is a problem faced by many countries who elect politicians who borrow heavily and spend frivolously (insert many many countries and leaders here), and leave office so that the next generation of leadership must either dance around the growing problem, or stand and face the consequences.

The Guardian newspaper describes how Greece has come to the mess it is in. Starting in 2008, the worldwide financial pullback accelerated a Greece economy already stressed. "In the 10 years before the financial crash, public sector wages doubled and departmental spending soared. Already high defence costs continued to soar, propelled by years of antagonism with its neighbour Turkey." ... And as for revenues, "A report by the EU in 2014 estimated that Greece lost a third of its VAT revenues in fraud and avoidance (only Lithuania, Latvia, Romania and Slovakia lost more). With a VAT system that has six bands, tax experts say it was open to manipulation. Shipping, one of the main industries and the source of Aristotle Onassis’s vast fortune, was known as a tax-free zone. Income taxes and corporate taxes, traditionally the subject of huge avoidance, collapsed in the wake of the financial crisis."

Tsipras, the current Greek Prime Minister, is probably not helping his country's cause as he and his cabinet attempt to renegotiate debt payment terms with Greece's creditors. He varies, sometimes on an hourly basis, between bombastic rhetoric and finger-pointing, to offering proposals soon followed by withdrawing them. In just six months, he has alienated most of the country's creditors to the point that they are simply standing by to see whether a referendum Tsipras has called for Sunday, July 5th, backs him up or essentially rejects him. For another concise summary of Tsipras presiding over the Greek implosion, try this article from The Australian, titled, "Greece must face up to reality."

If Greece votes yes to stay in the European Union and accept debt repayment terms (Tsipras urges a NO vote),a new government would likely follow. But the effects of the default which Greece is already in, will continue to escalate, and meanwhile the lines, anguish and turmoil for the middle class Greeks will make for a long miserable hot summer.

Alexis Tsipras, current Greek Prime Minister, whose abrasive and self-righteous style has not only brought little relief to the average Greek citizen, but is likely to make the "misery index" much worse. (In this picture, unfortunately, he is also using the patented Bill Clinton non-finger point to make a point.) Photo from

On to Puerto Rico

The dynamics are the same in Puerto Rico - too much public spending (in comparison to the revenue coming in), and kicking the can to the next set of politicians to deal with (.ie. NOT). But the difference in this case, is that the current leader is attempting to face the consequences without scapegoating the lenders.

Puerto Rico is a Caribbean island, a U.S territory, with a population of just over 3.6 million people (all natural born Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens). Graphic from

For a quick summary by, "Puerto Rico is bankrupt according to Governor Alejandro Padilla because it is mathematically impossible to pay its $73 billion debt it owes to creditors. In an interesting turn of events, the Associated Press reported that Padilla met privately with the New York Times before he met with Puerto Rico’s political leaders to discuss the uncontrollable debt problem the island-nation was facing. Padilla was quoted as saying that “the last four administrations have kicked the can down the road,” he continued “At this point; there is no more can to kick. So we’re going to take some very strict measures and some very profound measures. It’s going to hurt, but there’s no way out” the AP reported."

For Americans, it is pretty clear that the U.S federal government is not exactly ready to line up and lend some of its own borrowed money to dig Puerto Rico out of its hole. Plenty of US cities and a few states (think Detroit, Chicago, and Illinois) are in the same trouble (read overspending compared to revenue, along with the game kick-the-can). And once again, it will be the average citizen who suffers, while the erstwhile leaders move on to their next visionary posting.

The Governor of Puerto Rico is Alejandro Padilla. Native born, educated on the Island, and aligned politically as a democrat, nonetheless, Mr Padilla is stating enough is enough. Photo from

To his credit, Padilla is stating, "There is no other option. I would love to have an easier option. This is not politics, this is math," Garcia told the New York Times. The island nation, which has a population of 3.6 million, has been in recession for over a decade. Governor Padilla wants to negotiate with creditors, while also looking to defer some debt payments, according to his spokesman, Jesus Manuel Ortiz."

