Burmese Junta Stalls on Reform
BANGKOK — When 30 Nobel Peace Prize laureates gathered in Norway last December to mark the 100th anniversary of the Prize, there was one notable absentee: Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the pro-democracy movement in Burma (known as Myanmar). By the time her Peace Prize was announced in 1991, she was already under house arrest. Ten years on, the situation hasn’t charged.
The laureates appealed to the junta to free her and more than 1500 political prisoners, including 19 members of parliament. "In moral stature, she is a giant," South Africa’s Bishop Desmond Tutu said of the diminutive activist.
Burma’s rulers have weathered sanctions and a ban on Western aid by strengthening relations with China and members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). China’s President visited in December, cementing ties as Burma’s main supplier of jets, tanks, and other weapons. The regime depends on military might to stay in power.
Burma’s isolation was eased in 1997 when the ASEAN accepted it as a full member. Suu Kyi repeatedly has called for a total ban on aid and investment. But Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand provide both — ostensibly to promote democratic reform. This helps to keep the tottering economy alive, although much of the money ends up in private bank accounts. Despite rampant HIV/AIDS, health and education programs are starved and 40 percent of the budget goes to the armed forces.
Secret talks between the military and Suu Kyi started in 2000. The only tangible result to date has been the release of around 200 opposition figures. Many already had served out their sentences. Suu Kyi says real dialogue can only begin once all political prisoners have been released. The junta is dragging its feet while using rumors of progress to ease international pressure.
back to top
US Goes Long in Central Asia
TASHKENT – With a new foothold in Central Asia, the US is rapidly consolidating its military buildup and raising its profile. The move could prompt teeth gnashing in Russia and China, which regard the region as their backyard.
During the war in Afghanistan, the Pentagon has used Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan as rear bases and aid corridors. Kazakhstan and Tajikistan hosted no troops, but opened airspace and airfields. Experts are currently looking at Tajik airfields for future missions.
At least 2000 US soldiers are deployed in former Soviet Central Asia, mainly on an Uzbekistan airfield near the Afghan border. Uzbek President Islam Karimov has set no deadline for them to leave. Military facilities are under construction at Manas international airport, outside Kyrgyzstan’s capital. Eventually, they could house up to 3000 troops.
US aims are veiled. Analysts say a long-term presence is needed to prevent a Taliban comeback and root out Al-Qaeda, but the goals may go further. Elizabeth Jones, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, recently told Congress the administration hopes a permanent US presence will boost economic development and sustain democratic reforms.
Deputy Defense Secretary James Wolfowitz is more straightforward. By upgrading its military presence, he says, the US wants to send a message — especially to Uzbekistan — that it won’t forget its new friends. A key ally, Uzbekistan may receive up to $150 million in loans and grants.
The Bush administration also wants to scrap a Cold War-era law that placed conditions on former Soviet republics’ trade relations, based on their human rights records. But this will suggest that the US condones abuses in return for loyalty.
back to top
Venezuela Defies Washington Consensus
CARACAS — Since taking office in late 1998, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has pursued what he calls a "Bolivarian Revolution," named for the 19th-century South American liberator. Thus far, that has meant a new constitution, abolishing Venezuela’s plutocratic upper house, and overhauling a corrupt judiciary. More important for the poor, Chavez also has reined in inflation, boosted growth rates, beefed up social spending, launched a massive public works program, and clamped down on tax evasion.
Internationally, Chavez has brought Venezuela closer to Fidel Castro, swapping Venezuelan oil for Cuban doctors and sports instructors, and has criticized the "savage neo-liberalism" imposed by the US. He’s even withdrawn the military from naval exercises and denied the US access to Venezuelan airspace, hampering Washington’s proxy war in Colombia. He calls the US bombing of Afghanistan "fighting terrorism with terrorism."
Chavez’s trump card is oil: Venezuela has the largest petroleum reserves outside the Middle East, and is the largest US source of gasoline and heating oil. Sales pay for Chavez’s redistributive social projects and give the country clout on the world stage. So far, the US has officially taken a "wait-and-see" attitude. But that could change. "I am concerned when I see what [Chavez] does," Vice President Dick Cheney said last year. "Sometimes, I wish he had other friends is the way I’d describe it."
The State Department alleges that Chavez and his defense minister are "professional agitators," claiming Venezuela has supported violent indigenous movements in Bolivia and coup supporters in Ecuador. Shortly after issuing these charges, Washington reportedly reduced its intelligence cooperation with Venezuela. One official explained, "There was a sense that anything we gave the Venezuelans would wind up in Havana."
According to journalists John Marshall and Christian Parenti, Chavistas seem ready to defend the revolution. "Any coup attempt will lead to civil war," one diehard unionist warned them. "I wonder if the oil-hungry United States is really ready for that."
back to top
Cuba’s Olive Branch
HAVANA — Despite the US occupation of Guantánamo and transfer of Afghan prisoners to the US Naval Base there, Cuba says it won’t create any obstacles. A January declaration notes that the base "is the exact place where American and Cuban soldiers stand face to face." Thus, "serenity and a sense of responsibility" are required. In the past, shots have been fired into Cuban territory, and several Cuban soldiers have died as a result. Counterrevolutionaries have found safe haven at the base.
On the Afghan prisoners, the statement points out that, as usual, Cuba wasn’t consulted. But information was provided on how prisoners would be handled, and assurances were given that the security of Cubans won’t be jeopardized.
Although the two nations have different ideas on how to eradicate terrorism, Cuba now says the main disagreement centers on methods, not goals. In any case, Fidel Castro pledges not to hinder the operation. "Cuba will make every effort to preserve the atmosphere of détente and mutual respect that has prevailed in that area over the past several years," the statement says.
back to top
WASHINGTON — Ireland, Switzerland and Singapore were the world’s "most open economies" in 2000, while Colombia, Peru and Iran were the least globalized of 62 nations surveyed, according to a study by Foreign Policy magazine and A.T. Kearney Inc. The so-called "globalization index" measures economic integration, cross-border personal contact, transnational political engagement, and technology use.
The US ranked 12th, scoring high for technology and political engagement, but low on cross-border personal contact and economic integration. "Countries with large internal markets tend to be less highly globalized than countries which have small internal markets and therefore are forced to seek relationship outside their borders to sustain themselves economically," said A.T. Kearney’s Paul Laudicina. US citizens scored low on personal contact; most don’t travel abroad or have foreign contact via telephone or e-mail.
The year 2000 could end up being the "high water mark" of globalization, concluded Foreign Policy editor Moises Naim, Since cross-border trade and investment dwindled to a trickle last year — signs of global economic decline — the 2001 index could be drastically different. China, a new member of the World Trade Organization, may vault up the rankings. Last year, while Brazil experienced a downturn in foreign direct investment from $31 to $20 billion, China’s went from $42 to $50 billion.
The "most globalized" countries also included the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Canada, Denmark, Austria, and the U.K. The rest of the bottom ten were Indonesia, Brazil, Venezuela, Pakistan, Turkey, South Africa, and China.
back to top
Rebuilding Begins at Pacifica Radio
HOUSTON — At its first face-to-face meeting in January, the interim Pacifica National Board undid much of the damage inflicted on the radio network over the past two years. Many of those banned and fired from WBAI got their jobs back. Station managers at KPFT in Houston and WBAI in New York, both aligned with the former regime, are gone. The new board also passed a resolution to restore the community to "community radio" at KPFT in Houston by including local activists on the station’s advisory board.
Former Pacifica news director Dan Coughlin, who was censored and fired in 1999 for authorizing a news report on the Pacifica controversies, has become Interim Executive Director. And Larry Bensky, fired over two years ago for breaking a "gag rule," was reinstated as a paid employee. After his dismissal, Bensky continued doing his KPFA Sunday program as an unpaid volunteer.
As of January, Pacifica had $3 million in unpaid bills. Station managers at KPFA and KPFK report that the national office drained station reserves, and that budgeted transmitter repairs can’t be made. The new treasurer is trying to get a complete picture. Meanwhile, the old guard says it will attempt to invalidate the January meeting on a technicality. The next meeting is scheduled for March in Los Angeles. For more, go to www.progressiveportal.org/discussion/pacifica.
back to top
Robots on the Battlefield
LONDON -The age of robotic warfare is well underway. Night vision, spy satellites and other technologies are making combat a 24-hour affair. One needs look no further than Afghanistan to see the shape of things to come. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were used extensively by the US for reconnaissance and target identification, some even carrying armor-piercing missiles.
Some 50 companies, as well as government agencies, are developing more than 150 UAV designs, according to Jane’s Defense Weekly. The US leads the charge, followed by Israel, Britain, France, and Germany. As the machines become more sophisticated, they’ll gradually take over decision-making from humans. Israel is already marketing the Harpy, a "fire and forget" UAV that can destroy radar emitters and missile sites.
The US Air Force and Lockheed Martin are working on a flying robot that can choose different warheads based on the identified target. Meanwhile, the Navy is perfecting Pegasus, a kite-shaped stealth aircraft that won’t need a remote human pilot. It could be flying this Spring. Devices the size of pigeons are also being developed for surveillance and combat.
Using robots raises legal and ethical issues. "A robot carrying a weapon is big trouble," says Anne Foerst, a computer science professor who previously worked at MIT’s artificial intelligence lab. "To find out what to shoot at, a robot would need as complex an understanding of social interactions and social groups as we do, because all that is needed to determine who is the enemy." It will be a long time — if ever — before robots can reliably make such judgments.
back to top
Nader Sticks to Green Game Plan
WASHINGTON — Ralph Nader reiterated his support for the Green Party in January. "What we’re trying to do is build a political reform movement," the 2000 Green candidate for President told Meet The Press. His book about the campaign, Crashing The Party: How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President (http://www.crashingtheparty.com), was published in December.
"The Green Party now is the third largest party in America — the fastest growing party," Nader noted. "It won 25 percent of its local races last November. We hope that thousands of people will run at the local, state and national level in the year 2002." While not ruling out another run himself, Nader declined to commit.
He continued to rebuff the notion that he "spoiled" the 2000 election for the Democrats. An Al Gore presidency "wouldn’t have been any different in terms of military and foreign policy, soft on corporate crime," he said. "It wouldn’t have been any different in ignoring the need to transfer our country to renewable energy and organic agriculture and protecting the small farmer. And it wouldn’t have been any different on GATT and NAFTA and the increasing trade deficits and exporting American jobs."
Greens add to the list of bipartisan collusion: national missile defense, anti-terrorism legislation, Plan Colombia, the War on Drugs, the death penalty, opposition to national health insurance, welfare reform that penalizes the poor, acceptance of contributions from Enron, and a "blank check" for Bush to wage war without regard for international law and cooperation.
"If voters were sore at the Green Party for ‘spoiling,’ they didn’t show it at the polls in 2001" notes Starlene Rankin, Illinois Green Party Media Coordinator.