Friday, September 30, 2011

Progress report on Myanmar

THERE is mounting excitement about developments in Myanmar, after a summer of carefully choreographed meetings between the country’s normally shy, quasi-military rulers and...well, just about everyone else. Western diplomats and special envoys, American politicians (Republicans at that), UN folk: all have been allowed in and out to have face-to-face talks with Myanmar’s new ministers in order to assess whether the much vaunted political transformation there is real this time, or just another chimera. Just as significantly, government ministers and the new president, Thein Sein, have held unprecedented meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi, that icon of democracy and leader of the unofficial opposition—the generals even let her publish an article in a Burmese newspaper, the first time that’s happened for 23 years. For her part, she has said that the president wants to “achieve real positive change”.

If not quite a summer of love, all this certainly amounts to a step forward in Myanmar’s international rehabilitation. And last week there was another big boost for the optimists, with the publication of a report entitled “Myanmar: Major Reform Under Way” by the International Crisis Group (ICG), an influential Brussels-based think-tank. There’s nothing cynical or cautious about the tone of this report; the authors argue that “the political will appears to exist to bring fundamental change” to the country, and that “after 50 years of autocratic rule, [the country’s rulers] show strong signs of heralding a new kind of political leadership in Myanmar—setting a completely different tone for governance in the country and allowing discussions and initiatives that were unthinkable only a few months ago.”

Heady stuff—if true. However, having spoken to a couple of those who met with the generals this summer, I have the impression that the ICG is getting ahead of itself here. It’s true that the government seems eager to meet and listen to a range of people (including Ms Suu Kyi) who were off-limits only recently. But so far the government has taken almost none of the concrete stops that the West (and Ms Suu Kyi) are looking for as examples (or “benchmarks” in the diplomatic jargon) of real progress towards the sunny uplands of the new democratic, pluralistic society that the generals claim they want. In other words, so far it’s almost all words—unusually positive, and even uncensored words, but mere words nonetheless. So far, nothing has been said or done that couldn’t easily be reversed. So although most of their Western interlocutors have been encouraged by what they have seen and heard on their visits to Myanmar, there are still plenty of reasons to remain cautious and tread wearily.

Take the issue of political prisoners. The release of up to 2,000 such prisoners (mainly democracy activists and members of Ms Suu Kyi’s banned political party) is a central demand of the government’s critics. Diplomats who spoke with Myanmar’s official representatives in New York last week say that the Burmese actually discussed a list of 500 or so people that might at some point be released, but cautioned that it’s still a case of wait-and-see. Or take the issue of the ethnic conflicts on the eastern periphery of Myanmar, in Kachin, Shan and Kayin states. These have, if anything, worsened over the past year, with a rise in human-rights abuses by the Burmese army—hardly signs of a government hell-bent on fundamentally changing its ways.

Nonetheless, both sides, Myanmar’s generals and the West, are now at least engaged in a delicate diplomatic minuet—which might yield results in the future. The ICG argues that the West should take the lead with Myanmar, offering, for example, economic and financial engagement now, so at so encourage the reformers within the government. Most Western governments, however, are still waiting for more substantial signs of reform before they offer anything with cash value in exchange.

What is undoubtedly true is that if the Myanmar government does decide to make a dramatic move (release the 2,000 political prisoners, for example) then such a head of steam has built up in the West towards rethinking the old sanctions regimes that Western diplomats will have to relent. And so they should—the West has little to show for its decades-long shunning of Myanmar, other than having handed over much of the country to China. A deal is clearly there to be done. As always though, it’s how you get there that matters just as much as the outlines of the deal itself. Just ask the long-suffering advocates of a two-state solution in Palestine. Banyan for The Economist

A murky Mongolian saga

TO THE surprise of many, Bat Khurts, the head of Mongolia’s National Security Council, is back at his desk in Ulaanbaatar, and not sitting in a German prison, awaiting trial for his alleged involvement in a kidnapping in 2003. The charges that allowed his detention have been dropped. Among those surprised was the Foreign Office in Britain, apparently, where Mr Khurts was arrested last year in controversial circumstances. He was extradited to Germany in August, and his trial was due to begin on October 24th. Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel is due in Mongolia on a planned visit on October 12th.

Besides affecting Mongolia’s relations with Britain, which are now tetchy, and with Germany, which is in its good books, the case has cast depressing light on the thuggery of Mongolia’s security services. It has also been a constant reminder of a grisly political assassination with long-lasting effects.

Mr Khurts faced charges related to a kidnapping in May 2003 in the French port of Le Havre. Damiran Enkhbat, a Mongolian who had gone into exile after being freed early from a jail sentence for assault, was duped into going to a McDonald’s for what was supposed to be a meeting with a compatriot. Instead, he was set upon by four men, drugged, bundled unconscious into a car and driven across Europe for four days, before being put on a Mongolian Airlines flight from Berlin to Ulaanbaatar. Mr Khurts, who at the time ran Mongolia’s main spy agency, was accused of being one of Mr Enkhbat's assailants, and the driver of the car.

On return, Mr Enkhbat was detained as a suspect in the brutal murder in 1998 of Sanjasuuren Zorig, who had been the most prominent leader of the country’s democratic revolution in 1989-90, and was at that time in government as the infrastructure minister. Some of his supporters believe that, at the age of just 36, he was about to become prime minister, and was assassinated on the order of corrupt politicians who saw their interests threatened. His murder remains unsolved.

Despite alleged torture, Mr Enkhbat never admitted any involvement. Amnesty International, a human-rights lobby, campaigned for him when he was denied access both to a lawyer and to medical care for a life-threatening condition. He died shortly after his release from prison in 2006, as a result, believe his family, of his maltreatment in detention. His children, who are German citizens, brought charges against Mr Khurts.

Mongolian officials do not bother to deny that the kidnapping happened. As if it were an unfortunate but rather trifling oversight, they say they have accepted it was wrong, apologised and everybody should move on. Clearly it did not affect Mr Khurts’s climb up the ladder of Mongolia’s security establishment. So it was natural that he should be the man designated last year to take part in talks with Britain on closer security co-operation.

He was given a visa, in response to an application accompanied by a diplomatic note verbale, and his trip was discussed in advance by the countries’ respective ambassadors and their host governments. But instead of chewing the cud over an important partnership, he found himself locked up: arrested on arrival at Heathrow airport.

Tsogtbaatar Damdin, state secretary at Mongolia’s foreign ministry, says Mongolia remains baffled by what he describes as the British “entrapment” of Mr Khurts. Like Germany, he insists that his release is purely the result of a judicial decision, unrelated to political considerations such as Mrs Merkel’s imminent visit.

That is still scheduled, though there must be a risk it will be derailed by unrelenting turmoil in the euro zone. But, says Mr Tsogbaatar, Mongolia is “grateful” to the Germans, and most Mongolians seem to take it for granted that the release is a goodwill gesture intended to smooth Mrs Merkel's way. Mr Khurts arrived back, if not quite to a hero’s welcome, than at least to the handshake of a deputy foreign minister (who was at the airport by coincidence, says Mr Tsogtbaatar).

A spokesman at the German embassy in Ulaanbaatar says that Mr Khurts was freed after his country’s second-highest court (after the constitutional court) ruled that charges of “Verschleppung”, a specific form of abduction covered under article 234(a) of Germany’s criminal code, should be dropped. This was the count which justified his detention. Charges of “deprivation of freedom” and “causing bodily harm” still stand, but Mr Khurts seems unlikely ever to face them.

The German spokesman says there were contacts with Britain before Mr Khurts arrived back in Mongolia on September 27th. But two days later, a foreign-office spokesman contacted by The Economist was unaware that he was free. Indeed, Germany seems to have managed the release very quietly. Few if any German and British newspapers have mentioned it.

Britain denies Mr Khurts was entrapped, and also emphasises the separation of its judicial and political processes. Indeed, having managed to antagonise Mongolia, a small but booming economy, with what turned out to be a fool’s errand of an extradition action, some officials may be wishing they were more co-ordinated than they are. By Banyan for The Economist

Indonesia's 1960s Coup Victims

Thousands of people still struggle to regain what they lost

Forty-six years have passed since the failed Sept. 30, 1965 coup that ended in the massacre and arrest of hundreds of thousands of people accused of communist affiliations.

Although huge improvements have been made in restoring the civic and political rights of the victims, some living with the stigma of being associated with the Indonesian Communist Party, (PKI) still struggle to regain what they lost.

Nurkholis Hidayat, director of the Jakarta Legal Aid Foundation, said a number of victims now sit in government offices or have been elected to the House of Representatives and that all of them can get identification cards that no longer categorize them as being related to the PKI.

But the fight is not yet over. “Recovering their economic rights is a big goal,” he said.

During the coup, an estimated 500,000 people were killed nationwide, while thousands more were forced into exile or given long prison sentences. Many of those who were jailed or exiled were civil servants, police officers or soldiers.

While they were barred from their homes, their land was taken by officials. The government also failed to honor their pension entitlements once the prisoners were released.

One of the people who lost his pension plan is Soekarno Hadiwibowo, who served almost 14 years at Cipinang prison, East Jakarta.

The 84-year old was a bureau head at the Education Ministry and secretary general of the Educators Union in 1965.

“I was arrested in December 1966 because, according to an emergency decree issued by Suharto, my union was listed as an affiliate of PKI,” Soekarno said.

For Soekarno and 22,000 other former civil servants dishonorably discharged after stating under duress that they were affiliated with the PKI, their right to receive pension and retirement funds was nullified. They are all part of an advocacy group Soekarno leads, but the actual number of victims like them are far more.

Like other worker unions in the country then, Soekarno’s organization was part of the trade union federation called the All-Indonesia Central Labor Organization (SOBSI).

“SOBSI was under the auspices of PKI but that’s as far our affiliation went,” he continued.

After he was arrested, he said officers tortured him for days to make him admit that he was member of the communist party.

“I was beaten and electrocuted. After maybe a week I finally agreed to whatever they were accusing me of,” he said. “I wanted to live.”

For Soekarno and others, the persecution wasn’t limited to just them. It included their families.

Yati Andriyani, an official with the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), said that the families of those stigmatised as communists lost not only their family members but also their property and livelihoods.

“Kontras has received numerous reports that during Suharto’s anticommunist program, military officers came to take away who families’ homes and land,” Yati said.

Other political prisoners had to struggle with the fact that their wives were raped by, or even forcibly married to, military officials, Yati said.

“Several nephews of mine had to face the fact that the military did not only take away their property, but also their wives,” Soekarno said. “It was already hard for us to find work after prison. On top of that we saw our families fall apart.”

Another victim of discrimination is 72 year-old Eva (who requested her real name not be used). Eva, whose father was fired from the Ministry of Home Affairs in 1966 after being accused of being sympathetic to the PKI, has been struggling for justice since 1978.

As the oldest child in the family, Eva’s life changed dramatically after her father’s death in 1968. She said she was a 29-year-old who had just started building a life with her new husband when she was suddenly forced to take care of her 10 younger siblings.

“I had to work harder, I did everything I could to support my mother and siblings,” Eva said. “At that time, a woman who could survive without becoming a sex worker was lucky.”

In 1978, Eva started to try to claim her father’s pension fund. She said she went through stacks of papers at the Ministry of Home Affairs’ office for three months, searching for her father’s legal documents to prove that he had worked there.

Eva said she found documents that showed her father worked for the government for 36 years without taking leave. “He was even declared a war hero. He received five medals of honor from the president,” she said.

So far, nothing has come of Eva’s efforts.

In 2005, LBH Jakarta helped the families of anti-PKI discrimination victims file a class action suit demanding the government provide seven forms of redress, including paying civil servants’ pension funds and restoring confiscated property.

However in 2009, the Supreme Court rejected the request, based on purely administrative issues.

LBH’s Nurkholis said because of that, the victims still have a good chance on winning their case in the future.

“There’s still a long way to go, and we are working through the legal process, although I can’t tell you our detailed plan,” he said.

But it may just get more difficult the longer it drags on.

Home Affairs Ministry spokesman Reydonnyzar Moenek said a decree from a “higher authority” was needed to release the pensions as they covered various government institutions. “And since the case is older than 30 years, most of the employment documents would now be stored in a warehouse somewhere,” he said.

(This was reprinted with permission from the Jakarta Globe, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement.)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Indonesian Staircase of terrorism and deradicalization strategies

A terrorist bomb exploded in the Central Java city of Surakarta, killing one person suspected to be the suicide bomber and injuring another 14 people who had just finished their Sunday prayers in Kepunton Church.

While it remains debatable whether the attack reveals the failure of the deradicalization program in the country or the lack of coordination between the intelligence and police forces, it is certain that this act of terrorism calls for radical changes to the country’s deradicalization strategy.

Deradicalization has so far concentrated on perpetrators of terrorism and direct networks that recruit suicide bombers or bomb makers, leaving many other essential parts and stages in the creation of terrorists untouched.

Using Moghadam’s staircase of terrorism analogy, the country’s deradicalization only targets the fifth and fourth floor of terrorism, which the terrorists and recruiters inhabit, ignoring the lower and ground floors which produced terrorism.

For example, nothing has been done so far about those provoking hatred through small religious circles, university corners, Friday sermons and street demonstrations. These hostile speeches can be found in Youtube or Friday sermons in urban mosques, but the state apparatus claims to have no solid evidence to take action.

The law enforcers continue to look the other way with radical groups. The court drama related to the violence in Cikeusik, Banten, not only hurt our sense of justice but also revealed that the Indonesian legal system succumbs to violent religious groups.

Sidney Jones aptly observes that tolerance of crimes related to religious issues, demonstrated by the Indonesian justice system, has given a green light to criminals dressed in religious robes to commit greater crimes. Hate speeches and violent religious groups should be seen as stairs that lead to terrorism.

A tree is another metaphor for terrorism. It has leaves, fruit, branches, a stem and roots. Killing terrorist suspects and running after the networks is like trimming the tree, but leaves the stem and roots unscathed.

The old terrorists might have been killed, disarmed or sentenced. But the tree of terrorism still grows new fruit, new jihadists and martyrs. Trimming the branches or destroying the fruit alone will not eliminate the tree of terrorism. A comprehensive effort to fight terrorism must be aimed at cutting down and uprooting the tree.

Deradicalization should therefore engage the roots. The roots of terrorism are the violent ideology that nurtures hatred and justifies violence. The violent ideology is normally packaged and sold as religious speeches that provoke hatred against the West, non-Muslims, religious minorities and Muslims with different religious orientations.

The result of these speeches is takfiriah, or apostatizing others or fellow Muslims and justifies taking their lives and property. They even regard mosques of their enemies as appropriate targets to be destroyed.

The characteristics of takfiriah include examining the errors of others, emphasizing the compulsion of religious laws, the jahiliah-ization of the current regime, and the use of violence. These kinds of people inhabit the third floor of the terrorist building.

The higher the floor they inhabit, the more tolerant they are of violent means. Living on the second and first floors are those provoking hatred without justifying the use of violence.

Many living on these floors normally appear on TV, saying that terrorism cannot be justified.

They do this to wash their hands of terrorist acts. However, they should be reminded that they should stop provoking hatred because by doing that they are part of the staircase to terrorism.

Unfortunately, hate speeches are no longer held clandestinely. They can be easily found in Friday sermons in urban mosques, informal religious study circles and of course the Internet.

Hate speeches and violent groups have increasingly become part of life in bustling cities like Cirebon, Jakarta and Surakarta. It is revealed that Ahmad Yosepa (the suicide bomber in Solo) and his friend, Ahmad Syarif (the suicide bomber in Cirebon) were nurtured by the new culture in urban centers. They did not necessarily have frequent physical encounters with certain top terrorist leaders.

City in Arabic is madinah which means civility, suggesting that the city is the place of civility. Cities should be the center that reinforces and shields humanity. Deradicalization strategies should seek to restore our cities, including the mosques and universities, to be centers of humanity.

To achieve this dream, the roots of terrorism should be addressed. Law enforcement is important, but not enough. Political leaders should speak with one voice regarding terrorism and the violent groups, which may have links to terrorist groups.

Religious leaders, particularly the Indonesian Ulema Council, should not let their respected institutions be infiltrated by radical voices and be made into bunkers of radicalism. They need to speak out against violent groups and those who provoke hatred through Friday sermons.

To uproot terrorism, societal involvement is a must. When the ummah find a khatib provoking hatred, they should pull down the khatib. This is important because provoking hatred makes the Friday rituals invalid.

Second, moderate Muslims should reduce their political lust and return to take care of mosques in order that the mosques are free from the dominant influence of radical groups and the religious circles that promote hatred.

Third, community policing at the lowest level should work effectively. Communities should watch their neighborhoods for suspicious activities. They should not allow their neighborhoods to be inhabited by people who plan to kill other innocent people.

Fourth, the state should reinforce consciousness of Pancasila as the foundation of state pluralism and diversity in every sphere of life. The state can do this, for example, by handing down stiff punishments for crimes against religious freedom.

Lastly the most important of all is to make our land a barren and dry place for radicalism. We can only do this through fertilizing and strengthening love, empathy and fortitude to create diversity consciousness.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.”

In the framework of love, deradicalization does not mean taking the lives of the people living in the floors of terrorist buildings. Rather, deradicalization will persuade people to vacate the building and never come back. They must realize that living in such a building is not blessed by God, because God is love.

Moh Yasir Alimi, Semarang researcher at The Center for Cultural Pluralism, Democracy and Character Building, Semarang State University (Unnes).

Indonesia: An abundance of wonders and beauty

Indonesia has a national motto which reads in Bahasa Indonesia - Bhinneka Tunggal Ika; translated to English it means Unity in Diversity. For anyone in Indonesia this is familiar but for those less familiar with this country it is an interesting insight into the aspirations of the nation. The word ‘diversity’ is a particularly good representation of this country. It is a country with remarkable diversity.

That diversity manifests itself in a wealth of wonders and beauty that are the product of a varied range of natural environs and social and ethnic groups and their cultures. It is something of a cliché to think of Indonesia as a string of thousands of islands and the world’s greatest archipelago; a person could spend a lifetime island hopping here and be consistently amazed or impressed.

Some of Indonesia’s more renowned tourist destinations are a good place to start in appreciating this country. Java is, it is reasonable to state, the foremost of Indonesia’s islands both historically and in terms of the concentration of the nation’s population. Within Java there are a significant number of tourist destinations of repute.

The string of volcanic mountains that line Java presents numerous natural wonders to be seen and explored, but perhaps the most dramatic of the mountain regions is Bromo in the east of the island. This range of mountains creates stunning vistas and combined with the vast ‘Sea of Sand’, that sits in the area too, makes an area for rugged trekking and appreciation of and awe at the might of nature.

The Indonesian archipelago is noted as one of the more volatile regions of the world for seismic and volcanic activity and so visits to the likes of Bromo sometimes have to be timed to coincide with less active periods in the life of the volcanoes. Even during a relatively calm period care may be needed as the stench of sulfur pouring up from the craters can be quite overpowering.

But the stunning views and wonder of viewing the Earth’s steaming, bubbling and smoking essence is an experience to be remembered. Not so far away from Bromo, but in Central Java, are more peaceful wonders that were created long ago by human hands and today represent wonders of world heritage. The temples at Borobudur and Prambanan are places of religious and spiritual importance.

Borobudur is quite simply staggering to behold in its beauty and scale. This hill-like Buddhist temple seems to be covered from top to bottom in statuary and relief carving. The numbers at Borobudur are staggering to behold – there are more than 2,500 panels of relief carving and over 500 statues of the Buddha. It all amounts to a wealth of craftsmanship and a day’s visit can never be enough.

Meanwhile, the nearby Prambanan temple is Hindu in origin and like Borobudur is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Prambanan is quite different to Borobudur though. Prambanan is a series of towers that when built must have been the skyscrapers of that time. The tallest central one reaches up to near 50 meters in height.

Borobudur and Prambanan stand as exemplars of Indonesia’s diversity. Indonesia is so often referred to as the country with the biggest Muslim population and this is true but here stand two of the world’s greatest Buddhist and Hindu shrines.

The rest of the world is familiar with another Hindu part of Indonesia – namely Bali – and often this jewel of an island is mistakenly thought of as separate to Indonesia. Bali is though one small part of this great nation. Destinations abound and are abundant in what they have to offer to the traveler. Simon Marcus Gower, Contributor, Jakarta Post

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Future of Indonesian Forests

Indonesia, like many other countries blessed with tropical forests, is facing the challenge of sustainably managing its vitally important forest resources.

Globally, we are facing the challenges of climate change and environmental degradation. Global warming increasingly threatens our livelihoods and even our very survival. On top of that, because we are facing another global financial crisis, nations may lose vigor in meeting their environmental commitments.

As a developing nation, we prioritize the promotion of growth and the eradication of poverty. But we will not achieve these goal by sacrificing our forests. This is because forest management is tightly intertwined with the livelihood of our people, with our food security and with the availability of wood and fuel.

We must change the way we treat our forests so that they are conserved even as we drive hard to accelerate our economic growth. We must intensify our efforts to cut down emissions from land use, land use change and forestry exploitation. These factors account for up to 85 percent of Indonesia’s entire greenhouse gas emissions.

Let me now raise several questions. First, at the global level, what do Indonesia’s efforts to sustainably manage its forests mean?

Indonesia’s tropical forests are the third largest in the world. Our forests host roughly 12 percent of the world’s mammals, 16 percent of its reptiles and amphibians and 17 percent of all bird species. More than 10,000 species of trees have been recorded across the archipelago. Each year many new species are discovered in Indonesia.

Forests are the linchpin to our biodiversity. They are home to bees, bats, birds, insects and other pollinators of the crops we plant. They also help regulate the quality and availability of water for irrigation.

Why is sustainable forest management so important to Indonesia?

The first reason is food security. The government is pursuing a program to increase agricultural and forest productivity, particularly through the cultivation of critical and idle lands. We have selected centers of rice production in several provinces throughout Indonesia. The sustainability of forests is crucial to abundant rice harvests.

Second, our forests are home to potential sources of energy such as micro-hydro, geothermal and bio-energy. We are increasing the portion of alternative sources in our energy mix.

Third, Indonesia is a major supplier of fiber. Indonesia’s land availability and the fast growth of many tree species have also increased the economic value of our forests.

Fourth, forests make the terrain more resistant to landslides that threaten many communities. They are vital to efforts at mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Last, through our efforts at reducing carbon dioxide emissions, Indonesia can make a significant positive impact on the climate situation. Our peat swamp forests have suffered degradation. That has greatly diminished their capacity to reduce CO2 emissions. Restoration is therefore essential.

To ensure the sustainability of our forests while still meeting our development objectives, my government has given priority to a set of policies and actions to safeguard our forests and ensure their sustainable management. I made a pledge at the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh that we would voluntarily reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent by 2020. Since then, my government has carried out many initiatives. In 2010, we signed a letter of intent with the government of Norway to cut emissions by reducing deforestation and forest degradation, or REDD Plus.

In May, I instituted a two-year moratorium on new licenses to exploit natural primary forest and all peatlands. Two weeks ago, I signed a decree outlining more than 70 self-funded government programs. These are groundbreaking steps, but they are not goals in themselves. They are simply measures that give us time and resources to review and revise land use policy and practice.

I have signed a decree to set up a task force for the establishment of a REDD Plus agency and we are also developing a national strategy on REDD Plus.

Still another initiative is the provision of funding for small and medium enterprises run by forest-edge inhabitants, micro-finance programs for the rural poor and for women, and self-sufficiency projects for local villages. At the grassroots level, we have also launched a massive campaign to plant one billion trees nationwide.

Despite our modest achievements, I am mindful that these efforts will only take us part of the way toward our emission reduction target. We know we must do more to address the primary sources of our greenhouse emissions, such as illegal logging, forest encroachment, forest and land fires, and peatland drainage. And indeed we are working hard and comprehensively to overcome these challenges. We are mainstreaming all these perspectives and commitments into a special development framework. Our endeavors to effectively protect the environment are reflected in a special 15-year master plan to accelerate and expand development. This means that sustainable development is part and parcel of our efforts to boost Indonesia’s economy, so that it will become the 12th largest economy by 2025.

The task before us today is to chart a sustainable future for our forests and meet our development objectives. This is not an easy task, but we will pay a much higher price if we do not take up the challenge. By working hard together, we can help guarantee the future of our forests. And the future of our children and grandchildren. That future begins now.

By Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono sixth president of Indonesia. This text is adapted from his speech at the Cifor-hosted Forests Indonesia Conference on Tuesday.

Orangutan Killing Is Genocide: Activist

The death of orangutans as a result of human encroachment into their habitats in Kalimantan amounts to nothing less than genocide, a group advocating for the protection of the apes said on Wednesday.

Hardi Baktiantoro, a campaigner with the Center for Orangutan Protection, said the consistently high rates of orangutan deaths from human activity showed there was no progress being made to conserve the endangered species.

“This isn’t a conflict between humans and orangutans — it’s genocide,” he said. He argued that there should be far greater protection for orangutans under prevailing laws and regulations, and warned that unless the Forestry Ministry began enforcing the laws strictly, the slaughter of the apes would continue.

“Documents and action plans won’t help the orangutans, while efforts to evacuate them [from threatened areas] provide only temporary relief from the threat of death,” Hardi said.

“Even the orangutans that are released back into the wild [after rehabilitation] will just get butchered by hunters or forced to be evacuated again as long as the laws are not enforced.”

He alleged that oil palm firms were hiring people specifically to kill the animals using poison in forests where they were expanding their plantations.

He said the COP and the East Kalimantan Natural Resources Conservation Center (BKSDA) had found indications that at least four orangutans in the Muara Kaman area had been killed that way, with no action taken by law enforcement agencies to investigate.

However, Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan said his office was powerless to do anything about the deaths, short of reporting them to the police.

“The orangutan is protected by law, so it’s forbidden to kill them, remove them [from their habitat] or trade them,” he said. He added that a moratorium on new forestry permits for primary and peat forests was expected to help prevent the deaths of the apes and other endangered species.

“For 40 years, tigers and elephants, too, have been forced out of their habitats. We’re trying to save them all through the moratorium,” he said.

The COP’s statements come in response to a report from the United National Environmental Program recommending greater action to conserve orangutan habitats in Sumatra.

Serge Wich, research director for the group PanEco, which partnered with the UNEP in writing the report, said it was important that the government emphasize there was greater economic value in conserving forests than in logging them or clearing them for plantations.

The UNEP report showed that there were just 6,600 Sumatran orangutans left in the wild in 2008, down from 85,000 in 1900.

Ismira Lutfia & Arientha Primanita for Jakarta Globe

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Climbing greenback mountain

The yuan is still a long way from being a reserve currency, but its rise is overdue

AT THE FLAGSHIP store of Yue Hwa Chinese Products in Hong Kong customers can find exotic and everyday items from mainland China without having to cross the border. The offerings include silk brocades, sandalwood carvings, Sichuan peppers and traditional Chinese remedies such as ribbed antelope horns. Horn shavings, boiled in water, are said to quieten the liver and quell fevers.

Feverish visitors from the mainland can even pay for their shavings in their own currency, the yuan. The store charges 2,660 yuan ($416) for a whole horn, at an exchange rate of 1.1 Hong Kong dollar per yuan. Nearby money-changers offer a better rate, but some Chinese visitors prefer the convenience of using their own money. That way they can still get a late-night snack at the 7-Eleven after the money-changers have closed.

That is how, not long ago, the yuan set out on its career as an international currency. It crept into Hong Kong in the wallets of mainland visitors. The trickle across China’s borders quickened last year when the government allowed a broader range of Chinese firms to settle imports and exports in yuan. In the same year it set these offshore yuan free. Outside the mainland, the yuan could be transferred between banks, borrowed, lent and invested, just like any other currency.

This offshore experiment is, for many forecasters, a first tentative step towards making the yuan a fully fledged reserve currency to rival the dollar and the euro. But China’s policymakers are in two minds, as they tend to be when it comes to freeing finance. Restricting the flow of money into and out of China protects the country’s immature banking system. When Japan sanctioned the international use of the yen in the 1980s it set the stage for a damaging property bubble.

On the other hand China hates having to rely on the dollar. Officials are troubled by the Federal Reserve’s notably loose monetary policy and by America’s rapidly rising public debt. They fear that stimulus measures put in place to revive America’s flagging economy will sooner or later generate a burst of high inflation and weaken the dollar. That would hurt holders of US government bonds, including China. Around $2 trillion of its currency reserves of $3.2 trillion are in dollars, mostly in bonds. On August 5th America lost its triple-A credit rating from Standard & Poor’s because it had failed to come up with a credible plan to cap its public debt. China’s official news agency, Xinhua, immediately called for a new reserve currency.

Such calls have been made before, during bouts of dollar weakness in the late 1970s and mid-1990s, but the dollar still holds the privileged position in the world’s monetary system it has occupied since the second world war. It faces no immediate challenge to its status, notwithstanding the debt downgrade, because there are few good alternatives. Despite a long and steady decline in its value against other currencies, it still accounts for 60.7% of the world’s $9.7 trillion of currency reserves. That is around three times America’s weight in the world economy as measured by GDP. The dollar’s closest rival, the euro, accounts for 26.6% of the world’s reserves.

How does one currency maintain such dominance? Textbook economics says domestic money has three uses: as a unit of account against which the value of goods is measured; as a medium of exchange; and as a store of value used to conserve spending power for a rainy day.

The won fulfils these roles in South Korea; the yuan does the job in China; and the dollar provides these services in international markets as well as in America. It is the unit of account for commodities such as crude oil that are traded globally. Most trade that is invoiced in a currency other than those of the trading partners is quoted in dollars. And because the dollar is the benchmark for world prices and is used to settle cross-border trades, it makes sense for countries to keep stores of dollar reserves, both as a float and to bolster confidence in their own currencies.

The demand for reserve currencies is a boon to their issuers. Around $500 billion of America’s currency is used outside the country’s borders. Some of this cash is used to lubricate dollar-based international trade. But much of it greases the wheels of cross-border crime such as drug trafficking: crooks need a unit of account, a medium of exchange and a store of value just like legitimate businesspeople.

Indeed, a reserve currency might almost be defined by its appeal to criminals. Of the €900 billion-worth of euro notes in circulation, a third by value comes in the form of the pink and purple €500 note. Cynics say it was issued to capture a share of the international black market from the dollar, for which the largest denomination is $100. An illegal stash of €500 bills would be lighter, easier to conceal and easier to count. The €500 note was withdrawn by banks in Britain after police said its main use was in organised crime. That is a compliment of sorts to the euro. When Somali pirates or Russian gangsters demand payment in yuan, it will be the surest sign that economic power has shifted to China.

The cost of printing $500 billion-worth of notes is negligible compared with the value of the goods and services they can command. In order for those notes to circulate outside America, they must first have been exchanged for $500 billion-worth of goods and services. They represent a cost in real resources. The gap between the printing cost of banknotes and their face value is called seigniorage. Governments that print reserve currencies benefit from extending seigniorage beyond their own borders.

Issuers of international currencies also enjoy protection from currency volatility. A Vietnamese exporter selling to China is exposed to exchange-rate risk: he pays his workforce in dong, the local currency, but receives payment in dollars. If the dollar falls, so do his earnings, but his labour costs are unchanged. American exporters do not have to worry about currency mismatch because both their domestic costs and their export earnings are in dollars.

Nor has America had much need to acquire costly reserves of its own. Under the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates that governed rich-country trade until 1971, members were constantly at risk of running short of dollars if their exports became uncompetitive, whereas America could always print more dollars. This was an “exorbitant privilege”, grumbled France’s finance minister at the time, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

Exorbitant privilege v original sin

The privileges of reserve-currency status were not confined to the dollar, though it enjoyed the lion’s share. They include being able to borrow cheaply. The dollars and euros (and, to a lesser extent, the pounds, Swiss francs and yen) that other central banks keep in reserve are mostly in the form of government bonds. The extra demand weighs on bond yields and sets a lower threshold for the cost of credit for businesses and consumers.

This part of the exorbitant privilege contrasts with the emerging world’s “original sin”, a term coined by Barry Eichengreen of the University of California, Berkeley, and Ricardo Hausmann of Harvard University for some countries’ inability to borrow in their own currencies. Borrowing in foreign currencies (as Brazil and other Latin American countries had done before the 1980s debt crisis) leaves original sinners at risk of default if their currency loses value. Trouble-prone countries have often had to keep interest rates high, even in a recession, to support their currencies and stave off default on foreign-currency debts. Hungary is a recent example of a country in this sort of trap. The Federal Reserve has never had to worry about such things.

China hates having to rely on the dollar. Off icials are troubled by the Federal Reserve’s loose monetary policy and by America’s rapidly rising public debt
The divide between the exorbitantly privileged and the original sinners was especially deep after the East Asian crisis of 1997-98. The lesson from that crisis was never to be short of reserves. The investment rate in emerging Asia fell, the saving rate stayed high and the excess saving was sent abroad. It marked the start of an unprecedented build-up of foreign exchange to insure against future balance-of-payments problems. The world’s currency reserves increased from $1.9 trillion in 2000 to $9.3 trillion in 2010. Much of the increase was in China.

The surge in demand for safe and liquid assets in dollars, euros and pounds pushed down long-term borrowing costs. The savings of the emerging world allowed the rich world to spend too freely, one of the deeper causes of the wave of crises that has afflicted the rich world since 2007. America’s financial markets met the global demand for “safe” dollar assets by repackaging the mortgages of marginal borrowers as bonds, which turned sour. But the resulting financial crisis hit mainly the rich world rather than the emerging markets.

Rich-world banks and investors seeking higher returns when interest rates were low had bought a lot of the ropy mortgage securities. That made room for reserve managers in emerging markets to buy more bonds backed by governments or issued directly by them. Investors were so anxious for yield that they barely distinguished between good and bad credits. Countries with large public debts, such as Greece and Italy, could borrow as cheaply as countries with sound public finances such as Germany. Windfall tax revenue from housing booms fuelled by cheap foreign credit made the public finances of Ireland and Spain look sound until recession (and, in Ireland’s case, the terrifying cost of bank bail-outs) caused public debt to explode.

