Global News Blog
For much of the world, Nelson Mandela is the epitome of a saint; when given the chance to seek revenge against South Africa’s white population for the evils of apartheid, he called instead for reconciliation and tolerance.
At home in South Africa, it is this very call for forgiveness that is the center of controversy. Many black South Africans – particularly those living in poorer townships – ask if Mandela actually sold them out.
When Mandela was released from prison in 1990, and entered negotiations with the apartheid government of President Frederick De Klerk, he succeeded in guaranteeing free and fair elections that resulted in the peaceful transfer of power from the white racist National Party government to the black-majority African National Congress party in 1994. Separate negotiations over economic power – such as ownership of land, mineral rights, industry, and the banking sector – largely left whites in charge, a matter that continues to rankle many black South Africans.
Even Mandela’s own former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, famously told an interviewer in 2010 that her ex-husband was an “albatross around the necks of my family,” and that he “let us down.”
IN PICTURES: Nelson Mandela Day
This view is by no means universal. On Wednesday, as many as 12 million South African school children started the day by singing happy birthday to the man they call “Tata Madiba.” Tata means father in Mandela’s native isiXhosa language; Madiba is Mandela’s clan name, and a term of adoration for Mandela. Many South Africans of all races celebrated “Mandela Day” by spending at least 67 minutes in community service, a minute for each year that Mandela served as a member of the ANC.
While some black South Africans express disappointment that Mandela didn’t push for a better deal with the apartheid government, many black South Africans argue that Mandela did a greater good for the country’s future by giving a higher priority to economic growth and stability rather than “justice.”
"The greatest gift our nation could possibly give uTata Nelson Mandela for his 94th birthday this week would be to emulate his magnanimity and grace," Mr. Tutu is quoted by the Sowetan newspaper as saying. "Mr. Mandela taught us to love ourselves, to love one another and to love our country. He laid the table so that all South Africans could eat."
In a country with profound inequalities, where white South Africans retain ownership of 80 percent of all companies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, and where more than half of the population in this majority-black country lives in poverty, it should come as no surprise that the many black South Africans view Mandela with disappointment, if not outright anger. The streets of Soweto, the country's largest former black-majority township, may be paved (not with gold), but many black townships lack access to safe drinking water, toilet facilities, and electricity. South Africa's largest companies have increasingly welcomed black businessmen and women into leadership positions, but as many as 600,000 university graduates remain at home, jobless.
Consider this blog, posted on South Africa's News24 website by a young man who posts a photo of himself, but identifies himself only as “Youngster.” He argues that Mandela “sold out” black South Africans by focusing only on political power, and not pushing harder for economic power as well from the apartheid government. By calling quickly for forgiveness, the young man writes, Mandela “glossed over this pain - much to the relief of whites.”
Are you aware that blacks remain landless, underfed, houseless, under-employed, badly represented in senior managerial positions? The state of healthcare and education for black people remains as it was, if not worse than, under apartheid.
Vestiges of apartheid and colonial economic patterns, ownership and control remain intact despite the attainment of political freedom by you. Are you aware that political freedom without economic emancipation is meaningless?
Countering this argument is a blog by a young South African woman, Veronica Cho, who writes,
It's up to the youth of today's generation to never take for granted the freedom that was fought and won over, and to realize that the hardest battle has yet to be won. That responsibility is not on Mandela's shoulders anymore, but on the youth.
He passed on the torch. There is still darkness on the road which we must light with the passion, persistence, and determination of our forefathers and foremothers. It's our time to run with it.
What is striking about this discussion, of course, is that there is very little difference in the goal that these two writers seek: broader economic justice. The differences lie in the method. How will South Africa’s next generation – those who call themselves “born-frees” – achieve that goal? Will they continue to adhere to Mandela’s slower but steadier path of reconciliation, or will they seek instant economic justice, through expropriation and rapid redistribution of wealth?
On Mandela’s 94th birthday, it is a question that is gaining urgency.
At the Crimean resort of Yalta last Thursday the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, waited in sweltering heat for his honored guest, Russian President Vladimir Putin, to show up for a scheduled summit to thrash out the two nations' differences over the price of natural gas.
