Because of her iconic role in pushing for democracy in a once authoritarian country, Aung San Suu Kyi has often been called Myanmar's Mandela. Now, in the wake of Nelson Mandela's death, Aung San Suu Kyi's ability to navigate one of the more remarkable democratic transitions in recent memory seems particularly significant.
The similarities between Aung San Suu Kyi's life and Mandela's are striking. Both came from relative privilege: He was the son of royals, she is the daughter of the revered Burmese General Aung San. Both became involved in democracy movements and both were jailed -- he for 27 years, she for 20. During their respective imprisonments, they both emerged as national heroes, and later as worldwide democracy icons and nobel laureates. Upon release, both drew criticism for embracing (at least politically) their former jailers. Mandela went on to become the president of his country, ushering in democracy and landmark constitutional reforms. Aung San Suu Kyi is trying to do the same for Myanmar right now.
Kiribati is sinking. With an average height above sea-level of 2 meters, the small Pacific island nation is losing land as rising sea levels associated with climate change slowly engulf its shoreline. Changing weather patterns and coastal flooding have jeopardized food security, endangered the fresh water supply, and forced communities to relocate further inland. And things are about to get much worse: Kiribati's president, Anote Tong, forecasts that the country may be uninhabitable by 2050.
But that dire prediction has done little to inspire sympathy for the island nation's population. On Tuesday, New Zealand's High Court rejected an asylum application from Ioane Teitiota, a Kiribati national who appealed to the court on the basis that he and his family had no land to safely return to.
According to the court, his case fails to meet the criteria for refugee status. In his decision, Justice John Priestley wrote that "by returning to Kiribati, he would not suffer a sustained and systemic violation of his basic human rights such as the right to life ... or the right to adequate food, clothing and housing." The decision not only underscores the challenges for the vulnerable populations in the South Pacific, but the failures of international law to address the emerging crisis of climate refugees.
TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images
More than a week after Super Typhoon Haiyan killed nearly 4,000 people and displaced another 4 million, relief efforts remain hampered by poor roadways, congested airports, and a host of other logistical nightmares. While the Red Cross says they have more than enough emergency supplies for devastated regions, the government's slow response and a lack of infrastructure have made it difficult to quickly reach affected areas. But what dry goods have been dispersed by the national government are being frequently diverted by local politicians who waste valuable hours or even days repackaging relief items to bear their names, campaign slogans, or party colors. It all adds up to an ugly introduction to the personality-centered world of Philippine politics, one marked by feuding dynasties, rampant cronyism, and, above all, dysfunction.
The storm struck just as some of the country's uglier political practices were being exposed -- and with the spotlight on the Philippines in the aftermath of the storm, those practices have become impossible to ignore. An unfolding corruption scandal that began in July implicated 18 senators in the misuse or embezzlement of at least $25.5 million, money that had been intended for local development projects. Another exposed 97 local officials who plundered up to $20 million earmarked for relief and rehabilitation efforts following the 2009 typhoons Ketsana and Parma, which also killed thousands. Now, in Haiyan's wake, many worry that relief funds will, again, end up padding the pockets of shameless politicians. Churches and civil society groups have been quick to point out that the sheer scope of the devastation -- exacerbated by substandard housing and woefully undeveloped disaster response systems -- is evidence of endemic political pilfering.
Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images
The police chief who initially reported that Super Typhoon Haiyan had killed 10,000 people has been fired, according to the Philippines News Agency. Soon after Chief Supt. Elmer Soria told reporters on Saturday that "initially there are 10,000 casualties," the figure took on a life of its own. Countless media reports repeated the errant estimate, often attributing it to unnamed Philippine officials, in spite of the fact that the the country's National Disaster Risk and Management Council was reporting substantially lower numbers.
Philippine President Aquino managed to quell the rumors in an interview with Christiane Amanpour Tuesday, saying, "Ten thousand I think is too much and perhaps that was brought about by, how should I put it, being in the center of the destruction. There was emotional trauma involved in that particular estimate."
Since then, Soria has been removed from his post. Another official, Tacloban city administrator Tecson Lim, propagated the false estimate, as well.
Perhaps following Aquino's example, the Philippine National Police spokesperson was quick to blame the mistake on Soria's proximity to the devastation. He told the Wall Street Journal: "We all know for one thing, Police Chief Supt. Elmer Soria has been through a lot for the past days and may be experiencing what you call ‘acute stress reaction.'"
The latest figures released by the government put the number of casualties at 2,537.
Jeoffrey Maitem/Getty Images
The destruction wrought by typhoon Haiyan -- which has killed an estimated 2,500 people, according to Philippine President Aquino -- cast a pall over opening day of the UN climate talks in Warsaw on Monday. During the opening ceremony, Philippines negotiator Naderev Saño made an emotional plea to his peers, asking them to finally establish an international mechanism for addressing losses and damages linked to climate change.
"To anyone who continues to deny the reality that is climate change..." Saño told the conference, "You may want to pay a visit to the Philippines right now."
Haiyan may prove to be the worst typhoon in history, but, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has noted, global warming is increasing both the frequency and ferocity of extreme weather events like it. The Philippines, situated along the Pacific Ring of Fire, already bears the highest risk of natural disasters in the world, after Vanatu and Tonga. And climate change is causing the Philippine sea to rise at an astounding rate of 10mm per year, well over the global average of 3mm per year. Four typhoons have made landfall in the Philippines this year alone, with Haiyan being the third Category 5 typhoon to strike since 2010. Last year, supertyphoon Bopha killed nearly 2,000 people, while in 2011 tropical storm Washi killed 1,000.
The increasing incidence of climate change-related disasters like Haiyan has developing countries calling for international measures to help mitigate the effects of extreme weather events, whether that takes the form of disaster insurance or technical assistance from their more developed counterparts.
