Note to readers: Jonathan Manthorpe, a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and the author of this International Affairs column, is on leave from F&O while working on a new book; he also writes for the Ottawa-based iPolitics.
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All too often we assess international events through the prism of our own cultures and expectations. Manthorpe aims to try to explain, in clear terms, international events and their casts of characters in the contexts of their own political cultures. The purpose is not to excuse or downplay abuses when they occur, but to open avenues for informed reactions that are likely to succeed.
It has taken 100 years for Britain to sink from being the world’s premier super power to the increasingly inconsequential cluster of off-shore European islands it is today. The slide into irrelevance has been slow and genteel, until the last few months. But the view from the White Cliffs of Dover is now of a vast and unwelcoming no-man’s-land.
The ruling Lee family of Singapore has created for itself, at other people’s expense, such a charmed nepotistic dynasty that anyone can be forgiven for wallowing in schadenfreude and drinking deep the pleasure of seeing them come a cropper.
Donald Trump, who pronounced Middle East rivalries a “battle between good and evil,” provides the world a master class on how ignorance and miscalculation by a United States president can trigger conflict and set the stage for war.
Six weeks ago, when Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election, it seemed a foregone conclusion this was simply a formality to boost her parliamentary majority and strengthen her hand in negotiating Brexit from the European Union. Not any more.
Israel lives in a hostile neighbourhood, and has always had trouble making and keeping trustworthy friends.
Women guerrilla fighters are at the forefront of an emerging insurgent war in India aimed at protecting women from sexual violence and human rights abuse.
The election to the South Korean presidency on May 8 of Democratic Party leader Moon Jae-in is primarily a demand by the country’s voters to reform government, erase corruption and improve social justice.
Venezuela is being sucked into a political and social vacuum because neither its local leaders nor regional players have the slightest idea where the country of 30 million people should be heading or how to get there. The awful probability is that the vacuum will be filled by violence.
Trump is going to have to up his global game if he wants to be regarded as anything more than a gormless and dangerously unpredictable Vaudeville act. His opportunity looms as Iran, its nuclear development program and its involvement in Middle East conflicts, bubble to the top of the agenda.
It is fitting symbolism that one of the most intense of the many mass demonstrations in recent days, demanding the removal of South African President Jacob Zuma, was in the square in front of Cape Town’s City Hall. It was in this same square on the evening of February 11, 1990, that tens of thousands of South Africans thronged to hear the first public speech by Nelson Mandela after his release from Victor Verster Prison earlier that day.
Gibraltar — The Rock — has been British territory since it was ceded by Spain in 1713, but it is now emerging as an issue as Britain starts the negotiations with Brussels to leave the European Union. The fate of Gibraltar is unknowable at this point, but the start of Brexit gives an insight into Brussels’ determination that Britain will leave the EU with little more than the clothes it stands up in.
After all wars, the euphoria of peace quickly gives way to the bleak, forbidding reality of the human and physical toll that must now be rebuilt. Resolution is less simple in the aftermath of civil wars. Civil wars are caused by internal social dislocations of one sort or another, and if those root causes are not addressed, the peace is often just a ceasefire. That’s the conundrum facing Sri Lanka eight years after the 26-year civil war ended in 2009.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, in fighting off a populist challenge from Islamaphobe Geert Wilders, unwittingly gave another demagogue the leg-up he needs to achieve supreme power. The diplomatic face-off between the Netherlands and Turkey was a gift to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The United States is singularly prone to producing charlatans, messianic faith healers, snake oil merchants, flim-flam artists and all kinds of Pied Pipers who beguile, befuddle and bemuse large numbers of the population. Donald Trump is a representative example of this flaw in the U.S. cultural DNA. But he is not America’s most horrific cult figure: That crown must go to Rev. James Warren Jones
In these times of seething rage, it is increasingly likely that Britain’s divorce from the European Union will lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom itself. As the parliament in Westminster completes the process of giving Prime Minister, Theresa May, authority to start the process of taking Britain out of the European Union, anger and resentment is intensifying in Scotland and in Northern Ireland.
Even as the inaugural party hangovers still throb in Washington, leaders in other capitals are dreaming up ways to discover what kind of blow-hard Donald Trump is. He has given them plenty to work with.
While people in the United States grapple with having done exactly what the Founding Fathers railed against and have elected a cartoon version of George III, the entrenchment of authoritarian democracy is going much more smoothly in Thailand.
An air quality monitor atop the United States Embassy in China confirmed for the Chinese people what they instinctively knew: their government lies to them. It has instigated a middle class protest that has the ruling Communist Party scurrying to respond on air pollution.
There would be a delicious irony if Japan were driven out of the arms of Donald Trump, and into the arms of Vladimir Putin because of Shinzo Abe’s suspicions about the reliability of the man who U.S. intelligence agencies unanimously believe was helped into the Oval Office by Putin’s spy agencies.
It is becoming clearer just how wrenching a process it will be for Britain to leave the European Union, and beyond doubt that Britain is headed for a “hard” Brexit.
Canada was slammed in a new report on corruption. It matters because tricks –blind trusts, shell companies, anonymous accounts in tax havens — are spurring the kind of populist, enraged politics that elected Donald Trump and are behind Brexit. Unless Ottawa ensures that Canada’s privileged classes play by the same rules as everyone else Canada, too, will experience a tide of outrage.
Many people questioned it then and continue to question it now, but Nelson Mandela had no doubt that Fidel Castro played a central and critical role in the defeat of apartheid in South Africa.
