Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Thinking About Singapore

An associate who recently was required to spend a day in Singapore on a business trip became so irritated by the smug attitude of the island republic's officials, taxi drivers and others that it gave rise to this rumination.

In 1985, the satirical novelist Kurt Vonnegut published an odd novel, Galápagos, the story of band of humans on a nature cruise who are shipwrecked on a remote fictional island in the Galápagos chain after a financial crisis has wrecked the global economy. They arrive on the island of Santa Rosalia just in time to become the last remnants of mankind when a virus attacks the ovaries of all the world's women, making them infertile. The Santa kilometers of open South Pacific water and still able to breed, become the last people on earth. It was on the 19-island Galápagos chain, of course, where the naturalist Charles Darwin formulated his 1859 theory, On the Origin of Species by watching and recording the way finches' bills changed shape as the weather in lean or fat years made food more or less abundant. Some Galápagos birds even cease flying but become superb swimmers because fish forms their diet.

In Vonnegut's fable, over the next million years Darwin's theory of natural selection favors those who can swim the fastest. The descendants of the Santa Rosalians thus devolve gradually into a species resembling seals, with flippers and rudimentary fingers. Their snouts evolve into beaks with teeth adapted to catching fish. Since a streamlined head means they can swim faster, their brains eventually shrink as their heads change shape. Hisako Hiroguchi, an ikebana teacher, ultimately gives birth to Akiko Hiroguchi, a child born with fur covering her entire body.

Evolution is on the way. The species has evolved – devolved in fact – into one that has little need for thought as long as its constituent members can swim fast and catch fish. Throughout the novel, Vonnegut blames the human brain for the existence of the crisis that has wrecked the global financial system. According to an analysis of the book, Vonnegut, who died in 2007 just before the current financial crisis began to take on an uncanny resemblance to his book, believes that "only a complex brain such as ours can change its opinion of the value of a currency so rapidly and let these opinions control our actions, which have real-life consequences."

Vonnegut, an astonishingly inventive but famously slapdash novelist, produced a considerable flock of books as strange as Galápagos, but many of his fabulist concoctions came dangerously close to a later reality. What if today there existed a hermetically sealed tropical island whose citizens, fed only what their leaders, a dynasty of Chinese mandarins, want them to hear? The English language, taught only by natives who learn it from others on the island, starts to evolve into a strange crackle. As their leaders become more distrustful of the outside world – surrounded by a Muslim sea – they evolve newer and better ways of keeping outsiders out and controlling the way the insiders think. They lose their ability to cope not only with Asia but anywhere else in the world. In places where people chew gum, argue with the government, take risks, misbehave and occasionally display rule-breaking creativity, the aversion to the unruly would be a major disadvantage. No taxi driver lets his passengers out in defiance of the double yellow line, nor, when the howls of drivers behind him grow to a deafening roar, does he step out of the car and scream, "Aw, go **** yourself!"

The island's leader first tries to control population through mass sterilization programs, causing the birth rate to fall precipitously as 30 percent of child-bearing women are sterilized in an attempt to "raise the quality of the population." His efforts go too far, with the result that the island's birthrate refuses to rise back to replacement levels. The leadership brings in hundreds of thousands of mainland Chinese – fortunately already trained in obedience by the Communist Party.
Then scientists at the island's Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology help to collect tissue and DNA samples from 10,000 species of animals. They begin to reconstruct the evolutionary history of the human and other vertebrate genomes and soon discover that they can change the direction of human development. Because smaller humans take up less space, birth rates no longer need be cut drastically. But nonetheless, the island can grow geographically – by a third, through dramatic environmental intervention. An increasingly uneasy society begins to worry more and more about outsiders, frisking and X-raying passengers on the way into the island, becoming the first society in Asia to do so. Erroneously given to believing their leader's eugenics theories have made them smarter than any other society, they approach education as a technological tool rather than as a means of enlightenment. Subsequent attempts to legislate innovation into the society go nowhere. The population go about their lives seeking merely to get as comfortable as possible.

Countless attempts to foster creativity meet with frustration.
Paralleling Vonnegut, there is a global financial crisis. The rest, as they say, is history. It doesn't take a million years. They may even be able to catch fish in Orchard Road.
Asia Sentinel

Philippines and Rolling coffins

Passenger buses in the Philippines have come to symbolize what’s wrong with this country, where many of the problems that exist can be fixed by mere political will. With eerie regularity, we hear about tragic accidents caused by failing brakes or some mechanical malfunction that killed passengers and other people. The latest report came Sunday, when yet another bus, this one from Cul Bus Lines bound for Quezon City from Leyte, lost its brakes and plunged into a 12-foot ravine in Pagbilao, Quezon Province. At least four died, and more than 30 were injured. This accident came after another case wherein the bus also lost its brakes, fell 150 feet, and killed 42 passengers. These are all too familiar stories that have been replayed over and over, earning for the buses the unfortunate tag “rolling coffins.”

The way buses that ply routes in Metro Manila are driven offers clues to the problem. As a rule rather than an exception, maniacs seem to be driving these vehicles. Emboldened by their big vehicles, the drivers show no modicum of discipline or respect for the law as they pick up and drop off passengers wherever they please, even on the middle of the street. They bully other drivers in smaller vehicles, swerving all over the place, and often drive at dangerous speeds.

Not only passengers and other drivers are at peril. Commuters and others bystanders are exposed to exhaust fumes, which at times appear black to most people except to law enforcers. It’s actually funny how many of them need to use gadgets to nab so-called smoke belchers even when it is clear to the naked eye that a bus is spewing something that’s killing people slowly.

The irony is that buses offer a valuable public service. Fewer people would use them if there were better public-transportation alternatives. If buses were better managed, perhaps more people would choose to ride them than deal with traffic and parking in the metropolis.

Not good enough
Virginia Torres, head of the Land Transportation Office (LTO), announced that her agency would offer free driving safety seminars to those who want them. This pathetic initiative was a reaction to the recent deadly accident over the weekend.

Instead, the LTO should clamp down on reckless drivers. Not only should it teach driving safety, but it should make attendance compulsory to bus drivers who figure in fender benders—no matter how minor—and those who repeatedly break traffic rules, say those who get at least three citations a year. Plus, LTO should refuse to renew licenses of those bus drivers who would not comply. Of course, the LTO should tighten the tests it administers to drivers, especially those behind the wheel of public utility vehicles of all kinds. Because of anecdotal evidence from media reports, the public
perception is that there is general lack of knowledge about traffic rules, signs, and overall good driving practices among drivers of public utility vehicles.

Likewise, the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFB) and other government agencies should do their part. There should be a more stringent—and regular—inspection of vehicles to ensure roadworthiness and safety. This should in fact be applied to all vehicles, not just passenger buses. How many times have we seen vehicles with broken headlights or malfunctioning turn signals, not to mention faulty brakes?

Maybe, it’s also time for government to review the pay mechanism for bus drivers, outlawing pay based on commission. Perhaps drivers will not compete for passengers if their income were not based on how many passengers they get.

That being said, it may be worthwhile to look at other simple but effective solutions. For instance, buses in Indonesia have elevated entrances to compel passengers (and drivers) to stop only at designated loading and unloading areas, which are also elevated. Without a ramp people can’t easily and conveniently get on board. This simple measure seems to be more effective than the pink-fenced bus stops that are not common in most places and are sometimes ignored by the drivers in spots where those things are in place.

Just enforce the law
With the buses, the situation is frustrating because the solutions seem to be so simple. Police and other officials just need to enforce the law, period.

Brakes, as well as other mechanical parts and safety gears, are supposed to be inspected. Given the recurring crisis, there is something apparently amiss.
Drivers, not only of buses but also of all other vehicles, are supposed to know and to follow traffic rules. Apparently they do not. There is supposed to be a law, the Clean Air Act, mandating buses that ply EDSA to convert from conventional fuel engines to compressed natural gas. We really don’t need to appreciate all the soot and smog to know that most are not complying.

President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino 3rd campaigned on a promise to lead the country along a straight path leading to progress. Mr. President, the buses here have been on a crooked road for a long time, and for the public’s sake, the government should spare no resource to force them to follow a straight path. Forcing the seemingly incorrigible drivers to follow laws—and the authorities to enforce them—may seem simplistic. If we do that, though, we won’t just feel safer on buses, but we will most likely succeed in finally getting this country moving forward. Manila Times

Monday, August 30, 2010

China warships dock in Burma, rattling rival naval power India

China and India have overlapping ambitions in the Indian Ocean. So as China flexes its naval reach, India is left debating how to assume leadership in the Indian Ocean.

Two Chinese warships docked at a Burmese port Sunday, highlighting China’s expanding naval presence near Asia’s other rising giant, India. Chinese news agency Xinhua described the friendly port call as a first-ever in Burma – also known as Myanmar – by Chinese warships. It comes amid heightened tensions between Beijing and New Delhi, including India's reported suspension of military exchanges with China.