While the environmental consequences of climate change affect all countries, poor nations-- especially those already at high risk of natural disasters -- tend to be disproportionately burdened because they lack the resources and institutional capacity to prepare for and respond to calamities. A study released Thursday by the United Nations University examined the effects of extreme weather events and climatic changes on nine developing countries, ultimately finding that they deepen poverty and erode houshold living and health standards. Researchers also argued that current efforts to mitigate climate change effects are insufficient, and should be augmented by international mechanisms that deal with climate change-related loss and damage.
The issue was contentious at the 2012 negotiations in Doha (during which Saño made a similarly impassioned speech), as developed nations worried that they might have to compensate poorer countries for the consequences of their own emissions.
The conference eventually agreed that the issue would be resolved at the 2013 talks in Poland. In his speech to the assembly, a tearful Saño underscored the need for a quick resolution -- announcing that he would fast "until a meaningful outcome is in sight."
Saño's hometown was hit by Haiyan. "Up to this hour, I agonize while waiting for word as to the fate of my very own relatives," he told the assembled, just days after the typhoon struck. "In solidarity with my countrymen who are struggling to find food back home and with my brother who has not had food for the last three days, in all due respect Mr. President, and I mean no disrespect for your kind hospitality, I will now commence a voluntary fasting for the climate." His remarks were met with a standing ovation.
The conference will run through November 22.
JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
The rapper Macklemore's body may have been at the MTV European Music Awards on Sunday. But in the wake of supertyphoon Haiyan, his heart was evidently in the Philippines... or, at least, in "the Philippians." In an unfortunately misspelled but surely well-intentioned tweet sent during the awards ceremony, the hip-hop artist informed his Twitter followers: "Over 10,000 people died as a result of the typhoon in the Philippians... If you want to help those affected go to http://nafconusa.org."
He quickly tweeted a correction, in which he implicated iPhone's autocorrect feature and his "6th grade teacher" for the spelling error. But that's beside the point. More interesting is his choice of aid organization: Not the Red Cross or UNICEF -- both of which are on the ground adminstering aid -- but NAFCON, a small alliance of grassroots Filipino groups in the U.S. that is also affiliated with a number of left-leaning, nationalist political groups in the Philippines.
While it's true that NAFCON is fervently raising funds to provide disaster relief assistance to affected communities in the Philippines, its work is occuring largely under the radar. So how did Macklemore, a rapper from Seattle, even hear about the group?
Credit might go to another Washington-based artist with whom he's collaborated: Geo of the Blue Scholars (A.KA. Prometheus Brown A.K.A. George Quibuyen). He's a vocalist, long time Filipino-American activist, and frequent critic of U.S. foreign policy; in one song, he characterizes it as "imperial aggression." NAFCON wouldn't confirm the connection, but did say that members were grateful for the shout-out and had no hard feelings about the misspelling. Following Typhoon Ondoy in 2009, which killed about 800 people, NAFCON delivered 700 boxes of food and emergency supplies to some of the hardest hit communities in the country.
According to the most recent figures, the typhoon has killed 1,774 people since making landfall on Friday, and many expect casualties to reach as high as 10,000. Which means the Philippines will need the help... wherever it comes from.
It's hard to imagine two less likely combatants. In one corner: Greenpeace. In the other: child health advocates and the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute. Welcome to the strange and heated debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the Philippines. A report issued on Tuesday explains why they're fighting. Well, sorta.
Golden rice, a grain that has been genetically modified to contain beta-carotene, is going to be launched in the Philippines by 2016. But the grain began with a conversation almost thirty years ago when biotechnology was still in its infancy. The field's potential inspired skepticism and utopian brainstorming alike, and the coming debate over golden rice, which philanthropists at the Rockefeller Center took to researchers at the IRRI in the Philippines to develop the idea, would reflect that. The fact that a single bowl of the rice could contain 60 percent of a child's daily supply of beta-carotene -- the lack of which causes blindness in up to half a million children worldwide and weakens immune systems -- hit home with humanitarian groups and scientists worldwide. Their efforts have resulted in a three decade-long campaign to develop the grain for commercial release, with the ultimate hope that poor people in remote villages from the Philippines to Bangladesh would get enough of the life-saving nutrient. "This Rice Could Save a Million Kids a Year," a 2000 headline shouted from the cover of Time.
But an international fight against GMOs would be stirred in the time it would take to bring the rice to market. In August, 400 protestors in the Philippines destroyed a cluster of the IRRI's test plants, bringing to a head months of debate between anti-GMO groups, like Greenpeace, and the scientists and anti-poverty groups that tout their potential. Opponent groups premise their arguments on a spate of beliefs, from the potential harm posed to consumers to concerns about compromising the integrity of the world's food supply. British Tory MP Zac Goldsmith penned an op-ed in the Guardian that pointed to the growth of herbicide-resistant "superweeds" that resulted from planting herbicide-resistant GM crops.
JAY DIRECTO/AFP/Getty Images
The Philippines boasts one of Asia's oldest democracies. But as it struggles to rein in political violence and corruption, that distinction is exactly a point of pride.
On Monday, more than 40,000 villages in the Philippines voted in municipal elections and, in the run-up, at least 22 candidates and supporters were killed in election-related violence, according to the Associated Press. Across the country, 27 others were wounded in shootouts between rival candidates, and 588 were arrested for violating the election gun ban. (Police also confiscated some "500 firearms, 4,000 rounds of ammunition, 191 knives and 68 grenades.") Before the polls opened on Monday, the Commission on Elections (called Comelec) had announced that 889 areas of the country were on their watch list because of the presence of private armies, intense political rivalries, and hrecent histories of election-related violence. Some 94 villages failed to hold elections at all, while more than 300 others reported massive vote buying.
Elections -- the most visible mechanism of a representative government -- are regularly the impetus for chaos and bloodshed in the Philippines, where even the lowest levels of government are plagued by violence, fraud and the weak rule of law.
In the worst case of election violence to date, 58 people were massacred on November 23, 2009, by the private army of a powerful political family in Maguindanao. Among the dead were relatives of a rival candidate, as well as 30 media workers covering the election. The killers used a backhoe to bury the bodies in a mass grave, some still alive. About 200 people have been charged in association with the murders, but no one has been convicted.
In theory, the Philippines has the makings of a vibrant democracy: an engaged electorate, a strong constitution, and a history of successful popular movements. But political clans, rather than political parties, continue to dominate public discourse and control public office. The historic concentration of wealth in the hands of a few families has helped to create powerful, political dynasties, while a measure signed by former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ensured the proliferation of private armies and state-backed militias, often used to secure political victories for wealthy candidates. Though President Aquino revoked the measure last year, and promised to dismantle private armies ahead of the 2013 elections, cracking down on political violence has proven much more difficult than expected.
Election-related violence usually begins 90 days before polling day (sometimes well before, as in in the case of the Maguindanao massacre), and often continues for up 30 days afterwards. In Mindanao, losing candidates have been known to engage in kidnappings and violence to recoup the financial losses associated with their unsuccessful bids. Winning, of course, offers huge financial rewards. Congressional representatives, for example, receive millions of dollars per year in discretionary money from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) -- purportedly for the purpose of local infrastructure projects. In reality, members of Congress have been using the money as a slush fund for re-election efforts or for other types personal gain.
The Aquino administration's much-touted anti-corruption campaign has borne some small successes -- such as the impeachment of an unscrupulous chief justice -- but has yet to meaningfully address the culture of corruption and cronyism plaguing the country's political system.
It's often said that one of the Philippines' proudest moments came after the People Power Revolution in 1986. when CBS reporter Bob Simon declared that the Filipinos were "teaching the world" about democracy. But as the country struggles to hold elections free of violence nearly 30 years later, it seems the Philippines still has a lot to learn.
ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images
Unfaithful spouses in Singapore will have to get used to cheating the old fashioned way, as the world's most popular infidelity website has been banned by officials.
Ashleymadison.com, a matchmaking site that facilitates extramarital affairs in nearly 30 countries, made a big push into Asia this year, beginning with Japan and Hong Kong. The website would have launched in Singapore next year, had the government not intervened. Singapore's social affairs minister, Chan Chun Sing, argued that such a website would erode morality in the nation, which already outlaws online pornography and nudie magazines like Playboy. "Promoting infidelity undermines trust and commitment between a husband and wife, which are core to marriage," he said.
Singaporeans seem to share the sentiment. A social media campaign aimed at banning Ashleymadison.com has already accrued 25,000 supporters. Officials have vowed to block the site, under the country's Broadcasting Act.
It's a much chillier reception than the matchmaking site has received elsewhere in Asia.
When Ashleymadison.com launched in Japan, it logged 230,000 visits and 70,000 members within the first four days. Noel Biderman, who started the website in 2001, told the Wall Street Journal that he viewed Japan as a promising market because of the breadth of sexual services already available in the country. And because those services overwhelmingly target men, he added, the Japanese iteration of the site, with its pink color scheme, would specifically cater to women. The demand, it turns out, was high: During the first few days, new members were "signing up faster than customer care could screen them." Now, the site boasts 160,000 women members -- 60 percent of whom are married.
Hong Kong had the most successful launch rate to date, closing out the first month with 80,000 new members. In this iteration of the site, women can join for free while men pay about $45 to get started. Perhaps as a result, the rate of single men who have signed up is considerably higher than the worldwide average. The site's become so popular in Hong Kong that around 325,000 people in Mainland China have tried to log in, too.
CNN reports that the company plans to expand to 10 more Asian markets by June of next year, with Taiwan next on the list.
Biderman has often argued that the site isn't a threat to marriage, as Singapore's Chan Chun Sing argues, but is rather an outlet for the natural human impulse to cheat -- and that goes for both sexes. Giving people the freedom to act on these impulses, he's argued, could even help marriages. Indeed, the Japanese version of the website is marketed as a "marriage-saving site." That approach is largely aimed at women users -- though the suggestion that women are cheating in an effort to save their marriages, rather than cheating for the same reasons that men do, seems dubious, if not a bit sexist.
The company's focus on women may prove prescient, however. Divorce in Asia has been rising steadily in recent years, largely tied to greater educational and economic opportunities for women. Asian women are marrying later, and divorcing more readily. The notion that women are choosing to cheat in greater numbers is certainly credible, though the reasons for it may be simpler than AshleyMadison.com is willing to admit.
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
In Brunei on Thursday, Myanmar took its place as the 2014 ASEAN chair, a role it was forced to relinquish in 2006 as its military rulers came under pressure from the U.S. and the European Union for not doing enough to advance democracy. As head of the Southeast Asian bloc, Myanmar will host the 2014 ASEAN summit -- an annual event that draws thousands of delegates and journalists, who attend upwards of 1,000 meetings.
But can Myanmar, with its notoriously poor infrastructure, handle the foot traffic?
Thierry Falise/LightRocket via Getty Images
Wednesday marked the 567th birthday of the Korean alphabet. And South Korea's prime minister, Chung Hong-won, chose a rather unconventional way to honor the occasion, known colloquially as Hangul Day: delivering a speech deploring young South Koreans' use of slang, foul language, improperly conjugated verbs, and other "verbal violence." He then called for a "national language purification" campaign to "remedy this bad culture."
Such campaigns are not new in South Korea, where civil society groups have long opposed the adoption of foreign words and characters. The invention of the Korean alphabet, in fact, was an early effort at establishing linguistic purity (at the time, classical Chinese was the lingua franca of Korea's educated and elite), but it failed to take off until the mid-20th century when South Korea's independence -- and the subsequent establishment of Korean as the national language -- necessitated the adoption of a distinct writing system accessible to a wide swath of citizens. Hangul, with its 24 easy-to-master characters, was perfect.