Canada’s Pierre Trudeau and Cuba’s Fidel Castro were brothers under the skin. It is no wonder they became life-long friends, for each could see a reflection of himself in the other. The similarity in the backgrounds of the two men is compelling.
Burma’s 50 million people languished under a most vile military dictatorship for 50 years, but that has not made them a tolerant and open-handed society. The country’s military is in the middle of a scorched earth operation against the one million minority Muslim Rohingya in Burma’s north-western Rakhine state that United Nations officials and international human rights agencies have called “ethnic cleansing.”
It was extraordinary to see Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe take a detour on his flight to Peru for the Asia-Pacific summit next week, in order to scurry to New York to seek an audience with Donald Trump. That Abe would put himself through this distasteful encounter speaks volumes about the fear and dread with which not only Japan, but much of Asia, contemplates the ascension of Trump on January 20.
On Nov. 11 75 years ago, 1,975 men, and two female nurses, of the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers were steaming across the East China Sea in the New Zealand liner-turned-troop ship, SS Awatea. This small rough-hewn and makeshift expeditionary force was bound for the British colony of Hong Kong.
At the heart of Britain’s Brexit drama is a fundamental problem of political legitimacy. None of the main players now in leading roles has any mandate to have their voices heard.
Two seemingly unconnected incidents this week suggest Washington and North Korea are limbering up for another bout in their two decades-long wrestling match over the Pyongyang regime’s nuclear weapons program.
Donald Trump will lose the United States presidential election in November, but the curse of Pandora is now out of the box and the age of the collapse of the American Imperium is upon us.
When the new United States president moves into the Oval Office early next year, at the top of her foreign policy priorities will be what to do about Vladimir Putin.
Fifteen years ago George W. Bush launched the “War on Terror.” It was an incalculable strategic mistake, and there is no end in sight.
There are a few reasons why Canadians might welcome the prospect of Donald Trump winning the United States presidency, among them that it may set off the fourth wave of refugees seeking sanctuary in this country from political persecution and upheaval at home. By and large, Canada has done well out of all these waves of migrants fleeing the U.S
There will be no Iranians this year among the two million Muslims who make the hajj pilgrimage to the holy sites at Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia that starts on Sunday, September 11. They are barred, in the power struggle between Tehran and Saudi Arabia. But at least the religious embargo is relatively peaceful. To the north, in Aleppo, Syria, the contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia is being fought street by street.
In the hierarchy of demagogues, Donald Trump is not in the same league as the Philippines new president, Rodrigo Duterte. Unlike Duterte, whose approval rating is at 91 per cent since he came to office at the end of June, Trump doesn’t have the guts to say what he means.
South African voters delivered the most stinging rebuke to the party of Nelson Mandela since it led the country out of apartheid a quarter century ago. The messianic reputation of the African National Congress is crumbling under the weight of administrative incompetence and endless corruption scandals.
The fascist coup of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – for that is what it is – has thrown a large boulder into the boiling, muddy waters of the Middle East.
The natural span of life is approaching its end for 92-year-old Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s leader since 1980, but the infighting over the succession is so intense that no one is running the shop, and there may be nothing much left to inherit when the time comes.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration has ruled that China’s claim over the South China Sea is invalid and unlawful. China must now recognise that what is on the line is Beijing’s trustworthiness as an international partner, in everything from trade deals to the working of the UN Security Council.
When the dust of history settles, the moment angry Britons voted to quit the European Union will stand out as the moment that saved the 28-nation project.
Britain’s departure from the EU will be a journey across new territory full of terrors and treacherous terrain. Among the many stupidities in Cameron’s management of the referendum was allowing a simple majority for victory.
Two events make it depressingly clear that after political and social advances Africa is slipping back into its bad old ways. On Thursday, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation announced that yet again there is no one worthy of receiving its latest prestigious and lucrative prize for excellence in African leadership. And in Angola, President Eduardo dos Santos put his daughter, Isabel, in charge of the state-owned oil company.
It is unlikely that Britons are going to give a conclusive answer to the question whether they should remain in the European Union or leave it when they mark their referendum ballots on June 23.
For the first time, Hong Kong’s Federation of Students, a coalition of student unions, will not take part in the Victoria Park demonstrations. Instead, it will help organize a number of events and demonstrations confronting democracy and even independence in Hong Kong’s future.
Since Tsai Ing-wen was elected president of Taiwan in January, the Chinese regime of Xi Jinping has done everything it can to inflame cross-strait relations by goading her into making an outraged response. Tsai, who was inaugurated President of the island nation of 23 million people on May 20, has refused to react in the way Beijing wants.
This weekend’s largest military exercises ever by Venezuela may reveal whether the country is heading merely for an accelerated political and economic melt-down, or a full-blown civil war.
One highly desirable result of an isolationist Donald Trump presidency is that it would expose in short order the philosophical, economic, political and moral corruption that has been at the heart of Canadian defence policy since the year dot. Trump says he wants to jettison those allies who are freeloading on the United States and its taxpayers. By any measure, Canada is the worst freeloader of the whole lot.
A good rule of thumb is to always be deeply suspicious of optimistic projections for the future of North Korea. There have been some rose-tinted forecasts wafting from Pyongyang this week as the Workers’ Party of Korea holds its first congress since 1980. The congress was called to endorse the leadership of Kim Jong-un, 33, who took over after the death of his father Kim Jong-il at the end of 2011.
Trumpery – the political disease that is convulsing the United States and which is characterized by incompetence, boastfulness and danger – appears to be mutating into a world-wide epidemic. Like America’s Donald Trump, London’s Boris Johnson and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines are riding a wave of public disgust for traditional politicians.
