Sunday, January 29, 2012

Romney Expected to win 2012 Florida Republican Primary

With three primaries going in the way of three candidates, the Republican presidential candidacy race became quite interesting after the South Carolina primary. South Carolina has been a winning ground for the republicans in their inter-party contests. From 1980, those who won its primary eventually became the presidential candidates from the party.

After the surprising landslide victory of Newt Gingrich at South Carolina, the race has come down to a contest between Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and Gingrich. Gingrich’s comeback was a big surprise as he had been a total outsider in both Iowa and Rick Santorum, the winner at Iowa primary is trailing at third place and Ron Paul is far behind. He has not campaigned in the Southern state of Florida.

Romney has comeback from the defeat in South Carolina and leads Florida, with opinion polls showing that he may get over 40% of the votes in the January 31 primary. Gingrich is about 10% behind him. Romney’s attacks on Gingrich’s past ethical record have hit the latter hard, as these early opinion polls show.

A victory in Florida, which is a 50 delegate ‘winner takes all’ state, would bolster the presidential hopes of Mitt Romney. With a clear possibility of challenging President Barack Obama in the coming November, the Republicans would have to pick the best possible candidate. With his past record, Gingrich may not be the best candidate for many Republicans.

However, it is still early to call an end to the race. The primaries of the home states of the four leading candidates are still far away. Both the current leaders, Romney and Gingrich will be facing the primaries of their home states, Massachusetts and Georgia respectively, on March 6, 2012. Ron Paul’s home state, Texas, will hold its primary on April 3, and with 155 delegates, he can hope for a boost to his candidacy. So can Santorum in Pennsylvania, which selects 72 delegates. The only fear the latter two candidates can have is that they may be eclipsed by the two leaders by the time they battle in their strongholds. Santorum will hope to divert the conservatives from Gingrich towards him by projecting himself as a better suited candidate than the Georgian. He seems to be doing it in a very small scale in Florida, as many Republican stalwarts themselves do not look forward to a Newt Gingrich candidacy.

Another important fact has been the debate between the two leaders which has to a considerable extent discredited both and given ammunition to others including Barack Obama. In the long run, this may be an opening a third candidate can exploit and take back the presidential nomination. While Ron Paul may be a long shot, Santorum might be not. Indeed, there is a long way to go to the Republican primaries to end.

Image: Florida map with county names and boundaries, from Wikimedia Commons

Bani Walid... Again.

Any hopes of stabilizing Libya after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi were just day dreams of the new rulers and their supporters and not a feasible reality. Some scholars actually pointed out this but their warnings were disregarded, which was a very bad, short sighted mistake.

After the fall and death of Gaddafi, the National Transition Council (NTC) has been unable to do anything correct, perhaps except selling the oil of the country. The formation of a new government gave rise to enough disputes. There were reports of radical Islamic, even Al-Qaeda linked militant groups in the NTC held areas even before the fall of Gaddafi. Disputes between tribes are on the rise. The NTC has not been able to establish their writ in large swathes of the land. An extremely revealing example is their inability to convince the captors of both Saif al-Islam and Al-Sanussi, Gaddafi’s son and spy chief respectively, to hand them over to the NTC. Even in the major cities of the country there are armed people outside NTC control.

With all these detractors, one may think that at least the NTC is free of the Gaddafi loyalists, especially after the ignominious death of the old man and the death, capture or flight of his sons. Well, unfortunately for the battle weary NTC, this is not the case.

Bani Walid, a Gaddafi stronghold which held on weeks after the fall of Tripoli, has once more become the battle ground between the Gaddafi loyalists and the NTC. On January 23, 2012, the rebels attacked the NTC units in the town. Although the militants are a few hundred strong, they are backed by the bulk of the local population who are still pro-Gaddafi.

After Wednesday, January 25, Bani Walid has been relatively quiet. However, the NTC has made its intention of defeating the militants clear. The Libyan government is massing heavily armed troops and even preparing the air force to attack and retake the town. A military assault will most probably overcome the armed opposition within a short period of time. However, a comprehensive solution to the fractional disputes within Libya seems to be yet another dream.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Twenty Five Years since Perestroika

In January 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), introduced ‘democratizatsia’ (democratization) of the Soviet Union, which was to accompany ‘glasnost’ (openness) and ‘perestroika’ (restructuring) introduced in 1986 and 1987. These steps were meant to inject some life to a failing system.

The Soviet Union was burdened with the inherent problems of central planned economy and heavy industrialization, including mismanagement, shortage and low quality of commodities and bureaucracy. Also the Cold War was squeezing the resources of the country. The Soviet Union could ill afford to keep up with the arms race by diverting money which could have improved the living conditions of her people. Also, the satellites in Eastern Europe and other allies and proxy wars were also becoming a liability which the country could not afford.

Gorbachev’s answer was to be to end the Cold War and save the vital resources to improve the lot of his people and restructure the economy of the country. Increasing openness was meant to bring up the inefficiencies, corruption and mismanagement of the people at responsible positions. By this, Gorbachev wanted to bring in fresh blood while removing the old guard in political and economic spheres.

Over the next few years, central planning was relaxed, private property was allowed and free elections were held. However, the economy failed to recover and the internal disputes became acute. The Soviet Union, supposedly a union where scores of nationalities lived in harmony and equality was actually a ‘prison of nations’. These nations slowly threatened to break lose. As Cold War ended, the Berlin Wall fell and the Eastern Europeans brought down the dreaded Communist regimes, people inside the Soviet Union also wanted more freedom than Gorbachev wanted to allow.

Gorbachev may have understood the dilemma he was in much later, when events went out of control. Whether he restructured or not, the Soviet Union was doomed to fail as the system had been proven wrong. An attempt by the old guard to restore the Soviet Union before the advent of Gorbachev was the final nail in the coffin of the Soviet Union. Thereafter, the fall of the union was a mere formality.

The euphoria of the Western nations at their victory over communism was to be short lived. Capitalism has also proven to be inadequate to alleviate the lot of the people as can be seen in the economic recession in Europe and the United States. Also, the emergence of a new China which is ‘communist in politics and capitalist in economics’ and the reemergence of a new capitalist Russia has changed global politics. Unlike the Soviet era, now the Russians are competing the West in their own game, rather than following communism. It can be said that glasnost opened up the problems in Russia and thereby opened Russia to capitalism and perestroika destroyed central planning and ultimately has created an oligarchy.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Who Defeated the SOPA and the PIPA?

After a battle between proponents and opponents of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), they were withdrawn by the Senators of the United States Congress who earlier sponsored them.

The supposed objective of the two acts was stopping internet piracy, which is costing huge amounts of money to some companies, most notably in the field of entertainment. Therefore, stakeholders in film and music industry such as the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) and Universal Music became strong supporters of the acts.

However, the opponents argued that the provisions in the acts could be used to stop the exchange of free information. (Read more on this here).

It is not surprising that the U.S., hard hit by the Wikileaks revelations, is contemplating action against such websites. However, blocking websites such as Youtube, Facebook and Twitter will undoubtedly help autocrats around the world. It was these kinds of websites which can be used to freely upload information that gave birth to and nurtured the pro-democratic protests throughout the world in year 2011. Without such websites, Ben Ali would have remained the president of Tunisia even now.

The websites which opposed the SOPA and PIPA launched a one day strike on January 18, 2012. It had a notable effect on the people around the world. More than 162 million people reportedly saw the blackout page on Wikipedia. Also 4.5 million signed a petition against the acts in Google.

The most dramatic confrontation between the two sides was the hacking of several federal government and private websites after the Department of Justice shutdown the website Magaupload. A group of ‘hacktivists’ called Anonymous, attacked several websites in retaliation. These included websites of Department of Justice, MPAA, Universal Music etc. It was total cyber warfare.

On the same day, it was announced that the SOPA and PIPA has been withdrawn. It was seen as if the retreat was due to the ‘hacktivists’.

Although the withdrawal followed the hacking of websites, it can be said that the hacking did not have a positive impact on the defeat of the acts. Some Senators had already withdrawn their support to SOPA and PIPA on account of the magnitude of public protest. The U.S. Capitol received about 8 million electronic messages on SOPA and PIPA on the day of the protest. The Senators couldn’t afford to alienate the public especially during an election year, by supporting such questionable legislation.

The Chairman and CEO of the MPAA, former Senator Chris Dodd, has blamed the websites which launched the strike action saying “some technology business interests are resorting to stunts that punish their users or turn them into their corporate pawns” (Read the statement here) It is impossible to reject this claim completely. However, he seems to have forgotten that some of the websites which oppose this measure has no financial stake whatsoever. On the other hand, the financial interests such as the MPAA themselves vocally support the ‘anti-piracy twins’ because of their financial stakes involved.

Chris Dodd, being a former Senator, must be aware of the implications of turning the back to the aspirations of the public. If he needs more evidence, he should take a good look at video footage of the protests which swept through dozens of cities an Arabia and elsewhere in 2011.

