Friday, September 25, 2009



One of the wonderful things about Kyoto is how well the environment has been preserved, thanks in part to savvy citizens, ample public transportation and the popularity of bicycle use. On the other hand, what at first glance might seem a pristine environment is quickly being eroded by the boom of automotive culture.

Riding my bike past the historic site where the Kyoto Protocol was signed I always find it surprising to see how many motorists chose this otherwise pristine symbolic setting to idle away. Cars, taxis, trucks alike park with engines on, whiling away the hours on a tree-lined roadside, in violation not only of parking laws but also violating Kyoto's mild and generally ineffective ordinances against idling.

Similar scenes of drivers with their vehicles left running, idling noisily away while napping, smoking, watching DVDs or just killing time can be seen everywhere in Kyoto, winter, spring, summer and fall.

But it is especially odd to note that some of the most scenic, quiet spots with the cleanest air, such as the street in front of Kyoto's International Conference Hall, where the famous anti-global warming protocol was signed, attract droves of needlessly polluting vehicles like a magnet.

More disconcertingly, since after all, the Kyoto International Conference Hall and accompanying hotel, despite the symbolic significance, are primarily designed for out-of-town VIP visitors, is the way idling drivers lurk in front of local children's playgrounds and public parks, historic streets and temple grounds that are part and parcel of daily life in this proud ancient capital city.

The accompanying amateur video was filmed on location on an IPhone, mostly from the vantage point of a bicycle in motion. For more photos and related articles, see my blog, Frontier International.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009


(from the Bangkok Post)
Time for change the Japanese can really believe in
Published: 15/09/2009 at 12:00 AM

Japan has a new prime minister and a new ruling party. Prime ministers come and go in Tokyo on almost an annual basis, 50 of them in the post-war period alone, so the change of guard at the top of a huge, humming, well-oiled bureaucratic machine might not seem like news. But Hatoyama's ascension to power might be significant, if the long impotent opposition, now crystalised as the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), takes the helm long enough to steer Japan, Inc in a new direction.

Yukio Hatoyama, who was born on Sept 11, 1947, is nicknamed "The Alien" by his fellow party members for his quirky appearance and different way of thinking.

The DPJ's Hatoyama - like his predecessors in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso - is a political blueblood and financially secure. He is a member of the elite, which as Japanese like to see it, puts him a cut above the average man.

Like his elite predecessors, the new prime minister has strong personal links to America, not so much in terms of old-time family links with the Bushes or through party hacks on the CIA payroll or through verbal compliance with US fundamentalisms, but rather in meritocratic terms; he earned an advanced graduate degree at Stanford. He knows America but it's not the old boy network all over again. Much has been made of Mr Hatoyama's stated position that Japan needs to adjust its relationship with the US, setting off alarm bells in the corridors of entrenched power in Washington and Tokyo.

But that's just the old guard reasserting itself. What's wrong with some adjustments in a critical bilateral relationship that has been shaped by heavy-handed demands on one side and sneaky non-compliance on the other? Isn't it time to change, time to rejuvenate and re-define the bilateral relationship rather than relying on anachronistic and ossified patron-client links?

It is not as if the US-Japan security treaty is up for grabs, though it can and should be discussed and improved where necessary. After half a century of one-party rule in Japan, a fresh approach to foreign policy and collective security is not really an option, it's a necessity.

The Liberal Democratic Party, born of the ashes of WWII, branded with the imprint of US Occupation, has always been an odd hybrid, neither particularly liberal nor democratic, but an opportunistic mish-mash that was fine-tuned into a winning political machine.

Even if the US was uniformly enlightened in its Japan policy, which is hardly the case, being forced to rely on the Godzilla-like LDP as the main conduit for the conduct of bilateral relations has led to mutations and destructive distortions over the years.

One need only look at recent headlines to see how the LDP's past has continued to haunt the present, whether it be glorifying the lost cause of the last war at Yasukuni Shrine, or the vestiges of anti-communism in foreign policy and anti-labour practices, or the not-so-subtle intimidation of progressives by organised crime and rightwing groups for hire that are themselves relics of US occupation days.

More recently, a bungling obsession with North Korea continues to invoke unfinished business of Japan's historic annexation of its neighbour and what later became America's Korean war.

Then there's the LDP's almost military mindset when it comes to promoting big business and coddling modern-day zaibatsu, all the while building bridges to nowhere and churning out endless pork-barrel spending to nourish a rural elite/big business electoral juggernaut.

It's time for a change, all right, and the DPJ has seized the mantle of electoral legitimacy. The only question is whether the much-needed change will come about or will it be stalled, co-opted and buried by attack campaigns from the right, in concert with passive-aggressive non-compliance from powerful vested interests.

