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April 24, 2009
Wave of new violence questions security progress in Iraq

Recent attacks have raised new concerns about the abilities of Iraq’s security forces.

On Friday, for a second day in a row, the Iraqi capital of Baghdad was hit with a devastating bombing attack.

At least 60 people were killed when two suicide bombers blew up explosive belts within minutes of each other near the city’s most important Shiite shrine.

These latest attacks have raised new concerns about the abilities of Iraq’s security forces. In Washington on Friday, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, General David Petraeus, cautioned that progress in Iraq continues to be fragile and reversible.

Blogger “Mhmd” in Baghdad reacts to a nearby bombing:

i feel un-euphoric.

i’m at friends house on the pc while he’s answering about a million phone calls from family members.

There’s been multiple explosions and the victims were people. Real living smiling crying people. I’m speechless. I just have no idea what to say or do.

Blogger “Layla Anwar” writes from Iraq, saying that she has grown numb:

These days, when there are news of explosions going on in Baghdad and its vicinity, like daily, I avoid reading the full story. I just read the headlines.

I don’t want to know anymore.

I don’t want to know the number of dead, I don’t want to know the exact location, I don’t want to know how it happened, who did it, what time, the names, age and sex of the victims…I just don’t want to know anymore.

I say to myself, if it is anyone I am related to, I will find out about it…sooner than later. Right now, I just don’t want to know because — am saturated.

I am saturated with deaths, killings, explosions, people disappearing, people in detention, people in need, people in distress, people losing their homes — am saturated with numbers, with names of places, with stories and memories that have developed a life of their own now – settling themselves in my mind, in my waking and sleeping hours, like unwanted tenants who have appropriated your private space, like armed gangs who have taken over your home…and there is absolutely nothing you can do to evict them.

The “Eye Raki” blog writes that overall conditions are improving in Iraq:

Despite the recent lapse in security, things for the most part have been steadily improving. If only the terrorists knew that with every car bomb and suicide attack their chance of a future in Iraq goes further and further down the drain. I mean all the terrorists. The Ba’athists still dreaming of a united Arab nation, the Arabs still dreaming of a Caliphate, and the Shia militia still dreaming of their own country. The recent attacks in Baghdad have not been different from previous attacks. Still cold-blooded, still indiscriminate, still cowardice.

Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy’s blog explores the significance of the rise in attacks:

I don’t think that we’re seeing the “great unravelling” quite yet, nor that we’re yet seeing a return to higher levels of violence, insurgency and civil war.   But the increased violence and the growing chorus of complaints about the failures of political accommodation should be a cautionary note to the Iraqi government and to the major political players that time is running out to make the crucial political power-sharing agreements necessary before American troop withdrawals pick up their pace.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user jamesdale10 under a Creative Commons license.

April 23, 2009
Turkey, Armenia agree on road map to normalize ties

Neighbors Turkey and Armenia have reportedly agreed on a road map to normalize relations. Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993.

Turkey and Armenia have worked out a framework to normalize relations, the Turkish Foreign Ministry announced on Wednesday.  The U.S. welcomed the news, which came weeks after President Barack Obama encouraged talks between the hostile neighboring countries.

Armenia has long wanted Turkey to acknowledge that the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks between 1915-1917 constituted genocide.

The Foreign Ministry ‘s announcement comes just before Armenia marks Martyrs’ Day, a day to commemorate the killings, on Friday.

Earlier this month while in Turkey, Obama avoided using the term “genocide” to describe the killings, drawing anger from some Armenians.

Blogger “artmika” is skeptical about the sincerity of the announced “road map:”

I genuinely do want to see the normalilsation of relations between Armenia and Turkey but all these empty statements which contain only abstract words, without any details provided, seem to be too staged to trust. It’s like the ‘normalisation’ was specifically ‘achieved’ 1 day before the expected Obama statement re Armenian Genocide. I think this is made to ‘justify’ Obama’s not using the G-word. I do not feel that the real agreement is there yet. Let them prove me wrong.

The “Life in the Armenian Diaspora” blog is also wary, writing that the announcement will merely serve to allow Obama to again avoid addressing the genocide question:

So an announcement like this can only mean one thing. It’s April 22nd, and Turkey is worried Obama will say GENOCIDE in his April 24th statement. After making all those announcements before Obama’s Turkey visit about how close they were to normalizing relations, Turkey has said three times in the last few days that it will absolutely not normalize without the Karabakh precondition. So now everything is all settled? Just yesterday Turkey pulled their Ambassador to Canada because Canadian officials attended a genocide related event. I will say this, I just can’t wait to see this roadmap.