Though the two Asian heavyweights share a disputed border in the Himalayas, the Indian Ocean could become a more serious flashpoint for their overlapping ambitions. Beijing is developing ports around India to help secure Chinese maritime routes while India’s security establishment is debating how best to assume leadership in the Indian Ocean.

China's 'string of pearls'

In recent years, China has expanded port facilities in countries that border India, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Burma. Indian strategists refer to the projects as a “string of pearls” encircling India in its strategic back yard.

The Indian Ocean will only grow in importance for both India and China as their interconnectivity with the global economy grows. The Indian Ocean is the Silk Road of the 21st century, moving Gulf oil and African minerals to the world’s two most populous nations. The securing of the sea lanes – once the province of Great Britain, then the US – could evolve cooperatively, rather than
competitively, to include India and China. Indeed, both countries have participated in a global effort to protect ships from pirates off Somalia. But for India to realize its ambition to be able to project its Navy over a distance to secure economic access abroad, it will need access first to regional ports – some of which are now under Chinese expansion.

India and China: a complicated relationship

Compounding the issue is the wariness in New Delhi about China. While the two Asian giants have found common cause over climate change and expansion of bilateral trade, diplomatic tit-for-tats dating back to the 1962 Chinese invasion continue to hamper better relations. The two countries failed to resolve their border disputes in the Himalayas earlier this decade, prompting India to beef up border infrastructure in the face of Chinese incursions. Recently, Beijing denied a visa to an Indian general who planned to join a military delegation to China – reportedly because he oversaw Army operations in Indian-controlled Kashmir. An Indian newspaper reported Saturday that India had responded by suspending military exchanges. When asked by the Associated Press, China said this was news to them while India refused to comment.

Meanwhile, the Indian Express reported Saturday on Page 1 that the state-run People’s Daily posted in a discussion forum an article titled “How likely is China’s launch of a limited war against India?” While the Indian press plays up Chinese “provocations,” officials in Delhi tread lightly, taking care to avoid direct clashes with Beijing.

India's next steps

But among Indian naval experts, China’s moves have spurred along a debate over how India should assert itself in the Indian Ocean. During his talk in New Delhi last month, Dr. Mohan argued for a more assertive approach that includes basing agreements and naval assistance to “weaker states of the Indian Ocean littoral.No great power has built a blue-water navy capable of projecting force without physical access and political arrangements for ‘forward presence,’ ” said Mohan. “This would mean creation of arrangements for friendly ports and turnaround facilities in other nations that will increase the range, flexibility, and sustainability of Indian naval operations.” Mohan says this makes Indian strategists uncomfortable. For decades they have rejected anyone building “foreign bases” in the Indian Ocean – something India itself must now do, Mohan argues.

Extract from article by By Ben Arnoldy, Staff writer The Christian Science Monitor

Indonesia: ‘mendayung antara dua karang’ — “rowing between two reefs”

JAKARTA — It was 62 years ago this week — on Sept. 2, 1948 — when the principles underlying Indonesia’s foreign policy were first articulated. In a Cold War speech to the young republic just emerging from Dutch rule, future Prime Minister Mohammad Hatta asked, “Do we, Indonesians, in the struggle for the freedom of our people and our country, only have to choose between Russia and America?” No, he answered: “We must remain the subject who reserves the right to decide our own destiny and fight for our own goal, which is independence for the whole of Indonesia.”

The policy born that day, known here as mendayung antara dua karang — which translates to “rowing between two reefs” — would keep Indonesia out of the major conflicts of the 20th century. But today, tensions are rising in the South China Sea — between a China bent on regional hegemony and a newly assertive America intent on stopping it. Now, the question is: Can Indonesia row between these two reefs, or will it be forced to take sides in a potential second Cold War?

It is not a parochial question. In 1961, Indonesia’s leadership helped convince scores of developing nations to declare autonomy from great power blocs. Today, Indonesia is East Asia’s largest democracy and the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation to maintain good relations with America. Next year, it will chair the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It will play a role in deciding whether the U.S. is invited to join the East Asia Summit, a group of 16 countries, including Asean members and China, which addresses security issues. It is not a stretch to say that as Indonesia goes, so goes Asia, and America’s security in the region.

But is America taking Indonesia seriously? “I don’t know,” said the departing U.S. ambassador, Cameron Hume. “It is a complicated situation. We are at the beginning of a real partnership, but it’s not yet a real partnership. Indonesia has 42 percent of Asean’s population, and people will look to them. We need to strengthen ties with Indonesia on the South China Sea.”

Consumed with Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington has been largely silent on this issue. Meanwhile, China has created a “blue water” navy with a new class of nuclear submarines armed with intercontinental missiles.

But when Beijing laid claim earlier this year to the entire South China Sea as a “core national interest” on a par with Tibet or Taiwan, Washington saw the move as a naked power grab for an international waterway through which more than 50 percent of the world’s merchant fleet passes each year. That — coupled with the fact that China was laying claim to islands in the territorial waters of five other nations — proved to be a step too far.

By dispatching Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Asean Regional Forum in Hanoi last month — where she enraged Chinese officials by offering U.S. support to a “collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion” — President Obama signaled a new day in East Asia.

The fact that foreign ministers from 12 of the 27 countries in attendance in Hanoi were outspoken in agreement — insisting that territorial issues be resolved multilaterally, rather than the Beijing-preferred bilateral method of picking off one claimant at a time — is more than a stand of unity. It opens the door to a new regional security structure. Some have already proposed an Asean plus 8.

“The U.S. and China rivalry will play out in Asean,” said the organization’s secretary general, Surin Pitsuwan. “The U.S. is providing $160 million in Mekong River basin funds and it is right in the backyard of China. Clinton brought experts from America and invited everyone to meet with them except China and Myanmar, even though China is part of the Mekong River. That, too, sent a message.”

It is a quarrel complicated by economic issues. The nations of Asean comprise the ninth largest economy in the world. A new China-Asean Free Trade Area established in January has lifted trade 50 percent. Meanwhile, a U.S.-Asean Free Trade Agreement has snagged on the inclusion of Myanmar, a target of U.S. sanctions.

The loudest voice in Hanoi calling for Myanmar’s scheduled election in November — its first since 1990 — to be free and fair came from the Indonesian foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa. As Asean’s chairman, Indonesia is expected to focus on economic issues, toward creating a regional trading block by 2015.

What can Washington do to help strengthen Indonesia’s hand? Four things: President Obama should attend the East Asia summit meeting next year. America should re-engage on Asean free trade. It should permit more Asean students to study in the U.S. And it should follow through on its offer to mediate territorial disputes on the South China Sea.

As Singapore’s ambassador to Indonesia, Ashok Mirpuri, said, “Nobody in Southeast Asia wants to choose between the U.S. and China.” It is a sentiment echoed by Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. “They have their rivalry,” he said, “but we should be friendly, neutral and open with them.”

Only time will tell if rowing between two reefs means navigating between a rock and a hard place.

By Stanley A. Weiss founding chairman of Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington. International Herald Tribune

Sunday, August 29, 2010

How a Hostage Rescue Was Turned Into Yet Another Philippines National Disaster

The spectacularly fouled up rescue of Hong Kong hostages from a bus in Manila on Aug. 23 wasn’t the first time the Filipino military and police have made a major mess of a hostage situation, and it almost certainly won’t be the last, given endemic structural and societal problems with the Philippine law enforcement community that trump even their lack of equipment and training.

With live television cameras glued to the scene, former senior police inspector Rolando del Rosario Mendoza was killed along with eight tourists in an assault that has attracted worldwide criticism. The SWAT team, labeled by locals as “ Sayang Wala Akong Training ” (roughly translated from Tagalog as “Too bad I don’t have any training”), attempted to break the windows of the bus Mendoza seized with a sledgehammer. The M16 rifles they carried were too long to be wielded efficiently inside the vehicle. The entire operation had an air of delay followed by panic as it stretched on from morning until the bloody nighttime finale. A whole litany of problems has been identified as having caused the failure.

Longtime observers of the Philippines, however, say the bigger problem is that the institutional structures that should govern such crises usually do not work because loyalty is only to family, friends and classmates. Police protect each other if they can, as do soldiers in coups — an important issue in Mendoza’s case. A decorated officer, he had been fired after being accused of extortion, robbery and harassment — a series of charges that probably would fit a great many of Mendoza’s colleagues. The police see themselves as collegial, whether those surrounding the bus knew him or were friends or not.

There is no organizational hierarchy that trumps this group loyalty. In effect the country lacks the fundamental ability to build working public institutions that respond to something other than feelings and personal and group allegiances. That too often includes the media, which because many are friends with the police, were allowed to get so close to the action that they were able to betray police tactics to Mendoza, who was watching the event live from inside the bus. Police didn’t even bother to put up crowd control barriers to keep anyone back.