Although it has many defects, the democracy in the United States has imparted the opportunity of changing the course of their nation to the public by expressing their opinion. At times, even business tycoons have to accept the fact. In contrast, the people in Arabia had to take to the streets and sacrifice even their lives to change the course of their nations.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Lecture by H. E. Dr. Abdul Kalam, Former President of India, at BMICH (January 21, 2012)

His Excellency Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, former president of India, is on a visit to Sri Lanka. On Saturday, 21st of January 2012, he was the chief guest at an event to launch a ten year National Action Plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka, at Temple Trees (H.E. President Mahinda Rajapakss’s official residence). In the afternoon, he delivered a lecture at the auditorium of Sirimavo Bandaranaike Memorial Exhibition Centre (SBMEC-Auditorium), on the topic, “Ignited Minds of the Youth is the Greatest Resource for the Nation”.

Organized by the Bandaranaike Centre of International Studies (BCIS), which is the academic wing of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike National Memorial Foundation, the event was graced by the participation of many other distinguished guests including Ashok Kantha, High Commissioner of India, Senior Minister Thissa Vitharana and Minister of External Affairs, Professor G. L. Peiris. The gathering of more than 2,500 people included diplomats, politicians and a large contingent of youth and children.

In his welcome speech, Mr. Sunimal Fernando, advisor to H. E. the President of Sri Lanka and member of the Board of Studies in BCIS, highlighted the importance of Dr. Abdul Kalam’s visit. The Cabinet of Ministers in Sri Lanka has already declared the year 2012 as the “Year for a Trilingual Society” and Dr. Kalam was the chief guest at the event to launch the above mentioned event at Temple Trees. Mr. Fernando further stated that despite being a leading scientist, Dr. Kalam’s concerns and interests are of a varied spectrum including, aspirations of the youth, empowering villagers and women, mobilizing rural population, the mission of education etc.

The High Commissioner for India in Sri Lanka, Mr. Ashok Kantha spoke of Dr. Kalam and his importance to the people of India. In his illustrious career as a scientist, Dr. Abdul Kalam oversaw India’s space program, missile system and her nuclear program. For his work, the eminent scientist was bestowed with many awards including the highest award an Indian can hope for from his or her own land, the Bharat Ratna. However, as Mr. Kantha further emphasized, the people revere Dr. Kalam as the “quintessential people’s president”. A man with “passion and compassion” and “humility and humanity”, he is an “icon to look up to” stated Mr Kantha.

Speaking on this occasion, Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris built up from Mr Kantha’s last point, stating that as “we live in an age of cynicism” where “values and traditions are being questioned”, we are in need of a role model to look up to. Prof. Peiris was in the view that Dr. Kalam was the best suited role model. He stated that “I know no other academic with 43 honorary doctorates”. Furthermore, Prof. Peiris emphasized two main characteristics he sees in Dr. Kalam: his sheer range of interests and his pragmatism. The example he put forward to elaborate these qualities is the “PURA Movement”, a brainchild of Dr. Kalam, designed to empower the village poor.

Turning the attention of the audience to the education field, Prof. Peiris stated that compared to Western children, the children from countries like India and Sri Lanka have far better talents and power of perception. What they lack is the access to opportunity. Sadly, the university system in Sri Lanka, which is compartmentalized and stratified, does not allow much opportunity to think out of the box. He shared one of his own experiences when he was invited within just three hours to two similar functions by Sinhalese and Tamil students. They could not organize one function as they could not communicate due to the language barrier.

Then it was time for the keynote address by Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam. He, as expected, addressed mainly the youth whom he called his 'young friends'. He stated that the youth should have the “faith of confidence” which can do wonders. Education should be geared towards inculcating this attitude among the younger generation. He recalled unique personalities from the field of sciences, such as Thomas Alva Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and the Wright brothers and asked the young people who had gathered whether they wanted to be unique personalities. Naturally they replied in the affirmative. Then Dr. Kalam advised that to become unique is the hardest battle one will face.
Dr. Kalam further stated that there are four tools to become a unique person. They are: A great aim, continuous acquiring of knowledge, hard work and persistence. Stressing that “small aim is a crime” he also stated that acquiring knowledge can be done through books, humans and good teachers. Dr. Kalam also emphasized that working with integrity and succeeding with integrity is an essential challenge to the youth.

However, according to the former Indian president, “no youth today has to fear about the future as the ignited mind of the youth is the greatest resource for a nation”. He also stated that the society has changed from good old days of his youth. As such, knowledge and ability rather than social hierarchy determines the future of today’s youth.