Paseo de Diego, a pedestrian corridor in San Juan, P.R., that once buzzed with shops and shoppers, sits nearly empty, as businesses have closed. Photo by Christopher Gregory for The New York Times

Similar to the story in Greece, the New York Times reports, "“So many people are leaving you can’t even find suitcases,” said Erica Lebrón, 30, as she sat outside a housing project bodega. Before long, Puerto Ricans will face more tax increases — the next one is in October. Next on the list of anticipated measures, these for government workers, are fewer vacations, overtime hours and paid sick days. Others in Puerto Rico may face cuts in health care benefits and even bus routes, all changes that economic advisers say should be made to jump-start the economy.

People ricochet from anger to resignation back to anger again. Along San Juan’s colonial-era streets, in homes and shops, Puerto Ricans blame the government for the economic debacle. Election after election, they say, political leaders took the easy way out, spending more than they had, borrowing to prop up the budget, pointing fingers at one another and failing to own up to reality."

Sigh, key words and phrases: "reality," "promises," "spending more than they had," "the easy way out," "borrowing," ... sound familiar?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Malaysia as destination for climbers and refugees

Malaysia has crept into the news the past few weeks - first as a destination for desperate refugees from Bangladesh and Myanmar - and second as the scene of an earthquake on its highest mountain, Mt Kinabalu.

Malaysia, with a population of 30 million has two parts, East and West, separated by 400 miles of open sea. (Talk about borders being arbitrary from legacy governance ..., but to its credit, Malaysia has made it work.) Graphic from

Refugees from Bangladesh and Myanmar have worked hard to enter this country by any means. By and large, the arrival of Muslim Rohingya of Myanmar have been quietly tolerated in this Muslim country over the years. But with the number of boat people doubling in the first three months of 2015 compared to 2014 (25,000 as a broad estimate), Malaysia has said enough.

Still, how has Malaysia become a beacon? From nationsencyclopedia we read, "Since 1970, the Malaysian government has actively implemented social policies aimed at the elimination of poverty and social inequality, and the development of a social welfare system . The communal unrest of 1969 prompted the Malaysian government to introduce the New Economic Policy (NEP). This 20-year program established state support of poor communities and access to education and social benefits for Malays and indigenous people (the Bumiputera ). This latter aspect included the establishment of privileged access to public services, the granting of land rights, preference in education and training, and job quotas in the public sector. In the 1980s, Malaysia's leadership envisioned the formation of the Malay Baru (New Malays), a better-educated, politically and socially active people able to live in harmony with other communities. In the early 1990s the government relaxed some privileges and reduced some quotas for Bumiputera, making the social welfare system more inclusive and accessible to a wider range of people than it had been before."

Malaysia has been characterized as a moderate Muslim nation, yet, like Turkey, has recently shown some inclination to the siren call of Islamic fundamentalism.

Along with its commendable initiatives to address poverty and inequality, Malaysia has long exhibited a moderate version of Islam. Its constitution is secular, though Sharia law acknowledged as adjunct. Unfortunately, its current Prime Minister has recently tolerated or ignored growing comments among his administration that promote a harsher, "purer" adherence to Islamic principles.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has been criticised for openly praising Islamic State militants. AFP: Nicholas Kamm

Malaysian academic and writer Farouk Peru is one of two dozen leading Malaysian voices that, back in December 14, wrote an open letter to the government, expressing their concern about the direction of the country's religious inclinations. In an interview, he stated, "I myself wrote an article in the Malaysian Insider saying that Najib does not exactly know what he's saying," he said. "I really believe this because I do not believe that Najib is of a fundamentalist bent, but what I do believe is that there is an infiltration of Islamo-fascist elements within the prime minister's department and you can see that coming from his department, all sorts of things which are ridiculous.

"Yesterday we had someone say that liberalism and pluralism are deviations against Islam ... I mean this kind of stuff never came out before but I think Najib is too complacent and he doesn't realise really what the implications are."

Farouk Peru, a Malaysian intellectual, and self described "human being in the world, blogging my existence." He is currently a Phd Candidate in Islam and Postmodernism and teaches Islamic Studies at King's College, London. An essay or two to get a flavor of this Muslim thinking and writing about his faith. The second essay is a reflection on the Charlie Hebdo massacre that occurred in France in January, 2015. Photo at

Before the refugee crisis, the disappearance of a Malaysian jetliner brought the country into the spotlight of western media, and now, the latest is the detainment and deportation of young Western yahoos who decided to climb a revered mountain in East Malaysia, take off their clothes and take selfies of themselves on May 30.

