Wednesday, September 30, 2009

American citizen tortured by Burma, and his government is speechless

Amnesty International reports "Trusted sources have reported to Amnesty international that male [American] activist Kyaw Zaw Lwin [also known as Nyi Nyi Aung] was tortured and suffered other ill-treatment whilst in detention in Insein Prison, Yangon, Myanmar’s main city. He was arrested in Yangon on 3 September. He has been denied medical treatment for the injuries he sustained from the torture he endured during interrogation. There are grave concerns about his health."

An American citizen is tortured, and his government is speechless. Has this ever happened before?  Johnathan Hulland, writing in the Huff Post, asks "why isn't there more outrage and action at this American's appalling treatment by a ruthless dictatorship? One answer is that America's recent flirtation with torture has inured it to the torture of Americans themselves, but I can't and don't want to believe this."

But it has been more than a mere "flirtation." It was US government policy.  And it remains US policy to protect those who have ordered torture.  And although Obama has issued a directive prohibiting torture, the new American president refuses to accord persons suspected of being terrorists with their rights under the law. 

It's conceivable that the US political establishment -- Republicans and Democrats -- don't want to think about the torture of an American citizen at this time.  According to Amnesty International:
The torture and ill-treatment that Kyaw Zaw Lwin suffered in detention included beating and kicking. He was deprived of food for seven days and moved between different interrogation centres. He was not allowed to sleep at night and was kept awake during interrogation by the authorities. Details of the charges against him are not known.
Sound familiar?    "Beating and kicking,"  "not allowed to sleep at night," "kept awake during interrogation."   These are all methods of torture, prohibited under international law.    But according to the way US Attorney General Eric Holder's prosecutions are supposed to proceed, nobody in a position of authority within the US government is likely to be held accountable for having ordered these very abuses against hundreds of Arab and Afghan prisoners of the US.  

Myanmar might claim that this American citizen is a "terrorist" and, following American precedent, take away any number of his rights under law.   Myanmar might  point to precedents set by the government of the United States -- including President Obama. 

The plight of Kyaw Zaw Lwin exposes the extent to which the United States has undermined the rights of   every American -- the safety of every American.   Might this be what the War on Terror has come to, that the American government finds itself speechless when a brutal regime imprisons and tortures an American?

If the American government has little to say at a time like this, maybe it simply does not want Americans to hear how badly it has let them down.

Burma tortures American citizen as US meetings with Myanmar begin

The titles of these Jotman blog posts give you a gist of the story.

09.26 (2007 uprising anniversary) -  "Three heroes, one day in Rangoon."
09.27 (2007 uprising anniversary) - "2 years ago today in Rangoon"

What was the Obama Administration thinking?  Why did the US remain headstrong in its determination to initiate meetings with Burma, given that it knew -- full well -- that Kyaw Zaw Lwin (also known as Nyi Nyi Aung), an American citizen, was being tortured in a jail cell in Rangoon?   Why start the talks? 

Timing doesn't get much worse than this.

Monday, U.S.Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said, "Let's be clear, the president's decision to approach countries with an open hand and open up a dialogue with them is a powerful tool, at least in the initial state of opening up contacts...."  (my translation from the press conference video).  The remark struck me when I heard it, watching a CSPAN video of the press conference.   Immediately I went about transcribing the comment.  I then put the quote at the top of this blog post.    The Assistant Secretary seemed to be saying that the policy of engagement with Burma was happening at the initiative of the White House; and that this approach was integral to the president's approach to foreign policy (something we have known since the campaign).

The decision to open up talks with Burma had probably not been made mainly on the basis of the State Department's own analysis of the situation and its recommendations.  It looks to me like a case -- of course it happened all too frequently in the past -- where a "one size fits all" policy directive is forced on the State Department.   Yet another situation in which the opinions of regional experts are overlooked.  (Arguably, just about every major foreign policy disaster since the Second World War can  be traced back to an obstinate mindset.)

Unless Nyi Nyi Aung is released within a few days of the start of talks in New York between Assistant Secretary Campbell and U Thaung, Myanmar's minister of science,  this episode could prove a disgrace for the Obama Administration.  

We have every reason to suspect that Obama's overall philosophy of initiating engagement, not local contingencies seem to have driven US policy towards Burma. Realization that the Obama Administration opened negotiations with a rougue state while an American was still being tortured could compromise support for Obama's preferred approach to foreign policy.   This would be a tragedy in my opinion, because even a sound and principled approach is bound to fail if the timing is wrong.
My sense is that Campbell probably knows the timing is bad -- really bad.   But the State Department has been forced to engage.  Perhaps the Obama Administration finds it expedient to move quickly with regards to Burma on account of some other strategy objective, perhaps concerning North Korea, China, or Iran.

In any case, I thought Campbell made it quite clear that a presidential directive was behind the overture to Burma.  I thought it significant that Campbell did not credit his own boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with the decision to open up talks with Burma.   I would not want to be given credit for initiating these talks --  not at this time.

Whatever is going on here, Campbell will surely have some more explaining to do tomorrow.   I'll try to keep  you informed of developments as they happen.

Some further thoughts about this case: American citizen tortured by Burma, and his government is speechless

Samoa islands tsunami

UPDATE: Reports from Samoa here.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center NOAA, issued the following warning (at 2022Z 29 SEP 2009):



An earthquake of 7.9 struck Samoa. According to Radio New Zealand (live stream), at least 6 people have died in Samoa, and now New Zealand is clearing its beaches.

The NOAA website has posted the times when the tsunami is expected to arrive at various locations.   Times posted there are in GMT (about 12 hours behind local time in those locations where the tsunami first struck)

The tsunami has already struck American Samoa, Samoa, the Cook Island, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Kiribati, and parts of New Zealand (though apparently the wave was small when it arrived on the North Island and the warning may have since been downgraded for New Zealand).