Dr. Kalam emphasized the need for national ethics for sustained development. This, he said, moved down the social units. Thus, there was the need for ethics in the societies for ethics in the nation, ethics in the families for ethics in the societies and ethics of parenthood for ethics in the families. According to Dr. Kalam, creating a morally upright and compassionate society with a cleaner environment and a caring society is the challenges of our times. He stated that this can arise from the youth movements. He asked the young people to think of what you can give to the society to make it a better place. Imparting knowledge and literacy to the illiterate, growing trees to cleanse the environment and caring for the lonely are examples he illustrated.

Dr. Kalam managed to conduct an interactive session despite the large audience, highlighting the fact that he is a good communicator. Undoubtedly, he made a lasting impression on those who heard him on that beautiful afternoon.

Commemorative Event to Mark the 105th Birth Anniversary of Sergei P. Korolev, Former "Chief Designer" of the Soviet Union

A commemorative event to mark the 105th birth anniversary of Soviet Russia’s “Chief Designer”, Sergei Pavlovich Korloev, organized by the Royal College Astronomical Society with the Russian Cultural Centre, Colombo, was held on January 18, 2012, at the Russian Cultural Centre. The event was attended by Senior Minister Prof. Thissa Vitharana, acting Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Sri Lanka, His Excellency Mr. Sergei Ankov and other dignitaries. About 200 participants, including members of the armed forces and children of several leading schools in Colombo attended the event.

Speaking at the event, Prof. Vitharana hailed Russia’s achievements in the field of space exploration. He also mentioned the elation he felt in the event of Gagarin’s visit to Sri Lanka just months after his space flight.

Sergei Korolev was the man who made it possible for Gagarin to explore space. Born on January 12, 1907, he developed an interest in aviation at an early stage. He attended the Kiev Polytechnic Institute and worked in the designing of gliders while studying. Then he moved to Bauman Moscow State Technical University in Moscow. In 1929, he got the opportunity to work with the famous aircraft designer, Andrei Tupolev for a short period.

Korolev was denounced by some of his colleagues during Stalin’s Great Purge in 1938. Arrested on trumped up charges of sabotage and anti-Soviet activities, he was taken to Lyubyanka, the headquarters of the secret police (NKVD) for questioning. He ended up with a broken jaw and broken teeth. Sent to the notorious Kolyma gold mines, the back breaking work and poor food further weakened him.

The fall of the NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov and the end of the “Yezhovshchina” (Yezov years) turned out to be a blessing for Korolev. He was retried and his sentence of ten years was reduced to eight. He got the opportunity of working with Andrei Tupolev again in a special engineering unit for prisoners. Along with some of his colleagues, he was discharged in 1944.

After the end of the Second World War, Korolev was sent to Germany as a part of the expert team to acquire German rocket technology. This was the beginning which saw the designing of the R-7 “Semyorka”, the first ever Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). Korolev was responsible for the success stories of Soviet space program such as the launching of Sputnik I, the first ever satellite, on October 4, 1957 and the Vostok I mission which sent Yuri Gagarin to space on April 12, 1961.

Even by this time, his life at the gulag was affecting Korolev and his health was falling. In early January, 1966, he died after an operation under disputed circumstances. He was just 59. Whether he died after a surgery on an intestinal tumor or an unsuccessful haemorrhoid operation is unclear. However it is said that his already weak heart gave away during the operation and he never recovered.

The Soviet people never knew the identity of their “Chief Designer” until his death. Days after his passing away, Pravda published an extensive article on him, thereby revealing who he was to the world. Today Sergei Korolev is celebrated as a leading personality in the development of space exploration.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The 1966 Football World Cup Adventure of North Korea

North Korea is once more among headlines after the death of Kim Jong-il and the succession by his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. This is the story of them reaching the sports headlines in 1966.

The North Koreans were the underdogs of the football world cup in 1966 which was the only football world cup tournament they qualified in the last century. But in that tournament, they unceremoniously threw out one super power in football and nearly gave the same treatment to another.


North Korean qualification may have been helped by many Afro-Asian countries boycotting the qualifiers to protest against the allocation of only one place in the tournament to the two regions. The North Koreans had to overcome the Australians in a play-off which they did comfortably and they were on their way to England.

Diplomatic Issues with the United Kingdom

But getting into England was easier said than done. Because the United Kingdom had no diplomatic ties with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the foreign office took its time to grant special permission for the Koreans to get in. The foreign office finally agreed on the ground that North Korean national anthem was not to be played before the matches. A commemorative stamp had to be redesigned as the foreign office objected to having the North Korean flag in it.