Until quite recently, while Queen Elizabeth and her family were celebrating her birthday every April 21, a group of elderly men in south-west Africa were nursing the effects of the birthday toasts they had drunk the night before, to Adolf Hitler, born on April 20, 1889. The men had been senior Nazi officials, and had managed to escape capture by the Allies at the end of the Second World War. What is now Namibia offered a lasting sanctuary.
The Easter Sunday suicide bombing in Lahore, which was aimed at Christians but killed and maimed mostly Muslims, is a gruesome metaphor for the religious madness that has consumed Pakistan since the country’s creation in 1947. From the start, Pakistan has been a crippled state and no one seems able or willing to fashion a prosthetic that will allow it to function. Added to the religious turmoil, which is as bloody inside Islamic communities as outside, the political class is overpopulated with craven self-servers, bereft of courage or vision.
China’s leader Xi Jinping is facing serious criticism from within the ruling Communist Party as the time approaches when he must be reconfirmed as party boss and the country’s president. Since being selected by the party at the end of 2012 for China’s two top posts, Xi has raised hackles by using an anti-corruption drive to remove his political rivals, fostering an unseemly cult of personality, ramping up censorship and suppressing of dissent, and grasping more personal power than any leader since Mao Zedong.
The leadership chaos in Brazil and South Africa is a timely reminder for emerging economies that unless they also press ahead with political, administrative, judicial and social reform they are doomed. The prospects for the BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — don’t look rosy, and in every case it is because the governing regimes failed to use their growing economic wealth as a tool to fuel political, administrative, judicial and social reform.
Of the many disaster scenarios that could spring from the civil war in Syria, the prospect of war between Russia and Turkey is by far the most troubling.
Venezuela’s grey and featureless President, Nicolas Manduro, the default successor to that preening, strutting rooster Hugo Chavez, is set to become the first head of government felled by tumbling oil prices. It’s just a matter of who gets their boot lined up first to kick him out the door.
There are good tactical reasons today to back the Kurdish Peshmerga against Islamic State. But, unlike in Malaya in the 1940s, the probable consequences of supporting the Kurds are clear. The Kurds hope to emerge from the current upheaval and civil war with an independent state of Kurdistan covering their traditional homelands in northern Iraq and Syria, which they already largely control. That, they hope, will be a stepping stone toward adding their homelands in eastern Turkey and north-western Iran.
The only surprise in the Monday night clashes between Hong Kong police and demonstrators demanding self-rule is that it hasn’t happened before. In all likelihood the Mong Kok riots herald increasingly violent clashes as Hongkongers vent their frustrations with Beijing’s refusal to keep its promises of political reform and the steady erosion of the territory’s freedoms. The Chinese government has only itself to blame for the alienation of Hong Kong’s seven million people.
For nearly a decade Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak’s control of the country’s government, its judiciary, and most of its media, has short circuited investigations into his involvement in murder, as well as bribery, theft and corruption on a mind-boggling scale.
The psychopaths of the Islamic State are not the first murderers to try to create an Muslim theocracy – a Caliphate – in Syria and what is now Iraq. But unlike their predecessors nearly a thousand years ago, the Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, are rank amateurs as fighters, as theologians, and as promoters of their cause.
It is sobering to remember now the optimism about the “Arab Spring” that swept through the Middle East and supportive countries in Europe and North America at the upwelling across the region of popular frustration at dictatorial, repressive governments. The throngs of young people in the city squares chanting for democracy did not constitute a political movement of any utility, and the Middle East in general is in much worse shape than it was before the Arab Spring bloomed five years ago.
Taiwan has surged over the hump of its 35-year voyage from a military-ruled, one-party state to one of the most successful and vibrant democracies in Asia.
Many mature democracies, previously characterised by the broad social harmony that defines equitable societies, are being sucked into a new world order. We are entering a world in which most wealth, and with it political power, is in the firm grasp of a tiny minority of people who have acquired their status either by luck, imagination, skill, or — in far too many cases — feral instincts. This is a shift in the structure of human society with very real and unappetizing implications.
Soil pollution in China is as extensive and as deadly as the degradation of the country’s air and water. China is cursed from the beginning because only just over 11 per cent of its land is suitable for agriculture. As much as 20 per cent is so contaminated by heavy metals that food produced on it is toxic. Thirty years of chaotic, corrupt and unregulated industrialization has so polluted China that it is killing hundreds of thousands of its people – by some estimates, millions – every year.
Vancouver’s grossly inflated housing market, the United Nations’ climate conference in Paris and China’s catastrophic environmental degradation are all linked in a circle of cause and effect.
For faithful Catholics, the whole point of the Pope and the Vatican is that they should be pillars of certainty in a troubled and troubling world. But as Argentinian Jesuit Jorge Mario Bergoglio approaches the end of his third year as Pope Francis, the relationships between the Pontif and his cardinals — the Princes of the Church – and the standing of the management of the Vatican – the Curio – are all beset by uncertainty and confusion.
The latest terrorist tactics adopted by the Islamic State show the group heading toward political irrelevance and self-destruction. Suicide attacks have been used throughout the history of warfare — and they have an unrivalled record of total failure. They have never worked either as a last-ditch defence or as an offensive tactic aimed at overwhelming the opponent.
Ahmed Chalabi is lucky he died this week. Had he lived even a few months longer he would have had to face yet more charges that he is personally responsible for the death and destruction that has wrenched the Middle East for nearly 15 years.
At long last, the Beijing regime has this week been dealt two significant set-backs to what is the world’s most extraordinary contemporary campaign of imperial expansionism. A tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea decided that Beijing’s claim to own almost all the South China Sea is not an indisputable fact, as the Chinese government contends.
