North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Elections for the EU, Lithuania, and Ukraine

One could write about elections in one form or another each week all year: real ones, important ones, fake ones, rigged ones, disappointing ones. Then there are periodic changes in absolute monarchies, family dynasties, military takeovers, and various forms of anarchy and failed states. The world is really in a constant churn ...

Across Europe, there were elections this past week where European Union countries held votes to select their nations' representation in the European Union Parliament.

Click on image for full picture
The 28 member nations of the European Union. There are six additional countries in the midst of formal membership inclusions steps: Iceland, Montenegro, Serbia, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Turkey. Other countries, including Ukraine, wish to formally enter the long process of becoming EU members. Graphic from http://3cursa.wikispaces.com

From the EU website, "The EU is a unique economic and political partnership between 28 European countries that together cover much of the continent. The EU was created in the aftermath of the Second World War. From the EU website itself, "The first steps were to foster economic cooperation: the idea being that countries who trade with one another become economically interdependent and so more likely to avoid conflict. The result was the European Economic Community (EEC), created in 1958, and initially increasing economic cooperation between six countries ... Since then, a huge single market has been created and continues to develop towards its full potential.

What began as a purely economic union has evolved into an organisation spanning policy areas, from development aid to environment. A name change from the EEC to the European Union (EU) in 1993 reflected this. The EU is based on the rule of law: everything that it does is founded on treaties, voluntarily and democratically agreed by all member countries. These binding agreements set out the EU's goals in its many areas of activity: Mobility, growth, stability and a single currency.

The EU has delivered half a century of peace, stability and prosperity, helped raise living standards, and launched a single European currency, the euro. Thanks to the abolition of border controls between EU countries, people can travel freely throughout most of the continent. And it's become much easier to live and work abroad in Europe. The single or 'internal' market is the EU's main economic engine, enabling most goods, services, money and people to move freely..."

Click on image for full picture
A big EU parliament at work, headquartered in Brussels, Belgium. Photo from www.enet.gr

This week's elections, however, found plenty of Europeans voting for Euro-skeptics, with a few parties and individuals standing out. These new voices have serious reservations about the reach and scope of the organization, even as most member nations are fretting over Russian expansion in Ukraine and Georgia. In particular, there are high tensions over immigration, and financial bailouts for poor performing EU member states.

One of the more dramatic results was in France where Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front party could find itself with 25 seats, up from just 3 seats in 2009.

Click on image for full picture
Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front party, holds just two seats in France's parliament, but 23-25 in France's allotment of 74 seats in the EU. Photo from scenarieconomici.it

In the UK, the Euroskeptic UKIP party leading for the most seats of the 74 alloted to that country, with similar skepticism finding voice in other EU countries - Denmark and Hungary for two.

The EU parliament has approximately 750 seats, seemingly unwieldy, but once the votes settle in with firmer numbers, there will no doubt still be a majority in full accord with EU goals and vision. Germany in particular, with the largest number of seats (96) in the EU parliament, maintains its orientation towards European integration (though with tough financial standards).

Click on image for full picture
A Slovenian representative (left) speaks with German delegates at a recent EU gathering. The recent surge in EU skeptics will likely mean a "rightward" tack in the organization, where certain issues will be dealt with than others, but not a breakdown in the entity by any means. Photo from ec.europa.eu (Dr. Janez Potońčnik, Slovenia)

But there is unrest in the organization, somehow similar yet much more complex than the United States where 435 members of Congress representing 315 million are polarized (but at least speaking American english). Imagine the complexity of the EU with 500 million citizens, and dozens of languages. The EU in that sense is closer to India, with its dozens of languages, religions, and 790 seats (though outpacing either the US or EU, with 1.2 billion citizens).

In Europe especially, immigration concerns and strong nationalistic strains tend to bring up reminders of the dangers of far right ideologies - overt anti-semitism and fascism - so separating true concerns from these more extreme views will be the challenge.

On to the Ukraine

It appears that a billionaire who runs a chocolate industry in the Ukraine will be the next President of this fractured country. Petro Poroshenko, aka the "Chocolate King," won more than 50% of the vote, which avoided a runoff in June. A former economics and foreign minister, ironically, he served in the cabinet of his the previous ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. Mr Poroshenko has major challenges ahead, to say the least: armed pro-Russian separatists, and big natural gas bills to be paid might top the list.

New Ukraine President Poroshenko, with wife Marina behind to the right speaking to the press. Photo from www.veooz.com

On to Lithuania

In contrast to the surprise of the EU elections, and to the drama in Ukraine, there is a steadier election result in the small Baltic state of Lithuania.

Lithuania, with a population of just over 3 million, also has similar tensions between its native Lithuania population and a sizable presence of Russians - a legacy from the Soviet Empire days. Graphic from geography.howstuffworks.com

Dalia Grybauskaite won her second term as President of this country, and she ran her campaign on a tough stance towards Russian expansionism. As one article writes, "President Grybauskaite has welcomed the presence of NATO troops in Lithuania since the upheaval in Ukraine. The 58-year-old president has a karate black belt and promised during the campaign that she would not be intimidated by Russian aggression, saying "I'll take a gun myself to defend the country if that what's needed for national security."

Click on image for full picture
2nd term Lithuania President Dalia Grybauskaite has no illusions regarding Russia, based on her country's experience under Soviet occupation after WWII, and the most recent Russian generated uproar in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Photo from www.15min.lt

Another article notes the Presidential election came as Russia's annexation of Ukraine's former Crimean peninsula and "sabre rattling in the neighbouring Russian exclave of Kaliningrad have sparked deep seated fears in Lithuania .... Grybauskaite first urged and then welcomed the arrival of American troops last month as NATO stepped up its presence in the Baltic states, which spent five decades under Soviet occupation until 1991."

Lithuania joined the EU and NATO in 2004 and thus has a much deeper security position than does Ukraine. She is referred to as the Iron Lady, similar to UK's Margaret Thatcher nickname in the 1980s. Though representing a small 3 million population entity, "iron" must necessarily be tempered.

Click on image for full picture
A small, but symbolic contingent of US troops arrived in Lithuania, shown here standing with a Lithuanian force. Photo from rt.com

Lots of change ...

Sunday, May 18, 2014

China and Vietnam find themselves on opposite sides of an oil rig

Perhaps it is a tempest in a teapot, but then again ...

News from Vietnam is that there have been significant protests in the central coastal province of Ha Tinh against China. In this provice, Vietnamese angered by the Chinese planting of an oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam, attacked factories and businesses run by Chinese there. At least two deaths were reported and over 100 injuries.

Click on image for full picture
This graphic shows a growing number of protests in Vietnam against the Chinese. While the graphic shows 3 such protests, the latest is that there have been incidents in over 22 provinces of Vietnam's 63. From www.straitstimes.com

Click on image for full picture
While protests were at first orderly, such as this one in front of a Chinese owned factory in the Thai Binh province further north, others became violent causing property damage, injuries and deaths ... photo from www.nytimes.com

Yesterday, the Chinese announced that up to 3000 nationals would be evacuated from Vietnam, and have sent ships to pick them up.

Chinese nationals queuing to leave Vietnam. photo from www.newslocker.com

The oil rig in dispute

Click on image for full picture
The oil rig placed by China renews the conflicting claims of the two countries, as well as many other Southeast Asian nations resisting the broader Chinese assertion. Graphic from www.voanews.com

China was not messing around when placing its oil rig. The rig is a regular platform, and Chinese military warships or some version aggressively went after Vietnamese vessels with water cannon.

Click on image for full picture
A Chinese coast guard vessel protecting mammoth oil platform in the background. Photo from www.cctv-america.com

Click on image for full picture
Chinese vessel using water cannon on Vietnamese ship with a Chinese coast guard ship in the background. Photo from AP

From here on out ...

Teatree doesn't expect the Chinese to back down anytime soon in asserting its resource claim in the South China sea. Nor does he expect a meek acceptance of the violence against its citizens in Vietnam, in spite of the quick effort to evacuate them.

And while the Vietnamese have shown themselves to be a formidable foe - certainly with the French and then the US - this confrontation with the Chinese must certainly be viewed soberly.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Elections - from Donetsk to Ukraine to India

Three elections - one just past in two jurisdictions of Eastern Ukraine, a national election in Ukraine coming soon, and a countrywide election in India begins today. Between the three, lots of implications.