This map came from the NOAA website (legend at top right):

According to USGS the original earthquake in Samoa has apparently been upgraded to 8.0 at a depth of 18 km.   USGS has a great earthquake map here that is constantly updated.

Paranoia about Iran's nuclear program

Try as I might, over the past week, I simply could not make myself feel frightened of Iran.

When the Obama Administration decided to turn the Pittsburgh G20 summit into a forum for stirring up fear of Iran's nuclear program, I tuned out. 

I wondered:  why are so many of the very same experts who were wrong about Iraq's WMD program given precious airtime to rant about Iran? As far as American journalists are concerned, I think simply reporting one government's claims -- without asking hard questions -- is not journalism.  It's "disseminating information on behalf of a government."  Was no American journalist  working today alive back in 2002-3?

At least two American observers seem to have good memories. They have had the audacity to question recent allegations concerning Iran:
  • Fmr. UN Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter Warns Against “Politically Motivated Hype” on Iran Nuke Program. (video)
  • Glenn Greenwald questions whether the allegations about the"illegality" of the Iranian program are true: Has the regime violated international law? (video)
Just because one government or another wants the public to get excited over this or that issue, must the news media follow along like a herd of sheep?  Can American reporters not question the statements which they are being fed? 

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

How generous was the United States in 2008?

What controversial US industry funnels more money out of the developing world than Washington provides in development aid?

Conventional wisdom, stateside, says the US is a relatively generous country.  As countries meet in Bangkok this week to hash out a global agreement for tackling climate change, America's generosity to the developing world needs to be put in perspective.

According to the OECD:
In 2008, net ODA (Overseas Development Assistance) by the United States was USD 26 billion, representing an increase of 16.8% in real terms. 
NYT (h/t GG) reported on Sept. 9 that in 2008:
Despite a recession that knocked down global arms sales last year, the United States expanded its role as the world’s leading weapons supplier.  The United States signed weapons agreements valued at $37.8 billion in 2008, or 68.4 percent of all business in the global arms bazaar, up significantly from American sales of $25.4 billion the year before.

Italy was a distant second, with $3.7 billion in worldwide weapons sales in 2008, while Russia was third with $3.5 billion in arms sales last year . . . The United States was the leader not only in arms sales worldwide, but also in sales to nations in the developing world, signing $29.6 billion in weapons agreements with these nations, or 70.1 percent of all such deals.
American arms dealers pull more money out of the developing world ($30 billion) than the US gives back in aid ($26 billion).  These figures really put US generosity in perspective.
Also consider the fact that EU countries  -- the EU economy being of a size similar to that of the US -- gave three times more ODA ($70 billion) in 2008 than the US.   Both US and EU agriculture subsidies  put the developing world at an economic disadvantage.  It is estimated that farm subsidies cost poor countries about USD$50 billion a year in lost agricultural exports.   The above photo, by Jotman, shows a Laotian girl at work in a rice field.   Thirty-seven percent of Laos is covered in unexploded ordinance.  

Monday, September 28, 2009

Will Obama lead on climate change?

To get beyond yesterday's problems, the United States must take the lead by solving tomorrow's.

The Pittsburgh G20 ended last week, and the Bangkok Climate conference has just begun. The make-or-break Copenhagen summit is only two months away. A climate policy expert looks at how much progress has been made, and finds American leadership falling short of what's necessary at this critical juncture (Media Release, Sept. 28):
Oxfam International Senior Climate Policy Adviser Antonio Hill said recent announcements by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the EU on climate financing, and Japan and China’s stronger language last week on emissions reductions and finance, would put extra pressure on the US to step up and signal its intentions on its role in a global deal.

“Despite good intentions and warm words over the past six months, the US didn’t deliver real leadership last week at the UN Climate Summit and G20.  Either the US lifts its game, or the next two weeks in Bangkok could go down as just a holding pattern before a fatal nosedive in Copenhagen,” he said.

He said while many key countries, including China, India, Japan, African Union, the Least Developed Countries and the Alliance of Small Island States, had shown they were ready to enter the final, more detailed phase of negotiations, intransigence on the part of rich countries like the US, Canada and Australia was proving an obstacle to progress.

Key sticking points remain the emissions reductions developed countries are willing to deliver – current commitments are around 15 per cent instead of the science-based 40 per cent reductions on 1990 levels by 2020 - and the amount of financing they will put on the table for developing countries to both adapt to the impacts of climate change and develop on a low carbon pathway.

The two-week negotiations, held in South-East Asia, one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to climate change, is the penultimate negotiation session before Copenhagen in December, when a fair and safe global climate change treaty must be secured.

Mr Hill said that whilst last week’s summits in the US were forums for world leaders to signal their intentions, the UN negotiating process continuing in Bangkok was the only place where countries could forge an agreement to avoid catastrophic climate change.

“It’s crunch time,” Mr Hill said. “What is needed for a breakthrough is a clear commitment from developed countries – responsible for three-quarters of the carbon in the atmosphere - to commit to substantial finance, additional to existing aid levels, to developing countries.”
Hill echoes what I heard  Jorma Ollila, chairman of Royal Dutch Shell, acknowledge in Helsinki three months ago:  the developed world bears responsibility for having damaged the earth's atmosphere, and Washington must take the lead.

Health care, the war in Afghanistan, and climate change:  these three big issues confront the Obama presidency simultaneously.   Who does not believe that the success or failure of Obama's entire presidency rides with how competently the president handles one or another of these matters?

But which decision will be the most significant? Of the three issues, two are largely yesterday's fights, only one concerns the challenge of the future.   Moreover, on two issues -- the same two -- the cost of waiting for a second chance is manageable.  Other countries have solved the problem of providing universal health care, and the US will have other opportunities to solve it.   The rest of the world has "given up" on the cause of bringing freedom to Afghanistan, but supposing Obama hesitates to defy his generals and sends in more troops, Congress can still bring them home at any time.  For the rest of the world, Afghanistan is yesterday's war; universal health care, a social policy worked out generations ago.  There will be second chances.