In many ways, Justin Trudeau and Canada’s newly-elected Liberal government are fortunate coming to office at this time when the whole associated field of Canada’s foreign, defence, trade and development aid policy is a wasteland.
China’s drive for wealth and power is stumbling and could collapse over the country’s lack of water and its gross mismanagement of the resources it does have.
In the ranks of “barbaric cultural practices,” the United States’ addiction to firearms is among the most deadly. The results of gun violence in the U.S. are in the same order of magnitude as the fruits of terrorism in the entire world. But the epidemic of gun slaughter in the U.S. is not entirely down to the simple availability of firearms in, it seems, almost every home. The Swiss also have firearms readily available, but they do not massacre each other at nearly the same rate as the Americans.
Astonishingly, Europe’s dysfunctional and divisive refugee policies have now collapsed entirely in the face of the onslaught of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa. The last time Europe faced a similar crisis on this scale was at the end of the Second World War, which carries many experiences and lessons, some of which are worth examining in the light of what is happening today.
Among the many compelling pictures in recent weeks of would-be refugees swarming across the Mediterranean one from the Greek island of Lesbos caught my attention in particular. It was a short video of an infuriated Greek woman confronting a milling throng of young and apparently fit and healthy Syrian men who had recently made the short passage to her island from Turkey in hope of sanctuary in Europe. “Go home and fight,” she yelled repeatedly at the young men. “Go home and fight.” I could see her point.
Japan’s current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is having another crack on August 15, the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in the Pacific, at finally drawing a line under the country’s imperial past. The context is difficult for him. As he tries to consign Japanese militarism to history, he is also working to re-interpret the pacifist Article Nine to allow Japanese forces to play a larger and freer role as an ally of the United States and other Asian nations. This is a pressing project in the face of a newly-assertive, expansionist and well-armed China, but sits uneasily against protestations of remorse for past militarism. There is also a difficult nuclear context.
British Columbians need to know how closely the fate of their $40 billion natural gas pipeline deal is tied to the survival of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. There are two unsavoury reasons. If Najib loses control of his position, his successor may see projects associated with him as tainted. Should he survive, does Premier Christie Clark relish the prospect of the northern pipeline project, in which she has invested so much political capital and of which she has such grandiose expectations, resting in the hands of a man, Najib, around whom swirls the smell of bribery, corruption and even murder?
Taiwan’s voters are preparing for a rocky ride as they appear set to elect an opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration dedicated to preserving the independence of the island and its 23 million people. If the voters in next year’s presidential election do what they are now telling pollsters they intend, the result will excite anger in Beijing and send a frisson of anxiety through the corridors of power in Washington.
The recent assault by President Xi Jinping on China’s community of human rights lawyers may be too late to insulate the Communist Party against a coming storm. There is a tacit acknowledgement by the party that China’s swelling community of about 300 human rights lawyers, their associates and like-minded advocacy groups have become a serious challenge to the one-party state.
With a deal on Iran’s nuclear program in the offing, hardline opponents in Washington and Tehran are sharpening their teeth and honing their claws to a razor’s edge. In both capitals, the deal — nearly 20 years in the making — faces being derailed by intransigent political ideologues with little long-term vision.
There is no shortage of villains in this Greek tragedy. It hasn’t helped matters that the advent of the euro has been a huge boon for the EU’s industrialized economies, especially Germany. Because the euro includes dud or semi-functional economies like Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Ireland, the international market place marks the currency’s value down against other hard currencies like the U.S. dollar. The result is that German exports are 50 per cent cheaper, by some analysis, than they would be if the country still used its former currency, the deutchmark.
After more than half a century as one of the few pillars of stability in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is rapidly morphing into a dangerous and unpredictable rogue elephant. The transformation has accelerated since, six months ago this week, King Salman took the throne on the death of his elder brother. One of King Salman’s first acts was to mark his young, untried, short-tempered and ambitious son Mohammed, already the country’s Defence Minister, as a future monarch.
The campaign for and against democracy in Hong Kong has tottered on the edge of farce for some time and this week it tumbled over the edge. Thursday’s vote in the Hong Kong legislature on plans to allow direct election of the territory’s head of government in 2017, but only after Beijing has vetted the candidates for loyalty, should have been a solemn and significant moment. Instead the episode cascaded into farce.
It’s not just China’s “Red Nobility” and Russian oligarchs who are robbing their countries by illicitly exporting their wealth to compliant and complicit countries like Canada. There is an epidemic of money flight from developing countries, according to a new report from the Washington-based anti-money laundering organization Global Financial Integrity.
Vancouver: not mind-numbingly boring, but vacuously vain (public access)
The flood of vast wealth from China into Canada has not only contorted and distorted the Vancouver housing market beyond redemption, it has changed the sort of community the western Canadian metropolis is going to be for generations to come. In a bizarre piece of absence of mind and lack of attention, it has also hitched the future of Vancouver to the fate of the Chinese Communist Party. Vancouver’s low self-confidence and its destructive vanity have both played a part in these failures.
In the last 45 years, successive Canadian governments have attempted various responses to the deficiencies in policing and security intelligence revealed by The October Crisis and the terror campaign of the 1960s in Quebec. But they still haven’t got it right. Bill C51 is bad legislation that will give CSIS too many unaccountable powers; the major flaw is the lack of any serious oversight of CSIS. Unlike in the United States and the United Kingdom, Canada has no parliamentary committee to oversee CSIS’ activities or to warn the agency to stay away from operations that are illegal, immoral or politically indefensible.