Will Obama keep his promise, or will the Turkish games win the day? I want to believe that good will prevail, that this time, the campaign promises could be believed, but… the doubt is strong in me.

Doug Merrill of “A Fistful of Euros” takes a more optimistic tone, noting that Armenia will benefit from normalized relations:

[…]Quick two cents’ worth: Normalization is clearly a big win for Armenia. Open borders to the west would substantially improve its links with the world, while also making it less dependent on Russia as its main great-power ally. Also a win at the margins for Georgia, as a larger regional role for Turkey means a relatively lesser role for Russia. Normal Turkish-Armenian relations also means clearer paths for European institutions, if only because it means one obstacle less. For Turkey, this will help to lessen an irritant in its relations with the rest of Europe. If the current Turkish position on the massacres (whatever that turns out to be when relations are resumed) is good enough for Armenia, Turkish emissaries will surely contend, it ought to be good enough for France and the rest of the EU.

The “Yandunts” blog disagrees, saying that Armenia is losing out, though the “road map” with Turkey could impact Armenia’s internal politics:

Coming on eve of April 24 it is essentially a fig leaf for President Obama to be able to obviate his repeated pre-election pledges to recognize the genocide with some pretense of Armenian rationale.

So if Turkey neutralizes the annoying resolutions and Obama gets his fig leaf, what does Armenia get?

Nothing good as far as one can see right now. May be an invitation for Serge Sargsian to visit Washington? Maybe. But this is an awfully high price to pay considering this contributes to eroding Sargsian’s legitimacy at home. And besides, without clearly outlined foreign policy priorities a visit to U.S. is likely to be just protocol and tourism.

[…]One possible positive outcome of this development could be a political realignment in Armenia and creation of a credible patriotic opposition ahead of the elections for Yerevan city council. That remains to be seen.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Bob* under a Creative Commons license.

For more Worldfocus coverage of Turkey, visit our extended coverage page: Turkey between East and West.

April 22, 2009
Ruling party anticipates win in South Africa elections

South Africa held national parliamentary elections on Wednesday.

Nelson Mandela, the former head of the African National Congress who helped bring down the white supremacist system of apartheid, was one of an estimated 23 million South Africans registered to vote.

The current leader of the ANC, Jacob Zuma — who was imprisoned for 10 years alongside Mandela — is widely expected to emerge victorious. However, analysts say the ANC will struggle to win the two-thirds majority that it has won in the past.

Read more about South Africa’s power players.

YouTube user matlosana interviewed South Africans as they headed to the voting booths:

Zukiswa Wanner, a South African writer, notes the impressive turnout:

In 2004 when I voted in South Africa’s last presidential elections, I strolled at the voting station and less than 30 minutes later, I was out.

[…] The polls said it, the energy prior to this election highlighted it, but now I am seeing it for myself – today, it is different. It is only 7.45 and already there is a sizeable crowd at the voting station. I decide to just go indoors, get my ID and go and vote immediately to avoid spending my whole day waiting to vote. When I get back to the voting station, the line is already snaking round the corner and a good 300metres long and it is getting longer. It is like its 1994 all over again.

As indicative of my working class neighbourhood, there are people of all races. In front of me is a coloured couple and behind me is an Indian lady. A few feet from me is a white boy wearing a red t-shirt with a heart in ANC colours reading ‘Show your Love for the ANC’ but that is the only person wearing anything that hints at sloganeering. The line is moving slowly initially but I will not give up my place in line for a possibility of a shorter line later which might not come to pass. While in line I receive SMSs, many from the majority ANC party telling me to Vote ANC.

[…]I go out outside and feel a rush of emotion and patriotism for this one moment in five years that democracy allows most of my fellow South Africans to speak up for the one minute that we are behind the booth.

A blogger at “Socialyz” says that voting has gone relatively smoothly, with a few minor scuffles:

Well I’ve done my bit today. I woke up late, went to an election station and stood in a massive queue for about 10 minutes before deciding I’d come back later. Last time around I voted towards the end of the day and simply walked in and out. My general perception this time around is that there will be a larger voter turnout than the previous Election in South Africa.

Ink marks the vote in South Africa.

That’s a great thing. I find there is much more awareness this time and my peers are more excited and more motivated to vote. Iv’e been scanning the papers for initial reactions, and other than a few scare stories of villagers being told to vote ANC and ballot papers being strewn across a street someplace, it all seems to be going along smoothly. It must be rememberd that this is a massive logistical task and there will be the odd hiccup here and there. As a citizen, I’m happy with how it has been conducted so far.

Now we wait for the results.