But if the American economy -- and by extension, the world -- is not set on a path towards sustainable growth, then wars and health care costs are bound to spiral out of control.  Furthermore, the cost of setting the world on a sustainable path with respect to climate change increases with every lost decade.  And on this issue, alone, there is a "point of no return."   Therefore, hands down, if the Obama Administration must get just one issue dealt with properly in 2009, it's energy and the environment.  To get beyond yesterday's problems, the United States must take the lead by solving tomorrow's.
Photo by Jotman shows the US Congress.

Safe to put acoustic weapons in police hands?

A Jotman reader writes:
You asked in your recent blog entry on sonic "crowd control" devices: "Are they safe? Do they cause long term damage? I doubt anyone knows for sure..."

The former vice-president of the company that designed those devices, Mr. Carl Gruenler "...concedes that the device is powerful enough to cause permanent auditory damage, but that it is only meant to be used for a few seconds at a time." (quoted from Wiki). I especially like the phrase "meant to be used." 

Interesting that the military person standing next to a LRAD on a US Navy ship (photo in the Wiki article) is wearing earmuffs - so there is at least some sort of protection.
 If properly trained people who really understood the technology were going to be operating these machines, that would be one thing.  But police tend to lack such training.  NPR reported:
Boston police recently shot and killed a local college student with a "pepper pellet" gun. The weapon is meant to be a non-lethal means of stopping a suspect. A government probe found the lack of national standards and training for non-lethal weapons contributed to her death.
Training may not be the answer.  First, people need to ask themselves whether devices that could easily deter peaceful citizens from taking to the streets in protest have any place in a free society. 

Bangkok Climate Change Talks 2009

Update:  See this post for the latest update See this post for an update on the progress of the talks. 

A meeting that starts today  in Bangkok will be crucial in terms of setting the groundwork for Copenhagen -- a long-term follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol.

The Bangkok Post reports:
The two-week Bangkok climate change talks, which start today, are an opportunity for countries to plan for tomorrow, Mr Abhisit told the United Nations General Assembly in New York at the weekend (JotASEAN posted the full text of Abhisit's remarks)

"Thailand will spare no efforts in ensuring that the Bangkok climate change talks will make tangible progress towards a successful Copenhagen conference," he said. . .

At a UN summit on climate change last week, industrialised countries agreed to set clear goals and targets to combat climate change.

The Bangkok meeting brings together almost 3,000 delegates from over 190 countries to prepare the negotiating text for the new agreement.

The new climate deal will replace the Kyoto Protocol's carbon emissions reduction agreement that expires in 2012.

The main goal of the Bangkok talks is to shorten the 280-page text, which is the product of a series of negotiations held over the past 18 months, into a 20- to 30-page draft agreement for the Copenhagen summit.
Looking at the schedule of climate change meetings, in early November the group will reconvene for three days in Barcelona. Then it's off to Copenhagen (Dec. 7th-18th).

You can learn more about climate change issues at Jot the Planet Green.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Three heroes, one day in Rangoon.

To commemorate the second anniversary of the 2007 Burma monks' uprising, JOTMAN.COM presents three accounts of the events of September 26, 2007.  These short passages are from much longer interviews conducted by Jotman at the Thai-Burma border in October 2007.   

U Sandawara

For U Sandawara these days were a big blur. He is fuzzy on the dates. The monastery raid he describes here may have occurred as early as the night of September 25 (The night when many Rangoon monasteries where first raided).

U SANDAWARA:  We heard shots fired into the air by USDA troops. We knew a raid of our monastery was now underway.

"The aged, the old monks and very young novice couldn't run away. Actually those monks hadn't even joined the protest, but they suffered terribly. They were beaten up and taken away. There was not enough time for us to wake them up.

"The troops broke everything. They decapitated Buddha statues. Then they took all the monks' property: our alms bowls, even the monks' clothes, our robes. . .

You can read the whole story of the "4 escaped monks" here

U Pan Cher

U Pan Cher had given many speeches to onlookers during the protests, but the aftermath of a speech he gave on the afternoon of September 26th still moved him. I saw that tears were forming in U Pan Cher’s eyes as he described the scene that followed.

U PAN CHER: I'm very sad. I really respect those people over seventy or eighty who joined together with us. I feel very bad. These people were of the age that we look after. They should be able to rest in their homes. But they came out to be with us, giving their lives for the country. . .

"When we reached to Minigon Pagoda in Alon Township of Rangoon, I got worried about our security -- a lot of old people and also young students were with us by then. I asked some people if they could find some bicycles to go and check on the situation up in front, for our safety. A woman about 25 or 30 years of age who had been cooking food by the side of the street volunteered. Leaving her food stand, she took her own bicycle.

"As far as I know, she was the first person to get shot."  (His eyes filled with tears again) 

Ycan read U Pan Cher full account of how some protesters survived the crackdown in Burma.

Ashin Kovida
JOTMAN: What happened on the 26th? (Note: here is my summary of news reports out of Burma on 09/26, and for further context here is my September timeline ).

ASHIN KOVIDA: On the 26th the security was very tight. I was at She Shwedagon -- around a kind of bonze Buddha in front of Swadagon. At the times the main roads in Rangoon inside the city were blocked by the security.

JOTMAN: And the protest continued?

ASHIN KOVIDA: The people couldn't go close to the Shwedagon Pagoda. But fortunately about 300 monks and townsfolk reached it, taking sneaky routes to get there. And as soon as they arrived in the compound, the security immediately came out and pushed them away, telling them to "move, move, move," forcing them down the streets. . .

