Friday, July 31, 2009

Kurds Mixed Message On Iraq's Future

Remember Iraq? You know, that place that use to be on the news ALL the time? They took another step into the future last weekend when folks in the northern Kurdish areas went to the polls to elect their regional government.

Kurdistan has a large degree of autonomy within Iraq and even has its own parliament, which until last weekend was totally dominated by a union between its two largest parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The two-party union will still be in control when the new Kurdish parliament is seated (they together took 57% of the vote), but a new third party called the Change list made a pretty respectable showing, gathering nearly a quarter of the vote.

This is one of those glass half-full/half-empty situations. The positive view of the election is that Change's surprisingly good showing is an indication of democracy fully taking root in Kurdistan and Iraq; the negative view is that a basically unknown party was able to do so well because the Kurds are fed up with the corruption of the KDP-PUK union. Many Kurds say that unless you are a member of one of the two parties, you can't get a job, others are upset with their regional leaders confrontational relationship with the national government down in Baghdad. And many of the seats in the Kurdish Parliament lost by the KDP-PUK union came from the PUK side, prompting some thought that the KDP could decide they don't need to continue their relationship with the PUK. That could cause real problems for Kurdistan since the two sides nearly fell into a civil war during the 90's over control of the Kurdish region.

Kurdistan holds the key to Iraq's future; if Iraq does fall apart it will probably be because of Kurdistan. The biggest issue in Iraqi politics today is control over the city of Kirkuk. Kirkuk was once a Kurdish city, but during his reign, in an effort to eradicate the Kurds, Saddam Hussein 'encouraged' tens of thousands of Iraqi Arabs to move into Kirkuk, drastically changing the demographics of the place. The Kurds think the city should go back to its historic designation as a Kurdish city, while Iraq’s Arab majority thinks that the city should stay allied with Baghdad and not be part of the Kurdish Autonomous Region.

What makes this not just an academic debate over demographics is oil, and lots of it. The fields around Kirkuk may hold as much as 4% of the world's remaining oil reserves, much of which is currently untapped, meaning there are billions of dollars to be made. Of course the Kurds think those billions should flow to their capital, Arbil, while the Iraqi Arabs think it should go to Baghdad. Iraq's politicians, showing the type of leadership they likely learned from the US Congress, have dealt with the Kirkuk situation by doing their best to ignore it.

That's a fine solution to a problem until the day when you actually do have to deal with it, a day that for Iraq is rapidly approaching.
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Interview With A Pirate

Wired Magazine recently managed to score an exclusive interview with one of the pirates operating off of the lawless coast of Somalia. So if you've ever wondered how the pirates pick their targets, haggle for ransom, or how to launch a successful hijacking of an ocean-going cargo ship, then Wired's interview is for you.

Two really interesting things from the piece - first, that instead of just being bandits in boats, the pirates actually have sophisticated logistic and intelligence networks backing them up and second, that they view themselves not as pirates but as defenders of Somalia - a viewpoint that another pirate expressed in this interview with AllAfrica.com last April. Like in that interview, the pirate Wired talked to also said that many of today's pirates were once fishermen. But once the Somali government collapsed, they had no Navy or Coast Guard to patrol their coastal waters, letting in poachers from around the world. The pirates argue that these international poachers have left them no other option but to turn to piracy as a way to earn a living.
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Florida-Style Vote For Afghanistan?

The site Rediff.com has a good piece today on the Presidential elections coming up next month in Afghanistan, focusing on the issues and on one of the main challengers to incumbent Hamid Karzai, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. Karzai is fairly unpopular these days, many Afghans are frustrated with his government's failure to provide the development projects they've promised, fight rampant corruption, or to deal with the booming trade in opium (that last one's tough since Karzai's brother is said to be one of the country's biggest drug lords).

But even though people are fed up with Karzai, he's still favored to win the August 20th vote, and now our man in Kabul, special envoy Richard Holbrooke, is warning that next month's election will be "imperfect." He goes on to apparently suggest the vote could be like Florida in 2000 - " I am an American who lived through an imperfect election eight years ago. I am not going to hold Afghanistan to standards which even the United States does not achieve," Holbrooke said.

So that begs the question how much imperfection will we think is ok? Meanwhile, some analysts are worried that the biggest problem with the election will be an extremely low turnout. Since Afghanistan is split among several ethnic groups and Karzai is a Pashtun, the largest and historically most dominant one, the fear is that if Karzai doesn't win with broad support from Afghanistan's other ethnic minorities, he won't be viewed as a legitimate president.

With that in mind, maybe Holbrooke should be pushing the Afghans a little harder to make sure they get their election right.
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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

China Thanks US For Human Rights Silence

You know it’s bad when China is praising you on your attitude towards human rights, but that’s just where the United States and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton find themselves. On Tuesday, China thanked the US for its “moderate line” on the ethnic violence that rocked the Uighur community in Urumqi, Xinjiang province.

Despite President Obama’s stated support for human rights around the world, and his making that support a feature in recent keynote speeches in Cairo and Ghana, the US has been largely silent on the rioting that left nearly 200 people dead, saying it was an “internal matter” for China to resolve. Of course despots around the world all claim that oppression of a minority group is an “internal matter” and we usually don’t let them get away with it, but apparently the rules are different when it involves China.

The Chinese government has said that a majority of the people killed in Urumqi were Han Chinese (China’s biggest ethnic group), but Uighur exile groups claim that the actual death toll from the rioting was much higher than China’s official figure, with many more Uighurs dead than are being commonly reported. And following the riots, there were not mass arrests of Han Chinese like there were of Uighurs. But apparently all of that’s irrelevant to the human rights champions in the US government, as is this story from Time magazine documenting the latest target of China’s cultural genocide against the Uighurs, the historic of city of Kashgar.

Kashgar was once an important stop along the Silk Road - the ancient overland trade route that brought the riches of the Far East to Europe. It was also a center of religious and cultural life for centuries and most recently has been one of the top tourist attractions in Eastern China. But all of that will soon be gone, ground to dust under the tracks of Chinese bulldozers. Government officials are rapidly plowing under the mud-brick buildings of old Kashgar, which the Uighurs also happens to consider their spiritual/cultural capital. The official government excuse is that they fear that the mud-brick buildings, which have stood for centuries, could be vulnerable to earthquakes (I don’t know, they seem to have fared a lot better than the modern Chinese elementary schools that fell like dominoes during 2008’s Sichuan earthquake).

If the US government wants to have some credibility on the human rights front, they should start by taking on the biggest bullies on the block – China.
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BJ’s Wrong Take On Honduras

Yesterday in the Huffington Post, Mike Farrell (remember him as BJ Honeycutt on M*A*S*H?) asked: “where the hell is the USA?” He was asking this in relation to Honduras and though I liked him on M*A*S*H, he’s dead wrong about Honduras.

Mike’s argument basically is this: President Zelaya had a lot of good, pro-poor programs, Congress and the Military – supported by Honduras’ elites – didn’t like this common touch so they cooked up a coup to throw Zelaya out and put the former head of the Honduran Congress, Roberto Micheletti, in as president. Ok, that sounds good as a theory, but it ignores one small fact – that Zelaya was violating Honduras’ constitution by trying to hold a referendum to extend his own term in office. The Congress told him not to do it, the Supreme Court told him not to do it, but Zelaya insisted, finally prompting the Military to remove him (Honduras’ constitution, according to the explanation I’ve seen, says that anyone trying to change the term limits on the presidency must be removed from office immediately).

So by that reading the Military was actually upholding the constitution, not violating it. And I think that is the problem that a lot of people are having with what’s going on in Honduras, if you’ve studied International Affairs you know usually it’s the other way around – the military violates the constitution to remove the legal leader.

But just because that is the common way these things unfold, it doesn’t mean that’s the reality of the situation in Honduras. President Zelaya’s grandstanding visit to the border late last week doesn’t help his cause either, making him seem like someone more interested in self-promotion than in governing his country (even Hillary Clinton slammed his visit as being “unhelpful”).

So while I loved you as BJ, Mike, you’re wrong on this one.
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Berlusconi's Grave New Problem

This is pretty funny. For months now one of our favorites, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has found himself in the middle of an ongoing sex scandal. It started with his odd relationship with an 18-year old lingerie model, it’s included pictures of naked Czech politicians frolicking poolside at his villa and allegations that he stocked private parties with hired ‘escorts’. Of course now a tape has emerged (audio sadly, not video) of Silvio chatting up one of his lady ‘friends’ at his new villa on the isle of Sardinia. But what could get Berlusconi in real trouble is not sex but graves, very old graves.

