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July 16, 2009
A pilot, two presidents and Kurdish claims in Iraq

Jehangir “Jay” Irani served as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force for 10 years, flying missions throughout Iraq and Afghanistan. He is currently pursuing a career in journalism. He recalls the flight when he transported his most famous passenger.

Last week, I read about Kurds laying claim to Iraq’s land and oil. Kurds in northern Iraq have taken steps toward further regional autonomy by finalizing their own constitution in the Kurdish parliament. The Iraqi government is not pleased about ever-bolder Kurdish claims to oil and gas revenues. Many American and Iraqi officials fear that Kurdistan is increasingly close to statehood, which could doom the Iraq’s federal arrangement.

Reading up on these recent developments reminded me of a my most memorable encounter with Kurdistan, which happened on September 5, 2007. Two days after I flew Iraqi president Jalal Talabani to a meeting with then-President George W. Bush, the Kurds reached an oil revenue-sharing deal with the Iraqi government. I know I’m not directly responsible for writing a page in history, but if you read the fine print, it’ll mention the pilot.

I was 20,000 feet above the Iraqi desert, flying an Air Force C-130 cargo plane en route to As Sulaymaniyah, a Kurdish governorate in northeastern Iraq near the border with Iran. No one in the crew had ever been there, so we opened up our airfield directory to check the airfield’s pertinent data.

Jehangir Irani with Pres. Jalal Talabani en route to meeting Pres. Bush. Photo: Jehangir Irani

The book lists airfields alphabetically, but finding As Sulaymaniyah wasn’t easy. It wasn’t under “s.” Nor was it under “Al,” “An” or “Ad.” Finally, after spelling it phonetically, “Alpha Sierra Sierra…,” did our navigator confirm it existed. But “Suly” didn’t just exist, it thrived. I saw none of the usual sights of war-torn Iraq. And I noticed a mix of Kurdish and Iraqi flags flying in this desert outpost just 160 miles north of Baghdad.

Where rising black smoke signals your arrival into Baghdad, Suly greets you with her rolling hills and valleys. Where dust and dirt line the floors of most Iraqi military facilities, Suly’s passenger terminal was so clean; let’s just say I wouldn’t be afraid to pick up where I left off after dropping my chow hall turkey sandwich.

Pres. George Bush’s meeting with Iraqi officials, Sept. 3, 2007. Photo: White House/Eric Draper

Then there’s the small matter of why I was there. My crew and I weren’t even scheduled to fly to Suly. But after landing in Baghdad, a high-priority task necessitated unloading our plane and flying to Suly with a short, bald Major as our only passenger – an unknown man who I labeled “the One.” After touching down in Suly, my plane was surrounded by a civilian team of former South African special forces. I was told by “the One” that Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi president, and a Kurd, was en route. This once placid airfield soon started buzzing, as doctors, political aides, and members of the Peshmerga, the famed Kurdish militia, found their way on to my plane.

On a culturally sensitive note, “the One” informed me that the Iraqi president shouldn’t be addressed as “Mr. Talabani.” I was to call the 73-year-old leader “Ma Jalal,” meaning “Uncle Jalal” in Kurdish. Though I’d never met the man, his charisma was apparent. Talabani wore a spotless silk suit that was impeccably pressed. His hair was coiffed slightly to the right, and his all-white mustache sat smartly on his upper lip. He was the gentleman that everybody would approach for a handshake and then walk away glowing.

I greeted Ma Jalal at my plane’s entrance and cranked the engines soon after he buckled up. We were now headed to Al Asad Airbase, a fairly large airfield controlled by the Marines, situated in the barren expanses of western Anbar province. It was here that the biggest surprise awaited us. In the distance stood Air Force One. President Bush had made yet another surprise trip to Iraq, and I was tasked with transporting the Iraqi president to meet him.

– Jehangir Irani

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July 15, 2009
Stateless for my first ten years

A Palestinian refugee stands with his belongings in Rafah Camp. Photo: Flickr user Rafahkid

Ahmed Moor was born and raised in the southern Gaza city of Rafah. Recently laid off from a finance job in New York City, he plans to work for a micro-finance initiative inside Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon starting this fall. Though he is now an American citizen, Ahmed remembers what his life was like when his travel document was stamped “stateless.”

Worldfocus.org’s Stateless to Statehood explores a wide range of legal and political situations regarding the relationship between individuals and the states they live in. Kuwaiti Bidoon are considered de jure stateless because they lack government recognition and citizenship status. Palestinians in Gaza are stateless to the extent that they do not yet belong to a true state.