“Crisis situations in the Philippines, such as kidnappings and hostage takings, normally involve multiple parties with different and sometimes competing perspectives and interests,” says a report by Pacific Strategies and Assessments, a country-risk consultancy based in Manila. “In addition to the law enforcement and emergency units on site, different politicians and other power brokers also join the frenzy, trying to portray themselves as crusaders and/or lead in resolving the crisis.”

The military has repeatedly had rebels, communists and jihadis seemingly surrounded, only to have them slip away — sometimes raising suspicions that they had bribed officials to let them go. In 2001, for example, the military surrounded a Basilan hospital in which an American missionary couple, Martin and Gracia Burnham, had been held by Abu Sayyaf Muslim rebels. The Burnhams had originally been captured at a resort in Palawan and would be held for 14 months, along with 18 Filipino and foreign tourists, in the mountains. The rebels who held the couple were tracked to the hospital in June 2001. Under the full gaze of a flock of media on live television, officials announced that the rebels were surrounded and would be arrested. The next morning, they were gone, their hostages in tow.

Ultimately, officials caught up with the rebels in Zamboanga del Norte. In the shootout, Martin Burnham and a Filipino nurse, Ediborah Yap, were killed. It is uncertain whether Burnham was shot by the military or by the rebels. There have been countless other cases where the same result has prevailed, to the everlasting embarrassment of the armed forces and police.

“Instead of facilitating the victims’ safe release, the number of parties involved often provokes jurisdictional disputes and creates an unclear command and control environment that only adds to an already tense and confused atmosphere,” the PSA report says. “Throw in a large and increasingly pervasive and sensationalist media apparatus vying for the rights to the same story, and the results are real problems with sensitive information control and reporting accuracy.”

The report cites an equally chaotic atmosphere in 2007, when a military mutineer named Antonio Trillanes and a small band of colleagues took command of the Manila Peninsula Hotel in an effort to bring down the government of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. In an astonishing scene, government security forces drove an armored personnel carrier right through the front doors of the hotel and into the lobby in their attempt to capture Trillanes.

“The media literally rampaged and destroyed the lobby in its stampede to get the best photo op,” the report says. “Several culprits actually escaped the scene, using media credentials borrowed from the media horde.”

In a uniquely Filipino turn of events, Trillanes was eventually jailed for leading the coup — the second in which he had been involved — and successfully ran for the Philippine Senate from his jail cell. Some 11 million people ended up voting for him. He remains both in prison and in the Senate, although there is an effort underway by his Senate colleagues to have his custody transferred over to the legislative body so that he can join in the deliberations.

In the confusion that ruled the latest hostage mess, “the Philippine government lacked any semblance of control or a coordinated strategy to address the situation,” PSA found. It remains unclear even now who was in charge of the operation.

“Observers note that the situation had turned for the worse after a local politician — an actor and Manila vice mayor — and Mendoza’s relatives joined the fray.” Their participation negated any leverage the negotiators had started to build with the hostage taker.

In addition to this lack of command structure, PSA and a variety of other sources have pointed out that despite decades of aid, particularly from the United States, the police and the military are woefully under-equipped to handle not just hostage situations but almost any problem. Vast amounts of money have been drained away by endemic graft and corruption. As long ago as 2000, it was estimated that as much as 30 percent of the national budget was lost to graft every year. That affects procurement of military equipment.

As the scene unfolded on the bus, it became clear that officers lacked bulletproof vests and weapons that would allow for a proper assault. They also had no flash grenades, which are used to effectively stun both hostages and attackers long enough to put the culprits out of business.

Ultimately, PSA notes, “the Philippine government lacks the resources and equipment to conduct ongoing training in these esoteric areas to keep skill sets sharp. The results are confusion and half-baked strategies and tactics when the unexpected happens like the seizure of the bus.”

There was nothing in the PSA report, or in any of the other reports that emerged from the crisis, that would indicate this was anything but the normal state of affairs in the Philippines.

Asia Sentinel

Obama Blows Off 3 Billion Wannabe Billionaires

For a guy who talked big about re-engaging Asia, Barack Obama has a funny way of showing it. Nobody doubts the US president's team is supremely busy juggling oil spills, Muslim cultural centres, convincing ignoramuses he has a birth certificate and averting recession. Yet there's no excuse for blowing off last week's Association of Southeast Asian Nations trade meeting in Vietnam.

It was a dreadful decision and its significance didn't escape members of the fourth-biggest market for US goods. This is no time for the US to be taking the most dynamic economies for granted. Not with China becoming an ever-bigger player both in Asia and globally. Advertisement: Story continues below On any list of George W. Bush's failings, ignoring Asia deserves a prominent mention. When his administration bothered with Asia, it was all terrorism all the time. There was little talk about potential, cooperation or partnership. Bush just wanted to know how many bad guys governments were rounding up. He tried to make amends in the twilight of his presidency, naming a US ambassador to Asean in 2008. Recently, Obama tapped that official, Scot Marciel, to be US ambassador to Indonesia. Obama hasn't bothered to name a new Asean envoy. The US missed a timely opportunity last week to confer with the economic ministers of Asean's 10 members, along with counterparts from Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Russia.

Blowing Off Asia

At a time of global crisis, one the US caused, does Obama really want to be sending a message of indifference to Asia? Coming a week after the announcement that China's economy has surpassed Japan's, the US's closest Asian ally, you would think the White House would be stepping up a charm offensive. Instead, it risks turning off the region. "Confidence in the United States and its ability to lead and follow through on commitments is based on its economic well- being, and that status is being questioned by friends and competitors alike in Asia," Ernest Bower, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote in a recent report.

China's rapid growth is slowly, but surely, chipping away at the US's importance. Granted,at almost three times China's economy, the US will long be a vital customer for Asia's goods. Officials here also know that depending on growth in a developing economy is risky.

US Brand

Yet neglecting future trade ties with the liveliest economies is just plain dumb. Asia is churning out a fast- growing number of billionaires and is home to 3 billion consumers who aspire to join them. The U.S. wants to be in on that process. Obama must not forget just how much the 2008 meltdown damaged the US brand. During Asia's 1990s crisis, US officials preached the free-market gospel. They told leaders to raise interest rates to support currencies, slash spending and debt, scrap subsidies and avoid bailing out industries. When the US faced a crisis, it did exactly the opposite. There's also considerable grumbling over the dollar. True or not, the theory that the US is devaluing to help exporters is making the rounds. That perception is a problem if you want China to let its currency strengthen. It doesn't play well in Japan, where panic is rising over the strong yen. Nor can the US complain about corruption in Asia. Incestuous ties between Washington and Wall Street helped cause the US crisis. Conflicts of interest between regulators and oil companies led to BP Plc's devastating Gulf of Mexico leak. The US has little moral high ground on dodgy dealings.

Corruption's Cost

That's a shame, considering the magnitude of Asia's corruption fight. In Indonesia, for example, officials face an uphill battle to weed out graft and allow more of the nation's people to benefit from 6 per cent growth. In the Philippines, the honeymoon enjoyed by Benigno Aquino, since becoming president in June, ended last week in gunfire. Eight Hong Kong tourists being held hostage in Manila died in a botched rescue attempt. The tragedy was emblematic of what plagues the nation's economy. The gunman was a former police inspector who was dismissed on allegations of extortion. The standoff's surreal finale suggested a breakdown in the nation's security apparatus, ineptness at many levels and weak diplomacy. Corruption is the common link in all these shortcomings.

Lost Opportunity

Obama got off to a good start, becoming the first US leader to meet with Asean in November. Vietnam was the perfect opportunity to go further -- to discuss views on credit markets, North Korea's provocations, China's currency, Australia's election, Russia's growth prospects, and Japanese deflation. This last topic is a growing concern. Not only have consumer prices fallen for 17 consecutive months, but Japan now has a leadership battle on its hands. Prime Minister Naoto Kan faces a challenge to remain head of the ruling party by veteran kingmaker Ichiro Ozawa. It's the last thing Japan needs: its sixth prime minister in three years.

Obama's team could have learned about all of this, and much more, if it had only shown up in Asia. It should do so as soon as possible. by William Pesek for Bloomberg

All aboard on China's railway vision for Asia

China's so-called "high-speed railway diplomacy" has made its way to Thailand. A joint Thai-Chinese committee is exploring the feasibility of building the first standard-gauge railway in Thailand, as part of an ambitious cross-border rail programme envisioned by Beijing.

Kobsak Sabhavasu, the PM's secretary-general, recently chaired the joint committee's first meeting. For Thailand, the Nong Khai-Bangkok route is likely to be the first leg of the system. If granted approval, the Thai and Chinese governments will set up a joint-venture firm to implement the project.

Thailand's existing one-metre tracks. The proposal will herald a new era of rail development in the country. In the next stage, the Nong Khai-Bangkok route will be linked with the same-size track in Laos before crossing into southern China to join Beijing's national high-speed train network. From Bangkok, the route will be further extended to Thailand's southern region. In the following stages, China hopes the network will reach Malaysia and Singapore.