And he waited, along with all his officials, for four hours after the meeting was supposed to begin. Eventually, Mr. Putin showed up, and someone explained to the Ukrainians that he'd stopped to "drink a glass" with a group of Russian bikers known as the "Night Wolves" on his way to the summit.
That incident might be put down to a quirk of Russian-Ukrainian relations, which are quite strained these days over the price of gas and other issues.
But since coming to power 12 years ago, Putin has developed a consistent reputation for keeping everybody waiting, sometimes for hours, including Russians of every social station, foreign leaders, global corporate executives, the queen of England, and even, once, the pope.
The now-three term Russian leader's habitual lateness has seldom been made an issue of and goes widely unreported. Supporters say it's really his only personal vice, while critics argue that the Russian media – which often covered Putin's episodes of tardiness during his long-ago first term of office – has since clammed up about it out of fear of offending the Kremlin.
We only happen to know about the incident in Crimea last week because a few outraged Ukrainian officials have chosen to make an issue of it.
"Rather than rush to a meeting, a stop was made to drink a glass with bikers.… In my opinion, it is a diplomatic slap in the face or just plain rudeness. This is a manifestation of abnormal relations," former Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ogryzko told a press conference in Kiev last Friday.
"President Putin exceeded the limits of a delay. He went to meet with motorheads and their friends, showing his priorities," in Ukraine, Emergency Situations Minister Viktor Baloga wrote on his Facebook page, according to AFP.
Last month, at the start of an important state visit to Israel, Putin kept "the entire upper echelons of Israel's government" waiting for 90 minutes before showing up to take part in the unveiling of a monument to Soviet Red Army sacrifices in World War II, according to Haaretz.
Later in June, Putin dissed hundreds of top global corporate executives at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, a meeting organized by the Kremlin to reassure foreign investors that Russia is a good destination for their capital, by keeping them waiting for 40 minutes in a crowded auditorium. Putin reportedly arrived three hours late for another, private, meeting with foreign CEOs, who were forced to cool their heels in a narrow corridor. Those incidents prompted the English-language Moscow Times to pen an editorial – rare in any Russian media – scolding Putin for his lack of manners.
"Obviously, foreign investors are not going to ignore Russia because Putin cannot make it to meetings on time," the paper wrote. "Russia offers tremendous opportunities, and Putin has made it easier to invest here. But his apparent inability to keep appointments does reveal a lack of respect for investors, for whom 'time is money.' Putin is overlooking a simple way to show investors that he values them. He should be on time."
Over the years, Putin has kept the Finnish president waiting for two hours, German Chancellor Angela Merkel for 40 minutes, the king of Sweden for 30 minutes, the king and queen of Spain for 20 minutes, and former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko for three hours.
During his first year as president, in June 2000, Putin reportedly arrived "as much as 15 minutes late" for a meeting with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican, according to archived Russian news reports.
"This habitual lateness of Putin's can be read in different ways, as a character trait or his way of demonstrating his attitude toward others," says Andrei Kolesnikov, opinion editor of the Moscow-based opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
"But only God is above him now. He's person No. 1, and he can afford to be late whenever he wants," he adds.
But it's Russians and officials of neighboring post-Soviet countries who've probably had to bear the brunt of Putin's tardiness.
"In October of 2011, a meeting of heads of governments of Commonwealth of Independent States began three hours late because they had to wait on Putin," writes veteran Russian journalist and blogger Andrei Malygin on his LiveJournal blog. "Even during his election campaign [early this year] he made students in Tomsk wait for him for 2 hours; local journalists had to wait for 9 hours [for a scheduled press meeting], during which time security officials forbade them from leaving the place.... In 2008 journalists were urgently summoned to Putin's dacha, and told that he had an urgent announcement to make. Several hours later, in the middle of the night, Putin appeared and told them he'd gathered them together to show them a tiger cub he'd been given as a present."
Sometimes there is no lighthearted way to look at it: "In 2002 families of children who died in an air crash in Germany waited for Putin to appear for the funeral. When he didn't turn up, they buried their children and went off to the wake.... But once they were seated, officials appeared and told them to go to the cemetery to repeat the funeral with Putin present.... Even when they returned to the graveyard they had to wait another 2 hours for him," Mr. Malygin writes. (The story was covered by some Russian media outlets in 2002.)
On another occasion, in April 2001, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church delayed the traditional Easter midnight declaration that "Christ has Risen!" for 10 minutes until Putin showed up.
"Yes, I had to wait for Putin many times, about half an hour on average," recalls Ella Pamfilova, a veteran Russian Duma deputy, government minister, and Kremlin human rights commissioner who retired in 2010. "But honestly, there are worse sins and other things in life that are more important."
Even some of Putin's toughest critics agree.
"They say that punctuality is the courtesy of kings, though Putin is no king," says Boris Kagarlitsky, a long-time left-wing activist and director of the independent Institute for Globalization and Social Movement Studies in Moscow.
"If that were the only problem we have with Putin, I think we might easily excuse it," he adds.
Taliban poetry. The very idea may make some people snort. How can a group of mountain fighters who spent weeks shelling the face off stone Buddha statues and ordered millions of Afghan women to cover their faces under burqas, have anything of value to say about beauty?
You’d be surprised.
“This extraordinary collection is remarkable as a literary project – uncovering a seam of war poetry few will know ever existed, and presenting to us for the first time the black turbaned Wilfred Owens of Wardak. But it is also an important political project: humanizing and giving voice to the aspirations, aesthetics, emotions, and dreams of the fighters of a much-caricatured and still little-understood resistance movement that is about to defeat yet another foreign occupation.”
For those who have spent any length of time at all in Afghanistan, it will come as no surprise that Afghans are a poetic people.
As a young war correspondent in Jalalabad, one of my keenest memories was not a night of bullets flying and prayers spoken, but rather a night of poetry. We had just eaten a meal of rice and lamb, and my host and his cousins and friends were passing around a watering can to wash their hands.
And then it began: One gentleman among us recited a love poem of startling romantic sincerity. Then came another poem about the feebleness of human character. Then another about a fickle lover. Then another about the terrors of battle, and the loss of a loved one. Some of these poems were ancient, but most had been written by the men who were reciting them, all doctors and merchants and political science students. And there wasn’t a cheap and dirty limerick in the lot.
My hosts turned to me, and I had nothing to offer, except appreciation for the beauty of their words.
Today, the release of this Taliban poetry book is an odd echo of that evening session. Odd, because I had probably assumed that poetry only occurred among the semi-elite, and especially those of the enlightened democratic sort who would have been fighting against the Taliban. But poetry is a potent weapon that only gets stronger in the hands of someone faced with an impossible cause and a powerful enemy.
One doesn’t have to agree with the Taliban worldview to appreciate the haunting power of this poem, written in 2007 by Taliban poet Shahzeb Faqir:
“The village seems strange, this is separation
As if my beloved has left it,
The grief of separation is so cruel that it is not scared of anyone;
When the soul does not leave the body it shakes,
Like a flower withering in the autumn,
Autumn has now come to my love.”
The ambiguity of those lines – who is this love: God, his wife, his country? – is what gives them power. And for a people who are supposed to be in the thrall of literalist mullahs, who deny the possibility of the Quran ever being open to interpretation, other than by the mullahs themselves, it should give us pause to rethink our prejudices about the Afghan people, and specifically about the Taliban.
The poems in this book are full of patriotism and exhortations to fight, as one would expect from people who have been at war almost constantly since the Soviet invasion of 1979, and the devastating civil war after the Soviets left in the early 1990s. A British man of a certain age might recognize in this collection a similar spirit to the quintessential Stiff-Upper-Lip poem of Rudyard Kipling, "If."
Taliban poems are war poems, to be sure. But they are also full of reminders of the reasons why people fight, for family, for honor, for freedom, for nationalism, for religious expression.
In this way, the Taliban are just following in a long tradition of Afghans who found words as a powerful weapon. One of the most famous of Afghan couplets comes from the mouth of a woman named Malalai. On the battlefield of Maiwand in the first Afghan war, faced with the prospect of annihilation at the hands of a superior British Army, Malalai used a poetic couplet to urge Afghan fighters to die with honor.
"Young love! If you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand,
By God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame!"