Asian markets seemed pleased by the news, which broke Tuesday evening (or Wednesday morning, Asia time) that President Obama would nominate Janet Yellen for the position of Fed chair this afternoon. Policymakers in the region, who'd been cheering for her, spoke warmly of the selection -- mostly because the relatively dovish Yellen is seen as someone who'll be slower to roll back the easy money policies of her predecessor, giving Asia more time to prepare for the day the greenback spigot turns off.
But Yellen also has something of a special relationship with the region, which Bank of Japan Deputy Governor Hiroshi Nakaso alluded to when he told the Wall Street Journal that "we already have a relationship of mutual trust with each other." Yellen spent six years, from 2004 to 2010, as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, a position that involved traveling to Asia at least once a year on fact-finding missions, and brought her to countries across the region from South Korea to Vietnam to India. The reports she produced after each trip are typically brief -- and sometimes rather dry -- accounts of the state of each country's economy and the challenges it is likely to face. But they do give us an occasional hint about the likely new Fed chair's thoughts on the world's most economically dynamic region.
Myanmar's economy has always run on cash -- thick bricks of it, used by residents to pay for everything from household sundries to homes and cars. That's slowly changing as global banks and financial services giants trickle into the country -- but even in Yangon, Myanmar's commercial capital, ATMs remain scarce and few businesses accept foreign credit cards. For those who bank with local Myanmar institutions, plastic is still a distant dream.
All of which makes the launch Tuesday of the country's first-ever bank card a minor but significant victory. Offered jointly by Myanmar's Cooperative Bank (CB Bank) and MasterCard, the reloadable prepaid card is intended only for accountholders traveling abroad. For now, that's a small group: Just one in five Myanmar residents vacationed outside the country during the past year. Meanwhile, less than 10 percent of all residents have a bank account, in large part due to public distrust of the banking system.
Thursday marked the 25th anniversary of the 8.8.88 uprising in Myanmar, when widespread protests against the government were violently suppressed by the military, leading to roughly 3,000 deaths (the photo above, from Aug. 19, 1988, shows an anti-government protester getting treated for gunshot wounds).
This year, for the first time, the 8.8.88 anniversary was openly commemorated in Myanmar with a large gathering in Yangon. (In 2011, President Thein Sein launched an ongoing effort to implement cautious reforms and open the country to the outside world.) On Thursday, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi addressed a crowd in the capital that included former student activists. "Whatever we do we must not take grudges against each other," she declared. "We will have to heal the wounds the country suffered by showing love and compassion."
STR/AFP/Getty Images, Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images
Anwar Congo wraps a piece of wire around a man's neck, explaining that you can kill someone this way "without spilling too much blood." A few moments later, Congo is dancing the cha-cha.
Opening in the United States on Friday, the documentary film The Act of Killing chronicles the 1965-1966 mass killings in Indonesia, when Congo and other anti-communist gangsters killed upwards of 500,000 alleged communists, Chinese-Indonesians, and intellectuals. The killings took place after a failed coup that led to the fall of Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia, and rise of the dictator Suharto (text at the beginning of the film mentions the "the direct aid of Western governments" in the atrocities, which included American support).
"The film asks us to look at a period of history that we have forgotten, and I think one of the big questions that it asks is: 'How could we have forgotten one of the biggest massacres of the 20th century?'" the American director Joshua Oppenheimer reflected in an interview with Foreign Policy.
He's a self-proclaimed "white American national" who has no family connections to Myanmar and has never visited the country. He's not an expert on its politics either, he tells me -- which becomes clear later in our conversation when he draws a blank on the name of Aung San Suu Kyi, likely the most famous Burmese person alive today, whom he calls a "prime minister candidate" (she's actually planning on staging a run for the presidency).
But something about the 969 movement -- the controversial pro-Buddhist campaign that many hold responsible for the violence that has racked Myanmar in recent months -- has captured the imagination of this man. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, working his day job in the "technology sector," he has taken it upon himself in his spare time to set up both a website -- 969Movement.org -- and a Twitter account devoted to defending the movement in the face of what he says is widespread misinformation.
In a Skype interview with Foreign Policy on Wednesday, he declined to give his name, saying "I still have some safety concerns about being involved in all this."
"Where I see myself ... is promoting the values and the intention of the 969 movement to the English-speaking world," he says. "To a more globalized audience."
EPA/NYEIN CHAN NAING
The July 1 cover of Time magazine for Asia has roused a heated response in Myanmar. Featuring a photo of Buddhist monk Wirathu with the headline "The Face of Buddhist Terror," the cover, pictured above, was used for editions in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific. (The U.S. edition led with "How Service Can Save Us.")
Wirathu has received his fair share of media coverage and visits from Western journalists in recent months. The Mandalay-based monk has garnered attention as a leading voice of the "969" movement, which advocates that Buddhists only do business with other Buddhists. Wirathu's anti-Muslim rhetoric (He told the Global Post yesterday that, "Muslims are like the African carp. They breed quickly and they are very violent and they eat their own kind.") has been identified as one inciting factor in the recent outbreak of anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar, which has killed 250 and diplaced tens of thousands, according to the AP.
Wirathu says he was "unfazed" by the cover, telling the AP that, "a genuine ruby will shine even if you try to sink it in mud," but some of his supporters have not been so blasé. A Facebook group called "We Boycott Time magazine for their choice of Wirathu as ‘Buddhist Terror'" formed in reaction to the article. The group's page asks members to change their profile pictures to an edited cover of Time which calls the magazine "the face of lying, unjust media."
Users have posted messages defending Buddhism: "We are not terrorist, we are peaceful people and hate terrorism," reads one. "For these reason, our Buddhist monks are trying to find ways to avoid from being happening again such kind of unnecessary conflict between different religions."
In a recent interview with the Myanmar Times, a state-run English language newspaper, Wirathu addressed his critics saying, "I really take pity on them. ... They are under the influence of media backed by the Arab world. Europeans and Americans are educated people, but sometimes certain illusions are created by the Arab media."
Time does not seem likely to apologize.
Ever since the Obama administration first rolled out its signature Asia pivot policy, the effort seemed ambitious. The United States was wrapping up its war in Iraq and still surging troops in Afghanistan -- and yet, policymakers planned to "rebalance" military forces to the Pacific while strengthening business and diplomatic ties with partners in the region. Since then, events have stymied the administration's policy at seemingly every turn.
In the latest example, President Obama's summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday was overshadowed by new revelations of an extensive domestic surveillance program. But Asia getting pushed to the backburner is nothing new. The administration's series of high-profile trips to the region last fall had to jockey for attention with the news that Israel might any day launch a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip (and now there's Secretary of State John Kerry's initiative to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations). Since then, the administration's Asia policy has also been a bone of contention in the fight over cuts to the defense budget.
Even the administration's modest successes have suffered setbacks. Earlier this week, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel showed off the Navy's Littoral Combat Ship USS Freedom in Singapore in an effort to showcase the increased U.S. naval presence in Southeast Asian waters. But that came after the ship was stranded in port when its propulsion system gave out on its maiden deployment. Then there's the deployment of U.S. Marines to Australia -- when the first 180 Marines arrived in Darwin in April 2012, they were supposed to be followed by more than 2,000 more. That might never happen, though, as Australian enthusiasm for the project has waned. Despite plans for 2,500 U.S. Marines to be stationed in Australia by 2017, Australia is still evaluating the effects of a force less than half that size.
With all the setbacks, maybe the administration is happy that the media isn't paying attention to the pivot.
In the latest development in the showdown between Taiwan and the Philippines over the death of a Taiwanese fisherman at the hands of the Philippine coast guard, Taiwan is holding military drills near Philippine waters. The Philippines -- its apology having been rejected by Taiwan -- is also standing firm, saying it won't "appease" the Taiwanese, while the United States is urging cooler heads to prevail. The standoff is just the latest in a string of geopolitical showdowns in which fishermen have served -- sometimes unwittingly and sometimes wittingly -- as lightning rods in East and Southeast Asian maritime territorial disputes.
The humble fishing boat, in fact, has been at the center of incidents between China and Russia; between China and Vietnam; between Japan and Taiwan; between China and South Korea; between North Korea and South Korea; between North Korea and China; between China and the Philippines; and between South Korea and Japan. And then, of course, there was the 2010 collision between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese coast guard patrol boats in disputed waters near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which set relations between the two Asian superpowers on edge for months.
How has the fisherman -- a seemingly unassuming practitioner of his ancient craft -- come to play this vital role on the international stage? There are a number of factors at play. For starters, Asian waters are running out of fish -- which means more fishing boats are straying into foreign waters in search of good hauls. Then there's the growing nationalism in many of these countries, which raises the stakes in these disputes and allows one arrested fisherman to take on national significance.
In addition, there's the suspicion that some countries -- notably China -- really do use fishermen as proxies in their ongoing disputes with other countries -- that these fishing boats are not the innocent bystanders caught up in forces greater than themselves that they seem. At the height of last year's tensions with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, it was reported that China was sending an "armada" of 1,000 fishing boats to the islands with the goal of overwhelming the Japanese coast guard -- though the reports later proved false.
Hung Shih-cheng, the 65-year-old Taiwanese fisherman at the center of the current row between Taiwan and the Philippines, appears to have ventured into disputed territory with the simple aim of fishing; the Philippine coast guard has said the crew believed he was trying to ram one of their ships and opened fire.
Venture astray, and face the chance of catching fire from a military vessel as a result of international border disputes? That's quite an occupational hazard.
HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images
As Burmese President Thein Sein prepares to travel to the United States next week -- the first visit to the country by a Burmese leader in 47 years -- a potential humanitarian disaster is looming on the horizon back home.
Thein Sein's scheduled visit on May 20 has already been controversial, coming as it does after a recent surge in ethnic violence involving Buddhists, Rohingya Muslims, and other minority groups. But now many of the Rohingya and other Burmese Muslims who've been displaced by the violence and now live in temporary camps are threatened by Cyclone Mahasen, which is approaching the coast of western Burma and is expected to make landfall between Wednesday and Friday (when Cyclone Nargis struck Burma in May 2008, it killed roughly 140,000 people).
In recent days, the government has come under fierce criticism from groups like Human Rights Watch for failing to move the camps to higher ground ahead of the storm. On Tuesday, a boat carrying more than 100 people seeking to escape the cyclone capsized, and 60 are still missing.
The Burmese government launched a campaign on Tuesday to begin moving tens of thousands of people to higher ground (about 70,000 displaced Rohingya and Kaman Muslims are vulnerable to the cyclone, according to Human Rights Watch), but it is still facing charges of not acting quickly enough:
"The Burmese government didn't heed the repeated warnings by governments and humanitarian aid groups to relocate displaced Muslims ahead of Burma's rainy season," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "If the government fails to evacuate those at risk, any disaster that results will not be natural, but man-made."
Thein Sein's trip has attracted scrutiny from those who believe Western governments have acted rashly in embracing the reform-minded, quasi-civilian Burmese government without paying heed to ongoing human rights abuses in Burma. And the historic visit could grow even more controversial if Cyclone Mahasen hits the camps hard in the days that precede it.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
The kind of electoral fraud Malaysia's newly reelected Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition has been accused of seems too elaborate to be true.
The opposition is alleging that BN brought in foreigners -- mainly from Bangladesh, Burma, and Indonesia -- to supplement the party's vote counts. In addition to these so-called "phantom voters," the opposition has accused BN of flying voters from its eastern strongholds of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo to vote in mainland states where victory was less assured. (BN leader and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has denied the accusations.)
The plot is certainly convoluted: It involves complicit airline companies and suspicious groups of foreigners arriving on chartered flights prior to the election. But even if the accusations turn out to be rooted in paranoia, there's good reason for them: Malaysia -- and BN in particular -- has something of a spotty history when it comes to importing votes from abroad.