That alone probably would have not become a story with any reach, but unfortunately, "by coincidence" there was an earthquake five days later which killed 18 people including children, and leaving hundreds more stranded. With rumors subsequently connecting the two events, East Malaysian authorities stepped in and detained the Western tourists. No flogging however, just the roundup, detainment, a fine, followed by sending them packing back to their homelands.

From CNN, "Four foreign hikers who posed naked on Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia were freed Friday after they were fined and sentenced to time served. The backpackers -- from Britain, Canada and the Netherlands -- were arrested after stripping naked May 30 and posing for photos on the mountaintop, the nation's Bernama news agency reported. The mountain is considered sacred in Malaysia. They had pleaded guilty to "committing an obscene act."

At 13,435' (4,095 m), Mount Kinabalu has snow, is considered sacred, where ancestors spirits dwell, and up which tens of thousands climb each year due to its relative accessibility. Photo from

So, a glimpse at Malaysia.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Turkey's rulers seek a "pious generation" amidst a threatening region

Turkey continues to present a mosaic of contradictory policies and positions to the world as its June 7 parliamentary elections near. The elections will decide the makeup of the 550 members of the Grand National Assembly, and the elected members will form the 25th Parliament of Turkey.

Turkey has a population of nearly 75 million people, compared to Egypt's 82 million and Germany's 80 million. The country sits strategically between Europe and the Arab world, and it has a turbulent history with its neighbors. Graphic from

From wikipedia, we read, "The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) will seek a fourth consecutive term in government. Its leader, Ahmet Davutoğlu, will seek a full term as Prime Minister of Turkey in his own right, having taken over from Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in August 2014. The AKP's goal is likely to be to win more than 330 seats in order to have the right to put constitutional changes to a referendum, or more ideally 367 seats to bypass a referendum and change the constitution directly within parliament."

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, campaigning for his AKP party which is expected to gain a majority of seats in the June 7th election. Such a majority in turn would allow him to adjust the country's constitution to reflect his own vision of the nation and Turkey's leadership in the region. Photo from The Economist with the article here.

So what direction is Erdogan, with his party, wanting to take Turkey?

As a recent BBC article (found here) put it, "Under the 12-year rule of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, constitutionally-secular Turkey has fundamentally changed. There is now a push to raise a "pious generation"

The article continues, "The government has constantly stressed its vision of stay-at-home mothers, urging three children per family. Last year, the deputy prime minister told women not to laugh in public; the president recently insisted that men and women were "not made equal".

And from the Economist article noted above, "seen against the background of his recent behaviour, Mr Erdogan’s plans for a strong presidency are troubling. He has dismantled checks on his power. His approach is majoritarian and divisive: so long as his party wins elections, it can trample any critics. Critical newspaper groups have been subjected to capricious tax fines. Columnists have been fired. Turkey had more journalists in jail than any other country until the middle of last year, when a clutch of 40 were let out. Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based group, ranks it 149th of 180 countries for press freedom, above Russia but below Venezuela.

The authorities have often tried to close off access to critical websites and social media. In the second half of 2014, Turkey filed 477 requests to Twitter to remove content, five times more than any other country. And since Mr Erdogan became president, 105 people have been indicted for insulting the head of state.

Attacks on the media and a harsh crackdown on the protests in Gezi Park in Istanbul two years ago deepened a rift with the supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim preacher. The Gulenists, formerly Mr Erdogan’s allies against the army and the secular establishment, have now become enemies. The battle with them intensified after tape recordings of AK officials taking bribes were leaked. Mr Erdogan promptly reassigned hundreds of policemen, prosecutors and judges who were looking into cases of alleged graft."

President Erdogan has raised the debate with Fethullah Gulen, a former imam, who is self-exiled in the U.S. Gulen, who has millions of Turkey supporters, "teaches an Anatolian version of Islam, deriving from Sunni Muslim scholar Said Nursî's teachings. Gülen has stated that he believes in science, interfaith dialogue among the People of the Book, and multi-party democracy. He has initiated such dialogue with the Vatican and some Jewish organizations" according to Wikipedia. Photo from The Guardian

Gülen is actively involved in the societal debate concerning the future of the Turkish state, and Islam in the modern world. He has been described in the English-language media as an imam "who promotes a tolerant Islam which emphasises altruism, hard work and education"

Turkey's contradictions and tensions abound.