I was born in the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza, Palestine. My status as a refugee was compounded by the fact that I lacked a state identity. This was my status for the first ten years of my life.

I did not become an American citizen until 1995. My naturalization document has a picture of ten-year-old me and the word “Stateless” printed right above it. I remember my mother crying when she saw that word on her own document.

What did I know about statelessness? I am from somewhere. I have a culture and a people. I am from Palestine, and I am a Palestinian.

Palestine was supposed to be recognized as a sovereign state alongside Israel in 1948, but it never was. Palestinians from the Occupied Territories mostly do not have full citizenship rights and are now governed by a constantly shifting mix of overbearing Israel, impotent Fatah, and ascendant Hamas.

Sometimes I forget what it means to be stateless. Nowadays, I rarely think about how many times my family was refused entry a country. It has been so long since I slept inside airports because we did not have the privilege of leaving.

Yet, statelessness is more than lacking the privileges that sovereign states extend to their citizens. Being stateless means something more basic. Statelessness is sheer humiliation and the degradation of human dignity.

The stateless human being is inferior. He has failed to do what other men have done for themselves. It means that, for whatever reason, he is unable to govern himself. He is not complete enough to take control of his life and the lives of others in his community. He has failed to take his place in the United Nations – that great hall of mankind.

Men celebrate their independence days everywhere, but the stateless man is not independent. He is dependent and unwelcome. The stateless man lacks maturity and requires stewardship. He must always be grateful to others for allowing him to work and to live. He is a burden, always compelled to prostrate himself and apologize for intruding.

That’s what statelessness meant to a ten-year-old boy.

Today, I know better. Although I am no longer stateless, the real change in my status has nothing to do with my American passport. I know the history of Palestine and the injustice that bred the injustice that violates my dignity and does not permit me to govern myself in my country. My view of myself has changed but my struggle is the same. It is a struggle for control of my life and the lives of others in my community.

The failure is no longer mine. The failure rests with the people who do not recognize my citizenship and equality. My oppressor erodes his own humanity through his treatment of me. I am not insecure in the fundamental worth of my being; I know my intrinsic value.

So what does it mean to be stateless?

– Ahmed Moor

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July 15, 2009
Tibetan refugees seek livelihoods in Ladakh, India

Luv Puri is a journalist who has reported on Tibetan issues, the Jammu and Kashmir conflict, and Indian foreign policy for The Hindu newspaper.

A vibrant and enterprising community of Tibetans lives in Ladakh, the easternmost area of the contested state of Jammu and Kashmir. Thousands of essentially stateless Tibetans have migrated westward to Ladakh since Chinese forces clamped down on Tibet in 1959. Although ethnic Tibetans in China have Chinese citizenship, the Tibetan exiles in India have residency permits but not Indian citizenship.

Tibetans arrived as refugees and remain refugees. The Tibetans feel at home in Ladakh, because of their common Buddhist faith and trading linkages. Even though many Tibetans were born in Ladakh, insurmountable statelessness pinches this Tibetan community.

Nawang Tso, a 47-year-old who has no imminent hope of returning to his ancestral land, said:

Neither we can get government job nor own land. I was born with this status and wonder how many generations of my family will have to live with this status.

Buddhist lamas in Ladakh, India. Photo: Luv Puri

For the last fifty years, Tibet has been governed by China. Tibetan refugees in Ladakh, like most other Tibetans, have rallied behind their spiritual leader. But the Dalai Lama does not demand complete secession from China. The present political stalemate between the Chinese government and the Tibetan leadership is over the territorial limits of the proposed Tibetan province, under Chinese sovereignty.

Tibetans want a Greater Tibet — the amalgamation of the Tibetan Autonomous Region with the whole of Qinghai province, western parts of Sichuan, areas of Yunnan and a part of Gansu. The Chinese government objects, emphasizing that ethnicity is no basis for border demarcation of Chinese provinces.

For the Tibetan refuges, Ladakh was a natural settlement area due to its culture, religion and landscape. Famous for its pristine beauty, Ladakh’s landscape has stark similarities with Utah’s Salt Lake City. Tibetan Buddhism influenced the culture of Ladakh and even vice-versa, as Buddhism spread to other parts of Asia through Ladakh. The centuries-old monasteries found in almost every village throughout Ladakh indicate this influence.

Similar to Tibetans, most Ladakhi homes have a small chapel containing various religious objects and sacred images. Other visible signs of the Buddhist faith are omnipresent prayer flags, stupas and mani walls.

