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November 30, 2009
Outsiders wonder why Myanmar built brand new capital

A village on the road to Naypyidaw. Photos: Michael Lwin

Michael Lwin, a research fellow at Georgetown University, recently traveled to Myanmar to research Burmese law, culture and religion. He writes about his experiences in the new capital.

Roughly five years ago the Burmese military junta decided to move Myanmar’s capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw, meaning “city of kings.”

At the time of the move, Naypyidaw was a rural backwater, a small township comprised of thatched huts inhabited by subsistence farmers.

In contrast to Yangon’s preexisting infrastructure, the lack of modernity in Naypyidaw five years ago meant that the junta had to commit substantial resources to transform the bucolic setting into a governmental metropolis.

According to economist Sean Turnell in a 2008 New York Times article, a “consensus estimate” by Myanmar experts totaled the construction expenditures at $4 billion to $5 billion.

Western observers have speculated that Senior-General Than Shwe, the Commander-in-Chief of the Burmese military (Tatmadaw), chairman of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), and the de facto ruler of Myanmar, may have moved the capital out of fear of a naval invasion by the United States and a fear of surveillance by satellites and Western spies.

The Burmese government line is not so paranoid. Myanmar has had a long history of issues with insurgents along its geographic periphery, and movement to the center of the country allows the military to strategically deploy armed forces to deal with conflicts anywhere. The central location is also economically advantageous in facilitating communication and trade with the troubled northern region.

Peasant workers on the side of the highway.

The drive to Naypyidaw from Yangon takes about 4 to 5 hours. The smooth highway, which is nearly complete, has few cars. Residents of nearby villages walk on the roadside, wearing khamauk and longyis while digging shallow ditches to fill with the  alternating red-and-white lane blocks. Many of these workers are children.

Occasionally we passed donkey carts. Hunched women were sitting among toddy palm trees and rice paddies. We snaked up the well-paved, modern highway that cuts through agricultural fields still harvested by yoked buffalo and farmers wielding rusted scythes.

There are several checkpoints along the way, resembling the average E-Z Pass tollbooth on the way to New York City (except for the near-total lack of cars).

A military official or young lady sitting in front of a LCD screen collected 2,500 Burmese kyats (roughly $2.50). The other checkpoints are for monitoring suspicious activity and charging Naypyitaw-bound voyagers who originate from other villages along the way.

A house in the secret new capital. Photo: Flickr user ISNSecurityWatch/Anuj Chopra

Signs saying “Welcome to Nay Pyi Taw” in English and Burmese greet travelers. The fruits of the construction have resulted in broad, multiple-lane avenues, potted-plant roundabouts, color-coded apartments for government personnel relocated from other towns, and tourist attractions like the Water Park and Zoological Gardens.

However, the lack of conspicuous signage flustered our tour guide, who has a degree in nuclear physics and has lived in the city since its inception five years ago. He got lost several times and had to reorient himself via landmarks.

As with the highways on the trip up to Naypyidaw, there were precious few people in the city, which does not seem to square with official statistics that place the new capital’s population at around one million. But this may be a matter more of density than quantity, as Naypyidaw is a sprawling, immense city.

– Michael Lwin

November 20, 2009
Jerusalem’s undying ethnic strife deepens urban divide

Click on map to enlarge. Courtesy of Ir Amim.

Worldfocus spoke with Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force for Palestine, a non-profit dedicated to a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Originally from Beirut, Ibish is the former Washington D.C. correspondent for Lebanon’s Daily Star and current author of IbishBlog.

Worldfocus: How would you characterize the current situation in Jerusalem?

Hussein Ibish: Jerusalem is the most divided city in the world. Israelis in West Jerusalem and the Jewish quarter feel like normal citizens of the Israeli state living under Israeli law. For them, life is very normal.

But East Jerusalem is more than 80 percent Arab. The situation is similar to that in the rest of the occupied territory, but it’s starker in Jerusalem because they’re living in such proximity. Insofar as an analogy to “apartheid” applies, this is more stark in Jerusalem than anywhere else, where separate and unequal is almost universal.

Most Jerusalem Arabs are not in effect subjects of Israeli law but practically live under martial law. In many cases, they’re technically residents of Israel — but not citizens. They can’t vote in national elections. And they generally don’t vote in municipal elections. Jerusalem is the flash point for the conflict.

Worldfocus: Why can’t the leaders on both sides reach a rational agreement about sharing the city?

Hussein Ibish: The cultural, religious and political importance of the holy places means that Jerusalem is central to both populations. Both sides are becoming increasingly influenced by right-wing religious rhetoric. The conflict is transforming from an ethnic struggle over land and power in a small area — into a religious struggle between bearded fanatics on both sides about the will of God and holy places.