Some believe the exorbitant privilege is really a curse that lures the reserve-currency country into too much borrowing or printing too much money. Over time this saps the economic and political strength that was the source of the privilege. This paradox was first noted in 1947 in a Federal Reserve paper written by Robert Triffin, a Belgian-born economist.

Under the Bretton Woods arrangement currencies were pegged to the dollar at fixed exchange rates. The dollar in turn was tied to gold at a fixed price. Triffin spotted a dilemma. A rising stock of dollars was needed to finance world trade. The more dollars were supplied, the more the currency’s link to gold would be questioned since America’s gold stocks would support an ever-larger pile of banknotes. This came to a head in August 1971 when heavy selling forced President Nixon to suspend the conversion of dollars into gold.

The Triffin dilemma is echoed in contemporary worries about the rich world’s public debts and its currencies. Easy access to credit lured the euro zone’s periphery into overborrowing. Greece is insolvent, Ireland and Portugal are not far off. For reserve currencies, what is safe is in conflict with what is convenient, argues Stephen Jen of SLJ Macro Partners, a hedge fund, adding that “the euro is efficient but it’s not safe.” Reliable and liquid repositories for rainy-day saving are scarce, which is why reserve managers and bond investors continue to push money into the Treasury market. But this tempts America to overextend itself, amassing debts it may one day struggle to service.

As America’s weight in the global economy drops, supplying the world with most of its reserve currency needs may become too big a job for the country. In his recent book, “Exorbitant Privilege”, Mr Eichengreen argues that a reserve-currency system will emerge in which the dollar, the euro and the yuan share the privileges and the responsibilities. That would make the world a safer place, he reckons, because each issuer would nudge the others towards financial and fiscal discipline.

It is not obvious that one currency needs to play a pre-eminent part. In its heyday, sterling was rarely as dominant as the dollar has been since it took over. On the eve of the first world war the pound accounted for only around half of all reserves: most of the rest was in French francs and German marks. By 1924 more reserves were held in dollars than in sterling.

The dollar is flawed, but so are the candidates to displace it. The euro has no single fiscal authority standing behind it. Nor is there a single issuer of sovereign debt to match the size and liquidity of the market for US Treasuries—although the bonds issued by the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), the euro area’s emergency bail-out fund, may foreshadow a single euro bond backed by all its members. For all its shortcomings, the euro still accounts for a quarter of the world’s reserves. Even as the region’s sovereign-debt crisis has deepened over the past year, its currency has gained ground against the greenback.

The speed at which the dollar rose to prominence suggests that the yuan might be an international currency as soon as 2020, says Mr Eichengreen. The greenback overtook sterling in reserves barely a decade after the founding of the Federal Reserve in 1913 as the backstop of dollar liquidity. The Fed pushed the dollar by fostering a liquid market for trade acceptances, the credit notes used to fund shipments. By the mid-1920s more trade was carried out in dollars than pounds and more international bonds were issued in New York than in London.

However, the obstacles to the yuan becoming a reserve currency are bigger than those faced by the dollar in 1913. At that time America was already a trusted storehouse for capital, a democracy where the rule of law was firmly established. China’s recent history is less reassuring, so it will take a while before foreigners feel secure keeping their savings in yuan. The currency would have to be fully convertible so that investors could park their yuan reserves in assets of their choosing and redeem them when needed.

This in turn would require China to allow capital to move freely across its borders, which it has been reluctant to do. In recent years it has eased restrictions on residents taking capital out of the country; for example, more foreign takeovers by big Chinese firms have been allowed to go ahead. But foreigners face formidable barriers to bringing money into China because the government is reluctant to cede control of the yuan’s value or of domestic bond yields to the ebb and flow of foreign capital.

China has taken some baby steps toward setting the yuan free. It has allowed trade in goods to be invoiced and paid in yuan. The proceeds can be put to work in a fledgling offshore yuan market in Hong Kong with restricted links to the mainland. Trade settlement in yuan has grown rapidly, reaching 600 billion in the second quarter of 2011 (around 10% of total trade), according to the People’s Bank of China.

It is a big leap from being a currency in which your own trade is settled to being a fully fledged international currency, and a further jump to reserve-currency status
So far such trade settlement has been a rather one-sided affair: most has been for imports (ie, Chinese firms paying foreigners in yuan for supplies). Few of China’s exporters are willing or able to demand yuan from foreign customers, though those customers should not find it hard to get hold of the currency. China’s central bank has set up swap agreements with the central banks of many of its emerging-market trading partners, ranging from Singapore to Kazakhstan, allowing foreign banks to supply yuan to their customers.

By the end of July yuan deposits in Hong Kong had swollen to 572 billion. The IMF said in July that 155 billion of yuan-denominated bonds (so-called “dim sum” bonds) had been issued in Hong Kong since the market was set up, many by branches of mainland banks. Issues by non-financial foreign companies are less common, in part because firms still need permission to bring the cash raised into China. There have been some high-profile deals, though the bonds have short duration. McDonald’s sold a three-year bond last year. Caterpillar, an American maker of earthmoving equipment, has issued a couple of two-year bonds so far. A recent sale in Hong Kong of 20 billion yuan of government debt was heavily oversubscribed.

The offshore yuan market has quickly come up from nowhere and China’s central bank has continued to strike bilateral swap deals to keep it growing. But it is a big leap from being a currency in which a chunk of your own trade is settled to being a fully fledged international currency, and a further jump to reserve-currency status.

Only a small fraction of the world’s $4 trillion in foreign-exchange deals each day are for trade settlement. The bulk of currency dealing is for hedging or related to trading in stocks, bonds and other assets. The dollar is one side of 85% of all currency trades, according to the Bank for International Settlements (see chart 2). The yuan accounts for just 0.3% of turnover.

Yet the exorbitant curse will catch up with the dollar one day and the yuan is its most likely replacement. China’s economy is second only to America’s in size and is likely to overtake it soon. It is already the world’s largest exporter. And it has net foreign assets of $1.8 trillion, whereas America owes a net $2.5 trillion to foreigners. Only Japan is in a stronger position.

A global yuan?

Reserve-currency status depends on these three gauges of economic dominance—size of economy, exports and net foreign assets—says the Peterson Institute’s Arvind Subramanian. By 1918 America had the world’s biggest economy and would soon be its largest creditor and exporter; within a few years the dollar also had the lion’s share of the world’s foreign-exchange reserves. If that precedent is anything to go by, the yuan should soon become the main global reserve currency, and not merely a junior alternative to the dollar or the euro.

The rewards to China of opening up fully to foreign capital trump the risks, reckons Mr Subramanian. Turning the yuan into a reserve currency offers China a way out of its mercantilist growth model, which has run its course. Demand for yuan reserves would push up the exchange rate, discourage exports and give China’s consumers greater purchasing power. A push for reserve status for the yuan would go hand in hand with the development of China’s financial system—a necessary step to support the small- and medium-size businesses it needs to serve its domestic market, and for many other reasons. For China to escape the middle-income trap, it will have to let go of the yuan.

The rich world’s monopoly on reserve-currency privileges has given it first call on the world’s precautionary savings. For now, it is clinging on to its privileges. But rivalry from developing countries in the markets for oil and commodities is already exacting a price from the West.

The Economist

Is there a new threshold in Thailand’s southern insurgency?

In the aftermath of the Sungai Kolok bombing just over a week ago, authorities immediately tried to link the attacks to drug-traffickers.

This isn’t the first time that such a claim has been made. In fact, it’s the same line used against hundreds of young men who took part in a pre-dawn blitz against ten police outposts and one station, before 32 of them retreated to the Kru Se mosque, where they stood their ground until the security forces mowed them down.

The then government of Thaksin Shinawatra dismissed them as drug-crazed youths bent on creating disturbances. Locals see them as young men who charged into certain death so they could be heard. Most, if not all, were armed with little more than machetes. They believed they were invincible.

By demonising the Malay Muslim militants in the deep South and putting them in the same boat as ordinary criminals, the government is painting this conflict as one between good and evil or, more to the point, saintly authorities versus drug-traffickers.

Such a strategy contradicts the views of senior Army officers working directly with former insurgent recruits. Many are considered to be clean, pious and good students but dedicated to the idea of liberating their historical homeland that now constitutes the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.

Such tactics also undermine some of the work being carried out by top officers of the Fourth Army who have been working with scores of former insurgents through counselling in military-run installations.

“In many respects, their parents and teachers have done a good job in raising them,” said one Army officer.

The conflict in Thailand’s Malay-speaking deep South is not as simple as the current or previous administrations want the public to believe. But fighting a scurge such as drug-trafficking is easier than combating militants with a historical grievance. It permits the culture of impunity to continue, with little criticism from the public.