Ladakhi cuisine shows the impact of the Tibetan community. This is true of restaurants thronged by foreign tourists and even of traditional Ladakhi homes. Gyal Wangchuk, a Ladakhi owner of the famous Siachen Hotel in the middle of Leh, Ladakh’s capital, said, “The majority of homes in the urban areas are no longer eating Ladakhi food, as now the new generation loves the Tibetan food. The famous Tibetan Momos can be found in every nook and corner of Ladakh.”

The Tibetan refugee community is staying in rented accommodations. The community’s employment prospects have been highly limited for the last five decades. In the middle of Leh, Ladakh’s capital, a Tibetan market has been established. The Tibetan community utilizes its contacts in Tibet to import black market Chinese-made goods to eastern Ladakh. Shoes, electronics, and pearls used to flood the main Tibetan markets, which are thronged by tourists during the summer. A pessimistic trader summarized the situation:

The times changed, as now the clandestine trade via eastern Ladakh became difficult. Most of the Chinese goods reaching here come through legal means, i.e. through the plains via Nepal. Profits have decreased. Uncertainty over our status will continue to affect us professionally, psychologically and physically.

– Luv Puri

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July 14, 2009
Israel’s Bedouin resist the tide of modernization

Bedouins are a subset of the Israeli-Arab population.

In Israel, it is currently estimated that there are about 170,000 Bedouins — a traditionally nomadic Arab minority. A majority of them, approximately 110,000 people, live in the Negev desert, which makes up most of the country’s south.

The Israeli government has promised amenities for the Bedouin, but many of their villages go unrecognized and receive little to no services.

Worldfocus contributing blogger Ben Moscovitch discusses the current situation of Israel’s Bedouin population.

When speaking of the Arab-Israeli conflict, we generally conjure images of Hamas in Gaza or a potential war with Syria. However, another group of Arabs constitutes a considerable issue for Israel — the Bedouins in the Negev.

Prior to the creation of Israel in 1948, small Bedouin tribes (or clans called hamullahs) travelled throughout the Negev Desert, cultivating land and periodically relocating. As towns and kibbutzim began sprouting throughout the desert, these new settlements began affecting the movement patterns of Bedouin tribes.

While some of these tribes settled in permanent towns developed and funded by the Israeli government (such as Rahat or Tel Sheva), other Bedouins opt to retain their historical status outside established cities. The causes for this decision stem from various ideologies.

First off, some Bedouins prefer their historical way of life. They opt for lives unbound by modern notions, such as boundaries. Instead, by living in temporary huts, the Bedouins can relocate throughout the desert.

Second, by accepting amenities from the government in modern cities, Bedouins would need to pay for these services. Instead of paying taxes and for water or electricity, Bedouins can live in make-shift villages without these amenities and without paying the government.

Lastly, some Bedouins have ideological objections to living in an official town within Israel. These individuals retain sympathy to Palestinians and some even assist Hamas through smuggling efforts. After Hamas launches rockets into Israel, these Bedouins also may notify Hamas officials of the direct location of the rocket strike in order to improve rocket accuracy. Conversely, some Bedouins ascribe to the exact opposite mentality and even serve in the IDF. In fact, many of the military’s best trackers are Bedouin.

Due to the make-shift nature of these towns (regardless of the reasons for their status), these villages remain impoverished compared to permanent settlements in the Negev Desert. According to Bedouin officials, their towns lack proper education and health services from the government. Most of these areas also lack a proper transportation infrastructure, including roads. These towns, officially referred to as “unrecognized villages”, remain devoid of virtually any government services. However, the Israeli government erected top-notch facilities in official Bedouin towns that are recognized by the government. In these villages, such as Rahat, Bedouin children attend similar schools to Jewish Israeli children. Some of the structures in official Bedouin villages, though, are dilapidated and could use significant renovations. Many Israelis contend that Bedouins strip these structures of metal and other valuable products for their personal use. Bedouins contend that Israel built sub-standard structures for their villages.

Moreover, the main Negev hospital in Beer Sheva treats both Israelis and Bedouins. Entering the hospital, a significant percentage of patients are Bedouins and they receive standard health care. Similarly, Bedouins attend many of the michlalot (effectively community colleges) in the Negev to learn, predominantly, agriculture and education to teach in local schools. Some Bedouins also earn legitimate degrees at the Negev’s main higher-education institution, Ben Gurion University.

As Israeli towns expand and Bedouins are forced into relocation by these growing cities, the tension in the Negev will surely continue. The vast majority of Bedouins may change their attitudes and live in official villages or a new uprising may be brewing.

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 charlesfred under a Creative Commons license.

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July 10, 2009
Political cartoonist detained by armed forces in Honduras

One of Allan McDonald’s cartoons, courtesy of the artist.