Blogger “Jonathan Carter” has become more enthused about voting as challengers to the ANC have gained more traction:

Today is the national and provincial elections in South Africa. I just made my vote, and it’s the first time I ever voted. It was supposed to be the second time I voted. I didn’t vote last time, not because of apathy so much as that I knew it wouldn’t have made so much of a difference who I voted for.

This year it’s quite different, the ruling ANC party has a break-away faction called COPE, and it’s quite possible that the ANC might not get a majority (2/3rds) vote. The DA has also gained lots of momentum since the last elections, and it’s quite possible that they may win the provincial elections in the Western Cape province. If you haven’t picked up on it yet, I’m not a fan of the ANC. While they have done a lot for our country that I will always be grateful for, I am also disgusted at what it has become and how it is run.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Axel Bührmann under a Creative Commons license.

April 21, 2009
Sri Lanka launches “final” assault against Tamil Tigers

For more than two decades, the government of Sri Lanka has been fighting a civil war with a rebel group known as the Tamil Tigers. Now, the war may be reaching a climax as the government launches a final assault in the last rebel-held area, after the Tamil Tigers ignored an ultimatum to surrender.

Violence is heating up in Sri Lanka’s north, in what’s left of a government no-fire zone near the town of Mullativu. Tens of thousands of civilians are caught in the middle of what the Red Cross calls a catastrophe, although some 50,000 others escaped to government-controlled areas.

Both sides have been accused of humanitarian abuses.

For more on the conflict, listen to our online radio show on Sri Lanka’s civil war.

As the government presses forward, protests are rising up around the world from London to Oslo to Ottawa — as Tamils living abroad demonstrate against the Sri Lankan offensive.

Below, watch a video of a protest at New York’s United Nations building in the U.S. Many of the Tamils present at the April 17 rally have family members in Sri Lanka, and often expressed varying opinions of the Tamil Tigers.

Bloggers in Sri Lanka have also reacted to the developments in the north.

On Monday, a blogger at the “Serving Sri Lanka” blog reacted as civilians escaped the conflict zone:

Today, as I watched thousands of helpless civilians flock to leave the no fire zone and enter the government controlled areas, the tragic scenes of the aftermath of the boxing day Tsunami flashed across my mind. Yes I believe that the situation is as grave or even worse now. I was trying to imagine what might be going through the minds of these frightened and weary looking human beings. They have suffered untold miseries during the past several months, their lives are uncertain even at this very moment, may be they have lost a loved one. What do they want? What could they want?

The answer may be as simple as a better tomorrow. The question is can we provide them that. If we are to win anything we must gradually improve their battered lives. Their condition should improve day by day. These are people who have suffered a life time. They have grievances, they have their doubts. We must allay them. We must provide them with a much better alternative and give them hope. We can not afford to wait. We should not think that it is the sole responsibility of the Government, the NGOs, the INGOs and the like.

I feel that it is my responsibility and duty as well. I can not for a second think that I am not responsible for their sad plight. I should take my fare share of blame as a Sri Lankan citizen for all the senseless deaths that have taken place in this bloody war of over thirty years. The military offensive may be nearing an end. The challenges of tomorrow I feel are colossal. At the very same time we are also presented with a tremendous opportunity for making Sri Lanka a better place for every one, irrespective of race, religion, cast or creed. Let us begin by going out of our way to make the lives of these suffering humans a better one. How soon we succeed in doing this will ensure how soon the healing and mending can begin.

Displaced civilians at a makeshift hospital in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan blogger Indrajit Samarajiva describes visiting the Vavuniya hospital in northern Sri Lanka to deliver medical supplies and other basic necessities:

Vavuniya town itself is a fully functional town. Big petrol shed, Cargill’s Food City, roads, buses, road construction. The hospital is a big greenish grey building near the center of town. It is one of the better equipped hospitals in the region and not directly in the warzone. However, it’s built for like 500 and there’s currently more than double that, plus their families. Looks like they could use more roll-out mattresses, water mattresses, pillows, sheets, clothes, etc.

A lot of women and children, lot of nursing mothers. Lot of limb wounds, bandaged feet, arms, etc. This is not meant to be political, but I would like to note that these people are Sri Lankan, they’re being treated in government hospitals and protected by our security forces. I’m Sinhalese and I’m not genocidal. I’m trying to live here and I do respect and look out for the Tamil people as my family and neighbors. There are literally millions of Sri Lankans like me. I just wish the LTTE would let its human shields go and accept amnesty. And let our people go.

Bobby,” a Sri Lankan living in Australia, comments about his own experience with the war:

I am Jaffna (sri lanka) born tamil. Been living in Australia for the last 15 years. I was in the civil war over there for the first 15 years of my life. War is not a nice thing to be in. I know the feeling. When the fighter jets bombing, ships from the ocean bombing and the army on the land bombing, what do you do? I have lost 2 of my cousins, 2 uncles killed by the Sri Lankan army. I can tell you right now they were innocent as you and me. One of my cousin who came from SL to Aust a year ago, brought a grade 3 school photo of me and him in the same class at a school in Jaffna (sri lanka). We looked through the picture and i asked my cousin ‘i remember this guy, i remember this guy’ cousin’s answers were ‘he is dead, he is dead. Finally, i found out that out of 30 boys on the picture 20 of them are dead.

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

April 17, 2009
Gaza civilians experience difficulty in receiving aid

A van carrying aid in Gaza City.

More than 1,300 Palestinians were killed in Israel’s 22-day Gaza offensive, and around 80 percent of Palestinians are reliant on aid.

The Israeli government does allow aid shipments into Gaza, but fears that opening the borders would allow Hamas to bring weapons into the area. U.N. aid workers in the Gaza Strip have asked Israel to ease restrictions on aid.

Michael Robin Bailey of the humanitarian group Oxfam describes their aid operation and the dangers faced by aid workers:

A truckload of Pampers is driven into the Kerem Shalom crossing ahead of us. One consignment of 36 wooden pallets piled to a height of 160 cm. Not enough to meet the household needs in Gaza where 170 babies are born every day. “We have seen a lot of Pampers and toilet rolls recently,” confides the Israeli army major who is assigned to liaise with the humanitarian community. Also macaroni and spaghetti now that they have been approved at the political level of the Israeli administration.

I am here with 13 colleagues from the humanitarian community, three middle ranking Israeli soldiers and the manager of Kerem Shalom. 20 adults earnestly discussing baby nappies and the security significance of pasta. Meanwhile inside Gaza 8,000 families are waiting for the materials to rebuild the homes that were destroyed nearly three months ago.

[…]Kerem Shalom’s operations manager says his main aim is getting humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza. However, he always gives priority to security, “If there is any danger for people, I will close the crossing immediately.” He describes how his operation is hemmed in. On one side, by problems getting his Palestinian workers to work on time, “Hamas is controlling everything, they hold up the workers coming from Gaza.” On the other hand he is ordered to manage up to 150 trucks a day although he says he could handle 400 or 500. “It depends on the policy.” Since June 2007, the Israeli government policy is that nothing other than humanitarian aid goes into Gaza.

Blogger Mona El-Farra, a physician living in the Gaza Strip, argues that civilians are paying the price:

It is dispropotional open war , civilians pay the price. […]on my way walking to the Red Crescent Society , (i donot have fuel in my car ), it is only 25 mintues , while walking , i can cleary hear successive explosions, from diffrent parts of the city , and the drune on the sky , and also can clearly see the security forces soldiers, outside thier headquarters , as it is under threat of bombing by the israeli military forces ,

i had to walk very fast , expecting the worse , arriving my work to find out that we do not have enough fuel for the ambulance and the other work vehicles.

no fuel entered Gaza since 17 days , our storage has been exhausted , oh my god this situation will have its disasterous impact on different health facilities .

Medical workers as always work under great pressure , and while i am trying to arrange for medical shipment entry to Gaza , donated by MECA , i endure living in such dangerous situation , and lack of electricity , we have scarce power 6- 8 hours daily at the moment ,fresh and clean pumped water is big problem for most residents of Gaza

An Israeli blogger, “Alain,” replies to her post, placing the blame on Hamas:

Civilians pay the price, I agree (what about civilians in Sderot?), but maybe you should ask the Hamas to give answers. You can always blame Israel. As long as Hamas Fires missiles, Israel will respond and the international opinion will support it.

Maybe the people of gaza should ask the Hamas to behave like a government and not like a terrorist entity.

I know there are a lot of civilians like you that are longing for a real peace like a lot of israelis like me.

Israeli blogger Harry Rubenstein in Modi’in, Israel says that Israelis are concerned about the humanitarian situation:

Throughout the recent Gaza war and its ongoing aftermath, Israelis and Palestinians have been trying to paint themselves as “the real victims” and the other side as “the real perpetrators.” But if we’re all victims, then how can we possibly take responsibility for war spearheaded by our leaders? And if we’re all perpetrators, then why would we care?

The fact is, Operation Cast Lead has meant horrible levels of destruction for the infrastructure and people of the Gaza Strip, destruction which could have been avoided if Hamas hadn’t hidden behind the human shield of one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

Just because Israelis support our government’s recent war against a terrorist regime that’s been shooting rockets at us for years doesn’t mean that we’re numb to the damage done.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user gloucester2gaza under a Creative Commons license.

April 16, 2009
India, world’s largest democracy, heads to the polls

On Thursday, India — the world’s largest democracy — wrapped up the first stage of its month-long general elections that will choose a new parliament to be seated later this spring.

There are more than 800,000 polling stations in India, and over 700 million eligible voters. One of those voters, 23-year-old blogger Smriti Srivastava, shares images from her polling station in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh:


Smriti also wrote about her voting experience and of the range of people she encountered at the polls: 

Indian blogger and 23-year-old voter Smriti Srivastava.

It is election time and I just returned after casting my vote. This was the first time I voted and certainly isn’t going to be my last. It was an amazing experience though, standing there in the queue and looking at all the faces, young and old…rich and poor. Just there to exercise their franchise… even after knowing that it may or may not make a difference… Yet they were all there. 

I stay in a very “posh” colony, with beautiful houses and people with a lot of money. The area around it is completely opposite. It consists of this small belt called THE YAPRAL VILLAGE. That is where most of our household helpers and workers for petty jobs reside. Its like two sides of the same coin.  

It was a great feeling standing between people of two completely different backgrounds. A housewife was jovially talking to her house-maid, and asking her if she needs water, and if she is casting her vote for the “RIGHT CANDIDATE”…whoever that was. 

The lines for males and females was separate, and no one seemed to grumble about the heat. I saw a lot of smiling faces. Maybe they hope for change and vote with the belief that their votes matter. These were some of the daily wage hourly paid labourers, who left their work for one day and came to stand in the queue and losing a few precious hours of earnings. Yet they came to vote.  

It may be flawed, it may be rigged, but it matters to me that I did what I was supposed to do.  I stood in line with people of various ages, speaking various languages, having various dreams… doing one single thing. Exercising their right. 

Also, the “All India People’s Manifesto” is a project asking Indian voters to tell the next government what they want for the country. Watch responses here. 

Blogger “Souju” writes from the city of Hyderabad, praising the turnout and hoping for improved voting technology: 

What a fun it has been to cast my vote today. After debates, arguments and frustration on politics and our political leaders finally India started voting today. I was amazed to see the turn out. People were in long queues. I saw my old friends in the queue. Finally, it was my turn to exercise my right and of course, duty. Polling agents and officers were very cool and helpful. I cast my vote and came out. It was a great feeling.

Hopefully, next time we will have bio-metric cards for elections and the confusion of voters is lessened. When other developed nations use our IT professionals’ knowledge to build an effective electoral system for their elections why are we still lagging behind – only our next Indian Govt. who gets elected have answers for it. 

Another blogger, “Arby K,” chose not to vote, protesting India’s electoral system: 

When the next national elections come, in five years (hopefully) from now, these problems will be as true and valid as they are now. The political parties that form the legislature have a sufficient voter base to ensure their long term survival. Given the fractured nature of verdicts, it is likely that small parties will play a key role in government formation and provide good returns to their voters. However, at a national level this leads to uncertainty and instability.

These problems have now been ingrained into the current electoral system and it is unlikely that we will have a stable and confident government.  EVER.

In the long run, this augurs badly for the nation – to have unstable governments and indecisive leadership follow one after the other. It may seem okay for the next five years. But will you be okay with it for the next 20-30 years when you or your kids will have to bear the heat, as we compete with the rest of the world?

Should I compromise on my long term future by procrastinating electoral reform to make the Indian democracy effective?

By choosing to vote, I will be endorsing the current system of elections. I will be settling to meet my short term objectives sacrificing the long term ones.

So, I choose not to endorse an electoral system which brings unstable governments, indecisive leadership and  regional fragmentation of the nation.

I choose not to vote, till a day where we can have stable, decisive and a united government.

Read about the history of Indian elections and the growing influence of its smaller parties: Small parties are big players in India’s upcoming elections

April 13, 2009
Escalating political violence in Thailand shuts down summit

Anti-government protesters mass in Bangkok.

Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, is in a state of chaos after a major escalation of political violence and the cancellation of an Asian summit meeting over the weekend because of protests.

The fighting took place across the city as thousands of troops fired warning shots and tear gas at anti-government protesters. At least two people were reported killed and at least 79 were injured.

There are two primary factions of civilians involved — one that supports a former prime minister and wants his successor out (the “Red Shirts”), and another that supports the current govement.

Though current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was elected by parliament just five months ago, he faces lingering public discontent, largely from Thailand’s rural poor.

The “New Mandala” blog posts an email received from a reader in Bangkok, describing the crackdown on protesters:

Around 4.19 am. I was woken up by the sound of something like gunshots but I wasn’t sure. I live near the junction between Rachavithi and Rachaprarop Roads – not far from the Dindaeng triangle. So I went out to have a look. I saw many taxi drivers taking their cars to block the roads and a number of red group protesters around. Some of them told me that the sound I heard was that of the soldiers throwing tear gas at the red protesters at the triangle. I saw two ambulances went in and not long later they came out with some people inside. The people there seemed to be very angry and when one of them shouted “‘one of us is dead, brothers”, the rest ran along shouting with anger. Someone came along with something that looked like a container of fuel and not long after I saw a fire being lit not far in front.

But it didn’t look like the news of death was true. It was clarified later that the soldiers used tear gas but still people did not back off. One of the taxi drivers got off his car parked in front of me and opened up the rear, took out a baton and a piece of cloth then wrapped it around his face and then walked up to the frontline. Another taxi driver told me soldiers fired tear gas at people protesting in other parts of town too. People asked each other was there any members of the media around and got no answer. Then something happened in the front and people started to run. I did too – back to my room. More gunshot-like sound was heard again and again – just now – in fact- but I stayed inside feeling all ashamed that may be people are killing each other out there but I can’t do anything.

The Thailand-based “ShamelessMack” blog comments on the colorful array of protesters, from the “Yellow Shirts” of recent months to the “Red Shirts” and “Blue Shirts” of current protests:

The situation is becoming more and more unpredictable. The red shirts are able to move their forces from place to place. While the yellow shirts — the ones who closed the airport last November/December — have not yet re-appeared, the emergence of the blue shirts cannot bode well. It is even more troubling that on their very first appearance, the blue shirts provoked violence. Do not go out on the streets wearing solid-colour T-shirts. Yellow and red already indicate political affinity, and now dark blue is another group. Who knows what new colours may become too “hot” to wear tomorrow. What to do? Pack only floral shirts.

Watch a video of pedestrians driving away some Red Shirts from YouTube user Macromode:

Another blogger in Bangkok describes the shutdown of one of the city’s major malls, adding that the protests will hurt tourism and the Thai economy:

So after going to the church for Easter Sunday Mass, my friends and I troop to Central World Mall to have lunch and watch movie. Then the screen stopped…my friends and I thought it was a technical problem. Suddenly, a lady popped out and is speaking in very fast Thai something that seemed urgent. Finally, all the people in the cinema stood up and headed to the nearest exit. Naturally, since no announcement was made in English, I had to ask someone what happened. The moviegoer said they announced that the entire mall will be closed in a while because there was a mob between the  Red Shirt demonstrators and the police only a short distance away from where we are located and there were some army tanks nearby. There was a sense of panic from all people as they rushed out of the mall. Suddenly, in a supposed busy Easter Sunday and pre-Songkran (Thai New Year Festival) Holidays, the Central World Mall,  the biggest in Bangkok– is like a ghost town.

It’s so sad these recent incidents happened to Thailand, a country known to have peace-loving, kind hearted and joyful citizens. What’s even disheartening is the long term effect to the economy and tourism industry of these events.

Tim Meisburger, a regional director with The Asia Foundation, writes at the “In Asia” blog about the implications of ongoing instability and possible solutions to the country’s political failures:

As red-shirted protesters continue to block access to the Government House, just as their yellow-shirted foes did a few months ago, one wonders where democracy is headed in Thailand. A dozen years ago, Thailand drafted a constitution through a participatory process seen as a model for other emerging democracies. Thailand was a rising star, the standard for democratic development that other Asian nations sought to emulate. Now, 12 years later, Thailand’s democracy looks tarnished and tattered.

[…]Although the political conflict in Thailand has been personalized to a large extent, there are real issues that underlie the political divide. Prior to Thaksin’s election, many rural and urban poor people felt exploited, and believed the government was too focused on the interests of a middle-class and wealthy Bangkok-based academic and commercial elite. After Thaksin’s election there was a marked shift in policy, and people in the city felt slighted. They resented being forced to pay for his populist programs aimed at rural areas, and complained of a tyranny of the majority.

One means to reduce this tension could be political decentralization. If people in a local area have control over, and pay for, their own services, there will be no reason for conflict with other areas, while democracy and accountability will be enhanced. Political decentralization might also help resolve the separatist conflict in the south.