It seems that the tape catches Silvio telling his friend that while putting in a private lake at the villa they “found 30 Phoenician tombs from 300BC.” This came as a big surprise to the archeological community, which under Italian law has to be notified about any historic findings (like, say, ancient Phoenician graves). Italy, being steeped in history, takes these things seriously – not reporting a possible find could get you up to a year in jail. On top of that, Phoenician graves have never been found in Silvio’s part of Sardinia, meaning they’d be not mildly interesting, but extremely important in terms of expanding knowledge of early Italian history.

So far the Italian parliament has only asked Berlusconi to “explain” his statement to his friend. Stay tuned for more developments.
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Friday, July 24, 2009

Honduras Coverage, Another "CNN Fail"

Yesterday Honduras' deposed President Manuel Zelaya made a dramatic (perhaps overly dramatic, but we'll get to that in a minute) bid to re-enter his country. In case you missed it, last month the Honduran army scooped up President Zelaya and dropped him off in neighboring Costa Rica for allegedly violating the Honduras' constitution. (The US, UN and OAS have all accused the Honduran military of pulling off a coup, but I think there's a fair case to be made that they were acting to uphold the country's constitution and that Zelaya is in the wrong here).

Zelaya already tried once to fly back into Honduras, but the military closed the airport at Tegucigalpa blocking his return. This time Zelaya planned to walk across the border from Nicaragua amid a throng of supporters and against a squad of Honduran soldiers - CNN was the only cable network to cover it live. Rick Sanchez temporarily put his Twitter/Facebook/Myspace infatuation on hold to speak with a real live CNN correspondent at the Honduras/Nicaragua border and even translated some of the Spanish-language newsfeed for the benefit of the viewers.

It made for some pretty compelling television, the kind of international coverage CNN once had a great reputation for, that is until 4pm rolled around and with it the start of CNN's next show, Wolf Blitzer's "Situation Room". Wolf dumped out of the live video from Honduras to give we the viewers yet another hour of 'experts' blathering about the stalled health care bill and the Obama/Cambridge/Henry Louis Gates 'scandal'. Really? Honestly, if I was the news director over at CNN I'd think that an ongoing political standoff in a nation basically on America's doorstep would trump another hour of talking about two situations we've been talking about for days and will continue to talk about for days to come (without, remarkably, ever saying very much). But I'm not the news director at CNN.

It's another example of how CNN has fallen from its once lofty heights, when it was the go-to source for breaking international news. Of course if they did their job better, maybe I'd feel less need to run this site.

If you're interested, the standoff at the border ended without incident. Zelaya ducked his head under the rusty chain that marks the border between the two countries, and shook hands with a Honduran army officer, before returning to Nicaragua for a press conference. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton slammed Zelaya for grandstanding rather than trying to seek a peaceful solution to return himself to his country and bring an end to the current political crisis.
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Thursday, July 23, 2009

And On The Fourth Day, Biden Totally Steps In It

Vice-President Joe Biden had been doing a fairly good job during his visit to Ukraine and Georgia this week of supporting both countries without upsetting US efforts at resetting relations with their touchy neighbor, Russia. That is until his speech today to Georgia's Parliament and a visit to Georgians displaced by last summer's conflict with Russia.

Biden told the refugees that Russia "used a pretext to invade your country" and had "isolated itself more" because of the conflict. I'm sure that went over well with the Georgians, but it's not really a good description of last August's events unless you call the Georgian military's attacking the South Ossetian city of Tskhinvali in the middle of the night a 'pretext', then sure, Russia used a pretext to invade Georgia.

The reality of the situation is that no one has clean hands over last summer's conflict. For months before the conflict, both the Russian and Georgian sides were trying to provoke each other - an expression of the deep personal dislike between the leaders of the two countries: Russia's Vladimir Putin and Georgia's Mikhail Saakashvili. The European Union has been sitting on a report that puts most of the blame for last year's conflict squarely on the Georgian side, saying it was sparked by Georgia's attack on South Ossetia (an idiotic attempt of bringing the breakaway region back under Georgia's control after 15 years). And as for Biden's other claim - that Russia is "isolated" - he might want to check with the EU, NATO and his boss, Barack Obama - all of whom are working to rebuild relations now with Moscow after a lull following the conflict. So much for pretext and isolation…

Biden went on to tell the Georgian Parliament, to a standing ovation, "we will not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states and we urge the world not to recognize them." So far South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been recognized as independent states only by Russia (and Nicaragua). But while we are urging the world not to recognize Georgia's breakaway regions, we do want them to consider Serbia's breakaway region, Kosovo, as its own country. I’ve yet to hear a good explanation from the US government as to why the difference. The main reason seems to be that Georgia is an ally of ours while were not too crazy about Serbia.

As you'd expect, Biden's comments have already angered Russia (according to the BBC this evening), I am sure there will be more fallout there in the coming days. Biden did tell Georgian authorities that getting South Ossetia and Abkhazia back by force was not an option, and that Georgia needed to do more to "deepen" their democracy. President Saakashvili pledged (again) to institute democratic reforms, but he's promised reforms a number of times in the past without actually doing anything to make them a reality.

And there's my problem. I think that the United States should support the peaceful, democratic development of both Georgia and Ukraine and support the Georgians and Ukrainians, but we should do nothing to encourage or support the utterly dysfunctional governments of either state. Neither Georgia nor Ukraine is ever going to move forward until they get rid of their current, petty leaders.
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Uighurs Rally In Central Asia

The story of China's crackdown on their Uighur minority might have already faded from the Western press, but the story's still big in Central Asia. This weekend as many as 5,000 Uighurs gathered in Kazakhstan to protest the riots and mass arrests earlier this month in China's Xinjiang province. Though both Uighurs and Han Chinese were involved in the riots, Chinese authorities responded by arresting over 1,000 Uighurs in massive sweeps through Uighur neighborhoods.

The protesters called for the release of Uighur prisoners in Xinjiang and a full investigation on what really happened over the weekend of July 5th, led by an independent, international body like the United Nations or Human Rights Watch. Though members of the World Uyghur (Uighur) Congress were realistic, doubting that China would allow such an investigation or that Western governments would risk angering their Chinese business partners by pushing for one.

Still the fact that a big-time protest happened in Kazakhstan on behalf of the Uighurs is news. Kazakhstan is the most powerful of the Central Asian states, thanks to their oil reserves, and one China is hoping to build a relationship with. Kazakhstan's government also keeps a tight lid on what happens in their country, so such a large protest couldn't happen without their (at least informal) consent, a sign perhaps that unlike governments in the West, they’re willing to stand up to China.
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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Poll Shows Canadians Happy With Health Care

Despite a blitz of TV ads here that make you think our neighbors to the north are basically dying in the streets or storming the border to get access to American hospitals, two new online polls show that Canadians are generally satisfied with their 'single-payer' model of health-care.

Canadians were much more likely than Americans to say that they had access to the health care services they needed at prices that they could afford. Canadians were frustrated over how well their system provided access to medical specialists - one area where the American system fared markedly better. But when it came to general access to the health care system 65% of Canadians (basically two-thirds) said they had the access the care they needed at a price they could afford, a claim only 49% of Americans made. And when you break responses down on the American side according to levels of wealth, you find that only 37% percent of Americans earning under $50,000 per year think they can afford needed health care.

Opponents of health care reform in America have slammed the Canadian system, saying that it puts bureaucrats in charge of dispensing medical care (and here I can only assume these people have never dealt with a private insurance company - I once fought for more than a year with my then insurance carrier over paying for a simple doctor's visit). But, a few dramatic TV testimonials aside, it seems like Canadians are generally happy with how they do medical coverage.
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One Man's Bid To Become Russia's First Black Politician

A couple of weeks ago I linked to this story from Radio Free Europe on how Russia's black population reacted to the recent visit by President Barack Obama. Today I came across the story of Joaquim Crima, a man now attempting to become Russia's first black elected official (though he himself would like to downplay any Barack Obama analogies).

Crima's story is similar to some of the people interviewed in the RFE piece - he came to Russia from his native Guinea-Bissau to attend university at Volgograd, he married an Armenian woman and settled down in the nearby village of Srednyaya Akhtuba, where he's now running for office.

Local officials say that Crima, who took the Russian first name "Vasily" as a way of integrating into his new homeland, will have a struggle to be taken seriously in his campaign and to fight perceptions that he's just trying to capitalize on the fame of Obama. Crima insists though that his campaign is for real (advocating for better roads and water supplies for the rural villages around Volgograd is a key part of his platform) and that even if he fails, one day Russia "will be ready" for their own black politicians.

Elections in the Volgograd region are set for this October, until them we'll follow the candidacy of Joaquim "Vasily" Crima.
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Rules Relaxed For Nonpofits in Russia

Since I've worked in the nonprofit sector, I was pretty interested in this story - on Monday Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev approved a bill that relaxes laws on non-governmental agencies operating in Russia.