Political upheaval continues in Honduras, after liberal leader Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a military coup in late June.

The military has clamped down on pro-Zelaya channels in the country and blocked the signal of Telesur, a left-leaning television network based in Venezuela.

Ask your questions on media battles in Honduras for our online radio show on Tuesday, July 14.

Honduran political cartoonist Allan McDonald, who had published several cartoons in support of Zelaya, was arrested and detained by the Honduran Armed Forces, who destroyed his materials and cartoons. He joined Worldfocus to describe his experience, and the interview is translated from Spanish below.

Worldfocus: Why did they arrest you and can you describe what happened?

Allan McDonald: Fui detenido en circunstancias complejas, yo me encontraba en mi casa, había dejado la puerta abierta para que entrara un poco de luz, pues se había cortabo la electricidad, y eran ya altas horas de la noche, casi 2 de la mañana, algo así, no recuerdo la hora exacta, porque no sabia donde verla, entro la policia, y dijo que me detenían por que había violado el estado de sitio, que yo tenia la casa con puertas abiertas, esta bien les dije, pero estaba con una nina pequena, asique no podia dejarla, estaba solo.

Así que ellos me dijeron que la dejara con un vecino pero no quise despertar a nadie, menos a esa hora, así que me llave conmigo, no se a donde me llevaron, todo Honduras no había luz, supongo que por la estructura del edificio era un hotel, y alli permaneci 5 horas, no hubo maltratos a nadie.

I was arrested under complex circumstances. They found me in my house. I had left the door open for a little light, but they had cut the electricity and it was already very late at night, almost 2:00 in the morning, something like that (I do not remember exactly because I couldn’t see). The police entered and said they were going to arrest me because I had violated curfew and had left the doors open. Well, I told them that’s fine, but I was with a small girl, and I could not leave her alone.

They told me to leave her with a neighbor but I did not want to wake anyone, especially at that hour, so I brought her with me. I didn’t know where they were taking me, all of Honduras was dark. I thought from the structure of the building that it might be a hotel. I was there for five hours and they didn’t harm anyone.

Political cartoonist Allan McDonald was detained by Honduran armed forces and told he violated curfew.

Worldfocus: What prompted your release?

Allan McDonald: En la detención, tuvo acceso un diplomático, solo el pudo tener eses acceso porque era extranjero y tenia que avisar a sus embajada, era un Venezolano y el aviso, le pedí un mensaje y me cedió su computadora personal y así pude escribirle a una periodista que de inmediato alerto la comunidad internacional, Amnistia Internacional logro la liberación de todos, casi alas 5 de la mañana, o mas tarde, quizá 6 a.m.

In detention, I had access to a diplomat. I only could have this access because he was a foreigner and had to advise his embassy. He was Venezuelan and he said that I could use his personal computer and I was able to write a journalist and immediately alert the international community. Amnesty International won the freedom of everyone. This was at 5:00 in the morning, or even later, maybe 6:00 a.m.

Worldfocus: Is media free and open in Honduras? How is the current government treating journalists?

Allan McDonald: No existe en este momento ninguna libertad de prensa, también existe la autocensura, y al acomodamiento de la prensa frente a los hechos, antes de este golpre ya la prensa estaba polarizada frente a Zelaya, los medios callaron siempre la verdad en este asunto, hay videos e imágenes manipuladas por los medios.

At this moment, freedom of the press does not exist. There are self-censorship and some inaccuracies when it comes to the facts. Before this coup, the press was already polarized and set against Zelaya. The media always silenced the truth in this matter, and manipulated videos and images.

Worldfocus: Where are people getting their information?

Allan McDonald: Esta batalla contra la censura y contra la dictadura y la desinformación se esta librando desde Google, desde allí la genta se informa, otro media sin censura fueron los mesanjitos vía celular, que acá en Honduras todo el mundo tiene uno, mas no todos tiene acceso al Internet.

This battle against censorship and against dictatorship and disinformation is freed by Google. It is here the people get informed. Other media without censorship were cell phone messages. Here in Honduras, everyone has one, but not everyone has access to the Internet.

A cartoon by Allan McDonald paints a dim picture of Honduran democracy.

Worldfocus: What is your opinion about the situation in Honduras? How should the crisis be resolved?

Allan McDonald: El Departamento de Estado hizo o correcto, aca esta totalmente dividido, entre ricos y pobres, no hay ideologías, es lucha de clases, pero los pactos deben ser en us país neutral tal como U.S. hizo, dándole espacio a Costa Rica, creo que alli esta la luz al final del túnel, sin embargo el propio Micheletti desde ahora se opone al regreso de Zelaya, eso va contra lo manifestado de U.S. y su deseo de arreglar este asunto ya demasiado espinoso. Esta es la primera vez que me alegro que intervenga Estados Unidos a un país.

The State Department did right. Here it is completely divided between rich and poor — not between ideologies. This is a class struggle. But it should be resolved by a neutral country, like the U.S. did by asking Costa Rica to take over negotiations. I believe that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but Micheletti is going to oppose the return of Zelaya, which goes against the declaration of the U.S. and the desire to fix this already too-thorny matter. This is the first time that I am happy the United States intervened in a country.

Worldfocus: Has public opinion at large swayed in favor of or against Zelaya?

Allan McDonald: Si, y es fácil saberlo, sino fuera asi, no habría tanta censura, hasta las cadenas internacionales como CNN les cortan su senal desde acá, ponen cadenas para que nadie se da cuenta que dice el mundo, ahora la población no esta en las calles por Zelaya, sino por la barbarie que hacen, suprimir garantias individuales, toques de queda, censura, y balas, ya el ejercito abre fuego y ya hay 2 victimas comprobadas y centenares de detenidos y amanazados, la prensa no dice nada.

Yes, and it is easy to know — if there wasn’t so much censorship, since even international stations like CNN are cut off from the public. Now, the population isn’t in the streets for Zelaya, but for the barbarism that they do, to suppress individual rights. The curfews, censorship and bullets…already, they have opened fire and already two have been killed (this has been verified), and hundreds of people have been arrested and threatened, and the press does not say anything.

Translated by Katie Combs and Ivette Feliciano.

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July 9, 2009
Naxalite rebellion menaces the heart of India

Anasuya Ray is a researcher for an NGO based in Pune, India. She writes about her recent fieldwork in India’s tribal belt, where grinding poverty and malnutrition are driving villagers to support the Naxalites — a rebel group seeking to overthrow the government. She studied social work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai and is originally from Calcutta.

The Naxalites are an assortment of violent Maoist rebel groups who stage internecine attacks on Indian government targets to bring attention to region’s blight. With about 20,000 fighters, the Naxal-Maoist Insurgency rages in 40 percent of India’s territory. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the Naxalites India’s biggest threat to national security, and they continue to attract support from a wide array of castes and tribal groups.

India’s Naxal-affected districts (red signifies most influence) Map: Wikipedia user Planemad

While conducting malnutrition research in the heavily tribal state of Jharkhand — one of India’s most impoverished states — one woman told me this story:

My one-year-old son fell sick one day. The nearest health center is 20 miles away. Going there would mean losing a day’s wage. The whole family would have to go without food that day. I had other children to feed, it was not possible. My son slowly got too weak to play, to stand up and one day he died.

Villagers with stories like this strengthen the Naxal insurgency in the region. Data shows that India’s child malnutrition rate is 47 percent (as compared to 30 percent in sub-Saharan Africa). India also ranks 66th among the 88 countries in the 2008 Global Hunger Index.

Schoolchildren in heavily tribal Jharkhand on Republic Day. Photo: Flickr user premasagar

In 1967, the Naxalites started their revolutionary movement in a small West Bengal village called Naxalbari. With huge support from highly-marginalized tribal communities, the Naxalite-controlled “Red Corridor” starts in Andhra Pradesh and runs through eastern Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, eastern Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bihar.

Labeling this highly complex issue a matter of law and order, the West Bengal state government sent in police and paramilitary forces and recently banned the Maoist party after recent violence in Lalgarh, West Bengal. And by pigeonholing the Naxalites as “terrorists,” the government has further isolated Naxalite supporters.

But government forces have been accused of gross human rights violations. For each alleged government abuse, the Naxalites have responded with double the level of violence. Large-scale killings increase during elections when Naxalites take passenger trains hostage and launch attacks on police. The Naxalite ideology has led both sides onto a path of increasing bloodshed in a “brutal low-level war.”

Naxalism is a complex social issue with roots in the tremendous deprivation of millions of rural Indians. Negating the politics of development could help turn Naxalism into a true mass movement. Time will tell whether this will create a much larger civil war or be crushed by the state.

More likely than not, Bastar in Chattisgarh, Palamau in Jharkhand and the thousands of other forgotten Indian hinterlands will continue to bleed.

In the Naxal belt and beyond, millions of Indians — just like the woman who lost her son — will continue to starve.

– Anasuya Ray

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July 8, 2009
Indonesia heads to polls, clinging to newfound stability

Indonesia’s election is its second after 60 years of dictatorial governments.