One of the best arguments today for the use of judicious political assassination is the existence of Kim Jong-un. There is now abundant evidence that the young North Korean leader is a mad dog. The world would be a safer place without his murderous and megalomaniac finger hovering over the launch button for his nuclear weapons and inter-continental ballistic missiles. And without the evil ministrations of his pointless regime, North Korea’s 25 million people would have the opportunity to make something worthwhile out of their ravaged country.
This week’s riots by thousands of Ethiopian Jews in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv mark the latest episode in a drama that stretches back well over 3,000 years, and 24 years after Operation Solomon, one of the most extraordinarily successful rescue missions in modern history. The Ethiopians were protesting what they see as systemic racism by Israeli society against their community of about 130,000 people. The spark for the violent protests was a video posted on social media of two policemen beating a young Israeli-Ethiopian soldier, Demas Fikadey, who did not promptly respond to their order to move away from an area they were clearing..
The earthquake that struck in April has set back for at least a decade the early stages of Nepal’s climb out from the basement of global economic development, where it has languished for generations. Many will doubt whether Nepal’s fledgling democratic institutions are robust enough to manage the onslaught of the well-meaning, but often destructive, attentions of international aid agencies that will now batter the country. But there are reasons to be optimistic.
Something has gone desperately wrong in Eritrea since the promise of the early 1990s, when the Eritreans stood out as one of the most remarkable people and societies in Africa. Now, among the hundreds of people dying in the sinking of rickety boats being used by people traffickers to take refugees from Africa to Europe are many Eritreans. The United Nations reckons that at least 4,000, almost all of them young, Eritreans a month are fleeing their country. What happened? To put it simply, Eritrea’s zealously Maoist President Isayas Afewerki is what happened.
Burma has gone from military dictatorship to kleptocracy without drawing breath. When, in 2011, Burma’s generals “hung up their uniforms” after nearly half a century of military rule and introduced an ersatz civilian democracy, no one in their right mind imagined the soldiers wouldn’t occasionally reach behind the closet door to polish their medals. But Burma’s generals are proving to be altogether more addicted to their cans of Brasso than supporters of democracy for the Southeast Asian nation, also known as Myanmar, hoped or expected. With parliamentary and presidential elections due in November, Burma’s transition to some form of genuinely representative and accountable political system appears to be stalled.
Politically, even as climate change threatens its very existence, the Maldives is pretty much a hell on Earth. It’s a green tourist Mecca where nearly one million tourists a year – three times the republic’s population – come to lie on its pearl white sands, wallow in its clear waters, feast in its five-star resorts, and worry about the fate of this earthly paradise. The Maldives’ environmental plight is a hugely successful economic story; tourism accounts for 90 per cent of government revenues. Sadly, progress in the economic and political lives of 330,000 Maldivians has not been as stellar. All those green and eco-friendly resorts are owned by five families, who are also at the heart of a small coterie of inter-related clans that control everything that moves on the islands. We’re talking here about Medici Florence or Plantagenet England where members of the ruling families can be locked up in a dungeon one day, back in favour with princely authority the next, or dead on the floor after a family feud got out of hand.
TOKYO, Japan — China’s war to supplant the United States as the regional super power in the Far East and western Pacific is under full steam and gobbling up its objectives. Over the last 15 years, China has not only built a large and potentially effective navy, it has by stealth and cunning either caused divisions between the United States and its Asian allies, or cast doubt among target states whether Washington can be trusted to support them, or both.
The decision by the Canadian government of Stephen Harper to extend and expand its military mission against ISIS in Iraq is in wilful disregard of the real threat posed by the radical Muslim group and how it can be overcome. I say “wilful” purposefully, because it is evident that the government’s military and intelligence advisers are offering analysis and options that lead to very different conclusions than those being taken by the Prime Minister Harper and his inner circle.
Reports from the Nigerian military that they have launched a major offensive against Boko Haram, killed 300 of the group’s fighters and recaptured 11 towns and villages should be treated with skepticism and caution. It is largely because of the ineptitude, ill-discipline and corrupt culture of the Nigerian army over the past six years that the militant Islamists of Boko Haram have managed to grab control of three states in northeastern Nigeria, kill thousands of people and displace another estimated one million. Over that time the army’s public statements have grossly exaggerated its efforts and successes against Boko Haram, when its greatest skills have been either to stay firmly in barracks or to run away.
Two of the most prominent finance ministers of modern times were in court this week on sex charges, which may seem like a thesis on the relationship between power, money and priapism just waiting to be written. But there are profound differences between the case of Malaysia’s former finance minister and deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, and the former head of the International Monetary Fund and a finance minister of France in the late 1990s, Dominque Strauss-Kahn.
The reported death in Britain of Andrew Wang at age 86 draws a line under one of the most sordid arms dealing, murder and bribery scandals in modern French and Taiwanese history. But the death of Wang, one of Taiwan’s 10 most wanted fugitives and the chief suspect in the murder at the heart of the scandal, means that key elements in the story may never be unravelled. And what a story it is.
The burned-out palace of ousted dictator Siad Barre was still smouldering when I got to the Somali capital, Mogadishu, almost exactly 24 years ago. On Jan. 27, 1991, Barre had emptied the contents of the national bank into a tank and sped off into the western dessert as a motley crew of fighters from a couple of dozen clan militias closed in on him. Thus ended Barre’s 22 years of always despotic, frequently murderous, and endemically corrupt rule. Yet set against all that has happened in the 24 years since to the people of this benighted nation, Barre’s dictatorship can seem like a golden age.
