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November 4, 2008
Maldives unseats Asia’s longest-serving ruler

While “change” has been a theme in the U.S. presidential election, it was also crucial in Maldives — where President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom led for 30 years. Anti-Gayoom graffiti in Maldives advocates “change” leading up to the Oct. 8 election.

The small island nation of Maldives went to the polls for the first time in three decades this year in the country’s first democratic election.

Longtime leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom — who ruled the nation since 1978 — lost the election to former political prisoner Mohamed “Anni” Nasheed in a runoff vote following the initial Oct. 8 election.

Judith Evans is editor of the Maldives-based national news Web site MinivanNews and writes about the historic election at OpenDemocracy.

The Maldives: A democratic revolution

The citizens of the tiny Indian Ocean nation of the Maldives witnessed an extraordinary moment on 29 October 2008. A live broadcast on state television depicted the autocratic president who had ruled the country since 1978 standing beside his greatest political rival – and acknowledging his defeat in the just-concluded two-round election.

The scene in the opulent president’s office was at once riveting and surreal. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, after all, had been prepared for many years to use state power to repress opposition and crush dissent; yet here was the 71-year-old leader telling the nation: “I accept the will of the people. I have conceded the elections.” Alongside was the 41-year-old Mohamed Nasheed, who had spent a significant period of his adult life as a political prisoner only to emerge as the principal challenger to Gayoom – and ultimately the victor in the country’s first-ever multi-candidate presidential election.

The spirit of reconciliation was almost as astonishing as the fact of the meeting itself. Here was Gayoom bowing out with more dignity than he had shown throughout much of his long reign; here was Nasheed, a compelling figure who had become the international face of the Maldives’s reform movement, saying he would not take action against the man whose security forces have tortured him, fed him ground glass and kept him in solitary confinement for as long as eighteen months at a stretch. “He is going to be staying with us. I don’t think we should be going for a witch-hunt and digging up the past”, said the man widely known as “Anni”.

A democratic election in an authoritarian state, followed by a peaceful acceptance of the opposition’s victory, is rare enough – and enough of a contrast with the experience of so many countries around the world, from Burma to Zimbabwe – as to be a cause for celebration. The always overplayed image of a Maldives paradise has for once acquired reality – and in politics rather in the tourist brochures.

After this shining moment, the deeper social problems that are part of the legacy of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s years in power will take a long time to overcome. Now, however, the experience of this democratic election – and the signals of a peaceful transition of power – have created a precedent that will surely be of immense value to the Maldives’s future.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user niOS under a Creative Commons license.

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November 3, 2008
U.S. third-party candidates find outlet in Russian media

The online Russian news site “Gazeta” highlights independent candidate Ralph Nader. Source: Gazeta

U.S. presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain have both weighed in on Russia — from condemnations of the conflict with Georgia to McCain’s repeated claim of seeing the letters K-G-B in Putin’s eyes. But the Russian perspective has seen little attention.

Yuri Mamchur, a Russian national, serves as Director of Discovery Institute’s Real Russia Project and writes at “Russia Blog.”

Despite notoriously dangerous conditions for reporters in Russia, he argues that Russian coverage of the U.S. presidential election has in some ways exceeded American coverage.

Russians get news on American elections that even Americans don’t get

The Russian news media covers American elections in almost greater detail than the American media does. Russian readers can find plenty of information about both American presidential candidates, the scandal involving Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, an alleged murder conspiracy against Obama, Sarah Palin’s love for fine clothes and hockey, and Barack’s infomercial blanketing of American TV channels. However, the Russian mainstream media also gives a fair amount of coverage to minor party American presidential candidates, who, somehow, are largely ignored in their own country.

Debates in a Margin of Error” by Gazeta.ru (Russia’s most popular online news source) describes the debates between independent candidate Ralph Nader and constitutionalist candidate Chuck Baldwin. According to Gazeta.ru, the debates took place at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. and were attended by “journalists and students of the Washington University.” The presidential candidate of the Green Party, Cynthia McKinney, and the Libertarian candidate Robert Barr did not attend the debates because of their “conflict of schedules.” The correspondent for Gazeta.ru was disappointed with the lack of contention between the two debating candidates. Basically, both Nader and Baldwin agreed that the bi-partisan system is old and ineffective, Americans need “change”, and the free market can do a better job than the government.