"So they were blocked, and they couldn't go anywhere . . . ."

Ashin Kovida's story continues here.   More stories about the 2007 Burma protests and aftermath listed here.    See also The Burma (Myanmar) Interviews.  All photos by Jotman.  

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Secret Service Dog

JOTMAN.COM contributor Tawan captured this photo of a secret service dog (SSD). The dog was on duty at the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh .  Attached to her collar is the presidential seal.  More G20 photos.

Pitsburg G20: "It felt like being under house arrest"

JOTMAN.COM contributor Tawan supplies views from inside the so-called "golden-triangle" -- the secure zone around the G20 summit site.

Photo of a cute SSD posted here, and two ASEAN leaders here.

First use of sonic weapons on American citizens

This week the United States legitimated the indiscriminate use of a new kind of weapon that will empower the world's most despotic governments. (3 UPDATES)
"For supporters of nonlethal weaponry, having the devices used against peaceful protesters is the worst sort of PR."
Obama, responding to a question about persons protesting the G20 summit in Pittsburgh said: "If they had been paying attention to what was taking place inside the summit itself, what they would have heard was . . ."

After watching this video, I wondered: Have sonic weapons ever been used on American civilians before?  The Guardian reports:
Sonic weapons or long-range acoustic devices have been used by the US military overseas, notably against Somali pirates and Iraqi insurgents.

But US security forces turned the piercing sound on their own citizens yesterday to widespread outrage. Pittsburgh officials told the New York Times that it was the first time "sound cannon" had been used publicly.
Are they safe? Do they cause long term damage? I doubt anyone knows for sure. After all, they assured everyone that Tasers were safe. But four hundred people in the US and Canada have died from being subjected to these supposedly non-lethal weapons since 2001.

The use  of new sonic weapons will mean that from this week forward, Americans can more easily be prevented from gathering.  The presence of sonic weapons in police arsenals will deter some citizens from joining future protests, and possibly deter journalists from reporting such events.

The deployment of a new technology in Pittsburgh legitimates a new means of crowd control.  Governments everywhere will see that an effective new means of crowd dispersal has the approval of the United States.  From Burma to Iran, despotic regimes are watching.   This week in Pittsburgh, the state became more powerful, illegitimate dictators harder to overthrow.

UPDATE 1:  According to an  NPR reporter, a sonic weapon was used in New Orleans in 2005. Xeni Jardin wrote,  "Here is a photo of one such device being used by military police in New Orleans, outside of the Superdome in post-Katrina flooding."    So the new device was first used against poor black people.

UPDATE 2:  Apparently sonic weapons were deployed in NYC for the 2004 RNC, but not used.  A Homeland Security initiative made sonic weapons available to police departments. 

UPDATE 3: The US government allows an American company to exports sonic weapons to China.  David Hambling reports in New Scientist:
Amongst the displays of high-tech police equipment was the LRAD - Long Range Acoustic Device ? made by American Technology Corporation (ATC). LRAD is an ultra-high-power loudhailer that can be used for crowd control, often described by the media as a "sonic weapon". It was famously used to drive off Somali pirates in 2005.

LRAD's appearance seems at first surprising, since the US does not permit weapons exports to China. Public Law 101-246, passed after the Tiananmen Square massacre, makes them illegal.

But ACT are happy to say in their most recent Securities and Exhange Commission filing that:
"During fiscal 2007, we expanded our international marketing activities and shipped LRAD orders to Australia, Singapore, Korea and China".
LRAD produces sound levels of up to 150 decibels, enough to damage hearing and above the level that causes pain.

In the US military, LRAD deployment is overseen by the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, who refer to it as a "tool" and "an option in the force continuum".
Now we know sonic weapons: 1) damage hearing; 2) have been sold by an American company to Singapore and China; and 3) were used  indiscriminately against college students in Pittsburgh this week, but were first  used on US soil against Hurricane Katrina victims in 2005.

Pittsburgh Police test sonic weapons on students

In this video it appears as if police decided to test out new anti-riot gear on the students at the University of Pittsburgh. Weapons used in the video include "less lethal munitions," sound weapons, and tear gas.

What is the threshold for the use of less lethal munitions against Americans?   Now we know.

In the next video, it's not clear what objective the police are trying to achieve by chasing the students into their dormitories. The scene scared the hell out of the girls who made this video:

Have sonic weapons ever been used on American civilians before?   See "The first use of sonic weapons on US citizens."

Quotes from a good discussion on non-lethal weapons. 
DESAI: There is no national repository of data on less-lethal weapons, nor are there national testing or evaluation standards for less-lethal weapons. Sid Heal is an expert on less-lethal weapons and a commander with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. He asserts the federal government hasn't put any money into creating a database or setting standards, so police are forced to rely on weapons manufacturers for information and training. 

Mr. SID HEAL (Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department): Most of them are telling us the truth; they're just not telling us the whole truth. Not a single thing out there provides an advantage without some trade-off. What we're missing is the trade-offs.
 Professor CHRIS STONE (Harvard University): They're sometimes using a less-lethal weapon when they wouldn't have used any weapon at all. That can be a good thing if it's used properly. But the challenge that we found is that the weaponry has gotten ahead of the training, ahead of the policies, ahead of the planning.
See new post "First use of sonic weapons on American citizens"

Obama's comments on G20 protesters in Pittsburgh

I thought Obama's remarks about the protests in Pittsburgh were misplaced.  According to a Fox News live-blog of the news conference in Pittsburgh Obama said:
If you've looked at any of the other summits that have taken place-- in London, there were hundreds of thousands on the streets. Mayor and county executive deserve credit for managing a very tranquil summit. Many protests are addressed generically at capitalism. One of great things about the US is you can speak your mind, but I disagree free market is source of all ills. If they'd paid attention to what was going on inside, they would have heard strong recognition that it's important to make sure the market is working for ordinary people and doesn't cause the kinds of crises we had.
I just watched the news conference on CNN, and that's a fair summary of what Obama said in response to a question. (UPDATE: I posted the full transcript of the exchange here).  The journalist had referred to protesters as people who "oppose the summit" -- so the journalist had set up a straw man. Obama took the bait, and spoke of the protesters as if they were simply "opposed to capitalism."   He didn't call the protesters "pinko commies," but he might as well have.  "If they'd paid attention to what was going on inside..."  Could Obama have come up with a line that sounded any more arrogant than that if he tried?

