Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Spies Like Us

The ten Russians recently expelled from the United States on charges that they were spying for the Motherland recently had an important visitor, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The BBC reported on Sunday that Putin visited with 10 of the 11 deported Russians, including perhaps the world’s most famous redhead, Anna Chapman – it’s of course worth noting here that Putin began his career as an officer in that most quintessential spy agency, the KGB. Putin apparently removed any doubt that the ten deportees were engaged in espionage, the BBC quotes the Prime Minister as saying in part: “…(to) do what are you told to do for the interest of your motherland for many years without counting on diplomatic immunity.” Putin also threw in a couple of ominous notes – he said that they all sang “patriotic” songs from the Soviet-era (not exactly the sort of thing that you want to do when you’re trying to play down the Cold War feeling of this whole incident…) and that the ten were exposed by an act of “betrayal,” noting that in the spy world betrayers usually meet bad ends. When asked if this meant the Russian government planned any more official action in the case, Putin said no, adding that: “they [spies, presumably] live by their own laws, and all special services are well aware of these laws.”

Of course it is entirely possible that a lot of Putin’s tough talk was meant for consumption at home, where the spies – well, Chapman at least – have been embraced by the country. Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency reported that Anna Chapman’s Facebook page was the single most-visited social networking site in Russia last month, with many Russians leaving messages and words of support for her. Meanwhile, a newspaper in Chapman’s hometown of Volgograd is sponsoring a songwriting contest for ballads in her honor. There were also rumors last week that Chapman was trying to sell a story of her life, something she denied. Part of the agreement that saw her, and the others, swapped and sent back to Russia was that none of them would be able to profit financially by selling their stories.
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Book Review: Putin’s Oil

If you’re looking for a summer read, cruise on over to The Mantle and check out my review of the new book Putin’s Oil by journalist Martin Sixsmith. The book details the battle of wills between Russian President Vladimir Putin and billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, head of the oil conglomerate Yukos, once Russia’s largest corporation. When I say “former” you might be able to guess how this turns out for Khodorkovsky, but Sixsmith provides a rich insight into the “New Russia” thanks to dozens of interviews with many people intimately involved with the two men and the legal battle that ensued between them; one that makes the book well worth reading, even if you already know how the case turns out.
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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Child Soldiers: Your Tax Dollars At Work

Came across this story from a couple of weeks ago by the New York Times’ Jeffery Gettleman (kudos to Gettleman by the way for some fine reporting from Somalia) about perhaps an unintended consequence of the United States’ covert involvement in Somalia: child soldiers.

Sadly, child soldiers have become a feature of some of Africa’s bloodier conflicts, from the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia to the insurgent Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Gettleman reports that now armed children - between 10 and 13 years old - are starting to appear in Somalia, not only in the ranks of the Islamist militias active in the country, but also in service with the internationally-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) – the group that supposedly is trying to bring the ideas of democracy and the rule of law back to this war-torn country. Gettlemen tells the story of Awil, a boy who believes he is 12 (Awil was abandoned by his parents and has no birth certificate) who “struggles” to carry the ten pound weight of his loaded Kalashnikov assault rifle, though he does not hesitate to point it at drivers attempting to speed past his roadside checkpoint. Awil is a member in good-standing of a TFG militia, the TFG meanwhile is funded in part by the United States, which means that we are helping to provide the $1.50 Awil earns a day for being a soldier. One of his comrades, Ahmed, claims that when he was 12 he was sent for military training to Uganda, where US soldiers are helping to try to whip the TFG militia into something resembling an army – meaning that the US may have actually directly trained Ahmed and other child soldiers, though Gettleman notes he could not independently confirm this part of the story.

