Friday, December 12, 2008
The return of Roman Catholic militiamen for the first time in 30 years is a sign of a community that's become dangerously polarized along religious lines
By Jonathan Adams | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor December 12, 2008 edition
Aleosan, Philippines - On a muddy, shaded track between fertile farmlands, 30 men lounge in flip-flops and tattered camoflauge, displaying their beaten-up M-16 and AK-47 assault rifles.
They call themselves ilaga or "rats" in a local Philippines dialect. They're vigilantes: Christian farmers who have taken up arms to protect their land and families against Muslim rebels in this troubled corner of the southern Philippines.
Most have no military training, says their puckish leader Felimon Cayang, who styles himself "Commander Max." He shows off his souped-up M-16, tattoos, and religious "amulets" – patches tied to his necklace and underwear bearing images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary and worn for protection in battle.
He says his group held their own in a day-long firefight in July with a much larger group of Muslim rebels led by Commander Umbra Kato, just a few miles away.
They suffered no casualties. As for the other side, Commander Max says with clear satisfaction, "I don't know how many we killed, but we found blood."
Here on the island of Mindanao, such Roman Catholic vigilantes haven't been a force since the 1970s, when all-out communal war raged. Their return now, some 30 years later, is a sign of a society that's again become dangerously polarized along religious lines.
It's one sad consequence of the breakdown of peace talks between the Philippines government and the (MILF). Four months after talks broke down, the military is still engaged in a deadly, cat-and-mouse game with three "rogue" commanders, including Mr. Kato. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim civilians remain in makeshift camps, afraid to return to their homes. And Malaysian monitors who helped enforce a cease-fire left Nov. 30 after their mandate expired.
With the peace process in tatters and no clear way forward, many fear that the gains of 11 years of negotiations are fast disappearing amid recriminations and communal mistrust.
"The opportunity for a democratic and peaceful solution to the conflict is becoming narrower and narrower," says Abhoud Lingga, director of the Institute for Bangsamoro Studies in Mindanao. "For us peace advocates, this is alarming."
The town of Aleosan lies on the faultline of communal divisions in Mindanao. The Moros – as Muslims here call themselves – regard this and surrounding areas as part of their ancestral homeland. But much of Aleosan's land has now been owned and farmed for decades by Christians from the central Philippines, who settled here after World War II with government encouragement.
Sitting in his sunlit office here, Aleosan mayor Loreto Cabaya says he helped organize a civilian militia – including some ilaga – to prevent Muslim rebels from grabbing land ahead of a peace deal. The deal, which was supposed to be signed this past summer, envisioned an expanded Muslim autonomous area with greater control over its resources and revenue. Seven of Aleosan's 19 barangay (villages) – those with Muslim-heavy populations – looked set to become part of that Muslim area.
It never happened. Instead, the Philippines Supreme Court issued an 11-hour injunction blocking the government from signing the deal. Later, it ruled the deal unconstitutional, arguing it would have effectively partitioned the Philippines.
Mr. Cabaya agrees. He says he can accept giving the Muslims more land and autonomy, but he thinks the proposed deal went too far. "I think the conflict will be worse if demands of the MILF are met, because their demand is [for] a separate state," says Cabaya. "It's being disguised as autonomy, but in essence it's a separate state."
Opposition from Christian leaders like Cabaya helped scuttle the deal. Getting them on board in any future peace process will be critical.
When the two sides do get back to the table, there will be a lot of trust to rebuild. After being burned by the Supreme Court, the MILF now has little faith that the Philippines government is a reliable negotiating partner. "We can resume talks," said MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu. "But we doubt very much [that] we can achieve a satisfactory and viable outcome."
Analysts are skeptical, too. "The fundamental problem is, how do you create an autonomous Islamic region in Mindanao that's satisfactory to everyone?" says Scott Harrison, managing director of Pacific Strategies and Assessments, a Hong Kong-based risk consultancy. "If you limit it to areas of overwhelming Muslim presence, you could probably sell that. But once you get into marginal areas, it's increasingly difficult."
Aleosan is one of those areas. It's still clearly on edge. Government howitzers in a neighboring town guard against more rebel incursions. Mayor Cabaya is shadowed by two M-16-toting bodyguards, whom he's retained since tensions began this summer. "We haven't let down our guard – they're still out there," says Cabaya, referring to the rebels.
The ilaga are also keeping their powder dry. They're a ragtag bunch, some in their 60s and even 70s – veterans of the vicious 1970s vigilante wars here. They keep a wary watch over their farmlands, fearing another round of fighting – especially now that international monitors have left.
"Both sides are always preparing," says Eduardo Cabaya, who doubles as a municipal councilor. "As long as Umbra Kato is out there, we'll be here."
Thursday, December 11, 2008
And analysts say despite Abu Sayyaf's resurgence in Basilan, it's still a shadow of its former self -- lacking leadership, money and strong foreign sponsorship. Where it once pulled off high-profile abductions of foreigners (including Americans) from distant tourist resorts, now it's going after easier, more local targets in a desperate fund-raising bid.
In Basilan, the terrorists typically have relatives willing to harbor and hide them, rather than help turn them in. "These people are very clannish – their families don't want to expose them," said Patricia Cabiguin, a research analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. "There are strong blood bonds."
Sunday, December 7, 2008
Tensions simmer over pig in Cotabato City
In this majority-Muslim Filipino city, a fight over roast pig sheds light on bigger hurdles Christians and Muslims here navigate.
Christian Science Monitor
December 5, 2008
COTABATO CITY -- To understand the culture clash wracking the southern Philippines, consider the lechon.