Myra MacDonald, a former Reuters reporter in South Asia and now author of a book about the Siachen war between India and Pakistan, warns against romanticizing the Taliban. But she says that the value of reading the "Poetry of the Taliban" is to avoid the extremes of seeing the Taliban as either fanatics or poets, and instead “to study the insurgency on its own terms and in its own words and work backwards into what fits best. We might or might not like what we find.”
I think that says it pretty well.
But let’s end with an entirely different poem, written by the anti-Taliban poet Rahmat Shah Sayel, and given to me by its publisher, Najib Manalai on my most recent trip to Afghanistan in March. In the poem called “Prediction,” Mr. Sayel writes this comment about the disappointments of many Afghan people with the wasted opportunities of the last decade.
“If upon our passing
Our new generations
Do not hurl stones at our tombs
Verily, they will be
The humblest, noblest people of the new twenty-first century!”
Wa wa, Sayel sahib, I can hear my poetic Afghan friends saying. Well said.
It’s a question experts, academics, or simply art aficionados have been asking themselves for the last 40 years: Where is Caravaggio's "Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence?" After decades of investigation still nobody knows.
The only certainty Italian authorities have, is that the late Caravaggio masterpiece was stolen on the night of October 17, 1969. It had been resting untouched for 360 years in the Church of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Sicily. Valued at around $30 million, it tops the police's most wanted art object list.
After a time of relative silence the debate has sprung up again. Luca Scarlini, author of the recently published "The Stolen Caravaggio: Myth and story of a robbery" went deep to untangle the story, read piles of police proceedings, and talked to a plethora of experts to make sense of the scattered information that "repentant" Mafiosi have given authorities over the decades.
Confessions greatly differ from one another. In 2008, former Mafia leader Gaspare Spatuzza told the Palermo police that the painting, temporarily hid in a barn, was damaged by rats and afterwards burned. Another Cosa Nostra boss, Salvatore Cancemi, confessed that every time the heads of the Mafia gather, Caravaggio's “Nativity” is showcased so that the bosses can remind themselves of their power in relation to that of the Italian state.
"None of these claims have ever been demonstrated," says Vincenzo Bilardello, art history professor at Sapienza University in Rome. Mr. Scarlini agrees. "All this confusion is wanted by the Mafia. It's called a 'trial trick.’ Every time a Mafioso stands on trial he has the possibility to play the Caravaggio card and try to strike a deal with the police.”
Despite its grim history the story could end on a positive note. After 10 years most crimes cease to be punishable, according to Italian law, rendering the painting's rediscovery more likely since the 1980s. "It's possible ‘The Nativity’ will show up somewhere unexpected," the author says. "It happened last April with a Cezanne painting, too, so who says it can't happen again?"
Japan’s once low-profile Self-Defense Forces (SDF), or military, has been at the forefront of the rescue operation after record rainfalls caused flooding that has left some 25 dead and seven more missing. These latest rescue efforts, combined with the SDF's response to last year's devastating earthquake and tsunami, are shining a more positive light on Japan’s military than it has seen in decades.
The worst-affected areas of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, saw as much as 32 inches of rain in what has been named the “North Kyushu Floods.” One mountainous area of Fukuoka Prefecture is still being airlifted supplies by the SDF, while thousands more remain in evacuation centers or without power. Up to 400,000 people were ordered or advised to leave their homes in Kyushu at the height of the storms over the weekend.
Images of torrents of water sweeping away houses and cars recalled memories of last March’s tsunami that took the lives of nearly 20,000 on the northeast coast of Japan’s main island. And as they did after that disaster, the SDF has been rescuing those stranded by the recent raging waters, searching for the missing, and clearing roads, drawing more positive reactions from a citizenry and media formerly wary of praising the military.
According to the protocols of Japan’s pacifist Constitution, effectively imposed on the defeated country by the United States after World War II, the SDF had to be officially invited by local authorities to aid in rescue efforts.
After the Kobe earthquake that killed nearly 6,500 people in 1995, it took four days for the SDF to be sent in – attracting widespread criticism and handing Japan's yakuza mafia a publicity coup by allowing them to be seen delivering food and supplies before the national government.
However, after the March tsunami, then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan quickly dispatched 100,000 troops to the disaster areas. Footage of the SDF’s rescue efforts provided a huge boost to its standing, as well as driving a surge in young people signing up for Japan’s armed forces.