The Reception at Middlesborough

The North Koreans were to play their group matches in the North East of England, at Ayresome Park, Middlesborough. No one in England or much of the rest of the world gave them a big chance of advancing to the next stage. But surprisingly, the people of Middlesborough gave them overwhelming support.

Their first game against the formidable Soviet Union proved the point of the majority of football world as North Korea were defeated 3-0. Their next game against Chile also would have been lost had not Pak Seung-Zin equalized in the 88th minute. The greatest triumph of the little Koreans was yet to come.

With the home crowd backing them strongly, the underdogs met Italy on the 19th of July, 1966. The Italians needed at least a draw to advance but no one doubted them losing except a few. But, the Koreans had something else in mind. In the 42nd minute, a nicely timed shot by Pak Doo-Ik found the lower right corner of the net. North Korea was up 1-0, and the Italians could not change the score despite all their effort. It was perhaps the greatest upset in world cup history. Furthermore, it is considered to be the biggest humiliation suffered by Italy in a world cup tournament if not in any international game.

Portugal also Baffled

The Middleborough fans were so thrilled that around 3000 accompanied their heroes to Liverpool for the quarterfinal against Portugal. They were not disappointed as after just 25 minutes, the Koreans were leading 3-0! The North Koreans for their part just waltzed around the Portuguese continuing the attacking game plan with little thought of defending their gain. Even then, the Koreans may have won if not for Eusebio, the African born Portuguese genius who personally took command of the game. He scored four as North Korea went down 5-3.

The Game of Their Lives

What happened to the team after their return to North Korea remained a mystery to the outside world until recently and speculations of mistreatment was common. But a team of BBC filmmakers found out that this was not so when they interviewed 7 surviving members of the legendary team to produce a documentary aptly named “The Game of their Lives.” They had been heroes then and heroes now.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Recent Developments in South East Asia

More liberalization in Myanmar (Burma), Myanmar government peace with Karen militants, Sino-Nepali ties, Sino-ASEAN summit and Ma Ying-jeou’s victory in Taiwan.

South East Asian was an extremely active region in the political sphere on the end of the second week of January, 2012. As China moved to refresh their ties with neighbors, The Taiwanese people re-elected the pro-Chinese president. Meanwhile, Myanmar took further drastic steps in reforms.

Myanmar (Burma): Reforms and Peace

Days after the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi, declared her intention to run for a seat in the legislative assembly, the Myanmar regime began releasing political prisoners. This came in the wake of the disappointing amnesty given in lieu of the Independence Day, barely ten days ago.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s statement can be seen as an endorsement of the current political reforms that has been carried out by the Thein Sein government. The United States has declared their intension of restoring full diplomatic ties with Myanmar.

Meanwhile, a ceasefire was agreed upon by the Myanmar government officials and the Karen National Union (KNU) in a bid to end what has been called “the world’s longest war”. The KNU and its military wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) has been waging war with the Burmese government from 1949. The KNLA is one of the strongest among a plethora of rebel forces engaged in the internal conflict of Burma from independence in 1948.

Sino-ASEAN Meeting

Myanmar was also present when Chinese and ASEAN government officials have gathered in Beijing for a three day summit starting on January 14, 2012, to agree upon a code of conduct in the South China Sea. Last year saw the escalation of the dispute between some ASEAN members and China over the Spratley Islands. Vietnam in particular was extremely vocal in her protests of the Chinese government. However, the Vietnamese Vice Foreign Minister Pham Quang Vinh stated “It is a positive move in the right direction”.

Chinese Premier Visits Nepal

Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Prime Minister, made an official visit to Nepal and met with Nepali President Ram Baran Yadav and Prime Minister and other leaders. It is the first visit by a Chinese premier after 2001. In his visit, Premier Wen has called the two countries as traditional friends. The ties between the two peoples go back to at least millennia. Nepal established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1955.

However, until recently, Nepali economy was connected almost exclusively with that of India as almost all imports and exports trade went through that country. Thousands of Nepali people still work in India. India was generally a supporter of the former monarchy in Nepal. However, in late 1980s the Indians enforced an embargo on the small neighbor. What followed were the economic hardships which helped the people’s movement and weakened the monarchy. The Chinese were able to establish better relations with the new democratically elected governments. In 1996, the then President of China, Jiang Zemin, paid a landmark visit to Nepal

With the rise of the Maoists, the picture changed even more. India clearly did not want to see a Maoist victory in the 2008 Constitutional Assembly elections but that is precisely what happened. The present government in Nepal is inclined to cultivate a healthy relationship with China more than with India. India was seen as a ‘big bad bully’ at a time when considering her relationship with her smaller neighbors. China on the other hand wants to portray that her friendship with smaller neighbors is a ‘no strings attached’ exemplary model to all big nations.