A Malaysian Royal Commission of Inquiry, for instance, is currently investigating so-called Project IC, a notorious program in which the BN -- which gets the bulk of its support from the ethnically Malay, Muslim population -- allegedly provided Muslim immigrants -- mainly from the southern Philippines and Indonesia -- in Sabah with identity cards in exchange for votes. These immigrants, already ethnically similar to Malays, were assimilated, and Sabah -- once a non-Malay majority state where BN faced electoral threats -- has been something of a party fortress ever since.
As John Pang recently wrote in the New York Times:
In one of the most brazen examples of manufacturing ethnic identity for political gain, Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister from 1981 to 2003, imported about 700,000 Muslim immigrants from the southern Philippines into the Malaysian state of Sabah. They were secretly issued Malaysian citizenship in order to create a "Malay" Muslim vote base for Mr. Mahathir's party.
Pang's description may be a bit premature, as the inquiry is still ongoing. But several members of the UMNO, the ruling Malay party at the time, were detained for their involvement in falsifying identity cards in the late 1990s, with one former member of the project claiming that in 1985 alone, 130,000 illegal immigrants received identity cards.
Accusations of bringing in Bangladeshis by the thousands to cast votes certainly go beyond your standard ballot-box stuffing. But in Malaysian politics, stranger things have happened.
ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images
From the country that brought you the virtual-girlfriend game Love Plus comes the latest breakthrough in dating simulation: Japanese students at the University of Tsukuba have apparently invented the Riajyuu Coat, a jacket that hugs you and comes with a pair of headphones that whisper sweet nothings in your ears. According to the gaming blog Kotaku, riajyuu is slang for "someone who is pleased with their life outside the Internet," which may be wishful thinking for anyone who finds themselves in need of such a coat.
The jacket looks fairly normal but comes with a belt that tightens around the waist, as though your girlfriend were hugging you from behind. When you feel the squeeze, you'll hear a sweet voice in your ears that says things like, "I'm sorry I'm late!" (even coat-girlfriends can't show up on time?!). Here's the promotional video:
The researchers don't seem to be interested in selling the coat so much as just having fun with the idea. But the concept does suggest that Japan's traditionally quirky innovation isn't limited to robots anymore.
Indonesia has a witchcraft problem. Belief in the supernatural is widespread in the Southeast Asian archipelago -- and not just among the underclasses. But like many post-colonial societies, its inherited legal system leaves victims of sorcery unable to seek judicial relief. That may be about the change, however, if the country's parliament OKs a number of amendments to its Dutch colonial-era criminal code. The Financial Times has more:
Indonesia would make it illegal for anyone to "declare the possession of mysterious powers" or "encourage others to believe that by their actions they can cause mental or physical suffering of another person." The crime would be punishable by a jail sentence of up to five years and a fine of up to Rp300m ($30,700).
The amendments, which have been in the works since 2008, would put an end to the perceived bias of the state in favor of witches and sorcerers (the difference: witches possess innate mystical powers, whereas sorcerers have come to acquire them). Critics have denounced this kind of bias not only in Indonesia, but also in numerous other post-colonial societies that have since moved to outlaw black magic. As Michael Rowlands and Jean-Pierre Warnier explained in a 1988 article about witchcraft in Cameroon:
Cases of sorcery were to be brought to court. But the courts dismissed them for lack of evidence against the accused. Once acquitted, the latter often sued the defendants for libel and won their case. The sorcerers were thought to go unchecked and the victim felt betrayed by the colonial authorities who appeared to side with the sorcerers.
Unchecked sorcery has become a major issue in Indonesia, where hundreds of people have been killed by anti-witchcraft vigilantes who have taken the law into their own hands. Even President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono claimed in 2009 that ''[m]any are practising black magic. Indeed, I and my family can feel it.''
But not everyone is in favor of outlawing the dark arts. Indeed, one of the country's best known warlocks has proposed harnessing the power of black magic to solve other, more pressing problems. "This is the heritage from our ancestors and we need to preserve it," he told the Financial Times. "Rather than banning it, we should use black magic to punish those who are corrupt."
The presence of Aung San Suu Kyi in the front row of a military parade (above, next to Major General Zaw Win) earlier today was stunning to many observers: both for how unthinkable her presence would have been just a few years ago (she was locked up in her house, after all -- by the military), and for how far Aung San Suu Kyi appears willing to go to reconcile with an institution still distrusted by many of her fellow Burmese. (See this slide show of Burmese political cartoons in FP for one perspective on how 'reformed' the military and the government in Burma really are). On the same day the military announced its plans to retain a role in politics for the near future
Does The Lady's presence underscore how much has changed in Burma since her house arrest, or does it highlight how much power the military still has? Probably both. One thing for sure: the photo above is an amazing sight.
NYEIN CHAN NAING/AFP/Getty Images
We hear plenty about drugs and conflict diamonds; but the international black market for timber -- a global trade that has been plaguing the forests of South America, Central America, and Asia for years, and one that is estimated to be worth anywhere from 30 to 100 billion dollars a year -- gets a lot less attention.
Illegal wood had a rare moment in the spotlight on Feb. 19, when Interpol reported the results of its first international operation to target timber trafficking. "Operation Lead," which brought together law enforcement agencies from twelve Latin American countries, was carried out over a month late last year and resulted in the seizure of the equivalent of 2,000 truckloads of timber (worth millions of dollars) and the arrests of more than 200 people.
While individual countries in the region, such as Columbia and Brazil, have cracked down on the illegal trade in the past, the transnational nature of the crime makes it difficult for domestic law enforcement agencies, which are limited in their jurisdiction, to be very effective. An international approach has the potential to be more successful. According to the head of Interpol's Environmental Crime Program, Operation Lead has laid the foundations for future efforts to combat the global trade.