“Smaller parties,” said Nader, “were always the first ones to raise the issues of social justice, and only later their findings were used by Republicans and Democrats.”

“The free market always works,” said Baldwin. He promised to “dismiss the Federal Reserve and to take away any government help from private companies.” Nader agreed with the statement, evaluated as “risky” by theGazeta.ru reporter. Nader added that he is delighted to see “the evident collapse of corporate capitalist ideology.”

In general, Russian journalists report with more humor than their Western counterparts. The titles of the articles are funny (at least in Russian): “Veteran Still Holding Up,” “Conversations About Putin’s Eyes,” “Overcharge in Insignificant Donations,” “Crisis Hits the Republicans,” “Plumber Joe Quarrel with the Candidates,” “Bush Without Make Up,” “Obama Threatened by Skinheads/Losers,” etc.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

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November 3, 2008
Q&A: History, rebels and crisis in eastern Congo

Michael J. Kavanagh reporting from The Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: Taylor Krauss

Michael J. Kavanagh is a journalist with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. He returned from The Democratic Republic of Congo last week and answers questions from Worldfocus viewers on the crisis in eastern Congo.

A lot of really interesting questions, I have to say — thank you. It makes me feel really hopeful that people are starting to understand DR Congo more and more.

I’m going to group questions into three themes: History of the conflict, rebel fighting in Congo and the humanitarian crisis.

HISTORY OF THE CONFLICT

Q. Is this a Hutu/Tutsi conflict spilling over from Rwanda?

Michael J. Kavanagh: Let me start by talking about group identity in eastern Congo, which is incredibly difficult to wrap one’s head around.

This is not a Hutu/Tutsi conflict, per se. This is a political and economic conflict in which group identity is manipulated by opportunistic politicians and military leaders for their own political/military/economic ends.

There are at least a dozen tribal groups in eastern Congo, and even among those groups, there are local/regional differences that cause people of the same group to support different sides in the conflict (or none at all).

In Congo – like anywhere in the world, including Rwanda – identity is a fluid thing and at any one time a person might choose to ally himself/herself to any group that is part of his/her identity. This includes church, party, family, clan, tribe, village, profession and any other number of things that have a purchase on how we conceive of who we are.

For the last 15 years, Congolese Tutsis, the Tutsi-led government of Rwanda, and a group of other Congolese allied with these two groups – mostly Congolese Hutu but also supporters from other tribes – have had an enormous amount of power in eastern Congo. They own vast amounts of land, they own mines and cattle and hotels and are captains of industry. Some of this wealth came legally over decades, some of it came extra-legally during the wars that started in 1996 when Rwanda invaded Congo.

For many years, these men (they’re mostly men) were backed by the significant military might of Rwanda and their allied army in eastern Congo, the RCD (don’t worry about the name – it doesn’t exist anymore). But in spite of their enormous military and economic power, they make up a very small part of the Congolese population. So when the war ended and elections took place in 2006, Congolese Tutsi and their allies essentially lost all their electoral power.

There was legitimate fear that much of their economic power might be at risk, both because of the corruption of the Congolese government and lingering animosity towards Rwanda and its Congolese supporters in the east after years of war between the two countries. Seeing no political avenues to ensure their power, these men instead chose to exploit legitimate grievances – the continued presence of Rwandan Hutu génocidaires in Congo (FDLR), 40,000 Congolese Tutsi refugees in exile in Rwanda and anti-Tutsi sentiment – as a justification to taking up arms and force their way into politics to protect their interests.

This is a thumbnail sketch of why war continues in the Kivus.

