Friday, November 19, 2010

Stories too good to bother checking up

ON NOV 4, journalist Anderson Cooper did the US a favour. He expertly deconstructed on his CNN show the bogus rumour that President Barack Obama's trip to Asia would cost US$200 million (S$260 million) a day.

This was an important 'story'. It underscored just how far ahead of his time Mark Twain was when he said a century before the Internet: 'A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.'

But it also showed that there is an antidote to malicious journalism - and that is good journalism.

In case you missed it, a story circulating around the Web on the eve of President Obama's trip said it would cost US taxpayers US$200 million a day - about US$2 billion for the entire trip.

Mr Cooper said he felt impelled to check it out because the evening before, he had Representative of Minnesota Michele Bachmann, a Republican and Tea Party favourite, on his show and had asked her where exactly the Republicans will cut the budget. Instead of giving specifics, Ms Bachmann used her airtime to inject a phony story into the mainstream.

She answered: 'I think we know that just within a day or so, the President of the United States will be taking a trip over to India that is expected to cost the taxpayers US$200 million a day. He's taking 2,000 people with him. He'll be renting over 870 rooms in India, and these are five-star hotel rooms at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel. This is the kind of over-the-top spending.'

The next night, Mr Cooper explained that he felt compelled to trace that story back to its source, since someone had used his show to circulate it.

His research, he said, found that it had originated from a quote by 'an alleged Indian provincial official', from the Indian state of Maharashtra, 'reported by India's Press Trust... I say 'alleged' provincial official', Mr Cooper added, 'because we have no idea who this person is, no name was given'.

It is hard to get any more flimsy than a senior unnamed Indian official from Maharashtra talking about the cost of an Asian trip by the American President.

'It was an anonymous quote,' said Mr Cooper. 'Some reporter in India wrote this article with this figure in it. No proof was given; no follow-up reporting was done. Now, you'd think if a member of Congress was going to use this figure as a fact, she would want to be pretty darn sure it was accurate, right? But there hasn't been any follow-up reporting on this Indian story. The Indian article was picked up by the Drudge Report and other sites online, and it quickly made its way onto conservative talk radio.'

Mr Cooper then showed the following snippets - Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh talking about Mr Obama's trip: 'In two days from now, he'll be in India at US$200 million a day.'

Then Mr Glenn Beck, on his radio show, saying: 'Have you ever seen the President, ever seen the President go over for a vacation where you needed 34 warships, US$2 billion - US$2 billion, 34 warships. We are sending - he's travelling with 3,000 people.'

In Mr Beck's rendition, Mr Obama's official state visit to India became 'a vacation' accompanied by one-tenth of the US Navy. Ditto for conservative radio talk show host Michael Savage. He said: 'US$200 million? US$200 million each day on security and other aspects of this incredible royalist visit; 3,000 people, including secret service agents.'

Mr Cooper then added: 'Again, no one really seemed to care to check the facts. For security reasons, the White House doesn't comment on the logistics of presidential trips, but they have made an exception this time.'

He then quoted White House press secretary Robert Gibbs as saying: 'I am not going to go into how much it costs to protect the President, (but this trip) is comparable to when President Bill Clinton and when President George W. Bush travelled abroad. This trip doesn't cost US$200 million a day.'

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said: 'I will take the liberty this time of dismissing as absolutely absurd, this notion that somehow we were deploying 10 per cent of the navy and some 34 ships and an aircraft carrier in support of the President's trip to Asia. That's just comical. Nothing close to that is being done.'

Mr Cooper also pointed out that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the entire war effort in Afghanistan was costing about US$190 million a day and that former president Bill Clinton's 1998 trip to Africa - with 1,300 people and of a roughly similar duration and cost, according to the Government Accountability Office and adjusted for inflation, was 'about US$5.2 million a day'.

When widely followed public figures feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, we have a problem.

It becomes impossible for a democracy to think intelligently about big issues - deficit reduction, health care, taxes, energy/climate - let alone act on them.

Facts, opinions and fabrications just blend together. But the carnival barkers that so dominate America's public debate today are not going away - and neither is the Internet.

All you can hope is that more people will do what Mr Cooper did - so when the next crazy lie races around the world, people's first instinct will be to doubt it, not repeat it.