Let's start with the farce:

Click on image for full picture
Donetsk and Luhansk - the two Ukrainian oblasts (similar to provinces, states, prefectures) in the far east of the country - have now held referendums on separating from Ukraine. The two jurisdictions hold about 6.5 million people out of Ukraine's total of 46 million. Teatree assumes, however, that the Crimean population of 2 million should be subtracted from the 46 for all practical purposes as the first dismemberment of the country Ukraine, courtesy of Mother Russia's expansion by arms. Graphic from the BBC

The BBC puts it this way, ""Self-rule" referendums have been held in Ukraine's easternmost areas, with pro-Russian separatists claiming nearly 90% voted in favour in Donetsk region. BBC reporters at polling stations in Donetsk and Luhansk regions spoke of chaotic scenes, no voting booths in places and no electoral register. At least one person is reported to have been killed by armed men loyal to Ukraine's government. Ukraine called the vote a "criminal farce" organised by Russia. Western countries have also condemned the vote. Separatist leaders ignored a call by the Russian president to delay it."

So, if we read the western accounts at least, there was no "voter ID" describing who is eligible to vote - is that important? We currently hear of this same issue in the US, a charge that requiring voter ID is an attempt to suppress voters ...

It could be true that of those who actually placed a ballot in a box, that 75-90% indicated a preference for an independent region (from Ukraine), but was it representative of the whole Donestk and Luhansk population? Were others intimidated from showing up at the polls, were the poll booth locations well known, established? All those "details" seem up in the air. And of course, the idea of a modern nation comes with some control as to when elections can be called for - rather than just anyone's whim, or who is armed beyond the recognized authority. So, if nothing else, the procedures of these spontaneous elections in Eastern Ukraine can be learning case studies for what constitutes valid elections, and how representative democracy is ensured.

A strange picture - courtesy of the BBC - the uniformed man is Valery Bolotov, the Luhansk oblast's self-declared "people's governor", and the meek gentlemen in the background is there to ... show his subservience? Photobombing to declare his interest in the Beatles?

Next, the May 25 national Ukrainian elections

These nationwide elections are the ones sanctioned by the Ukrainian government (which of course Russia nor the Eastern breakaway oblasts nor Crimea recognize. They, Teatree assumes, still hold Yanukovych as the official Ukrainian president, complete with his mansion outfitted with gold-plated toilets ...).

The election is to provide all Ukrainian citizens the right to officially signal the legitimacy (or not) of the current leadership of acting President Oleksandr Turchynov who took over after Yanukovych fled the scene. Originally scheduled for 2015, the presidential election was moved forward to fill the vacuum from Yanukovych's departure. It will be monitored by over 1000 election officials from the European Union.

Click on image for full picture
Acting President Turchynov slated for becoming official in late May. Photo from www.veooz.com

The outcome of this election is virtually assured - acting President Turchynov will be installed as a new official Ukrainian leader - and equally likely, it will be a unpredictable, dangerous event. The aftermath of the election will also be fraught with further tension. Though the European Union will be able to deal with an internationally recognized government, Russia will likely not accept the outcome - or simply ignore whoever is legitimized. With the new government in place, the EU is poised to place more sanctions on Russia, while Russia in turn is likely to demand payment for natural gas from the new government - a debt that was growing under Yanukovych, but is now suddenly and spitefully due. What will happen during the election itself in the Donetsk and Luhansk is speculative. At least in Donestsk, the people's governor has said there will be no May 25 voting. Period.

The election in India

Halfway around the globe in the world's biggest democracy, voting has begun which will decide which party will hold the most seats in parliament and therefore provide leadership for this nation. Be it far from Teatree to assume he can begin to explain the myriad of parties and tensions and hopes of all the many platforms, alliances, and rivalries attendant to this vote. So just a few points to make.

With over 814 million voters eligible to cast ballots, there apparently have been several phases of voting, culminating this week. Graphic from en.wikipedia.org

From wikipedia, we read, "The 2014 general election is taking place in nine phases in India, the longest election in the country's history, from 7 April to 12 May 2014 to constitute the 16th Lok Sabha. Voting will take place in all 543 parliamentary constituencies of India to elect members of parliament in the Lok Sabha. The result of this election will be declared on 16 May, before the 15th Lok Sabha completes its constitutional mandate on 31 May 2014.

According to the Election Commission of India, the electoral population in 2014 is 814.5 million, the largest in the world.There is an increase in newly eligible voters of 100 million since the last general election in 2009. ...Incumbent Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has ruled himself out as a prime ministerial candidate."

