Posts filed under ‘Politics’

Thailand for farangs

One of my favourite countries is Thailand. In fact, I think it’s my favourite (well, after New Zealand). Thailand is full of gentle people and truly magnificent scenery. Smiley, happy faces: Thai people always seem to be smiling. I first visited in 2003, then 2004 and 2005 – doing some KM consulting work. The best part of my 2003 trip was meeting a very special person who has since become my “sister”. We email every single day and she came to visit Australia in 2004. I’ve learnt a lot about Buddhism from her and about the culture and politics of Thailand. I speak no Thai and her father speaks no English – but every time I visit, he drives us around Bangkok and has taken us to my favourite temple, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

Right now though, Thailand is going through yet another period of political instability, which is sad to see. Another friend sent me photos from outside her office, showing protesters milling around:

This protest has been going on for a couple of weeks now and I always worry that my “sister” will get caught up in it as she travels to work. But she seems to take it all in her stride even when protesters were recently behind her house, congregating and shouting. Living in a country like Australia – the only protest we’re likely to see is a spat over who lost the footy. Australians are a pretty apolitical bunch. We get worked up into a lather over sport but politics….ah, nah.

The Thais refer to foreigners as “farangs” and if you only fleetingly read news of Thai politics, you probably get the impression that there are always skirmishes on the streets or tourists sleeping the night at occupied airports. So today, I thought I’d do Thai Politics 101 for farangs and take a look at the current protests.

As I understand it, the ongoing conflict in Thailand is over former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 bloodless, military coup for alleged corruption and autocratic rule. He was PM from 2001. Thaksin’s supporters have been busy protesting outside government buildings in Bangkok, demanding that the coalition government of current Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, step down or call a new election because they say it is illegitimate and undemocratic. The 100,000 or so protesters wear red shirts and are members of the National United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD). Hitting the streets, the protesters have been clogging intersections near luxury shopping malls and holy shrines. One of the non-violent tactics they adopted the other week was blood sacrifice – spilling human blood on the steps of Government House and Abhisit’s home. I think the PM had to sleep on a military base and he couldn’t attend Parliament. The red-shirts are not anti-monarchists. My friend tells me the demonstration is to repair democracy and to rid Thailand of the “ammat (elite) system”, especially accused General Prem Tinsulanonda, the president of the Privy Council, as the man behind Thaksin’s downfall.

This is all in sharp contrast to the yellow-shirts who protested in recent years against Thaksin. You might recall international news of Bangkok airport being occupied by the yellow-shirts in 2008. Yellow is the colour of Thailand’s beloved King, King Bhumibol Adulyadej (or King Rama IX of the Chakri Dynasty), who has reigned since 1946. The King was born on a Monday and yellow is also associated with Monday. If you think there are royalists who love Queen Elizabeth II, you’ve seen nothing until you see how much the Thai people love their King. King Rama IX is the longest-reigning monarch in Thai history and the world’s longest serving head of state. Amazing when you think about it. King Rama IX is in his 80s now.

Ultimately, I think the ongoing protest is a power struggle. It’s as simple as that. (Although it has been depicted as a struggle between urban and rural populations, with the rural, poorer areas finding a voice in Thaksin). Thaksin is a very, very rich man. When he was ousted in 2006, he took off in his private jet, landing in Montenegro. Believe it or not, Thaksin is a Montenegrin citizen with a Montenegrin passport. I have no idea how a Thai man becomes a Montenegrin citizen. I also read somewhere that he wanted to purchase a private island off the Adriatic coast but his plans were thwarted as countries thought it none too smart to be seen working against the interests of Thailand. And so Thaksin took off again, lived in London and Dubai for awhile and, in late 2009, ended up in Cambodia where he was working as economic adviser to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (obviously the Cambodians don’t mind being seen working against the interests of another country and have refused a Thai extradition request). Thailand has retaliated by withdrawing its ambassador from Phnom Penh. From his Cambodian haven, Thaksin was busy criticising Thailand’s constitutional monarchy.