Thomas Friedman. NEW YORK TIMES

80 years on, Stalin's world is still with us

EIGHTY years ago, in the autumn of 1930, Joseph Stalin enforced a policy that changed the course of history, and led to tens of millions of deaths across the decades and around the world. In a violent and massive campaign of 'collectivisation', he brought Soviet agriculture under state control.

Stalin pursued collectivisation despite the massive resistance that had followed when he first tried to introduce the policy the previous spring. The Soviet leadership had relied then upon shootings and deportations to the Gulag to pre-empt opposition. Yet Soviet citizens resisted in large numbers. Kazakh nomads fled to China, Ukrainian farmers to Poland.

In the autumn, the shootings and deportations resumed, complemented by economic coercion. Individual farmers were taxed until they entered the collective, and collective farms were allowed to seize individual farmers' seed grain, used to plant the next year's harvest.

Once the agricultural sector of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR) was collectivised, the hunger began. By depriving peasants of their land and making them de facto state employees, collective farming allowed Moscow to control people as well as their produce.

Yet control is not creation. It proved impossible to make Central Asian nomads into productive farmers in a single growing season. Beginning in 1930, some 1.3 million people starved in Kazakhstan as their meagre crops were requisitioned according to central directives.

In Ukraine, the harvest failed in 1931. The reasons were many: poor weather, pests, shortages of animal power after peasants slaughtered livestock rather than lose it to the collective, shortages of tractors, the shooting and deportation of the best farmers, and the disruption of sowing and reaping caused by collectivisation itself.

'How can we be expected to build the socialist economy,' asked a Ukrainian peasant, 'when we are all doomed to hunger?' We now know, after 20 years of studying Soviet documents, that in 1932 Stalin knowingly transformed the collectivisation famine in Ukraine into a campaign of politically motivated starvation. Stalin presented the crop failure as a sign of Ukrainian national resistance, requiring firmness rather than concessions.

As famine spread that summer, Stalin refined his explanation: Hunger was sabotage; local communist activists were the saboteurs, protected by higher authorities, and all were paid by foreign spies. In the autumn of 1932, the Kremlin issued a series of decrees that guaranteed mass death. One of them cut off all supplies to communities that failed to make their grain quotas.

Meanwhile, the communists took whatever food they could find, as one peasant remembered, 'down to the last little grain', and in early 1933 the borders of Soviet Ukraine were sealed so that the starving could not seek help. Dying peasants harvested the spring crops under watchtowers.

More than five million people starved to death or died of hunger-related disease in the USSR in the early 1930s, 3.3 million of them in Ukraine, of which about three million would have survived had Stalin simply ceased requisitions and exports for a few months and granted people access to grain stores.

These events remain at the centre of East European politics to this day. Each November, Ukrainians commemorate the victims of 1933. But Mr Viktor Yanukovich, the current Ukrainian president, denies the special suffering of the Ukrainian people - a nod to Russia's official historical narrative, which seeks to blur the particular evils of collectivisation into a tragedy so vague that it has no clear perpetrators or victims.

Mr Rafal Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer who established the concept of 'genocide' and invented the term, would have disagreed: He called the Ukrainian famine a classic case of Soviet genocide. As Mr Lemkin knew, terror followed famine: Peasants who survived hunger and the Gulag became Stalin's next victims. The Great Terror of 1937-1938 began with a shooting campaign - directed chiefly against peasants - that claimed 386,798 lives across the Soviet Union, a disproportionate number of them in Ukraine.

Collectivisation casts a long shadow. When Nazi Germany invaded the western Soviet Union, the Germans kept the collective farms intact, rightly seeing them as the instrument that would allow them to divert Ukrainian food for their own purposes, and starve whom they wished.

After Mao Zedong made his revolution in China in 1949, Chinese communists followed the Stalinist model of development. This meant that some 30 million Chinese starved to death in 1958-1961, in a famine very similar to that in the Soviet Union. Maoist collectivisation, too, was followed by mass shooting campaigns.

Even today, collective agriculture is the basis for tyrannical power in North Korea, where hundreds of thousands of people starved in the 1990s. And in Belarus, Europe's last dictatorship, collective farming was never undone, and a former collective farm director, Mr Aleksandr Lukashenko, runs the country.