Medvedev's move is a big deal since the previous president, Vladimir Putin, signed a law that subjected existing nonprofits to extremely harsh regulations that included highly-detailed yearly audits, made starting a new nonprofit incredibly difficult to do and virtually barred foreign nonprofits from working or funding activities within Russia.

Putin argued that the laws were needed to fight corruption (and though that rationale has been given for a host of new laws, there hasn't been a real reduction in the levels of corruption in Russia), the real reason seemed to be fear that the nonprofit sector would be used to fund anti-government activities. Putin blamed the success of pro-democracy movements in Serbia, Ukraine and Georgia on organizational and monetary support from foreign governments funneled into the countries through nonprofits.

But while the Soviet Union had massive social programs to take care of the most vulnerable members of society, post-Soviet Russia does not, meaning that the nonprofit sector was one Russia badly needed to develop. It's likely that Medvedev realized this and why he was willing to break with Putin on this one.

Under the new laws the process to register new nonprofits has been greatly simplified, while existing nonprofits will only have to conduct audits once every three years, and the audits will be far less intense than they were under the Putin law. Regulations on foreign nonprofits operating in Russia are also expected to be loosened in the near future.
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Sunday, July 19, 2009

VP Biden On Cheer-Up Tour of Georgia, Ukraine

Vice-President Joe Biden is heading overseas for a visit to two of our Eastern European allies, Georgia and Ukraine. The context for the visit is basically to tell them not to worry, that even while the United States is trying to 'reset' relations with Russia, we won't forget about them and their desire to join NATO. But supporting their NATO ambitions now is exactly the wrong thing to do.

First, it violates (again) a pledge that the United States made to the newly-independent Russia just after the end of the Soviet Union back in the 90’s when the countries of Eastern Europe were clamoring for NATO membership: don't worry, we won't let NATO expand into the former Soviet Union. It's a promise that the US has already broken by supporting the membership of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. (And if you want to know why US-Russian relations are in a bad state, broken NATO promises are a big reason).

But second, promises aside, neither Georgia nor Ukraine deserves NATO membership, at least not now. NATO membership has been one of the 'rewards' to Eastern/Central European countries for making the transition from Communism to Democracy. But the governments of both Ukraine and Georgia are a mess. Ukraine has been paralyzed by political infighting for almost two years; their parliament just ended its session this week with a fistfight among some of its members. Meanwhile in Georgia, protesters have occupied parts of Tbilisi for three months now, charging that President Mikhail Saakashvili has become exactly the same kind of petty autocrat that he helped depose during Georgia's much-celebrated 'Rose Revolution'.

Biden's also going to Georgia to tell them (and Russia) that the US supports their 'territorial integrity' and their claim to the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that Russia has recognized as independent countries. Of course in May during his own 'reset' mission to Serbia, Biden told the Serbs that the United States did recognize the independence of their breakaway region Kosovo, that Kosovo was gone and the Serbs needed to stop their crying about it. Mix messages Mr. Vice-President?

Meanwhile European officials are delaying the release of a report into last summer's conflict between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia because the report, apparently, will put a lot of the blame on the Georgian side by suggesting they started the fighting - a move that's not politically popular with the British (or the US for that matter), who want the blame for the war to fall squarely on Russia. EU officials say they don't want to release the report now because they're worried about raising tensions in the region.

Like Biden's visit isn't going to do that, especially given Biden's penchant for, shall we say, going off script? I expect there's a good chance that Biden's visit will undo all the progress that Presidents Obama and Medvedev made in mending US-Russian relations two weeks ago in Moscow.
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Chinese Gave Orders For Gitmo Prisoner (Mis)Treatment

That prisoners at the US-run detention camp at Guantanamo Bay have been subjected to harsh treatment, including being kept awake for days at a time, subjected to extreme cold and forcibly restrained isn't new information, that this treatment was done to them on the orders of Chinese officials though is.

Those are the latest revelations to come out of Congressional hearings on Gitmo. The prisoners in question, of course, are the Uighurs - the Muslim ethnic group from China's northwest Xinjiang province. Nearly two-dozen Uighurs were captured in Afghanistan in 2002 by, according to McClatchy Newspapers, Afghan bounty hunters paid $5,000 per 'terrorist' they turned in. Several of the now-released Uighurs (the US eventually cleared them of any terrorist involvement) are claiming that they were told by their US interrogators at Gitmo that the harsh treatment was on the orders of Chinese officials to 'soften them up' for further interrogation by Chinese who would soon be visiting the camp.

Right now I don't want to continue the debate on whether 'harsh interrogation techniques' are a justified tactic in the War on Terror or just a fancy term for 'torture', but what really makes me angry in this case is that US soldiers were employing them on the orders of a foreign government. "I had never thought that American soldiers would work with Chinese and treat us like this," said Uighur detainee Abu Bakker Qassim, released and now living in exile in Albania.

And I'm not the only one angry. The Congress members at the hearing ripped into the official representing the Department of Defense, asking why the DoD gave the Chinese access to prisoners at Gitmo, while keeping members of Congress out. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California asked "Chinese communist government officials and their agents have information and we cannot? Would you think that is a bit absurd?" Democrat Jim Moran went one better threatening to cut off funding for Gitmo if Congress didn't get some better answers.

The other thing that has me (and it should you too) fired up over this is that the Uighurs were captured, not by US troops on some anti-terror raid, or as the result of intelligence to disrupt a terrorist plot, but by some bounty hunters? It reminds me of the Old West when the US Army would pay for Indian scalps, not really caring where (or from whom) they came from. Since we ultimately decided that the Uighurs were innocent, it makes you wonder how many other 'terrorists' at Gitmo - and in US detention elsewhere - are just guys scooped up by some Afghan bounty hunter trying to make a quick buck off the War on Terror?
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When Is A Book You Buy Not Really Yours?

Do you have a Kindle? (That's Amazon's portable e-book reader in case you don't know) Have you bought any books for it from Amazon's online store? Then you might want to fire up the ol' Kindle and make sure your titles are still there.

According to the Guardian, a number of Kindle owners have had a nasty surprise - Amazon has remotely deleted titles from their Kindles, titles they bought from Amazon's own store (though Amazon did refund the cost of the e-books). The reason apparently stems from a dispute over distribution rights; that Amazon did not have permission to sell some of the titles.

But Kindle users are crying foul, saying they bought the titles in good faith, and many are creeped out by the Big Brother aspect of the whole affair - that Amazon is snooping around on their personal property to see what books are loaded on their Kindles. And for the ironic kicker, one of the titles involved was George Orwell's 1984, the book that added 'Big Brother' to the English lexicon in the first place.

I can understand a dispute over rights and distribution and Amazon's decision to remove certain titles from their online store, that's all pretty standard stuff. But to remotely go onto user's private systems and delete content without their permission (even if you then give them their money back) is an unjustifiable invasion of people's privacy and property rights. And it certainly makes me less likely to use Amazon in the future.
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World War I Vet and World's Oldest Man Dies

While the media this weekend was busy covering the loss of one of their own, news icon Walter Cronkite, there was another passing of note that went almost unnoticed - Britain's Henry Allingham.

At 113, Mr. Allingham was not only the oldest man in the world, but was one of the very few living veterans of World War I. Mr. Allingham was a founding member of Britain's Royal Air Force and was present at Jutland, the largest naval battle of World War I. What's perhaps most amazing is that for eight decades, Mr. Allingham, didn't talk at all about his wartime experiences, only becoming a public spokesman when there were few veterans left to talk about one of the turning points of the 20th Century.

Well into his 100s, Mr. Allingham would talk to schoolchildren about his experiences in the Great War, last November he attended a commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the war's end, and just last month he attended his 113th birthday party. He attributed his amazing longevity to "cigarettes, whiskey and wild, wild women," while his grandson said another secret was "not hanging around with old people."

The Guardian has a good article today about Mr. Allingham's life, it's well worth a read. With his passing, out of an estimated 65 million men who served during WWI, only four veterans are known to be still alive.
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Friday, July 17, 2009

Liz Cheney's Trouble With History

Maybe it's because the Cheney family has finally realized that to much of America the former Vice President comes off like Darth Vader without the charm and personality, but recently his daughter, Liz, has taken over the role as the family spokesperson. But if Liz Cheney's going to be front and center in policy debates, she needs to take a remedial course in history, fast.

Liz's first whopper came a few days ago when she said on MSNBC that her dad and President Bush had kept America safe for the past eight years. It's a fine statement that overlooks one small incident - 9/11 (hardly worth mentioning, I know), unless Liz somehow thinks having 3,000 people killed in the worst terrorist attack on American soil somehow qualifies as 'keeping us safe'...