But the whereabouts of Thaksin turns out to be an interesting mystery, worthy of a blog post of its own. Recent reports say that he has now left Cambodia; that he was kicked out of the United Arab Emirates; and that he’s been burning up jet fuel as he flies from Sweden to Russia. The UK and Germany, however, say he’s not welcome. My question is: how does someone with millions of dollars in frozen assets get the money to swan around the world endlessly on his private jet? Prior to being PM, Thaksin was a telecommunications tycoon, so the Thai Supreme Court allowed him to keep money earned from his pre-PM days. My other question is: as he touches down in all these countries, does he have a visa? Do these countries, knowing that he is a “fugitive Prime Minister” and that Thailand is eagerly wanting to extradite him, give him a visa? I’m also not sure if he’s still acting as “economic adviser” to the Cambodian PM.

On the other side are supporters loyal to the King, the army, aristocracy and the traditional Democrat Party – all of whom were becoming increasingly concerned over allegations of corruption against Thaksin and the cult of personality growing around him. What I think might happen (and let’s hope it doesn’t) is that Cambodia will become embroiled in the ongoing conflict. Thaksin could quite possibly inflame border tensions between the two countries and is probably pretty miffed that Thailand has frozen his 58 billion baht ($A2.1 billion). He seems to time his visits to Cambodia with red-shirt demonstrations. Tensions with neighbouring Cambodia have centred around the 11th-century Preah Vihear Temple, which the International Court of Justice awarded to Cambodia in 1962 but unfortunately didn’t rule over the land surrounding the temple, which both Thailand and Cambodia claim. The temple complex is located near the two countries’ border.

I suppose when in Cambodia, Thaksin has a better chance of commanding and guiding the red-shirts. From around 100,000 protesters, numbers have dwindled to 40,000 or so. I’m hoping they don’t clash with Thai military as things could get nasty. Presumably, they are funded by Thaksin and the protesters are vowing to struggle on.

Thailand is a country living in a constant state of anxiety if you ask me. In 2004, of course, the devastating tsunami hit Thai beaches and tourist spots; the country suffered a military coup in 2006; and ongoing protests have surely impacted tourism and worried foreign investors, concerned about the ongoing viability of Abhisit’s government. If I were there, I’d don a pink shirt and get together a group that calls on both sides to find a resolution and bring some stability to the country. On TV the other day, I saw a program about India’s pink sari ladies. In India’s northern Uttar Pradesh state’s Banda area, the “gulabit gang” (or pink gang) of pink-sari wearing women strike fear into the hearts of corrupt officials and abusive husbands. If you piss off the pink ladies, you can expect a visit from a group of fiery women brandishing sticks and prepared to publicly deal with you and take justice into their own hands. Power to pink!

But oh nooooooooooos: apparently I might be too late with my pink shirt idea. Some 1,000 people in pink shirts assembled this week in Bangkok to demonstrate against the red shirts’ rally. They call themselves the “Silent Power”. So maybe rainbow coloured shirts: rainbow power!

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April 5, 2010 at 8:09 am 5 comments

Revenge is not sweet

In a recent post, I said that I thought China would retaliate somewhere, somehow for the collapse of the Chinalco deal with Rio Tinto. To refresh our memories, Chinese companies are snapping up mining and energy assets around the world, including copper mines and were salivating at the thought of investing in Rio Tinto who own 30% of the Escondida copper mine in Chile. But Rio Tinto ditched its proposed deal with Chinalco and eloped with BHP Billiton. The Chinese weren’t happy and let’s not kid ourselves: Chinalco is a state-owned company, which would have meant China extending a political influence over Australia. An indication of just how pissed off they were over Rio Tinto’s snub was glaringly obvious when China’s official Xinhua news agency accused Rio of “perfidy” for scrapping the deal.