That's the name for the roast pig that's a Philippines' signature dish. Sold by the kilo in public markets, it's a must-have at any Filipino celebration.
But pork is taboo for Muslims, now a majority in this city (about 60 percent, compared with 40 percent Christian), and who see this part of the southern Philippines island of Mindanao as their ancestral homeland.
Eating pork is a no-no, and even smelling or seeing it is offensive to some.
So what to do about the street lechon sellers?
In Cotabato City last year, shop-owners were ordered to cover their lechon, says Flordeliza Cavite. I found her selling her swine at a stall downtown. Vendors had to use curtains, paint over windows, or move their pork inside to avoid offending passersby and to comply with the ordinance.
This year, rules were relaxed, she said – possibly the result of a power struggle between the Muslim mayor and the city council (mostly Christians).
In a region that's seen bloody, on-and-off warfare between the Philippines military and Muslim rebels for decades, the lechon problem may seem trivial. But it highlights the tricky compromises needed in order for Christians and Muslims to live here in peace as neighbors.
For the fundamental question now is how to expand and enhance an already-existing, nearby, Muslim autonomous region, while respecting Christian neighbors' rights and way of life.
The stakes are higher than dead pig displays. Get the balance right, and peace could finally come to Mindanao. Get it wrong, and the insurgency that's racked the island for some 40 years will grind on.
That conflict has drained Manila's coffers, killed thousands, displaced more, and caused a refugee problem in Malaysia. It's also created a lawless haven in this area for gunrunners, arms smugglers, kidnappers, and terrorists – including some involved in the murderous Bali bombings.
In early August, the government and Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), were on the verge of signing a preliminary peace deal. If signed, Cotabato City and some nearby, Muslim-majority communities would have become part of an expanded Muslim autonomous region. And not only a bigger region, but one with greatly expanded powers – to run its own courts, and security force, and control much more of its own resources.
Only an 11th-hour Supreme Court injunction stopped the deal. That outcome sparked renewed skirmishes between the MILF and the Philippines military, stalling the peace process.
But many of the area's Christians were relieved. Ms. Cavite worries that if the city becomes part of the Muslim autonomous area, Muslim leaders will ban the public sale of lechon. Her feelings are raw. "Muslims are very bad," she says. "They will control us Christians."
Other Christian locals say they'll move if it becomes a Muslim autonomous area.
Their fears are misplaced, says MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu. "Mindanao is totally different than in other parts of the Muslim world – here we are living side by side with Christians. So we will be liberal on [these] issues," he says.Comforting talk. But not likely to allay anxieties when it's widely known that in MILF camps, where rebels live with their families, women are shrouded in head-to-toe coverings that leave only their eyes visible, and Islamic shariah law is strictly enforced.
Still, there's some cause from optimism. Moslems and Christians now have long experience living here as neighbors -- creating a town where the sound of the Moslem call to prayer alternates with the sound of the Roman Catholic mass broadcast from a downtown church.
And some things unite Cotabato City residents. One is the "MacDoh", as abbreviation-happy Filipinos call it. A McDonalds -- the impoverished city's first -- is due to open in a matter of days. Locals, both Muslim and Christian alike, are eagerly anticipating the event, and expect long lines on opening day.
Then there's Pac-Man. That's the nickname for Manny Pacquiao, the boxer and local pride of Mindanao. He's set to take on Olympic champion and US boxer in Las Vegas on Saturday night, and the Filipino media is playing up the fight as if it were the final battle of Armaggedon. Across Mindanao, Muslim and Christian alike are expected to be glued to their TV screens to root for the local boy.
That means a de facto ceasefire between the Philippines military and the MILF this weekend, when the fight will be broadcast live. "If there was a Pacquiao fight every day, there could be ," said the MILF spokesman Kabalo, as he thumbed through the sports pages after our interview.
It was a joke, of course. But behind the humor, there's the hope for Mindanao: that the commonalities of the Moslems and Christians in this troubled corner of Asia will prevail over their seemingly irreconcilable differences.
The men's detention may be related to Kosovars who object to an EU peacekeeping mission, a security expert says.
Christian Science Monitor
Security and Terrorism Update
November 24, 2008
The detention of three Germans in connection with a recent bomb attack on a European Union office in Pristina, Kosovo, has highlighted tensions over a plan to replace a nine-year UN presence with an EU mission.
On Saturday, a judge ordered the three suspects held for one month while prosecutors gather evidence for terrorism charges. The three are accused of carrying out a Nov. 14 dynamite attack that shattered glass windows at the EU office, but harmed no one.
The plot thickened in recent days, with some reports claiming that the three men are German spies and one observer saying the men were investigating organized crime ties to local officials, who may have wanted them out of the picture. .
Citing court documents, the Associated Press reported that the Kosovo prosecutors believe the Germans "intended to disrupt the bloc's efforts to deploy its new police mission."
Prosecutor Feti Tunuzliu alleged that the three suspects wanted to "hamper and hinder" the mission, according to documents reviewed by The Associated Press. Tunuzliu wrote that one of the suspects threw 300 grams (0.6 pounds) of dynamite at the EU offices from a building across the street Nov. 14 as the two others kept watch.
But the BBC reported that the three detained men insist they were themselves investigating the blast site.
German and Kosovo media report that the men are German intelligence agents but officials in Berlin refuse to comment.
Lawyers for the detainees say the prosecution is seeking terrorism charges that carry a maximum 20-year sentence....