Prime Minister Hatoyama would be wise to take note of how US President Obama, who started out with so much promise, and such a huge mandate for change, only to end up tacking to the right and frittering much of his mandate away, betraying his own reform-minded base in the hopes of placating Wall Street, the Pentagon and America's implacable right wing. Mr Hatoyama and the DPJ face a comparable test, and early indications suggest they too will compromise and bend and revive existing patronage patterns, perhaps until the day that they are not recognisably different from the "fat cats" and the complacent ruling party that they have ostensibly replaced.

For change to have any real meaning, it has to exit the realm of rhetoric and enter the realm of action.

If the DPJ, with Mr Hatoyama at the helm, and former LDP stalwart Ozawa Ichiro navigating at his side, keep their promise to help Japan become a more normal nation - less dependent on the whims of US foreign policy, less beholden to Japan's own elite with its malignant, murky roots in the last world war, and more responsive to ordinary citizens and taxpayers, then Japan is indeed entering a period of change that people can believe in.

If, instead, however, the new government avoids friction by continuing along the beaten-down path created by the LDP, and in doing so sustains the unholy marriage between big business and an entrenched bureaucracy and concommitantly inflates its own military reach while hiding in the shade of the US security umbrella, then the demise of the LDP has been greatly exaggerated.

Even if they stick to their professed ideals, the new ruling team may still succumb to the inertia and stagnation that characterise Japan's body politic today, failing not only to fulfil the promises they made while not in power, but putting themselves out of power again.

In which case DPJ rule will prove not only brief, but may be one day understood not so much as a change in the power structure, but as a short-lived victory for some frustrated, veteran pols of the LDP reform wing, who will give Japan the illusion of change before deftly steering things back to the status quo of big business, big-bureaucracy as usual.

(first published in the Bangkok Post)

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Monday, September 14, 2009


Click here for a sneak preview of China's National Day TV extravaganza on and off the big stage.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Aflghanistan elections as seen from China

To view a recent Chinese television program on the issue of the elections in Afghanistan with guests Aykut Tavsel, Philip Cunningham and CCTV-9 anchor Yang Rui, please click the following link:

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Friday, September 4, 2009

Is Commander Jafari Stupid?

Farideh Farhi

Tehran is buzzing about a speech by Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of Islamic Revolution’s Guard Corps (IRGC) that was made public on September 2 by Fars News, a hard-line news agency. It was delivered in front of some of the early military leaders of the Iran-Iraq War and elicited immediate sharp responses.

It is noteworthy for several reasons.

First and foremost was Jafari's open acknowledgment that at least since February 2009, well before the June election, the IRGC was closely monitoring the reformists of all hue in order to keep in check their presumed efforts to weaken or undermine the office of the leader (rahbari) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

This acknowledgment came in reference to an attribution of a statement to the former president Mohammad Khatami, which according to Jafari was uttered in February 2009. Jafari did not reveal how this statement was accessed. Setting aside the real possibility of distortions, a wiretap should probably be considered a good bet.

According to Jafari, Khatami said, “If in this election Ahmadinejad falls, then rahbari will be effectively eliminated; if at any cost reforms return to the executive branch, rahbari will have no authority in society… through the defeat of principlists, we must contain the power of rahbari.”

Indeed, in Jafari’s telling, the IRGC had to enter the fray well before the election took place in order to prevent the weakening or even elimination of rahbari. It did this by taking note of what the reformists were doing and identifying them as enemies of the Islamic state as embodied in rahbari.

This is an astounding public admission by the commander of a body that is presumably supposed to stay out of partisan politics. Of course, Jafari’s likely riposte is that Article 150 of Iran’s constitution gives the IRGC the responsibility of “guarding the revolution and its achievements.” Hence by identifying key reformist leaders as enemies of rahbari, the commander offers justification for taking sides in the election and even more so for manipulating the election.

If Jafari is be taken at his words, even if in the official narrative the election had been won by Mir Hossein Mussavi, then IRGC would have had no choice but to enter the fray and overturn the results since such a victory would have brought to power people who wanted to undermine the Islamic Republic.

Considering that in the minds of many Iranians doubtful of election results, this is precisely what the IRGC did, such an admission was probably imprudent if not outright stupid.

But at this point Jafari is probably less concerned about the doubts of the Iranian population and more interested in justifying the intrusive role the body he heads has taken in Iranian politics, particularly to many members of the Iranian elites who are fence sitters as neither full-fledged reformists nor comfortable conservatives with the increasing role of military in politics.

Jafari’s second admission - and this one quite explicit - was that in his mind, there is really no difference between a change in the policy direction of the country – change of behavior he called it - and regime change. Again this is a significant admission since important policy differences in both domestic and foreign arenas have generally been accepted in the Islamic Republic.

The distinction made is between a barandaz - someone who wants to overthrow the regime - and a critic. The equation of behavior or policy change with regime change and the argument that policy differences now amount to the challenges to the foundations of the Islamic Republic, transforming the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary character along the lines designed by the country’s external enemies, is a clear admission that differences about how the country should conduct itself is at the core of the current crisis.

Individuals are called traitors not because they have done anything illegal, but because they think differently about policies.