The Old City of Jerusalem requires a creative solution and the unique formula like the Vatican City. It can’t be the exclusive preserve of any of the religious or ethnic groups. A unique formula has to be found. But it’s not beyond the wit of man to come up with a solution for this, because the national interests of all parties require it.

Worldfocus: Are there certain deal-breakers on the issue of Jerusalem?

Hussein Ibish: For the Israeli side, the “right of return” (for Palestinian refugees) is a deal-breaker just like the claim that Jerusalem is the undivided and eternal Israeli capital is for the Palestinians. This kind of rhetoric acts as a political narcotic: it makes people feel good, but it’s extremely damaging.

But when you get into the final status agreement, these are all issues that can be negotiated successfully. Both parties have a stake in making it work. That could keep Jerusalem united and parts of the city jointly administered — although with separate sovereignty. All it takes is political will and some creativity. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’m a skeptical person, but it seems possible to me. It’ll be an unusual arrangement reflecting the unique character of the place.

There are reciprocal bitter pills on the right of return and Jerusalem both sides must swallow in their own existential national interests.

The only serious player really resistant to this idea [to create two capitals in Jerusalem] is the Israeli government, which is trying to prevent Jerusalem from being a topic of discussion in any the final status talks. But Obama made it very clear that the terms of reference need to be clear and precise — and involve security for both parties, borders, refugees and Jerusalem. The U.S. position on Jerusalem is closer to the Palestinian view than to the Israeli one. There is implicit understanding in the U.S. that most of East Jerusalem needs to be the Palestinian capital.

There will also clearly have to be a land swaps. The Palestinian people accept that, and the leadership accepts it. Not every settlement in and around Jerusalem must be evacuate. I don’t mean that the Palestinians will be unwilling to have Israelis [in Palestinian-controlled East Jerusalem] or elsewhere in the Palestinian state. But the Israel government would probably not want to face the crisis of some incident involving Israeli citizens living in newly sovereign Palestinian state, and I think it will be they who push for
evacuation in the event of an agreement.

Both sides should be creative and flexible and Israel should be willing to evacuate settlements that make Palestinian statehood impossible. It’s politically problematic but not impossible. These are painful concessions for both but they are obviously necessary. It’s all about a series of complicated quid pro quos. This is not a menu where you can go through and choose what you want based on your tastes, its a delicate pattern of concessions. It’s also a kaleidoscope. Every time you move the image a little, the whole pattern shifts.

Worldfocus: Do you envision that Jewish Israelis will be able to stay on in the areas that become Palestine in East Jerusalem and the West Bank?

Hussein Ibish: Palestinian citizenship or dual citizenship for them is possible, but I don’t think the Israeli government will allow it in the West Bank, though they might find a way to make it work in East Jerusalem.

An agreement is in the core existential national interest of both parties. Settlements will be evacuated according to a variety of formulae. At least 75,000 [Jewish settlers] will need to be removed. That means perhaps up to 200,000- 300,000 will be staying where they are in the small parts of West Bank such as Ma’ale Adumim that will become part of Israel.

The bottom line is that the Palestinians cannot be denied 22% of Mandatory Palestine — the equivalent of East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank. I think they need and deserve that.

Worldfocus: What role will Palestinian Gaza play if it continues to be a separate entity from the Palestinian West Bank?

Hussein Ibish: Gaza has no independent future from the rest of Palestine. The idea of a political status that is separate is completely wrong. Very few people in the Gaza Strip want that. Israel is strategically trying to emphasize these divisions, but it’s not something that will take.

I don’t think we’re looking at a scenario yet where Hamas can really succeed in replacing the PLO. They’re quite far away from that. All they hope to do so is for negotiations to break down. Hamas are weak and isolated — only able to maintain control in Gaza through brute force and oppression. Hamas thrives on chaos, stalemate [in talks] and a rhetoric of confrontation and violence. Their core constituency — at most 13-15 percent of the Palestinian population — believes in the Muslim Brotherhood model. But that’s not really a major political force unless there is no hope for peace.

Worldfocus: How about fresh alternatives to the Fatah-Hamas split?

Hussein Ibish: Salam Fayyad a very serious actor on the scene, yet he’s not a politician. Fatah is a dysfunctional political party but commands major support. The PA could use Fatah’s political authority to facilitate Fayyad’s state-building agenda and technocratic prowess. This is crucial because Fayyad’s plan provides another avenue for progress, change and momentum towards ending both the occupation and the conflict. If 1/20 of Fayyad’s plan could be implemented, there would be a serious transformation of the strategic environment, greatly enhancing Palestinian interests and the prospects for peace.