The German weekly Der Spiegel said the men worked for the German intelligence agency BND, and that they told investigators they had been examining the scene of the explosion, but had not been involved in it.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February, and has been recognized by more than 50 countries, including the US and Germany. But Serbia refuses to recognize the breakaway nation.
The blast and subsequent arrests come amid a dispute over a plan to deploy an EU police and justice mission to replace UN peacekeepers.
The EU agreed to send a mission in February, but plans were delayed due to Serbia's objections. The UN signaled in June that it was ready to end its mission in Kosovo, The Christian Science Monitor reported, and later brokered a deal with Serbia over the deployment of a replacement EU mission. But now some in Kosovo reject the deal as an affront to the nation's fledgling sovereignty.
A Reuters report noted that the Nov. 14 attack came four days after Kosovo leaders rejected the UN deal.
The AP reported that Kosovo can't accept Serbia's terms for the EU mission's deployment.
Serbia has demanded strict conditions to the EU deployment, demanding that the mission remain neutral in regard to Kosovo's status.
Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders, in turn, reject any conditions on the mission's work.
The 2,000-strong mission is known by its acronym, EULEX. It will include 88 American police officers, judges and prosecutors.
Last Friday, The Washington Post reported that EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he hoped the EU mission could be deployed by early next month.
The paper noted that under the UN-backed deal, police, judges, and customs officials in minority Serb-run areas would work under UN authority, while those in majority Albanian areas would work with the EU mission.
Kosovo said that would violate its constitution and amounted to a de facto partition of the fledgling state....
Kosovo's population is 90 percent Albanian. The remaining 120,000 Serbs refuse to cooperate with Albanian-run institutions.
The English-language website of German broadcaster Deustche Welle quoted one security expert as saying the public details of the case don't add up.
German terrorism and security expert Elmar Thevessen told DW-RADIO that problems within Kosovo's government might be responsible for the detention. While some within the government support an EU mission that's due to take assume oversight of law-enforcement in Kosovo after more than eight years as a United Nations protectorate, others reject it.
"It looks to me that it is a matter of political intrigue within Kosovo," he said. "It doesn't make any sense at all for the German intelligence service to get involved in a bomb going off in an office of the European Union. As a matter of fact the German government has been known to be one of the biggest supporters of that mission."
Thevessen added that BND agents were also investigating organized crime ties to the Kosovo government and that this might be yet another reason why local officials were trying to get rid of them.
The Deutsche Welle report quoted the German tabloid newspaper Bild as saying that "the bomb attack had been the work of an anti-EU faction of Kosovars."
By Jonathan Adams
International Herald Tribune
TAIPEI: The global downturn has sent the two leading high-technology manufacturing industries in Taiwan - semiconductors and flat-panel screens - reeling, a cautionary tale for technology companies competing in low-margin industries with huge capital costs and extreme cycles of boom and bust.
In good times, the island companies have managed to rake in profit anyway. But their weakness compared with rivals from South Korea and Japan in terms of technology, customer base, scale and currency valuation has become painfully evident during a recent supply glut and, now, a decline in orders from the United States and Europe.
Some Taiwanese technology companies remain in good shape to ride out the downturn. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing retains a leading edge in chip-making technology, for example, and contract electronics giants like Hon Hai are somewhat insulated by their big economies of scale.
The smaller players in lower-margin businesses are most vulnerable, analysts say - companies like the memory-chip maker ProMOS and the flat-panel makers Chi Mei Optoelectronics and Chunghwa Picture Tubes.
For now, the gravest concern is focused on memory-chip makers. Taiwanese firms account for 40 percent of worldwide production of latest-generation dynamic random-access memory, or DRAM, chips, compared with 30 percent to 35 percent for South Korean companies, according to the market researcher DRAMeXchange, based in Taiwan.
The island's capacity edge was made possible by huge capital expenditure, often on credit, in pricey, cutting-edge "fabs," or wafer factories.Now, that spending binge is looking unwise.
The top four memory chip makers in Taiwan - Powerchip, Nanya, ProMOS and Inotera - are expected to lose a combined 112.5 billion New Taiwan dollars, or $3.4 billion, this year, according to an estimate from the Industrial Technology Research Institute in Taiwan. And they are carrying an estimated 420 billion dollars in debt, mostly to local banks.
Powerchip's net debt-to-equity ratio was 1.6 in the third quarter; ProMOS's was 1.7 at midyear - some of the worst numbers in the industry.
Iris Guo, DRAM analyst at Yuanta Securities in Taipei, estimated in a report last month that ProMOS would run out of cash in about three months and Powerchip in about four and a half months without forbearance from banks, new funding or government help.
For now, the government has come to the rescue. On Nov. 10, it directed banks to give memory-chip companies a six-month grace period on repaying debt. The government also injected 100 million dollars more into a National Development Fund, to be used starting next month to help DRAM makers and other troubled companies in any industry to restructure or merge.
But the government said it would not approve new loans for the companies, and would urge the industry to consolidate and increase its competitiveness.
That reflects the government's attempt to strike a balance in its intervention. Analysts say the government is wary of offering life support to money-losing, uncompetitive companies in an overcrowded sector. But it cannot afford to let Taiwanese DRAM makers fail, because their loan defaults could send shock waves through the island's financial sector.
"I think their long-term competitiveness will vanish, but I don't think they'll go bust," said Guo of the troubled island memory-chip makers. "The Taiwan government won't let them go bankrupt, because that would cause a big crisis for Taiwan banks."
Memory chip companies are at a disadvantage in technology, analysts say, because they lease technology from South Korean and Japanese manufacturers and in exchange provide those foreign companies with DRAM chips at below-market cost. That saves research and development and other costs in good times. But it is a punishing pricing arrangement in bad times, when memory chips are selling on the open market at below the cost of production.
"If you don't have technology, you can't drive down costs," said Joyce Yang, an analyst at DRAMeXchange.
ProMOS is a case in point. It leases technology from Hynix, a South Korean company, and in return makes cut-rate chips on contract for its partner. Hynix keeps its own supply flexible by outsourcing some DRAM chip orders to its Taiwan partner ProMOS, giving it extra capacity to fill orders in boom times. In a downturn, it can decrease those orders first.
The DRAM analysts Yang and Guo say this puts Taiwan makers at a disadvantage compared with Korean and Japanese competitors and partners.
Makers of flat-panel screens are also struggling, hurt by a supply glut and flagging export markets that are pushing smaller Taiwan firms to the wall.
Here, too, Taiwan is likely to fall behind the South Koreans. The two countries now evenly divide the majority of the world's flat-panel market, with Taiwan accounting for 44 percent of global shipments of large panels used in TVs and computer monitors, and South Korea 43 percent, according to the market researcher DisplaySearch, based in Taiwan.
But David Hsieh, head of DisplaySearch's Taiwan office, expects the South Koreans to push up their market share to 46 percent by the end of this year, while Taiwan makers fall to 41 percent or 42 percent.
"Korean makers are becoming more aggressive in taking more market share, and that will be a crisis for Taiwan panel makers," Hsieh said.
The depreciated won will make Korean panels cheaper, making it easier for Korean firms like Samsung to undercut the Taiwanese on price and grab market share. As Citigroup's Andrew Lu said, there is also a sourcing issue: Korean companies can stop outsourcing orders to Taiwan in tough times, and "in-source" instead by keeping all orders or filling them from other Korean makers. This will also increase their market share, measured in shipments.
In flat panels, smaller Taiwan companies have a disadvantage in their customer base. The leading Taiwan flat-panel maker, AU Optronics, has somewhat more ability to endure a downturn because its customers include the top-tier electronics names Samsung and Sony. But Chi Mei, the No. 2 manufacturer, mostly supplies Haier and other Chinese TV makers, said Hsieh, and the third-largest maker, Chunghwa Picture Tubes, sells mostly low-margin monitor screens.
Here the benefits of the Korean conglomerates also come into play. The leading Korean flat-panel makers, Samsung and LG Display, have a guaranteed customer base in their own sister firms, which make and sell the finished products. The conglomerates, known as chaebol, also source extra capacity from Taiwanese firms, but as with memory chips, those orders are among the first cut in a downturn.
Huge conglomerates also have deeper pockets to tap in harsh market conditions. This year for the first time, prices for large liquid-crystal-display panels used in flat-screen TVs and computer monitors dipped below production cost. Last month, a 19-inch panel that cost about $72 to $75 to produce was selling for about $70, according to Hsieh.
That especially hurts for a firm like Chi Mei, which went on a spending spree to expand capacity by 40 percent this year over last, according to Pu of Yuanta, only to see the market take a nosedive.
The sharply depreciating won has given South Korean exporters a huge edge over Taiwanese and Japanese rivals. The currency has declined about 35 percent against the dollar this year, making Korean exports far less expensive, while the New Taiwan dollar has only declined slightly, about 3 percent.
Still, analysts do not see Taiwan flat-panel makers failing, either. Even if banks will not extend new loans, each has a parent company that is unlikely to let it fail. Chi Mei Optoelectronics, for example, is part of the sprawling, Taiwan-based Chi Mei conglomerate, and Chunghwa's parent company, Datong, can keep feeding it cash.
Consolidation would be another possible solution. In both the memory-chip and flat-panel sectors, it could create one or two larger companies big enough to compete with the Koreans, instead of a crowd of smaller players.
But analysts say mergers in the memory-chip sector are difficult because each Taiwan company's technology is leased from a different foreign partner. And flat-panel makers have long resisted government appeals to merge.
Lu, the Citigroup analyst, wrote that Taiwan flat-panel makers must merge to remain competitive, allowing them to cut research costs and expenses.
Coordinated efforts between Spanish and French police have resulted in the second arrest of an ETA leader since May.
Christian Science Monitor
Security and Terrorism update
November 17, 2008
The suspected military leader of separatist group ETA was seized by French police Monday in the rugged Pyrenees mountains, in another blow to the fading cause of Basque independence.
French police on Monday announced the capture of Miguel De Garikoitz Aspiazu Rubina, alias "Txeroki" [Cherokee]. He is suspected of involvement in the December 2006 Madrid Airport bombing that killed two, and the December 2007 assassination of two Spanish police officers in southern France.
The arrest of one of Europe's "most wanted" terrorists was hailed as more proof of the success of cross-border cooperation against ETA by Spain and France. It comes after the arrest in May by French police of Javier Lopez Pena, then-leader of the ETA, as well as three other suspected members of the group.
ETA is considered a terrorist group by the United States and Europe. It has been fighting for 40 years for an independent Basque nation in northern Spain, and has killed more than 820 people.
The Spanish newspaper El Pais [this article is in Spanish] reported that "Txeroki" and a female suspected ETA member were apprehended at Cauterets, 30 kilometers from Lourdes, in the possession of weapons and false documents.
Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that Spain believes "Txeroki" personally had a hand in killing two Spanish undercover officers who were on his trail in Capbreton in late 2007.
According to Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, two recently arrested suspects have identified Txeroki as the gunman.
One of the two suspected ETA members had said he "heard Txeroki acknowledge that he was the assassin of the two policemen," the minister alleged.
