June 26, 2019  

Two new flags will be flying high at the Olympic Games in Rio.

For the first time, South Sudan and Kosovo have been recognized by the International Olympic Committee. Kosovo, which was a province of the former Yugoslavia, will have 8 athletes competing; and a good shot for a medal in women's judo: Majlinda Kelmendi is considered a favorite. She's ranked first in the world in her weight class.

(South Sudan's James Chiengjiek, Yiech Biel & coach Joe Domongole, © AFP) South Sudan, which became independent in 2011, will have three runners competing in the country's first Olympic Games.

When Will Chile's Post Office's Re-open? 

(PHOTO: Workers set up camp at Santiago's Rio Mapocho/Mason Bryan, The Santiago Times)Chile nears 1 month without mail service as postal worker protests continue. This week local branches of the 5 unions representing Correos de Chile voted on whether to continue their strike into a 2nd month, rejecting the union's offer. For a week the workers have set up camp on the banks of Santiago's Río Mapocho displaying banners outlining their demands; framing the issue as a division of the rich & the poor. The strike’s main slogan? “Si tocan a uno, nos tocan a todos,” it reads - if it affects 1 of us, it affects all of us. (Read more at The Santiago Times)

WHO convenes emergency talks on MERS virus


(PHOTO: Saudi men walk to the King Fahad hospital in the city of Hofuf, east of the capital Riyadh on June 16, 2013/Fayez Nureldine)The World Health Organization announced Friday it had convened emergency talks on the enigmatic, deadly MERS virus, which is striking hardest in Saudi Arabia. The move comes amid concern about the potential impact of October's Islamic hajj pilgrimage, when millions of people from around the globe will head to & from Saudi Arabia.  WHO health security chief Keiji Fukuda said the MERS meeting would take place Tuesday as a telephone conference & he  told reporters it was a "proactive move".  The meeting could decide whether to label MERS an international health emergency, he added.  The first recorded MERS death was in June 2012 in Saudi Arabia & the number of infections has ticked up, with almost 20 per month in April, May & June taking it to 79.  (Read more at Xinhua)



Dreams and nightmares - Chinese leaders have come to realize the country should become a great paladin of the free market & democracy & embrace them strongly, just as the West is rejecting them because it's realizing they're backfiring. This is the "Chinese Dream" - working better than the American dream.  Or is it just too fanciful?  By Francesco Sisci

Baby step towards democracy in Myanmar  - While the sweeping wins Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has projected in Sunday's by-elections haven't been confirmed, it is certain that the surging grassroots support on display has put Myanmar's military-backed ruling party on notice. By Brian McCartan

The South: Busy at the polls - South Korea's parliamentary polls will indicate how potent a national backlash is against President Lee Myung-bak's conservatism, perceived cronyism & pro-conglomerate policies, while offering insight into December's presidential vote. Desire for change in the macho milieu of politics in Seoul can be seen in a proliferation of female candidates.  By Aidan Foster-Carter  

Pakistan climbs 'wind' league - Pakistan is turning to wind power to help ease its desperate shortage of energy,& the country could soon be among the world's top 20 producers. Workers & farmers, their land taken for the turbine towers, may be the last to benefit.  By Zofeen Ebrahim

Turkey cuts Iran oil imports - Turkey is to slash its Iranian oil imports as it seeks exemptions from United States penalties linked to sanctions against Tehran. Less noticed, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the Iranian capital last week, signed deals aimed at doubling trade between the two countries.  By Robert M. Cutler



CARTOON: Peter Broelman, Australia/BROELMAN.com.au)


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Entries in President Thein Sein (2)


In Myanmar, Sanctions Have Had Their Day (COMMENTARY) 

By Louise Arbour

Ancient city of Bagan, Myanamar (photo: Javier Martin Espartosa) 

As Myanmar moves ahead with its ambitious reforms and abandons old ways of thinking, Western countries need to change their own mind-set and adopt a more subtle approach.

After decades of sanctions and self-imposed isolation, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is undergoing a remarkable and, so far, peaceful transition away from authoritarian rule. It is heading in the direction that its people and the international community both want.