I think his plan could serve as a crucial augmentation of diplomacy and a parallel track that is constructive, serious and transformational. The biggest threat to it at the moment is the idea of dissolving the PA and going back functioning strictly through the PLO as a diplomatic but not a governing entity. With international financial support and political protection, it would be very difficult for Israel to block this institution-building plan. In short order, this could really change the Palestinian political scene and the strategic environment for the better.

– Ben Piven

Listen to Worldfocus Radio: Martin Savidge hosts “Jerusalem United or Divided?” with Mustafa Barghouti of the Palestinian National Initiative and Gershon Baskin of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information.

November 18, 2009
Saudi Arabia and Iran fighting proxy war in northern Yemen

A Yemeni government tank used against Houthi rebels in the north. Photo: Al Jazeera video

For the past 15 years, Dwight Bashir has worked on international conflict, human rights and religious freedom issues. He is a senior advisor for an independent U.S. commission focusing on international religious freedom. The views expressed here are his own personal views.

A war of words is heating up between Iran and Saudi Arabia over an ongoing armed conflict in northern Yemen between Shi’a Houthi rebels and Yemeni security forces. This week, Iran accused Saudi Arabia of state-sponsored “Wahhabi terrorism” in Yemen, while the most senior Saudi cleric accused Houthi rebels of being backed by Iran to spread Shi’a Islam in “Sunni Islam’s heartland.”

Both Yemen and Saudi Arabia accuse Iran of providing financial and/or military support to the rebels. Iran denies any kind of support for the rebels.

The conflict in Yemen is complex — with numerous interlocking factors, such as underdevelopment, limited resources, tribal tensions, political exclusion and security concerns. Some have posited that the conflict is exacerbated by the fact that Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaging in a proxy war on Yemeni soil.

The truth is that for 30 years both Iran and Saudi Arabia have spent billions of dollars exporting competing religio-political ideologies in the region and globally, while committing egregious human rights violations at home to defend and bolster their respective ideologies.

Ever since Saudi Arabia entered the conflict two weeks ago after Houthi rebels crossed into Saudi territory from northern Yemen and allegedly killed two Saudi border guards, tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have risen almost daily.

UN officials have estimated that, since 2004, as many as 175,000 people have been displaced in northern Yemen. And at least 240 villages in Saudi Arabia have been evacuated in recent weeks.

To better understand the conflict, it is important to understand religious demographics in Yemen. Between 40-45% of the Yemeni population of 23 million are Shi’a Muslims, mostly from the Zaydi school of Shi’a Islam founded more than 1,000 years ago.

Although Yemen’s majority is Sunni, Zaydi Muslims make up a majority of the population in the north where the fighting is taking place. In general, there are few societal tensions between Yemen’s Shi’a and Sunni Muslims.

The Yemeni government claims that Houthi rebels — considered a Zaydi militant group — have sought to develop a political faction modeled on Hezbollah in Lebanon, in order to undermine the government and impose Shi’a Islamic law. This is similar to how the Iranian government’s interpretation of Twelver Shi’a Islam is the law of the land in Iran.

The rebels follow the late Zaydi cleric, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi (hence “Houthi rebels”). Al-Houthi is a former Yemeni parliamentarian who was killed during a 10-week rebellion in 2004 against the Yemeni government in the northern province of Saada, where the fighting started more than five years ago. The rebels claim they are fighting against government repression, although they have never articulated clear objectives, political or otherwise.

Despite both the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels insisting that the conflict is not sectarian in nature, the Iranian government is doing everything it can to portray the conflict as two predominantly Sunni Muslim states, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, cooperating to massacre Shi’a civilians in Yemen. Despite the complexities, these Iranian claims are exaggerated, at best, and downright contrived at worst.

Some Zaydi Muslims in Yemen have been subject to discrimination and harassment for perceived or actual sympathy toward Houthi rebels. According to human rights groups in the region, some Zaydi Muslims not connected to the rebels have been inadvertently targeted by the Yemeni government.

Because Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been promoting competing religio-political ideologies, it is not surprising that both countries would fan the flames of sectarian warfare. Yemen is a fragile state with an active al-Qaeda presence that threatens regional security, and its government is fighting for economic and political stability.

To date, the international community has not played an active role in the conflict. With the spillover into Saudi Arabia, the international community must engage and help broker an end to the current crisis. If not, the conflict could quickly escalate and the region may be facing a new security reality that would likely have wider implications.