Local residents and exiled Patani Malay leaders who have watched the evolution of the conflict over the past seven years say the Thai authorities are barking up the wrong tree with their analyses and claims of drugs and the insurgency being one.

While some militants on the ground may have lent their services to local crime syndicates with an axe to grind with the authorities, that doesn’t in any way reflect the overall sentiment or operations of the younger generation of insurgents, they say.

The question the authorities need to be asking is whether the insurgents’ narrative of the liberation of Patani, the Malay historical homeland, has evolved or expanded to include a campaign against social ills, such as prostitution, which is something Sungai Kolok is known for.

By linking drugs and the insurgency as one, said one cadre from the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C), the government strategy is to deny the insurgents this historical grievance, thus any form of legitimacy.

It’s not just the spike in violence and the intensity, it’s also the nature of the attacks, they say. Some point to a shooting inside a mosque in Yala’s Budi district when two gunmen weaved through lines of people taking part in the weekly Friday prayer session to get close enough to their targets to commence shooting at close range.

The incident struck a nerve among local Muslims, who felt the insurgents violated the sanctity of the mosque. It is one thing if non-Muslims pepetrate such acts – such as the April 28, 2004 standoff at the Krue Se Mosque in Pattani, or the massacre at the Ai Ba Yae Mosque in Narathiwat – but it is entirely another matter if such incidents are carried out by fellow Muslims.

There was a similar incident in May 2006 in Pattani’s Mayo district when a gunman fired two bullets into the head of a border patrol police officer. But the gunman was “considerate” enough to wait until the victim had concluded his prayers. One reading of the incident was that it was nothing personal; the victim just happened to be a member of the opposing force.

If the Mayo incident was “nothing personal”, then the attack in Budi was carried out with extreme prejudice. The two victims were subordinates of the late Police Colonel Sompien Eksomya, billed by some as a national hero but thought of differently by local Malay Muslim residents, who slaughtered over 100 goats in celebration after he was killed by a roadside bomb in March 2010.

As for Sungai Kolok, it is not the first time that this border town known for its nightlife and prostitution has been attacked. In line with past claims, authorities are maintaing that it was the work of a drugs and crime syndicate colluding with insurgents.

But while the authorities paint a cut-and-dried picture of the violence, some exiled separatist leaders say the Sungai Kolok suggests that the militants may be crossing a new threshold, hitting soft targets that represent social ills. This could become the norm from now on, regardless if foreign nationals become part of the collateral damage.

According to the BRN-C source, the juwae, as the insurgents are known, admitted that the timing of the attack could have been better. If they had waited until later in the evening, one victim may have not been a three-year-old child, he said.

In essence, the Sungai Kolok incident was meant to kill two birds with one stone – attacking social ills brought in by outsiders and discrediting the government security agencies.

While the attack may be the work of one cell, it doesn’t mean that other cells won’t pick up on the idea of attacking nightlife spots. Attacks against karaoke bars that supposedly serve as a front for prostitution have been carried out in recent years, but the aim is essentially about discrediting the security apparatus, not to “cleanse” the Muslim-majority region, exiled separatist leaders say.

Going on a moral crusade requires some degree of rigidity in terms of ideology. And while a significant number of juwae are known to be quite pious, nevertheless the Patani narrative that is embraced by generation after generation of separatists is flexible enough to permit young men who are “not so straight and not so religious” into the movement.

Moreover, given the organic nature of the cells throughout the entire Malay-speaking South, it is very unlikely that such an idea would gain much ground.

Members of the long-standing separatist groups holding direct talks with the juwae on the ground say the fact that Malaysian citizens are caught up in the violence is a cause of concern, as this could widen the scope of the conflict in a manner that precludes peace talks.

Attention and interest from outsiders is fine but it should be centred on moral support for the Malays’ cultural and historical narrative that the movement accuses the Thai state of denying them, they say. The Nation, Bangkok

Indonesia Terror threat is real

The suicide bomb attack on the Sepenuh Injil Bethel Church (GBIS) in Surakarta, Central Java, on Sunday shocked the nation. It was the fourth bomb explosion in Indonesia this year.

The bombing, as in the previous instances, was relatively small in extent if we observe its impact on the church building and the number of victims. One person — believed to be the bomber — was killed and 22 others were injured.

Sunday’s blast came immediately after the completion of stage performances by both foreign and local artists in several parts of the country and amid ongoing intense deliberations of the intelligence bill at the House of Representatives (DPR). The nation is also preparing to host the Southeast Asian Games, the ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit in November.

The bombing incidents apparently shows that Indonesia is still vulnerable to terrorist threats.

Based on past experience, it is reasonable to assume that the explosion in Surakarta might not be the last. It is extremely urgent for all of us, not only for the National Police and security agencies, to anticipate and prevent more attacks in the future.

Should the four incidents turn out to be a prelude for future attacks, it is not impossible for the next incident(s) to be greater in extent and scope.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and preliminary investigation by the Police have indicated a possible connection between Sunday’s suicide attack and the suicide bomber who attacked the police compound in Cirebon, West Java, in April this year.

“We have found in the preliminary results of our investigation that the suicide bomber was a member of the Cirebon terrorist network that carried out a similar terrorist act in Cirebon,” the President said after a Cabinet meeting at the Presidential Office in Jakarta on Sunday.

The Police have so far yet to officially identify the suspected suicide bomber. However, officers close to the investigation have hinted that the alleged perpetrator was.

Ahmad Yosepa alias Hayat, who along with M. Syarif, the suicide bomber in a mosque in the Police compound in Cirebon, had participated in a terrorist training camp in Ciamis, West Java, since October 2010.

Hayat was also on the police’s most-wanted list for his alleged involvement in the Cirebon bombing and the shooting of police officers in Palu, Central Sulawesi, earlier this year.

It is good to see that the police have worked fast to identify a possible connection between the perpetrators of previous attacks and the violence in Surakarta. Still all those measures have yet to prevent such attacks from happening — a key success indicator for security institutions, here and elsewhere.
It is true that preventing terrorist attacks is not an easy task to perform. It requires close cooperation among all
elements of the nation — not just for the forces of law and order.

All energy and resources, including the House’s deliberation on the intelligence bill — the legal umbrella needed to prevent terror attacks — must be focused on creating stability and order in the country.

Otherwise, all the upcoming international events here – and the country’s security image — will be at stake. Jakarta Post.

Renuclearizing the Korean Peninsula

Right-wing advocates would like to see the South develop a nuclear option

Recently, a nuclear engineering professor at a prestigious university in Seoul hinted in an op-ed piece that technologically South Korea would be capable of developing nuclear weapons within six months if it chose.

The scientist’s argument was instantly buried, as if nothing had happened. But make no mistake. There is growing sentiment in South Korea among the right wing for a nuclear weaponization program. Some radical conservatives are inclined to support the views of the conservative journalist Kim Dae-jung of Chosun Ilbo and Rep. Chung Mong-joon of the ruling Grand National Party in particular as nuclear weapons enthusiasts.

Aside from the wishful thinking that South Korea could actually divert nuclear fuel from its power plants, which are under strict International Atomic Energy Agency scrutiny, to make bombs in secret, the country’s overall nuclear capabilities are commonly believed to exceed considerably those of North Korea, which ignored American entreaties to test nuclear weapons twice, in 2006 and 2009 respectively. South Korea “is not a backyard motor repair shop in Mozambique that cannot produce a Beetle in spite of being given all the necessary drawings and instruction manuals by Volkswagen,” as the Cambridge University economist Ha-Joon Chang wrote.

What it means is that South Korea does have the scientific and engineering capability to develop nuclear weapons, even though possession of the technology does not mean the country could move directly to arming itself. Talk of nuclear weapons may be music to conservative ears, but it’s not to the public as a whole.

This isn’t to say that the public is fond of the thoroughly discredited joint declaration on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula that was signed in January 1992 between Seoul and Pyongyang. North Korea has brazenly violated the pact and shows little sign of returning to it. But the general public know the government is not going to seek ways to develop a nuke program no matter who’s in power.

The joint declaration stipulates that the two Koreas “shall not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons,” but the North has made a mockery of it, developing nuclear weapons and reprocessing enriched uranium. The agreement was dead-on-arrival, with the North using it for no more than a photo session after signing the pact.

Thus it’s no exaggeration to say, as Leon V. Sigal put it, that “Almost everyone working on North Korea in Washington seems to have convinced one another that negotiating with the country is a waste of time.” Some key decision-makers under the government of President Lee Myung-bak who are involved in the time-consuming monitoring of North Korean nuclear policies agree although they are understandably extremely concerned about the feasibility of the North’s additional nuclear testing.

