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February 10, 2009
North Korea abductees complicate U.S.-Japan relations

Barack Obama is popular in Japan, but the issue of North Korea abductees may complicate relations.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to visit Japan, the first stop on her upcoming tour of four nations and her first trip abroad as the U.S.’s top diplomat.

She is expected to discuss efforts to halt North Korea’s nuclear program. But North Korea has failed to come clean about its abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 80s, an issue which still concerns Japan. The abductees were forced to teach North Korean agents to pretend to be Japanese.

North Korea has since released a handful of abductees but the full extent of the kidnappings is unknown.

In 2008, President George Bush removed North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terror, which strained U.S.-Japan relations as the Japanese still believe that North Korea continues to hold some of their citizens hostage.

Clinton has reportedly said she will “put great emphasis” on resolving the abductee issue.

Tobias Harris is a graduate student in political science at MIT who worked for a member of the Democratic Party of Japan in the national legislature for two years. He writes at “Observing Japan” and describes how the decades-old abductions continue to impact the U.S.-Japan alliance.

A new course on the abductees

Kawamura Takeo, the chief cabinet secretary, told reporters Monday that the government is working to arrange a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the families of Japanese abducted by North Korea.

As MTC wrote of a dinner Secretary Clinton had with Asia experts in advance of her trip, “Members of the Bush Administration Asia team committed a major blunder in failing to speak bluntly to the Japanese government and the Japanese people about the DPRK abductions issue. Having the Yokotas visit with President Bush was a nightmarishly bad decision, setting the stage for an ultimate, inevitable ‘betrayal’ of Japan over the DPRK terrorism delisting.”

I cannot stress this point enough.

The Bush administration, for all of its good work on behalf of the alliance, nearly allowed itself to get entrapped by the Japanese right. Japanese conservatives sought not only to make Japan’s North Korea policy center on the abductees — a goal largely achieved — but also to center US North Korea policy on the abductees. The U.S. was to be the instrument by which the Japanese people would be made whole again, because U.S. pressure in tandem with Japanese pressure would force North Korea to provide a full account of its abductions and release any surviving abductees.

Of course, if the conservatives were really focused on recovering the abductees, they would have been making overtures to China, presumably the only country with enough leverage over North Korea to get it to do anything (which may overstate the extent of Chinese influence in Pyongyang). They did not look to China for help on the abductees. Could that be because they had little interest in recovering the abductees but rather in using the abductees as a lever to take a harder line against both North Korea and China, a way to justify a more hawkish foreign policy?

Similarly, the abductees were also used as a bludgeon against the U.S. Consider that once the US opted to embrace the abductees by scheduling face-to-face meetings with the families for former President Bush and former U.S. Ambassador J. Thomas Schieffer, it became difficult for senior US officials — even the vice president — to question openly the Japanese government’s emphasis on the abductees. Naturally some Bush administration officials believed in the importance of abductee issue, but as the about-face on North Korea showed, not everyone believed it, because ultimately the U.S. was able to break the bargain on the abductees and commit to negotiations with North Korea. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, however, was left to take much of the blame for “betrayal,” with the president reassuring Japan even as the U.S. proceeded to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The point is that if the Obama administration is going to rest on symbolic gestures, like meeting with abductee families and taking care to stress the problem at every opportunity, it better be prepared to follow through on those gestures — or be prepared to damage the alliance.

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 showbizsuperstar under a Creative Commons license.

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February 9, 2009
Weakened rebels release several hostages in Colombia

A demonstration against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Colombia’s longtime insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is branded a drug-trafficking terrorist group by the United States and Europe. The group has been weakened by a Colombian government offensive.

FARC recently released several hostages, in what the Colombian government says represents “the start of the FARC giving up.” However, FARC claims the releases are intended to encourage a swap, hoping that the government will reciprocate by releasing jailed guerilla fighters.

Anastasia Moloney is a British freelance journalist based in the Colombian capital, Bogotá. She is a regular contributor to the Financial Times and a contributing editor for World Politics Review. She writes at blog network “From the Frontline” about the release of one hostage and his experiences in the hands of the FARC.

Welcome Home

Apart from the wires, the media in Europe didn’t cover this story. It’s not about a French citizen or French president Sarkozy flexing his muscles on the international stage. It doesn’t have the drama of a daring rescue operation. But for many Colombians, kidnapping remains a daily drama.

This is Alan Jara’s story, a hostage held by Colombia’s guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). He was released earlier this week.

When 44-year-old provincial governor, Alan Jara, left home on 15th July 2001, his only son was seven years-old. Alan, an engineer who had studied in the former Soviet Union, had been invited to an inauguration of a bridge built with the help of UN funds. The UN car Alan was traveling in was stopped by a roadblock. It was controlled by the FARC who demanded he get out of the car. The guerrillas told him that because he was a politician, they were holding him hostage. In those days, it was common for the FARC to kidnapping politicians and use them as bargaining chips in exchange for guerrillas held in state jails. The FARC’s most famous political hostage, ex-presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt, was freed in a military operation carried out by Colombia’s armed forces along with 14 other hostages last year.