– Dwight Bashir

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

November 18, 2009
Africa remains the final frontier for economic growth

An employee of Logistique Petroliere in Madagascar. Photo: Flickr user DavidDarricau

Ayo Johnson, a Worldfocus contributing blogger, writes about extraction of natural resources in Africa. The piece is excerpted from his blog, Africa Speak International.

The truth is that Africa is the next new frontier of mineral exploration. With major stakeholders battling, wilding and conniving their charm against a complex network of shady deals to outwit the cool, smart and calculative moves of the Chinese.

Africa’s strategic importance cannot be underplayed nor its value cheapened. Its geographical positioning and untapped mineral wealth make it a unique selling proposition to any investor. The trading ability of any multinational company is dependent on contracts signed and memorandum of understandings reached between hosts and investing governments.

African countries, dissatisfied by unequal trading relationships with the rest of the world, have hardened their political stance. China’s current interest in Africa is only a convenient opportunity for African governments to support another would-be investor.

China’s relationship building with Africa over the past 10 years has left the continent in relatively decent shape. African governments have realized that they need trade far more than aid. They need fair term without carrot and stick approach linked to investment. Africans clearly understand that they can choose between China from the East versus the rest of the world.

China has stolen the lead in Africa with over $60 billion worth of investment and untold influence.

Virtually in slow motion, overnight the Chinese had taken a grip of mineral extraction with Europe and the U.S. a distant fourth. Behind Russia and Brazil — both major players in their own right.

Industrialized nations’ appetite for oil goes unabated despite calls from pressure groups. Governments need to diversify into large scale production of new greener cleaner technologies of wind, solar and hydro. Wars in the Middle East, combined with strained relationships with many other oil-producing countries, have forced the West to look for new suppliers of oil.

China is also desperate; its rapid growth and technological advancement have increased its appetite for energy to fuel its enormous economy. This is the central driving force that justifies it presence in Africa. China’s dominance across the continent has come at a price. The Chinese have built bridges, road and general infrastructure all for free — in a bid to guarantee access to Africa’s precious minerals.

China has also provided soft loans to African governments, namely Angola, Sudan, Zambia, Congo and Rwanda as a means of raising much needed private capital outside of the framework of the IMF and the World Bank.

The Chinese have not imposed conditionality packages as part of their loan agreements, unlike the stringent and detrimental conditionality packages imposed by industrialized nations. Instead China has requested that African governments in receipt of Chinese money do business with Chinese companies and buy goods from Chinese firms.

Guaranteeing that the circulation of money is kept strictly with the China-Africa trade zone squeezes Western products and firms out of the picture. There are now little Chinatown enclaves popping up all over Africa with cheap Chinese goods replacing Western brand names.

It is therefore not surprising that President Obama visited Africa, flagged by an extended trip to various mineral hot spots by Hillary Clinton. The U.S. is eager to show support to Africa and to rekindle influence in a bid to up root and dislodge the Chinese iron grip on the continent.

African leaders and their advisers have finally awakened, realizing what the new type of global politics is all about. Who are the new major players, and what choices have to be made?

Africa finds itself in a very unique position to be able to choose among multiple investors all bidding for the same job. This increases the value of Africa’s currency, ensuring that the best deals are signed.

Africa’s choice will be at the expense of Western governments and their respective multinational companies. A liberalized continent is voting with its feet and changing suppliers, manufacturers and investors all at the same time. This is ground-breaking and truly unprecedented.

November 17, 2009
The games they play with children in my war-torn land

Young girls at the Gudwara Panja Sahib. Photo: Flickr user AlJazeeraEnglish

Worldfocus partner World Pulse is a media enterprise covering global issues through the eyes of women. This post is excerpted from their PulseWire project, an international online forum for women. In it, Nukhbat Malik writes about meeting children scarred by war in the town of Hasan Abdal in northern Punjab, Pakistan, at one of Sikhism’s holiest places.

He is a 13-year-old boy with big green eyes, following me everywhere while I wander around the Gurdwara Panja Sahib, taking pictures. The place is bustling with people of all ages, children running around, old men and women lying in the corridors. This boy appears in front of me when I move towards a quieter corner and looking straight into my eyes, he almost whispers and makes a sign which makes leaves me standing still.

Satish Singh is from Mingora, the largest city in the Swat district of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province. He moved to Gurdwara on April 28th with his parents, three sisters and two brothers. He is the eldest among his siblings. I take his hand and lead him to the stairs. He looks around to make sure that no one is noticing him.