Japan’s relationship with its men and women in uniform has been an uneasy one since the end of the war, and any reminders of the country’s militaristic past are generally avoided whenever possible. The SDF’s recent humanitarian work following natural disasters has gone some way toward breaking that taboo.
The SDF may have another opportunity to gain more kudos before the week is out. According to the Japan Meteorological Agency, typhoon No. 7, a powerful tropical storm, is currently making its way across the Pacific and is predicted to hit Kyushu on Wednesday.
In the past two years, Western nations have seen the new Myanmar president, Thein Sein, usher in a number of reforms, such as allowing an opposition leader, who has spent much of the past 15 years under house arrest, into the Parliament; the release of several hundred political prisoners; and the relaxing of censorship laws, leading to massive rollbacks of international sanctions.
However, activists are quick to point out that Myanmar has a long way to go and cite the unrest in the Rakhine state in the west as perhaps as big a test for Myanmar's media as it is for its government. Though media laws have been relaxed, and the government has promised further loosening of restrictions, news media reporting on politics or sensitive subjects like ethnic unrest are still subject to censorship, as shown by the court cases against the weekly journal The Snapshot, and another weekly publication, the Modern.
“Until now, the government has been relaxing its abusive control of the media but, as it does not know how to assist the media in the new, rapidly emerging political and economic environment … and has initiated at least three prosecutions since the start of the year,” Reporters Without Borders said in a recent statement.
Ethnic and sectarian violence that left more than 60 dead broke out in Rakhine state last month after news spread that a Buddhist woman was raped and killed by three ethnic Rohingya Muslims.
State newspapers highlighted the ethnicity and religion of both the rape and murder victim and the suspects, who were later convicted, using an ethnic slur to refer to the men accused of the crime.
The ministry of information, responsible for controlling the press and publishing state sanctioned news, reacted by indefinitely postponing the lifting of the country-wide practice of pre-screening news copy, initially planned for June 30. It claimed private media had incited violence.
The government accused Myat Khaing, editor of Snapshot, of defamation with the intent of inciting violence for publishing an image of the victim's corpse. A conviction carries a sentence of up to seven years.
“We are facing unjust British laws,” Mr. Myat Khaing’s lawyer told reporters outside the court last week. “The reports in question simply repeated information that had already appeared in state media and on the Internet, and appeared after demonstrations had already occurred.”
The case is scheduled to continue next week, but cound drag on for several months, as delays are typical of the Myanmar court system. The journal is is suspended from publication.
“Conflict in Rakhine state has shone a harsh light on the sensitivity of the media environment and the very fragile nature of the newly recovered, but partial media freedom,” said Reporters Without Borders in a statement.
Myanmar's judiciary still lacks independence, and enforces antiquated and confusing laws drafted in the colonial era that have been amended and changed by several different military governments to support authoritarian rule since 1962.
In an impromptu press conference yesterday, Aung San Suu Kyi stressed the importance of an independent judiciary and rule of law.
“Courts in Myanmar are a tool of the government,” says Nyan Win, legal adviser of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, pointing out that many rulings are pre-determined, and rarely based on evidence. He says judges still make decisions based on directives handed down from the military.
Weaknesses of Romania’s post-Communist transition have been on display this week as the country’s political crisis deepens. The prime minister is accused of undermining the country’s institutions for his own gain, as the president faces removal by impeachment in a referendum next week.
After well-publicized controversies about growing authoritarianism in Russia, Ukraine, and Hungary, and similar shifts in Slovakia, Macedonia, and elsewhere in the region, Romania is the latest to show signs of a weakening democracy.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, has issued a warning to Romania over the situation, and some say if the crisis deepens, Romania could have its EU voting rights suspended or risk losing an International Monetary Fund aid package aimed at stimulating its struggling economy.
Prime Minister Victor Ponta, barely two months into the job following a parliamentary coup in late April, is locked in a dramatic power struggle with suspended President Traian Basescu. Allies of each man are pitted against each other as well. A referendum on Mr. Basescu’s impeachment will be held on July 29, following on the heels of the parliamentary decision to suspend him for abuse of power. Allegations included failing to act impartially and putting pressure on the judiciary.