On Wednesday, Indonesia — the world’s third-largest democracy — went to the polls in its second direct election.

Indonesia had long suffered at the hands of dictators, from founding leader Sukarno to his successor, General Suharto, who was plagued by allegations of corruption and political oppression.

But since the country’s first direct election in 2004, Indonesia has set an example of stability in an otherwise chaotic region, due in large part to ethnic harmony and its dynamic open-party system.

So far, preliminary results from the election suggest that incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is leading with 54 percent of the vote.

Dr. Sandra Hamid is a senior director at The Asia Foundation and wrote on election day to describe the mood in Indonesia.

Televised debates have been held, the campaigning has concluded, and Indonesians will vote for their president today. […]After a year of on-going legislative and presidential campaigning, many voters would prefer this election to be won in one round. “Let’s get this over with, and move on,” a friend told me yesterday. Another friend’s Facebook status read, “I want Election Day to come soon so we won’t have to hear about it anymore.” Many Indonesians have expressed a sense of election fatigue, having recently been through the tumult of local elections, April’s national legislative elections, and now the presidential campaign. The campaigns, debates, and constant news coverage – and, for those of us living in cities and urban centers, the traffic caused by street campaigning – have become almost unbearable. SBY’s supporters are capitalizing on this sentiment, and are pushing it even further by suggesting that one round is more economical. “Vote for the incumbent, and the country will save some money” his supporters say.

Not everyone agrees, of course. This issue was directly taken up by one of SBY’s challengers, Jusuf Kalla, who is currently the president’s own vice-president, during the final televised debate. The claim by the incumbent’s team that they will only need one round to secure a victory is perceived as arrogant by many.

But most Indonesians feel that SBY’s likely victory is not about arrogance, election fatigue, or being economical. Instead, it’s about the high approval rating Indonesians have given the government for over six months. SBY’s numbers are nothing short of robust. Various polls have shown him to be in the lead since late 2008, and most Indonesians surveyed think that whether this election goes to one round or two, SBY will remain in office.

To grasp the significance of this, one should understand the context of Indonesia’s elections, where people are unlikely to vote for incumbents. In the recent local elections for governors and mayors, more than 40 percent of incumbents had to pack their bags and leave office after one term. And in the April 2009 legislative elections, more than 60 percent of legislators were voted out of office. Indonesians have clearly used elections to reward, and punish, politicians. We may not always end up with better leaders, but the underlying message is clear: if we do not think you deliver, you will be voted out.

If the opinion polls prove correct, Indonesian voters will have sent a strong message to the incumbent that they want to see more of the same. The linkages between approval ratings and the government’s pro-poor policies are clear. For example, in response to increased fuel prices last year, the government provided aid for the poor. Following this the president’s ratings improved, reflecting widespread approval of the policy. It may not be too far-fetched to say that voters credited the president for the benefit they have received from the government’s policies. It seems that, contrary to the views of many political pundits who portray Indonesian voters as being traditional and primordial, the SBY phenomenon may demonstrate that Indonesian voters do in fact make rational decisions based on what they perceive the government has done for them.

In that context, if SBY wins his second term, his victory will show the amazing levels of support the Indonesian people have for their president. The next question is: how will SBY use his popularity to make tough decisions in the challenging times ahead? During his campaign, he promised he would lead this complex and diverse country through the current global economic crisis. But what exactly does this mean? Will Indonesia see more – and faster – reform? SBY’s choices for cabinet positions will provide hints to some of these questions but, for now, let us see if indeed Indonesians make history in today’s presidential election.

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 isa e under a Creative Commons license.

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July 7, 2009
Meat cleavers and steel poles arm China’s ethnic factions

Uighurs are the largest minority in Xinjiang but are dwarfed by the Han Chinese population in the capital city Urumqi.

On Sunday, riots erupted in China’s far-western autonomous province of Xinjiang where ethnic tension were mounting for days.

In the provincial capital of Urumqi, riots were reportedly led by Uighurs, an ethnically Turkic-Muslim group. Clashes between the Uighurs and Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group outside of Xinjiang province, have killed more than 150 people and wounded more than 1,000.

Police have arrested more than 1,400 people in connection to the widespread rioting. Since that time, the unrest has spread to the border town of Kashgar, where demonstrators demanded the release of Uighurs detained during Sunday’s rioting.

Yitzhak Shichor, a professor in the department of East Asian studies at the University of Haifa, blogs at OpenDemocracy about the surfacing tensions in Xinjiang and the history of the Uighurs.