The dramatic changes led by President Thein Sein have been endorsed by the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has said that the president is sincerely motivated.

Key political freedoms such as the right to organize, assemble, speak out and run for political office are being exercised in a way that was unthinkable even a year ago.

The government has abandoned policies of confrontation with the country’s ethnic minorities for a new peace initiative that has seen 11 cease-fire agreements signed with armed groups, leaving out only the resistant Kachin. These deals are an encouraging first step in what needs to be a larger effort to rethink the way the country sees itself after 60 years of civil war.

(Video: Philippines TV, Interview with Aung San Suu Kyi)

Aung San Suu Kyi is campaigning for a seat in Parliament in by-elections on April 1. The National League for Democracy is registered, not banned; her once forbidden image is ubiquitous on the streets of the capital.

Thousands turn out to see her campaigning and the media are free to report on her activities.

The elections for 48 of the 656 seats in the legislature will not be perfect, but they are expected to be much more free and fair than the controversial November 2010 poll.

(PHOTO: Downtown Yangon in the evening/Wikipedia) There is still much to be changed. Decades without a legislature have left Myanmar over-reliant on British colonial laws. “You name it, we need to reform it,” a government adviser told me in Yangon last week. Backward agriculture, antiquated infrastructure, an ossified civil service, and mind-sets cultivated by decades of isolation will not be changed easily or overnight.

The good news is that most senior officials understand this and are open to outside help. From the president down, they realize isolation has left the country weakened.

Capital, know-how and new ideas at all levels may be rushed in, not all well designed or well intentioned. The challenge for the West, which has contributed to the country’s seclusion, is to recalibrate its response to the reform initiatives.

Whether or not the existing sanctions contributed to change, they will not support the momentum for reform; removing them will. Major changes have been set in motion in response to increasing demands from the people of Myanmar, as well as in preparation for the country to act as host to the Southeast Asian Games in 2013 and to assume the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014. In a new democratic mind-set, the government also has its eye on its own re-election in 2015.

Neither threats nor promises are necessary to set the agenda.

Skepticism and undue prudence will only slow down the reform process and risk becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. Rather, it is time for encouragement and support to achieve the mutual goal of opening up Myanmar and improving the plight of its mostly impoverished people. This will require subtlety in policy making by Western governments, and a political effort commensurate to the one being made by the Burmese authorities themselves.

First, finding new reasons to keep restrictions in place is the wrong approach. Using sanctions to force a solution to the outstanding ethnic conflict involving the Kachin armed group is a clumsy tactic that puts pressure only on the government and encourages the other side to fight on for a better deal.

Secondly, blanket prohibitions on trade, financial transactions, or development aid should no longer be used to address single-issue bilateral agendas such as people smuggling.

Finally, exclusively taking the lead from the National League for Democracy’s Aung San Suu Kyi on when to end sanctions and restrictions will no longer be appropriate once she takes up a new role as the leader of a minority party in Parliament.

The international community is now pushing on an open door in Myanmar; the real difficulty is in crossing the threshold effectively to achieve an agreed-upon objective. Neither sanctions nor a stampede of offers of assistance will help.

It is time for a more nuanced approach of engagement that understands and respects the domestic agenda and sets aside years of built-in suspicions and stereotypes. Support is needed to accelerate political and economic reforms and, most importantly for the sake of all the country’s long-suffering citizens, to meet understandable but not always realistic expectations.

--- Louise Arbour is President of the International Crisis Group. This article originally appeared in the International Herald Tribune


Reform in Myanmar (INTERVIEW / PERSPECTIVE) 

International Crisis Group

(September 22, 2011) Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group's Southeast Asia Project Director, speaks about changes on the ground in Myanmar as President Thein Sein pursues a reform agenda and how Western nations can encourage further change. 

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Myanmar’s President Thein Sein has pursued a reform agenda since assuming office in March 2011, relaxing some restrictions on speech and political organizing and meeting with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet some critics denounce these moves as mere window dressing for a fundamentally unchanged military dictatorship. To discuss whether conditions are actually changing on the ground, I’m joined by Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group’s Southeast Asia Project Director. Jim joined me on the line from Jakarta.