And let’s face another fact (one which I mentioned in this post) – that if Australia is being buffeted less than many Western democracies during the GFC, it’s largely thanks to our biggest export customer, China. Prior to March 2009, we were pocketing AU $2 billion to $3 billion per month from our exports to China but in March our earnings jumped to a record $4.3 billion. Economist, Tim Harcourt, refers to this as “bamboo shoots” –  meaning that our increasing exports to China has saved Australia from a technical recession.

But back to retaliation. This week, we heard that an Australian citizen, Stern Hu, who is a highly respected businessman was nabbed by Chinese secret police on July 5 whilst he was in China engaged in sensitive iron ore price negotiations. And for which company do you think Mr Hu works for?  None other than Rio Tinto, where he is the head of Rio’s iron ore operations. The Chinese are busy accusing him of stealing their State secrets and bribing Chinese steelmakers to obtain summaries of meetings by Chinese negotiators. From what I’ve read, there are a number of issues at play:

  • Rio Tinto is engaging in intensive talks with the Chinese over lucrative iron ore contracts (iron ore of course is used to make steel and China is the world’s biggest steel producer. The Chinese have not been happy with repeated price hikes for iron ore)
  • Rio refused to kowtow to Chinese demands for a 40% haircut in price
  • Not only were the Chinese red-faced over Chinalco’s failed massive $19.5bn investment bid in Rio, they weren’t particularly pleased with the Defence White Paper that suggested Australia’s future defence plans need to take into account an increasingly aggressive China; and the Chinese government regime has been protesting against the Parliamentary delegation visiting India and its meeting with the Dalai Lama. And of course, they were insulted when our PM, Kevin Rudd, raised human rights issues in Tibet.
  • Then Mr Hu is nabbed. Join all the dots – an interesting sequence of events don’t you think?
  • Mr Hu is being held without charge and our Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, is reduced to finding out about Mr Hu’s welfare from Chinese websites because Australian Government and consular officials had so far been unable to talk with or see Mr Hu (I believe they’ve now seen him)
  • Apparently, Mr Hu was worried telephones were being bugged so there is a suggestion that China is using its spy agencies to interfere with what should be commercial negotiations
  • China claims it has evidence against Mr Hu but Australia remains in the dark. And this is shaping up to be a big cat fight that will surely test our Mandarin-speaking PM. I’m sure most Australians thought that Kevin Rudd, who served in the Australian Embassy in Beijing, would have few problems dealing with the Chinese.

China is giving Australia the finger. You can sniff the air of contempt. The fury of a China scorned signals something I think we need to think deeply about. Our relationship with China has taken leaps and bounds economically speaking but our cultural and legal relationship is lagging behind. Stephen Smith says:

“China has its own laws about state secrets. They are clearly broader than the view that Australia might take. Frankly, it’s difficult for a nation like Australia to see a relationship between espionage or national security and what appear to be suggestions about commercial or economic negotiations.

But China’s legal view of what it regards as “State secrets” could very well lead to the death penalty for Mr Hu under Chinese law. An Australian expert in international law warns: “China has some of the most extensive death penalty provisions in the world, including for white-collar crime, security breaches and espionage..We certainly cannot rule out the death penalty in this case, or a lengthy jail term.

This is a Chinese temper tantrum that very clearly sweeps away any pretense that China is a free-market economy. It shows us that the lines are blurred between the Chinese regime and business – China Inc is very real and the Chinese regime interferes with strategic business decisions. There is no separation of the State from the business world. Their standards of business practice and ours are not the same. I think this is a very serious miscalculation on Beijing’s part and will damage China’s global interests as it seeks to sink its surplus cash into resources and foreign companies rather than depreciating US government paper. And if our PM can’t secure Mr Hu’s release, then China’s message to Australia is clear – piss off, you have no influence with us, all we want is your country’s resources and mines.