But even if you're willing to give her a pass on that titanic faux pas, Liz Cheney shows in the pages of the Wall Street Journal that she has some big problems with world history as well. She attacks President Obama for his recent speech in Moscow, accusing him of getting the facts of the Cold War wrong. "The Cold War ended not because the Soviets decided it should but because they were no match for the forces of freedom...", she states.

Actually the Cold War ending because the Soviets decided it should isn't too far from the truth, and it's much closer to reality than the version pushed by the Conservatives of Reagan the Victorious. The Cold War ended because Mikhail Gorbachev tried to reform the Soviet system, found it couldn't be done and decided in the end to let the Soviet Union dissolve rather than trying to keep it together through force of arms. Sure Reagan began his term as President by railing against the "evil empire" (as he once referred to the Soviet Union), but his tone changed when Gorbachev came to power. Reagan saw Gorby as a man he could work with on his ultimate goal - eliminating the potential for nuclear war between the superpowers. By the time Gorbachev took power, Reagan didn't want to destroy the Soviets, but rather work with them to achieve his goal.

Liz Cheney goes on to slam Obama for bringing up "American support for the 1953 coup in Iran" during his speech in Cairo aimed at the worldwide Muslim community. Strike two for Cheney - America didn't "support" the coup, the CIA engineered the whole thing, even roping in the very reluctant Shah to take control of Iran once their democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq was disposed.

But wait, she's not done yet! Cheney tries to end her screed with one last shot at Obama, saying he's weakening America "by cutting our weapons systems and our defensive capabilities." Um, you mean like Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney (dear ol' dad) did during the George H. W. Bush administration, when he cut the the size of the military (in personnel terms) by almost 20%?

Like the old saying goes: you're entitled to your own opinions Liz, but not your own facts.
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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Murder Means New Human Rights Problem For Russia

Natalia Estemirova, a prominent human rights activist in Chechnya turned up in the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia yesterday, dead from two gunshot wounds and all signs are pointing to Chechnya's President Ramzan Kadyrov as being the man behind the murder. Estemirova was snatched off the streets of the Chechen capital Grozny yesterday, yelling out that she was being kidnapped before being shoved into a waiting car.

Pres. Kadyrov has brought stability to Chechnya after more than a decade of brutal fighting between Chechen separatists and Russian forces that led to a string of high-profile terrorist attacks in Russia. But that stability has come at a price - human rights groups say that Kadyrov has achieved peace by allowing his personal militia to carry out their own terror campaign against Chechen rebels (and Kadyrov's political opponents and critics as well). Estemirova's group "Memorial" said on their website that Kadyrov had threatened Estemirova and considered her to be a "personal enemy".

According to a Kremlin spokesman, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is "outraged" by Estemirova's murder and has ordered a full investigation. Russia is already taking flak from the international community about their human rights record, especially over the murder of several other high-profile journalists and human rights activists, so Medvedev has to say he'll take Estemirova's murder seriously. But what he can actually do to bring the perpetrators to justice, especially if that perp is Kadyrov, is a good question.

Moscow has a wink-and-a-nod agreement with Kadyrov: he keeps Chechnya (reasonably) quiet and they'll stay out of his business. But even if they want to, Moscow's in no position to try and get rid of Kadyrov, and they both know it. Russia has no desire for a third Chechen war (the first two quickly became brutal guerilla conflicts), while Kadyrov has managed to pretty effectively get rid of his political opposition. The few remaining rebels in Chechnya don't want to be part of Russia, so Moscow won't back them against Kadyrov, since keeping Chechnya part of the Russian Federation was the reason for the two wars in the first place.

Back in April I wondered if Russia hadn't created a monster in Chechnya. Now it's looking more and more like they have, and they'll likely be stuck with him for a long, long time.
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Wild pic of the day

Saw this shot on the Internet today:

Apparently the story is that the Air Force gave permission for this FA-18 to buzz part of downtown Detroit while practicing for a fly-by of some speedboat race they're scheduled to have. It reminded me of my own close encounter with an Air Force jet years ago while driving along the Interstate through the desert in Utah. Apparently, to break up the day, some bored Air Force pilot decided to buzz the highway at about 30 feet doing, oh, 600 mph. I don't have a picture of that, the jet passed literally in the 'blink of an eye', though the jet-wash that followed a second later nearly blew my car off the road (really).
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Viva Turk-Vegas

Turkmenistan thinks it has hit on the winning formula for developing their Central Asian nation - legalized gambling, and they’ve spent $5 billion building a gaming/resort complex along the Caspian Sea (maybe they should have checked with Atlantic City first to see how well that idea turned out for them...). So in this nation of nearly five million, with perhaps a 60% unemployment rate, officials have created Avaza: a Vegas-style resort with luxury seaside villas, an artificial island, ski complex, and of course, casinos.

Critics say that it's another example of development gone wrong in Turkmenistan and shows that President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov has the same penchant for gigantic, but ultimately useless, projects as his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov. You might remember the ever-modest Niyazov was the one who crowned himself "Turkmenbashi" - or "Father of all Turkmen", named a month after himself (and another after his mom), and made Rukhnama, a collection of his 'wisdom' a required text in all the nation's schools. Niyazov's pet project was a gold leaf covered statue of himself on a 200-foot pedestal that rotates to always catch the rays of the sun.

Niyazov passed away in 2006, and many hoped that Berdymukhamedov would be a more normal president, but few of his promised reforms have materialized in the past three years and they fear that Avaza may be his pet vanity project. No one has explained why travelers would want to hop a plane (really several planes) to fly to Avaza instead of just going to Vegas or Monte Carlo, though maybe Berdymukhamedov hopes to cash in on gambling Russians now that the Kremlin has largely outlawed casinos in Russia. Berdymukhamedov hopes that Avaza will become the world's window on Turkmenistan, showing the country in a modern, progressive light.

Despite the high rate of unemployment, Turkmenistan is actually experiencing an economic boom. It's thought they have the world's third-largest reserves of natural gas, enough to fuel Europe for the next 66 years, and competition for that gas is fierce, with Russia's Gazprom last year signing a $7 billion deal with Turkmenistan and China offering them a $4 billion loan.

Perhaps using that money to deal with Turkmenistan's chronic unemployment might be a better idea than building casinos for tourists who may or may not show. Just a thought...
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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Happy Bastille Day!

Today is Bastille Day in France. If you know anything about French history, or just the lyrics from "Bastille Day" by Rush, then you know this was the milestone event of the French Revolution (well, the most famous French revolution at least, the one that got rid of King Louis XVI) and is a holiday to France what Independence Day is to the US.

Eric Lurio over at the Huffington Post gives a good write up of the day, including the fact that the storming of the Bastille resulted in the freeing of a grand total of seven prisoners and that ol' Louis XVI brought about his own downfall with economic policies that bankrupted the country.

Meanwhile Germany's Der Spiegel reports that the favored way of commemorating Bastille Day, aside from the big military parade down the Champs-Élysées, is for young people across the country to riot. Mostly the rioters are immigrant youth fed up with being denied jobs and educational opportunities based solely on their ethnicity (some say that putting a north African-sounding name on a resume is a sure way not to get a job). Der Spiegel says that in the early morning of the 14th, more than 300 cars were torched across France, a seven percent rise from last year despite an increased police presence on the streets.
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Could Europe Create A Palestinian State?

Yesterday Israel rejected a proposal by the European Union's foreign policy chief Javier Solana that the international community pick a date for the creation of a Palestinian State, and that if by that day negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians haven't led to a state, the global community just go ahead and recognize Palestine as an independent country.

It's interesting since this is the first I've heard of the EU proposal. But Solana seems to be publicly expressing frustration over endless negotiations that seem to be going nowhere. The whole process of bringing the Israeli and Palestinian sides together to negotiate a homeland for the Palestinians began back in 1991. The two sides were close to an agreement in 2000 during the waning days of the Clinton administration, but have basically made no progress whatsoever in the decade since.

Solana's idea was for the EU to set a deadline for the two sides to negotiate a settlement. If by then they haven't reached a deal, the European Union would (in Solana's plan with the United Nations) go ahead and recognize Palestine as a country and push for their full membership in the UN.

It's a pretty simple solution to what seems like an unsolvable problem, it also puts much of the responsibility on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, since they could just stall the negotiations and still get their state in the end. Of course, maybe there's not much to negotiate - the borders of a Palestinian state are pretty clear, the stumbling block has been the Israeli settlements woven through the West Bank, settlements that under international law are illegal anyway, so one questions what there is to negotiate about them.