And then he says, ‘Maulana Fazlullah looks like a true hero of a movie. He comes there on a horse, and there are always three other people on horses with him, one at his back and two on each side. I wonder how he became such a dashing person. Though I have never seen his face but his personality is very impressive.’

I am stunned, and I ask him to explain the sign which he made earlier.

He looks around to see if anyone is watching and then with widened eyes says, ‘I saw there were three of them, wearing shalwar kameez. Their faces were wrapped in black cloth, excluding the eyes and they had guns. It was about 2:30 pm and I was coming back from school. It’s the Green Chowk where there are different shops and lots of people. They stopped in front of a shop, grabbed a man, knocked him down and beheaded him.’

‘He was an ordinary man, perhaps some government officer, I still think of him and wonder what his fault was?’

It’s hard for me to keep looking at Satish. Just when I try to move the conversation to a lighter tangent, he says, ‘That was the first time in my life when I ran as fast as I could. I entered my house, went straight to the washroom, threw up and fainted. For next three days I was not able to talk to any one. My mother still asks me what went wrong that day, but I am unable to explain, I am speechless when I think of that day, I am scared.’

‘So you never talked about this with any one?’ I finally asked.

He gives me a false smile and said, ‘What should I say? You know our Veer Ji (teacher) and our parents have strictly prohibited us to say a word about Taliban. If my father finds out about this conversation, he will lock me up or send me to India.’

It’s not just the story of Satish. I have met several children over the past week, all those who have a new identity now known as ‘Internally Displaced Persons’.

These children, regardless of their ages and religion have similar things to talk about: bombings, war, shelling, Taliban, blood, killings and the army.

Shehrbano is a 12-year-old girl. She can’t speak Urdu, but I know she wants to tell me something. I request a man standing beside me in the Jalala Camp of Mardan to ask her in Pashto what it is. Shehrbano looks at me for a second, puts her head down, and says, ‘There was a beheaded man, whose head was placed on his body with a note on it saying, whoever will do something wrong, will get the same punishment, I don’t know what wrongdoings they were talking about.’

Seven-year-old Atif has seen people killed in a suicide bombing, 11-year-old Daud Khan has no idea who is killing whom and 13-year-old Salman wonders when all of this will finish.

I have no answers to these questions. I am unable to imagine what sort of a generation this will be. Fear, terror and anger are written all over these children. They don’t laugh or smile anymore. I smile at them and get back an inquisitive look in return.

– Nukhbat Malik

November 16, 2009
Authorities filter Obama’s message in China

An Internet user in Shanghai. Photo: flickr user 2 dogs

Hsin-Yin Lee, a former associate producer at Worldfocus, is a news editor at the “China Times” in Taipei.

Obama’s town hall meeting was well-conducted in my opinion–no surprises, no shoes. Still, my friends and I were very upset about Xinhua News Agency, the official press agency of the Chinese government, which claimed to live-broadcast the event exclusively but failed to do so. During Obama’s 75-minute-long address, Xinhua’s Website was completely down and we had to log on the White House Website.

I was not sure if it was about the censorship or simply due to the large flow, but the malfunction of the state-controlled media had indeed raised the question once again– Are the Chinese people properly informed?

Before the Shanghai meeting, the Chinese authorities had already said that the dialogue between the U.S. president and the Shanghai university students would not be broadcast live on a national network except Xinhua News Agency. The White House had originally hoped Obama’s 75-minute dialogue with students from eight Shanghai universities would be broadcast live on the state-owned Central China Television network. But the Communist government, apparently wary of what the charismatic Obama might say in the unscripted event, refused the request. To make their position clear, Chinese officials also told the media that Obama’s remarks could only be considered as his “interaction with the students” rather than any kind of “personal speech.”

The war on agenda became even more serious after the meeting. In a story titled “Obama firm on One-China policy,” Xinhua News Agency simply summarized Obama’s “interaction with the students” by pulling out several irrelevant quotes such as: “U.S. has much to learn about China,” “U.S. to expand the number of American students who study in China to 100,000,” and “U.S. hopes to see a harmonious cross-Strait relations.”

Unfortunately, the news report looks misleading to me–and misleading the audience could sometimes do more harm than not reporting the issue at all. The practice of out-of-context reporting has been a real problem in China these days –while the audience think that the government has allowed them access to the news event, most messages have actually been filtered and twisted.

– Hsin-Yin Lee

November 16, 2009
Mourning the loss of life at one of the world’s largest bases

President Obama at the Ft. Hood memorial service. Photo: Flickr user USarmy

Ambassador S. Azmat Hassan is a former Ambassador of Pakistan to Malaysia, Syria and Morocco and Deputy Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations. He is currently an adjunct professor at Seton Hall University and is a contributing Worldfocus blogger.