Q. Who’s supplying weapons?

Rebel leader, General Laurent Nkunda. Photo: Michael J. Kavanagh

Michael J. Kavanagh: The Congolese government has typically supplied FDLR (the Rwandan Hutus), though it’s no longer overt (the FDLR are considered a terrorist group by the U.S.). The government of Congo also works openly with many local militia groups.

Interestingly, General Laurent Nkunda also gets most of his weapons from the government of Congo – by stealing them.  There’s some evidence that some supplies come from Rwanda as well (or at least Rwandan sympathizers.)

Q. Most often in Africa, extractive resources are being fought over. Is that a factor here?

Michael J. Kavanagh: You can never reduce any conflict to one variable but you’re right that many conflicts in Africa (and elsewhere: e.g., Iraq) have a component that is related to fighting over an extractive industry or other natural resources. In this case, Congo is full of minerals and fertile land and economics plays a huge role in the perpetuation of this conflict, even if we’re not always talking about an extractive industry.

Q. Why would the Congolese government support Hutu militias?

Michael J. Kavanagh: The best way to answer this question is to begin by clarifying it: Why is the Congolese government supporting Rwandan Hutus? Because the FDLR are primarily Rwandan Hutus who came to Congo as refugees after the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

The alliance is more political than tribal – the FDLR were important allies of Congo in the second Congolese war (1998-2003), which pitted Tutsi-led Rwanda against the Congolese government led by current President Joseph Kabila’s father, Laurent Kabila.

For the time being, Congo’s government and the FDLR have similar interests: Certain economic ventures and diminishment of Rwanda’s power in the region. If their interests diverge, the alliance between Congo and the FDLR attenuates quite quickly.

But to expand, there are many Hutus in eastern Congo who are not Rwandan – they are, in fact, the largest single identity group in the conflict zone in North Kivu. Some have joined the FDLR or sympathize with them. Many, if not most, have/do not.

Congolese Hutu identity is complicated by several factors – on the one hand, they’ve been historically discriminated against by the Congolese state as foreigners who speak Kinyarwanda (the language of Rwanda), just like Congolese Tutsis. As a result, there have been important ties between Congolese Hutus and Tutsis and there are many Hutus who are fervent supporters of Nkunda.

On the other hand, many Congolese Hutu were killed by the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan army in the Congo wars starting in 1996 in reprisal for the genocide. It’s a part of the Rwandan genocide story that has yet to fully be documented, but it’s part of the historical memory of many Congolese and Rwandan Hutus.

In part because of their alliance during those wars, many eastern Congolese feel affinity for Hutus and vice versa as their tribal brothers, and they say Tutsis are from a different tribal lineage.  This is genetically and historically very dubious, but many Congolese believe it.

My most interesting conversations in eastern Congo are often with Hutus explaining why they support whatever group they support, because it’s often a decision grounded in a very personal – not group – history.

REBEL FIGHTING IN CONGO

UN vehicles patrol the streets of Rutshuru. Photo: Michael J. Kavanagh

Q. Who are the rebels? Are they primarily educated members of the middle class, like the mujahideen in Afghanistan? Or are they victims of economic devastation?

Michael J. Kavanagh: The CNDP rebels are a mix of dairy farmers/cattle herders, hardcore believers in combating Tutsi oppression, demobilized Rwandan professional soldiers, and forcibly recruited cadres from Congolese Hutu communities and from Rwanda’s working class. They primarily speak Kinyarwanda and the leaders are generally Tutsi (who fought with the Rwandan Patriotic Army in the 1990s).

Many of the leaders are relatively well educated – like RPA, CNDP has always stressed education, training, discipline.  Are they middle class?  It’s hard to say if there is such a thing as a middle class in Congo – even those who aren’t subsistence farmers aren’t particularly well off.  However, many of the CNDPs most fervent supporters are extremely well-off Tutsis who own a lot of land and cows and see the CNDP as their protectors.

Q. What is the involvement of Muslims in this conflict? Which of the protagonists are primarily Muslim?

Michael J. Kavanagh: Very little/none. Congolese are mostly Catholic and Christian. Nkunda himself is Christian. When I was last with him in late February he was wearing a pin that said “Rebels for Christ.”