Another way to reduce tension and improve democratic representation would be to allow people to vote where they live. Currently, many people who live in Bangkok are counted for representation in their home village or town, meaning that those areas are over-represented in national government, while Bangkok is under-represented. If representation and voting were based on where people actually live, Bangkok people would not feel under-represented, and everyone would enjoy better representation and improved political accountability.

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

April 10, 2009
Congo’s crisis continues; mass rapes and scarce resources

Crisis in Congo: Human Rights Watch reports that Rwandan rebel forces, Congolese army soldiers and their allies have raped at least 90 women and girls since late January 2009. Photo: Michael J. Kavanagh

On Thursday, the head of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Alan Doss, said that joint efforts between Rwanda and Congo represented a “sea change” in the region that could create “real hope of being able finally to find a durable solution to the problems that have haunted this region of Congo for more than a decade.”

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch reports that Rwandan rebel forces, Congolese army soldiers and their allies have raped at least 90 women and girls since late January 2009 — when Rwandan troops first entered Congo as part of a joint military operation to target Rwandan rebel groups.

Rwandan rebel forces have also been implicated in the deaths of 180 civilians killed since Rwanda and Congo joined forces.

Maartje, a Doctors Without Borders worker in eastern Congo, writes about her encounters with Congolese rape victims in the “Condition Critical” blog:

I’m responsible for the ‘MSF/SOPROP’ clinic (‘Solidarité pour la promotion sociale et la paix’), a place where we offer help to victims of sexual violence. […]The team is working hard to make the clinic’s presence known among the population so people know where they can get care. We have also started setting up a focus group. This is where victims can share their experiences. Listening to their input also helps us improve the care we offer.

It’s starting to work. Last Tuesday, 16 women showed up. Quietly and shyly they came inside one by one. Some women entered seeming completely broken, others appeared to take a deep breath and then square their shoulders.

I was actually nervous. I found it difficult to see all of these women, knowing how much pain they had suffered. I felt so powerless.

First we drank a cup of tea together. The conversation began to build softly. Then a few women started to answer questions posed by the nurses. Others stayed silent but listened intently. As time went by, more women spoke up and the group began to relax. After an hour, it was as if the group had undergone a complete transformation. We laughed and had fun together.

Read more eyewitness reports from women in Congo at “Condition Critical” and watch the Worldfocus signature story: Rape as a weapon of war in DR Congo.

Doss also reiterated the need for troop reinforcements and equipment to the U.N. Security Council. In a post entitled “U.N. talks while Congo civilians suffer,” blogger “Dave” criticizes the U.N. for not coming through on its promises:

While joint operations were declared successful by the governments involved and the UN hailed the strides toward peace, the people of the region continue to suffer at the hands of all the combatants.

[…]The UN Security Council meets today to talk about the situation. Last year, they promised an additional 3,000 troops to aid the 17,000 blue helmets already in the Congo protect the civilian population. Not only have none of those additional troops arrived, there have been no reports that they are even en route. No one expects much from the additional troops anyway. The original Security Council mandate called for UN troops to protect UN relief operations and Congolese civilians, but their record has been dismal. Civilian casualties in the eastern provinces continue to mount and the epidemic of terror rape continues to destroy the lives of hundreds of women and their families.

The “Impudent Observer” blog calls eastern Congo an “invisible land”:

The world becomes furious at the death of a thousand civilians in Gaza, the world becomes furious at the ongoing deaths in Darfur, but the world simply ignores the death of millions in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Latest reports are that at least 90 Congo women were raped and about one hundred fifty villagers killed. Unfortunately, the Congo government took into the ranks of its army former rebels and sent them on this operation. These soldiers lacked training, pay or food so they proceeded to steal, rape and kill the people they supposedly were protecting.

Cry the beloved people of Congo because no one cries for you.

Also see our coverage of the crisis in Congo and Worldfocus correspondent Michael J. Kavanagh’s Potraits of Insecurity, a slideshow of the tenuous situation in the corners of eastern Congo at Foreign Policy.

April 8, 2009
After Somali pirates seize U.S. ship, crew regains control

Pirates in the waters off the coast of Somalia seized an American-flagged ship and took American hostages on Wednesday. Twenty American crew members on the cargo ship were held for several hours by four Somali pirates, later regaining their freedom. But late Wednesday, the ship’s captain reportedly was still being held hostage in a lifeboat. 

The ship was headed for Kenya with a cargo of food and relief supplies. The high seas drama is part of the ongoing battle to beat back a growing resurgence of Somali pirate attacks.

Barry Parker, a writer and a maritime consultant on shipping, joins Daljit Dhaliwal to discuss piracy, an enormous and expensive international threat.