As the world's second largest economy since overtaking Japan in the second quarter of this year, China has grand designs for its high-speed railway diplomacy. Besides Southeast Asia, the Chinese plan to export technology to other parts of the continent, including Central Asia.

China's high-speed railway technology, in which passenger and cargo trains can travel at speeds of 250-350 kilometres per hour, will be showcased to deepen economic development ties with at least 17 nations in the region - Thailand included. Essentially, the Chinese will offer know-how, based on modifications of German, French and Japanese high-speed rail technology, in return for natural resources and other kinds of payments, if not hard currency.

One of China's most impressive showcases is the magnetic-levitation, or Maglev, train between Shanghai airport and the city. Another is the 114-kilometre Beijing-Tianjin high-speed railway, opened in 2008, which shortened the previous hour-and-a-half commute to just 30 minutes. Last December, China also launched the first long-distance (1,068 kilometre) high-speed line, from U-han to Guangzhou, with trains capable of travelling at 350 kilometres per hour. Such technology is comparable to Japan's world-renowned bullet trains.

In addition, China plans to build another 26,000 kilometres of new railways, including 9,200 kilometres of high-speed track, over the next three years. As a result, the country expects in the next few years to have at least 800 trains travelling nationwide at a minimum speed of 250 kilometres per hour. Eventually, one of the pan-Asian rail networks could run from Kunming in Yunnan province to Singapore, passing through Indochina, Thailand, and Malaysia. Another network could run from eastern China to Central Asia to Europe, via Germany, or from the northeast to Russia and Europe.

In cash-strapped countries, China is ready to provide financial aid to build track in return for natural resources and payment-in-kind. For example, Burma could sell minerals to China in exchange for the latter's high-speed rail investment. Central Asian and Eastern European countries that currently sell natural gas to China, are also interested in this programme.

As for Thailand, Kobsak is finalising the framework of bilateral negotiations for Cabinet approval. Before entering into any agreement, the Thai government will have to seek parliamentary endorsement because the project is considered a bilateral deal with another country under Article 190 of the Constitution.

Ultimately, Thai negotiators must ensure that the country has a fair cut of the benefits of this scheme, and that its implementation is transparent. The Nation, Bangkok

Far From Withering, State Business in China Grows

BEIJING — During its decades of rapid growth, China thrived by allowing once-suppressed private entrepreneurs to prosper, often at the expense of the old, inefficient state sector of the economy.

Now, whether in the coal-rich regions of Shanxi Province, the steel mills of the northern industrial heartland, or the airlines flying overhead, it is often China’s state-run companies that are on the march.

As the Chinese government has grown richer — and more worried about sustaining its high-octane growth — it has pumped public funds into companies that it expects to upgrade the industrial base and employ more people. The beneficiaries are state-owned interests that many analysts had assumed would gradually wither away in the face of private-sector competition.

New data from the World Bank show that the proportion of industrial production by companies controlled by the Chinese state edged up last year, checking a slow but seemingly inevitable eclipse. Moreover, investment by state-controlled companies skyrocketed, driven by hundreds of billions of dollars of government spending and state bank lending to combat the global financial crisis.

They join a string of other signals that are fueling discussion among analysts about whether China, which calls itself socialist but is often thought of in the West as brutally capitalist, is in fact seeking to enhance government control over some parts of the economy.

The distinction may matter more today than it once did. China surpassed Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy this year, and its state-directed development model is enormously appealing to poor countries. Even in the West, many admire China’s ability to build a first-world infrastructure and transform its cities into showpieces.

Once eager to learn from the United States, China’s leaders during the financial crisis have reaffirmed their faith in their own more statist approach to economic management, in which private capitalism plays only a supporting role.

“The socialist system’s advantages,” Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said in a March address, “enable us to make decisions efficiently, organize effectively and concentrate resources to accomplish large undertakings.”

The issue of state versus private control is a slippery one in China. After decades of economic reform, many big state-owned companies face real competition and are expected to operate profitably. The biggest private companies often get their funding from state banks, coordinate their investments with the government and seat their chief executives on government advisory panels.

Chinese leaders also no longer publicly emphasize sharp ideological distinctions about ownership. But they never relaxed state control over some sectors considered strategically vital, including finance, defense, energy, telecommunications, railways and ports.

Mr. Wen and President Hu Jintao are also seen as less attuned to the interests of foreign investors and China’s own private sector than the earlier generation of leaders who pioneered economic reforms. They prefer to enhance the clout and economic reach of state-backed companies at the top of the pecking order.

“China’s always had a major industrial policy. But for a space of a few years, it looked like China was turning away from an active and interventionist industrial policy in favor of a more hands-off approach,” Victor Shih, a Northwestern University political scientist, said in a recent telephone interview.

Mr. Shih, among others, now believes that the 1980s reforms that unleashed China’s private sector and the 1990s reforms that dismantled great swaths of the state-run sector are being partly undone.

“The problem is that the reforms of the first 20 years, from 1978 to the end of the ’90s, actually did not touch on the power of the government,” said Yao Yang, a Peking University professor who heads the China Center for Economic Research. “So after the other reforms were finished, you actually find the government is expanding, because there is no check and balance on its power.”

There are no comprehensive statistics to catalog the government’s influence over the economy. So the shift is partly inferred from coarse measures like the share of financing in the economy provided by state banks, which rose sharply during the financial crisis, or the list of the 100 largest publicly listed Chinese companies, all but one of which are majority state owned.

The statistic showing an uptick in the share of industrial production attributable to the state sector is regarded by some analysts as a blip rather than the start of a trend. The World Bank’s senior economist in Beijing, Louis Kuijs, said the state sector’s unusually rapid growth will most likely moderate with the ending of the government’s stimulus spending.

By MICHAEL WINES. Li Bibo contributed research in Beijin. International Herald Tribune

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Sri Lankan Doctors remove nails driven into maid by Saudi employer

COLOMBO: A Sri Lankan maid recovering from surgery to remove 19 nails from her body told doctors her Saudi employer had heated the nails before hammering them into her body.

Surgeons at Sri Lanka's southern Kamburupitiya hospital carried out a three-hour operation to remove a needle and 19 of the 24 nails stuck in her arms, legs and forehead.

Hospital director Prabath Gajadeera said the 49-year-old woman, L.T. Ariyawathi, told them her employer inflicted the injuries as punishment for her difficulties in communicating with the household. She said her employer heated the nails and then hammered them into her body. The nails were in her arms, legs and forehead.

She was admitted to hospital on Friday after she returned home complaining she was in great pain and unable to walk.

Surgeons at the hospital, 160 kilometres south of Colombo, removed 13 big nails, each about five centimetres long, and six smaller ones, Mr Gajadeera said.
He said the remaining nails were not removed immediately because the procedure might have resulted in serious nerve damage.

The woman, who travelled to Saudi Arabia in March, was deeply traumatised and unable to give full details of her experience initially, but was fast recovering, the doctor said.

Sri Lankan police have begun an investigation.

Officials said Sri Lanka was expected to take up the case of the housemaid with Saudi authorities shortly.

About 1.8 million Sri Lankans are employed abroad, of whom 70 per cent are women. Most work as housemaids in the Middle East while smaller numbers work in Singapore and Hong Kong, seeking higher salaries than they would get at home.

Non-governmental organisations report frequent cases of employer abuse of maids who work abroad. Sydney Morning Herald

Philippines: Ending the culture of violence

The culture of violence and torture is commonplace in the Philippines today. Young people in school fraternities are subjected to beatings and torture by their peers. Called hazing, it is so severe that many have died. The student torturers learn perhaps from what they know about the police and military that routinely torture suspects and summarily execute many with impunity. They learn from US trainers as practiced in the Iraqi torture chambers of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo. The torturers seem to enjoy inflicting pain on their victims and video and photographing the horrific acts.

The video games played on home computers or in Internet shops turn killing, murder, violence and rape into entertainment for pleasure-seeking youth. Adults allow it, but is it the way to prepare them for life? Minors that commit violent crimes are born innocent but learn from adults and older peers. Children are exposed to violence in the home, on television, in the movies, classrooms, school yard and on the streets. Students can go wild and shoot dead teachers and students.

When family, community, school and society provides little positive inputs to young people who are desperate for dignity, respect, attention, and acceptance, we can expect rebellious youth filled with anger or hatred because they are unwanted, excluded and hopeless. Many young people turn rebellious when they are excluded from a life of economic and racial equality, opportunity and education.

With concern, respect, friendship and opportunity they can be inspired to live a good life but they need trusting adults they can admire and imitate. If treated well, most will become good. If abused, some tend to become abusers. They will respond to the friendly attention of a role model, and fulfill their obligations and responsibilities. I see this transformation every day in the lives of the 54 kids taken from prisons to an open trusting affirmative environment. Give respect and goodness to youth (if they are not too damaged) and you will get these in return.