Past the disturbing image of child soldiers - and the more disturbing image of US-funded child soldiers - the story of Awil points to a larger problem: the basic neglect the world has had towards Somalia for the past two decades. The country has largely been without a functioning government since their last dictator, Siad Barre, was overthrown in 1991. After the tragic (and perhaps embarrassing) loss in combat of 19 US troops in Mogadishu in 1993 - an event immortalized in the book/film Black Hawk Down, ostensibly there to provide security for a humanitarian food aid program, the global community has largely taken a hands-off approach to Somalia. The TFG was suppose to restore order to the country, but has only been a presence in Somalia for the past few years; and then basically only in Mogadishu – not much of an impact considering that from north-to-south Somalia is about as long as the East Coast of the United States. The TFG only reentered Somalia with the support of Ethiopian troops, who themselves only backed the TFG in a meaningful way when it looked like pro-Islamist militias might take over the country (Ethiopia is largely Christian). After a couple of years, Ethiopia grew tired of an ongoing guerilla campaign against the Islamist militias and pulled out, leaving a small force of troops from Uganda and Burundi as the military muscle behind the TFG – well, them and “soldiers” like Awil. The TFG admits that they need to “screen” potential soldiers more carefully; though they also admit they need anyone who can hold a rifle in their struggle against militant groups like al-Shabab, who control large parts of Somalia. So expect children like Awil to find themselves with guns in their hands, apparently at US taxpayer expense.
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India’s Laptop For The Masses

On Friday the government of India announced plans to produce and sell a touch-pad laptop computer, with many of the same features of Apple’s new iPad, for the bargain-basement price of just $35. India’s Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal, said the device was designed by the India Institute of Technology and the Indian Institute of Science, two of the country’s elite universities; and that the cost-savings came in large part by using low-cost components: the device uses flash memory instead of a hard drive for data storage and uses an open-source Linux-based operating system.

The Indian device is similar in concept to the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, a low-cost computer aimed at students in developing nations who otherwise couldn’t afford one and is meant to prevent them from being left behind in the digital age by giving them access to the Internet and teaching them how to use digital technology. The OLPC laptop and the new Indian device both rely on the idea of “economy of scale” for their low, low prices; economy of scale reasons that most of the cost of a given device comes in its design and prototype phase, once it is put into production though the cost will drop with every unit produced – make millions and the per unit cost will be quite small.

But OLPC never actually hit its target price of $100, each unit sells for about twice that (though they did succeed in creating a rugged, easy-to-use laptop for students in the developing world). Critics of the Indian project say that the Indian government’s price-point of $35 is utterly unrealistic. Minister Sibal admitted the government still needs to find a producer for the laptop, and that the government tapped scientists on staff at the universities to develop the prototype after the private sector failed to meet a government tender to do so. The Economic Times of India also notes that one in two Indians (roughly half a billion people) already regularly access the Internet via their mobile phones, questioning whether the cheap touch-pad laptop is even needed in the first place.

An earlier attempt by the Indian government to create and distribute a low-cost laptop never got off the ground, we’ll keep an eye on this second attempt and see if it fares any better.
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Sunday, July 18, 2010

From Spy To Politician?

Recap time on the Russian Spy Scandal. The US and Russia seemed happy to wrap the whole sordid affair up ten days ago with a hastily arranged swap of agents in Vienna, Austria; the Russians to get the world’s attention off their generally lousy spycraft and the Americans perhaps to cover-up the fact that the FBI very well may have blown a decade-long investigation into the ring with their ham-fisted attempt to ensnare alleged spy Anna Chapman.

Since getting back to Russia, ten of the eleven swapped agents seem to have quickly faded into obscurity; the eleventh of course is Anna Chapman, who according to Newsweek, could find herself in the Duma, the Russian Parliament. The head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) in Chapman’s hometown of Volgograd is promoting her for a seat in the next Duma elections in 2012. The LDPR is one of the few official opposition parties in the Duma; the party is mostly known for the antics of their leader, the fiery nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, himself best known for making the occasional outrageous statement, or for in his younger days, starting fist-fights within parliament. As Newsweek notes, the LDPR has a track record for giving seats to Russian pop culture icons and sport stars, despite their utter lack of political experience. An upside to a political future is that it, under Russian law, would give her immunity from any future prosecution – perhaps even allowing her to travel to the United States or United Kingdom, which revoked her British citizenship (her former husband was British) soon after her swap back to Moscow.

A Kremlin-backed youth group also called on the mayor of Volgograd to give Chapman “honored citizen” status, and she has also achieved another rank of fame in the Internet age – her own Wikipedia page (which lists her occupation as “businesswoman, independent sales consultant, entrepreneur, and agent of the Russian Federation”). And if Chapman does make the transition from “spy” to politician, she will be following in some famous footsteps.