Elections in Taiwan

The People’s Republic of China(PRC) has every reason to be happy about the outcome in Taiwan, which is officially the Republic of China (RoC). The Beijing government considers Taiwan to be a province of China and has not ruled out a military means of unification. However, in real terms, the PRC cannot hope for such a reunification and advocates the “One Country Two Systems” model such as in Hong Kong and Macau. The Taiwanese leadership, bolstered by the aid by the United States, always stood up to the challenge from the Communist giant from across the Formosa Straits from 1949. But, as the geopolitical situation changed the isolation of the RoC increased. The former pariah state of PRC became the darling of the West from early 1970s and gradually the former friends of Taiwan became indifferent. The end of the cold war did not help the island nation either.

The Kuomintang (Nationalist Party or the KMT) transformed itself into a more conciliatory stance with respect to the PRC under a new generation of leaders. The China-sceptic Democratic Progressive Party ousted the KMT for the first time in 2000. However, the KMT returned to power in 2008. While the PRC did not recognize the RoC, economic ties were established, especially after 2008 under the present leader of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou. Ma has promised closer ties and lesser possibility of conflict with the PRC in the next four years. The result shows that the Taiwanese people are ready to deal with their neighbours across the Formosa Straits in friendly terms, unlike the case when the two governments were always at loggerheads during the cold war era. Also since the PRC is now a major economic power, it is advantageous for the RoC to have cordial relations with that country.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Pakistan: Moving towards another Military Regime?

Pakistan is simply in a mess. She is faced with insurgency in North West Frontier Provinces and Baluchistan. The relations with the U.S. have come to a very low point. The economy is failing. The year 2011 was extremely bad for agriculture. On top of that, the government is entangled in disputes with the Supreme Court and the military.

The government of President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani still has a parliamentary majority. The Prime Minister is expected to win a ‘show of confidence’ resolution on Monday, January 16, 2012. It is a step taken to counter a possible ouster of the government by the Supreme Court over fraud allegations against Zardari. Also it will be a minor hindrance to the Army if it really decides to move in. The Supreme Court is also to meet on Monday for a crucial session and all eyes will be on that session.

Although an immediate military takeover may not occur, the government fears that the military might support a move by the Supreme Court to remove it from office. If this happens, there will be little chance of opposing a military coup based on its illegality. The Army can easily declare that they are just enforcing the recommendation of the judiciary. The opposition parties also do not support a military takeover-not that the opposition would matter if the military do launch a coup. However, the opposition wants to go for an early election to exploit the popular frustration on the government. Meanwhile, the government wants to remain in power at least until the Senate elections in March. As the Senate is elected by the current lawmakers, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of Zardari will receive a majority in it.

Pakistan saw three successful military coups and four military leaders in its 64 year history. Pervez Musharraf, the last military ruler to govern the country was ousted by popular protests, partly due to his removal of the Chief Justice from office. Zardari cannot afford to confront the judiciary knowing this. Also, he might not have the support of the military in such an event. The best option would have been to go for an early election but then the PPP might lose the vote. If they can stay in power a few more months, even if they lose the next general election, they will at least have the majority in the Senate. This is the dilemma faced by the Pakistani government today.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Mayawati's Latest Trick in Uttar Pradesh

Dalit leader Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) completed a feat which was out of grasp for a Uttar Pradesh (UP) state government for two decades: that of completing a full five year term. It is no easy challenge to win even a simple majority in the state assembly which has 403 seats because there are many strong contenders fighting for them. The BSP, the Samajawadi Party (SP), the Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC) all have a say in the most populous state in India. Mayawati's BSP won 206 seats in the 2007 state elections.

However, her tenure was marred by allegations about her personal conduct including erecting her own statues. Also the corruption charges against more than a score of her ministers was giving her enough trouble. The opposition parties, most notably the BJP and the SP had been vocal in the accusations against the ministers.

It was against this backdrop that Mayawati played the master stroke against all her detractors. She simply sacked 21 ministers and denied nominations for many more Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs). All of a sudden, the other parties have grabbed the chance to take them to their fold. The BJP leads the pack in taking the ousted big guns of the BSP. The real irony is that just a day or two ago, the self same big guns have been described by the self same parties as "thieves". Now, the same "thieves" are expected to contest the elections hand in hand with their former accusers.