I don't think Obama gets it.   As much as anything, the anger of protesters is directed at the way capitalism has been mismanaged -- or rather not managed at all -- over the past several decades.  Obama ought to have acknowledged that in the aftermath of a global economic crisis, protesters have a lot to be concerned about. Obama might have said that citizens of the world need to be vocal in asking how well world leaders are managing the economic recovery, inquiring about the lack of any new financial industry regulations.  Had Obama given this kind of a thoughtful response, he would have sounded less like a representative of Singapore or the People's Republic of China, and more like an American president.

Recall President Clinton's remarks in the aftermath of the massive Seattle WTO meeting protests of 1999:
"Those who heard a wake-up call in Seattle got the right message," he said. "I do not agree with those who view with contempt these new forces seeking to be heard in the global dialogue."
Today, at least to my ears, Obama came across as one of those who views "with contempt these new forces seeking to be heard in the global dialogue." The president's brazen insensitivity shocked me. Consider the fact that the protesters in Pittsburgh must have included many of the same young people who worked tirelessly throughout 2008 to get Obama elected in the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania.

Crucially, Obama appears to have lost touch with the level of frustration -- indeed, anger -- people are feeling with the economic system.  Even as businesses move into a period of relative recovery, unemployment remains perilously high, and continues to worsen in most states. 
You might want to check out this post: First use of sonic weapons on American citizens
Photo credit:  I took the above photo which shows Obama at the G20 in  London.

What it takes to build monumental enthusiasm for change

It should be pointed out that the "monument" that is being built on the Washington Mall to the uninsured dead (photo right, and previous post) was not built by advocates of some "public option." The group that built this extraordinary exhibit favor a single-payer system.  As I reported here, support for so-called Obamacare has been lackluster.

If no monuments are being built by supporters of  any current White House plan, perhaps that's because President Obama has not been fighting for monumental change.

It's sad to think that Obama could suffer a major political loss over  health care without having fought for a clear moral value (universal health care). 

Those who build monuments aspire to realize high ideals, not compromise proposals.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Health Insurance Memorial, Washington D.C.

On Thursday evening I paid a visit to the Health Insurance Memorial on the Mall in Washington D.C.

When I asked one of the organizers whether the building of this monument had been covered by American television  news networks or newspapers, he shook his head.

"So far only a couple foreign journalists have shown any interest in this," he said.

I was shocked to hear this.  All Americans should see to this monument.  Those who visit it should bring flowers.

Because the Health Insurance Memorial bears witness to a national tragedy of historic proportions -- one that has cost more American lives than any military conflict since World War II. 

At this new memorial people can pay their respects to the 44,840 Americans who die annually in the United States due to lack of health insurance.  The new monument is located on the Mall between the Washington Monument and the White House.   

Several thousand small US flags (each representing 10 deaths) have been arranged in 50 rows -- there is one row for each state.  So many people die annually due to lack of health insurance in Texas (5,302 deaths/ 530 flags) and California (4,675 deaths/ 468 flags) that these two rows stretch far beyond the others.  Although California has a larger population, thirty percent of Texans lack health insurance -- the highest figure for any state.  Texas is where the most Americans die unnecessarily for want of health insurance coverage.

Volunteers have been pounding little American flags into the ground since Monday.   As of Thursday night, they still had half a dozen rows of flags left to plant.  The exhibit is scheduled to remain until Sunday September 27.

The source for the 44,840 figure (for the number of American deaths caused by lack of health insurance) is Health Insurance and Mortality in U.S. Adults (abstract) published in the current issue of the American Journal of Public Health.  It's findings are based on CDC data.  A 1993 study, Health Insurance and Mortality, found a 25% higher risk of death among uninsured compared with the insured. Using the more recent CDC data, the Harvard-based researchers found that the uninsured are 40% more likely to die than the insured. This translates to 44,840 avoidable deaths per year.

Study co-author Dr. Steffie Woolhandler told R. Mokhiber writing in Counter Punch:
“The whittled down version that Senator Max Baucus is proposing would leave 25 million uninsured. That translates into about 25,000 deaths annually from lack of health insurance. Absent the $400 billion in savings you could get from a single payer system, universal coverage is unaffordable. Politicians in Washington are protecting insurance industry profits while sacrificing American lives.”
The Physicians for a National Health Program, the group that designed the memorial, is calling for a single-payer system -- as is found in almost all other developed countries.  They note the following:
  • Administrative costs consume 31% of US health spending:
  • Half of all bankruptcies are caused by medical bills
  • Taxes already pay for 60% of US health spending (the highest health care taxes in the world!).
  • The uninsured do not receive all the medical care they need -- they live sicker and die younger.
  • The US could save enough on administrative costs with a single payer system -- over $350 billion annually -- to cover all the uninsured.
It sounds as if America's deadly health insurance companies need to be laid to rest.  The sooner the better.

Pictured in the first and second photos is Jackson Bey, a client advocate with "Health Care for the Homeless" in Baltimore.