The reports of violence and deaths in the city of Urumchi, the capital of Xinjiang province in northwest China, draw renewed attention to this comparatively neglected region of China and of central Asia. The exact details of what happened there on the night of 5-6 July 2009 are unclear and (inevitably) disputed, though the background may include the assaults on Uighur migrant workers at a toy factory in Guangdong province on 26 June (in which two are reported dead and dozens injured).

But if the details of the immediate incident await to be confirmed, there is less doubt over the larger context of Uighur experience – both under Chinese rule and in the exile which over many years many Uighurs have been driven towards or chosen.

Uighurs are a Turkic-Muslim ethnic group which has been living in East Turkestan for centuries. This region, reoccupied by the Qing dynasty in the mid-18th century, had become a Chinese province named Xinjiang in 1884; in 1955, after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, was reorganised as the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region. The official statistics for 2007 suggest that Uighurs now number more than 10 million, and thus constitute Xinjiang’s largest minority at almost 50 percent of its population – though this is a sharp reduction from 95 percent at the time of the communist takeover in 1949, the result of significant Chinese settlement in the region. The numbers of Uighurs and Han Chinese are now roughly equal.

Uighurs, claiming Xinjiang as their historical homeland, have repeatedly tried to gain independence and set up their own state – but just as repeatedly failed. Beijing, considering them a separatist and “splittist” group, has used a variety of means – cultural, social, economic, political and military – to crush any sign of restiveness among Uighur.

For many years Beijing had regarded Uighur unrest in China as an internal problem that should and would be settled without external interference. Since the early 1990s, however, Beijing has become aware of the growing concern in the international community about the Uighurs’ persecution in China. This concern has been kindled and promoted by Uighur diaspora organisations all over the world. […]

Uighurs migrated from China in waves, usually following deteriorating conditions or, conversely, when the doors were opened. Some left by the mid-1930s after the first – and short-lived – Eastern Turkestan Republic had collapsed, mostly to Turkey and to Saudi Arabia. Several hundred Uighurs fled China in late 1949, following the Chinese communists’ seizure of Xinjiang. […]

Uighur diaspora communities have formed their own associations (occasionally more than one) in every area they have settled. These have the aims of preserving Uighur collective identity (i.e. culture and language), and sustaining and promoting shared national aspirations – ultimately, independence for East Turkestan. In trying to overcome the fragmentation and disagreements that have characterised these associations, attempts have been made to set up international Uighur “umbrella” organisations (such as the Eastern Turkestan National Congress, set up in Turkey in 1992; and the East Turkestan Government-in-Exile, formed in Washington in autumn 2004).

Most such attempts have failed to achieve the unity they sought. A movement that has a chance to survive is the World Uighur Congress, inaugurated in April 2004 in Munich.

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 eviltomthai under a Creative Commons license.

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July 6, 2009
Political crisis in Honduras deepens and turns deadly

Honduras’ sharply divided population has been engaged in competing protests since a military coup ousted President Manuel Zelaya.

Diplomats are still struggling to help Honduras out of a political mess that only seems to grow deeper by the day. On Sunday, there was a violent clash at the airport in the capital city of Tegucigalpa when a plane carrying the ousted and exiled leader, Manuel Zelaya, was turned away.

Worldfocus contributing blogger John Donaghy is a volunteer with the Catholic diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán who blogs at “Hermano Juancito.” On Sunday, he wrote to describe the tense climate in Honduras.

It’s been quite an eighth day for us here in Honduras.

In the early Church, the day of Christ’ resurrection was thought of as the eighth day, the day on which all is brought to completion. But Honduras did not see much resurrection today. […]

Much of today has been spent talking with people, looking for information on the Internet, and corresponding with people by e-mail. It has been a great consolation to receive notes from friends through e-mail or Facebook. It has been even more moving to receive notes from people I don’t know who have come across my blog and write — many times wishing me “Stay safe.” I feel as if I am experiencing some of the “globalization of solidarity” — something we in Honduras deeply need.

While waiting for news I turned on the radio (since I don’t have a television). About 2:00 pm, regular programming was interrupted. The de facto president Roberto Micheletti and some of his advisers had a press conference which was broadcast on all the TV and radio stations. They call it a cadena and is broadcast by the government. The first statement was that that Nicaraguan troops were massing toward the border with Honduras. When questioned about details, no number or place was given and it was finally acknowledged that there were “small groups of Nicaraguan troops.” The de facto president admitted that the troops could be acting without authorization of their commanders. But it was also called a “psychological invasion.” […]

This press conference was repeated again on a national broadcast at 4:25. Though most stations were running it, the local Catholic radio station announced that since it was a repeat they would continue with broadcasting religious music instead of the repeat broadcast. One small courageous act.