The two plain-clothed officers, Raul Centeno, 24, and Fernando Trapero, 23, had been taking part in surveillance with French police in southwestern France when they were shot outside a cafe.
France's Le Nouvel Observateur [this article is in French] noted that ETA had claimed responsibility for those murders and released a statement saying it was willing to strike Spanish security forces at any time or place.
The Times (of London) reported that "Txeroki" was believed responsible in large part for derailing the peace process between the Spanish government and ETA. The group ended a 15-month "cease-fire" in June 2007.
Spanish police believe Txeroki, a hardliner who is believed to have taken over Eta's military operations in late 2003, has been connected to all the major Eta operations in the last five years.
In particular, he has been linked to the Madrid airport bomb attack that killed two people in December, 2006 and which led the Socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to end its controversial dialogue with Eta.
Reuters noted that the militant group now enjoys little support in Basque country itself and suffers from internal divisions.
With the Basque language receiving state support and the region enjoying considerable autonomy over areas including education and health, ETA has become increasingly isolated.
Polls indicate most Basques do not want independence and there have been media reports of disagreements between ETA and its outlawed political wing Batasuna.
But the group remains a threat nonetheless. AFP reported that Spanish prosecutors on Friday said they were seeking the arrest of five ETA militants suspected of cooperating with Colombia's FARC rebels on a plan to assassinate senior Colombian figures in Europe.
Their objective was to perpetrate attacks in Spain and elsewhere in Europe against high-profile Colombian figures targeted by FARC, a Marxist rebel group seeking the overthrow of the Colombian government.
Targets included former Colombian president Andres Pastrana, Noemi Sanin – Bogota's ambassador to Madrid between 2002 and 2008 – current Vice-President Francisco Santos, and former Bogota mayor Antans Mockus.
A Spanish justice official said the two groups had collaborated on "the setting-up in Colombia between July and mid-August 2003 of training in explosives handling" in which at least four Basque separatists participated.
On Nov. 5, ETA publicly vowed to continue its armed struggle, and claimed responsibility for 10 recent attacks – including a car bombing the previous week at a Pamplona university campus that wounded 17.
Still, experts believe the group has been crippled by the recent, joint Spanish-French campaign against them, AFP reported.
Security analysts say ETA has been seriously weakened by the arrest of hundreds of members and their supporters over the last decade.
[Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez] Zapatero has repeatedly ruled out any further talks with the group, which is considered a terrorist organization by the European Union and the United States.
"ETA will grow weaker and weaker with a loss of social backing from this Basque nationalist segment that is always key. It will be a step-by-step end," he said in an interview published in August in daily newspaper El Mundo.
by Jonathan Adams
"China calling" blog
Recent anti-China demonstrations and violence in have highlighted the wide culture and perception gap between the two sides of the .
Hopes were high under Taiwan's new president of a new era of cross-strait reconciliation. And indeed, there's been progress. The 15-year dream of direct cross-strait air and shipping links was finally realized earlier this month. And the island has opened its doors to more Chinese tourists.
But if the economies are drawing closer, the Taiwanese and Chinese peoples seem as far apart as ever. Witness events in the last month. In late October, a Chinese official visiting southern Taiwan was roughed up by a small, angry anti-China crowd (including, pathetically, an elderly woman who banged on the official's car with her crutch).
On Oct. 25, tens of thousands poured into the Taipei streets to demonstrate against China and the Beijing-friendly president Ma. A common refrain I heard at the protests: Ma is selling out Taiwan, sacrificing its dignity and autonomy for filthy lucre.
Things got worse during the Nov. 3-7 visit of China's top cross-strait negotiator, Chen Yunlin. Protesters trapped him in a Taipei hotel for eight hours. An unruly crowd surrounded and yelled at a celebrity Chinese journalist from CCTV. And enraged anti-China demonstrators clashed violently with police. (I personally saw one irate, hard-bitten southerner attempt to scale four layers of barbed-wire-wrapped metal barriers, before reason triumphed over emotion).
To be sure, the violent protesters were an extreme minority. Yet negative views of China are widespread here.
According to a recent government-commissioned poll, 65% of Taiwanese think China's government is "unfriendly" to Taiwan's government, and 46% think it's unfriendly to Taiwan citizens. Not too surprising, since China's coastline bristles with missiles -- over 1,000, by recent counts -- aimed at Taiwan, ostensibly to "deter" any moves towards formal independence.
But another poll, from "Global Views" magazine in September, surprised me more. The magazine asked "If both sides of the Taiwan Strait one day match each other in terms of the economy, politics and society, would you support unification?"
Fully 66% of respondents said "No" -- up sharply from May 2004, when 38% rejected the idea.
Anecdotally, nothing in my experience suggests that further exchanges will help reverse that sentiment. In fact, it may only harden attitudes.
Take the Taiwanese landlord I recently met, whose family runs factories in Suzhou. She complained about Chinese workers, saying if you compensate one for an injury, the next day scores of other workers come in with fake or self-inflicted ones, looking for their handout. Chinese take advantage of any perceived kindness or weakness, she said.
Then there was the young Taiwanese travel agent I met at one recent rally. She knows Chinese tourists could help the island's economy (and her own business), but she still doesn't welcome them. "They spit, and urinate in public," was her reason (she should have added chain-smoking indoors and out, which is a more serious nuisance, in my observation).
Or the young Taiwanese student I met on a bus to Quanzhou, in China's Fujian Province, where he was attending Overseas Chinese University. He spent most of the two-hour ride from Xiamen complaining bitterly about China. He spoke with contempt about the Chinese, who he clearly saw as backward, uncouth hicks. But what most upset him wasn't the people, or the lack of political freedoms, or free speech. No, it was the food. He missed his Taipei night markets, and quality seafood.
For their part, the Chinese have a host of complaints about Taiwanese. A fashion designer I met in Beijing said Taiwanese are snobs, and look down on mainlanders -- a common complaint. Taiwan bosses of mainland factories are widely viewed as exploitative slave-drivers who help themselves to at least one or two mistresses and lord it over their mainland "cousins."
Other Chinese I've met are either ignorant about Taiwan, or spout Beijing's propaganda line, automaton-like. "I must insist that Taiwan is a part of China, that is our bottom line," a young woman told me recently on an overnight train from Guangzhou to Xiamen. I had to look over to see if she was reading from a cue card. On the train coming back, after a couple of "Blue Power" Guangdong beers, a young man elaborated on how Taiwan was just part of the US' grand plot to keep China down. Riiiight.
For his part, Chen Yunlin was reportedly livid that Taiwanese police couldn't simply clear the hotel area of protesters -- a simple enough task in the mainland, but not in freewheeling, democratic Taiwan, where there's such a thing as civil liberties. He was stuck making small talk with the chairman for an uncomfortably long time ("So, is it always this warm in Taipei this time of year?").
If anything, the recent month has underscored the fact that unification remains a pipe dream. The differences in culture, attitude and mentality are far too vast to bridge. Taiwanese want to do more business with Chinese, take more Chinese tourist dollars, get to their mainland factories more easily -- that's about it. If Ma actually does anything to erode Taiwan's political freedoms, the violent minority throwing a tantrum last week could quickly become a majority.
I'd guess the Chinese delegation got the message. At Taipei's Grand Hotel, that gaudy monument to Chinese kitsch, a manager told Taiwan media that hotel staff walking through the hallways could hear late-night noises from behind the delegation's closed room doors. The Chinese were all watching Taiwan TV news -- 24-hour cable stations showing looping footage of the violent protests against them, and spirited, emotional debate about their visit.
For some of the Chinese, at least, the unification dream must have died right there.
by Jonathan Adams
Far Eastern Economic Review, "Author's Corner"
November 14, 2008
XIAMEN, CHINA — The timing was impeccable. I had just walked out of my hotel to Zhongshan Road, in the waterfront tourist district, to find lunch.
In front of me, a crowd—maybe 30 people—had gathered around an irate couple on the pedestrian shopping boulevard. The middle-aged couple were holding signs and ranting. I couldn’t make out everything on the signs, but gathered they were railing against the government and the police.
This can’t end well, I thought.
I asked one of the bystanders what the couple was so mad about. “They say the police took their daughter, and won’t release her,” the woman said. “The man says his mother killed herself because of the situation, and he blames the police.”
The couple was clutching several papers, which they showed to the crowd while keeping up a steady patter of complaint. “They say the police promised to give their daughter back, but they haven’t,” the woman explained. The crowd got bigger.
A man appeared, telling the bystanders to disperse. Black polo shirt with striped collar, nice pants, crew cut, hard beady stare: plainclothes cop. One of millions across China who come out of the woodwork at the first sign of any public disturbance. This agitated the couple even more.
“Ni shi shei? Ni shi shei?” [“Who are you?”], they screamed at him, demanding identification.
The cop ignored them.
I loitered, talking to the hotel worker, like everyone else curious to see how this would end.
A police car sped to the scene, screeched to a halt. A tall, bespectacled man in camouflage got out of the passenger side, a uniformed cop out the other. They joined the plainclothes cop in urging the crowd—about 50 by now—to disperse. To no avail.
Onlookers would shrink back when approached, then flood back in as soon as the cops turned their back. The couple began yelling at the other cops too, and shoving papers in their faces.
Bystanders inspected the papers, like an impromptu jury evaluating the evidence. None of the cops engaged the couple.
This went on for quite some time. More cops came. They put up a red-band partition—like one you’d see in an airport waiting line—to keep space between the angry couple and the crowd. Another cop began filming the crowd, myself likely included, with a hand-cam.
Like others, I began to get bored. “Why don’t the cops just take the couple away?” I asked the hotel worker. “They don’t dare do that. There’s too many people here,” she said. At one point, the couple spotted a young man with a television camera. The wife ran after him, trying to get him to come back and film the scene. The young man wasn’t interested.
Back turned, carrying his camera, he walked down Zhongshan Road away from the scene. As did I, not long after.
When I came back after lunch about 30 minutes later, everyone—the couple, the cops and the crowd—was gone. It was an everyday occurrence in China, where cops and local officials enjoy immunity, courts are in the Chinese Communist Party’s pocket, and the media’s too afraid to roll film.
And so, in sleek, modern Xiamen of 2008 -- as in a Chinese village hundreds of years ago, I imagined -- a desperate couple with little left to lose takes their appeal directly to the people. There was no-one else for them to turn to.
Of course, there was no way for me, or the crowd, to evaluate this particular couple’s claims.
Regardless, there’s a larger point. The biggest -- and perhaps fatal -- flaw with Chinese Communist Party rule is not a lack of electoral democracy. Rather, it’s the absence of the rule of law. More specifically, it’s the systemic injustice of a nation whose government wields the “law” like a club, to stifle dissent and silence its critics.
The crowd I saw in Xiamen was relatively mild-mannered. They dispersed quickly. But across China, crowds like this are pouncing on some injustice or another, and often turning violent. What such crowds usually demand is not elections, but justice. And since China’s sham courts provide little help, the result is often mob justice.