Speaking of the settlements, they remain a sore point between the Obama administration and Netanyahu's government - Obama wants all construction of settlements stopped, while Netanyahu has been pushing for “natural growth.” His argument boils down to this: if a family in a settlement has six kids, they should be allowed to expand the settlement to accommodate the larger population. But a new report throws a lot of cold water on that idea. Research from Israel's own Central Bureau of Statistics shows that in 2007, 36% of the growth in the settlements came from people moving into them from other parts of Israel or from abroad - that's almost 4 in 10 people, meaning there would be a lot less growth if immigration to the settlements was halted, and thus a lot less need for “natural growth.”
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Monday, July 13, 2009

Why Don’t The Conservatives Love Obama?

I’m being serious here. That was the thought I had after listening to Obama’s speech to the parliament in Ghana on Saturday morning. If you missed the speech you can find it here, and it’s well worth a read.

The speech contained a healthy dose of optimism (a.k.a. ‘hope’, Obama’s rhetorical trademark), mixed with elements of his own family history in Africa – his grandfather, who worked as a cook and despite being a respected village elder was called “boy” by his British employers, his father who started out herding goats in a rural village. The vignettes were meant to convey the message that no matter how humble your roots, we can all achieve something greater. He mixed in some religious elements, “we are all God’s children”, before he launched into the main message of the speech: that Africa, and Africans, must take responsibility for their own future, they can no longer give their tacit approval to corrupt governments and despotic leaders. Nor can they rely on foreign aid as a way of life, Obama, in so many words, said that America was happy to offer a hand up, not a hand out to Africa, and was eager to work with Africans to help spur their own development.

All in all it was an excellent speech and a message that governments across Africa needed to hear. But it’s also a speech that conservatives in America should have eaten up since so much of it was straight out of the Great Conservative Handbook.

Think about it - the speeches of the most revered conservative of the past generation, President Ronald Reagan, were filled with optimistic images (“it’s morning in America”), one of Reagan’s most often quoted rhetorical flourishes was his description of the United States as “the shining city on the hill.” Reagan also tended to use his humble mid-western upbringing as a way of illustrating the unlimited possibilities America afforded to anyone willing to work hard for their future.

George W. Bush, our most recent conservative leader, often worked religious imagery into his presidential speeches, like Obama’s “we are all God’s children” line. And the call for personal responsibility (from Obama’s Ghana speech: “you have the power to hold your leaders accountable and to build institutions that serve the people”) , has been the cornerstone of more conservative speeches, talking points and op-ed pieces than I can count.

Of course the conservative talking class has been nearly universal in their condemnation of Obama’s foreign policy, handling of the economy and health care reform ideas, even tarring him with their ultimate insult: he’s a socialist! And that’s too bad, because if they could set aside the politics for a minute, they might find a guy who, on some topics at least, is speaking their language.
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Follow The Moon Landing Live (+40 Years)

It was 40 years ago this month that the first two humans - American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin - first set foot on the Moon, one of the biggest achievements in human history and an event that ended the Space Race between the United States and Soviet Union.

The idea of the Moon mission was first proposed by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, after his assassination a year later, the country took on making his idea a reality as a way of honoring the slain president. Now the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library has come up with an innovative way of commemorating the 40th anniversary of the event, by using new media to report on the Moon landing like it was happening today.

The website wechoosethemoon.org (the name is taken from a line in Kennedy's Moon speech) will follow the mission in real-time (well, real-time, plus forty years), complete with e-mail alerts and Twitter updates of key moments during the mission as they happen (or happened). It's a pretty interesting way to relive one of the milestone events of the 20th century.
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China Accused Of 'Genocide' Over Uighur Treatment

It's nice that some world leader has finally said this: over the weekend Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called China's actions against their Uighur ethnic minority "a kind of genocide." His comments come a day after Turkey's Trade and Interior Minister called for his countrymen to boycott Chinese-made goods in protest of their treatment of the Uighurs. So far Beijing hasn't replied to either comment.

While protests between Uighurs and Han Chinese in Xinjiang province turned bloody last week, with officially 184 people killed in the fighting, Xinjiang's Uighur community says that the protests were just the end result of decades of oppression from Beijing. Since having their briefly independent homeland of East Turkestan absorbed by China in 1949, Uighurs claim that they have been an oppressed minority and that in the past two decades, as China's become more powerful, the oppression has gotten far worse. Uighurs, who are Muslim and speak a Turkish dialect, say that their mosques are regularly closed, their leaders arrested for non-existent crimes, and the use of their language suppressed. In recent years, Beijing has aggressively promoted the immigration of ethnic Han Chinese into Xinjiang - another attempt, Uighurs say, to stamp out their culture.

It would be tempting to be skeptical of the Uighur claims, if China wasn't accused of using exactly the same gameplan just to the south of Xinjiang in Tibet, where the Dalai Lama has long accused the Chinese government of all the same activities. China fears that both regions could make bids for independence from Beijing.

Meanwhile back in Urumqi (Xinjiang’s capital) China tried to close the city’s mosques last Friday (the holy day in the Muslim week), finally allowing one to briefly open for prayers after a large group gathered outside. Once prayers were over, according to the BBC, Chinese riot police beat a group of Uighur protesters who were asking for the release of relatives swept up in mass arrests earlier in the week.
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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Afghan Pro-Rape Law Returns

Remember back in April when Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a law that critics around the world said made it legal for men to rape their wives (not to mention legalizing child marriage as well)? In the face of international outrage, Karzai pulled the law for 'review'.

Well, it's back, and the clause legalizing spousal rape is gone. Now all husbands can do if their wives won't sleep with them, is deny them food until they do. Seriously. And according to the UK's Independent, the law still gives tacit approval to fathers marrying off their child daughters and has another clause that would absolve men of rape charges if they agree to marry their victim (I'm sure the victims of the crime would love that...).

Meanwhile on Friday, CNN's social networking maven, Rick Sanchez, was positively having the vapors over a report that the US might consider negotiating with elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Rick couldn't understand why the United States would even think about talking with the Taliban (missing the point, again, that we went into Afghanistan to fight al-Qaeda, not the Taliban).

C'mon Rick, is the Karzai government really that much of an improvement? Meanwhile, our top ally in the Afghan mission, the British are starting to question their involvement in Afghanistan now that their military death toll there has passed the number of British soldiers lost in Iraq. A recent poll found that 60% of Brits weren’t convinced that keeping troops in Afghanistan was in their national interest. I’m sure the revelations over the new rape law won’t help the UK government to make its case to stay.
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Zambia's Bamboo Bikes

Cool story out of Zambia about sustainable development and local engineering. After visiting an impoverished part of their country, two Zambian college students wanted to come up with a way to provide the region with good-quality jobs using locally-sourced materials. Their solution: bicycles made out of bamboo, and thus Zambikes was born.

Zambikes uses locally-grown bamboo to fashion bicycle frames. Bamboo is a fast-growing, totally renewable crop; an added benefit in using it for bicycle frames is that it’s also a natural shock-absorber - a plus for riding over rough terrain. The Zambikes concept has been so successful the factory has developed several modifications to the standard bike frame, including a cargo-hauling model and a three-wheeled rural ambulance, now being used by several clinics in the region. There are now plans to start selling Zambikes in the United States under their Zambian nickname “bambooseros”. Vaugh Spethmann, one of Zambikes co-founders is excited about the idea. “The thought of Zambian-made products being sold in the USA. That just doesn't happen.”

Check out the whole BBC article, it’s definitely worth a read.
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Friday, July 10, 2009

British MEP: Let's Sink Immigrant Boats!

A newly-elected British member of the European Parliament (or MEP as they're called) thinks he has an innovative solution to the problem of African immigrants trying to illegally get into Europe by sailing across the Mediterranean Sea - just sink their boats!

Nick Griffin, head of the far-right, anti-immigrant (and newest member of the Euro Parliament) British National Party thinks this is a great idea. He says that the only way to stem illegal immigration from Africa is to "get very tough" with those trying to get in, and if drastic steps aren't taken, Europe will be "swamped by the Third World."

Of course Griffin doesn't want to kill African immigrants - he even grandly says that after their boats are blown out of the sea and the shocked immigrants (who may or may not know how to swim) are thrown into the water, some life rafts can be dropped to them so they can, apparently, row "back to Libya." I'm sure that will work out just fine.

The BNP is one of a brace of far-right parties that, thanks to a lot of voter apathy in Europe, recently found themselves elected to the European Parliament. Luckily talks between parties like the BNP, France's National Front and Italy's Northern League have fallen apart, so it's unlikely they will be able to form a voting block in the new parliament, meaning their ability to influence laws and policies will be practically nil.