Q. I’ve read that one of the big issues being contended is a big deal to give China mineral access in return for transportation systems. Is this cause related to those of groups like MEND?

Michael J. Kavanagh: Yes – Congo’s president Kabila has sold off huge mineral contracts to China in exchange for infrastructure construction.  This is one of the topics that Nkunda wants to discuss with the president directly, if he ever gets that chance (I’m not sure what he wants to say, however).  There’s an impressive Fast Company article, China Invades Africa, that talks about China’s influence in Congo if you’re interested.

As far as I know, there are no links between CNDP and MEND.  CNDP and MEND come from slightly different places politically and economically – some Tutsis already have a lot of economic power and they’re protecting it; MEND is trying to get Nigeria and the oil companies to redistribute economic power more equitably.

Q. Who benefits from the situation over there, and are the mobs being manipulated to anyone’s advantage?

Michael J.Kavanagh: A lot of people.  Some Congolese and FDLR rebel commanders and some Congolese army commanders have stakes in mines.  Anyone who trades on the black market in minerals benefits.  Businessmen who are exploiting the national park that CNDP controls benefit.  Rwanda benefits to some extent though less so than in the past – they have proxies in eastern Congo in the mines and many Rwandans keep cows in eastern Congo.

Finally, yes – the mobs are manipulated by the government against the UN, against the CNDP, and against Tutsis.  It’s a dangerous game, since MONUC is supposed to protect the population and genuinely tries to, and one of the main justifications for CNDP’s continued existence and Rwanda’s interest in the region is exactly this anti-Tutsi sentiment.

HUMANITARIAN CRISIS

A medical center in Kashuga, which was ransacked a month ago. Photo: Michael Kavanagh

Q. What are the conditions of the hospitals/medical centers like? Are they being ransacked as well? I imagine with the current health condition, it would be important for medical help to reach into the villages/homes. Is any of that going on?

Michael J. Kavanagh: I’ve traveled throughout the region with doctors from Heal Africa and Doctors Without Borders. Health centers in North Kivu are horribly equipped – they’re located in remote areas that are hard to access and supply.  They often don’t have electricity or running water. When you hear about 5 million people dying in the Congolese wars, most of those deaths are a result of inadequate medical care.

Armed groups often ransack medical centers immediately – they need the supplies for their troops. There are a few decent hospitals in Goma, and a few others staffed by Doctors without Borders in North Kivu.  There’s also one in the heart of Nkunda’s territory run by a doctor and his wife, who is also a doctor – both are extremely influential in Nkunda’s movement.  Nkunda’s soldiers also get medical care in Rwanda.

Q. Is sufficient food still available to families in South Kivu? And, please estimate how much basic food costs have increased in South Kivu in recent months.

Michael J. Kavanagh: I’m less familiar with the situation in South Kivu – I haven’t been there for an extended trip since 2006.  The leaders of the peace process are much more optimistic about peace holding in South Kivu.  In terms of food availability and pricing: food prices have gone up in Congo as they have everywhere in the world, and that’s been very difficult for Congolese families. A lot of food for the region comes from North Kivu, and the fighting there has made prices rises more than normal.

I can’t give an estimate on costs — sorry!

Q. What can ordinary people here in the U.S. do to give support? I read recently that the UN was likely to send 17,000 additional peacekeepers. I also read a conflicting report which seemed to indicate that the UN was not decisive. Will you be going back there soon?

Michael J. Kavanagh: There are already 17,000 peacekeepers throughout Congo, so the UN mission in Congo is asking for more.

As for what you can do…keep reading – forward stories around to your friends. Write two lines to your congresspeople saying you care. Donate to organizations that do good work there – in North Kivu there are the Congolese organizations Heal Africa, SOPROP, Synergy des Femmes – these all deal with human rights and health. Internationally, International Rescue Committee and Doctors without Borders (MSF) do fantastic, brave work in Congo.

Finally, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, click on every single Congo story you see and email it to friends. Editors notice how many hits different stories get, and that’s what will let me go back there –- if editors realize people actually care, they’ll shell out the money to let journalists like me cover this disaster with the depth it deserves.