Sometimes mob justice is effective -— as in Xiamen itself last year, where street protests organized by text message forced local officials to scotch plans for a chemical plant near a residential area. But surely this isn’t a sustainable way for China’s leaders to address grievances.
Does this mean China must embrace democracy, or collapse?
No. China can and likely will remain undemocratic; perhaps, over the next few decades, becoming something akin to a Singapore of 1.4 billion people.
The real question is, how long will the Chinese people tolerate a government that’s above the law?
Christian Science Monitor
Security and Terrorism update
November 11, 2008
A 2004 classified order authorized the military to attack Al Qaeda operatives around the globe. As many as a dozen raids occurred under this mandate.
A New York Times report Monday confirmed the Bush administration's dramatic expansion of the US military's authority to unilaterally hunt down and kill America's enemies across the globe.
That new authority has been used to conduct nearly a dozen covert raids against suspected terrorist targets on foreign soil since 2004, the article reports.
Based on interviews with military and intelligence officials and senior Bush administration policymakers, The paper's report paints a picture of a shadow war conducted by commando teams from the US special forces' most elite units, often under the control of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It's a war beamed live via Predator drone cameras to US spy masters in control rooms halfway around the globe, but often invisible to in-the-dark foreign governments.
According to the Times, in the spring of 2004 the Bush administration signed the classified "Al Qaeda Network Exord," which simplified the approval process for US covert military strikes against Al Qaeda and its allies. Before, only the CIA had blanket authorization to go after terrorists abroad and attaining approval for military strikes could take days.
The paper described one such raid, in Pakistan.
In 2006, for example, a Navy Seal team raided a suspected militants' compound in the Bajaur region of Pakistan, according to a former top official of the Central Intelligence Agency. Officials watched the entire mission — captured by the video camera of a remotely piloted Predator aircraft — in real time in the C.I.A.'s Counterterrorist Center at the agency's headquarters in Virginia 7,000 miles away.
Some of the military missions have been conducted in close coordination with the C.I.A., according to senior American officials, who said that in others, like the Special Operations raid in Syria on Oct. 26 of this year, the military commandos acted in support of C.I.A.-directed operations.
But as many as a dozen additional operations have been canceled in the past four years, often to the dismay of military commanders, senior military officials said. They said senior administration officials had decided in these cases that the missions were too risky, were too diplomatically explosive or relied on insufficient evidence.
The article did not specify which foreign countries were covered by the executive order, but said no raids had been conducted in Iran.
All strikes still require approval by the US civilian command, with exact criteria depending on the country. For covert attacks in Somalia, for example, only the defense secretary's approval is required, the report said, whereas attacks inside Syria or Pakistan need the president's sign-off.
Associated Press writer Pamela Hess notes that President-elect will inherit a series of executive orders, including the 2004 order reported by The New York Times, that give the Pentagon and US spy agencies enhanced authority.
Mr. Obama has said he wants to reverse some of Bush's executive orders. But Ms. Hess and others argue that Obama is unlikely to put the US military on a tighter leash while pursuing Al Qaeda.
Obama said in an August speech that he would target high-value terrorists in Pakistan without that government's permission.
"If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and if President Musharraf won't act, we will," Obama said, referring to Pakistan's president. Musharraf since has been replaced by President Asif Ali Zardari.
London's The Times Online reports the forces fighting the US "secret war" include the Green Berets, Navy Seals, Rangers, and a shadowy unit code-named Gray Fox. The article reports the number of US special forces at about 50,000, though less than 10,000 are "earmarked" for combat.
Some bloggers were dismissive of The New York Times report. Writing on The Weekly Standard website, Bill Roggio argues that the US military's expanded authority was already obvious to anyone who has been following the campaign against Al Qaeda.
With very little time and effort, I tracked down seven of these so-called secret attacks. One of the most brazen attacks occurred in the country of Madagascar in January 2007. That's right, Madagascar. U.S. special operations forces from the hunter killer teams of Task Force 88... killed Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, one of Osama bin Laden's brothers-in-law who has deep roots in al Qaeda as a financier and facilitator.
U.S. intelligence tracked Khalifa for a long time (he lived in Saudi Arabia) and waited for the right moment to pounce. The Task Force made it look like Khalifa was killed in a robbery, but it was clear this was a hit.
Writing in Slate, Daniel Politi agrees that the report merely confirmed what was already evident.
It can't really be considered surprising that the military has been carrying out these types of operations. By late 2006, for example, it was already clear that Special Forces had been carrying out secret missions in allied countries that were part of a classified program designed to help the United States track terrorist networks.
The Christian Science Monitor reported last month that some experts are concerned that clandestine US raids into sovereign territory may be counterproductive
But taking such actions in Pakistan and now Syria may involve high diplomatic risks and offer limited military gain, say experts outside the military. "It could be morally justifiable, legally justifiable, and strategically a mistake," says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
By Jonathan Adams
International Herald Tribune
(a version of this article also appeared in the Dec. 7 edition of the New York Times)
TAIPEI: After 10 minutes of drum-beating and incense-burning, Chang Yin donned a black, spotted robe and pointed hat. She picked up a fan with her right hand and a silver flask of sorghum liquor with her left.
She sat down on a chair before an altar piled with images of deities, fruit, cans of beer, snacks and joss sticks. She slipped into a trance. The session began.
Chang is a jitong - a shaman who dispenses advice while possessed by a god. Here, inside a modern office building next to Taipei's bustling main train station, she is carrying on a folk tradition that goes back hundreds of years in Taiwan and the Chinese mainland.