Jim, give us a sense of some of the concrete reforms underway since President Thein Sein assumed office in March.

The most significant political reforms or signs of political reconciliation have really taken place since the middle of July. Since that time, we’ve seen President Thein Sein reach out to Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, and try and win her over, along with others, to his reform agenda. He invited her and her followers--3,000 of them--to Martyr’s Day in the middle of July. The pace of meetings between Aung Kyi, the Labor Minister, and Aung San Suu Kyi has increased. We have most significantly seen a meeting with the president and Aung San Suu Kyi herself, and that is a very dramatic development because they were photographed under the portrait of her late father, and this was something that the previous government had very deliberately expunged from the public view.
Do you have a sense that the impetus for reform is flowing directly from the president and, if so, what opposition does he face within the military or the economic elite?

Reforms are definitely coming from the president himself. He is very personally involved and invested in convincing people from outside--Burmese who have lived overseas for many years--to come back and to help him with his reforms. His meeting Aung San Suu Kyi is one example of where he made a personal approach to bring her in and onto his side. And she has described that the changes as being very positive.
What are some of the obstacles Myanmar faces at this point to further reform?

It’s clear that the president has the military on his side. Recently, the parliament passed a motion on the release of prisoners, and the military faction voted in favor of that motion. And we, analyze that this may be because the head of the military may himself be considering running for office in five years time. There are people who have vested interests in the status-quo and who will try to stop these reforms or could stop these reforms. There is a lot fear about change, and the bureaucracy is very under-equipped to deal with this rapid change and reforms.  So, there’s a lot of things that could go wrong and the agenda of the president is very ambitious. But we feel it’s not the time to wait for it to fail. Particularly for western countries that have been disengaged from Myanmar in recent years, now is the time to try and support these reforms, which will have positive effects for the people of Myanmar.
So can you give me some specifics then about how Western nations can best engage and respond?

One example has been that people are very concerned overseas about the ongoing human rights abuses, which continue to this day as the military in Myanmar fights against ethic insurgents. It’s undeniable that human rights abuses are continuing, but the government has recently set up a human rights commission. This commission is a very new body. It’s lacking experience and skills and resources. There have been a number of nations in the past that have engaged with Myanmar on human rights, and here’s an opportunity for international assistance to help promote greater domestic accountability for human rights abuses in the country.
Many international observers have argued that the government’s reforms have been really paper thin and that the best way to achieve change is with new sanctions. What would you say in response to that line of thinking?

There’s a lot of differences everyday that we’re seeing in the way the country is governed. These are more than just words, but there’s still many concrete actions to be taken. To stay at the sidelines at this point is to deny the significance of the changes that are happening. Those people who’ve met Aung San Suu Kyi in recent weeks have found her very cogent, engaged, aware that she’s balancing complex and difficult issues, but also very optimistic. One visitor who we spoke to recently quoted her as saying, “those people who say there’s no change are not here.”
Would sanctions then be counterproductive at this point?

Crisis Group has long held the view that sanctions on Myanmar, targeted or non-targeted, are counterproductive. They encourage a siege mentality among its leadership, and they are harmful for the poor population of this country. The greater the pace of change, the weaker the rational becomes for continuing or adding more.
And what about some kind of international investigation?

There remains ample evidence that the army continues to employ brutal counterinsurgency strategies, and in the absence of domestic accountability, calls for an international commission will remain. But it is far from clear that an international commission, even if one could be established, is the most effective way to address the abuses at this time or whether its impact would be to cause backsliding or retrenchment in Myanmar.   There are already indications that the key benchmarks that many in the West have been insisting on for so long may soon be reached, such as the release of political prisoners. If there’s internal progress in human rights and significant economic reforms that benefit the country’s citizens, these should be acknowledged and the international community should be supporting these changes and encouraging more.
- Edited for print

Also from ICG, Myanmar: Major Reform Underway - The International Crisis Group is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict.