North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Commonwealth Games in India in turmoil

The Commonwealth game village in New Delhi India is under criticism for shoddy construction, unsanitary facilities, and conditions exposing athletes to disease.

What is the Commonwealth, and why do they play games, and what is the matter with India's preparations for these games coming up soon.

First, the event is set for Oct. 3 to Oct. 14, and is held every four years. Similar to a "mini-Olympics", the Commonwealth games involves athletes mainly from the United Kingdom and its 50+ former colonies and dependencies (the old British Empire). Besides many Olympic sports, the Games also include some sports that are played mainly in Commonwealth countries, such as lawn bowls, rugby sevens and netball
lawn bowls

This year, the games were set for India, one of the largest former British Colonies, and now a strongly growing country experts predict will become a major South Asian power. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on Jan. 26 this year that the event would show how his country “is rapidly marching ahead with confidence.” However, these games meant to showcase India as a growing economic superpower, have been criticized as the most expensive ever by the government auditor, in a nation where the World Bank says 828 million people live on less than $2 a day. Organizers overshot their budget ninefold, spending at least $4.6 billion upgrading stadiums, refurbishing roads and building power and water utilities. The government spent $2.7 billion more on a new airport terminal.

The run up to the 12-day event, involving 8,000 athletes and officials, has been marred by allegations of mismanagement, a dengue fever outbreak, flooding, the shooting of two Taiwanese nationals, and the collapse of a footbridge leading to the main stadium. These woes have led to the withdrawal of several individual athletes and some teams altogether.
The pedestrian footbridge collapsed two weeks before the games, critically injuring two construction workers

Scottish tennis player Elena Baltacha suffers from liver condition that makes her especially susceptible to infection, and reluctantly withdrew citing a serious exposure and risk to her health

Is this an earthshaking event, no, but it is a personal nightmare for many construction officials and event managers. If you're having a bad day in your own circumstances, you are not alone.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

China and Japan in sudden dispute

The troubled waters between China and Japan

It seems inevitable that at some point, China and Japan, now with world economies at #2 and #3 respectively, will have to take on a more serious, thoughtful ongoing relationship, rather than relying on tenuous, minimal diplomatic contact. Japan is calculating how to maintain its world economic status even as its population ages, and having always to import virtually all its raw materials, while China booms along using more resources, growing economically at one of the highest paces in the world.

The latest incident began last week with a Chinese fishing vessel colliding with a Japanese coastguard ship off a series of islands called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Details of the incident unexpectedly included an aggressiveness by the Chinese vessel's captain, who Japan said deliberately collided with two Coast Guard ships after finally responding to repeated messages to move out of Japanese waters. While Japan has returned the trawler and its crew, the captain is being held for legal proceedings.

The Chinese fishing trawler and crew has been returned

The 41 year old captain, however, was arrested and is being detained for possible court proceedings

The disputed islands are close to strategically important shipping lanes, offer rich fishing grounds and are thought to contain oil deposits. Japan currently controls them, but both countries claim ownership. One observer noted "It's unclear what the Chinese would actually do beyond a threat. But it is important to point out that the Chinese have been unhappy with reports that the Americans and the Japanese intend to hold military exercises in this region later this year.

"When it comes to China, there's a lot of national pride. You can look at this as a case of China saying 'these islands belong to us'. "It's about territorial integrity and this is something we've seen in China time and time again. China is saying that Taiwan is part of China, that Tibet belongs to China, so it's part of a wider theme."

China has repeatedly demanded the release of the trawler captain, Zhan Qixiong, , and constructed street demonstrations in its country to show its displeasure with Japan.

The islands in question, as well as the incident itself, are reminders of the unsettled nature of the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea. The Korean peninsula is inbetween these two seas, and earlier this summer, a torpedo from North Korea sunk a South Korean military ship. In addition, the US has a very large naval presence at its base in Okinawa, an island part of the chain which is Japanese territory, not to mention over 30,000 troops on the line between South and North Korea. Thus, there are a number of flashpoints in an area full of shipping by both countries.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Communist Cuba lays off 1 million workers

Cuba is just 90 miles south of Florida

In one of the very last governments in the world with an avowed communist ideology, where the state is all important, and built on the myth that it is one with the people, Cuba this week has had to begin laying off up to 1 million of its own workers.

That is a lot of folks for a country with only eleven million population in total, and 5.1 million officially making up the workforce - about 20% of all workers over the next six months let loose from their current jobs. Where will these people look for work, and why did Cuba's leader, Raul Castro, brother of famed Cuban leader Fidel Castro, believe this radical step was needed?

Fidel Castro, and younger brother Raul, left to right

As to the question why, Castro has long complained that Cubans expect too much from the government, which pays average monthly salaries of just $20 but also provides free education and health care and heavily subsidizes housing, transportation and basic food. Because unemployment is anathema in a communist society, state businesses have been forced to carry many people who do almost nothing. Castro said, "Our state cannot and should not continue supporting businesses, production entities and services with inflated payrolls, and losses that hurt our economy are ultimately counterproductive, creating bad habits and distorting worker conduct."

Genteel poverty with virtually no political freedom is the stark social reality

As to where people will look for alternate employment, the government would "increase private-sector job opportunities, including allowing more Cubans to become self-employed. They also will be able to form cooperatives run by employees rather than government administrators, and increasingly lease state land, businesses and infrastructure." Within a short time frame, the plan is for the state to only employ people in "indispensable" areas such as farming, construction, industry, law enforcement and education. Most economic observers believe the transition will be fraught with difficulties. There is little private sector business or employment to start with, so a critical mass of expertise in small business operations, finance, and aptitude is lacking. People have been conditioned to rely on government care and handouts, as meager as they are, in exchange for free services mentioned above.

Cuban music is much admired around the world

With many pitfalls ahead, Cuba is apparently going to try for a economic strategy loosely followed by China. Retain tight political control, but of an increasingly free market economy. Whether a small country of 11 million can replicate China with its 1.1 billion people remains to be seen. Profound change, in one way or another, seems ahead in the very near future for this little island country.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Sharia law, Koran burning, and Pakistani violence

Islamic extremists, Sharia law, and backlash simply have become the major narratives for the first decade of the 21st century. Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the condemned Iranian woman

This week, the furor over a sentence of stoning to death of an Iranian woman has increased sharply, with the European Union and Vatican weighing in. In the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the Iranian woman under threat of stoning to death for adultery and murder, the latest twist for the condemned woman stems from a picture last week The Times newspaper in London published that it said was a photo of her, without the headscarf which is obligatory in Iran. Days later even though the newspaper retracted the photo explaining that it was a mix-up (the photo was really of an Iranian exile living in Sweden), Ms Ashtiani was additionally sentenced to 99 lashes for "indecency" as a result, and the sentence may have already been carried out.

A "confession" from Ms Ashtiani broadcast on Iranian television three weeks ago, in which she appeared to admit complicity in the murder of her husband, a charge her lawyers say has either already been dismissed or was never even brought to court has resulted in her death sentence, according to Sharia law, and that by stoning or hanging. Ms Ashtiani, a 43-year-old mother of two, was condemned to death for illicit sex and charged with involvement in her husband's murder.

In Pakistan, Islamic extremists have conducted a wave of bombings the past week, directed at worshippers during the Holy month of Ramadan. At least 53 people were killed and 197 wounded on Friday in a suicide bombing targeting a Shiite Muslim rally in the southwestern city of Quetta, police said. Earlier, at least one man was killed and four wounded Friday when a suicide bomber blew himself up after being apprehended by police outside a mosque of the Ahmadi sect in the city of Mardan in northwest Pakistan, police said. In the eastern city of Lahore on Wednesday, three suicide bombers targeted a Shiite mourning procession made up of thousands of people at the moment of the breaking of the fast in the holy month of Ramadan. The attacks left 31 people dead.
Nearly 100 dead in a wave of Pakistan bombings by Islamic extremists

Pakistan is already struggling to deal with massive flooding that has killed nearly 1,800 people and left an estimated eight million people reliant on aid handouts to survive. The US pledged 200 million for flood relief, and the state department condemned the wave of bombings, saying "Our sympathies are with the victims and their families, and all those affected by these cruel acts of hatred."
Pakistan still reeling from floods

In reaction to the continuing waves of Islamic violence around the world, a small Florida church of 50 people led by its Pastor Terry Jones has announced it will hold a Koran burning on September 11. The Western response to this comparatively tepid but inflammatory act is just now erupting. It quickly attracted the attention of the US General Petreaus, busy directing the war in Afghanistan, who said such an act would place US and NATO soldiers at even higher risk to retaliation.

The Florida Pastor, leading a marginalized church, has suddenly become a media phenomenon, with detractors saying he is receiving much more publicity than he deserves. "We understand the general's concerns, we are taking those into consideration," Jones was quoted saying. "We feel it's maybe the right time for America to stand up. How long are we going to bow down? How long are we going to be controlled by the terrorists, by radical Islam?"

The US state department along with the National Association of Evangelicals and the National Council of Churches have denounced the plan to burn the Koran. Jones indicated he had support from other churches around the country. Jones said he and members of his church are taking seriously several death threats directed at them, but if something happened, it would not be their fault. "We will not be responsible," Jones said. "We are only reacting to the violence that is already there in that religion."
Pastor Jones, not really spreading the love of Jesus

So, the tensions are mounting, September 11's 9th anniversary, will possibly be more highly charged than any of the past 5-6. It truly has become a dominant icon of this clash of religion and civilization.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On Eve of Peace Talks, Hamas kills four settlers

Israeli police investigate the scene of the killings

On Tuesday, even as Palestinian and Israeli leaders were gathering in Washington DC for peace talks aimed at creating a two state solution, four Israeli settlers - two men and two women, one of whom was pregnant - were shot at from a passing vehicle and killed. The Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades, Hamas's military wing, declared "its full responsibility for the heroic operation in Hebron". The attack took place after dark on a busy route used by both Palestinians and Jewish settlers.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the killings as a "blatant attempt" to undermine the forthcoming negotiations. President Obama called them a "senseless slaughter;" Israeli leader Netanyahu said the killings were committed by people who "butcher everything they oppose" and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad vowed to prevent a repeat of such attacks.

Funeral of the settlers

Palestinian security forces have mounted a huge operation in the West Bank to catch the killers, dozens of Hamas members have been arrested. The killings came ahead of the first direct negotiations in almost two years between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. US, Palestinian and Israeli officials have said they will not allow the attack, near Hebron, to undermine the talks.

The talks thus begin in a cycle of violence and mistrust depressingly familiar. President Obama and his officials (such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Mid-East special envoy, George Mitchell) have set a one year deadline for these talks, so that they do not take on the appearance of being endless. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is seriously weakened as a spokesperson for the Palestinians as Hamas, its political rival, controls Gaza after throwing out Abbas's Fatah party loyalists. Thus it was a special affront to the Palestinians on the West Bank controlled as it is by the Fatah party, that Hamas conducted the killings there.Hamas controls Gaza, the Palestinian Fatah controls the West Bank

As a reminder, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu-Zuhri said the attack had been "a natural response to the crimes of the occupation". Occupation defined by Hamas is all the land of Israel, right to the sea, which must be returned to its rightful owners - the Palestinian people. Hamas is funded and supported by a number of Arab and Muslim countries, most notably Iran, who also supports Hezbollah to the north of Israel in Lebanon.

The killings have however, provoked President Obama to declare more firmly the US' strong support for Israel, support from his administration which had been considered tepid by many observers right up through the recent attempts to run a Gaza blockade. "I want everybody to be very clear," Mr Obama said, "The United States is going to be unwavering in its support of Israel's security. And we are going to push back against these kinds of terrorist attacks."

Clinton and Mitchell discussing conference agenda

As to the substance of this round of negotiations? Here seem to be the dynamics as summarized by the BBC:
The Israelis say they will not renew a partial freeze on building homes for Jews in the occupied West Bank when it expires at the end of this month. The Palestinians say that without a freeze they will walk away.
If that hurdle is cleared, three big issues will top their agenda.
First, Jerusalem. Both sides want a capital there.
Second, they need to agree the borders of an independent Palestine.
Third, the future of Palestinian refugees - people whose families fled or were driven out of what became Israel in 1948.

Jerusalem is likely the most hotly contested place on the planet

The mid-east strife seems endless, and now we have our current President making another attempt to find a solution, just as has practically every past US President all the way back to Jimmy Carter.