Surfing the radio dial on Radio America later, I heard another national rebroadcast of the Cardinal’s statement from [Saturday] with words from another religious leader.

This feels a lot like fear mongering.

I must mention that acting president Micheletti mentioned that he had sent a letter to the Organization of American States suggesting dialogue but when asked what would be the issue for the dialogue an aide gave an ambiguous reply. It was reported that a U.S. official said it was unclear what was the purpose of the proposed dialogue. Dialogue would be good – but it needs to include a wide consultation.

About 5:00 pm I was listening to the Catholic Radio station which reported that Zelaya’s plane was circling the Tegcigalpa airport. This sounded a little strange at first because a government official had earlier reported that Zelaya had landed in El Salvador. But I listened, even as I read e-mail reports from some one in the Caribbean. I called the Franciscan sisters who lived down the street and went to watch the television coverage.

The plane was circling with Zelaya and Father Miguel D’Escoto, the Nicaraguan Maryknoll priest who is General Secretary of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Three army vehicles on the runway were joined by a helicopter, preventing the landing. Eventually the plane went on to Nicaragua as a fueling point, before going to El Salvador to meet up with the presidents of Argentina, Paraguay, and Ecuador who were waiting for him there.

Zelaya is still outside the country, for better or worse.

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 egmb757lover under a Creative Commons license.

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July 2, 2009
How Ahmadinejad supporters view Iran’s upheaval

It has been almost three weeks since the disputed presidential election in Iran.

It’s been almost three weeks since the disputed presidential election in Iran. On Thursday, the government announced that seven more people had been arrested for provoking violence during the protests that followed.

While the demonstrations have ended, the voices of protest have not been silenced. In a statement, opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi said again that he considers the government illegitimate.

Sanaz Arjomand is an Iranian-American college student who has spent the summer in Iran with family. In the recent election, she voted for Mousavi. Some of her family members, though, are ardent Ahmadinejad supporters — leading to heated debates in this Iranian home.

What the other side sees

My cousin and my mom warned me before I came to this house. “They’re very religious…their father is very much a part of the regime…are you sure you’ll be comfortable?” With my American bravado, I promised to grin and bear it. They’re family, after all.

When asked who I voted for, I answered honestly that I voted for Moussavi, and did my best not to answer when asked why I didn’t (and don’t) like Ahmadinejad. Things started heating up when, in response to my hesitation, the oldest daughter answered for me that I didn’t like him because others told me not to. I listened to her mother tell me that there was no cheating in the election, that because Ahmadinejad really reached out to the poorer areas (i.e. handed out chickens and potatoes, I thought) he had legitimately won. I didn’t bring up the findings of the Guardian Council, that in their partial review 50 cities had more than 100 percent of the population vote.

The real blow came after a little discussion of my disapproval of Ahmadinejad’s foreign actions. I was absolutely floored when the lady of the house started badmouthing President Obama. I value his idealistic and innovative leadership, and I told her so. Although I could understand her suspiscion towards politicians, I tried to tell her that corruption here doesn’t necessarily mean that every politician in the world is corrupt. I was annoyed by her warnings that after 10 years word would come out about all of Obama’s shady dealings. What sent me over the edge, and unfortunatly and embarassingly made me raise my voice, was her accusation that Zionist lobbyists brought Obama to power!

I was furious. What made her think that? Did she read it somewhere? Was there a study published? No. She got her information from none other than the Iranian state media. This is where my volume went up. The state controls your media, I told her. They’re creating a common enemy so that you’re too scared to confront their dictatorial control.

I shouldn’t have said it. She knew to let matters cool down after that, saying that my view was one way to look at it, sure. I listened politely as her older daughter then calmly told me of Moussavi’s frailities, of his political spin and his revolution-era Islamic zeal. That’s fine, and I don’t doubt for a moment that Moussavi and even his wife got caught up as was explained. What I cared about when I voted was a new face for Iran, the hope that brought young people out into the streets because they thought their vote could make a difference, could change their country into something livable, something at least a tiny bit better than it is now.

– Sanaz Arjomand

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

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Poseyal Knight of the DESPOSYNI under a Creative Commons license.

For more, view our Voices of Iran extended coverage page and listen to our online radio show on Baha’i faith and modern Iran.

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Perspectives highlights the best of the blogosphere by cross-posting columns culled from a network of contributors. We cut through the noise of tens of millions of bloggers worldwide and bring you commentary from experts and voices on the ground.


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