Thanks all.

– Michael J. Kavanagh

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October 30, 2008
Saudis slant Republican in U.S. election

A protester in Sacramento, Calif., holds a sign criticizing dependence on Saudi oil.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s top exporter of oil, and the country has thus figured into U.S. energy policy, foreign policy and security considerations. Now, as the U.S. prepares to usher in a new administration, both presidential candidates are trumpeting plans to decrease dependence on foreign oil.

Contributing blogger Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, examines how Saudis perceive the American election.

See Haykel’s previous interview with Worldfocus about a U.S. raid in Syria, and watch Gideon Rose of Foreign Affairs Magazine speak about global fascination with the U.S. election.

Saudi angle on U.S. elections

The Saudis have been remarkably tight-lipped about the U.S. presidential election and about whom they favor among the candidates. Their reticence can be explained, in part, by their bewilderment at the choice.

They don’t know what to think of the real possibility that a young and charismatic black candidate might win. Senator Obama represents the joker in the deck, although they also have a sense that in terms of the pillars of U.S. policy in the Middle East (i.e., oil security and Israel’s security) little will change regardless of the election’s outcome. In other words, they feel the regime’s survival is assured because of the importance of oil.

Historically, the Saudis have favored Republicans for the following reasons: 1) a shared social and economic conservatism and a visceral anti-Communism; 2) the closer ties that Republicans are thought to have to the oil companies and the weapons industry, which represent the two domestic constituencies of, and therefore lobbyists for, the Saudi government in the U.S. political system; and 3) a highly personal (anti-institutional) form of political engagement in foreign affairs, especially in the Middle East. The Saudis like the current President Bush on a personal level, and he appears to relish the all-male gatherings in Saudi Arabia, as can be seen during his last trip to Riyadh in January.

The royal family’s objection to G.W. Bush’s policies have to do with what they perceive to be his impulsive and rash behavior as well as his high-stakes style in foreign policy. On the whole, the Saudis were not in favor of the invasion of Iraq because they were worried of the instability that this would create in the region. The Saudis are, if anything, conservative and don’t like to gamble their survival on military campaigns unless these are absolutely necessary, as in the 1991 Gulf war against the Iraqi invader of Kuwait. Instead, they prefer other means, which include financial inducements and fighting through proxies (e.g., Lebanon today).

Based on all the above, I would guess that the Saudis would prefer if McCain were to win. Furthermore, there are indications that they have a strong dislike to Senator Biden, primarily because of his public criticism of the Saudi royal family, its religious policies, and the very form of rule it represents. The Saudis have been relatively discreet about this animus towards Biden, and when it has surfaced, as in an editorial article by Jamal Khashogi in Al-Watan newspaper earlier this year, it has criticized Biden for his plan to divide Iraq into three parts. I believe the Saudis feel that they can proceed with business-as-usual with McCain but not with Biden, who is, paradoxically perhaps, more ideological when it comes to reforming Saudi Arabia’s regime.

To read more, visit the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user madrigals under a Creative Commons license.

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October 28, 2008
Hungary agrees to IMF bailout of potentially $10 billion

The Hungarian forint faced record declines this week.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced that it will provide a loan to Hungary (among other countries) in order to encourage stability in the country’s market. While the size of the loan was not announced, analysts have suggested it will be over $10 billion.

Hungary has been hard-hit by the financial crisis, and its leaders expect a recession in 2009. The country recently held a national summit of financial and political leaders to discuss short-term response to the upheaval.

John Horvath is a citizen journalist for OhMyNews. He criticizes the outcome of the summit and the Hungarian government’s overall response to the crisis.

Storm in a Teacup?

A week last Saturday the Prime Minister of Hungary, Ferenc Gyurcsany, called a “national summit” in order to address the financial crisis facing the country. Leading members from the political and business class were all in attendance. Oddly enough, while the purpose of this summit was to bring together all stakeholders in order to exchange ideas on how to best face the global financial crisis, many were not invited. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil organisations were noticeably absent as well as leaders from Hungary’s Roma minority. In essence the government felt that these groups weren’t important when it comes to major issues facing the country and that they have nothing to offer in terms of input.

Aside from this, it quickly became clear that the national summit was nothing more than a photo-op for the present government and an opportunity for political parties to score rhetorical points and further their own agenda. As some foreign observers later noted, the national summit showed to the world everything that Hungary could offer with the exception of unity.

Yet unity in itself is not essential for a country to constructively deal with the present financial crisis. At this point in time innovative ideas are needed on how to deal with an imploding economic ideology called capitalism — not fancy speeches. Sadly, the national summit in Hungary was full of such fancy speeches. The ideas tossed about were shallow and lacked any imagination. Most were simply the stale phrases of the past that sounded nice in theory but in practice signified little or nothing at all.

To read more, visit the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user lanchutt under a Creative Commons license.

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October 27, 2008
Cubans look to U.S. election

Senator Barack Obama speaks to a crowd at The Cuban Club in Tampa, Fla.

Cuban-Americans make up a third of the vote in southern Florida’s crucial districts, where U.S. presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain continue to battle for votes.

The campaigns are now discussing socialism, a topic which may recall Fidel Castro’s Cuba for some.

Circles Robinson is a blogger living in Havana. He writes about the Cuban angle of the impending U.S. presidential election in his blog.

Cuba issue weighs on U.S. elections

I’m living in Cuba, not the United States, but even so I’m tired of the U.S. presidential campaign. It’s been going longer than the last three TV soap operas combined!

There has been extensive coverage here, with entire round table programs dedicated to the subject and almost daily reports and opinion pieces in the newspapers.

Most Cubans made up their minds on who they favor shortly after the Democratic Party primary ended. Not that people are enamored with either of the two major parties, but they at least see a ray of hope for improved relations under Obama. This means a lot for many families divided by the Florida Straits and politics.

In a recent informal NBC News survey held in downtown Havana 63 percent stated that they preferred Obama; 2 percent said they liked McCain, 13 percent had no preference and 22 percent declined to answer.

While Cuba policy is not one of the top concerns of most voters across the US it is a major issue in Florida. The two candidates have made a proportionately large number of campaign visits to that swing state “won” by George W. Bush in 2000 and then again in 2004.

Headlines on October 17 included the following: Obama Bets Big on Florida Turnout (L.A. Times), McCain Comes to Miami to Shore Up his Base (Miami Herald). Election Battle Shifts to Florida (BBC).

Numerous polls show that the large Cuban-American population there, formerly a united Republican bastion, is now strongly divided. “Cuba bashing” simply doesn’t attract the younger generations the way it did the exiles that came to Florida around the time of the 1959 revolution.

Younger Cuban-Americans, like the majority of US citizens, are more concerned about the economy, the war in Iraq and other domestic issues, and less obsessed with maintaining a “tough” policy towards Cuba.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user juliusbulius under a Creative Commons license.

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October 22, 2008
China’s tensions heighten with Muslim population

A holy site in the village of Turpan in the Xinjiang province, an autonomous region of China inhabited by many Uyghur people.

On Tuesday, China released the names of eight “terrorists” who are part of the minority Muslim community in western China.

The ethnically Muslim Uighurs (or Uyghurs) live in the oil-rich Xinjiang region, north of Tibet and on the eastern border of Central Asia.

The Chinese government imposed restrictions on the Uighur’s religious practice in this autonomous region.

Tensions also spiked between the Chinese government and the Uighurs during the Beijing Olympics.

Ryan Anson is a freelance photojournalist working with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. He writes for the “Untold Stories” blog about ongoing clashes between Uighur people and Beijing.

Unrest in China’s Wild West

Like many of China’s inland waterways, the Yurungkax River in Xinjiang Province is filled with waste. Tailings from local jade and coal mines have turned this tributary into a channel of thick grey sludge that oozes out of the icy Kunlun mountains and meanders toward the desert floodplain. Closer to the Silk Road city of Hotan where security has been tight following a spate of violence in this remote northwestern region, bulldozers drained part of the river so that residents could dig for jade stones.

The dry, boulder-strewn riverbed is also the only place where one young Muslim jade dealer feels safe talking about China’s heavy-handed policies toward the Uyghur community.

“I wanted to study teachings like the Hadith (a collection of the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings). I’m too old now. It makes me sad,” says the 25-year-old man who asked to be identified only as “Hussein”. A Sunni ethnic group more related to the Turkic peoples of Central Asia than the dominant Chinese Hans, Uyghurs have long chafed at Beijing’s rule and stringent regulation of the practice of Islam.

Hussein and millions of other young Uyghurs did not attend madrassahs (religious school) or pray at mosques as children because of a government regulation that bans Islamic education for anyone under the age of 18. Since he did not learn about religious laws governing marriage and family, Hussein feels unprepared to have children and wonders if future generations will be able to practice their faith at all.

“Maybe in 10 years, there will be no more religion in Xinjiang,” says Hussein.

Human rights groups and Uyghur exile organizations echo Hussein’s concern. Since the end of the Olympic Games in late August, the Chinese government’s crackdown on Uyghurs in oil-rich Xinjiang appears to be worsening. Beginning with the Aug. 4 attack on 16 policemen in the city of Kashgar, a wave of violence carried out by what security officials tagged as Islamic separatists has resulted in a significant military deployment throughout the province, mass arrests of local Muslims, and a close surveillance of religious activities in the region’s southern and central counties.

To read more, visit the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user mutantfrog under a Creative Commons license.

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October 21, 2008
Is the U.S. a fallen empire?

New questions about America’s status as a dominant global power have surfaced in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

Christopher McGuinness is a freelance journalist based in London. He holds an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics and writes at the “Social Europe Blog.” He discusses historical examples of fallen empires and suggests that the economic system requires massive adjustments.

A new world order?

The United States’ status as a modern empire has long been a favourite subject of political writers. One example of such writing is a recent Observer editorial authored by LSE professor emeritus John Gray, who predicts that the recent American economic crisis will soon lead to major changes in the geopolitical world order. These changes, he argues, will lead to a marked decline in U.S. influence throughout the world. One of the main premises of his thesis is that “the fate of empires is very often sealed by the interaction of war and debt.”

Gray is on to something, but his theory can be refined even further. The specific point at issue is his use of the term “debt”, as a number of highly indebted empires have fought protracted wars and survived (in both military and economic terms) to see another day.

In my view, imperial decline has less to do with the interactions between war and debt, and more to do with the interactions between war and unsustainable economics. It is, after all, the governments who employ unsustainable economic models that accrue debt. This is an important distinction to draw because it examines the underlying causes of such problems rather than the symptoms.

Recent history is littered with examples of imperial decline prominently featuring the dangerous mixture of military action (including spending) and unsustainable fiscal policies. The Third Reich’s massive military losses were exacerbated by the economic pressures and limitations imposed by its fascist regime. The socialist Soviet economy was spent into submission by the United States. And traditional European powers like Britain and France could no longer afford to maintain their colonial holdings after two costly world wars.

If Gray’s predictions come true, will market capitalism be thrown to the same ideological scrapheap as fascism and communism? Almost certainly not, but its current American form needs a massive overhaul.

To read more, visit the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr user wallyg under a Creative Commons license.

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October 20, 2008
Guatemalans cross Mexico’s other border

The Mexico-Guatemala border.

Though the U.S.-Mexico border receives much attention and immigration is a hot-button issue for many Americans, Mexico’s other border is equally alive with activity — and the debate equally contentious.

Recently, Guatemala tightened security along its border with Mexico to deter illegal immigration and drug smuggling. Mexico’s “Plan Sur,” implemented to tighten the country’s southern border, was supported by the U.S.

Vanessa Burgos is an independent journalist and human rights worker in Latin America. She writes for the online magazine Upside Down World and discusses the reasons for mass migration to Mexico.

Mexico-Guatemala: The other border

The immigration experience of Central Americans offers cautions about current approaches to immigration reform, just as a U.S. debate on immigration fails to produce meaningful changes in immigration policies.

When the topic of immigration comes up in the U.S., the debate usually centers on the Mexico-U.S. border and the Mexican immigrants that make up a large portion of those who cross the border running along the states of California, Arizona, and Texas. Far fewer think about the significant number of immigrants who must cross multiple borders before they arrive in the U.S.

Pushed by the hope of finding new economic opportunities, thousands of Central Americans and others cross the border between Mexico and Guatemala. It is the natural gateway for the rest of Latin Americans. According to Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, 2 million documented and undocumented cross Mexico’s southern border a year. The majority of these undocumented immigrants are Guatemaltecos, followed by Hondurans, Salvadorians, and a fewer number of Nicaraguans. They are either in route to the U.S or seeking temporary work in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas.

Over the last years, difficult economic circumstances, lack of opportunities, along with natural disasters have increased undocumented migration. Since 2001, the number of undocumented Central Americans coming into Mexico has more than doubled. This number is a low estimate considering it is hard to accurately document the actual number of undocumented immigrants who cross the border.

Central American immigration to Mexico, however, is no new phenomenon. During the civil wars of the 1980s, Mexico saw an increase of immigration from Central America as refugees fled genocide in their home countries. Natural disasters such as hurricanes Mitch and Stan have also put more pressure on already poor communities to migrate north. In the last two decades, however, a growing factor in Central American migration to Mexico has been the adoption of free-trade policies in the region.

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October 17, 2008
Vineyards and chateaus age in China

Chinese wine brands are relatively unknown outside of China.

Though the Chinese milk scandal has dominated headlines in the past few weeks, another beverage gets relatively less attention — wine. The Chinese wine industry has expanded greatly in the past decade, even luring foreign winemakers to China’s fertile land. It has even inspired its own blog: the “Grape Wall of China.”

Cam MacMurchy hosts “BizTraveler” on Tianjin Television and launched the PR and media company Performance Internationalis. He writes at “Zhongnanhai Blog” about the expansion of the Chinese wine industry and its future prospects.

Wineries grow, but is anybody going?

CHANGLI, HEBEI – The thunder is crackling outside my window as I write this, from a beautiful hotel suite at the Chateau Bodega Langes in Hebei Province. For some reason (perhaps the story meetings were canceled this month) this is the second wine-based episode we’ve shot in the last four weeks. The first was at a beautiful winery called Chateau Junding near Yantai in Shandong Province; many months ago, we did two other wine episodes: one as part of a Valentine’s Day show, while the other was a tour of the Dynasty Winery in Tianjin.

I’m not complaining: getting tours of wineries, staying in beautiful chateaus, eating from lavish buffets and drinking free wine is far better than a regular nine-to-fiver.

There’s no doubt that the wine industry (like basically all industries) is growing exponentially in China. Chateau Junding offers a compete wine tour, wine tasting lounge, and a wine museum.  It is set in Penglai, which is about an hour’s drive from Yantai International Airport (and yes, Yantai receives international flights). The decks offer stunning vistas of the nearby lake and vineyards, and the service was top-notch.

While people are very friendly here at Bodega Langes, I’ve found it to be a far cry from the lavish setting in Yantai (perhaps, no matter what Bodega Langes does, the dusty mountains of Hebei can’t compete with a seaside scenery in Shandong). I spoke to the head sommelier here earlier today and asked if they were targeting foreign visitors. “Yes,” he said.  “But you have no English signs?  And no western food?” I retorted.  Perhaps I wouldn’t have been normally so blunt in my assessment, but I remain slightly jet-lagged from a recent trip overseas and the day was dragging. Still, my point stands.

Perhaps, though, I was a little off base: It’s not that there are no foreign visitors here, it’s just that there aren’t any visitors here.  Nor were there very many in Yantai. Nor did I find any at the Dynasty Winery. So what’s happening?

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