Meanwhile, a recent public opinion poll conducted by Russia’s Levada Center showed that just more than half (53%) thought the whole spy scandal was cooked up by the FBI as a way to derail improving US-Russian relations. An even larger majority (58%) though believed that the scandal would soon blow over with little damage done to bilateral relations.
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Accusations Fly Over North Korean Healthcare

One of the world’s top human rights organizations and the United Nations main health agency haven gotten into an outright catfight over the state of healthcare in North Korea.

Three months ago the World Health Organization released a study calling the North Korean state-run healthcare system the “envy of the developing world,” saying that the country offered universal coverage to its citizens thanks to an ample supply of doctors and nurses who efficiently delivered their services. On Thursday, Amnesty International replied with a report of their own on that basically called the WHO’s study nonsense (we’re being polite here). Amnesty’s own report was filled with stories of doctors performing amputations without anesthesia and of hospitals lit by candlelight due to a lack of electricity. The study further found that medical services often weren’t available unless the patient was first able to pay the doctor a bribe first (presumably for their amputation-by-candlelight). The WHO, in turn, has shot back, defending the methodology of their study while attacking Amnesty International’s, which they claim was based largely on anecdotal stories, some dating back ten years. They added for good measure that the horror stories were not confirmed by the WHO’s own study of the North Korean system.

The Associated Press story mentions in passing an interesting phenomenon possibly at play in the WHO report on North Korea – namely that groups like the WHO rely on the will of the government to operate within a given country, and in some cases (like North Korea), this means dealing with some pretty odious regimes. It’s a discussion that I’ve had with some people I know who work within the UN system. They realize that there is a belief among some in the general public that the United Nations tends to go easy on the world’s bad governments. Of course they realize that leaders like Kim Jong-il are pretty heinous people, but they also realize if they’re too critical of the local despot, they will be kicked out of the country. So, my UN colleagues explain, they hold their tongues for the greater good of providing what aid they can to people living on the margins of societies where the government could in fact care less if they live or die (and in some cases would actually prefer the latter).

It’s a hard point to argue in some ways, though the critique of the WHO report on North Korea was that it was just so positive in discussing their health care system, far beyond what its expected would be needed to keep the Dear Leader happy and out of the WHO’s hair. When questioned on Friday in response to the Amnesty report on what developing countries “envied” the North Korean health care system, a WHO spokeswoman couldn’t name any. The WHO-Amnesty debate isn’t likely to go away anytime soon neither is the debate on how far the UN should go along in trying to appease the world’s dictators just so they can continue to operate within their countries.

NoKo propaganda poster from the Sci-Tech Heretic.
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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Canadian Pipeline Sparks Protests

Catching up on a few recent stories brings me around to this one from last week about protests over a proposed oil pipeline project that would bring crude oil from Alberta’s oil sands region all the way across the United States to ports in Texas along the Gulf of Mexico. Of course the Gulf of Mexico and oil have been in the news a lot lately thanks to BP’s ongoing spill. Advocates for Canadian oil have used that disaster to their favor – using Canadian oil, they argue, would keep the Gulf free from the possibility of future BP-style accidents.

Not so fast, reply the critics, including US Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA), the chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, who is leading a bloc of 50 members of the House in opposing the Keystone XL pipeline expansion project. They, along with environmental activists in Canada and the United States, point to reports of the toll oil production from the oil sands have taken on the environment in Alberta, which show that oil sands are far from a “green” source of energy (unlike other methods where oil is drilled and pumped from a reservoir, oil sands oil is locked into the soil – sometimes called “tar sands” – and is mined before being cooked out of the sand in a complex process to produce a kind of crude oil). Waxman is asking the Obama administration to hold off on approving the Keystone XL project until a full assessment on its environmental impact – both in the US and Canada – can be done. It’s worth noting that the administration last year though approved a similar oil pipeline project dubbed the “Alberta Clipper,” the administration’s reasoning is that whatever environmental costs caused by oil sands production were offset by the ability for the United States to have access to a stable source of oil from a reliable ally.