Mr Lukashenko is running for a fourth consecutive presidential term next month. Controlling the land, he also controls the vote. Eighty years after the collectivisation campaign, Stalin's world remains with us.

By Timothy Snyder. The writer is Professor of History at Yale University. His most recent book is Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler And Stalin.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Unhappy in Bhutan

BHUTAN'S substantial population of Nepali origin might be forgiven for some cynicism over the Himalayan kingdom's fixation with gross national happiness (GNH).

GNH was conceived by the country's former King Jigme Singye Wangchuk as a societal indicator more meaningful than simply measuring economic conditions through gross domestic product. It is overseen by the government's GNH Commission, established two years ago to replace the planning commission, and is quantified through the GNH Index.

The index is based on 72 questions covering nine categories, ranging from psychological well-being to ecology and community vitality. Respondents are not categorised by ethnicity.

Bhutan's official population of Nepali origin is about 140,000, presuming that those professing to be Hindus in the 2005 census are a reliable indicator. If you add to that more than 100,000 ethnic Nepalese who have been forcibly expelled from Bhutan since 1987 and sequestered in seven refugee camps in eastern Nepal, then the community accounts for at least one-third of the country's population. And most cannot be too happy.

The Bhutanese government says those expelled were illegal residents who threatened the country's national identity, pointing to neighbouring Sikkim's influx of ethnic Nepalese and its 1975 annexation by India.

Many of the displaced say their families have lived in Bhutan for generations, and that the contentious 1985 Citizenship Act leading to their exodus is a deeply discriminatory law rooted in ethnic nationalism.

Those of Nepali origin remaining in Bhutan generally stay quiet, but others maintain that they are still being pressured to leave.

Talks between the Bhutanese government in Thimphu and the Nepali government in Kathmandu that tried to resolve the issue were unproductive and effectively abandoned. But from late 2007, third-country resettlement of these displaced people emerged as a durable solution. This initiative is led by an informal core group of eight countries and has so far seen more than 37,500 refugees from Bhutan leave the camps, with 74,600 remaining. While many have expressed an interest in resettlement, a small number may wish to stay in Nepal.

Thimphu has meanwhile remained steadfast. 'As of today, not a single refugee has been able to voluntarily repatriate to Bhutan,' said Ms Nini Gurung, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Kathmandu.

Some in Bhutan's ethnic Nepali community resisted the expulsion by establishing in 1990 the Bhutan Peoples' Party, which agitated for political reform and remains active. This group also spawned a militant wing that mounted a steady stream of small-scale attacks, though this effort at armed resistance seems to have been short-lived.

The issue involving ethnic Nepalese centres on southern Bhutan, where this population is concentrated. Around the same time, there was also unhappiness pervading the eastern region, although sources say this appears to have been resolved through Bhutan's first war in its modern history.

Beginning in the early 1990s, several tribal secessionist groups fighting in north-east India established base camps in eastern Bhutan for training purposes and for safe refuge between cross-border raids.

Thimphu came under pressure to act from New Delhi and from the weary local population, which in 1998 appealed to the King for assistance. Constrained by the army's weakness, the government tried to address the issue through six years of negotiation while building up its military strength.

In December 2003, the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) launched Operation All Clear after its forces expanded by about one-third to 9,000 personnel. Deploying about 6,000 troops, the army captured 30 militant camps within two weeks. Nearly 500 tribal rebels were reportedly killed while 11 from the RBA died. A number of prisoners were handed over to India.

'Every couple of moons, there are reports that the camps have resurfaced in remote areas (of eastern Bhutan) but these remain uncorroborated,' an Indian intelligence source said of the current situation.

'Generally speaking, the camps have disappeared but some individuals - stragglers or cross-border hunters or those who married locally - remain.'

This campaign - successful by Bhutan's standards - has doubtless bolstered Bhutan's GNH Index.

But it is unclear just how the prospect of refugee resettlement may affect the happiness index.