Perhaps coincidentally, on Monday Scotland Yard warned of the increased potential for terrorist attacks against Britain's Muslim community. The Yard said that an increase in neo-Nazi groups spouting anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric could lead to a "spectacular" terrorist attack against Muslim and/or immigrant communities in England, specifically designed to ignite a 'race war'. While al-Qaeda remains the focus of Scotland Yard's anti-terrorism efforts, Commander Shaun Sawyer told officials in London of the need to "grow" the unit focused on domestic far-right threats.
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Migrant Bust Becomes Tajikistan's Problem

So what do you do with migrant workers when the jobs dry up?

That's the question that Tajikistan is now trying to answer - as Russia's economy boomed through much of the early part of this decade, the Central Asian nation sent more than a million of men there to work as laborers. In return the Tajik economy received an influx of more than $2 billion in remittances (payments sent home by people working abroad) in 2008 alone, about half of their Gross Domestic Product. But now the Russian economy is in a slump, construction projects have been halted and unemployment is on the rise. And those feeling the effects the hardest are the migrant workers.

The effect is rippling through Tajik society. Many families, without remittance payments coming in from family in Russia, now can't send their children to school, and some are even having a hard time putting food on the table. Some Tajik men have returned home, only to find there are few jobs, despite government promises of employment for all (of course many men left Tajikistan in the first place because there were no jobs to be had). For other men still in Russia, going home isn't even an option because they cannot afford the train ticket.

There is also concern that the migrant situation could lead to unrest within Tajikistan (not to mention the neighboring countries of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, which also shipped many men to Russia as migrant laborers, as well), with fear that extremism from Afghanistan could spread throughout Central Asia. Late in May there was a suicide bombing along the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan border that Uzbek authorities blamed on Islamic terrorists.
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Russian Blacks Weigh In On Obama Visit

While President Obama failed to get the same rapturous reception in Russia that he's gotten in other parts of Europe, there was one segment of Russia's society that was keenly interested in his visit – Russia’s blacks.

It's estimated that there are between 40,000 and 70,000 people of African descent in Russia today (out of a total population of roughly 140 million) - most came in one of two waves of immigration: socialist-leaning African-Americans who fled racism in the United States in the 1920's and African students who went to universities in the Soviet Union following World War II.

The place of the Russian-African community within Russia is interesting. Most of those interviewed by Radio Free Liberty said that, as Russia's most visible minority group, they often felt excluded by Russian society, yet said it was something different than the racism some of their ancestors faced in the United States (though in recent years there have been several high-profile race-based attacks on Africans by Russian skinhead groups). Grigory Siyatinda, an actor interviewed for the story said this about growing up as a black man in Russia: "it wasn't racism, what I experienced during my childhood in Tyumen (a city in Siberia). I was the only black person in Tyumen...there was simply this heightened curiosity toward me. It was heightened so much at times that it crossed over the borders of tact."

While some blacks, like Grigory, have had success in the entertainment and sports fields in Russia, members of the community hoped that Obama's visit would now spur Russian-Africans to gains in other fields like the sciences and politics as well.
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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Uighur Riots Revisited - Much Worse Than Originally Thought

A follow up now from Sunday's story about protests by ethnic Uighurs in China. On Sunday initial reports said that three people were killed in the riots that followed, it turns out that the number of dead was really 156.

Or perhaps more. The Chinese government said that of the 156 casualties, most were ethnic Han Chinese - which prompted this question from the Huffington Post's Eric Anderson on why China was dividing the casualties up along ethnic lines, since, he asks, aren't they all Chinese citizens? Uighur exile groups, for their part, say the number killed is actually much, much higher, and that 90% of the casualties are in fact Uighurs.

The Uighurs are also saying that more than a thousand Uighur men have been detained in mass arrests following Sunday's riot. The BBC World News had some interesting footage out of Xinjiang on Tuesday - a peaceful protest by Uighur women demanding the release of their sons/husbands/brothers was met by a huge Chinese police presence; meanwhile a large mob of Han Chinese, armed with clubs and sticks and vowing "revenge" against the Uighurs, were shown running through the streets of Urumqi with no police in sight.

It's hard to figure out what exactly is happening in Xinjiang - China has restricted the images coming out of the province (the BBC footage was a rare exception) - widespread outages are reported in Internet and cellphone service. It is clear that there was a large Uighur (and they say peaceful) rally on Sunday to protest the murder of two Uighur men at the hands of a Han Chinese mob in Guangdong in Southern China. That rally was met with a massive police response, things got ugly and people were killed. Since then there have been large-scale arrests of Uighurs in Xinjiang, and Han Chinese have been seen attacking Uighurs on the street apparently in revenge for the deaths of Han Chinese on Sunday.

Beijing is painting this as an uprising by an ethnic group with dreams of independence from China and a willingness to use violence to get it - even though Uighur groups say that they were waving Chinese flags at the Sunday rally and were only asking that the laws of their country, China, be enforced against the Han Chinese mob in Guangdong. It's hard to take Beijing's word at face value, since they have long portrayed the Uighurs in a negative light, even when there's no evidence to support their claims. Let's keep in mind that even after deciding they were innocent any terrorist activities, the United States kept 23 Uighur men at Guantanamo Bay for years because they were sure the men would be arrested, likely tortured and possibly shot by authorities as terrorists if returned to China.

So for a view of the other side of the story you can check out this piece written by Uighur leader in exile Rebiya Kadeer (who ironically was once considered a Chinese 'success story' as a Muslim businesswoman who was prospering in modern China).
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Sudan Tanks Found By DIY Intelligence

You might remember this story from last September about how the Somali pirates got more than they bargained for when they snatched the Ukrainian-owned MV Faina only to discover its cargo included 33 Soviet-built T-72 tanks. In addition to worrying that those tanks could find their way into the hands of terrorists, the bigger question was where were they heading in the first place? The shipping company in Ukraine said they were bound for Kenya, but there was some thought that they actually were heading for South Sudan, a claim denied by the governments of Ukraine and Kenya. Now, thanks to some investigative work, we now know their ultimate destination was, in fact, South Sudan.

This is sparking more fears of (another) upcoming war in Sudan. In 2005, rebels in South Sudan signed a cease-fire agreement with the central government in Khartoum. One provision of the cease-fire was that a referendum on the South's independence would be held in 2011. It would seem that the leaders of South Sudan are not only expecting the vote to be for independence, but also that Khartoum will ignore the will of the people and try to keep the South as part of Sudan by force, and they're now working to build up their military to prepare for a re-launch of the civil war.

How we got this information itself is pretty interesting - it was the result of two staff members of the magazine Jane’s Defence Weekly pouring over some commercially available satellite imagery and tracking down the 33 tanks. Wired.com's Danger Room blog makes the point that with a little knowledge and a good bit of patience, public satellite image services, like Google Earth, are making it possible for anyone to become their own armchair intelligence agency.
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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The End For Africa's Iron Lady?

Liberia's President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf may be may be tossed out of office, thanks to the recommendation of the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Johnson-Sirleaf was elected president in 2005, becoming the first woman ever to be elected head-of-state in Africa, and was given the enormous task of trying to rebuild a country wracked by two decades of bloody civil war. The conflicts in Liberia were especially brutal - rape and mutilation were used as weapons of war, so too were child soldiers - the conflict was fueled by illegally mined diamonds (often referred to as "conflict diamonds" or "blood diamonds"). Johnson-Sirleaf's election came at the end of the war, and was hailed as the start of a new day for Liberia. Since taking office she's started to rebuild the country's shattered economy and Liberia has enjoyed a few peaceful years. In 2007, President Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her efforts.

Ironically, Johnson-Sirleaf helped to set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2005, modeled after a similar one set up in South Africa to deal with the aftermath of the Apartheid regime, to address crimes committed during the civil wars. The Commission though is now recommending 30-year bans from office for a host of politicians who backed former warlord Charles Taylor, whose rise to power kicked off Liberia's second civil war, Johnson-Sirleaf included.

Johnson-Sirleaf admits to being "fooled" by Taylor, who led an uprising against Liberia's military dictator Samuel Doe in 1990, igniting more than a decade of additional fighting. The decision on whether to adopt the Commission's recommendations now is up to the Liberian Parliament, which is controlled by Johnson-Sirleaf's political opponents.
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Afghan Politics: Stuck With Karzai

The Huffington Post reports that many Afghanis, as well as US foreign policy officials, are resigning themselves to another five years of incompetent rule by current President Hamid Karzai.

Afghanistan goes to the polls next month, but even though the elections will be fair and open, many are already predicting that Karzai will be reelected. If that happens it won't be because of his good governance policies - it's been the ineptitude and outright corruption of Karzai's government that has led to a resurgence of the Taliban throughout much of the country; but Karzai will likely triumph because of the way he's adroitly reshaped the country's political landscape. Back in May we reported here that Karzai had convinced the man thought to be his chief competition in the election, regional governor Gul Agha Sherzai (who was also one of the first Afghanis to sign onto the War on Terror, post 9/11) to drop out of the race. HuffPo, meanwhile, describes how Karzai has lined up a host of warlords as his backers, and also says that US campaign-meister James Carville will be traveling to Afghanistan to advise Dr. Ashraf Ghani, candidate of choice among Afghanistan's urban elite.