Siegfried Hecker, a professor in the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University who first revealed the North’s clandestine enrichment operations in Yongbyon, alleged on Sept. 9 that the communist regime might seek to launch a third test to enable it to develop a small fissile warhead that could be carried by a missile. It is thus conceivable that the North’s appetite for a third test could lead the South to reconsider the ossified denuclearization policy, particularly if the US’s attention flags over the proliferation of nuclear weapons or fissile materials.

In short, while it is often said that Kim Jong-il would pay the price if he fires first, it is not clear, given the sea of problems in which the US finds itself currently enmired, how well America could work when and if the North mobilized its nuclear forces. If you’re a conservative proponent of nuclear weapons development, you’ll tend to oppose what’s called America’s nuclear umbrella, period. If you more or less accept the extended deterrence agenda made between Seoul and Washington, you’ll be open to the redeployment of tactical nukes to deter Pyongyang’s possible use of weapons of mass destruction.

According to recently declassified Central Intelligence Agency documents dated June 1978, ‘waning confidence in the United States, particularly if accompanied by a decline of US influence in Seoul, would strengthen the hands of those South Korean officials who want to pursue a nuclear weapons option.”

That was then.

Almost nobody believes that the 1992 pact is still alive or could be revived. Perhaps even George W. Bush, the former US president who nullified the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework between the US and North Korea because of the latter’s abrupt revelation of its uranium enrichment program, would agree that it’s time for Washington insiders to endorse the repeal.

South Koreans have strong concerns about the North’s nuclear program. Seoul obviously wants to resolve the nuclear troubles that have been poisoning the peace and stability of the entire peninsula. It is wrong to say that South Korea cannot develop a nuclear program. On the contrary, it is right to say that the South is not doing it in consideration of all the elements.

It is kind of an irony to see that North Korea was economically better than South Korea up to the early 1970s after the 1950-53 Korean War. Most nuclear energy statistics and data outside of a weaponization program show South Korea has performed considerably better than North Korea. Successive South Korean governments have made credible and successful achievements in the field of atomic energy, especially considering where the country started.

Despite the much-debated importance and urgent need for enhanced nuclear safety prompted by anti-nuclear activists in the wake of the Fukushima accident, South Korea currently operates 21 atomic power plants, having introduced its first plant in 1978. Five more under construction. President Lee is a cheerleader for nuclear power, with a solid belief that nuclear energy is a necessary alternative given South Korea’s lack of domestic energy resources,.

Lee sent a clear message at a high-level meeting on nuclear safety and security at the United Nations on September 22 when he said that the Fukushima accident should not be cause to renounce nuclear energy, even though nuclear energy, according to the president, is not the only option to solving future energy problems. His address has predictably galvanized many of the true believers on the right. They are seemingly relieved by the proliferation of nuclear power plants. Given his domestic outcomes so far, it is no wonder that an expansion of the use of nuclear energy is feted, as if it were in reality the Mother Teresa of alternative energy.

But the president’s remarks were enough to invoke some controversy over the life of a people whose destiny inevitably lies at the heart of the nuclear build-up. Some critics of the government claim that Lee, surrounded by a nuclear mafia, is on the wrong side of history in terms of global safety and security.

The debate focuses on how the nuclear plants should be safely operated, with the dominant view that they need to be rigorously monitored to abide by the international nuclear safety framework or norms such as the Convention on Nuclear Safety, while critics argue for cutting the number of the plants in operation and, from the long-term perspective, eliminating them completely. It would be unfortunate, given the strenuous effort to monitor the safety of the nuclear industry, if the government in Seoul were to listen too closely to the columnists and politicians who are calling for a new and dangerous dimension to be added to it through weaponization.

(By Lee Byong-Chul Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Benchmarks for Burma

Burma’s government has pledged change, and there are signs something is really happening. But there are ways to measure the regime’s progress toward democracy.

Something is happening in Burma, and the world doesn’t know what to make of it.
Once so easy to condemn, Burma’s government—a quasi-democratic, quasi-civilian administration led by a former general, Thein Sein—now presents a dilemma. No one wants to snuff out genuine reform, if that is indeed what’s beginning to occur in Burma, by stonewalling a government that may finally be attempting change. At the same time, the international community is understandably wary of a regime whose atrocious record hardly entitles it to be given the benefit of the doubt.

Foreign governments and organisations have therefore been dispatching representatives to Burma with unprecedented frequency over the last few months to find out whether the country’s nascent reform process is indeed the start of something positive, and not a smokescreen for the extension of the old status quo.

UN special rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana (who was barred from entering Burma only last year), EU humanitarian aid commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, and US special representative Derek Mitchell are among those who have just visited Burma and left sounding cautiously optimistic—echoing the upbeat statements made in recent days by Aung San Suu Kyi herself. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, representing ASEAN, is due to arrive in October.

A debate now rages about whether, and to what extent, to engage with Naypyidaw. There are serious policy choices to be made. ASEAN must weigh whether to allow Burma to assume the ASEAN chair, as scheduled, in 2014. The EU and the United States, though hardly preparing to drop sanctions in the immediate future, can now at least contemplate a softening of their stance for the first time in years. And UN members responsible for drafting an upcoming resolution on Burma must decide whether to go further than previous resolutions in calling unequivocally for a Commission of Inquiry into human rights violations against the country’s ethnic minorities.

Despite all these pressing concerns, properly monitoring Burma’s progress, or lack of it, can only be achieved by measuring it over time. Moving slowly and deliberately will draw fire from critics on either side of the argument who either implacably distrust the Burmese regime or who argue that the time to open up Burma has clearly arrived. Nonetheless, ASEAN, the EU, and the United States have for now held out the prospect of rewards for real reform while withholding those rewards until measureable progress has been made. The question is which indicators to focus on, how much to expect, and which issues to de-prioritise in the short-to-medium term.

Derek Tonkin, the chairman of Network Myanmar, argues that the international community shouldn’t be too assertive for fear of forcing the Burmese government back into its shell. ‘You can’t set conditions,’ he says. ‘There’s too much positive news coming out of Myanmar. As long as the West doesn’t lecture too much and keeps its conditions general, then we can look at things and see what the Burmese themselves come up with.’

Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Asia researcher, suggests that while ‘there is real movement afoot politically, or at least signs of it,’ meaningful change is so far confined to the political centre. ‘Even if these signs are qualitative, why aren’t they translating into improvements in the ethnic minority areas?’ he asks. For this reason Zawacki argues that pressure should be applied on several fronts, one of which should be the UN Commission of Inquiry.

A joint Australia-US communiqué issued last week made no mention of a Commission of Inquiry but spelled out other issues the two countries will be focusing on, namely: ‘the release of all political prisoners, cessation of violence against ethnic minorities, and the establishment of a process of dialogue with ethnic groups and opposition leaders.’ They also cited ‘the need for greater transparency in Burma’s engagement with North Korea.’ Following are some, but not all, of the benchmarks that might be used to plot Naypyidaw’s trajectory over the coming months:

1. Political prisoners

Monitoring the number of political prisoners the government releases is one of the more straightforward ways to measure its progress. There are questions over how many political prisoners are actually being held: Amnesty International cites ‘over 2,100,’ for example, while the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners counts 1,198. But reconciling these lists can be left for another time; for now, the release of the hundreds of prisoners we know about would be a concrete step.

A proposal for an amnesty on political prisoners has already been raised in the Burmese parliament, and the government may make a move before any new resolution is brought before the UN General Assembly in an attempt to earn some political breathing space. ‘If they release 400 to 500 there’ll still be people who’ll say that’s only a start,’ says Tonkin. ‘But it would make a big impression.’ From Zawacki’s perspective, ‘a wholesale release of political prisoners would be a welcome step … but should not come at the expense of other efforts.’

2. Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy

The treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi is also easy for foreign governments to track, as are any instances of new arrests of NLD activists. The Burmese government appears to have learned that any threat to the safety or liberty of Suu Kyi becomes a lightning rod for international condemnation, and the breakthrough meeting between her and Thein Sein in August perhaps earned the government its best press in many years, courtesy of Suu Kyi herself. ‘I do believe that the president would like to bring about positive changes,’ she said after the encounter. With Indonesia’s Natalegawa planning to consult the NLD leader about Burma’s ASEAN chairmanship, her opinion now matters more to the regime than ever before. New measures against Suu Kyi and the NLD would therefore send the clearest message imaginable that Burma’s government has not changed.

3. Ceasefire and dialogue

The government signed ceasefire agreements with two ethnic minority armies in early September, but fighting against other groups, including the Kachin Independence Army and the Shan State Army, is continuing. It will be hard for foreign governments to credit Naypyidaw with real progress so long as the war between the Tatmadaw, or the Burmese Army, and the ethnic minority armies actively continues. But as well as calling a lasting ceasefire, the government needs to begin addressing minority concerns on such issues as the construction of the Myitsone Dam in Kachin State, a project that Naypyidaw appears intent on ploughing ahead with despite its destabilising effects.