Mr. Ponta’s government, a Social-Liberal coalition, is led by the PM’s own social democrats (PSD), which can be traced back to the Romanian Communist Party. The coalition has made several recent moves that have caused concern both in Romania and the international community.
One of the triggers for the current crisis was a disagreement between Ponta and Basescu over who should represent the country at an EU summit. The constitutional court determined that, following past protocol, it should be the president. In response, Ponta stripped the court of its right to overrule parliament and tried to replace some of its members; The Ombudsman – a position meant to serve as a check on government power who coordinates with the court – was replaced with a political ally of Ponta's; And the prime minister took control of the country’s official bulletin, where laws are published, potentially giving his coalition the power to control legislation, and delay court and presidential rulings.
And finally, Ponta’s coalition attempted to disband an academic panel that earlier ruled Ponta had plagiarized large parts of his PhD thesis and should be stripped of the qualification.
Ponta’s supporters claim the referendum is necessary to purge the country’s administrative apparatus of Basescu and his allies. An ex-Communist himself, Basescu is viewed as having had single-handed control over the country for much of his eight-years as president, seeing off prime ministers who defied him, and surviving a previous impeachment vote in 2006. He is also accused of handing out political favors and appointments, according to members of the Social-Liberal coalition.
President Basescu’s present unpopularity comes down, in part, to the weak state of Romania’s economy, and a widespread dissatisfaction with the ruling elite. His survival may depend on whether a recent ruling by the constitutional court is respected: It stipulates that referendum turnout must exceed 50 percent in order to be considered valid. Without this stipulation Basescu is likely to be turned out of office by the vote.
However, Ponta seems to be reluctantly accepting of the Court's ruling, thus a very possible scenario is that Basescu is defeated, but the vote is declared void due to less than half the voters going to the polls. The president, a proven fighter given his past success in overcoming a call for impeachment, is unlikely to go quietly, so more tension and constitutional deadlock could be in the cards.
Here they go again. Asian governments with overlapping claims to the South China Sea are working this week toward a code of conduct for handling the frequent upsets between competing naval ships.
The agreement, raised at the Association of South East Asian Nations in Cambodia, would be the 10th covering essentially the same territorial dispute since the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The idea is that it would spell out what ships should do to avoid a clash but it wouldn't actually spell out how to resolve competing claims, according to regional news media.
So what’s the big deal behind this year’s deal – besides calming nervous people onshore and making their leaders look like saintly peacemakers?
The deal doesn't really work unless China, the one that all the others are worried about, agrees to it. But China is leaning against adding its signature. It wants to keep an upper hand in the dispute, especially with the recent US push to focus on Asia.
“China says there needs to be greater confidence and trust building – there’s a sense that China is being told what to do,” says Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow with the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The risk is, it becomes a voluntary agreement, and in that case, it's completely meaningless,” she adds.
Safety net against China?
Naval ships often track their countries’ oil rigs and fishing expeditions. Oil, natural gas, and fish explain why the 3.5 million square kilometers (1.4 million square miles) of water stretching from Singapore to Taiwan are so sought after.
The past three decades have seen countless military clashes: One occurred in 1976, when China took the tiny, uninhabited Paracel Islands from Vietnam. Another came in 1988, when China and Vietnam clashed in the equally miniscule Spratly Islands, according to the US-based public policy organization GlobalSecurity.org. The 1988 incident sank Vietnamese boats and killed 70.
So agreements are popular between the smaller claimants that, in addition to Vietnam, include Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines. They want a safety net against China, which is ranked No. 3 in the world in terms of military might.
A 1999 regional code of conduct largely written by the Philippines was directed at containing China. In April this year, vessels from China and the Philippines were locked in a standoff over Scarborough Shoal, a South China Sea landmark west of Luzon Island.
China dodged signing the code of conduct this week at the East Asia Summit, a regional security meeting in Cambodia. But, Beijing's language on the issues in the South China Sea has swung from bristly to conciliatory.
“China is using both hands, soft and hard, yet the hard hand would never come to military action,” says Lin Chong-pin, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “But code of conduct – has China agreed? Of course not.”