Nov 15, 2010
Unhappy in Bhutan
By Robert Karniol, Defence Writer

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Aung San Suu Kyi: Burma's opposition leader is a new Mandela

The word's a commonplace but Aung San Suu Kyi really is a legend: daughter of the man who won Burma its independence from the British, but who was assassinated when she was barely two; a political leader herself who for the past 22 years has headed, with a delicate but compelling charisma and unimaginable determination, her nation's "second struggle for independence"; a prisoner of one kind or another for 15 of the past 20 years; and winner, in 1991, of the Nobel peace prize.

In her own country she's an uncrowned queen; a slight, fragile but unbending figure glimpsed by few but known to all as The Lady. Beyond it, she has become an icon, a universal symbol of courage, endurance and peaceful resistance, a new Mandela.

Those who have met her (which isn't many, recently) speak of a beauty every bit as striking as the photographs, a proud poise and a demure gentility acquired, certainly, at the Anglo-Indian finishing school she attended in New Delhi, where her mother was ambassador.

She apparently also has, though, a quick and by no means prim wit and an infectious giggle. Not, by all accounts – including her own – a born political strategist, she knows precisely the system her country needs, if not precisely how to get there. Her Nobel citation called her a shining example of "the power of the powerless".

Born on 19 June, 1945, two years before independence, Aung San Suu Kyi – the name means "a bright collection of strange victories" – left Burma with her mother in 1960. In 1964 she was at St Hugh's, Oxford, studying politics, philosophy and economics. A friend, Ann Pasternak Slater, recalls her "tight, trim lungi [Burmese sarong] and her upright carriage, her firm moral convictions and inherited social grace".

She worked as a research assistant at the University of London and then for the UN in New York. She got engaged to Michael Aris in 1971, and wrote to him every day before their marriage the following year: "I only ask one thing," she said: "That should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them." She added: "I am beset by fears that circumstances and national considerations might tear us apart."

It took 16 years for that need to arise. Michael and Aung San Suu Kyi's first son, Alexander, was born in London in 1973, followed by their second, Kim, in Oxford, where Michael had a junior fellowship. She resumed her own academic career, teaching Burmese studies and taking research assignments first in Japan, and then in India. One evening in Oxford in late March 1988, the boys in bed, Aung San Suu Kyi took the phone call that changed her life: her mother had suffered a severe stroke.

Back in Burma, the military dictatorship that had run the country since 1962 was suppressing a student-led protest movement. On 8 August 1988, soldiers fired into a peaceful demonstration, killing up to 5,000 protesters. Barely two weeks later, Aung Sun Suu Kyi addressed 500,000 people at the great Schwedagon pagoda in Rangoon. As her father's daughter, she said, she could not stand by. "True," she said, "I have lived abroad. It is also true that I am married to a foreigner. These facts have never lessened my love and my devotion for my country." She demanded freedom and democracy, a multi-party government, and free and fair elections.

The rest is as sad as it is familiar. The National League for Democracy was formed with Aung San Suu Kyi as its general secretary.

"We listened to the voice of the people, that our policies might be in harmony with their legitimate needs and aspirations," Aung San Suu Kyi wrote. "We explained why, in spite of its inevitable flaws, we considered democracy to be better than other political systems. Most important, we sought to make them understand why we believed political change was best achieved through non-violent means."

Despite detentions and intimidation, the NLD won 82% of the seats in Burma's parliament in the 1990 elections, whose results the dictatorship have never recognised. Aung San Suu Kyi was held under house arrest until 1995, and then banned from travelling. In 1999 her husband died of cancer in London; had she left the country to visit him, she would never have been allowed back in. Detained again in 2000, released again in 2002, she was rearrested once more in May 2003. Her phone line cut, her post blocked and her NLD colleagues banned from visiting her, she has lived under house arrest at her home on University Avenue, Rangoon, ever since, writing, reading, exercising and meditating. Not even the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, was allowed to meet her on a visit in 2009.

Then John Yettaw, a confused American, swam across the lake by her house to see her, ensuring she was charged and convicted with breaking the terms of her house arrest and sentenced to 18 months further house arrest – until tomorrow, a convenient six days after Burma's recent elections. "It is not power that corrupts, but fear," Aung San Suu Kyi once wrote. "Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it." But even under the "most crushing state machinery, courage rises up again and again. For fear is not the natural state of man."