On Tuesday, seven years, seven months and 20 days later, Alan arrived home. He had walked seven weeks towards freedom through Colombia’s thick and humid jungle. A chain was attached around his neck and tied to another person, just in case Alan decided to make a run for it. Every 4,000 steps, the guerrillas stopped to rest. He reckons he walked over 150 km until reaching a clearing in the jungle where a Brazilian loaned helicopter with Red Cross insignia was waiting to pick him up and end his nightmare.

He was fed a monotonous daily diet of beans, lentils, rice, and pasta. At night, like every night, he would be chained to a post to prevent him escaping. He said he was fortunate. The FARC put chains around his left foot, while other hostages were chained at the neck while they slept. During his captivity, Alan survived a bout of cerebral malaria and temporarily lost his vision in one eye. To fill the endless days, he would teach other hostages English and Russian. Alan became known as the teacher, and the one who told good jokes.

When Alan arrived at a provincial airport in Colombia, his son, who is now a young man, and his wife, who has tirelessly campaigned for his release, were waiting. As the helicopter touched down on the hot tarmac, they ran to greet him and became locked in a weeping embrace. Across Colombia, many were glued to their TV sets, as they stopped to watch a family being united. People shed tears.

Inside Alan’s house, the Christmas lights are still on. Presents lie under a large Christmas tree in the corner of the living room. In his last letter written from a jungle camp, Alan asked his family to keep the Christmas decorations in the hope that he might return home one day. He didn’t want to miss another Christmas with his family.

Today, Sigifredo López, a local politician who was kidnapped seven years ago is expected to be released. The helicopters have already set off to a secret location in the Colombian jungle to pick him up. This afternoon Colombians will once again be glued to the TV, watching another emotional reunion of a broken family.

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 kozumel under a Creative Commons license.

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February 6, 2009
Europe looks to harness Saharan heat for solar energy


Europe may harness Saharan sunlight.

Several years ago, scientists determined that a small section of the Sahara desert, amounting to just over 1 percent of its total area, could provide as much electricity as all of the world’s power plants combined.

Now, Europe is looking to harness the heat of the African desert for solar energy, since about 0.3 percent of the light falling on the Sahara could power the whole of Europe. European Union members have considered implementing a long-term program over the next several decades.

Masimba Biriwasha is a citizen journalist from Zimbabwe who writes at OhMyNews to discuss what Europe’s plans would mean for Africa and argue that any initiative should benefit both Europe and Africa.

Europe seeks to harvest African sun

According to a news report recently published in the United Kingdom’s Guardian, European nations are planning to harvest the sun in the Sahara desert in Africa to “provide clean electricity for the whole of Europe” but there is no mention of how such a development will also benefit Africa.

“Vast farms of solar panels in the Sahara desert could provide clean electricity for the whole of Europe, according to EU scientists working on a plan to pool the region’s renewable energy,” reports the newspaper.

As the world continues to investigate energy sources that are environmentally friendly, there is a need for developed countries to promote the transfer of both technology and skills to poorer nations. The fact is that the problem of climate change is a sum of its parts. If one part of the world lacks appropriate solutions, the problem will still come back to haunt even those countries that have access to perceived technological solutions.

The report states that 0.3 percent of the light falling on the Sahara and Middle Eastern deserts can potentially provide all of Europe’s energy needs because the sunlight in this area is more intense. Therefore, solar photovoltaic (PV) panels in that area could generate up to three times the electricity compared with similar panels in northern Europe.

“Harnessing the power of the desert sun is at the centre of an ambitious scheme to build a … European supergrid that would allow countries across the continent to share electricity from abundant green sources such as wind energy in the UK and Denmark and geothermal energy from Iceland and Italy,” reports the Guardian newspaper, which notes that the project will cost 45 billion euros (35.7 billion pounds).

While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the move to provide cleaner energy, it is essential that such an ambitious initiative is sustainable and beneficial to both Europe and Africa.

To harvest solar power in Africa without ensuring that the continent also has access to such energies is not a sufficient solution to the energy problem facing the world.

“Assuming it’s cost-effective, a large scale renewable energy grid is just the kind of innovation we need if we’re going to beat climate change. Europe needs to become a zero-carbon society as soon as possible, and that will only happen with bold new ideas like this one. Tinkering with 20th-century technologies like coal and nuclear simply isn’t going to get us there,” the newspaper quoted Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist, as welcoming the proposals.

Indeed Europe needs to become a zero-carbon society but so does Africa, and given Europe’s self-interested historical intervention in Africa, it has a responsibility to assist the continent.