As China’s economy slows to a crawl, the Communist Party is facing one of its worst nightmares: a militant labour movement. The Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, which collects data on strikes and lockouts in China as well as promoting workers’ rights, says there has been a dramatic upturn in labour unrest across the country. As the country’s economy slowed to its lowest growth level since 1990, strikes and protests in the last three months of 2014 were three times those of the same period the year before. “The dramatic upturn can be partially explained by the increased use of cheap smartphones and social media as tools by workers to get news of their protest action to a wider audience,” says the latest report by the group. “But at the same time there is clearly an increase in labour activism in response primarily to the economic slowdown in China over the last year or so.”
Murdered Mongolian aspiring fashion model, translator and mistress to the mighty, Altantuya Shaariibuu, may yet get the last laugh. The men who murdered Altantuya in October, 2006, two police bodyguards to Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, who was then the defence minister, were acquitted on appeal in 2013 after a farcical judicial process. The trial was a fine example of the skill with which Malaysia’s judiciary has learned to perform in politically sensitive cases involving the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has ruled the country at the head of the Barisan Nasional coalition since independence from Britain in 1957. So when Malaysia’s Federal Court reversed the acquittal, and upheld their original conviction and the death penalty, it is a signal that the political ground has shifted.
It’s been a long time coming, but the looming crisis in Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy is finally in clear sight. What has brought matters into focus was the dispatch to hospital in Riyadh this week of 91-year-old King Abdullah, who is suffering from pneumonia. The king’s months of evident ill health come after his attempt to embed some political stability in the country of 29 million people and the world’s largest oil producer by appointing not only his successor, but also his successor’s successor. Far from providing security and continuity, Abdullah’s action is more likely to set off a potentially disastrous contest for the throne among Saudi Arabia’s princely families.
When the International Criminal Court came to life in 2002 it was touted as a place where tyrants and their underlings would be brought to account for genocide and crimes against humanity. But the ICC, based in The Hague, has never gained altitude. The limits on its powers and its inability to fulfil even its restricted mandate were put on display this month by the court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda.
Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London who unashamedly lusts to be Tory Prime Minister of Britain, clearly relishes his role as a source of public entertainment. In his nearly two decades in the public eye, Johnson has made buffoonery a high political art form. And public delight at his verbal indiscretions, temperamental inability to parrot contemporary political correctness, willingness to make a fool of himself, and genial, basset-hound features have aligned into considerable political backing.
It’s a story that would have William Shakespeare licking his lips and sharpening his quill. The tale has everything that excited the creative juices of The Bard. There’s a dying king, much loved and revered by his people for his care for their wellbeing. But waiting in the wings is a hated, rapacious and vindictive Crown Prince. Even the most fervent royalists among the people are consumed with anxiety about what may happen when the prince assumes the throne and grasps the powers of monarchy. There is a rival for the crown, the king’s daughter, who has earned the public’s affection because of her charity and good works. But it is unclear whether she has the desire or the will to challenge her brother for the throne.
In great contrast to the Borgia world of Zimbabwe’s First Lady, Grace Mugabe — the subject of the column preceding this one — is the skill, imagination, talent, determination and sheer hard work that ordinary Africans have to employ to survive and succeed. A tale … It was mid-December, the height of yet another summer of drought in Zimbabwe, and I was making the early morning coffee when there was a loud cracking and wrenching noise from the garden.
Sally Mugabe was much loved in Zimbabwe and many believed, with some justice, that it was only her steadying hand that stopped her husband, President Robert Mugabe, from becoming the feral tyrant that emerged after her death. In the months before her death in January, 1992, it was widely known in Harare that she would soon be taken by the liver disease from which she had suffered for several years. It was also known that the President had not waited to become a widower before seeking comfort elsewhere. At least three years before Sally’s death Mugabe had taken one of his secretaries, Grace Goreraza, as his mistress.
It had been a tough day interviewing victims of Khmer Rouge atrocities, and it was with great relief that I slumped down in a chair in the hotel bar in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, and ordered a beer. Through the window I could see the sun shimmering red as it sank through the torpid, tropical air hanging over the Tonle Sap tributary of the Mekong River. I was the only non-Asian in the bar, which was humming with the chatter of rich locals and visiting businessmen from other parts of the region, who had come to see what spoils there were to be harvested in a country just emerging from decades of war. … read more (paywall).
The world would be a different place if Francis Fukuyama had been right in the essay he wrote, shortly before the demolition of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago this weekend, arguing that the Soviet Union collapse was indeed “the end of history.” “What we may be witnessing,” wrote the Stanford University political scientist, “is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” … read more (paywall)
Before going to war it is always a good idea to have a clear purpose and outcome in mind. Yet six Royal Canadian Airforce CF-18s are set for bombing missions in the Middle East without any clear vision of what victory will look like. The whole thing is depressingly reminiscent of the Libyan campaign in 2011 when allied warplanes enabled rebels to oust and kill dictator Moammar Gaddhafi. But then they all declared “mission accomplished,” packed up their kit and headed home. Meanwhile Libya has turned into bloody chaos and a killing ground for rival Islamic factions, tribal fighters and would-be new dictators. There are many days when Gaddhafi, for all his evil, looks a lot better than what Libyans have got now. … read more (paywall)
The ebola panic overshadows far more deadly diseases. Unfortunately, humans are appalling bad at risk assessment. In recent weeks Ebola has tweaked our primal fears of the first Horseman of the Apocalypse, Pestilence, in the same way as my run in with the Black Death. Politicians, world health officials and the media are near hysteria as they pump out fear-inducing prophecies about the looming pestilential scourge.
In a remarkable demonstration that may presage the end of one of the world’s most deeply embedded conflicts, three of North Korea’s most senior leaders have made a surprise visit to the South. The excuse for the unprecedented trip across the heavily-armed border that has divided the peninsular since the Second World War was to attend the closing ceremony of the Asian Games, held at the city of Incheon west of the South’s capital Seoul. But the three also met senior South Korean officials and agreed that talks should be held to improve relations between the two sides of the divided nation.
Tens of thousands of Hongkongers took advantage of today’s Chinese national holiday to join students who have clogged the city’s streets for four days demanding Beijing deliver on its promise to give the territory democratic autonomy. But the numbers do not look large enough to prompt Beijing to rethink its decision to keep control of the process by which the head of Hong Kong’s government, the Chief Executive, is chosen. The likelihood now is that the authorities will stand back, watch the protests run out of steam and wither of their own accord.
As rival candidates for power in Afghanistan signed a power-sharing deal on Sunday, an understandable sigh of relief swept through the corridors of power in those countries that have expended troops and treasure in the last dozen years trying to get the central Asian nation on its feet. In the six months since the first round of the presidential elections it looked as though the whole Afghan project might collapse into new chaos as the two main candidates, former World Bank official Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, exchanged increasingly bitter allegations of vote-rigging.
Supermarket tabloid divas like the Kardashians and Miley Cyrus are rank amateurs in the league tables of manic self-obsessives and insatiable exhibitionists of their own excruciating bad taste when stacked up against the gold standards set by Gulnara Karimova. Mind you, Karimova, 41, who immodestly but truthfully describes herself as a “poet, mezzo soprano, designer and exotic Uzbekistan beauty,” has some advantages …
Not content with stealing other people’s territory, the Beijing government is now manufacturing islands to boost its insubstantial claim to ownership of the South China Sea. The Philippines government has released aerial photographs of Chinese dredgers and construction teams pulling up millions of tonnes of sand and rock from the ocean floor to create islands on Johnson South Reef, which is claimed by the Manila government.
Imran Khan: from sports hero to prophet of doom. September 3, 2104
The occupation of the heart of Pakistan’s capital by thousands of demonstrators demanding the resignation of the government is not so much a political crisis as a sad, public flameout by the protest leader, former cricket hero and international playboy Imran Khan. For over two weeks up to 15,000 followers of Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice or PTI) have occupied the country’s political hub, the “Red Zone,” in the capital, Islamabad, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
China accepts tribute from its vassal, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. August 27, 2014
The air in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People was heavy with the pungent smell of irony this week as China’s President Xi Jinping greeted his visiting Zimbabwean counterpart, Robert Mugabe, as an old comrade in the struggle against “imperialism, colonialism and hegemony.” For Mugabe had come to Beijing to give his south-east African country of 13 million people to China, if not as a colonial possession, at least as a vassal state.
Washington and Tehran find common cause against Islamic State. August 21, 2014
It’s always a bit of a shock when the stern clerics that run Iran display an impish sense of humour. So when Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, was quoted today as offering to help the West’s campaign against the Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq in return for the lifting of crippling sanctions against Tehran, the natural inclination was to chuckle at his gall and turn the page.
China’s Xi launches his own Cultural Revolution. August 13, 2014
Xi Jinping is not content with being the most powerful leader of China since Mao Zedong. He also wants to play God. Xi’s ruling Communist Party announced last week it will write its own version of “Chinese Christian theology” to ensure adherents abide by the country’s party-imposed political culture. The attempt to take control of religion in China is part of a broad campaign by Xi to establish “cultural security.” The aim is to outlaw and control all foreign influences that might undermine the communists’ one-party rule.
Hamas Leads Gaza Down a Dead-end Street. August 6, 2014
Not the least of the problems of finding any kind of solution to the plight of the Palestinians is that the Hamas zealots who control Gaza are incompetent terrorists and jihadis. Hamas’ sole strategic objective, the purpose of its jihad, is to overrun Israel and drive its 6.1 million Jewish residents into the sea. This latest month-long conflict shows Hamas has no capacity to do that and has no idea how to go about it.
Jilted Putin courts Kim Jong-un for comfort. July 30, 2014
The ripples set in motion by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s ever more blatant involvement in fighting in eastern Ukraine have reached the other side of the world, and are lapping on the shores of the hermit kingdom of North Korea. As the European Union and the United States impose increasingly onerous sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin and his court, and a long term chill in relations with the West appears likely, Moscow can’t be too choosy about the new friends it makes. In this frigid climate, even the unpredictable, spoiled brat North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the Justin Beiber of dictators, can seem warm and charming.
Libya finds its new Qaddafi. July 25, 2014
A renegade Libyan general, reputedly with links to Washington’s Central Intelligence Agency, is well on his way to filling the political vacuum left by the ouster and killing of dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. Since late May, Khalifa Haftar has formed a loose alliance of elements of the national military and tribal militias with the aim, he says, of destroying militant Islamist groups that had taken control of much of the country.
Religion-inspired violence not just a Muslim problem. July 18, 2014
It is not just fanatical believers in an intolerant, violent, evangelical and racist brand of Islam that are spreading a shameful stain on the pages of human history in the 21st century. All major religions have in recent decades spawned similar factions of puritanical hatred that are distorting and perverting the route and progress of public affairs, even in secular democracies.
Al-Qaida Jihadists Suspicious of Iraq-Syria Caliphate. July 16, 2014
Half a dozen so-called Islamic states have been created out of countries in crisis in the last 20 years, and each new one is more brutal and bloodthirsty than the last. The latest is the “caliphate” created by the messianic descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, soldier and Islamic scholar Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in the territory he and his followers control in the border region of Syria and Iraq.