Last week Filipinos here and abroad were filled with horror and disgust as they watched a cruel police torture session on television. The video showed a man lying naked on the floor of a Manila police station screaming and squirming in agony as the highly decorated senior police inspector sat over him viciously pulling a cord attached to his genitals while beating him with a belt to make him confess to a crime. Other police were standing around. Someone made the video recording of it on a cell phone. It is suspected that the victim was murdered later.

Another highly decorated former police Insp. Rolando Mendoza, 55, took hostage a bus load of Hong Kong tourists on August 23 in a Manila park, and murdered several of them before he was shot by a police sniper. The entire nine-hour drama was broadcast live on television here and abroad. Mendoza was convicted of drug-related extortion and brutality against an innocent cook of the Mandarin hotel in Manila in 2008. He demanded to be reinstated despite his conviction and that of his extortion unit.

In another recent ANC television report, teenagers rescued from the Manila jails told of their harrowing experience of police torture and brutality. One boy showed his feet with the toenails extracted and cigarette burns on his neck. Conditions in the detention cells were described as subhuman. The videos can be viewed at www.preda.org

During a peaceful demonstration in 1996, I and my companion were arrested and beaten, punched and kicked. My head was banged repeatedly on the steel floor of the police van as I was taken to jail. My wrists were tightly handcuffed behind my back with two sets of cuffs for many hours so my wrists were cut and scared. We were jailed, interrogated and subjected to psychological abuse and foul language by the lawyer of the former mayor.

To stop such horrific abuse we need to end the culture of violence, the impunity of the powerful and work for a just and decent society where the rule of law and justice prevails and the dignity of everyone is respected and honored. Manila Times

A New Wave of Dissent in Japan Is Openly and Loudly Anti-Foreign

KYOTO, Japan — The demonstrators appeared one day in December, just as children at an elementary school for ethnic Koreans were cleaning up for lunch. The group of about a dozen Japanese men gathered in front of the school gate, using bullhorns to call the students cockroaches and Korean spies.

Zaitokukai’s founder, who goes by the assumed name Makoto Sakurai, uses the Internet to organize members of the group.

An armband worn by a member of the Japanese group Zaitokukai. The red characters say “The Volunteer Corps Against Lawless Koreans”; the black characters say “Expel barbarians.

Inside, the panicked students and teachers huddled in their classrooms, singing loudly to drown out the insults, as parents and eventually police officers blocked the protesters’ entry.

The December episode was the first in a series of demonstrations at the Kyoto No. 1 Korean Elementary School that shocked conflict-adverse Japan, where even political protesters on the radical fringes are expected to avoid embroiling regular citizens, much less children. Responding to public outrage, the police arrested four of the protesters this month on charges of damaging the school’s reputation.

More significantly, the protests also signaled the emergence here of a new type of ultranationalist group. The groups are openly anti-foreign in their message, and unafraid to win attention by holding unruly street demonstrations.

Since first appearing last year, their protests have been directed at not only Japan’s half million ethnic Koreans, but also Chinese and other Asian workers, Christian churchgoers and even Westerners in Halloween costumes. In the latter case, a few dozen angrily shouting demonstrators followed around revelers waving placards that said, “This is not a white country.”

Local news media have dubbed these groups the Net far right, because they are loosely organized via the Internet, and gather together only for demonstrations. At other times, they are a virtual community that maintains its own Web sites to announce the times and places of protests, swap information and post video recordings of their demonstrations.

While these groups remain a small if noisy fringe element here, they have won growing attention as an alarming side effect of Japan’s long economic and political decline. Most of their members appear to be young men, many of whom hold the low-paying part-time or contract jobs that have proliferated in Japan in recent years.

Though some here compare these groups to neo-Nazis, sociologists say that they are different because they lack an aggressive ideology of racial supremacy, and have so far been careful to draw the line at violence. There have been no reports of injuries, or violence beyond pushing and shouting. Rather, the Net right’s main purpose seems to be venting frustration, both about Japan’s diminished stature and in their own personal economic difficulties.

“These are men who feel disenfranchised in their own society,” said Kensuke Suzuki, a sociology professor at Kwansei Gakuin University. “They are looking for someone to blame, and foreigners are the most obvious target.”

They are also different from Japan’s existing ultranationalist groups, which are a common sight even today in Tokyo, wearing paramilitary uniforms and riding around in ominous black trucks with loudspeakers that blare martial music.

This traditional far right, which has roots going back to at least the 1930s rise of militarism in Japan, is now a tacitly accepted part of the conservative political establishment here. Sociologists describe them as serving as a sort of unofficial mechanism for enforcing conformity in postwar Japan, singling out Japanese who were seen as straying too far to the left, or other groups that anger them, such as embassies of countries with whom Japan has territorial disputes.

Members of these old-line rightist groups have been quick to distance themselves from the Net right, which they dismiss as amateurish rabble-rousers.

“These new groups are not patriots but attention-seekers,” said Kunio Suzuki, a senior adviser of the Issuikai, a well-known far-right group with 100 members and a fleet of sound trucks.

But in a sign of changing times here, Mr. Suzuki also admitted that the Net right has grown at a time when traditional ultranationalist groups like his own have been shrinking. Mr. Suzuki said the number of old-style rightists has fallen to about 12,000, one-tenth the size of their 1960s’ peak. New York Times

Friday, August 27, 2010

Indonesia - Gangsters’ paradise

A string of armed and violent robberies in a number of cities across Indonesia — Jakarta, Makassar, Cirebon, Medan, Serang and the latest in Cimahi — over the last few days have been shocking not only because they left several people dead during a time that has been traditionally peaceful, but also because the country has not witnessed crimes on this scale for some time.

One after another the robberies came as a surprise, occurring at unusual times and places — mostly in broad daylight and in crowded areas. The robberies were also much larger in scale than previous armed thefts in this country, involving more men with heavier weaponry, including M-16, AK-47 and SS-1 machine guns, commonly seen in the battlefield.

Occurring during Ramadan, the robberies were a complete change from the relatively peaceful fasting months of the last couple of years, marred only by raids on nightlife entertainment centers by the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), but not armed robberies.

What was more threatening was that the robberies have continued to occur, despite the deployment of National Police elite troops to key business and financial centers, especially after the striking robbery at the CIMB Niaga bank in Medan, North Sumatra, on Aug. 18, which involved a gang of 16 heavily armed men on motorcycles.

It seems since the initial attack the robbers have skillfully played a hide-and-seek game with the police.

It seems also that they researched their targets well — preying only on places with minimal or little security surveillance. What makes matters worse is the fact that the police have been unable to identify, let alone arrest, any of the assailants.
It is therefore reasonable for us to now question the police force’s capacity to deal with such crimes.

This includes the capability of the police intelligence unit to monitor and anticipate potential robberies and other security threats.

Since the first attack, many observers and police have come forward with ideas and measures to prevent such crimes from recurring. Some have said we need to address the root causes, i.e. poverty and unemployment, by asking the government to create jobs and business opportunities for the public.

Others, particularly police, have suggested and taken initiatives to impose stricter gun controls and limit gun ownership.

Recent data reveals that many persons, including former members of the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM), retired police and military officers as well as civilians, have guns in their possession without license. This excludes homemade guns, which have repeatedly been used in use in conflicts and robberies nationwide.

In fact both measures — addressing the root cause of the robberies and imposing stricter gun controls — would undoubtedly be the perfect formula to prevent more crimes of this nature.

But such measures can only be applied as long-term solutions, since establishing more jobs and business opportunities takes months and even years to achieve. Similarly, imposing gun controls and limiting gun ownership will take weeks, if not months, to become effective.

The most urgent measure for now is thus to deploy more police to guard hotspots and robbery targets. A shortage of personnel cannot be used as an excuse by police — the sole guarantor of security and order in this country — because, according the 2002 Law on the National Police, military assistance can be requested in times of emergency.

There is no time to argue. Minutes and even seconds are important, because crimes do not wait.
Jakarta Post Editorial

China's Discreet Hold on Pakistan's Northern Borderlands

While the world focuses on the flood-ravaged Indus River valley, a quiet geopolitical crisis is unfolding in the Himalayan borderlands of northern Pakistan, where Islamabad is handing over de facto control of the strategic Gilgit-Baltistan region in the northwest corner of disputed Kashmir to China.

The entire Pakistan-occupied western portion of Kashmir stretching from Gilgit in the north to Azad (Free) Kashmir in the south is closed to the world, in contrast to the media access that India permits in the eastern part, where it is combating a Pakistan-backed insurgency. But reports from a variety of foreign intelligence sources, Pakistani journalists and Pakistani human rights workers reveal two important new developments in Gilgit-Baltistan: a simmering rebellion against Pakistani rule and the influx of an estimated 7,000 to 11,000 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army.

China wants a grip on the region to assure unfettered road and rail access to the Gulf through Pakistan. It takes 16 to 25 days for Chinese oil tankers to reach the Gulf. When high-speed rail and road links through Gilgit and Baltistan are completed, China will be able to transport cargo from Eastern China to the new Chinese-built Pakistani naval bases at Gwadar, Pasni and Ormara, just east of the Gulf, within 48 hours.