Again this is an astounding admission in the midst of major trials of some of the reformist leaders. From Jafari’s point of view, they should be prosecuted and convicted not because they broke laws but because through an electoral process they wanted to change the policy direction of the country.

Jafari’s third admission came in the form of reporting on the previously unreported prison confessions of two key reformist leaders – Mohammad Ali Abtahi and Mohammad Atrianfar, effectively acknowledging IRGC's access to prisoners that have been kept in the Intelligence Ministry’s Ward 209 at Evin Prison.

Again, probably not a smart move to openly acknowledge the IRGC’s role in the imprisonment and interrogation of prisoners. As the violent crackdown has unfolded since the election, there has been a lot of talk about the unknown sources of violence dished out to the population. In effect no one has wanted to take responsibility and unidentified “rogue elements” or "plain-clothes men" have been the usual suspects.

Jafari’s speech has now made it much easier for people to pin institutional responsibility and blame for the post-election gratuitous violence, indiscriminate arrests, deaths, tortures (of white and physical kind), and forced confessions.

The question is, even if IRGC was indeed the leading force in making sure the reformists did not win and also the headquarter of the post-election crackdown, why would Jafari decide to acknowledge this openly, eliciting immediate reactions from reformist leaders and organizations accusing him of not only improper institutional conduct but also slander?

The leader of the reformist faction in the Parliament, Mohammadreza Tabesh, went as far as to suggest that “those who have given license to Sepah’s [IRGC’s] entry into elections and interrogations should be prosecuted and not those whose background and responsibilities chronicle their attachment to the system, rahbari and the deceased Imam.” The Association of Combatant Clergy, whose two leading members Khatami and Mohammad Mussavi Khoeiniha were accused by Jafari of plotting against rahbari, in turn asked the new prosecutor general to do something about the type of slander that is being thrown around. Presidential candidate Mehdi Karrubi firmly suggested to Jafari to go back to the barracks.

It is difficult to decipher the reasons for Jafari’s public admissions. It is possible that his frank talk marks the beginning of a move against high ranking former leaders of the Islamic Republic. By making the transition from accusing the reformists of “doubting” the election results – which no where is stated to be a crime in Iran - to one of an attempted effort to undermine rahbari – which is considered a crime, Jafari may be setting the stage for a much bigger purge of reformist leaders than the one already in progress and put together by the now replaced Prosecutor General of Tehran, Saeed Mortazavi.

Another possibility is that Jafari’s talk is about justifying IRGC's actions in the face of the reality that the trials and forced confessions have so far not revealed any committed crimes.

To be sure, individual prisoners have acknowledged their mistake in doubting the election results, lamented the influence of foreign ideas and concepts on university curricula, talked about the pernicious role of the foreign press in highlighting divisions inside Iran, and deliberated in length on external designs to sow dissent inside Iran.

But none of the defendants have confessed to a serious crime . In their confessions, some have accused others not present in the courtroom and roaming free of financial misbehavior in the election and desire to win by all means. But no concrete evidence has been offered. In other words they have “confessed” to crimes committed by other people, which in no body of laws, including Iranian and Islamic laws, is considered sufficient for prosecution; just accusations hurled against others that cannot be accepted as fact and used in public the way Jafari has done without corroborating evidence.

Beyond justification, Jafari’s words may also be about intimidation. Threatening Khatami, Mussavi and Mussavi Khoeiniha – a cleric who was ironically the so-called spiritual leader of US embassy hostage takers and today many hardliners consider to be the eminence grise of the reform movement – with treason may be a way to try to silence the outcry and change the national conversation from a focus on the responsibility for the people killed by the security forces – latest confirmed figures are 72 according to a key Mussavi advisor – and crimes of rape and savage beatings that have taken place in various prisons against young men and women who were simply exercising their constitutionally protected rights to peaceful protest.

Unfortunately for Jafari, though, none of the people he may be trying to intimidate is showing any sign of backing down. Karrubi’s dogged efforts to find the sources of violence have finally led to the creation of a three-member committee to investigate the crimes in the Judiciary. Khatami and the reformist clerical organization to which he belongs also keep challenging the kind of narrative put out by Jafari and the same is true of Mussavi.

The only way to silence them is to incarcerate them on charges of sedition against rahbari; a move that simply cannot take place without the assent of the commander-in-chief or Khamenei himself.

The issue is not whether Jafari would like the arrests to happen. His speech clearly suggests he does. The intriguing question is why he is talking about all this publicly, in effect pleading or calling for the arrests?

Why doesn’t he, like all good military men intent on maintaining the status quo, simply work behind the scene to arrange for arrests and silencing without implicating himself and the IRGC in such a public manner? Why the urge to speak?

The answer to this key question in all likelihood is found in the felt need to defend the indefensible in front of a crowd of old Iran-Iraq War commanders who remain highly skeptical of IRGCs politicization and its use as an instrument of repression against Iranian citizens in the name of saving the Islamic republic and its leader.

If so, this was not a speech given from a position of strength.

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