The name “Intelligence Agency” often seems to be an oxymoron because spies frequently do incredibly dumb things. But before labelling the entire profession a collection of buffoons, it’s as well to remember that most intelligence agency work is divided into two main, distinct areas. There is the gathering of information through human spies, electronic surveillance or from open sources. Then there is the analysis of that intelligence into assessments of the implications that political masters can use as part of the policy-making process. Usually it’s revelations about the information-gathering process that gets intelligence agencies into trouble.
Portugal’s Foodie Empire. July 9, 2014
Nation of Kurdistan springs from Arab chaos. July 4, 2014
Reform Agenda of Thailand’s Junta Destined to Fail. July 2, 2014
Cameron courts “heroic defeat” by European leaders. June 27, 2014
Dual Citizenship no Guarantee of Protection. June 25, 2014
Eritrea: the failure of Africa’s most promising nation. June 20, 2014
Local grievances fuel Kenyan massacres. June 18, 2014
Bin Laden’s disciples move to realize his dream. June 13, 2014
Beijing reneges on Hong Kong freedom guarantee. June 11, 2014
Bergdahl a pawn in a bigger game. June 6, 2014
Soccer bribery is the least of Qatar’s sins. June 4, 2014
Japan deals itself in to the Asian poker game. May 30, 2014
Revolt against Brussels rattles European leaders. May 28, 2014
Contest to succeed Zimbabwe’s Mugabe heats up. May 2, 2014
Crumbling of the BRICs. April 30, 2014
Putin’s other hand hovers over Moldova. April 25, 2014
Scottish leader downplays difficulties of independence. April 23, 2014
Saudi Arabia sacks troublesome intelligence chief Prince Bandar. April 18, 2014
Decision time looms for Hong Kong democratic reform. April 16, 2014
Indonesia’s White Knight stumbles at the first fence. April 9, 2014
In Iran, nuclear deal and social reform are intertwined. April 8, 2014
Student protest stalls Taiwan-China rapprochement. April 4, 2014
Leave Ukraine to the Russians. March 28, 2014
Mandela’s heritage tainted by President Zuma’s graft March 21, 2014
Taiwan’s People Power protest is Beijing’s Crimea moment. March 19, 2014
Fear spreads in China of Uigher insurrection. March 14, 2014.
Putin more in tune with the times than Obama March 12, 2014.
Beijing, not Moscow, is the home of imperialism. March 5, 2014
“Patriotic” triad thugs attack Beijing’s critics in Hong Kong. February 26, 2014
Europe carries blame for the Ukrainian violence. February 21, 2014
UN report calls China complicit in North Korean atrocities. February 19, 2014
Venezuelan opposition fractures over ballots or bullets to win power. February 14, 2014
A small moment in the history of China and Taiwan. February 12, 2014
Iran’s “reformist” Rouhani faces hardliner backlash at home. February 7, 2014
Afghans survey unsavoury buffet of presidential candidates. February 5, 2014
China conscripts Blackwater chief for its march into Africa. January 31, 2014
Thailand’s PM Yingluck faces judicial as well as military coup. January 24, 2014
Arab Spring still waiting to blossom. January 17, 2014
The Real Weapon of Mass Destruction. January 15, 2014.
Military poised as Thailand approaches political deadlock. January 10, 2014
Iran and United States join against common foes. January 8, 2014
1914 and the China Syndrome. January 1, 2014
Turkey’s Prime Minister fights for political survival. December 27, 2013
Japan moves to unshackle its military as storm clouds gather over Asia. December 20, 2013
Renewed civil war looms in South Sudan. December 18, 2013
Bodies of purged foes deck the halls in Beijing and Pyongyang. December 13, 2013
The Nightmare of Mandela’s Dream in South Africa. December 11, 2013
Nelson Mandela’s goodness harmed his leadership. December 6, 2013
China set to gain from airspace dispute. November 29, 2013
Japan deploys anti-ship missiles to China’s Pacific gateway. November 8, 2013
Thailand’s Senate attempts to quell unrest. November 6, 2013
With their dying breath, Mozambique’s rebels lash out. October 25, 2013
Arrest of anti-piracy mercenaries highlights maritime security. October 23, 2013
Many reasons to boycott Sri Lankan Commonwealth summit. October 18,2013
Crystal meth epidemic undermines North Korean regime. October 16, 2013
Anti-China sentiments boil in Hong Kong. October 11, 2013
China’s Xi renews threat to invade Taiwan. October 9, 2013
U.S.-Iran thaw isolates Israel. October 4, 2013
Political reform in China unavoidable. October 3, 2013
Iran-U.S.: little warmth in Tehran’s smile. September 27, 2013
U.S. steps up African anti-terrorism drive. September 25, 2013
Japan to counter Chinese “provocations.” September 18, 2013
Political upheaval looms in Taiwan. September 13, 2013
Saudi Arabia scorns U.S. Middle East policy. September 11, 2013
Domestic fears behind Putin’s support for Syria. September 6, 2013
Sordid murder saga dogs Malaysian leader. September 4, 2013
China’s leader moves to purge rivals. September 3, 2013
Egyptian coup averts threat of war with Ethiopia. August 30, 2013
Syria’s Gordian knot will not easily be cut. August 28, 2013
Iran’s international role tempered by obstacles. August 23, 2013
Egypt’s bleak prospects after failed democratic transition. August 16, 2013
China prepares show trial of disgraced political superstar Bo Xilai. August 14, 2013
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