Many of the P.L.A. soldiers entering Gilgit-Baltistan are expected to work on the railroad. Some are extending the Karakoram Highway, built to link China’s Sinkiang Province with Pakistan. Others are working on dams, expressways and other projects.
Mystery surrounds the construction of 22 tunnels in secret locations where Pakistanis are barred. Tunnels would be necessary for a projected gas pipeline from Iran to China that would cross the Himalayas through Gilgit. But they could also be used for missile storage sites.

Until recently, the P.L.A. construction crews lived in temporary encampments and went home after completing their assignments. Now they are building big residential enclaves clearly designed for a long-term presence.

What is happening in the region matters to Washington for two reasons. Coupled with its support for the Taliban, Islamabad’s collusion in facilitating China’s access to the Gulf makes clear that Pakistan is not a U.S. “ally.” Equally important, the nascent revolt in the Gilgit-Baltistan region is a reminder that Kashmiri demands for autonomy on both sides of the cease-fire line would have to be addressed in a settlement.

Media attention has exposed the repression of the insurgency in the Indian-ruled Kashmir Valley. But if reporters could get into the Gilgit-Baltistan region and Azad Kashmir, they would find widespread, brutally-suppressed local movements for democratic rights and regional autonomy.

When the British partitioned South Asia in 1947, the maharajah who ruled Kashmir, including Gilgit and Baltistan, acceded to India. This set off intermittent conflict that ended with Indian control of the Kashmir Valley, the establishment of Pakistan-sponsored Free Kashmir in western Kashmir, and Pakistan’s occupation of Gilgit and Baltistan, where Sunni jihadi groups allied with the Pakistan Army have systematically terrorized the local Shiite Muslims.

Gilgit and Baltistan are in effect under military rule. Democratic activists there want a legislature and other institutions without restrictions like the ones imposed on Free Kashmir, where the elected legislature controls only 4 out of 56 subjects covered in the state constitution. The rest are under the jurisdiction of a “Kashmir Council” appointed by the president of Pakistan.

India gives more power to the state government in Srinagar; elections there are widely regarded as fair, and open discussion of demands for autonomy is permitted. But the Pakistan-abetted insurgency in the Kashmir Valley has added to tensions between Indian occupation forces and an assertive population seeking greater of local autonomy.

The United States is uniquely situated to play a moderating role in Kashmir, given its growing economic and military ties with India and Pakistan’s aid dependence on Washington. Such a role should be limited to quiet diplomacy. Washington should press New Delhi to resume autonomy negotiations with Kashmiri separatists. Success would put pressure on Islamabad for comparable concessions in Free Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. In Pakistan, Washington should focus on getting Islamabad to stop aiding the insurgency in the Kashmir Valley and to give New Delhi a formal commitment that it will not annex Gilgit and Baltistan.

Precisely because the Gilgit-Baltistan region is so important to China, the United States, India and Pakistan should work together to make sure that it is not overwhelmed, like Tibet, by the Chinese behemoth.

By Selig S. Harrison director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy and a former South Asia bureau chief of The Washington Post. International Herald Tribune

Why South Korea Isn't Asia's Switzerland

I recently returned from my usual summer stay in South Korea, teaching international affairs at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. Every time I visit that remarkable peninsular nation, I am struck by two things, vastly in contrast.

The first is its prosperity and the people’s very clear economic purpose to drive forward to an even better life. The second is its strategic and military insecurity, its acute sense of precariousness, its daily awareness that military power counts. But this time the fact of this dichotomy — the economic well-being of South Korea, and its apprehensions about war and disaster — was greater than I had ever noticed before.

The prosperity was, well, right in your face. From the squeaky-clean Incheon International Airport to the ultra-high-class shopping stores in central Seoul, it was clear that money, money, money was the game. I don’t think I have seen so many Bentleys in any one place. But there are also impressive Korean-designed cars (not available outside the country, to my knowledge) that look the clear equivalents of the largest BMWs and Mercedes.

This is no longer a country making cheapo kitchenware, but a land that is heading to the top, even if, in the less pricey suburbs and the countryside, there is a lot of semi-disguised poverty for an older generation lacking a degree and a business suit.
The South Koreans are immensely and intensely proud that they will be the hosts of the G-20 summit meeting in November. South Korea’s super-productive economy is already overtaking the gross domestic product of many a European state. It is forecast that by 2050 South Korea will have the second-highest gross domestic product per capita in the world, above that of Germany, France and Japan. It is headed to be the Switzerland of East Asia, so to speak.

But that, alas, is where the comparisons dry up. South Korea cannot possibly be the Switzerland of its region because, geographically and geopolitically, it is not like, or in the same place as, the Swiss Federation. South Korea does not have the same conditions of security that come from being a country of high mountain ridges like Switzerland or, for that matter, Norway and Scotland, in an increasingly pacific-minded European continent.

The Republic of Korea lies next to what surely must be one of the maddest and most unpredictable political regimes in the world. And “next to” really means that, on a fine day, one can probably glimpse the demilitarized zone from a tall office building in downtown Seoul. Hence the massive media interest in the recent visit to Busan of the giant aircraft carrier U.S.S. George Washington, and the combined American-Korean naval maneuvers — a reassurance to the South and a warning to the North (and a not-too-subtle message to China as well).

As if Seoul did not already have the constant headache produced by its erratic neighbor, it is also glumly aware that it lies at the intersection of where four much larger powers have declared strategic interests, namely, China, Japan, Russia and the United States. Right now, none of those big nations wishes to change the status quo, and ironically, the potential aggressive lunacy of North Korea — or its potential implosion — may be keeping them talking with one another much more than they would otherwise do.

Still, the blunt fact is that South Korea’s geopolitical (and thus economic) future is much more dependent on the actions of other, larger states than it is upon its own impressive endeavors. So long as the “Big Four” stay in harmony, South Koreans are free to follow their path to wealth. But they are genuinely concerned about the regional consequences of the rise of China (even if that can never be mentioned for fear of upsetting Beijing), hate the idea of leaning toward Japan, don’t think much of Russia’s current capacities in the region, and are anxious about America’s willingness to stay in East Asia over the next decade or two — “Yankees, don’t go home!”

By Paul Kennedy professor of history and director of International Security Studies at Yale University and author of “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.”Tribune Media Services

Japan Gives Journalists Tour of Execution Chambers

TOKYO — The Japanese government opened up its execution chambers to the public for the first time on Friday, taking journalists on a tour of Tokyo’s main gallows. The insides were stark: a trapdoor, a Buddha statue and a ring for the noose.

The opening of the chambers was a bid by Japan’s justice minister, Keiko Chiba, to stir debate over a practice that is widely supported here.

Of the Group of Eight industrialized nations, only the United States and Japan use capital punishment. Japan currently has 107 inmates on death row, and no pardon is allowed. From 2000 to 2009, Japan sentenced 112 people to death and executed 46.
“I called for proper disclosure in the hope that it spurs debate over the death penalty and criminal sentencing,” Ms. Chiba, who opposes the death penalty, said at a news conference this month.

In July, Ms. Chiba approved — and witnessed — the hangings of two inmates convicted of murder, saying she was carrying out her duties as justice minister. Afterward, she said she still opposed capital punishment and ordered that journalists be given a tour of the facilities. She also promised to create a panel of experts to discuss the death penalty, including whether it should be stopped. The panel meets next month.

Japan has long been criticized by human rights activists for its capital punishment system. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors civil and political rights, has urged Japan to consider abolishing the death penalty, citing the large number of crimes that entail the death sentence, the lack of pardoning, the solitary confinement of inmates and executions at advanced ages and despite signs of mental illness.

Japan also has a 99 percent conviction rate, a figure critics attribute to widespread use of forced confessions. A series of false convictions have surfaced in recent months, including one of a 63-year-old man who had served 17 years of a life sentence for the murder of a 4-year-old girl. He was released after prosecutors admitted that his confession was a fabrication made under duress and DNA tests showed he was innocent. Critics say there is a high possibility that some of those on death row are innocent.

Inmates on death row are not told when they will be executed until the last minute — a procedure Japanese officials say prevents panic among inmates — and their family members and lawyers are informed only afterward, as are the news media.
Inmates can remain on death row as long as 40 years, though executions over the past decade have occurred on average after about 5 years and 11 months on death row, according to the public broadcast channel NHK. The Justice Ministry has refused to disclose how it makes decisions to go ahead with executions.

A large majority of Japan’s population supports capital punishment. A recent government survey showed that 86 percent of respondents are in favor of state executions for the worst crimes.

“Any debate should take into account the lifelong suffering that the victims’ families must bear,” said Isao Okamura, whose wife was murdered over a work dispute in 1997, in an interview with NHK.