Even as Erdogan states clearly where his citizens should head, there is increasing discord by a variety of minorities within Turkey itself. Izmir, Turkey's third largest city and on its westernmost coast, is home to the opposition CHP party, which is the party of modern Turkey's founding father, Kemal Ataturk. The party is adamantly secular, strongly pro-women's rights, and nervous about the AKP's push to Islamicize the population. It made recent news by holding women bicycle rallies to offer a different vision for women rather than accepting a subservient Islamic role.

Izmir women on bicyles - a threat to Erdogan's pious generation? Photo from the BBC

Not to be outdone, President Erdogan also rode a bicycle with a few of his friends and bodyguards during a recent 51st Presidential tour. Photo from

At that same time, it is unclear as to how Erdogan's party will interact with its restive Kurdish population in the east of the country. Most readers will remember the outrage in Turkey over Erdogan's passiveness as Kurds in Kobane were under siege by ISIS. His inaction over Kobane undermined his bright spot over the past decade in attempting to better integrate Turkish Kurds into the country as a whole. The still potent separatist Kurdish PKK remains firmly secular with both men and women serving equally in its ranks, and is unlikely to line up behind Erdogan's piety.

Regarding Turkey's neighbors in an increasingly broken region of the world, Erdogan continues to confound his allies and potential partners.

Erdogan has become hostile towards Israel, a recent ally, while savagely opposing Syria's Assad. Yet while Turkey spends 2.4 % of its gross national product - about $18 billion - on its military, a number that puts it among the countries that spend the most on their militaries (and shames most European countries who have let themselves grow woefully weak in their ability to meaningfully confront Russia's aggressiveness in Ukraine and the Baltic nations), the country is aloof in participating in a Sunni-led alliance against the Syrian leader.

The Turkey-Syria Akcakale border in southern Sanliurfa province. One of many flashpoints that face Turkey as the Syrian civil war lumbers tragically towards a somber conclusion. Photo from Australian Broadcasting Company

Erdogan was borderline hysterical with indignation at the recent movement - from the UN to western media - to accept the definition of genocide by Turkey 100 years ago towards Armenians, leaving many would-be allies unsure of the nation's ability to confront its own history.

Time will tell through the rest of 2015 where Turkey heads, there are the elections in just less than a week, a possible end game in Syria between Hezbollah and Assad vs ISIS and other rebel groups, a restive Kurd population with new discomforts with Erdogan and a long affinity with the Kurds of Iraq. Whither Erdogan's hope for his pious generation.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Bangladesh, Nepal, and Myanmar's Rohingya in the news

The region that contains Bangladesh, Nepal, and the western portion of Myanmar does not pretend to be influential in today's world. But news from these countries has filtered out this past week and is worth noting.

Nepal is a mountainous country where the Himalaya mountains have formed from the Indian tectonic plate pushing into the Eurasian plate. Bangladesh is nearly all a low level delta from rivers running from the Himalayas to the ocean. The Western region of Myanmar is non-descript, mainly low level hills. Graphic from

Nepal suffered a major earthquake and a set of aftershocks, killing nearly 8000 of its citizens. With steep terrain, and limited infrastructure, it is a stiff blow to the country's prospects in the near term.

While a disaster, it may be one that nonetheless pulls its citizens together. Soldiers, citizens, and the government are all working with the same goal of recovering from this major setback. Photo from

The Rohingya of Myanmar are a Muslim minority in an otherwise Buddhist Myanmar. This ethnic group has little power, faces an indifferent, if not hostile government, and neighbors thus are allowed to act aggressively toward these people. The Rohingya number nearly 1 million, are mainly agrarian, have their own language, and isolated by modern borders from other Muslim populations, namely Bangladesh.

In an article two years ago from the Christian Science Monitor, we read that some Buddhists in Bangladesh are leaving that country and being resettled in Rohingya land. Another element of harassment and oppression of the Rohingya. The Myanmar government and Buddhist leaders contend that the Rohingya are relatively new to the region and have no long-standing claim on the land. The long running strife is messy, violent, and oppressive with diminished opportunities for education and growth within the Rohingya community. While primarily a reflection of mismatched borders and intertwined populations with Bangladesh, the issue as found elsewhere is how minority populations are protected by law and treated equally. When Myanmar and Bangladesh both struggle with poverty and a mixed record of governance, the festering continues.