Last Train Home

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Mein Kampf (2009)

Genre Drama, History, Theatre
Year of Production 2009
Director Urs Odermatt
Principal Cast Goetz George, Tom Schilling, Wolf Bachofner, Bernd Birkhahn, Karin Neuhaeuser, Paul Matic, Elisabeth Orth, Henning Peker, Simon Schwarz, Anna Unterberger
Length 109 mins
International Festival Screenings Montreal 2009, Atlanta Jewish Film Festival 2010, Solothurn 2010, Berlin 2010

In 1910, young Adolf Hitler, aiming to conquer the world as a painter, is on his way from the provincial recesses of Austria to Vienna. He rents himself a room at a men's hostel in the Leichengasse, ("Cadaver Alley"), and feverishly awaits the big day of his entrance examination for the Academy of the Fine Arts. He shares the rundown barrack with two Jewish men: the wily Bible hawker Shlomo Herzl and the kosher cook Lobkowitz, who claims to be God and has been known to cause miracles. Wise old Shlomo wants to write a book, but nobody thinks much of its title Mein Leben (My Life). They come up with Mein Kampf. Hitler is also enthusiastic about it.

Shlomo, hospitable and good-natured, feels responsible for the impetuous Hitler and takes him under his wing. For Hitler, who vastly overestimates his artistic talent, the world falls apart when the Academy rejects him for the second time. And again it is good old Shlomo who hurries to bring Hitler back from the depths of his suicidal hopelessness. Hitler brazenly exploits the support offered by Shlomo, who cooks and washes up for him and even trims his droopy moustache. In return Hitler tries to seduce young Gretchen, Shlomo's girlfriend. Ironically, it is Shlomo himself who recommends Hitler to try his luck in politics.

The film grotesque Mein Kampf, based on George Tabori's eponymous theatrical farce, is by no means a historical reconstruction of Hitler's time in Vienna. Instead it is a timeless parable of good serving evil, in which the borders between reality and fiction are blurred.
Screening Details
Tue 16 Nov, 7.15pm
The Cathay, Hall 4
In German with English subtitles

Book tickets now
Rating M18 - Some Nudity and Coarse Language

Urs Odermatt was born in 1955 in Switzerland and has been working in film, television and the theater since 1983 after studying Directing and Scriptwriting with Krysztof Kieslowski and Edward Zebrowski. In 1989 he founded the Swiss production company Nordwest Film AG.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Island disputes test Japan's honour

No one is saying that contemporary Japan will develop into the militaristic Japan of old. But regional powers in Asia should take heed not to push Japan too much, lest the consequences surprise them.

IN OCTOBER 1996, Mr Yukio Hatoyama and Mr Naoto Kan, two founders of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), made an extraordinary demand by calling for the removal of United States troops in Japan.

Fast forward 13 years to 2009 - the year the DPJ finally grabbed power - and that demand no longer exists.

For a few months last year, however, DPJ officials worried their US counterparts after they stated that there would be a sea change in Japan's military relationship with the US. For example, the DPJ called for a revision in the sensitive Status of Forces Agreement that governs how US troops in Japan are treated.

Mr Hatoyama served as premier for a brief nine months. His successor, Mr Kan, is the only serving politician from the DPJ class of 1996 that had called for a radical change in Japan's alliance with the US.

In Mr Kan's five months as premier, his volte-face from his previously held views is interesting. There is little talk about any kind of distancing from the Americans. In fact, there is much talk about strengthening the alliance.

Speaking to Japanese troops in September, Mr Kan sketched the dangers posed by China and North Korea, and stressed that he would 'deepen the alliance into an appropriate form for the 21st century'.

This is understandable. In recent years, Japan has seen its security environment deteriorate. In 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test. China's military has also cast a long shadow over Japan, particularly after Tokyo's recent clash with Beijing over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

Also, Russia remains a worry. Earlier this week, Japan locked horns with Russia after President Dmitry Medvedev visited an island in the disputed Kuril chain.

Not surprisingly, Japan's strategic thinking in the past two decades has been dependent more on its security environment than the instincts of its politicians. Indeed, the Japanese military has undergone a radical shift, such that pacifist Japan is on the path of remilitarisation.