All executions are carried out by hanging. Foreign news outlets, including The New York Times, were excluded from the visit, despite repeated requests to take part.
According to accounts in local news outlets, journalists were taken to the execution site in a bus with closed curtains, because its exact location is kept secret. There are seven such sites across Japan, the Justice Ministry said.

The journalists were led through the chambers, one by one: a chapel with a Buddhist altar where the condemned are read their last rites; a small room, also with a Buddha statue, where a prison warden officially orders the execution; the execution room, with a pulley and rings for the rope and a trapdoor where the condemned inmate stands; and the viewing room where officials witness the hanging.

The inmate is handcuffed and blindfolded before entering the execution room, officials said. Three prison wardens push separate buttons, only one of which releases the trapdoor — but they never find out which one. Wardens are given a bonus of about $230 every time they attend an execution.

Satoshi Tomiyama, the Justice Ministry official who later briefed the foreign news outlets and others excluded from the tour, said that wardens take the utmost care to treat death row inmates fairly and humanely.

The Buddha statues can be switched with an altar of the indigenous Japanese Shinto religion for followers of that faith, he said. For Christians, the prison provides a wooden cross. Inmates are given fruit and snacks before their execution, and sentences are not carried out on weekends, national holidays and around the New Year.

Mr. Tomiyama read a statement from a warden who carries out executions but did not identify him by name. Executions “are carried out somberly, and the tension is enough to make my hand shake,” he quoted the warden as saying.

Human rights activists criticize the conditions in which the inmates are made to await their death. They are held in solitary confinement in a cell about 50 square feet, which they leave only to exercise and bathe, both alone. They can request Japanese chess sets, but they must play alone. They are able to purchase newspapers and books, though the prison censors some of the content; articles about last month’s executions were blacked out in newspapers given to death row inmates. Relatives can visit, but friends cannot.

Kanae Doi, a lawyer who heads Human Rights Watch Japan, said she welcomed Japan’s steps toward more transparency. But “the death penalty should not be enforced by a majority opinion,” she said.

“Apart from Japan and the United States, the other countries in the world that carry out capital punishment are those accused of other grave human rights violations,” Ms. Doi said. “Japan should be ashamed to be on that list.” New York Times

Chinese banks and Circular logic

Chinese banks are undergoing an odd kind of bail-out

THE banks of China did their duty by supporting the government’s stimulus efforts last year. Lending soared by a frenetic 32% in 2009; growth has slowed this year, but remains a robust 18%. Now the government is standing by the banks.

A flurry of reports in the local Chinese press predicts that on August 24th Huijin, a branch of China Investment Corporation (CIC), the country’s sovereign-wealth fund and the holder of big stakes in all of its main banks, will issue the first of a series of bonds. Up to 187.5 billion yuan ($28 billion) should be raised in short order, with much of the demand coming from China’s state-controlled companies. These funds are expected to be used to support rights offerings by the big Chinese banks later in the year, as they seek to maintain capital ratios and protect against an expected wave of dud loans.

Stripped to their essence, the transactions begin with one branch of the Chinese government issuing debt. A second branch puts up the money. A third gets to use it, relabelled as “equity”. That equity, in turn, allows the banks to provide additional dollops of credit to companies, thus fuelling China’s economy. Some have wondered whether the banks themselves will buy Huijin’s debt, a move that would make the process perfectly circular.

The plan has emerged as an alternative to a more straightforward blueprint—raising $20 billion-30 billion in fresh money through a series of rights issues in Hong Kong and Shanghai. That plan is looking unfeasible under current market conditions. True, Agricultural Bank achieved the world’s largest initial public offering just last month, and on August 18th China Everbright Bank, another lender, enjoyed a strong debut in Shanghai. But the markets are unstable and, bankers believe, increasingly tapped out. What is more, it is becoming ever clearer that the big banks face a wave of write-offs on their loans.

In July the government asked banks to conduct stress tests assuming a 60% decline in housing values. A steady trickle of leaks has emerged in the Chinese press about potential losses from loans guaranteed by municipal governments. The most recent reports put the amount of these loans at 7.7 trillion yuan, or about 17% of overall lending. Of these, about a quarter are thought to be tied up in projects where there is abundant cashflow to fund repayment and another half in projects where there may be enough income. That leaves a quarter where the prospects of repayment are poor. Pressure is apparently being put on some municipalities to cover losses. Banks are building reserves. Loans are quietly being restructured.

China has been through this process before. A decade ago bad loans amounting to 10% of bank assets were purchased by the government at face value and put into special fund-management companies, where they continue to sit. Back then, however, the banks were explicitly state-owned. Now they all have outside investors and conventional reporting requirements.

The possibility that China’s banks are more troubled than they seem is not lost on investors. By market capitalisation they are among the largest in the world but their shares trade at low multiples, under two times book value and below ten times earnings. Both multiples are far lower than those of smaller lenders in India and Indonesia that are perceived to have better growth prospects or less suspect accounts.

These modest valuations, and the apparent determination of the Chinese government to offer support come what may, means that the banks will probably still be able to raise some capital from outside. Simon Ho, an analyst with Citigroup, reckons that $6 billion-7 billion of equity will come from non-Chinese investors as part of the rights offerings.

If things do proceed in this manner, the odd effect of recapitalisation will be to increase leverage in the system. What appears to be equity on the balance-sheet of one set of government-controlled entities is really just debt on another. That makes everything more lucrative if things go well—and much worse if they don’t. The Economist

Press freedom deteriorating in Thailand

Press freedom in Thailand, especially for broadcast media such as community radio stations and Web boards, has "palpably deteriorated" over the past six years, lamented Roby Alampay, outgoing executive director of the Southeast Asean Press Alliance (Seapa)

"The Internet over the past six years has played a crucial role in allowing people to debate and air their views," Alampay said, adding that things had become "more personal" when users began facing censorship, state monitoring and the threat of prosecution over content in their e-mails or social networking sites.

"Print media fortunately remain very vibrant and free," he added.

Alampay, who has completed his term at Bangkok-based Seapa and leaves Bangkok for Manila today, told The Nation that Thais have to be mindful about the growing legal constraints that curb freedom of press and expression.

Six years ago, Thaksin Shinawatra was "no friend of the media", but was "put in check" by the courts, Alampay said. Now, after political and military upheaval, there is Abhisit Vejjajiva.

"You have a prime minister who benefited from political and military upheavals, and he says all the right things about press freedom, but in the background, there's a lot of trouble," he said.

For example, he said, the current Computer Crime Act was "dangerous" because the authorities were exploiting its harsh penalties and weaknesses. Then there's the spate of arrests under the lese majeste law.

"I'm not just blaming Abhisit, because other people have also been exploiting the law and making it more confusing," he said.

When Abhisit first came to power, he told society "not to worry about the law", but Alampay said things have turned out to be "quite disappointing and unfortunately got worse" under the current administration.

However, Alampay stopped short of telling Thailand what to do. "It's not my place," he said.

On a positive note, he said the public TPBS television station was a model for the rest of the region to learn that free media still had strong roots in Thailand.
On the regional level, Alampay said Asean had adopted a human-rights charter and set up an inter-governmental human-rights commission, which at least on paper endorses free expression. Indonesia has become a beacon of hope with a very free press and successful transition, while Burma is still at the very bottom.

Alampay said he was worried about Singapore and its negative influence on press freedom.

The island state, he said, relied on "co-opting as well as intimidating" tactics to stifle press freedom, "especially when it comes to local coverage".

"There is practically no independence in Singapore media. The culture of self-censorship is most pervasive there," he said, adding that the republic and China were being "touted" as alternative models for freedom of expression in Asean - a trend he described as "disturbing". The Nation, Bangkok

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Indonesia and the challenge of Papuan separatism

Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis [India]

If there are any symbols of Papuans’ continued quest and determination for sovereign independence1, it is their continued attachment to their flag, the Morning Star or Bintang Kejora (in Indonesian), their Anthem, Hai Tanahku Papua (in Indonesian) or Oh, My Land Papua, written by a Dutch missionary in the 1930s and the continued existence of the OPM, Papua Independence Movement since 1964. The Morning Star was first formally unveiled on 1 December 1961, symbolising the onset of the Republic of West Papua and flew till October 1962, when the former Dutch colony was transferred to the United Nations Temporary Executive Authority through a deal brokered by the United States,

mainly to prevent Indonesia from joining the Soviet Camp during the Cold War. Indonesia took control of the territory in the following year and formally incorporated West Papua, renamed West Irian, into Indonesia in 1969, recognised by the United Nations. However, Papuans have continued to challenge the territory’s integration into Indonesia and a bloody struggle has ensued ever since, with supporters of Papuan independence claiming that more than 100,000 Papuans have been killed by the Indonesian military. The violence has continued right to the present period and it remains illegal to fly the Bintang Kejora in Indonesia and many Papuans continue to be incarcerated for doing so.