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 jorge.delprado under a Creative Commons license.

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February 5, 2009
Top priorities for President Obama’s Africa team

A member of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) speaks with a Ugandan colonel.

Barack Obama’s election as president of the U.S. brought pride to Kenya, where his father was born, as well as to Africa as a whole. But it remains to be seen whether African policy will be a priority for the Obama administration.

Jean Herskovits is a professor of history at the State University of New York at Purchase, where she specializes in African history and politics. She writes at the “African Arguments” blog.

While the Bush administration prioritized HIV/AIDS, conflict resolution and policy in Africa, she emphasizes the importance of the U.S.’s political and military role on the continent.

For more on the new administration’s options in Somalia, listen to our radio show on lawlessness in Somalia.

A Hippocratic Africa Policy

The past decade of U.S. Africa policy has made some wish most for policies that would “first, do no harm.”   A Hippocratic test could be useful for President Obama’s new Africa team at the NSC and the State Department, as they reflect on the harm that has punctuated their predecessors’ policies towards many African countries.

The sins fall into (at least) three categories: omission, commission, and intersecting them at times, militarization.  Here are three.  First, “democratic” elections in Nigeria and, relatedly, Kenya; this could also be called non-regime-change.  Second, fear and loathing of “Islamist” regimes, as in Somalia; thus, regime change. Finally, the rushed creation of AFRICOM, with a mission that looks likely to ingest functions of the State Department and USAID.

In Nigeria, missed opportunities and worse have led to pervasive pessimism as Nigerians face the future.  Key in this was President Olusegun Obasanjo, fresh from political imprisonment, who became president in May 1999 through an only slightly flawed election.  Nigerians and Americans alike rejoiced at the departure of the military; Obasanjo had more goodwill at home and abroad than any head of state before him.  The relief in Washington was palpable, and largely set the tone for the next nine years:  Washington could rely on Obasanjo’s help on African and other global issues  and wouldn’t have to worry about Nigeria’s stability.

In 2003 elections were due again.  Washington didn’t want to know about political assassinations, intimidation and looming fraud.  The elections themselves, taking rigging and violence to new depths, bore out Nigerians’ and observers’ worst fears.  But from official Washington, only silence.  Further, just weeks after Obasanjo’s second swearing-in, President Bush paid his only visit to Abuja, signaling to Nigerians U.S. approval of  what had happened.

Months later rumors began circulating that Obasanjo wanted to change the constitution to secure a third term, a project he denied but Nigerians gradually knew to be his priority.  The embassy in Abuja, with a new ambassador, sent ample warning to Washington, producing no effort to dissuade him.

Nigerians managed to mobilize and defeat the constitutional change in May 2006, and a period of uncertainty and anxiety followed.   It was clear that the electoral commission, whose chairman was nominated by the president, was unable or unwilling to conduct free and fair elections.  This time, the U.S. Embassy in Abuja and professionals in Washington were reporting and analyzing fully.

But from Washington came no pressure to remedy the impending election disaster.  On the contrary, when the issue that had been Obasanjo’s policy priority from the start-debt forgiveness for Nigeria-was coming to fruition, the Treasury Department helped out; no one asked for anything in return.

When the 2007 election of Obasanjo’s hand-picked successor proved to be another travesty, as reported by Nigerian and international observers alike, Washington withheld congratulations briefly, and then recognized “reality.”  Other problems were more pressing.

Such as Kenya’s upcoming elections.  Two points here: first, that President Mwai Kibaki is known to have said that Nigeria’s elections showed that the U.S. didn’t care, as long as the result was a seemingly stable government and reliable ally.  The tragic consequences of that assumption are well known.  The New York Times has just reported  the suppression by the Nairobi embassy-on whose instructions from Washington it doesn’t say-of exit polling, done by the International Republican Institute, that showed initial results favoring the challenger, Raila Odinga.  This echoes the Abuja Embassy’s attitude towards Obasanjo’s reelection in 2003.

The harm done in Nigeria and Kenya is obvious.

Meanwhile, proactive, regime-change policy is evident in Somalia, where American attempts at engagement since 1991 have had far-reaching consequences for the region and U.S. policy alike.    After 9/11, Jendayi Frazier, first at the NSC and then as Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, focused, along with the Pentagon, on fighting Islamist terrorism in the Horn.  In Somalia in 2006, an alliance called the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) finally brought peace to Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia.  But it was “Islamist,” and the Bush administration reacted by urging the Ethiopian army to invade and seize control of the country.  It installed an alternative government, which could never function beyond Baidoa and eventually, not even there.

No one who knows the history of the Horn could imagine the Somalis welcoming an Ethiopian force.  In the fighting that followed, thousands of Somali civilians died, and now the Ethiopian soldiers are gone.  The Somali parliament, which was able to meet only in Djibouti, has just elected a new president: Sheik Sharif Ahmed, now heading the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia, is the moderate Islamist who, in 2006, headed the ICU.  Somalis in Mogadishu cheer!   Somalia “has come nearly full circle.”

The “nearly” part is that now there is a strong  Al Shabaab, a more radical breakaway group from the ICU, whose fighters control much of south-central Somalia, including key towns.    And there is escalating piracy, fueled by the lack of effective government on shore, but which, ironically, had been controlled by the ICU in 2006.

The harm to Somalis and to how they view the United States is obvious.

And finally, AFRICOM. Presented first as a simple reorganization, unifying previously divided U.S. military activities in Africa under one command, AFRICOM has grown into something new.  Highly unpopular among African governments, which have denied it a base on the continent, it now will undertake development projects and engage with African governments through civilian deputy leadership-apparently assuming aspects of the State Department’s and USAID’s traditional roles.

This is happening in part because far greater resources are available to the military than to the State Department, a fact recently deplored, notably, by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.  In Africa the harm has not yet been done, but the potential can easily be imagined, from the Horn of Africa, to the Sahel, to the Niger Delta and elsewhere.   The hope is that the new Africa team in Washington may reexamine the structure now being elaborated at AFRICOM’s headquarters-in Stuttgart.

With this, as with all of Africa’s challenges, remembering Hippocrates is a place to begin.

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 under a Creative Commons license.

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February 4, 2009
Philippines doles out cash incentives for school, health

Schoolgirls in Manila.

In the U.S., schools in several cities have implemented “cash for grades” programs to encourage disadvantaged students’ achievement in the classroom.

Now, developing countries are testing out cash incentives as a possible method of fighting poor health and education. In the Philippines, the government’s new “Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program” provides cash assistance to poor families that follow human development guidelines. Approximately 4.7 million families in the Philippines, or 27.6 million people, were considered poor in 2006.

Gilberto M. Llanto is a research fellow with the Philippine Institute for Development Studies and holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of the Philippines. He writes at the “East Asia Forum” blog about the new program and its likelihood of success. 

Philippines rolls out cash in return for health and education

A growing number of developing countries have implemented conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs, a new intervention funded by donors that seeks to improve the health and education status of mothers and poor children, respectively, and reduce poverty in the long run. The CCT is a targeted transfer program whereby cash is directly transferred to poor household beneficiaries on condition of doing certain activities such as keeping children in school. This intervention rests on the importance given to human capital in stimulating growth and social development.

Recently, the Philippine government has designed its own version called “Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program” (4Ps), allocated a budget and knocked on the doors of donors such as the World Bank for supplemental funding.

The 4Ps will provide cash to targeted poor households on condition of regular school attendance by the households’ children and visits to health centers by family members.

The 4Ps are based on the following rationale:

  • Investment in human capital (e.g., basic education, health) leads to long-run poverty alleviation. Early interventions provide much higher returns over the lifecycle, and
  • Cash transfers have an immediate impact on the poverty situation.

That poor households—which do not have the means to improve their education and health status—need some form of subsidies is undeniable. That cash transfers provide immediate relief, especially to poor households suffering from hunger and various deprivations, is obvious.

The policy question, however, is whether or not the 4Ps constitutes an efficient and effective instrument for providing subsidies. More importantly, will conditional cash transfers yield the expected outcomes on education, nutrition, and health? Will the expected human capital investment outcomes be realized?

The budgetary implications of this program are staggering and more so if funded by borrowing. In the next five years, the government hopes to transfer cash to 500,000 poor households. It cannot do this, though, without passing the hat to donors since it simply does not have the resources to fund the envisaged massive program of conditional cash transfer.

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 hellochris under a Creative Commons license.

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February 3, 2009
Moderate Islamist leader elected president of Somalia

Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed was elected by the Somali parliament as the new president. Photo: IRIN

Moderate Islamist cleric Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed became president of Somalia after a parliamentary vote on Saturday, bringing hope to some in a country where no functioning central government has existed since 1991.

Ethiopian troops recently withdrew from the country after a two-year occupation and handed security duties over to a joint force of Somali government officials and Islamic militiamen.

Though Ethiopia drove Ahmed out of power when its army ousted the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) only a few years ago, the two countries have now agreed to work together.

Listen to the Worldfocus radio show and read the Q&A on the background of Somalia’s political and social instability and Ethiopia’s role in the country.

Rob Crilly is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi who has written for The Times, The Irish Times, The Daily Mail, The Scotsman and The Christian Science Monitor. Crilly’s blog “African Safari” appears on the blog network “From the Frontline,” where he discusses Somalia’s new president.

Somalia’s best chance of peace

Funny how things work out. Two years ago Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed was on the run from an Ethiopian assault that had snatched Mogadishu from the Islamists who ran the city peacefully for six months. America had given its tacit support to the strike, fearing that Somalia was about to become a haven for al Qaeda. Sheikh Sharif was a wanted man.

Now he is president of Somalia, or at least that part of Somalia controlled by an alliance of the old discredited Transitional Federal Government and Sheikh Sharif’s moderate wing of the Islamist Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia.

He was chosen by the country’s MPs meeting in Djibouti, a result that will be something of an embarrassment for the West. British diplomats in particular were lobbying hard for his rival Nur Adde. Yet for anyone who wants peace in Somalia it has to be the right result.

Nur Adde may be the better politician, with his years of experience as an aid official. But Sheikh Sharif is the man who can unite the country. The new president faces an Islamist insurgency that has wrested control of large chunks of the country. If he can survive the initial onslaught that is sure to come from extreme opposition movements, and start to show momentum, bringing in donor cash and showing that his is the only game in town, he stands a chance of bringing his old allies in the Union of Islamic Courts on board.

The man I met two and a half years ago in a battle-scarred city struck me as a man prepared to talk. He wanted to tell the world that he was not a terrorist or an extremist but a man who wanted to make Somalia a better place. He and the Islamic Courts brought peace and security to a city that had experienced nothing but anarchy for a decade and a half.

He was anything but a cartoon Islamist. With his checked shirt, cargo pants and headscarf he looked more like Islamist by Gap.

His problem was that extremists within his movement went too far. Some of the Sharia courts within the union banned music in their areas of the city, cinemas were shut down and – the biggest mistake of all – stopped the trade in qat, the mild stimulant so beloved of Somali men. With popularity at home ebbing and little support from the international community Sheikh Sharif was unable to sideline the hardliners like Sheikh Aweys and the project was ultimately doomed.

This time around he faces the opposite challenge, bringing al Shabaab – designated a terrorist outfit by the State Department and which controls big chunks of Somalia – and Sheikh Aweys on board. It will be tough but he stands a better chance than Nur Adde, a former prime minister of the hated TFG, which is seen as a stooge of Ethiopia and western powers.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Somalia in four years of reporting (aside from the fact that anyone who tells you they know what they are talking about is a fool) is that nothing will work unless it comes from Somalia itself.

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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February 2, 2009
“Slumdog” immigrant waits for U.S. Green Card lifeline

More than half of all Silicon Valley startup companies had one or more highly-skilled immigrants as key founders, according to a Duke University study.

As unemployment continues to spike in the U.S., highly-skilled immigrants are more vulnerable to lose their jobs and their visas.

The U.S. issues up to 65,000 H-1B work visas each year for highly-skilled professionals. Foreign-born architects, engineers, computer programmers, accountants, doctors and other skilled workers are eligible to come to America under these visa provisions.

Each year, approximately 20,000 more H-1B visas are reserved for those with master’s or doctoral degrees from the U.S.

Holders of this visa can stay for a maximum of six years and apply for a Green Card and permanent residence if sponsored by their company. But applicants often wait in line for years, and up to 500,000 H-1B visa holders are waiting for a green card.

Rajeet Mohan is an Indian living in the U.S. on an H-1B visa. He shares his frustrating immigration experience and offers some solutions to retain and leverage highly-skilled immigrants in the U.S.

“Slumdog” Immigrant

Click to listen: Online radio show on reverse brain drain.

I saw the movie “Slumdog Millionaire” the weekend after my Green Card application had been denied.

So many threads from the main character Jamal’s childhood connect to the moment he’s sitting in the hot seat of “Who wants to be a Millionaire?” competing for 20 million rupees. The movie made me think of how U.S. immigration policies seem to have played such a big role in shaping my destiny in this country and how I have no control over the results. This is my story of patience and frustration for the elusive “greener pastures” in my life.

A lot has been written and debated about the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S., however, little is published on highly-skilled immigrants.

Who is a highly skilled immigrant? For the purpose of my story, it represents an individual (like me) who has earned a master’s degree or higher from an American university, and holds a job for which an American citizen wasn’t available.

The life cycle of the legal immigrant is well defined: An F-1 student visa, followed by an H-1B (valid for six years) and — if the Goddess Fortuna blesses him/her — the prized Green Card (U.S. permanent resident card).

I came to the U.S. from India on Jan. 3, 1998 with $1,000 in Traveler’s checks and $500 in cash — just enough to buy a return ticket if there was an urgent situation back home. Little did I realize that on that day I had stepped into the “slumdog” immigrant life cycle — a legal process of immigration that is so painful and uncertain that if I were ever to advise potential immigrants willing to take this path, I would oppose the decision with the same level of intensity that Lou Dobbs so effectively uses to make his case against illegal immigrants.

I completed my master’s degree and went on to work for some of the finest American companies as an employee and a consultant. My Green Card application was filed in October 2002. After six years in line, I have never seen the Green Card and I’m not sure if I ever will get to see one.