In 2007, the Japanese Defence Agency was turned into a full-fledged ministry, paving the way for Japan to become a 'normal' military power. Japan has increased cooperation with the US on ballistic missile defence - a system that is arguably both defensive and offensive.

Japan's ability to project power over long distances is also being augmented with the purchase of a helicopter carrier, Boeing 767 in-flight refuelling tankers and long-range air transports.

Writing in 2008, Japan analyst Christopher Hughes said that Japan's remilitarisation should not be read 'as an alarmist warning that Japan is necessarily intent on reverting to the kind of state it became between 1931 and 1945'. Rather, he argued, Japan is set upon a 'long-term trajectory' that will see it assuming a more assertive regional and global role.

That is fine. Japan, after all, has been a responsible global citizen for decades, and a beefed-up Japan Self Defence Force (JSDF) would be good for regional stability.

The problem here, however, is that China, North Korea and Russia have to be careful in pushing Tokyo too far in their disputes.

Embedded deep in the Japanese psyche is an acute sensitivity to rank, dignity and honour. With each perceived slight that Japan suffers, the profile of the country's nationalist right-wing increases. This could push the Japanese military into uncharted waters - be it the adoption of nuclear weapons, or even a JSDF that is more independent of its American ally.

In September, a group of 100 conservative politicians led by former premier Shinzo Abe criticised the government's release of the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler that had slammed into Japanese coast guard ships near Senkaku.

'We are standing at a watershed where our ability to defend the Japanese people and this nation itself is tested,' the group named Sosei Nihon, translated roughly as Creation Japan, said in a statement. 'We hereby declare we will resolutely seek to overthrow the Kan administration which has damaged our nation's interest, trust and dignity.'

Note the emphasis on Japan's dignity. In recent years, talk about Japan's honour and dignity has become more intense. The Dignity Of A State, written by Japanese mathematician Masahiko Fujiwara, has caught the popular imagination.

Honour and dignity are themes that resonate throughout Japanese history. During the Tokugawa period, both the warrior and bureaucratic classes emphasised the role of honour.

Likewise, Japan's most strategic decision in 1941 - the decision to attack Pearl Harbour - stemmed from bizarre, but understandable, calculations about honour. If Japan had yielded to American demands to withdraw from China, it would have lost its honour and all sense of purpose. Alternatively, a fight against a power 10 times more powerful, though damaging, could still preserve its honour.

Speaking to the Emperor that year, Chief of Naval General Staff Osami Nagano told the Emperor that if Japan did not go to war against the US, the fate of the nation was sealed. 'Even if there is war, the country may be ruined. Nevertheless a nation which does not fight in this plight has lost its spirit and is already a doomed nation,' he said.

No one is saying that contemporary Japan will develop into the militaristic Japan of old. But regional powers in Asia should take heed not to push Japan too much, lest the consequences surprise them.


Wednesday, November 03, 2010

SKorea fires warning shots

SEOUL - SOUTH Korea's navy fired warning shots to chase away a North Korean fishing boat that crossed their disputed sea border early on Wednesday, the Defence Ministry said, in the latest flareup of tension on the divided peninsula just days before the Group of 20 summit in Seoul.

The North Korean boat intruded on South Korean territory for about two hours before returning to North Korean waters early Wednesday, the ministry said. The fertile maritime border, the scene of three deadly skirmishes between the Koreas, is a key flashpoint because the North does not recognise the line drawn by the UN at the close of the 1950-53 Korean War.

The firing comes just days after North Korea shot two rounds at a South Korean guard post in the Demilitarised Zone, prompting return fire from South Korean troops, according to Seoul military officials.

South Korea is bracing for any possible North Korean moves to sabotage next week's Group of 20 summit of world leaders. North Korea has a track record of provocations when world attention is focused on the rival South.

In 1987, a year before the Seoul Olympics, North Korean agents planted a bomb on a South Korean plane, killing all 115 people on board. In 2002, when South Korea jointly hosted soccer's World Cup along with Japan, a North Korean naval boat sank a South Korean patrol vessel near the sea border.