So why timber? It is not as lucrative as the drug trade, but it still brings in a fair amount of cash. According to a recent Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) report, in Laos, rare rosewood logs can fetch $18,000 per cubic meter. The EIA also notes that traffickers can earn $1,700 for a high-quality mahogany tree on the Peruvian black market, and about $1,000 for a cedar tree. In 2006, illegal logging in Peru was bringing up to $72 million in profits per year. Some estimates put the yearly profits in Columbia as high as $200 million.
In Latin America, the drug and timber trades aren't mutually exclusive. Though the extent of the connection is not yet clear, timber trafficking overlaps with organized crime and the drug trade in interesting ways in countries like Colombia and Peru.
For one, it has been suggested that timber offers drug traffickers an opportunity to invest in a new illegal market -- to "diversify their portfolios" -- as some governments become more successful (however slightly) in cracking down on the drug trade.
In Peru, where an estimated 80 percent of total timber exports are illegal, the wood trafficking network has become so sophisticated that drug traffickers are now piggybacking on the timber trade -- literally. In 2006, a U.S. State Department cable (later released by WikiLeaks) reported that drug traffickers in the Andes moving coca paste and opium "appear to be getting involved in transport of illegal timber, for both its profitability and its utility as concealment." In 2010, Peruvian police seized nearly 400 kilos of cocaine and coca base hidden in a single shipment of Sinaloa cedar.
Logging may also be viewed as a profitable way to open land for the farming of coca. According to a 2011 UN report, since 1981, more than 3,000 square miles of Columbia's forests have been cut down illegally to make way for coca crops. In 2008, then Columbian Vice President Francisco Santos Calderon announced, "If you snort a gram of cocaine, you are destroying 4 square meters of rainforest."
All considered, it isn't surprising that the illegal logging trade has taken a violent turn in some countries. Last year in Cambodia, an anti-logging activist and a reporter covering the illegal trade were both murdered. Three Brazilian activists were killed in 2011 -- just three out of dozens that have been murdered over the past several years.
It should be noted that illegal logging is not entirely run by timber kingpins and "wood mafias." Local communities also cut down wood illegally (to use, not to sell), and have probably been doing so for generations.
The countries affected are going to have to take strong action if they want to save their forests, because the problem is not going to fix itself. The world's appetite for high-value wood is high and is only getting higher. In its report entitled "Appetite for Destruction: China's Trade in Illegal Timber," the EIA states that between 2000 and 2011, the quantity of global log imports tripled, with a value that increased fivefold. China -- with wood product exports that have increased almost sevenfold in the past decade, with new construction projects beginning every day, and with a new bourgeoisie that covets fancy rosewood lounge sets (which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars), cars with wood-embellished interiors, and yachts -- comprises a large part of that demand. According to the EIA, China is the world's top importer of illegal timber. "More than half of China's current supplies of raw timber material are sourced from countries with a high risk of illegal logging and poor forest governance," including Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Madagascar, Myanmar, and Papua New Guinea.
Nicaragua in particular has seen enormous growth in its illegal timber market thanks to Chinese demand. In 2008, Nicaraguan exports of granadillo totalled about $127,000. In 2011, after other Central American countries enacted stricter wood export regulations, that number grew fifty fold, to $6 million.
China Photos/Getty Images
Chinese government officials considered using an armed unmanned aerial vehicle to target a drug trafficker hiding in Myanmar, according to an interview with Liu Yuejin, the director of China's Public Security Ministry's anti-drug bureau that appeared in Global Times on Monday. The target, Naw Kham, wanted for a drug-trafficking related attack that killed 13 Chinese sailors, was eventually captured last April in a joint Chinese-Laotian operation in Laos and is now appealing a death sentence in China. Yuejin's comments are an unusual glimpse into China's considerations for the use of drone strikes, a tactic that is no longer used exclusively by the United States.
The proposed Chinese strike would have occurred in Myanmar's restive north, where the Naypyidaw government has struggled to control ethnic conflicts and a thriving drug trade. Much like the U.S. official rationale as for strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, China could have either sought Naypyidaw's support or credibly claimed that the government was "unwilling or unable to suppress the threat posed by the individual being targeted," in the words of the Obama administration's white paper on its own targeted killing program. Similarly, as a violent drug trafficker tied to the deaths of Chinese sailors, China could have justified the potential drone strike under the white paper's loose definition of the "imminent threat of violent attack" against the homeland -- much as the United States justified targeting al Qaeda militants tied to the bombing of the USS Cole with drone strikes, beginning Abu Ali al-Harithi in 2002 (well before the white paper was authored).
The admission that the Chinese government considered a drone strike comes as its relationship with Myanmar has become increasingly strained amid stalled economic projects and new competition for influence with the West. China also appears to have placed special emphasis on their UAV programs in recent months, unveiling new models (that look suspiciously like U.S.-made Predator and Reaper drones) and retrofitting old Shenyang J-6 jets to fly by remote control.
Yuejin told Global Times that the drone strike option was passed over because of instructions to capture Naw Kham alive, but his comments demonstrate that China is weighing targeted killings seriously. When -- almost certainly not "if" -- China conducts its first drone strike, it will join just three other nations -- the United States, Britain, and Israel -- and place itself among the drone powers in the ongoing international assessment of the legality of these operations and whether they abridge international law and the established concept of sovereignty.
PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
In the wake of a series of cyber attacks from Chinese I.P. addresses at the height of the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute, Yomiuri Shimbun reports that Japan is pushing a plan to create a "cyber defense network" consisting of Japan and 10 ASEAN countries.
"Under the system, the government intends to share information about cyber-attack patterns and technology to defend against the attacks. It also plans to carry out exercises to verify the effectiveness of the system within the current fiscal year."
More details will be discussed during meetings on information security in Tokyo this week, but the countries reportedly interested in participating include Thailand and Indonesia.
While the network's present plans -- sharing technology and information about attack patterns -- don't seem particularly innovative or groundbreaking, the fact that the network is being formed could be seen as another sign of widespread, cross-border fears of Chinese hackers.