The implications of Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s rampage at Fort Hood continue to excite public scrutiny. The US is no stranger to deranged individuals of different religious persuasions indulging in mass murder in the past.

President Obama, in a moving eulogy to the dead, cautioned against a rush to judgment. The facts would have to be painstaking pieced together before a fair approximation of what motivated Hasan’s dastardly attack on fellow servicemen can be arrived at.

The fact that Hasan was an Army psychiatrist administering to the post traumatic stress syndrome issues faced by returning Army soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, added to the puzzling enigma of his act.

It seemed that a healer, trained to mend soldiers broken by the awful physical and psychological traumas inflicted on them by war, had himself cracked under the professional and personal strain he had apparently undergone.

There is little doubt that Hasan had increasingly become a misfit in the Army. Reportedly a loner, he found solace in increasing religiosity. As a Muslim-American, he appeared to be struggling to come to terms with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

He had publicly declared that he considered America’s involvement in these wars as a war against Islam. He agonized over whether Islam permitted Muslims to fight Muslims in war. It seems these warning signs were not noticed by his superiors who were about to deploy him to Afghanistan.

If the U.S. Army draws the conclusion that its Muslim soldiers are not to be trusted, this would be a big mistake. Most Muslims soldier and officers have fought bravely in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some have given the supreme sacrifice for their country.

Colin Powell personally knew and attested to the valor of one such Muslim officer who died in Afghanistan. He rests in peace in the Arlington cemetery, an acknowledged hero. The acts of one deranged man cannot and should not sway our military leadership. If we succumb to this attitude how can we trust our Iraqi, Afghani, Pakistani and other Muslim allies?

Instead, it would be better to reform Army procedures to catch its misfits in time. Such persons who cannot be nursed back to mental normality should be weeded out.

I cannot end without commenting on the ease with which weapons can be procured in America. In most first world countries this is not the case. There it is very difficult, if not virtually impossible to get a license for lethal weapons.

With stringent gun control imposed here, it might just be possible to avoid putting guns in the hands of alienated individuals who can wreak havoc on innocent citizens. Otherwise we are probably fated to see a repeat of such horrific incidents in the future. Civil society should take the lead in asking for reforms of the current gun laws.

When I served in Malaysia two decades ago, I noticed that it was a crime punishable by death to own an unlicensed revolver. Even owning bullets attracted heavy punishment. Crimes such as the recent rampage are unknown in Malaysia. They are also virtually unknown in Europe, although there are plenty of misfits in these countries.

Think about it.

– Amb. S. Azmat Hassan

November 11, 2009
Conflict endures in Ethiopia’s ethnic Somali Region

Map of Ogaden, Ethiopia courtesy of Wiki user Lencer.

The violent, separatist conflict in southeastern Ethiopia known as the Somali region or Ogaden has been referred by some as the next Darfur. The conflict has claimed thousands of lives over the last 15 years.

Ethiopia sealed off the region to media so there is little accurate information about the conflict, including claims of human rights abuses.

The region is rich in natural gas and is home to about 5 million predominantly Muslim people, mainly ethnic Somali nomadic tribes. The U.S. has said little about the conflict, as Ethiopia is its main regional ally in the increasingly unstable Horn of Africa region.

Worldfocus interviewed David H. Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso. Amb. Shinn is currently an adjunct professor of international affairs at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. His research interests include China-Africa relations, East Africa and the Horn, terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, conflict situations, U.S. policy in Africa and the African brain drain.

Worldfocus: Ethiopia has labeled the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) as a terrorist organization. Is this an accurate description?

Amb. Shinn: While the ONLF has on occasion used tactics that qualify as terrorist — for example the kidnapping and/or killing of civilian Ethiopian government officials — it does not have any links of which I am aware with international terrorist organizations.

It receives external support from the government of Eritrea, which opposes the government of Ethiopia. It also receives financial assistance from Ogadenis in the Somali Diaspora. In 2007, 74 persons, including nine Chinese oil field personnel, were killed during an ONLF attack on a Chinese oil exploration work site in the Ogaden protected by Ethiopian troops.

The Chinese may have died in a crossfire between Ethiopian and ONLF forces. In the view of the U.S. government, ONLF activity so far does not meet the test of a terrorist organization. Should the ONLF escalate its tactics, however, this could change.

Worldfocus: The U.S. denied Ethiopia’s request to label the ONLF an international terrorist organization but also remained silent on claims that the Ogaden region is potentially the next Darfur. Ethiopia has shut down media access to the region, so accusations of human rights abuses are unconfirmed. Should the U.S. and other Western countries be speaking out?