President Lee Myung-bak said Wednesday that he does not believe Pyongyang would strike South Korea but that Seoul was ready for anything. -- AP

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Japan an easy target as Russia flexes muscles

Moscow triggers diplomatic row over disputed islands after sensing weakness

LONDON: President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia has triggered a huge diplomatic row with Japan after staging a visit on Monday to the Southern Kuril Islands, whose ownership is disputed between the two nations.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has characterised Mr Medvedev's decision to become the first Russian leader to set foot on territory over which Japan still claims sovereignty as 'extremely regrettable'.

But the authorities in Moscow remain unrepentant: Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has slammed the Japanese reaction as 'unacceptable' and 'senseless', adding that the Southern Kuril islands are 'Russian land' which the country's President 'can visit whenever he chooses to'.

The timing of the flare-up has caught political observers by surprise, since it comes soon after the Japanese were embroiled in a separate territorial spat with China, and barely two weeks before the Russian President is due in Japan for a regional summit.

Yet in many respects, that was precisely the point. By raising the Kuril issue at such a sensitive moment, Moscow hopes to force Tokyo's hand and remind its neighbours that Russia remains an Asian power which cannot be ignored.

According to latest opinion polls, up to 80 per cent of ordinary Russians view the Kuril Islands as an integral part of their territory, a reward for the defeat of Japanese aggression in World War II.

The reality is more complicated. The Soviet Union declared war on Japan only a week before the Japanese surrendered in August 1945. The Southern Kuril Islands - specks of land which the Japanese refer to as the Northern Territories - were coveted largely for their strategic significance: they blocked the Russian fleet's access to the Pacific.

And the seizure is regarded by Russia as sweet revenge for an older humiliation: the defeat of Russian forces in a war with Japan, back in 1905.

At various times, Russia had offered to hand back some of the islands, in return for a permanent settlement of the dispute. But every Japanese government held out for the return of all the territories, and the deadlock continued.

Diplomats in Moscow claim that Mr Medvedev had planned to visit the Kuril Islands in September, and was prevented from doing so only by bad weather.

They also claim that Japan knew of his intentions well in advance.

Mr Viktor Pavlyanteko, who runs the Japanese Research Centre at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said Tokyo's anger is just 'artificial'.

One explanation for the visit is Russia's own internal politics. Until now, Mr Medvedev had tended to adopt a more conciliatory attitude towards his country's neighbours, while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stuck to an uncompromising position.

However, with fresh presidential elections due in 2012, Mr Medvedev may have decided he needs to burnish his own nationalist credentials, and that a visit to the Kuril Islands offered the perfect opportunity.

There are also clear signs that, after decades of neglect, Russia is determined to become an active player on the Asian scene. Late last year, Mr Medvedev visited Singapore and Mongolia; more recently he attended the Asean summit in Vietnam, and will be at the Group of 20 gathering in South Korea this month. Mr Putin visited both China and India this year.

Apart from the objective of engaging with Asia's growing economies, the Russians have a particular need to develop Siberia, their own huge expanse of Asian land, rich in natural resources but sparsely populated.

For a while, the Japanese were regarded as the most promising investors in Siberia; Japanese companies were big players in the development of the Sakhalin oil and gas deposits, not far from the disputed Kuril Islands.

But such interest in Japan has waned, as Russian liquefied natural gas facilities are coming on stream, and new pipelines deliver oil and gas to China and the Pacific ports.

Mr Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs journal, says Russia's latest 'Far East Development Plan' - adopted last December - envisages attracting additional capital from China, India and South Korea, to 'diversify the country's foreign policy'.

Meanwhile, economic ties with Japan have nosedived, particularly after the Russian authorities slapped new duties on second-hand Japanese cars, which formed the bulk of the trade with the Siberian regions. The Russians feel that it is now Japan's turn to chase them.

Moscow remains interested in ending its lingering territorial spat with Tokyo. But, having seen how the recent Chinese-Japanese dispute over the Diaoyutai or Senkaku islands unfolded, Russia has concluded that Japan is an easy target. 'Japan's foreign policy is in complete disarray,' says Mr Alexander Panov, who heads Russia's diplomatic academy.

An anonymous posting on one of Russia's top websites summed up the feelings of the country's leaders: 'Japan is in a deplorable situation. Its economy has stagnated for over 20 years; it is too weak to do much other than complain.'