China is torn between being a good Asian neighbor but using its dominant role in the region to get the most out of the ocean instead of conceding rights to a group of rivals, analysts deduce. “[China] is a much bigger country and can leverage that better in its bilateral agreements,” Ms. Glaser says.
The code being discussed now would include the whole 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc.
China also must mind Washington or risk that the No.1 military power will side with the smaller claimants.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton irked China this week by urging it to settle the dispute with all parties. Washington is technically neutral, but relies on the sea for shipping lanes that see about half the world’s tanker traffic.
If the United States got involved now, it may err on the side of aggression. US President Obama wants to be seen as a strong leader before his reelection bid in November, Mr. Lin says. “He has to do things that the Republicans cannot use as ammo against him,” he says.
In what appeared to be a rare snub by American lawmakers for Myanmar parliamentarian and long-time detainee Aung San Suu Kyi, the United States on Wednesday gave a go-ahead for American businesses to invest in Myanmar's oil and gas sectors – the largest easing of sanctions in the past 15 years.
“The United States is easing restrictions to allow US companies to responsibly do business in Burma," said President Obama, using the old name for Myanmar as Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi does.
Aung San Suu Kyi does support sanctions-lifting by Western countries and investment by Western business in keeping with the reforms undertaken by Myanmar's nominally-civilian government in office since March 2011. But she has expressed caution regarding the Myanmar state-run energy company, long regarded as a cesspit of corruption with tight links to the country's abusive military. Last month the National League for Democracy (NLD) parliamentarian warned that “the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) … with which all foreign participation in the energy sector takes place through joint venture arrangements, lacks both transparency and accountability at present.”
The US and some other Western governments have long taken their cue on Myanmar policy from Aung San Suu Kyi, but the Obama administration's decision on investment runs against that well-worn grain.
The US has likely taken what it sees as a pragmatic pro-business policy decision based on what it views as a combination meeting of strategic interests (countering China) and rewards as promised for the Myanmar government undertaking reforms.
The new US policy also allows American companies to bed down with MOGE, though they will be required to report annually to the State Department with evidence that their investments factor in workers' rights and the environment.
Reacting to the US announcement today, Aung San Suu Kyi told AFP that the move was “nothing significant,” and wondered whether the US had sought some form of improved transparency from MOGE prior to the announcement.
Aung San Suu Kyi was recently-chided by the Myanmar government for continuing to call the country “Burma,” the name of choice for opponents of Myanmar's military dictatorship, which issued a decree in 1989 changing the country's name from Burma to Myanmar in a move still controversial due to its arbitrary genesis.
The announcement came just hours after Ambassador Derek Mitchell took up post in Myanmar, the first American emissary to hold that position since 1990, when the NLD famously won a national election but was denied office by the military junta.
The timing should allow American oil and gas companies to position themselves for an upcoming auction of some of Myanmar's offshore deposits.
Aung Kyaw Htoo, assistant director at the energy planning department at the Myanmar energy ministry, told an audience at a June investment conference in Myanmar's biggest city Yangon that there will be “opportunities for co-operation in the Myanmar energy sector,” adding that “there are quite a number of places not so explored or unexplored.”
More specifically, he said that the international bidding process for 25 offshore oil and gas blocks will take place “in two or three months time,” that is, in August or September.
Those announcements came the same week as Myanmar President Thein Sein announced that the coming year would see a "second wave" of reforms in the country, mostly economic.
While Chevron has a presence in Myanmar dating to the pre-sanctions era, other US energy companies were not permitted to invest as sanctions took hold in the 1990s and later.
American companies have pressed the US government to end restrictions on investment, saying that European businesses could edge out Americans.
However, expatriate Burmese lobbies, human rights groups, and several prominent US lawmakers – including a bipartisan group fronted by Sen. John McCain – urged the Obama administration to heed Aung San Suu Kyi's laments about MOGE when fine-tuning sanctions-easing decisions.
“As everyone with any knowledge on Myanmar will attest, the changes we have seen to date are far from irreversible. It is ludicrous to reward the current government’s untested reforms by paving the way for a gold rush. Fighting in Myanmar’s ethnic areas continues and many of the ethnic leaders are concerned that these reforms are just a ploy to pave the way for "development’ projects on their lands,” said Kraisak Choonhavan, AIPMC Vice President and Deputy Leader of the Thai Democratic Party former Thai Senator, according to a statement.