Amb. Shinn: On those occasions when there are carefully documented human rights violations by the government of Ethiopia, the ONLF or any other organization, the U.S. and the rest of the world should speak out.

Virtually all of the information coming out of the Ogaden comes from either the Ethiopian government or the ONLF. Much of the information from both sides is unreliable. The problem, therefore, is making certain that accurate information exists before speaking out publicly. A good start would be a willingness by the Ethiopian government to allow independent, third party observers into the Ogaden to provide information about events there.

Worldfocus: Do the 4.5 million ethnic Somalis living in the region mostly support the ONLF? Do the majority of Ogadenis want to secede from Ethiopia?

Men chewing khat in Jigjiga, the capital of Ogaden. Photo: Flickr user CharlesFred

Amb. Shinn: It is impossible to know with any certainty what Somalis in southeastern Ethiopia really want. Because of the difficult security situation, there are no public opinion polls in the area. I think it is reasonable to conclude that the vast majority of Somalis feel marginalized in their own country and that most of them have legitimate grievances against government policies. But do most of them support the ONLF? There is no conclusive evidence.

Not all of the Somalis living in Ethiopia’s Region Five or Somali Region are ethnic Ogaden Somalis. There are significant numbers of non-Ogaden Darod, Isaaq and Dir. Ogadeni from the Darod clan constitute the most numerous group of Somalis and occupy the largest geographical part of the region.

While there may be widespread support for the ONLF by the majority Ogadeni, many Somalis from other clans are concerned about Ogadeni domination. It is even less clear whether the Ogadeni who support the ONLF agree on a political outcome for the region.

Worldfocus: Do Ogadenis have irredentist tendencies, and what is their relationship with Somalia?

Amb. Shinn: In March 2009, there was a leadership split in the organization. The leader of the main faction of the ONLF, Mohamed Omar Osman, is on the record as saying that he wants to hold a referendum so that the Somalis in the region can determine if they wish to remain part of Ethiopia, become an independent country or join with Somalia. It is my understanding that the leadership of both factions of the ONLF prefers an independent Ogaden.

Worldfocus: With national elections slotted for next May, what is at stake for the ONLF and their representation or lack thereof in the Ethiopian government?

Amb. Shinn: Ethiopian national elections in May 2010 will probably change nothing in the Ogaden. Because of the difficult security situation, it is doubtful that elections can even take place in much of Somali Region.

The ONLF, although it participated in the government as a political organization from 1991 to 1994, has shown no interest in rejoining the political process. Even if it believed that the Ethiopian government would allow it to compete freely and fairly as a political party, which it does not believe to be the case, it does not appear that the ONLF is prepared to lay down its arms.

The head of the original ONLF faction, Mohamed Omar Osman, did state in October 2009 that he is prepared to engage in negotiations with the Ethiopian government, but only in the presence of a neutral third party and in a neutral location.

– Lisa Biagiotti

For more Worldfocus coverage of Ethiopia, visit our extended coverage page: Ethiopia Past and Present.

November 11, 2009
Taiwanese baseball fans outraged by game-fixing charges

Photo: Flickr user hihi_vita

Hsin-Yin Lee, a former associate producer at Worldfocus, is a news editor at the “China Times” in Taipei. She writes how a game-fixing scandal has rocked Taiwanese professional baseball.

Unlike Phillies fans who vow for a comeback next season, baseball fans in Taiwan wonder if there is a tomorrow for the island’s beloved sport, as evidence says Taiwan’s pro league is all mobbed up.

The blow came in late October, when Taiwan’s own post-season thrill reached a high. Baseball fans astonishingly found out that many of their most favorite players deliberately lost the game in exchange for payoffs. The scandal hit Taiwan’s pro baseball badly, as it’s not only the largest but also the fifth game-fixing case in the league, since its establishment 20 years ago.

As angry baseball fans flooded to the street and vowed to stamp the mob out of the game, critics argued that the fragile baseball environment ia to blame.

Baseball players in Taiwan are generally underpaid, despite their world-class competence, said Richard Lin, secretary-general of the Chinese Taipei Baseball Association. The situation is especially true for topnotch players. Chin-Feng Chen, the first Taiwanese player who played in MLB, is paid $300,000 a year in Taiwan. Multiply this number by 20, you have the salary of Hideki Matsui when he played in Japan; multiply it by 100, and you get a sense of how much A-Rod earns each season.