Blogger Derek Reveron at the “New Atlanticist” blog downplays the significance of the hostages’ nationality, writing that the attack was not rooted in a desire to challenge the U.S.:

While the media continue to highlight the fact that the United States is now a victim, we shouldn’t rush to seeing this as an attack on the US government. There’s no evidence to suggest that a US-flagged ship was deliberately targeted. Rather, pirates targeted a slow ship where their probability of success was higher.

This hijacking was the sixth over the last week.  Their other targets were a British-owned cargo ship, a German container carrier, a Taiwanese tuna fishing vessel, a Yemeni tugboat and a small French yacht. All of these hijackings have one thing in common: they could not fend off a pirate attack. Greed, not ideology, underlies the attacks.

A blogger at “UN Dispatch” writes that the international community faces an insurmountable task when trying to track down pirates:

As many ships that NATO, EU, the United States, China, Japan, Russia, and other countries put off the coast of Somalia, they still have to cover an area of over a million square miles of water. And, we’re dealing with pirates out here.

[…]For now, the United States and other countries will almost certainly bolster the international naval presence, hoping, effectively, that with a few more people looking, they’ll be able to catch those needles in the haystack.

Blogger Dave Schuler at “Outside the Beltway” writes that the real problems are onshore in Somalia (listen to our online radio show on lawlessness in Somalia) and discusses how best to deal with piracy:

I’ve been covering the issue of piracy off the coast of Somalia for some time here and, as I’ve said before, the real solution to the problem is a solid government in Somalia, a tall, possibly unachievable order. Failing that I think the problem should be faced pragmatically.

Putting enough naval capacity into the area to do any real good will be an expensive proposition. It might well be cheaper simply to pay the ransoms. However, there could well come a point where the piracy is more than a simple irritant.

In their current condition international institutions are not robust enough to deal with piracy or terrorism or any similar issues, indeed, they may well operate against dealing with these issues in an effective manner. It will be up to the individual navies of the world and, most especially, to ours as the largest of the world’s navies to deal with the problem.

April 8, 2009
Rising Sunni-Shiite violence threatens security in Iraq

In Iraq, another bombing threatened security and raised new fears of violence between Sunnis and Shiites once American troops withdraw. The bomb exploded in a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad, killing seven and wounding 23. It is the third straight day of violent attacks and comes one day after President Obama made a surprise visit to Iraq.

Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, speaks with Daljit Dhaliwal about what will happen in Iraq after U.S. withdrawal and how the Iraqi government has dealt with Sunni-Shiite tensions.

Iraqi blogger “Salam Pax” writes about tensions between Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods:

My aunts and uncles, four Shia families, and us we haven’t dared go back to our homes in the west of Baghdad, now declared Sunni. The first time we went to visit since 2005 was last month and it was depressing. So few of the old neighbours are still there and it feels so much less vibrant than the inner Baghdad neighbourhoods.

[…]Two years after the first walls went up the sectarian division of Baghdad is fact. People sold their houses in areas they can’t live in anymore and tried to buy houses in areas safer for them. The important word here is tried. This shuffling of demographic cards totally distorted the prices of property. Many were forced to sell cheap, especially if they were living in Sunni areas. Those who don’t want to sell are left with nothing.

Blogger “Laith” at the “Inside Iraq” blog describes the scene after a car bomb detonated at a market in northeast Baghdad in late March:

The blast killed at least 16 people and wounded some 45. The death toll likely rose today. I walked slowly down the street which was, until the explosion a lively street filled with men, women and children. I saw some of them but they were still under the effect of the explosion. Their faces tell the story of ongoing pain and suffering of Iraqis.

[…]Fruit and vegetables covered with the blood of the merchants and customers spread everywhere. the fruit are stained with the blood of innocents. Three different flip flops belonged to three people who are probably dead now. One is clearly for a young lady.  The push cart which is used to carry fruit and vegetable carried tens of wounded people. Its the most popular ambulance in cases like these. It is handy and can carry more than one person. This cart will carry fruit and vegetable again soon. Iraqi blood spilt on the ground has become part of our life.

Young student blogger “Violet” in Mosul describes a bombing in early March:

the explosion occur yesterday.. they happen every day, since i was born .. i was born in the war and my ears used to hear explosions and my eyes feel nothing when see dead people!!!

The floor- as I remember flew from its place … the windows went outside their sites  and then returned again!!!

Blogwatch summarizes what bloggers and news sources are saying about the international news of the day. We’ll link to informative and bold voices that place the headlines in the context of the global conversation.

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