Terry Cunha a spokesman for TransCanada – the company behind the Keystone XL project – put it bluntly: “Quite honestly, the reality is the U.S. has a large need for crude oil,” adding that it’s better to get that oil from “a reliable neighbor.” Waxman thinks that’s part of the problem - that Keystone XL just furthers America’s dependence on oil, and that the pipeline’s approval would be a step away from the Obama administration’s pledge to cut greenhouse gases and develop environmentally-friendly alternative sources of energy.

Meanwhile still other critics of Keystone XL have emerged, with some industry analysts to the North voicing concerns that Canada is becoming too dependent on America as a market for their oil and pushing for pipelines to Canada’s Pacific coast that would allow them to export oil to the rapidly growing Asian market as well.
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Friday, July 16, 2010

Wakhan, Somaliland and The Modern State

My latest post over at The Mantle deals with a few out of the way regions of the world: Somaliland, Abkhazia and Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor. So what do a collection of places you may have never heard about have to do with global affairs in the 21st century? Quite a lot it seems, especially when it comes to the idea of what makes a modern nation-state and what are the rights (and the limits to those rights) of a group of people to decide to breakaway and form their own country. Read more about it over at The Mantle.
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Friday, July 9, 2010

Democracy And Terror In Somalia

Two stories from the place formerly known as Somalia…

The first is that Kenya’s Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula said this week that “quite a cocktail” of veteran foreign jihadis – Afghanis, Pakistanis and a mix of Middle Easterners, all with prior experience fighting as insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq – are flowing into Somalia, creating a situation he calls “very, very dire.” The jihadis are heading to Somalia to link up with domestic militant Islamic groups like al-Shabab that are fighting against the internationally-backed Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) for control over the capital, Mogadishu. Al-Shabab in the past has pledged its allegiance to al-Qaeda; they recently promised to increase attacks against the TFG and troops from Uganda and Burundi who are part of an African Union-backed peacekeeping mission.

Wetangula said that Kenya fears there could be spillover attacks in their country from al-Shabab forces in neighboring Somalia if the jihadi pipeline isn’t shutdown and if the international community doesn’t take more aggressive steps to defeat al-Shabab and support the TFG. Wetangula called on the United States in particular to do more to assist Somalia; one specific area he cited was in a United Nations-approved plan to blockade the southern Somali port city of Kismayo, which fell under al-Shabab control last year and is now the militant group’s lifeline to the outside world, the main port-of-entry for weapons and foreign fighters. United States naval forces already active in the Indian Ocean region so far though have been reluctant to dedicate resources to enforce the blockade.

On a side note, the news that foreign, al-Qaeda linked (or at least inspired) foreign fighters are heading into Somalia again undercuts the whole rationale for the United States-led coalition’s continued mission in Afghanistan. We’re told, repeatedly, that the US-led coalition must fight against the Taliban and support the government of President Hamid Karzai to keep Afghanistan from once again becoming an al-Qaeda base of operations. Apparently the jihadis now heading to Somalia, as well as places like Yemen and the deserts of West Africa, didn’t get the memo…

But the news from Somalia isn’t all bad. The breakaway region of Somaliland in the northern part of Somalia recently completed an internationally-monitored election (covered in more depth here) and appears to be on the verge of something unprecedented in the Horn of Africa – the peaceful transfer of power between rival political parties. Opposition leader Ahmed Mohamud Silanyo has been declared the winner in the June 26 election, defeating current President Dahir Riyale Kahin by a clear margin (50% to 33%). Leading up to the election, President Kahin vowed to step aside if defeated in the polls, a pledge Somaliland observers expect him to keep. Silanyo is a former minister in the Somali government of former dictator Siad Barre, who left his position in the 1980s to head up a Somaliland-based independence movement fighting what they felt was oppression by Barre. After Barre’s government collapsed in 1991, Somaliland declared its independence, a declaration that so far no country in the world has recognized.

As President, Silanyo said his main mission would be to change that. His supporters are hoping that a peaceful transition of power will help to bolster their case for recognition to the international community.
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Tweet Your Way To Unemployment

CNN fired one of their key foreign correspondents on Thursday, after Octavia Nasr used her CNN Twitter account to express her sadness over the news of the death of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. But Fadlallah is often referred to as the spiritual head of the group Hezbollah, and Nasr’s tweet quickly raised the ire of supporters of Israel, since Israel not only views Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, but also as a prime threat to their national security. Nasr replied that her comment about Fadlallah was driven by his “pioneering” work on women’s rights in the Arab world and her admission that the 140-character limit of a tweet probably wasn’t the best place to express a complex idea such as this, but that explanation wasn’t enough for her bosses at CNN, who quickly caved into pressure and fired her.