Border guards in Bangladesh refuse entry to Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in November 2012. Teatree was moved and sobered by the pain on this man's face, frustrated no doubt in his attempts to find refuge for his family. Photo from ipsnews.ndet

In the past few days, both impoverished Bangladeshi and Rohingya have taken to the seas looking for refuge. Malaysia and other destination countries are not keen to take them in, and so another cauldron of suffering and displacement simmers.

The enclave of Rohingya's is shown outlined in red. One can imagine a long and perilous voyage by sea along the hostile coast of Myanmar, with the hope that Malaysia, a fellow Muslim country, might take them in. In the past weeks, Thailand, long a first stop for refugees, cracked down on the activity, forcing other boat people to travel further southeast to Malaysia or Indonesia. They have not been welcomed in either country. An article from Australia's Broadcasting Company (ABC) has further details.

And then perhaps most ominously, there is recent violence in Bangladesh with a specific theme. Three bloggers expressing criticism of aspects of Islam have been killed since the first of the year. A CNN article reports on the latest, "Ananta Bijoy Das, 32, was killed Tuesday morning as he left his home on his way to work at a bank, police in the northeastern Bangladeshi city of Sylhet said.

Four masked men attacked him, hacking him to death with cleavers and machetes, said Sylhet Metropolitan Police Commissioner Kamrul Ahsan. The men then ran away. Because of the time of the morning when the attack happened, there were few witnesses. But police say they are following up on interviewing the few people who saw the incident.

"It's one after another after another," said Imran Sarker, who heads the Blogger and Online Activists Network in Bangladesh. "It's the same scenario again and again. It's very troubling."

Das' death was at least the third this year of someone who'd posted pieces online critical of Islam. In each case, the attacks were carried out publicly on city streets. In March, Washiqur Rahman, 27, was hacked to death by two men with knives and meat cleavers just outside his house as he headed to work at a travel agency in the capital, Dhaka.

In February, a Bangladesh-born American blogger, Avijit Roy, was similarly killed with machetes and knives as he walked back from a book fair in Dhaka.

The three victims are hardly the only ones who have paid a steep price for their views. In the last two years, several bloggers have died, either murdered or under mysterious circumstances. In 2014, Reporters Without Borders reported that a group calling itself Defenders of Islam in Bangladesh had published a "hit list" of writers it saw as opposing Islam. "They listed 84 bloggers, mostly secularists. They listed 84 of them," said blogger Asif Mohiuddin, whose name was on the list. "Nine of them are already killed and many of the [others] were attacked."

The killings highlight the ignorance and intolerance sheltered within Islam's followers, not just the jihadists, and the question again becomes, what are "normal" Muslims to do.

There are no doubt many Muslims who deplore the killings of these activists, and take a step of resistance by, in this case, publicly mourning one of the victims. Photo from Agence France-Presse

But the young, righteous, and violent Islamists are unrepentent. And the future for tolerance in yet another Muslim country is now shaken.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Historic boundaries and historic injustices

Perhaps it is fitting during this week when the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide is being commemorated, that we note the recent words of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In a film celebrating his 15 years in power (finally the pretense of his swapping the post of Presidency with his aide Medvedev for that of prime minister in order to circumvent the term limits on the Presidency has been cast aside), Mr. Putin yesterday stated, "It's not because Crimea has a strategic importance in the Black Sea region. It's because this has elements of historical justice. I believe we did the right thing and I don't regret anything,"

Mr Putin, soon to be in a hagiographic film starring himself. Photo from

What historic injustice did Putin put right in the annexation of the Crimean peninsula?

Depending on how far back one wishes to go, we might consider the three centuries of rule under the Ottoman empire in the 15th to 18th centuries, followed by Tsarist Russia annexing it in 1783. Soon after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 was finally secured, it declared the peninsula a Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1945 it became a Soviet oblast (province), and in 1954 was ceded to Ukraine. Those elusive and fleeting years when Russia and the Ukraine were ostensibly equal allies, the Russians maintained a Black Sea fleet based in the port capital of Sevastopol, Crimea, and Black Sea resorts allowed Russian and Soviet elite a respite at a warm ice-free setting for their holidays.