This contentious move may send some of their own partisans back to the fold of other parties and the parties have been willing to take the risk. Even though the move have been described some as the BJP swallowing Mayawati's bait, on the other hand it is not so unnatural for the other parties to do this. In 2007, all parties had a significant number of contestants with criminal pasts. It seems that the whole drama proves that all parties have "thieves" among them who can win an election.

In politics, as Machiavelli aptly put centuries ago, "the ends justifies the means".

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Burma (Myanmar) Clemency Hopes Dashed!

Those who awaited the recent clemency of political prisoners by Myanmar’s president Thein Sein were to be gravely disappointed when the order issued by the president failed to satisfy their expectations. By this order, the Myanmar president commuted death sentences to life imprisonments. Furthermore, those who had received sentences longer than 30 years had them reduced to 30 years. However, this means that those who are serving long sentences will be in prison for a long time to come.

This clemency has further disillusioned the opponents of the country’s newly instituted nominally civilian regime. Although it had undertaken unprecedented reforms in recent months, this step appears to be a step back.

The civilian regime is actually led by the men who led the former military regime. Therefore, it is still the same outfit in a new face which is ruling the impoverished nation. A regime which had been repressive as Myanmar’s cannot reform itself overnight. The president, Thein Sein, had been described as a reformer in recent months with the bold steps he took in altering the course his country was taking up to then.

Nevertheless, outside observers really cannot fathom what goes inside the ruling circles in Naypyidaw. Perhaps, Thein Sein is really the reformer he appears to be; or else, he may be implementing reforms in order to mollify the outside world.

If the first assumption is correct, Thein Sein may be prevented in implementing extensive reforms by the hardliners within the ruling party. Any regime which tries to reform itself has to overcome opposition from internal hardliners. There is no reason why Myanmar should not be an exception.

On the other hand if he is just playing for the benefits of outside world, he had been doing a good job in 2011. The break with China may have been due to the fact that Myanmar leader realizing the danger of relying extensively on one outside power. Myanmar is now expecting the Chairmanship of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014, which speaks volumes of recent gains in the region by the regime. Meanwhile, other international players such as India and the United States are trying to counter the rise of China with forging new alliances. India’s improving relations with Myanmar during the last few years is an important development in towards that end. Myanmar may be hoping to get the maximum benefit out of the geopolitical situation.

Whether genuine or not, Myanmar regime is expecting to mollify their people and also the outside world at the same time. Undoubtedly, their ultimate goal is to cling on to power as long as possible. The regime of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is inherently weaker than the main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) as the former cannot hope to win a free and fair election against the latter. Perhaps the USDP is trying to divert some of the supporters of the NLD towards them by appearing conciliatory. They may be afraid to implement extensive reform in a short period of time in fear of things going out of control.

Myanmar has become the board for a political chess game involving the USDP, the NLD and various outsiders such as India, China and USA. The clemency was just a move by the ruling party. It is interesting to see what the next move will be.

Image: Hillary Clinton with Thein Sein, Naypyidaw. December 2011. US State Department.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Burma (Myanmar) on the 64th Independence Anniversary

As Burma (Republic of the Union of Myanmar) celebrates her 64th independence day, she is at a historic juncture of great importance.

Burma was a very rich country with a proud history before the British occupied her territory in the 19th century, ending her independence in 1885. Burmese people could not forgive the British imperialists for the disgraceful banishment of the Royal Family. Furthermore, Burma was administered as a part of British India until 1937, adding insult to injury. During the British era, until the outbreak of the Second World War, Burma was an important producer of rice, the famous Burma teak, oil, rubies and other precious stones and some other minerals.

Burma’s decline started with the spreading of World War II into Asia. To prevent vital infrastructure from falling to the Japanese hands, the British destroyed many installations before they retreated. But the sociopolitical situation was such that the British left the country within just over two years. However, Burma lost an able statesman, Aung San, when he was assassinated weeks before independence.

Burma adopted an independent foreign policy from the outset. Unlike most of the other former British overseas territories and colonies, she did not join the Commonwealth. The Prime Minister, U Nu, followed a policy of neutrality and cultivating friendship with all. He was a forefather of what was to become the concept of non-alignment.

However, domestically he was challenged at the outset of independence itself by various forces. Several ethnic minority rebel groups emerged, most notably the Karen National Liberation Army, which is still waging what has been described the ‘world’s longest ongoing war.’ Also the communists had taken up arms.