The reason: I changed jobs three years ago. Though the American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act has made job changes for immigrants easier after a specified period of time, my case falls into what was a loophole in the system. In 2006, it was technically legal for my former employer to “transfer” my status (without my knowledge) to another immigrant professional when I left my job. This practice was addressed and made illegal by Homeland Security in 2007.

How I found out: I logged on to my computer this past Thanksgiving to check my application status, as I often do, and it abruptly said “canceled.” I was not notified three years ago when I switched jobs or even now. Modern technology today allows us to track every packet via FedEx or UPS, so why do immigration applications, which are so crucial to the U.S. government and the applicant, get lost in a service center “black hole”?

Defenders of USCIS say that there is a process to appeal such decisions, which I’m in the process of doing. The problem is that there is no definite time line for the appeals process to be resolved and usually the legal immigrant has to finally use his $1,500 to go back to his home country.

I have listed several problems here, but the consultant in me wants to offer some solutions so that highly-skilled immigrants who find themselves in this predicament have more options than to simply quit their jobs, unwind their assets and return to their home countries.

I’m a firm believer of free market principles and having a good understanding of supply and demand (something I still remember from business school), I propose the following solutions to the legal immigrants’ problem of being in the dark during the Green Card process.

1. Decouple the link between the employer and the applicant after a specific stage in the Green Card process. In other words, take the middle-man employer or sponsor out of the process and make the contract between the immigrant and the government. I’m confident that this action will unleash the full potential of highly-skilled immigrant populations and America has all to gain from it — especially in today’s tough economic environment.

2. In return for action mentioned in the first solution and the assurance of the Green Card, immigrants with master’s degrees or higher, should donate their time and expertise. For two hours a week for one year, these highly-skilled immigrants should teach/tutor kids of U.S. citizens. I am proud of the strong foundation of the Indian schooling system, especially when it comes to math and science. Both Alan Greenspan and Thomas Friedman have highlighted the huge gap in math and science education for American kids. Their analysis predicts detrimental long-term impact. Their writings enunciate how this knowledge gap could lead America to potentially lose its innovative spirit.

Leveraging the skills of these immigrants could herald a new dimension to the grassroots movement that seems to be taking shape and ultimately restore America to the greatness for which we all left our homeland. The recent changes in the American political landscape have given me “hope.” President Barack Obama’s call for grassroots movement made me think of what immigrants could do for their adopted country.

So, back to me as the “slumdog immigrant.” I’m in the “hot seat” situation as I wait for my rejected Green Card application to be reconsidered. The motion I will be filing has no expected resolution date and since my current work visa (my current backup) is valid only until June 15, 2009, my hopes now rest on the astronomical alignment of my fate. If my application doesn’t get reconsidered by June 15, I must quit my job, sell my house, unwind my assets and return to India.

I don’t doubt that I can find work in India, and certainly, my family is there. But my wife, 2-year-old son and I have made a life and home in the U.S. and want to stay.

In the game show, the contestant has one opportunity to use a “lifeline” to choose A, B, C or D. In my case, the only “lifeline” I have is to dial 1-800-375-5283 — USCIS Customer Service.

– Rajeet Mohan

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

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

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February 2, 2009
Obama administration omits Kashmir from envoy’s mandate

The U.S. removed the contested region of Kashmir from envoy Richard Holbrooke’s mandate. Photo: United Nations

Mohsin Mohi-Ud Din is a Kashmiri-American who is currently a Fulbright scholar in Morocco. He also works for Human Rights First, is the drummer of a Kashmiri rock band Zerobridge and blogs at the Huffington Post. Mohsin participated in the Worldfocus online radio show about the disputed region of Kashmir. He writes about the decision to remove the Kashmir issue from U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke’s mandate, arguing that it will have lasting repercussions.

During his presidential campaign, President Obama publicly stated that peace in South Asia and Afghanistan would need to incorporate some kind of resolution on the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan.

The then presidential candidate rightly stated, “We should probably try to facilitate a better understanding between Pakistan and India and try to resolve the Kashmir crisis.” Obama’s stance restored hope in Kashmir as a whole, including the Kashmiri civil society and pro-democratic forces in the Kashmir valley.

Over the summer, Kashmir witnessed the largest civil protests in years, with tens of thousands taking to the streets in peaceful, unarmed protests demanding freedom, peace and human rights. Even though more than 40 unarmed protesters were killed and hundreds were beaten and arrested by state security forces, Kashmiris marched on for weeks. Kashmiri civil society showed the world its commitment to non-violent demonstrations, desire for peace and respect for human rights.

Yet last week, the Obama administration announced the mandate of Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to Pakistan and India, would not include the disputed territory of Kashmir. India has celebrated the announcement as a political victory. Kashmiris again find themselves shaking their heads at a lost opportunity for the truth be exposed concerning the atrocities and political oppression they endure.

India’s celebration comes as no surprise. Greater attention to the Kashmir conflict would threaten India’s reputation as the largest democracy in the world. Kashmir remains a huge stain in India’s already questionable human rights record. The U.S. envoy’s attention to Kashmir would have perhaps shed more light on the scale of atrocities and political oppression endured by Kashmiris for over a decade.

Read more about Worldfocus’ coverage of the Kashmiri people, history and human rights.

U.S. and the Muslim world

Like the conflicts in Afghanistan and Palestine, the Kashmir conflict is one that is talked about in hundreds of thousands of mosques — not jut in the region, but throughout the world. Extremists in the Muslim world often use Palestine and Afghanistan as examples for creating anti-U.S. sentiments. Unlike Palestine and Afghanistan, however, the U.S. is still in a position where it can either appear as a helper or an agitator. Kashmiris are looking to the new administration to pressure both India and Pakistan to acknowledge the grievances of the people living in the Kashmir valley.

The U.S envoy’s omission of Kashmir in his mandate threatens to leave Kashmiri civil society vulnerable, and U.S. supporters in Kashmir beleaguered. Atrocities will continue and the current generation of youth will grow increasingly helpless within the present system of zero accountability for past killings and rapes and zero justice. Such developments threaten U.S. interests for achieving peace, strengthening democratic institutions and defeating extremism in the region.

Peace will be hollow if Kashmiri civil society continues to be marginalized. Extremists will capitalize on this marginalization. Therefore, it is imperative that the Obama administration create avenues of communication to the thriving Kashmiri civil society, which supports human rights and transparency.

The U.S. relationship with India and Pakistan is in itself peculiar and warrants some serious reevaluation. On the one hand, the majority of systematic abuses in Kashmir are continually perpetrated by India, which receives praise by the U.S. for being the world’s largest democracy and remains a key economic partner in Asia. Making matters more complex, America’s ally in the war terror, Pakistan, remains a provider of weapons and money to some militants operating in Kashmir. All the while the situation on the ground deteriorates and extremists win ground against confused U.S sympathizers in the region.

Displaced Kashmiris. Photo: David Swanson/IRIN

Hopes and desires of the Kashmiri people

For too long, Kashmir has been debated from the lenses of India, Pakistan and extremists. Yet Kashmir is not limited to these players. Within Kashmir are the people — the people most affected from the conflict, a people who suffered and continue to suffer atrocities. They are a people who desire peace, human rights and democracy. Organic institutions in Kashmir founded on human rights, democracy, and justice exist, yet they continue to be overshadowed.

It was my hope that the U.S. envoy to the region would at least have a mandate to reach out to these institutions. I still hope that he will, perhaps behind the scenes. I hope — and Kashmiris hope — that the Obama administration pushes for greater communication with local civil society on the ground in Kashmir, for they wait and pray for the next opportunity for greater justice and accountability to materialize. And it must also be stated that the extremists and the Taliban hope for the opposite.

Regional peace and U.S. interests

Kashmir is at critical stage that will affect both regional peace and security and U.S. interests in the region. As opportunities for greater justice and accountability for Kashmiris are continually marginalized, the Kashmiri youth of today, who have seen nothing but war and failed judicial processes and failed political processes, will be ever vulnerable to sympathizing with extremists and Taliban forces in the region, thus threatening U.S. interests in the region. The road to defeating the Taliban and extremism in the region is through strengthening and supporting institutions of peace, democracy and human rights.

Since India continues to oppress civil society in Kashmir, as seen last summer with the killings of unarmed protesters, it is left to the international community to bring the people’s grievances forward. The road to peace in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India leads through Kashmir and through recognition and inclusion of Kashmiri civil society.

Will we (America) continue to shake India’s and Pakistan’s hands as 1,000 mass graves are left uninvestigated by India and as Pakistan continues to support certain militant groups in Kashmir? I hope not. I pray that this country, America — a country that prides itself on justice, accountability, human rights and change — will for the first time in eight years mean what it says.

In the meantime, Kashmir waits, still bleeding.

– Mohsin Mohi-Ud Din

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

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January 30, 2009
Thailand’s Muslim insurgency solidifies in south

Thailand’s southern insurgency has killed thousands. Photo: Ara Ayer

Muslims make up less than 5 percent of Thailand’s 63 million people and most live in the southernmost provinces. Ethnic and religious divisions have generated tension in this region, which was formerly part of Malaysia.

In 2004, Bangkok declared martial law in the south after violence erupted. Continued conflict — from bombings to shootings and beheadings — has since claimed more than 3,500 lives.

Watch our Worldfocus signature video to learn more: Muslim insurgency simmers in southern Thailand.

Luke Hunt is a Hong Kong-based correspondent who writes at World Politics Review about the solidification of the separatist movement and Thailand’s approach to dealing with the insurgency.