Indian political parties are, to no surprise, numerous. There are 1500 + unrecognized parties, over 40 state parties, and 6 national parties. The two major national parties have been the well known Indian National Congress which has produced a number of leaders with the last name of Ghandi and/or Nehru, as well as the party of India's current Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party has become the major rival, and what is interesting is its more public stance as a Hindu-based party.

The BJP head, a Mr Narendra Modi, if his party triumphs with the largest number of parliament seats, would then become Prime Minister. And early exit polls in today's first day of voting indicates this outcome is likely.

Click on image for an easier read of the text
Mr Narendra Modi, the likely next Prime Minister of India? Photo from high-definition-wallpapers2013.blogspot.com

A Wall Street Journal article describes the likely outcome and controversy around this candidate, "Mr. Modi appealed to voters by promising rapid development and an economic turnaround in a country fed-up with slowing growth, corruption scandals and indecisive leadership. He is also expected to take a tougher stand on security, particularly with neighbors Pakistan and China.

But Mr. Modi is seen by critics—and many among India's large Muslim community—as a hard-line Hindu leader, evoking distrust in a nation with a long history of communal violence. He is accused of not doing enough to stop religious riots in his state in 2002 in which some 1,000 people died, most of them Muslims—events that led to a rejection by the U.S. of Mr. Modi's visa in 2005. Mr. Modi denies those allegations, and a court in December said there wasn't sufficient evidence to prosecute him."

So tensions are intertwined in this election as with most others. However, one item caught Teatree's attention in some of the coverage of the election. A sizable number of Muslims are voting for Modi, because they are ready to accept his statements at face value that he is not favoring any ethnicity or freezing any out. He is for practical development. Muslims, especially vocal in the small but well known city of Varanasi, say they are tired of being promised broad tolerant support by the Indian National Congress, yet little results. They are tired of being considered a safe voting pool. They are ready to accept Modi's more immediate promise of practical and focused development projects. It seems like a significant step for Muslims to bravely reach out and support such a candidate. Their position emphasizes that no ethnic group grasping for active involvement within a democracy wants to be taken for granted, be viewed and marginalized as a safe bloc of votes, rather a bloc that is sought out, respected, and made part of responsible governance.

For a much more eloquent narrative on this Muslim perspective, read, "Varanasi: Why many Muslims find hope in Narendra Modi

Varanasi is a city of India on the banks of the river Ganges - described as small (a mere 1 million), but religious and holy. Photo from www.elllo.org

So many aspects enter into elections, eligible voters, outcomes, promises, rejections, and governance. The whole gamut is contained in these three elections during May 2014.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Nigeria to Brunei - Islamic extremism in the news

Teatree assumes that most reasonably informed folks have picked up on the [latest] debacle in Nigeria. Boko Haram in northern Nigeria raided another school, but this time, took over 200 young girls away, with the intent of providing their Islamic warriors with "wives."

Click on image for full picture
Picture purportedly taken at the scene of the school raid and kidnapping ... from http://www.bet.com/news/global/2014/04/16/200

Time Magazine ran this piece written by a Charlene Alter, and the first few paragraphs puts things into perspective rather well. "We were fascinated with the search for the Malaysian plane and the search for survivors on the South Korean ferry. Why wasn't the media also focused on searching for the missing girls?

There’s nothing the media loves more than a good hunt. So for the past few months, news coverage has been dominated by the hunt for the missing Flight #MH370, the hunt for survivors on the South Korean ferry accident, even the hunt for 2016 presidential candidates. But when Boko Haram terrorists kidnapped more than 230 Nigerian girls from their school on the night of April 14, Wolf Blitzer and his fancy graphics were nowhere to be found.

Eighteen days ago, the girls were just high schoolers trying to get an education. Now they’ve been kidnapped by terrorists and likely sold into “marriages” to men in Chad and Cameroon.

Click on image for full picture
The Boko Haram extremists seem to have the ability to attack at will, while the Nigerian government shows the inability to even get the kidnapping story straight, much less do anything about it. Photo from www.sundayworld.com

Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, who runs a shelter for girls abducted by Joseph Kony’s LRA in Uganda, says that’s just a euphemism for systematic rape. “This is not marriage,” she says. “They are being given in sex slavery. This is human trafficking. We should call evil by its name.” Sub-Saharan Africa is home to over 16% of the 29.8 million enslaved people in the world, and now these girls have likely joined their ranks."