IN PICTURES: Myanmar Edges Into the Open
The easing of sanctions also comes as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits nearby Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia – the latter for a regional foreign ministers parlay – amid a growing geopolitical rivalry between the US and China, which is partly being played out in Southeast Asia.
Laos and Cambodia are seen increasingly as Chinese economic satellites, while Vietnam and Myanmar, which have had close political and economic ties with booming China as of late, have both made overtures to the US.
Using the word “the” suggests that there is a single entity called the Taliban, with a unified group of leaders who share common goals, devise strategies to reach those goals, and who recruit and manage a core of individual foot soldiers who implement those strategies.
Not to diminish the dangers faced by NATO and Afghan troops, but the entire point of guerrilla warfare is that small, loosely affiliated groups of insurgents can strike quickly, and then melt away into the countryside. If one group is neutralized, the rest of the “organization” continues.
“The Taliban," like “the Mujahideen" who fought the Soviet occupation, are often simply a collection of village militias of varying levels of training, discipline, and commitment. Many of them share common belief in the role of Sharia, or Islamic law, in daily life, and in theory, all may show their allegiance to a common leadership: the Quetta shura, including Taliban supreme leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, for instance. But all too often, that is where their common mission ends. Once an American or Afghan army unit leaves this valley for another one, many Taliban units go back to their day jobs of farming, herding sheep, and keeping shops in the local bazaar.
Mission accomplished, right?
It is with this in mind that I read excerpts of an interview with a Taliban commander, conducted by the noted diplomat and Afghan expert Michael Semple. Mr. Semple, who has maintained backchannel contacts with Taliban leaders for more than a decade, published his interview in The New Statesman magazine.
One quote, attributed to a senior Taliban commander, identified by Semple as “Mawlvi,” has attracted the most attention:
“It is in the nature of war that both sides dream of victory. But the balance of power in the Afghan conflict is obvious. It would take some kind of divine intervention for the Taliban to win this war. The Taliban capturing Kabul is a very distant prospect. Any Taliban leader expecting to be able to capture Kabul is making a grave mistake. Nevertheless, the leadership also knows that it cannot afford to acknowledge this weakness. To do so would undermine the morale of Taliban personnel. The leadership knows the truth – that they cannot prevail over the power they confront.”
This is a remarkable statement, a rare sign of doubt or realism from a group that is generally given to boasting.
Knowing Semple, I am certain that the person he is quoting is who Semple says he is, a senior Taliban commander, and probably a man with considerable influence. It is entirely likely that this commander represents a significant faction of opinion within the Taliban, a group that may be persuaded that their best course of action in furthering their political goals would be to lay down their weapons, start talking with the Karzai government, and reintegrate into Afghan politics.
Yet one of the challenges that both the Americans and Afghan governments have faced is the problem of knowing who they are dealing with. When the Obama administration announced this year that it would be willing to open talks with the Taliban, and the emirate of Qatar agreed to allow the Taliban to open an office in Doha, it was with the understanding that a certain number of known Taliban leaders would represent the organization. Some Taliban leaders welcomed the idea of talks, while others publicly denied talking with the Americans.
The truth is that there are several competing factions within the Taliban movement – just as there are different interest groups, ideologies, and egos in the Republican and Democratic parties of the US. Talking with a senior leader from one particular faction does not guarantee compliance by the organization as a whole.
That is why on the same day that you read about Taliban admitting they can’t win the war, you can also read a story about Taliban claiming responsibility for a roadside bombing that may have killed six US troops, and a separate story about how Afghan security forces killed a Taliban commander and bombmaker who had been disguised as a woman.
It may also be why you can hear the distinctly non-pacifist comments of Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, this week, who denied rumors of talks with “the powerless and puppet government of Karzai” as ''a wave of enemy propaganda … by some officials of the stooge Kabul regime.”
Which of these contradictory viewpoints – pragmatic negotiation or stubborn vows of warfare – truly represent “the Taliban?”
They both do.
And while these various factions debate, or even fight amongst themselves for dominance, the war in Afghanistan is likely to drag on, guaranteeing that America’s decade of intervention in Afghanistan ends with a costly flourish.