Thailand Rethinks Approach to Southern Insurgency

Regular bombings, killings and skirmishes between rebels and the military in southern Thailand have forced Thai authorities to finally grasp the scope of a conflict that has scarred thousands and changed the lives of millions.

Previously, Thai police, military and politicians had dismissed the attacks as random violence committed by bandits or a handful of disgruntled Islamic militants. Such attempts to play down the carnage were dismissed by Western governments, who see the confrontation with ethnic Malay-Muslim separatists in the south as a persistent threat to regional security.

Now, as the rebellion enters its sixth year, Thai police admit that the separatist movement is a well-structured organization operating across four provinces with a combined population of six million inhabitants: Songkhla, Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.

There are also growing claims of links to al-Qaida and the regional terrorist outfit, Jemmah Islamiya (JI), which advocates for a Southeast Asian Islamic state. Diplomatic sources said their concerns were driven by a series of interviews believed to have been granted by the self-described leader of al-Qaida in Southeast Asia, known as “Abu Ubaidah,” in the middle of last year.

In the interviews, Abu claimed that the armed struggle had changed significantly since 2004, when the rebellion was based more on locally driven nationalist aspirations than on the logic of international jihad.

“What is happening in Pattani is not an internal conflict. Some [fighters] come from the neighboring country, some come from far away, many thousands of miles,” he said.

Abu maintained that the mass killings at the Kerisik Mosque in April 2004, when more than 100 people died, and further atrocities committed by the Thai military at Tak Bai in October of the same year helped in the transformation.

But security analyst Keith Loverard from Jakarta-based Concord Consulting doubts the extent of Abu’s jihad claims, and said there was no convincing evidence linking rebels with Islamic radicalism.

Noting that southern Thai separatists are Malay-speaking Muslims who feel deeply alienated from the Thai-speaking Buddhist majority, he nevertheless maintained that, “while it is logical that Islamist groups would try to capitalize on the situation and enlist the southern Thai movement to wider terrorist activity, there is no sign that there has been any success in any such endeavor.”

If the conflict remains locally contained, the patchwork of southern separatist movements has become increasingly well-organized, with police identifying five principal divisions.

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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January 29, 2009
Political riots and deaths follow cyclone in Madagascar

Buildings throughout Madagascar’s capital have been burnt and ransacked. Photo: Christina Corbett/IRINNEWS

Anti-government violence in Madagascar has killed nearly 40 as thousands of protesters voice their opposition to President Marc Ravalomanana and loot and burn buildings affiliated with the state.

Opposition leader Andry Rajoelina called for demonstrations against Ravalomanana’s government, which shut down his radio station after it aired an interview with an exiled former leader.

The political unrest follows a devastating cyclone that struck Madagascar last week.

Ethan Zuckerman is a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and a co-founder of Global Voices Online. He writes at the “My Heart’s in Accra” blog to explain why the African nation deserves more world attention.

Paying attention to Madagascar

I’ve noted in the past that it’s hard to pay attention to news stories in other parts of the world when you don’t have a personal connection to them. If you don’t know any Moldovans and can’t find Moldova on a map, you’re likely to ignore news about that country. Joi Ito calls this “the caring problem”, and it’s one of the phenomena I’m most interested in understanding and overcoming.

There’s a parallel to this problem, of course, which is the tendency to pay close attention people and places we do care about. I paid far more attention to the election in Ghana than to other African elections, for understandable reasons. And the Global Voices community, right now, is paying very close attention to Madagascar. We’ve got a number of terrific Malagasy correspondents, a major project in Madagascar under the Rising Voices initiative, and a lively Malagasy-language version of the Global Voices site.

And, unfortunately, there’s a lot to pay attention to in Madagascar right now. On the heels of a cyclone that’s displaced thousands of people, the nation is facing a serious political showdown that’s descended into violence. The conflict pits President Marc Ravalomanana against Andry Rajoelina, mayor of the capital city of Antananarivo. Rajoelina is a media entrepreneur, and manages a television network that has been a thorn in the side of the president.

In December, Rajoelina’s network broadcast an interview with Madagascar’s former president, who is now in exile in France. President Ravalomanana responded by closing down Rajoelina’s station. The mayor accused the president of dictatorial behavior, and called on supporters to protest in Antananarivo. Unfortunately, protesters set fire to a complex including government buildings and a television station linked to the president. More than 35 people have been killed, primarily people trapped in the building as it caught fire. Protests continue today, but have been peaceful, with more than 40,000 opposition supporters in the streets.

There’s not a ton of news coming from Madagascar through official channels. Search on Google News and you’ll see a few hundred stories… which turn out to be roughly half a dozen wire stories, reprinted by various publications. There’s lots, lots more information on our site, with reports from Twitter with rumors that the president has fled, discussions of instability on a Malagasy-language Yahoo group, and photos from the ground.

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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