The piece goes on, leaving it for us to ponder, "It’s atrocious that the Nigerian government has made almost no publicized effort to find the girls. Mausi Segun, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Nigeria, said that people who live near the group’s suspected camps haven’t seen any security forces searching for the students, nobody from the government has reached out to the families, and the government even lied and said that most of the girls had been returned.

But the media enabled the government to sweep the whole thing under the rug by ignoring the story for weeks. The kidnapping was mentioned for the first time on American nightly news on May 1st, more than two weeks after the girls were taken, according to Andrew Tyndall, who runs the Tyndall Report analyzing TV news. NBC Nightly News ran the first story Thursday night, CBS ran a piece Friday morning, and ABC has been mum. The story never made the front page of the National Edition of the New York Times."

Click on image for full picture
Nigerian women protesting in Nigeria's capital - photo from motherjones.com

Teatree can only add that, once again Islamic extremists - right? - have found a way to justify all they do. (A 2013 book written by a Canadian woman Amanda Lindhout, titled "A House in the Sky", describes in more detail her own treatment at the hand of Islamists in Somalia, including the religious thought and verses in the Koran that give the men free rein). The Nigerian government remains a mystery, if not a travesty, to the concept of honest and competent governance. And more often than not, western media picks through to choose, often insanely, what are the stories to receive obsessive coverage, while giving minimal and tardy coverage to others.

On to Brunei

So, the Taliban and Boko Haram are savage throwbacks to the 7th century but with modern weaponry. But how does one assess the latest example of choosing a retrograde judicial code, in this case, the strange little country of Brunei, which has just imposed Sharia law on its citizens.

Brunei, half the size of the US state of Connecticut, similar in size to Prince Edward Island in Canada, and 2/3s the size of Corsica in France. Population over 410 thousand, nearly 70% ethnic Malay, and 11% Chinese. Graphic from www.tefl-tips.com

As an article from The Diplomat puts it, "Brunei has ignored a chorus of international pleas and imposed Sharia law on the 416,000 people who live in the tiny, oil-rich country, which has been ruled by an absolute monarch, Hassanal Bolkiah, for almost half a century.

The Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah. Photo from viola.bz

Bolkiah had attempted to justify the introduction of the strict Islamic penal code, arguing it was a type of special assistance from God to protect his Sultanate from outside, decadent influences, commonly found on the Internet.

“It is because of our need that Allah the Almighty, in all his generosity, has created laws for us, so that we can utilise them to obtain justice,” he said. He also recalled the long gone days of the Divine Right of Kings, when he said that God himself “has said this law is indeed fair.”

Stiff penalties, normally associated with countries like Afghanistan or Pakistan, that include stoning to death, floggings and the amputation of limbs are to be introduced for theft, adultery and gay relationships. Sodomy, along with blasphemy, drinking alcohol and pregnancy outside of marriage are also illegal. Penalties can be imposed on people who were under the age of 18 when a Sharia crime was committed."

So, let's consider:

From Wikipedia, "Brunei regained its independence from the United Kingdom on 1 January 1984. Economic growth during the 1990s and 2000s, averaging 56% from 1999 to 2008, has transformed Brunei into a newly industrialised country. It has developed wealth from extensive petroleum and natural gas fields. Brunei has the second-highest Human Development Index among the South East Asia nations after Singapore, and is classified as a developed country.[13] According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Brunei is ranked fifth in the world by gross domestic product per capita at purchasing power parity. The IMF estimated in 2011 that Brunei was one of two countries (the other being Libya) with a public debt at 0% of the national GDP. Forbes also ranks Brunei as the fifth-richest nation out of 182, based on its petroleum and natural gas fields."

The country is rich, Muslim, good health coverage, etc. We will see how Sharia law plays out- the more draconian aspects - stoning, amputations, etc - are supposed to come in as part of phase two next year.

One thing we might note is that our Sultan has certainly appropriated the good life for himself.

He has a collection of 5,000 cars.

Click on image for full picture
As the song goes, "these are just a few of my favorite things ..." Photo from http://blog.dupontregistry.com

He lives in a palace, though lots of other getaways as well.

The Istana-Nurul-Iman palace has 1778 rooms, reportedly, and apparently a nice little boat in front.

And the official Rolls Royce car - purely for government functions ...

Photo from http://wheeltowheel.blogspot.com

What does the Sultan of Brunei (perhaps the world's richest man), and the Boko Haram have in common - a desire to impose Sharia law on citizens or those around them.