In the past, such shamans played a central role in rural village life. Based in local temples, they would channel spirits to help heal the sick, pick auspicious dates for important occasions and resolve community disputes.
Now, as the Taiwan economy has developed and its population urbanized, jitongs like Chang are changing with the times. With the tradition on the decline in the countryside, Chang is one of a small number who are maintaining the shamanistic practice, but adapting it to the needs of modern city-dwellers.
"People moved into cities, but they still have this kind of religious need," said Ting Jen-chieh, a specialist in Taiwan religion at the Academia Sinica's Institute of Ethnology in Taipei.
Forty years ago, shamanistic ceremonies were still a frequent feature of village temples, with jitongs playing an important public role. Now, Ting said, few young Taiwanese are interested in becoming a jitong. Many older ones who do carry on have switched to "private practice," often in urban settings - operating out of homes, storefronts or offices.
The problems they are called upon to solve have changed, too: fewer village-level quarrels; more marital disharmony or individual setbacks in the workplace.
In the southern Taiwan village Ting has been studying, there were eight jitong in the 1960s. Now there are none.
"Before, jitong were seen as performing a public service," Ting said. "But now, as people have become more educated, they've come to think the practice isn't scientific, that it's uncivilized."
But if jitongs are less visible, the underlying beliefs that prevailed when Taiwan was a predominantly poor, rural society are surprisingly resilient. Many Taiwanese pragmatically switch between Taoist, Buddhist, folk and other beliefs and practices, depending on the situation, Ting said. And at least 70 percent of Taiwanese still adhere to some traditional ways, like venerating local deities or casting divination blocks, he said.
"Taiwan has become more middle-class oriented, but we still keep our folk practices," Ting said.
Consulting a jitong is a case in point. The practice has not been totally abandoned, just updated. Chang Yin, for example, regularly sends out text messages via mobile phone to about 300 clients. That virtual network has replaced the tightly knit village setting of old.
One Sunday a month, she invites those contacts to her office for an open spirit medium session.
On this particular day, as she answered petitioners' questions, several elderly men lounged nearby on pillows and chairs, watching the proceedings. Children ran in and out of the room. Chang's assistants bustled around in the office and attached kitchen, lighting joss sticks, washing dishes, tending to accounts.
Her office door remained open, with about 15 waiting visitors and passers-by chatting and eating in the outside hallway.
As clients knelt on pillows before her and aired their troubles, Chang was by turns a marriage counselor, family therapist and psychotherapist.
"In the U.S. or the West, people go to a psychologist," said one 40-year-old man who works in financial services in Taipei, after he and his wife had finished their session. "The jitong plays the same role. In Taiwan, we think going to a psychologist feels a bit strange. A psychologist is just a person, but this is a god. I can say anything to a god, but I can't say everything to a psychologist."
Most often, Chang is possessed by Ji Gong, a maverick Buddhist monk who lived in China in the 12th century, and loved his meat and liquor. Thus the cans of beer as offerings on the altar and Chang's hiccups and slurred speech as she channeled the tipsy monk.
Another popular god is Santaizi (literally, the "third prince"), who is the youngest son of a Tang Dynasty general and has a third eye and boundless energy.
But she says other spirits, including Jesus, can speak through her.
"I usually ask Ji Gong to answer peoples' questions," she said in an interview. "When I start the ritual, I need to dress in Ji Gong's clothes and drink alcohol, because Ji Gong likes it."
She says she does not remember anything that happens while possessed by the spirits.
"My assistant helps me, recording everything I say and telling me what I did," she said.
This time, a visibly relaxed "Ji Gong" was cracking jokes, sipping liquor, hiccuping, waving a fan, teasing questioners, scolding a child, and in general thoroughly enjoying "himself" and putting everyone at ease.
The questioners all listened calmly, letting Ji Gong do most of the talking.
Ji Gong assured one troubled woman who had recently lost a baby that the child was doing well on "the other side."
"Give me your heart, and I'll open it," Ji Gong told the woman, using a Chinese phrase for giving happiness.
The woman put her hand to her heart and then extended it to the shaman.
"That's not your heart, that's your hand," Ji Gong said, chuckling mischievously.
"I was just kidding - only you can open your heart," Ji Gong said. "If you want to open it, just open it. You think too much."
Another time, Ji Gong gave specific advice to a couple and their young son, repeat visitors. To the wife, he said, "Your husband's not gentle enough, as usual," and gently upbraided the father.
Then Ji Gong had another message.
"Your son wants to ask you for money, but he's afraid to," Ji Gong told the father. "He wants money for an online game - he's been trying so hard to overcome an obstacle, but he needs a weapon. Just give him 100 dollars or 200 dollars." (About $3 or $6.)
In the interview, Chang said that the spirits called her to be a jitong; she did not choose it.
"When I was 6, I asked my mother why there were people walking in the sky through the clouds," said Chang, who grew up in a suburb of Taipei. "They didn't blame me or think I was seeing things - they bought a book with pictures of holy beings and asked me which ones I'd seen."
At 12, a Taoist priest began teaching her the ways of a jitong during summer and winter school breaks. At 15, she said, she was capable of being possessed. She completed vocational school and held jobs in a hospital and in sales, but said the spirits kept pestering her to be a jitong and to deliver their messages. So she did so, starting in 2005.
If the profession has evolved in tandem with changes in society, it is not only the jitongs who have made adjustments.
Chang notes the gods are more likely to be consulted on thorny personal relationships these days than physical illness.
"So now they give a difference type of guidance," she said. "The gods have changed along with the times and kept up with the trends."
Yang Chia-nin contributed reporting.