This has sparked some discussion in the blogosphere about free speech and First Amendment rights in reaction to Nasr’s firing. I think this is a little misguided – the First Amendment gives you the right to express yourself without pre-censorship, it’s not a blanket protection against action after the fact, and Nasr apparently did use her CNN Twitter account to post the message in question, which would give CNN the right to react in whatever way they think is reasonable to a use of their resources they view as unfit. The real question should be whether the tweet in question was a firing offense, and here I think CNN comes out on the short end of the argument.

During her 20-year career with the network, Nasr gave excellent and objective analysis on issues in the Middle East and was something increasingly rare on CNN – an analyst who actually knew something about global affairs (considering CNN made its reputation on its coverage of world events that’s pretty sad). Perhaps her tweet was poorly conceived or expressed an unpopular (to some) idea, but it’s a rather small offense weighed against the body of Nasr’s work on CNN. In their official explanation of Nasr’s firing, CNN said that her tweet “did not meet CNN’s editorial standards.” But the “editorial standards” argument is a pretty weak one to make considering CNN’s recent decision to hire former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, a man who transported a prostitute across statelines for an illicit affair – breaking several laws in the process, to revive CNN’s flagging ratings by hosting an hour-long program at 8pm (that is assuming Campbell Brown, who quit two months ago, ever stops doing her eight o’clock show…).

It seems that CNN is more than willing to overlook the personal failings of their on-air talent, so long as they believe they can deliver the ratings; it’s ok if they break the law, just as long as they don’t upset influential special interest groups; and that once again, foreign affairs coverage is taking a backseat at what use to be the world’s news channel. Sad really.
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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Spy Ring Follies

The big news last week was the apparent Russian spy ring uncovered operating in the United States; since then pundits, bloggers (myself included), security experts, etc., have all been trying to figure out just what the purpose of the spy ring was, along with running many gratuitous stories about the lovely Anna Chapman (pictured later in this post).

On one hand, those involved in the ring seem to be the worst collection of Russian spies since Boris and Natasha pursued “moose and squirrel.” Two of the ring’s members, living as a couple in suburban Montclair, New Jersey, were taped by the FBI having a long argument with their superiors in Moscow over the merits of home ownership (they were told they could buy a house, but Moscow, not them, would own it). Several other alleged spies maintained profiles on social networking sites like Facebook and the Russia-based Odnoklassniki (“Classmates”, a sort of never-ending online class reunion). One of the ring’s main missions apparently was to attempt to infiltrate American think-tanks to gain access to key “policy-makers”; a colleague of mine gave me at least some conformation of this idea. Of course, by their very nature think-tanks are public bodies whose goal is to promote and distribute their work; you hardly need a spy ring to learn about their goings-on, and you can usually make a good guess on how a think-tank will react to a certain issue just by reading their “About Us” page.

Two articles in Forbes and the Asia Times make the case that the Russian Spy Ring was likely just a make-work project for the SRV, Russia’s foreign intelligence service. During the Cold War, the SRV operated teams of spies all over the United States, but in the post-Soviet world, the value of these efforts dropped considerably. Of course to admit so would put some SRV handlers out of their jobs, so they continued to operate their American rings, not expecting them to turn up much useful info and thus not caring too much when they didn’t (in a way this is all starting to resemble Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana”).

The other big topic being discussed – along with Anna Chapman’s Facebook photos, failed marriage and real estate career – was the timing of the FBI raids that took down the “ring”. Speculation has ranged from a desire by hardliners within the FBI to embarrass Barack Obama and derail improving US-Russian relations following his apparently warm meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev, to the flip side of that argument: that the FBI scheduled the take-down now following a good US-Russian summit and before talks resumed on nuclear arms reduction and Russia’s World Trade Organization candidacy to lessen any possible political damage. The FBI’s official explanation was that they feared certain members of the ring were preparing to leave the country so they had to act.

But that explanation doesn’t wash – several of the suspected spies had traveled abroad in the past year, and the FBI hadn’t felt compelled to move in on them then. My speculation is that the FBI’s own incredibly poor spycraft managed to burn their own decade-long investigation. The spark that kicked the whole cycle of arrests into motion was the passing of a counterfeit passport to Anna Chapman. The FBI touted this as an example of just how fully they had penetrated the workings of the ring – they contacted Chapman and had her meet with a “Russian contact”, actually an FBI agent, who passed her a forged passport.

Apparently though this handoff was so clumsily managed, and Chapman so freaked out by the incident, that she took the forged passport to her local New York Police Dept. precinct. She and the rest of the alleged spies were arrested by the FBI the next day. So obviously Chapman knew there was something quite odd about the passport the faux-Russian foisted upon her, not a real endorsement of the FBI’s counter-espionage efforts. And it’s worth noting that none of the alleged spies are actually being charged with espionage, the usual charge levied against spies, but rather as acting as agents for a foreign government. You would think after a decade of investigation, the FBI could make an espionage charge stick, all of which makes me feel like there’s actually a lot less to this story than meets the eye... It also brings to mind the various “terrorist” cells busted with much fanfare in the past few years – all touted as great victories in the War on Terror, until the details start to come out; that the plans were laughably comedic (like the guy who planned to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge by cutting its cables with a blowtorch), or that the only “terrorists” the accused ever interacted with were FBI agents, or both.
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Brazil, Kenya, And The Future Of Energy

In another sign of Brazil’s growing global clout, President Lula di Silva made a visit to Kenya a key stop on his whirlwind tour of Africa; the Brazilian president is trying to build ties with Kenya, which Brazil feels could serve as an anchor that the South American country could then use to build ties with the rest of the East African Community – a trading bloc that includes five nations and 125 million people.

One specific area where Brazil is willing to lend a hand to Kenya is in the area of biofuels. Brazil is one of the world’s top producers of biodiesel (diesel fuel made from plants rather than crude oil), a distinction that has allowed Brazil to become energy independent while maintaining a strong rate of domestic growth. Biofuel production is currently only done on a very small scale in Kenya, but the Kenyan government is eager to change that and Kenyan farmers have been turning more of their land over to the production of biofuel crops in recent years. Of course that might not be a good thing and if you watched 60 Minutes this past Sunday, you probably know what I’m getting at here. 60 Minutes did a story on what they called The Great Migration, the annual trek by millions of animals across the Maasai Mara plains in Kenya, the last migration of land animals of this scale left on the planet. But the Great Migration may be in danger; the Mara River, the source of the water that grows the plants that are the cause of the migration is drying up. And the most likely reason for the Mara drying up is the deforestation of the lands at its source, deforestation occurring so that the land can then be cultivated. While Kenya is now trying to preserve the forests at the Mara’s headwaters, increased demand for biofuel crops will only encourage farmers to clear more land for cultivation and reduce the amount of water the land is able to capture in seasonal rains and then funnel into the Mara River.

Along with help in producing biofuels, Presidents di Silva and Mwai Kibaki of Kenya talked about Brazil assisting Kenya in building ports, hydroelectric plants and rehabilitating Kenya’s dilapidated network of highways. Kenya’s long-term goal is to be considered a “fully developed” nation by 2030. Brazil, meanwhile, is trying to establish itself as a fully-fledged player in global politics, and sees development deals, like the one struck with Kenya, as a way of displaying their clout on the world stage.
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Monday, July 5, 2010

Xinjiang Riots: One Year On

It was a year ago today that China’s northwestern Xinjiang Province was rocked by ethnic rioting that eventually left more than 200 dead and thousands more under arrest.  The riots came after Chinese police tried to breakup a mass demonstration by the Uighur ethnic group that is native to Xinjiang; several thousand Uighurs took to the streets last year to protest the murder of two migrant Uighur workers at the hands of an ethnic Han mob in a factory town in eastern China (the Han are China’s largest ethnic group, the Han mob apparently attacked the two Uighur men over allegations that they had assaulted a Han woman, claims that were later proved to be false); days of violence and rioting followed.  While the murders may have been the catalyst for the demonstration, they also pointed to long-simmering tensions in this remote corner of China.

Officially the province has the lengthy name of the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” but Uighur (sometimes also spelled Uyghur) exiles claim that the central government in Beijing has been suppressing their language and religion (most Uighurs are Muslims) while encouraging mass immigration of Han Chinese from other parts of the country into Xinjiang – a process designed to weaken Uighur culture and one that has effectively made them a minority within their own “homeland” (not coincidentally it is remarkably similar to the strategy Beijing has pursued in neighboring Tibet). 

With the one year anniversary of the riots coming up, Beijing has taken steps that could be viewed as a softening in tone towards Xinjiang – Wang Lequan, a hardline Communist Party official who has run Xinjiang for the past decade and a half, was recently replaced by a more moderate official who has taken steps towards reconciliation, like restoring Internet access for the region, which was cut off shortly after the riots.  China’s state-run Xinhua news agency also has been on the reconciliation kick, publishing this story, among others, discussing how “grassroots-level officials” are trying to learn the Uighurs Turkic-language so that they can better serve Xinjiang’s rural regions.

Uighur exile groups are skeptical though, pointing to Chinese development efforts that have been aimed largely at making Xinjiang more easily accessible from the rest of China (and thus easier to emigrate to), and the destruction of much of the old quarter of the city of Kashgar - the historic center of Uighur spiritual and cultural life - under the banner of “earthquake safety” measures; it’s worth noting though that the old quarter of Kashgar has stood for hundreds of years.  Uighur groups counter by saying that uprooting their people from old Kashgar and concentrating them in housing projects built at the edge of the city simply makes it easier for Chinese officials to monitor and control them.

We’ll see if the anniversary of the protests passes without incident.

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Saturday, July 3, 2010

Black Stars Cheated Out Of WC Dreams

Ghana’s World Cup dreams ended on Friday with their loss to Uruguay. While it’s sad to see Ghana out of the tournament, it’s infuriating to see how they were knocked out.

If you haven’t been following the World Cup or the story of the “Black Stars,” they were the last African side still alive as the tournament entered the 16-team elimination round (the other five African teams did not advance past the round-robin portion). The entire continent rallied around them, an amazing feat considering how often Africa has been divided by political and/or ethnic strife. The president of Ghana prayed with the team before their match with Uruguay; their performance in the tournament even earned them an audience with Africa’s living legend, Nelson Mandela. The Ghana-Uruguay game seemed headed to a Hollywood finish – at the end of extra time Ghana striker Dominic Adiyiah sent the ball towards the net for a sure goal to give Ghana a 2-1 victory, that is until Uruguay forward Luis Suarez slapped the ball away at the goal-line. This led to a penalty kick, which Ghana missed and an eventual Ghana loss in a shootout.

Now I’m not an expert on soccer, but one thing I do know is that unless you’re the goalie, you can’t use your hands – simple enough rule. Yet Suarez did just that, saving a sure goal and Uruguay loss (since the ball would have clearly gone in, I don’t understand why this wasn’t simply an awarded goal rather than a penalty kick which could, and did, miss). That Suarez cheated to win the game was bad enough, but that he was laughing about it afterwards, “I think I made the best save of the World Cup,” Suarez said of his creative rule-breaking following the match, is infuriating (I’m glad here to see that the Associated Press’ John Leicester agrees with me on that count).

A friend of mine told me to get over it because it was “just a game.” But the big selling point of soccer/football/futbol to we Americans, the reason we should join the rest of the world in our obsession about “the beautiful game,” is that it’s much more than just a game: it is passion, human drama, and the mysteries of life all presented to us on a cool, green field (or at least that’s what the game’s proponents would like us to believe); the game even helped to spark a war between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969. It certainly wasn’t “just a game” to the millions of Africans across the continent who ignored nationality and adopted the Ghanaian side as their own.

In sports, the team you want to doesn’t always win. But to see Ghana lose thanks to the illegal action of some arrogant punk from Uruguay is pretty disheartening. It also kills my interest in the remainder of the World Cup. Frankly, I don’t care who wins – though I do hope Uruguay loses badly. For me soccer will now go back on the shelf of sports curiosities, next to bobsledding and curling, that I care about once every four years or so.
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