More than a dozen Japanese websites belonging to banks, a government minister, a hospital, and some courts were hit during the row over the Senkaku Islands, many altered to display Chinese flags or to proclaim that the Diaoyu islands belong to China. Similar attacks took place on websites in the Phillipines - again related to a territorial spat over an island - earlier this year (although in fairness, Filipino hackers struck back) while last week saw a flurry of reports claiming that Chinese hackers had targeted the White House in a cyberattack (the White House said the attacks were a simple spear-phishing email, and that no harm had been done).
Yomiuiri Shimbun also reports that ASEAN countries might be interested in the network because their protections against cyberattacks haven't kept up with the increased use of computer equipment that has accompanied economic development.
TEH ENG KOON/AFP/Getty Images
While the United States has only recently made tentative efforts to engage with Myanmar, India has, controversially, had decent relations with the country's government for quite some time. Human rights activists criticized Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's meeting with Than Shwe in 2012, calling it "unbecoming" for a democracy to welcome the Burmese military ruler.
At a time when relations are being renewed between Myanmar and the West, there's been a flurry of recent activity along India's 1,019-mile northeastern border with the country. The seven states of northeastern India are currently at their lowest period of insurgent violence in decades, and the shift in relations with their neighbor across the border could have enormous socio-economic implications for India, China and Southeast Asia.
On Feb. 22, India's foreign minister met with Myanmar's construction minister in New Delhi to speak about expanding both aviation and highway transportation between the two countries. The bridge in question would pass through the Naga region, inhabited by the tribal Naga people in the hilly district of Tamenglong in Manipur. For months, the United Naga Council -- an organization based in northeastern India -- had resisted such developments.
According to Samrat of the New York Times, several old routes cross the border between northeastern India and Myanmar. Some, like the World War II Stilwell Road, built under the U.S. Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell, had become "ghost roads," used mainly by Naga and Kachin insurgents to transport weapons and drugs, chiefly poppies to make and smuggle heroin across the border. But these roads have gradually returned to relatively law-abiding uses. Nonetheless, Indian officials claim Burmese authorities do not actively work to curb the flow of drugs and weapons into India.
In 1991, India's central government implemented a ‘‘Look East Policy'' to forge closer ties with the country's eastern neighbors. Critics say that Indian officials have made little attempt to put the policy into practice, but now the government is clearly looking to pick up the pace. During its many years of self-imposed isolation, Myanmar's only major economic partner was China, giving Beijing a strategic advantage in a nation that borders five countries.
Yesterday brought good and bad news in the spat over sovereignty in the South China Sea. At a meeting of the annual ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Bali, Indonesia, representatives from the ASEAN countries and China agreed upon a set of guidelines for resolving territorial disputes in the sea, where six countries - China, Vietnam, the Phillippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan - have overlapping sovereignty claims. The new deal, as outlined by the Jakarta Post, builds off the body's Declaration of Conduct (DOC), a nonbinding agreement signed in 2002 aimed at facilitating a legal agreement to resolve sovereignty disputes and prevent conflict in the region
Official reactions to theARF deal have varied. Chinese assistant foreign minister and meeting co-chair Liu Zhenmin has called the agreement a "milestone document," and his fellow co-chair, Vietnamese assistant foreign minister Pham Quang Vinh, said it was "significant and a good start." Nonetheless, it's important to note that the adopted guidelines are not legally binding; they merely reiterate the need to conform with the DOC, and they also lack a deadline for the implementation of a legal accord to resolve the conflict. Filipino Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario highlighted this concern when he said that more steps were needed to "add teeth" to the new deal.
Events later on Wednesday confirmed the Philippines's dissatisfaction with the ARF agreement. Four Filipino lawmakers and a Filipino military general ignored strong warnings from China and visited the island of Pagasa, the only island in the Spratlys populated by Filipinos, in a "peace and sovereignty mission." They joined residents to sing the national anthem and called for improvements in facilities on the island, which has no schools or hospitals for its 60 inhabitants. A spokesman from the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed outrage about the visit.
Wednesday's events came as Hillary Clinton wrapped up her tour of India and prepared to join ASEAN representatives at the security forum in Bali. At the same meeting last year, she surprised Chinese officials when she called resolution of the sovereignty disputes a "leading diplomatic priority" for the U.S. She looks set to reiterate the position this year. We'll see whether China agrees.
ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images
A two square mile patch of grassland on the border between Thailand and Cambodia, surrounding the 11th-century Hindu temple of Preah Vihear, has been a regional flashpoint for decades. The skirmishes have escalated in recent years and both countries maintain hundreds of troops along the border. But the fighting could quiet down soon if the sides agree to a ruling today by the U.N.'s International Court of Justice. The court declared that a demilitarized zone should be established immediately in the region surrounding the temple, outlined here in diagrams from the Bangkok Post. The two countries have indicated they would abide by the decision.
With the U.N. ruling, the area surrounding Preah Vihear joins a handful of other demilitarized zones around the world. The most famous of these has divided North Korea and South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953. The zone has played an important role maintaining the uneasy peace between the two countries, while also serving as a surprisingly effective wildlife refuge for a number of northeast Asia's endangered species. A similar phenomenon has emerged in the buffer zone established under U.N. control in 1974 between Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a breakaway region recognized only by Turkey.
Israel also deals with its share of DMZs -- one at the Golan Heights, where U.N. forces have maintained the ceasefire between Syria and Israel since 1974, and one at the Sinai Peninsula. But the latter now contains Egyptian soldiers deployed with Israel's permission during the chaos of the Arab Spring, after Bedouin tribesmen started bombing gas lines in the region to protest their treatment at the hands of the Egyptian government. Israel imports 40 percent of its gas from Egypt.
Looking for the next emerging DMZ? The two Sudans agreed in late May to set up a demilitarized zone along their border, but the details are still very much in the works. Conflict continues to brew over the contested region of Abyei, which lies in the middle of the border. Without a resolution to the dispute, the DMZ there could be a long ways off.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
This blog does not have any specific about information tied to it.