The Russian Black Sea fleet is based on the Crimean Peninsula. Photo from

As the USSR collapsed in the early 1990s, the Crimean peninsula remained part of Ukraine until the latest upheaval in 2014 when Ukraine began to lean towards the West. Judging the West as lacking in resolve, Mr Putin and his green little men took over the peninsula and declared it part of Mother Russia once again and now we are up to date. Teatree assumes it was the unilateral decision by the Soviet politboro of 1954 to give the land to Ukraine that Mr Putin refers to as an historic injustice, though there are other possibilities.

Putin has always rejected the idea that these "green men" without official army insignias that suddenly showed up in eastern Ukraine were Russian. In the Crimea, Putin maintained the same story for a few months, but then conceded the obvious after the trumped up referendum that showed the majority of voters wanted to reunite with Mother Russia. Photo from

One of the historic ethnic groups living on the Crimean peninsula were Muslim Tatars, comprising up to 25% of the population. After the Crimean War of 1853-1856 between the Tsarist Russia and Western powers fighting over the weakening Ottoman Empire,the tatars had to flee en masse to avoid persecution by the Russian victors who had ultimately maintained control. During the Bolshevik revolution of 1917-21 which devolved into a multi-year Russian civil war, the peninsula and its population was ravaged by multiple factions. The tatars who had filtered back to their native lands were ravaged once again in the 1930s by Soviet leader Stalin, who also introduced large numbers of Slavs into the region. In another irony, from 1923 into the second world war, there were efforts to move Soviet Jewry into the land, with one soviet functionary, Vyacheslav Molotov, even suggesting the idea of establishing a Jewish homeland.

The Crimean peninsula juts out into the Black Sea - it has changed hands and loyalties many times. Russian President Putin now claims it with the extra stamp of righting an historic injustice. Graphic from

From a posting at the worldjewishlibrary, we read, "The Crimean peninsula was, for decades, a potential Jewish homeland. After Catherine the Great conquered Crimea from the Ottomons in 1783, she encouraged Jewish settlement to the region. In the following century, tens of thousands of predominantly young Jews moved to this part of "New Russia." By the late 1800s, Crimea had become a thriving training center for future Zionist pioneers who used the land to test agricultural techniques before they relocated to Palestine. In fact, Joseph Trumpeldor once trained potential migrants in the Crimea. The Soviet Politburo was even behind the idea and accepted a proposal to establish a Jewish Autonomous Region in the Crimea in 1923, though it later reversed the decision. Even so, from 1924 until 1938, the Joint Distribution Committee - through the American Jewish Joint Agricultural Corporation and its American Jewish financiers - supported Jewish agricultural settlements in Soviet Crimea."

At any rate, World War II brought savage fighting to the peninsula between German and Russian forces. Germany wanted the land for its strategic value and its warmer agricultural climate, and occupied it for nearly three years. Jews here, as well as in Ukraine were targeted for annihilation during that time. The Soviet army recaptured the capital city, Sevastopol, in 1944, and Stalin immediately ordered the entire population of Crimean Tatars forcibly deported to Central Asia as collective punishment for allegedly collaborating with the Nazis. Only late in the Soviet empire's existence were the tatars politically rehabilitated and allowed to return to what was now an ethnically slavic region with Ukrainian and Russian populations.

Crimean tatars loading up for exile after World War II, photo from

In 2014, with Russian forces suddenly in charge once again on the peninsula, the tatars who had returned or remained were facing a dispiriting, though not unfamiliar dilemma. Embrace Russia or leave your homeland. An al-jazeera article captures the new plight in detail, found here.

Once again, Crimean tatars, shown here in their mosques, have been told that they must embrace Russia or face consequences. While they were neglected by Ukraine's government, they still had enjoyed relative freedom. Photo from

So on we go - the number of historic injustices are plentiful, many have been inadequately addressed, and many ignored. And Putin, like other strongmen of the past, has chosen to pick a particular slight but primarily to further his own power and influence.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Pope names a truth

Wednesday, April 15, 2015 at sundown, begins Israel's Holocaust Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day, based on the start of the Warsaw ghetto uprising during WWII. It varies between April 7 and May 7 each year. January 27 is the official UN International Holocaust Day, begun in 2015. As most readers know, Israel's holocaust day and the UN remembrance itself is divisive - whole peoples deny or downplay the accuracy of the Holocaust figures. And some nations to this day would apparently love to see another Israeli holocaust occur ...