See next post.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Why overseas news stories need overseas reporters

In a previous post I reported my sense that there was something disingenuous about the US news media's focus on Eastern European "outrage" at Obama's down-scaling of the Bush missile defense program.  (It was not as if Poles or Czechs were footing the bill for the missile system).  A new report suggests there was  something else strange about the way  the US media reported that story:   CD reports:
The majority of Czech and Polish people never supported these proposed U.S. military bases -- though one would never know it from reading the American media with its recent headlines about the cancellation of the bases such as "Eastern Europe Grumbles About Downgrade in US Ties," "Poles, Czechs: US Missile Defense Shift a Betrayal," or, perhaps most preposterous of all, "Eastern Europe Not Feeling the Love From Obama." These headlines make the classic error of presuming that the views of governments are necessarily the same as those of the people.
That's an important distinction to keep in mind. When US policy satisfies foreign governments, yet makes local populations unhappy, Americans' long-term interests are generally not served.  Remember the Shaw of Iran?   This kind of thing has undoubtedly happened more frequently than the mainstream media has led Americans to believe.  

As we all know, foreign correspondents are in alarmingly short supply these days.  News agencies should not be reporting overseas stories from offices in Washington D.C. or London.   Rewriting foreign government press releases is not journalism!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Thai royalists invade temple on Thai-Cambodian border

With the passing of what some have described as the "judicial coup" of December 2008, the royalist "yellow shirts" appeared to have got what they wanted.   So why did the yellows take it upon themselves to invade a temple on the Thai-Cambodian border Saturday?

On Saturday, the third anniversary of the royalist-backed army coup of September 19 that deposed Prime Minister Thaksin, pro-Thaksin supporters held a large rally in the northern city of Chang Mai (photos) where 26,000 listened to Thaksin speak to them by video.   Back in Bangkok red shirts tried to march on the house of Prem, who heads the HM the King's Privy Council.  Red shirts blame Prem for the 2006 coup.  Apparently the red marchers were first obstructed by security but later 20,000 managed to stage a protest there.  Meanwhile, members of the anti-Thaksin royalist faction -- the "yellow-shirts" invaded a temple on the Thai-Cambodia border. 

The Nation (via PPT) reported that "17 were injured" near the disputed -- see here, here, here, here, here and here -- border-straddling Preah Vihear temple complex.  Saturday local teenagers “armed with sticks and slingshots attacked the yellow shirts as they marched through their village to Preah Vihear.”  The villagers “feared [the rally] could spark a war with Cambodia. The villagers have already suffered from the temple being closed, which has cost them income from the lack of tourists. Access to their farms has also been blocked by the military since last year.”  Al Jazeera reports that protesters in northeastern Sisaket province Saturday numbered 4,000.

The yellow shirts are the same hooligans that took over Bangkok's two international airports in November 2008.  Apart from  Sondhi Limthongkul, the yellow-shirt leader who got shot, the group's other leaders continue to do well for  themselves.  Another yellow-shirt leader is now the foreign minister of Thailand. Blogger PPT notes "the close relationship between PAD [yellow shirts] and several senior Democrat Party leaders and Abhisit himself."  Needless to say, PAD leaders were never prosecuted for having disrupted the travel plans of hundreds of thousands of international travelers, nor for the prior occupation of Government House. 

Mr Wrigley at Bangkok Pundit blogged Sunday, "The yellow shirts reinforced their negative "brand image" as a group of lawless thugs, intent on stirring up trouble wherever they go. The government also comes out a loser by imposing the ISA on the reds, while leaving the yellows essentially free to run wild."

The protests of the major color factions in Thailand may have come full circle. For a time it seemed the red-shirts were playing catch-up, merely imitating the tactics of the yellow.  By the time of the crackdown of April it was clear that the red shirts had overshoot their mark.   By mid-April, the red shirts were getting nothing but bad press.

But, to borrow a phrase which already inspires a popular blog about Thai politics, with its bungled assault on the ancient Khmer temple on Saturday, the royalist PAD group appears to have "jumped the shark."  Any way you look at it, provoking an armed confrontation with impoverished Thai villagers is a peculiar way to defend Thailand's national sovereignty.  Certainly, these developments** come at a remarkably inconvenient time for Abhisit as he gets ready to represent ASEAN at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh this week (more about this at Jot Asean)
*TPP (Thai Political Prisoners) live-blogged media reports of Saturday's events in Thailand.  Update: Newley live-blogged rain-soaked red shirts protesting in Bangkok (photos and video).

**Background on the situation in Thailand: two posts "Implications of the political crisis in Thailand" and "Bangkok chessboard" For further background on events in the post 2006 era, see Jotman's Thailand page.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Global citizenship: the myth of countries

"As I think of the many myths, there is one that is very harmful, and that is the myth of countries. I mean, why should I think of myself as being an Argentine, and not a Chilean, and not an Uruguayan. I don't know really. All of those myths that we impose on ourselves — and they make for hatred, for war, for enmity — are very harmful. Well, I suppose in the long run, governments and countries will die out and we'll be just, well, cosmopolitans."

- "A Conversation With Jorge Luis Borges", Artful Dodge (April 1980)

Poland's tantrum over missile defense

 Obama's give-away to the defense industry will be "a little less" than what Bush gave them.  Now the defense industry and its friends are throwing a tantrum.

What's the purpose of missile defense?  It sure seems like a handy excuse to transfer money from US taxpayers into the hands of defense industry contractors.   These corporations invariably get everything they want in the name of  "national security."

And when they don't get something?  They throw a tantrum.  The Obama Administration decided it wasn't going to give Pentagon money-suckers quite everything they wanted, so now the sky is falling.

That's what is happening today.  But you would not appreciate this just by reading  the reports about the Obama Administration's cut-backs to the Bush missile defense program published in the US press. Or would you? The unquestioned assumptions that litter these reports tell the real story.  