While the mobs in Taiwan can easily rake in at least $30 million a season by fixing games, accepting the bribes seems to be an offer many players can’t refuse. In addition, the pro league in Taiwan has no free-agent rights, which pushes many players to go underground.

Still, the authority bears criticism for not enforcing the law against illegal gambling strictly enough. Even worse, it is widely considered that Taiwan’s corrupt political culture has spilled over into baseball and many politicians have been actively involved in the scandal. In some cases, players are motivated not by the carrot, but the stick. A tactic mobs often use is to destroy the fingers of a player and walk away with light sentences under “bodily injury” charges.

Chien-Ming Wang, a Taiwanese-born Yankees pitcher, said Taiwan’s pro league should apply the U.S. system, which assures players’ security so that they don’t need to worry about being blackmailed. He also said that, without a wholesome baseball environment, it’s very hard for Taiwanese players to take the mound on the world stage.

Baseball has been a part of Taiwan’s identity since 1968, when a Taiwanese team won the Little League World Series in Williamsport. At the dawn of the break-off between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Government and the Carter authority, it was baseball that gave Taiwanese a reason to hold their pride.

The Taiwanese version of a “Say it aint so, Joe” scandal has apparently become a political crisis for the government. President Ma Ying-jeou recently stressed that as baseball is Taiwan’s national game, the authority will grant full support, including a $3 million promotional fund, to build an environment free from game-fixing and outside interference.

Whether it works or not, most Taiwanese think it’s worth trying. Watching baseball fall seems too much to bear for the public — after all, the sport carries much more than just scores.

November 10, 2009
Tough talk will break the Middle East impasse

A checkpoint in the West Bank.

Ambassador S. Azmat Hassan is a former career diplomat and a former Ambassador of Pakistan to Malaysia, Syria and Morocco and Deputy Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations in New York. He currently serves as an Adjunct Professor at Seton Hall University. He is a contributing blogger for Worldfocus.

In the past decades the United States has taken the lead in initiating a number of diplomatic moves to cut the Gordian knot of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are two UN Security Council Resolutions agreed to by the protagonists: the Madrid Peace Process and the Road Map to a two-state solution. These initiatives have largely foundered on the twin shoals of Israeli intransigence and Palestinian disunity.

Enter President Obama with his vow to improve U.S. relations with the Muslim world. His speeches in Egypt and Turkey calling for new beginning were warmly welcomed by Muslims and indeed the wider international community. Obama called for a total freeze on Israeli settlements as a necessary first step to starting comprehensive negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians aimed at ending their conflict. No doubt his motives were sincere. However, his efforts have yielded no concrete results so far.

The Israeli government, led by Netanyahu and his hawkish Foreign Minister Lieberman, have spurned Obama’s entreaties to freeze all settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The U.S. then changed course and is now trying to get the two sides to talk while new settlement blocks continue to be built. No Palestinian leadership can be expected to negotiate in this scenario. The impasse has deepened. US credibility is at a low point in the Muslim world.

The opinion in the street is that Obama lacks the clout with Netanyahu to bring him around to halt all settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territories. Not doing so means that a two state solution will not happen. The ability of the U.S. to act as an honest broker is thus being questioned again. Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas seems to have thrown up his hands in despair. He says he will not be standing for reelection next January.

The U.S. is the main supporter and aid-giver to Israel. U.S. interests in the Middle East apparently dictate that it continues to support Israel — come what may. I disagree with this post-1967 assessment because the Middle East has evolved. Clinging to old shibboleths in foreign policy never helps. But the real question is how long will the Arab countries continue to put up with the abominable status quo of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands?

Meanwhile, the Palestinian political leadership is split with the extremist Hamas faction ruling in Gaza while an increasing weak and ineffectual Abbas has a tenuous hold in the West Bank, and Palestinians continue to suffer the daily humiliations of an onerous Israeli occupation.

I think the Obama administration needs to get tough with both the Israelis and Palestinians. Both should be told that they have to get their act together. The Israelis should be told in no uncertain terms that they cannot expect to hold on to the West Bank and East Jerusalem indefinitely. The US should not be squeamish. It must treat Israel as any other country in the Middle East and not as a special case. The Fatah and Hamas factions need to be told to bury their differences, form a unity government and engage with the Israelis. Sometimes tough love produces fruitful results compared to continuing meaningless talks to nowhere.

Whether Obama and his team can summon the political resolve, commitment and impartiality in moving the two parties toward a final settlement of this long standing conflict remains to be seen. One can only hope that Obama will succeed where his predecessors have failed. Otherwise we should brace ourselves for another eruption of bloody fighting with incalculable consequences for peace and stability in the Middle East.

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

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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