But there are other events of genocide, attempted genocide, or the vague "acts of genocide" that the US President Clinton tried to parse during the Rwandan darkness in 1994. And unlike many nations who calculate their response carefully, Pope Francis this past week stormed the citadel of obfuscation and declared the massacre of Armenians during World War I as this past century's first genocide that should not be forgotten.

Pope Francis speaking in very non-diplomatic terms ... a few days ago. Photo as published at

From a CNN posting, ""In the past century, our human family has lived through three massive and unprecedented tragedies," the Pope said at a Mass at St. Peter's Basilica to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian massacres.

"The first, which is widely considered 'the first genocide of the 20th century,' struck your own Armenian people," he said, referencing a 2001 declaration by Pope John Paul II and the head of the Armenian church.

One can ponder the clothing and the costumes of the Catholic and Armenian churches leadership (no shortage of symbolism and ceremony there), but sharp words can nonetheless pierce through the glitter. Pope Francis in white, the head of Armenia's Orthodox Church Karekin II, right, and Catholicos Aram I, left. (L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)

Pope Francis has made a number of utterances that have offended many. He has criticized growing economic inequality and unfettered markets; an excessively top-down Catholic Church hierarchy, asked for more tolerance of gays, turned away from the more lavish features of the papal lifestyle, washed the feet of convicts, has repeatedly called for greater efforts to lift up the world’s poor, denounced the killing and persecution of Christians in the past year, and said spanking children isn't all bad. For his troubles, nearly everyone is unhappy with something he has had words for, but also a bit more tuned in to what he might say next.

The mass killings of Armenians by the disintegrating Ottoman Turk empire during and after World War I is still a matter of debate as to which label to use, though the numbers 1 to 1.5 million are generally accepted. Graphic from

Modern day Turkey's response

Somewhat mystifyingly, Turkey's leadership today, under the somewhat erratic leadership of President Erdogan went "postal." As the Deutsch Welle news agency reported, "Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday accused Pope Francis of spouting "nonsense" and warned the pontiff not to make "such a mistake again." "We will not allow historical incidents to be taken out of their genuine context and be used as a tool to campaign against our country," Erdogan said in his first reaction to the pope's comments.

Not to be outdone, another "outraged" response came from Volkan Bozkir, Turkey’s minister for European affairs, who significantly upped the ante on his colleagues by suggesting that Argentines as a whole, and not just the pope, had been brainwashed by rich and powerful Armenians in their midst," so reports an article by the New York Times. Turkey recalled its ambassador to the Vatican.

Turkey's President Erdogan defending the honor of his country's past. He also has an interesting take on extremism at least when it occurs in countries other than his own. For example, regarding the killings in France at the beginning of this year, he has what one describes as "an unwavering belief that jihadi terrorism is caused by Islamophobia and thus victims such as the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists have it coming to them due to their actions ..." (read full article here) Photo from

Here are a few remarks by Pope Francis from this NY Times article,

"In addressing the Armenian question, Francis quoted from a 2001 declaration by Pope John Paul II and Catholicos Karekin II, the Armenian Apostolic Church’s supreme patriarch, in which the two leaders called the Armenian slaughter a campaign of extermination that was “generally referred to as the first genocide of the 20th century.”

Vatican diplomats have been deliberately prudent in avoiding the term, so in using it during the Mass on Sunday, before an audience that included the Armenian president, Serzh Sargsyan, Francis clearly intended to provoke a response. He equated the fate of the Armenians with the genocides orchestrated by the Nazis and the Soviets under Stalin, while also condemning “other mass killings, like those in Cambodia, Rwanda, Burundi and Bosnia.”

“It seems that humanity is incapable of putting a halt to the shedding of innocent blood,” Francis said. “It seems that the human family has refused to learn from its mistakes caused by the law of terror, so that today, too, there are those who attempt to eliminate others with the help of a few, and with the complicit silence of others who simply stand by.”

The bottom line response from Turkey's Erdogan is that criticism against his country is a form of hate speech.

Interesting how labels are applied freely - what would George Orwell have to say ...