So questions for the international community to ask over the coming year will be: has the shooting stopped; has a meaningful peace process been initiated; and do the talks involve all relevant parties (including the NLD and the ethnic armies currently fighting the Tatmadaw)? No such process exists today, and its initiation would be a very strong signal that the Thein Sein government is serious about changing his country.

4. Cooperation with a UN Commission of Inquiry

Human rights groups have been arguing for a UN Commission of Inquiry for several years, but previous UN resolutions on Burma have stopped short of mandating the Secretary General to establish a commission. The Burmese government set up its own human rights commission in early September, but this is unlikely to impress the UN.
‘There’s no credible reason why this Commission of Inquiry can’t be established while other attempts to engage the government proceed at the same time,’ argues Zawacki. ‘It’s not punitive, it’s a truth-seeking measure. The violations continue to take place. It’s not just the appropriate way to go, but also an obligation of the international community.’

However, while the establishment of a UN commission would certainly provide an effective test of the Burmese government’s willingness to reform and to address past wrongs, Tonkin believes that the UN resolution will once again avoid calling for the commission to be set up. ‘It would be a good test if it went forward, but maybe now isn’t the time to test them,’ he says. ‘It would be a great pity if the Commission of Inquiry was included in the General Assembly resolution and the Burmese reacted badly. They’d regard the committee as a kind of sanction.’ Amnesty International has picked up ‘discouraging’ signs about the EU’s willingness to press for the commission, Zawacki says, meaning that cooperation with an external inquiry may not be one of the tests that Naypyidaw must pass over the coming year.

5. Transparency on North Korea

Defectors have revealed enough information about Burma’s interest in acquiring a nuclear capability with North Korean assistance for the international community to have justifiable concerns. The International Atomic Energy Agency has already sought permission from the Burmese regime to investigate. Naypyidaw should now accede to that request, or at least divulge more information about its nuclear effort and about the conventional weapons programmes it has undertaken with Pyongyang’s help.

Failure to act will diminish the chances of the US lifting its sanctions, and lead all foreign observers—most importantly ASEAN—to ask what the regime has to hide. If Thein Sein is serious about ending his own country’s pariah status, then he has to bring a transparent end to Burma’s incriminating link with Asia’s other pariah.

There are many other areas in which the Burmese government might be expected to make progress in the future: media freedoms, the easing of restrictions on NGOs, and the implementation of electoral reform, through which the country’s next election might be made more open than the rigged process that brought Thein Sein to power.

But maybe Burma needs to start with the basics. Even if Thein Sein is truly inclined toward reform, his regime is presumably packed with hard-liners who will try to obstruct necessary change. So the pace of change doesn’t need to be rapid; it just needs to be discernible and measurable. By monitoring the right indicators over the next couple of years, the world should start to understand whether the changes that Thein Sein has in mind are as real as we all hope, or as bogus as we all fear. The Diplomat (Tokyo) By Trefor Moss

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to cease peace talks

GENERAL Santos City: The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on Monday said that it would no longer continue negotiating peace if the government rejected its demand for a Bangsamoro (Filipino Muslim) sub-state.

Al Haj Murad Ibrahim, the chairman of the MILF Central Committee, said that he feels bad that up to now, negotiations with the government panel have gone nowhere. He added that no agreement on any substantive point was reached during the formal negotiations in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from August 22 to 23 since both sides were yet to settle the issue that negotiations should be held within the framework of the Constitution. This lack of progress in the peace talks may force the group to abandon the negotiations, Murad said.

The MILF chief said that it would be difficult for both panels to discuss any substantial matter if government negotiators limited themselves to what is allowed under the Constitution.

“If the government is not yet ready to accept our proposed Bangsamoro sub-state, then we will be forced to decide not to return to the negotiating table,” Murad told The Manila Times during a telephone interview.

The government panel led by Marvic Leonen said that a sub-state is not allowed under the Constitution, offering instead a 3-in-one proposal or “three components for one solution to the Bangsamoro problem.” Leonen explained that their proposal, which includes massive economic development, political settlement and cultural-historical acknowledgment, seeks not just to bring peace in the South but to uplift the lives of the people there.

But the MILF rejected the government proposal. Michael Mastura, a member of the MILF peace panel, earlier said that peace negotiations could continue if the government panel dropped its 3-in-1 proposal and drafted a new Memorandum of Understanding on Ancestral Domain.

The peace talks bogged down in 1998 when the Supreme Court ruled that the memorndum was unconstitutional.

Mastura said what the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional was not the agreement but the process.

Formal negotiations between the MILF and the government started in February 2010, a few months after President Benigno Aquino 3rd assumed office.

Also on Monday, the MILF kicked out renegade commander Ameril Umbra Kato, making him open to police and military offensives.

Ghadzali Jaafar, MILF vice chairman for political affairs, made the confirmation saying that Kato, who once headed the 106th Base Command of the MILF, failed to heed the call of the ulamas or Muslim religious leaders to patch things with Murad.

“The [MILF] Central Committee already confirmed that he is no longer MILF based on his letter dated 19th of last month declaring officially that he was no longer MILF, including his men,” Jaafar said. “The Central Committee will come up with a resolution confirming their decision that they’re no longer MILF.”

He added that Kato also disregarded the pleas of the ulamas that gave him until September 26 to talk with the MILF chairman for a possible reconciliation.

“He was given two weeks, those two weeks will expire today,” Jaafar said. “He ignored the appeal of the ulamas for him to go back to the fold of the MILF, he stood pat, he insisted on staying out of the MILF.”

He added that Kato is now on his own and no longer covered by a ceasefire agreement with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

AFP chief Gen. Eduardo Oban said that Kato has a pending warrant of arrest.

Kato, with some 5,000 sympathizers, now reportedly leads the renegade group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighter.

The MILF Central Committee declared Kato a “bougat” or one who defies or does not obey an order.

Hand, foot and mouth disease shuts Vietnam schools

HANOI (AP) - A Vietnamese official and state-run media say an outbreak of hand, foot and mouth disease has shuttered more than a dozen kindergartens after killing 109 children and sickening more than 52,000 this year.

Nguyen Van Muoi says 10 kindergartens in southern Hau Giang province have been closed for 10 days for disinfection and to check the students' health. Four schools were allowed to reopen last week.

Mr Nguyen is the head of the province's preventive medicine centre.
He said on Monday the province has reported 361 cases since June, and some 50 children remain hospitalised. He blamed the increase on children returning to schools after break.

In Defence of Palm Oil

UNDOUBTEDLY, a recommendation by the Standing Committee on Economics to the Australian House of Representatives last Monday could represent an important step towards defeating the bill to require palm oil labelling. And so is the Australian government's stated opposition to its passage. But as clearly evident by the fate of a similar endorsement by the Community Affairs Legislative Committee to the Australian Senate in Canberra in June to reject the Amended Truth in Labelling -- Palm Oil Bill, there is still every chance that the legislation will meet with the approval of the Australian lower house as it did with the upper house. In any event, whatever the view of the federal government, Australia has a hung parliament, and much will depend on which way the coalition opposition votes on a bill which has been driven by the Greens and Independents, who hold the balance of power.

Obviously, the voting will be dictated by the domestic Australian political agenda. This is not to say that Malaysia will be entirely helpless in influencing the outcome. True, all the arguments and evidence that were presented in support of the Malaysian case were not able to convince the Australian senate. Nevertheless, it is still significant that these appeared to have made a pronounced impression on the deliberations of the parliamentary standing committees. In fact, the silver lining in this dark cloud in our trade relations with Australia is the greater effort that has been expended to explain the vital contributions of palm oil to economic growth and jobs, its health benefits and the initiatives to protect the environment and preserve the habitat of the orang utan. As the Australian legislators prepare to cast their votes, these stellar efforts should undoubtedly continue. Certainly, they should be made aware that we would be ready to take the case to the World Trade Organisation as any legislation which discriminates against palm oil constitutes a breach of Australia's international obligations. But more importantly, they should be made to understand that the solution to environmental concerns does not lie in mandatory labelling but in cultivating oil palm without damaging the planet.

Perhaps nothing can convince the green activists that palm oil can be productive and profitable as well as environmentally-friendly. No doubt, whatever happens to the labelling bill, they will continue to fund campaigns like Melbourne Zoo's "Don't Palm Us Off". For this reason, Malaysia has to be constantly prepared to rebuff attacks depicting the cultivation of oil palm as destructive to forests and animals and repulse the trend of boycotting, banning or proscribing products containing palm oil.

Read more: In defence of palm oil
New Straits Times Kuala Lumpur