The question about missile defense ought to be simple:  Either such a program is necessary, or it is not.  Reading the articles, mainly only two angles of the story get presented: 1) how Central Europeans feel betrayed;  and 2) how the right wing is "complaining" about Obama's plan to limit the Bush  program.   The US news media is not reporting the "complaints" of those who do not think that Obama has cut the missile defense program back nearly enough.  Many people on the left and the right want missile defense scrapped altogether.  We see it for what it is: a waste of money and a potentially needless provocation of the only country capable of destroying the United States -- other than the United States itself.*

The strange logic of missile defense was that in order to protect yourself from a hypothetical future danger (Iranian nukes), you anger the country whose cooperation you need to deal with today's threats to global security (including Iran).   For example, if any of Russia's nuclear warheads got into the wrong hands, nobody would be safe.  Such weapons exist today -- thousands of such weapons.  Missile defense against non-existent Iranian weapons has become a substitute for pursuing arms reduction. Both Russia and the US must abide by their end of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.   They need to cooperate to reduce their own missile stockpiles -- eventually down to zero.

Continued here.
Obama photo: by Jotman. 
* The possibility that US weapons could be misused by American leaders or stolen is probably the greatest military threat Americans face. 

Friday, September 18, 2009

Aceh Indonesia under Sharia law

By ending the insurgency, Aceh took a big step forward.  But by passing a new law, the region is poised to take a giant leap backwards.

In October 2009, "stoning" -- for the crime of adultery -- will become the law of  the Aceh region of Indonesia. In 2006 proponents of Sharia law mandated that all Aceh women must cover their heads.

Although most Indonesians Muslims practice tolerant versions of Islam, hard-core fundamentalists have made inroads in some regions.  The efforts of missionaries from the Gulf states may account for recent the spread of conservative Islamic ideologies.

The photo of Indonesians pictured above was taken by Jotman as his train sped through central Java.      These people were standing way out in the middle of a vast expanse of rice fields.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Can the best country in the universe be improved?

Do Americans have a "national perfection" complex? 

Obama has a difficult job.  How can a mere politician significantly improve a country that's almost perfect?

One day -- this  was ten years ago -- an African American lady lectured me for almost an hour about  the greatness of America (relative to the rest of the world). She told me that in America people enjoy things that foreigners don't have.   I asked for an example.

"Like freedom," she said.

Few Americans seem to realize just how good many people have it in other countries.  Probably because they don't get around much.  Only about one in five Americans carries a passport.  Few Americans speak a foreign language.  Many are "geography challenged" -- as one map that recently appeared on Fox News testifies (right).

Perhaps the metaphor that best describes the mindset of "the Fox News viewing herd" is the woman who continues living with the abusive man, but refuses to leave the relationship, no matter how bad things seem to get.  Abuse is all the woman has ever known. Likewise, when it comes to the health care reform debate,  a surprisingly large number of Americans seem content to remain in abusive -- or potentially abusive -- relationships with their current health insurance company. 

The other day, Roger Cohen, a correspondent living in France, summed up why foreign systems are better. He wrote, "The American health system is an insidious stress-multiplier whose hassles, big and small, permeate already harried lives."

I agree.  All the other health care systems I know are less stressful.  (In addition to the American system, I have some personal acquaintance with the health care systems in six developed countries).   All of the other systems seemed easier to cope with. (Singapore's system impressed me the most.) In the US, all the paper they keep sending you becomes a psychological burden --  you don't want to look at it!

In this entertaining video about health care, one of the singers asks President Obama:
Why do you want to change the way things work when Jesus Christ said we're the best country in the universe?  

I came across the video on James Fallows' blog.  Fallows has been waging a tireless campaign against overuse of the "God bless America!" phrase in political speeches (it's featured in the video).  You can read Fallow's thoughts on "God bless America" here, and here, and here.

Timeline of Rahman Bunairee's really bad summer

UPDATED Feb 2012: See below

How the US government treats friendly visitors (courageous journalists on its payroll and Nobel Peace Laureates).

Journalist Rahman Bunairee had been invited to Washington D.C. to work for a year for VOA’s Deewa Radio, the Pashto language broadcasting service to the Afghan-Pakistan border region.  Upon his arrival on American soil,  immigration officials had a surprise in store for Bunairee.  Bunairee's really bad summer was about to get even worse.

Rahman Bunairee Timeline

Bunairee hired to worked as a stringer for Voice of America's Deewa Radio, which broadcasts in the Pashto language to the Pakistani-Afghan border region., also reports as a Karachi-based correspondent for Pakistan's Khyber Television." (LA Times)
Five journalists killed in Pakistan according to Committee to Protect Journalists (HPost)
Apr -- - Taliban militants first marched into Buner (McClatchy)
Apr -- -  In a report for Khyber TV, Bunairee's other employer, Bunairee was critical of the Taliban assault on Buner.(McClatchy)
Jul 06 - Bunairee appears on talk show.  Taliban allege "Bunairee had spoken against the militants on Deewa Radio and criticized the security forces for not launching action in Polan." (The News, Karachi)
Jul 07 - 60 persons arrive at Bunairee's home and "politely told his family members to vacate the house as they were going to blow up the structure."  Say Taliban angry that "Bunairee had spoken against the militants on Deewa Radio"  (the News)
Jul 08 - Bunairee's house in Polan village blown up by suspected militants (BBG)
Jul 09 -  "Bunairee moves his family to Karachi, but the threats and danger persisted. There were incidents in which gunmen climbed the wall of his bureau in Karachi when he was not there." (LA  Times), The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and the Voice of America (VOA) issues second statement:  condemning  "the senseless attack on the home of VOA's Deewa Radio journalist Rahman Bunairee in Bunir, Pakistan on July 9." (KA Elliott/VOA)
Jun 12 - Another Pakistani journalist's house gets blown up.  Behroz Khan "became the second journalist whose house was destroyed by suspected Taleban militants in Buner in recent days." (BBC Monitoring)
Jul 17 -  "Asked about his take on the situation in Malakand division since the government has announced it was now safe, and internally displaced people (IDPs) are being shifted there, Bunairee said: "The fire that engulfed Malakand division has not been extinguished as yet, and I believe the war will continue for decades." (INSI)
Jul (late) - Bunairee "staying in a guest house and maintaining a very low profile"
Jul 30 - Immigration at Dulles International airport  detains Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire in a special processing area over two hours causing her to miss her connecting flight to Albuquerque (Ten Percent):
... when she told the U.S. Immigration Officer at Dulles airport that she was a Nobel Peace Laureate and showed him the documents concerning the Peace Laureate meeting she was attending in New Mexico, the Immigration Officer sarcastically said that detention “is going to happen every time you enter the United States,” and “you should get used to it.”
Aug 09 - Journalist Rahman Bunairee arrives at Washington Dulles International Airport with "a valid U.S. visa (visa issued by the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad) and ample documentation of his sponsorship for a yearlong exchange program for the Voice of America, a U.S. government agency. (WaPo)
--- -- - Customs and Border Protection officials interrogate Bunairee, rejected his visa, label him an 'intending immigrant' and threatened to deport him.  
--- --  - sent to jail in Hampton Roads, Va.
Aug 10 - Bunairee in jail (WaPo)
Aug 11 - Bunairee in jail (WaPo)
Aug 12 - Bunairee in jail, exhaustive legal efforts by the State Department to obtain his release. (WaPo)
Aug 13 - Bunairee in jail, exhaustive legal efforts by the State Department to obtain his release. (WaPo)
Aug 14 - Bunairee in jail, exhaustive legal efforts by the State Department to obtain his release. (WaPo), VOA Statement on "detention of stringer"
Aug 15 - Bunairee in jail, exhaustive legal efforts by the State Department to obtain his release. (WaPo), LA Times story published
Aug 16 - Bunairee in jail, exhaustive legal efforts by the State Department to obtain his release (WaPo),  Immigration officials question Bunairee "for about 20 minutes to determine whether he has the required 'credible fear' of returning" (McClatchy) [Jotman comment: WTF?]
Aug 17 - Bunairee in jail, exhaustive legal efforts by the State Department to obtain his release. (WaPo)
Aug 18 - Bunairee in jail, exhaustive legal efforts by the State Department to obtain his release. (WaPo), McClatchy story published
Aug 19 - U.S. authorities free Bunairee under terms that forbid him to work.  Terms of his release also bar VOA from giving him any money, VOA's parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, issued a statement welcoming Bunairee's release, describing him as a man of extraordinary courage and dedication. (Dawn, Pakistan).
Aug 20 - Living off of charitable contributions. (WaPo)
Sept 15 - D. Jeffrey Hirschberg, a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, writes in a  WaPo Op/Ed:
Rahman Bunairee works for Deewa Radio, the VOA's Pashto-language service targeted to the troubled Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that "we are being out-communicated by the Taliban and al-Qaeda" in the area, a circumstance she called "absolutely unacceptable." The U.S. envoy for the region, Richard Holbrooke, has argued that Taliban propaganda "is key to the insurgency's terror campaign" and that it must be countered. 
Recognizing the value of Deewa's contribution, Congress increased its funding early this summer to expand broadcasts. This means Deewa will need to attract more experienced journalists, including some from Pakistan, and quickly. 
If the Taliban were in charge of America's borders, wouldn't they have wanted to see Bunairee denied entry into the United States, and be treated like some kind of criminal?   

The Economic Times explains the paperwork confusion that apparently led to Rahman Bunairee's 10-day detainment.  But you don't put someone in jail for not having every piece of paper in perfect order.  Immigration law blogger Siskind asked: "I am left wondering why the State Department didn't just arrange with DHS to have Bunairee paroled in to the US in order to apply for asylum rather than going the J-1 route."  Good question.

Whatever one's views of the merit of the American military effort in Afghanistan, anyone can see that exposing Central Asians to quality journalism and the world of ideas is among the most constructive ways Western countries can engage the people of the region.  Moreover, compared the cost of planes, bombs, and soldiers, Voice of America is not expensive.  VOA is doing good work around the world. For example, blogging from inside Burma, I documented the important role Voice of America has played in helping to keep the Burmese people informed

But the story of Rahman Bunairee's really bad summer has a meaning that extends beyond the obvious importance of Bunairee's work, and the need for Voice of America. 

If this is the way the America treats foreigners who work for the US government, it really makes you wonder how America treats other friendly visitors -- friends who don't arrive on America's shores at the invitation of a US government agency.  The answer is alarming.  Many well-traveled non-Americans can tell you a "horror story."  Not only Pakistanis, but also Indonesians, Austrians, Italians, even Icelanders.  Even winners of  US government Fulbright scholarships have not been admitted.  Such stories not only make for lousy PR, the policies that give rise to them are bad for business.

US detention laws are such that travel to the former USSR probably posed far fewer risks for good law-abiding foreigners than a routine visit to the United States does today.  And the fate of the Soviet Union shows that once a country closes its borders to the world, its days of influence are numbered.

Update (Feb 2012): In May 2010 Rahman Bunairee received the David Burke Distinguished Journalism Award from VOA for his "daring and thought-provoking broadcasts."  The award cited "his reporting on the 2009 clashes between Pakistani troops and militants in Pakistan's tribal areas."   A VOA article describing his award states that "Bunairee fled to the United States after militants, apparently angered by his coverage, set off a bomb at his family home and threatened him." 

Rahman Bunairee now lives with his family in Washington D.C.. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Spirits on the Mall

Apart from color correction, no photo manipulation. If the spots were not added to the image, where did they come from? More spirit photos here.