But Wired.com's Danger Room blog reports that the US might have inadvertently had a solution to their Karzai problem thanks to the US military's reliance on no-bid military contracts. The backstory here is that the US gave a no-bid contract to General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems to provide three helicopters for the Afghani president. The choppers came tricked out with everything a head-of-state could want: leather chairs, flat screen TVs (with DVD players), an onboard toilet and wood paneling; everything except an anti-missile defense system (another triumph of the no-bid system in providing quality equipment).

Now when you consider that it was the success of Afghan rebels using of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles against helicopters that drove the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan back in the 1980s, you'd think that having an automatic AA system would be something more important for the presidential helicopter than a DVD player...In the end though, the US Army opted for safety over luxury and stripped out some of the TV players to add in an anti-missile defense system.

Of course, given the way next month's election seems to be heading, maybe they'll regret that decision.
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Monday, July 6, 2009

Happy AK-Birthday

Turns out that today is the anniversary of one of the world's greatest weapons of war. On this day back in 1947 the AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle first went into production.

Mikhail Kalashnikov created the AK-47 to help the Soviets fight the Germans during World War II. The gun wasn't perfected in time to be used in the war, though it did go on to become the most-produced assault riffle ever - its production outnumbering the production of all other types of assault rifles combined. And thanks to its durability and ease-of-use, it became the favorite of mercenaries and revolutionaries around the world, not to mention also becoming a cultural icon - even making its way onto the flag of Mozambique, in honor of the role the Kalashnikov played in the country's war of liberation.

While Mikhail Kalashnikov said he regrets that his creation became the weapon of choice for terrorists and drug dealers the world over, he says he does not feel guilty: "I constructed arms to defend my country."
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Make Beer Not Nukes?

Well, North Korea might be one of the last bastions of Communism in the world, but apparently that doesn't mean they’re against a little advertising here and there. The BBC is reporting that North Korea's state-run brewery has produced its first TV ad for Taedonggang beer, and no the tagline isn't "buy a six-pack or your family goes to a forced labor camp."

Apparently Taedonggang, by most descriptions, is pretty good beer. North Korea got into the beer-making business in 2002 after it bought Britain's Ushers Brewery and shipped it lock, stock and keg to the Hermit Kingdom. Taedonggang is described as sweet with a slightly bitter aftertaste; the Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il even gave it his august seal of approval after touring the brewery.

But don't expect to see it in your local liquor store anytime soon, not because of any UN-sanctioned boycott, but because Taedonggang seems to have major shipping problems - the bottles they use are said to be extremely fragile and they also have problems with their bottle-capping machine.

And let's reflect on that for a minute: North Korea hasn't mastered the art of making a decent beer bottle, yet we're worried about them building inter-continental ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs? Doesn’t quite add up, does it?
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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Obama's Agenda Upsets Africans

President Obama leaves tonight on a week-long foreign tour. Even though his visit to Russia is grabbing all the headlines, and his trip to Italy for the G8 summit is the real motivation for even going abroad in the first place, his decision to drop in on Africa is ruffling some feathers.

Let's set aside the fact that Obama's already been to Africa - visiting Cairo, Egypt to give his milestone speech to the Muslim people - this is the first time Obama's visiting Sub-Saharan Africa, the birthplace of his father. But instead of his father's homeland, Kenya, Obama's picked Ghana as the site of his first visit. And that decision has rubbed some people in Kenya the wrong way (not to mention folks in Nigeria as well).

But there's a good reason behind Obama's choice of the small West African nation. In a continent where, historically, military coups have outnumbered free and fair elections, Ghana's held five straight peaceful elections, including one late last year where power was successfully transferred between rival parties. Obama even told the website allafrica.com that "highlighting" Ghana's peaceful elections was the motivation for his visit.

By contrast, the coalition government in Kenya between President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga has inspired a sex strike and a popular TV show with puppets mocking the country's leaders, but has produced little in actual good governance over the past year and a half. The same goes for Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, which also thought it should have been given the honor of Obama's first visit. But their last presidential election was so rigged, even local officials wouldn't vouch for the results, and President Umaru Yar'Adua has so far failed to even start to tackle corruption or any of the other serious problems facing Nigeria.

So Ghana gets the honor of Obama's first visit to the heart of Africa, the administration hopes the rest of the continent will get the message.
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Chinese Riot Police Break Up Uighur Protest

News out of China today is that Chinese officials met a peaceful protest with tear gas, riot police and at least 300 arrests.

The protests occurred in the northwest city of Urumqi in Xinjiang province and was staged by members of China's Uighur ethnic minority. Uighur groups called for a peaceful march in the city's market to protest the murder of two Uighur men at the hands of an angry mob who thought they had sexually harassed ethnic Han Chinese women (the Han are China's dominant ethnic group).

According to Uighur Rights groups, riot police in armored vehicles arrived soon after the rally started and began beating protesters and staging mass arrests. The Chinese government counters that the Uighur group were the ones who started trouble when they began assaulting people at the market and that the police only stepped in to preserve order.

I'm skeptical of the official story, let's keep in mind that the Chinese government also considers the Dalai Lama to be a sort of terrorist. Videos of the protests in Urumqi were quickly scrubbed from the Internet by Chinese censors, but some said that they looked a lot like protests in Tibet last year that were also brutally put down by Chinese authorities. And that begs the question, if the Chinese authorities were just responding to an unruly Uighur mob attacking people at the town market, then why not publicize the videos, since they seem to back up your official story?

We all can probably guess at the answer to that one.
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Facebook Snares Spy Chief

It's bad enough when criminals on the lam are dumb enough to post Facebook updates, but you'd think the wife of a country's chief of intelligence services would know better.

Apparently not, at least not in Great Britain, where Lady Shelley Sawers, the wife of new MI6 head John Sawers posted all sorts of details onto her Facebook page, including where they lived and worked and galleries of family photos. The information was really just typical, mundane Facebook material, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband quipped: "It is not a state secret that he [Sawers] wears Speedo swimming trunks," but when your job is 'spy', I'd think you'd want to keep as many private details of your family private as possible, since it's rather likely there will be people out there who'd like to do you, or your family, harm.

Mrs. Sawyers Facebook page is now reportedly down, but when the inevitable spoof version pops up, we'll post a link.
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Friday, July 3, 2009

Bad Neocon Advice, Russian Edition

Barack Obama is heading to Russia on Sunday for a state visit and to try to continue the process of "resetting" our relationship with Moscow. So, of course, a group of neoconservatives have come forward to slam Obama's latest attempt at charting a new foreign policy course for America.

The culprits this time are the folks at the Foreign Policy Initiative, the successor to another famous neocon think-tank, the Project for the New American Century (which basically drafted the outline for George Dubya's foreign policy). They've drafted a letter to Obama demanding that when the two leaders meet, he lecture President Dmirty Medvedev on Russia's human rights record.

So rather than trying to build better relations with Russia, to try to reach an agreement on some important issues like Iran, North Korea or Afghanistan (where Russia just announced they'll allow the transport of Afghanistan-bound US/NATO military supplies across Russia), they want Obama to treat Medvedev like a misbehaving schoolboy, and to do so on his home turf no less. Great strategy guys…

Granted, Russia's recent track record on issues like political expression and freedom of the press leaves a lot of room for improvement, but if we're going to be dishing out human rights lectures, maybe we ought to start with China - where there's no free press (and if they have their way, Internet either), opponents of the government regularly find themselves in labor camps, and Beijing is engineering the cultural genocide of both the Tibetans and the Uighurs. Maybe, while we’re lecturing, we could even remind our friends in the European Union that there's more to ‘minority rights’ than making sure Gallic and Catalan is taught in schools, it also means protecting the rights of less-popular groups like the Roma and Russians (in the Baltic countries) as well, something the EU has seemed reluctant to do.

If we care about human rights in Russia, then we'll repair the strained US-Russian relationship first - concern from a friend is usually better received than criticism from a rival. Urging Obama to launch into a pro-rights tirade against Medvedev will do more harm than good.
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When is a Coup not a Coup?

Last Sunday the Honduran army bundled up President Manuel Zelaya and dropped him off in neighboring Costa Rica, telling him his services were no longer needed. The backstory is that Pres. Zelaya was planning, that very Sunday, to hold a controversial referendum about changing the Honduran constitution to allow him to run for a second term - this despite the fact that the Honduran constitution very clearly states that the part about the president's term in office can't be amended.

The military's move has drawn a lot of international criticism from the likes of Barack Obama, the Organization of American States and the United Nation, just to name a few, all of whom branded the event a "coup" and called for the immediate return of Mr. Zelaya to the presidency (RealClearWorld provided a nice roundup of commentary on what's going on in Honduras here).

But is it really a coup? Former Honduran Presidential adviser Octavio Sánchez makes a fairly compelling argument that rather than staging a coup, the Honduran military was in fact upholding the constitution. The core of his argument is Article 239 of the Honduran constitution, which limits the president to one term in office. It goes on to say: "whoever violates this law or proposes its reform...will immediately cease in their functions and will be unable to hold any public office for a period of 10 years." Sánchez says that Zelaya's trying to hold a referendum on amending the constitution to allow him to run for a second term was a direct violation of Article 239, and that under law the military had to step in and remove him from power.

Since I'm not fluent in Spanish, I'll have to take Sánchez's word on the text of Article 239, but assuming it is as described, he makes a good case that what happened in Honduras as less of a coup, and more - like Sánchez says - a proper exercise of the rule of law.
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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Was North Korea 'Weapons Ship' A Hoax?

Perhaps upset at the way Michael Jackson's death was dominating the news, Kim Jong-Il made a bid to grab the world's attention by shooting off four short-range missiles this morning.

The test wasn't a total surprise since North Korea has been telling ships to stay out of a part of the Sea of Japan where the missiles landed for the past two weeks. With the Fourth of July coming up on Sunday, and North Korea acting rather belligerent these days, there's been speculation that they might mark the day with the test of a long-range missile that they claim could reach Hawaii. North Korea used the Fourth of July in 2006 for the (failed) test of a Taepodong-2 ICBM, along with a brace of smaller rockets. But intelligence officials haven't seen the kind of activity that usually goes along with a North Korean long-range missile launch. The last Taepodong-2 test this past April, (another failure) came after two months of preparation.

Meanwhile mystery continues to surround a North Korean cargo ship. Officials first worried that the Kang Nam 1 was carrying material from North Korea's suspected weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program, then it was thought the ship was hauling conventional weapons to Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) in violation of a UN-backed embargo of the country. Some US officials, like Sen. John McCain, argued for the US Navy intercepting the Kang Nam 1 to inspect it or force into port before reaching Myanmar (after North Korea's April missile test, the US, Japan and South Korea said they would reserve the right to stop any ships they thought were carrying WMD technology as a type of sanctions against North Korea).

But now the ship has apparently turned around, prompting "unnamed officials" from the Obama administration to wonder if the whole voyage of the Kang Nam 1 wasn't an elaborate scam by North Korea to draw the United States (or Japan or South Korea) into an international incident where they would force the ship to stop only to find that it was carrying some benign cargo, making North Korea look like the victim of some conspiracy against it in the process.

The Kang Nam 1 is currently off the coast of Hong Kong.
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Saddam Hussein: I Lied About WMDs

According to just-released transcripts of Saddam Hussein's interrogations at the hands of FBI officers, he made up all that stuff about Iraq actually having a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program to keep Iran from attacking his country.

Iraq and Iran spent most of the 1980's locked in a bloody war that killed hundreds of thousands of people on each side. Hussein feared that Iran would attack again if they thought Iraq was weak, so he encouraged the belief that Iraq was actively pursuing WMD technology to keep the Iranians at bay. He told his FBI interrogators that he was much more worried about Iran than he was the United States, thinking that Iraq could absorb a second US-led invasion, if it came to that.

Ironically Hussein and George W. Bush seemed to have a similar world view in a couple of key ways: they both thought that Iran was led by a bunch of religious "fanatics" and Saddam condemned Osama bin Laden as a "zealot" - adding that he never supported the Saudi-born terrorist.
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In Russia, All Bets Are Off

Well, most bets at least, now that most of the country's casinos have been closed thanks to a law signed back in 2006 by then-President Vladimir Putin.

According to the law, as of July 1, casinos can now only operate in four specially-designated regions spread out across the country, and none are anywhere near the two Russian cities that were home to hundreds of casinos and gaming parlors: Moscow and St. Petersburg. That's probably by design since Putin called gambling addiction an even worse addiction than alcoholism (though oddly enough one gambling zone is in the Altai region of Siberia, a favorite summer vacation spot for Putin).

But you have to wonder if it's a wise move now, given that Russia's economy is in the midst of a deep recession. Few casinos seem willing to pack up and leave Moscow for the approved gambling zones in Siberia or the Russian Far East. The government claims the law will only put about 10,000 people out of work, though Russia's trade organization for the gaming industry says the figure will be more than 300,000 - that's a lot of job losses for a struggling economy to absorb.

Russia's loss though could be Belarus' gain. The government there just announced plans to set up their own gambling zone outside the capital, Minsk, complete with duty-free shopping and visa-free travel. Of course nothing screams "party" like the thought of a long weekend in perhaps the most Soviet of former-Soviet states and the one run by a guy who has been called "Europe's last dictator". If you think that Sam Rothstein was tough on cheaters, imagine how security at Casino Minsk will handle card counters...
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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Happy Canada Day!

July 1st is Canada's national holiday, so in honor of our neighbors to the north, here's a bit of Canadian horn-tooting from MacLeans magazine.

According to MacLeans (and here the "we" means "Canadians"): "we’re wealthier than the Americans, we live longer than the Swedes, we’re more industrious than the Germans, we have more lovers than the Italians, we eat better than the French and we have more TVs than the Japanese."

More facts and figures can be found in the MacLeans article. Happy Canada Day!
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Russians Say Go Back To Old Rules - Poll

According to a new poll, a majority of Russians want to see the election reforms put in by Vladimir Putin reversed.

Back in 2004 Putin signed a law that took selection of the governors of Russia's 83 regions out of the hands of the voters and put it into his. Putin's argument was that direct appointment of local governors was the only way to fight widespread corruption in some of Russia's far-flung regions, and that some governors rigged their elections meaning the voters had no way of ousting them (an ironic claim since Putin himself has been accused of meddling in a number of Russia's recent elections).

At the time, there was little protest over the change from within Russia, even though governments in Europe and the United States called it another sign of the decline of Russian democracy. But now, according to a poll by the Levada Center, 57% of those surveyed want to go back to electing their governors, complaining that the Kremlin-picked ones only care about pleasing Moscow, not their local constituents.

In a separate question, 42%, a plurality of those responding, want changes to another Putin-backed law that ended the direct election of members of the national parliament. In 2007 the law was changed so that all the seats in the Duma are distributed on the basis of what percentage of the vote a particular party receives (assuming they get more than 7% of the total, less than that and they get no seats at all). Previously, half the seats were distributed on a party-basis, while the other half were elected directly.

But the party-distribution model has been criticized as ineffective. Whether the public mood results in more changes to the election law remains to be seen.
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Israel Slammed By Rights Groups (And Arrests A Former Member Of Congress)

Israel, on Wednesday, was slammed by not one but two of the world's leading human rights groups over its conduct in last January's military campaign in the Gaza Strip.

First, Human Rights Watch blasted Israel for its use of unmanned drone aircraft armed with air-to-ground rockets, which HRW said was responsible for the deaths of 29 civilians, eight of them children. Drone aircraft were said to be responsible for incidents where Palestinian children were killed while playing on a rooftop and another where a group of students were killed while waiting for a bus. Because of the high-resolution cameras that drone aircraft use to view the ground below them, HRW investigators said that Israeli operators should have realized they were targeting civilians and not militants in those situations.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International accused Israel of "wanton destruction" in their Gaza campaign, saying that much of the damage done could not be justified under the rules of war. Thousands of buildings in Gaza were destroyed or heavily damaged in the fighting, while estimates are that between 1,100 and 1,400 Palestinians were killed. Amnesty also found no evidence to support Israeli claims that Hamas militants were using civilians as "human shields", but did basically accuse Israel of doing just that by forcing Palestinians civilians to stay in buildings that were taken over by Israeli troops.

Amnesty International did also accuse Hamas of their own war crimes for deliberately targeting civilians by launching rockets and mortars into towns in Southern Israel along the border with Gaza.

And you would think if a former member of Congress were arrested in a foreign country, it might make the evening news. But Israel's detention of former Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney has gone all but unnoticed (after all it has only been a week since Michael Jackson died), even though Israeli forces detained her on Tuesday. McKinney was one of 20 human rights activists onboard a boat loaded with humanitarian supplies that tried to break Israel's naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. The ship was stopped and its passengers, McKinney included, detained by the Israelis.

The Green Party, which organized the boat trip, is demanding the immediate release of all the activists, a demand the US Congress so far has failed to echo.
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