In October 1958, General Ne Win seized power and ruled the country until 1960. He relinquished power in 1960 but in 1962, he once more deposed U Nu, this time for good. From 1962, Ne Win adopted a new policy “Burmese way to Socialism” and from 1974, Burma became a one party state ruled by Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Program Party. However, this Burmese way just increased her woes and isolated the country from the rest of the world.

In 1988, Ne Win was in turn deposed by General Saw Maung and he established the State Law and Order Council. In 1989, the name of the country was changed to Myanmar. The following year, the first democratic election in 30 years was held in Burma (Myanmar). The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Aung San won a by a landslide. However, the military annulled the results and imprisoned leaders of the NLD.

Thereafter, the country was even more isolated from the international community including many regional powers. A notable exception was the country joining Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997. However, Myanmar exceedingly tilted towards People’s Republic of China as she was shunned by the Western powers and India. The latter vehemently criticized the suppression of the democratic movement in Myanmar.

On the other hand, Myanmar regime was breaking the ties with the past. They built a new capital city at Naypyidaw. Also they changed the official name of the country, its national flag and national anthem in October 2010.

However, with the passage of time, the global political outlook changed. With the rise of China, India changed her attitude towards regional powers. Meanwhile, Burma may have felt the need to dilute Chinese influence in their country. Increasingly cordial relationships were being built up with regional powers, notably India, the ASEAN states and Sri Lanka among others. Meanwhile, in 2010, Myanmar returned to civilian rule after a general election. It was the military backed Union Solidarity and Development Party which won the election. This raised accusations of election fraud and no one predicted tangible reforms forthcoming in the near future.

However, the Burmese president Thein Sein was to prove the skeptics wrong. The first real break was the suspension of the Chinese funded Myitsone Dam in late September 2011, which came as a total surprise. Soon, around 200 political prisoners were set free and election laws were amended. As a result, the NLD announced their intention of entering active politics again. Meanwhile, a National Human Rights Commission was also established. In December 2011, the United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, made a landmark visit to Myanmar.

Given these facts, Burma (Myanmar) can be said to be in a crucial junction of her history. She faces a lot of challenges including the stagnant economy, internal armed conflict, drugs trafficking in the Golden Triangle of the Burmese, Lao and Thai border areas and democratization. The world watches as Burma enters her 65th year as an independent nation.

Image: The New National Flag of Myanmar, Adopted on October 21, 2010. From Wikimedia Commons

Monday, January 2, 2012

Looking towards Russian Presidential Election 2012

Russia is in the midst of unprecedented protests against Vladimir Putin, the designated Presidential candidate of the United Russia Party for the upcoming Presidential elections. For the past 12 years he has dominated the political scene in Russia and despite the protests, he is still the strongest politician in Russia today.

Undoubtedly Putin's popularity has plummeted drastically in the last few weeks. However, his popularity is still more than 40%, much ahead than other veteran contenders for the presidency. Furthermore, he is way ahead than leaders like president Barack Obama.

However, there is every possibility that Putin may not receive the 50% threshold required to win the elections in the first round itself as he did in both the elections in 2000 and 2004 and would have certainly done in 2008 had he been able to compete. Nevertheless, as it stands, he will eventually win a second round contest.

The most probable contender to come second in the first round is the veteran communist, Gennady Zyuganov. If it comes to a contest between the two men, Putin will almost certainly become the winner.

Here lies a dilemma faced by the Western powers vis-a-vis Russia. The West hardly prefers Putin who has raised his country back to a superpower status capable of challenging the West. It was Putin who returned Russia to her past glories. Putin's achievements are perhaps even more far reaching than any Russian leader before him (except Peter the Great). Many Czars and Soviet leaders expanded Russia's military capabilities while giving comparatively little attention to the welfare of the people. Under Putin, even though the gap between the rich and poor may have increased, the people generally benefited economically. The middle class has become larger and stronger. The Russian economy is stronger than ever in her entire history. Even though Russia was not a democratic state by Western standards, Putin may call upon Niccolo Machiavelli for his defense by arguing that the ends justifies the means. Until recently, many Russians did agree with him.

So, if not Putin, who else? The leading contender is the communist Zyuganov. Imagine Russia going communist? Hardly a possibility the West would prefer. They may prefer Zhirinovsky, but the Russians will not elect the repeatedly unsuccessful presidential bidder over Putin.

The presidential bid by billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov may be what the West was waiting for. The best they can hope for is Prokhorov becoming a serious challenger to Putin. However, given the nature of Russian politics, it is a highly unlikely scenario.

Come what may, the Western nations will almost certainly have to settle with the best alternative: Vladimir Putin himself.