Anatomy of Papua

Located on the easternmost part of Indonesia, geographically it constitutes one-fifth of the country but only has a population of 3 million (of which the natives constitute only 50 per cent). Indonesia, where 90 per cent of the people are Muslim, has a population of nearly 240 million. Papua is a largely Christian territory, where the Protestants constitute the majority, followed by the Catholics and then Muslims. However, tribalism is extremely dominant with more than 265 tribes representing the Putra Daerah or Sons of the Soil
(natives). Yet, the territory is extremely rich in natural resources, especially oil, gas, gold and copper. It is also geo-strategically important, bordering on land with Papua New Guinea and fronting the Pacific Ocean.

Explaining Papuans’ Desire for Independence

Even though Indonesia declared independence in August 1945 and had to fight the Dutch to gain complete sovereignty in December 1949, the Dutch only surrendered Papua in October 1962. This represents an important historical anomaly as Papua remained for another 12 years as a Dutch colony compared to the rest of Indonesia. This provided the Dutch ample time to develop a local Papuan elite that was committed to independence and hence the importance of the Morning Star, National Anthem, not to mention a rudimentary Parliament that was formed in Jayapura in 1961.

However, due to the Cold War, President Kennedy succeeded in pressurising the Dutch to surrender the territory in 1962 and Indonesia, with the support of the West, legitimately gained control of the territory by 1969. However, this was largely undertaken against the wishes of the Papuan elites and hence the continued struggle for Merdeka or independence ever since.

From the perspective of Papuans, there are a number of grievances that have provided a catalyst and triggered their demands for independence. First, the sense of historical injustice when Papua was handed over to Indonesia by the Dutch in 1962 without consulting Papuan elites and later, the fraudulent manner in which the referendum, called Act of Free Choice (but what the Papuans call Act of No Choice) was held in 1969. Thus, for the Papuans, Indonesia is an illegal colonizer and the territory’s status should be reviewed through a referendum. Second, gross unhappiness in the manner Jakarta has flooded the territory with non-Papuans, mostly Muslims, thereby creating what Papuans refer to as ‘demographic and cultural genocide’ and where they are fast becoming minorities in their own land. This has also intensified social-cultural conflicts between the natives (Putra Daerah) and the transmigrants (Pendatangs), the latter usually backed by officialdom. Third, demographically, Papuans feel discriminated against, with the majority Malay Indonesians looking down on the Melanesian Papuans (for their dress code, eating and drinking habits, etc) and worst still, most privileges being given to the former at the expense of the latter.

Fourth, there is the rising impoverisation of the Papuans. Despite the immense wealth of the territory, Papuans are among the poorest in Indonesia. Instead, the wealth is sucked out to benefit non-Papuans and foreigners, who in alliance with Jakarta, continue to benefit from Jakarta’s rule over the territory. The operation of Freeport McMoran, the world’s largest gold mine operator, is a case in point. Fifth, Papuans are also in rage as the territory’s environment has been pillaged and more important, the forest, which for the Papuans is not only a community property but also important religiously, being plundered. Finally, most blatant of all, has been the immense human rights violations undertaken continuously by almost every government in power in Jakarta since the days of Sukarno. Papuans have continued to suffer as Indonesia has continued to treat the territory as a colony and where any form of opposition, peaceful or otherwise, is dealt with brutally. Indonesians refer to this as the ‘security approach’ to development and Indonesia’s democratization in 1998 has not really altered much as far as Papua is concerned. Many Papuan leaders have been murdered by the Indonesian military, such as Theys Eluay in November 2001. The continued existence, despite weaknesses, of the Papua Independence Movement, is a testimony of Papuans’ willingness to take to arms to achieve their goal of independence. In short, injustice, intolerance, exploitation and violence are the main drivers that have motivated Papuans to seek an alternative future for themselves.

Why is Indonesia Unwilling to give in to Papuan Separatists?

Papua is not only strategically vital, being a land, air and maritime border zone, but probably more important is the immense wealth it posseses. Jakarta depends on Papua for the bulk of its revenue and Papua is probably Indonesia’s most important ‘golden goose’. It would be a strategic and economic disaster if the territory were to be lost. Also,Indonesians view Papua as an integral part of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia and any leader even contemplating giving independence to Papua would be viewed as a national traitor, a price President Habibie paid for East Timor’s independence. At the same time, despite Papuans’ unhappiness, the bulk of the international community continues to support Indonesia’s ownership of Papua given that Indonesia is much more important than Papua. Jakarta leaders have also argued that to give in to Papuans’ demand for independence would open the Pandora’s Box leading others to demand likewise, resulting in the break-up of Indonesia. In the final analysis, it is the simple issue of political, economic and military asymmetry, and where the Papuans are simply not in a position to challenge and dislodge Indonesia. As such, while Indonesia is unprepared to abandon the
territory and most Papuans are unhappy to remain in Indonesia, the impasse cannot be broken due to the paralysis both parties find themselves in.

Indonesia’s Peace Overtures

Following the collapse of Suharto’s New Order and the onset of democratic Indonesia, Jakarta has made peace with other separatists, be it in East Timor (through a referendum leading to independence) or with Aceh (leading to greater autonomy and local rule). In the same vein, Jakarta has peddled what is referred to as Autonomi Khusus or Special Autonomy in 2001, to meet half way Papuan grievances and demands, and rejected a referendum a la East Timor as was demanded by Papuan activists, fearing a break up Indonesia. While Papuans have gained much in terms of Special Autonomy funds (5 trillion Indonesia Rupiahs to date), the territory remains backward as the bulk of the money is used for administration and pilfered through corruption. At the same time, despite agreeing to a Special Autonomy status for Papua, Jakarta has continuously undermined it. First, without consulting the local administrative bodies, as was provided for in the Special Autonomy arrangements, Jakarta divided Papua into three administrative provinces even though later the Constitutional Court deemed this illegal but two provinces remain in operation today. Second, despite agreeing to permit Papuans to display their cultural attributes, Jakarta reneged on this, arguing that it was promoting separatism, especially with regard to the display of the Morning Star and singing of Hai Tanahku Papua. In short, Papuans continue to view Jakarta in bad faith and this is the main reason why the Cendrawasih (Bird of Paradise) symbolising Papua, continues to fear the Garuda, symbolising Indonesia.

Papuans Remain Unsatisfied and Suspicious

While some Papuan elites accepted the Special Autonomy proposal, eventually, most in Papua were unhappy as hardliners in Jakarta believed that too much had already been given to the Papuans and that if no ‘roll-back’ takes place it will only be a matter of time before Papuan independence becomes a reality. Also, most Papuans do not see any major improvement in their livelihood, especially the violence against them by the military, police and intelligence apparatus. Instead, many Papuans would prefer to internationalise their plight and seek a third party to settle the issue as they do not trust the Jakarta elites and Indonesians in general. Jakarta, instead, realising that the Papuans are being lost, has tried to launch various ‘peace talks’, organised by the Coordinating Ministry for Politics, Legal and Security Affairs, the Indonesian Intelligence Agency, Home Affairs and even Indonesian Resilience Agency (linked to the Defence Ministry) but with no success. Incumbent President Bambang Yudhoyono has tasked the Indonesian Institute of Sciences to draw up a ‘road map’ for Papua’s future, but again little progress has been made. All these Indonesian measures are aimed at circumventing internationalization of the Papuan issue, which most Papuan elites demand but which Jakarta has been unwilling to agree even though with regard to the Aceh settlement, a third party, with the support of the Norwegian Government, succeeded in making a breakthrough. Papuans are hoping for a similar opportunity so as to ensure that the agreement reached between Jakarta and themselves will be honoured.

In the meantime, as the deadlock continues, Papua continues to burn. Violence by the security apparatus against Papuans continues to be reported, with the military and police hunting the new separatist leader, Goliat Tabuni, who succeeded Kelly Kwalik, who was shot dead in December 2009 by security forces. With little or no hope of progress, with the abuses and violence continuing, the traditional separatist leaders are also losing their grip over their followers, with many of these leaders accused of being covert operatives for Jakarta. Amidst the continuing violence, Jakarta is rumoured to be thinking of creating additional provinces in the territory, in a traditional game of divide and rule, to weaken Papuan nationalism and quest for independence. This has, instead, led to the rise of new radical and hard-line younger leaders who are prepared to raise the stakes through greater violence, to make Jakarta pay more dearly, and more importantly bring the fight to Jakarta so that Indonesians and the world community will pay greater attention to their plight. In short, the HAMAS of Papua seems to be surfacing and if Jakarta continues to neglect Papuans’ demands, the struggle is likely to worsen, at great cost of life to both Papuans and Indonesians as a whole, and where the international community, with stakes in Papua and Indonesia, will also be affected. Not only will Indonesia’s democracy but more importantly the very idea of Indonesia as a unitary state will probably be under stress and test.

1. For deeper insights into the Papuan conundrum see Bilveer Singh, Papua: Geopolitics and the Quest for Nationhood (New Brunswick, USA: Transaction Press, 2008). Bilveer Singh