July 12, 2009 at 2:30 am 2 comments

Bush redux

As you know, I haven’t really been won over by Obama. I think he’s a magnificent orator (when he has a teleprompter) but I’ve been sitting back waiting to see how different he would be from Bush. Frankly, what I’ve seen so far has led me to think that Obama isn’t much different from his predecessor (case in point: Obama’s support of warrantless wiretapping, just like Bush – despite slamming the eavesdropping programme during his Prez campaign) . But it was Obama’s May 21st speech on Detainees and National Security that really took me aback. This speech outlined the contours of the Obama Administration’s approach to suspected terrorists.

Obama has eliminated the category of “unlawful enemy combatant”, which Bush had enshrined in the 2006 Military Commissions Act for the purposes of detaining suspected terrorists without due process. Good news you would think. But no: Obama has a new category – “prolonged detention”, which would detain suspected terrorists for a prolonged period of time, inside the US without trial.  So the United States will be holding alleged “prisoners of war” (ie suspected terrorists) who cannot be prosecuted for their past crimes but pose a future threat to national security. They cannot be released or transferred and since the war in Iraq could go on for years and years, just how long is “prolonged detention” going to turn out to be?  Does this mean that some people could die in prison for crimes they have yet to commit (if indeed they would be committed)? It would further mean that the right of habeas corpus would be denied if they cannot be prosecuted.

Now, I was fairly staggered when I read this speech. And so was Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) who has written to Obama and said:

“…..any system that permits the government to indefinitely detain individuals without charge or without a meaningful opportunity to have accusations against them adjudicated by an impartial arbiter violates basic American values and is likely unconstitutional…..such detention is a hallmark of abusive systems that we have historically criticized around the world.”

In his speech, Obama states: “That is why my Administration has begun to reshape these standards to ensure they are in line with the rule of law.” Possibly he’s forgotten that detaining individuals for future crimes they have yet to commit is not consistent with the rule of law, which holds individuals accountable for past crimes committed. The rule of law does not extend to the future – to crimes YET to be committed.  Preventive detention – this is really pushing the boundaries of law if you ask me. And I would agree with the ACLU when they say: “If they cannot be convicted, then you release them.That’s what it means to have a justice system.”

Okay, so I’m still waiting to see how the Prez of Hope and Change is really all that different from Bush. I’ll keep waiting in hope.

May 30, 2009 at 1:40 am Leave a comment

Camp USA

Last year, I ranted about the death of Posse Comitatus and the presence of an active-duty military unit inside the borders of the United States. If you missed these posts, come up to speed now – otherwise, you may not appreciate the full impact of what I’m about to tell you.

This active-duty military unit is US Army 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team (otherwise known as the Chemical, Biological, Radiological/Nuclear, and Explosive Consequence Management Response Force or CCMRF – pronounced, strangely enough, “sea-smurf”). Last time I checked on the whereabouts of this brigade, they had returned home from Iraq (October 2008) to Fort Stewart, Georgia, which is their base.

I’ve now found them in Orlando, Florida. They’ve been on the move, toughing it out in ‘gator territory and running simulated exercises (the type that will give them very solid experience to react to social unrest rapidly and effectively). I’ve asked before why a highly experienced combat brigade has returned to the US – and is potentially giving the finger to Posse Comitatus if this brigade is going to be increasingly taking a role in domestic law enforcement (let us remind ourselves that the US Constitution limits the power of the Federal Government to use the military for law enforcement). To find out just how highly experienced this brigade is (they are known as “Rock of the Marne”) go here.

Of course, a Commander has been quick to state that the brigade is “…… not allowed to act in the place of law enforcement”. So they’ve been busy participating in urban search and rescue efforts along with local officials. Now let’s not lose sight of the fact that the CCMRF is a fully trained and experienced unit that has spent over 35 months in Iraq patrolling in “full battle rattle”. They are well used to confronting an enemy in a theatre of war – so why are they back in the States simulating search and rescue efforts? What are they going to be rescuing, searching for or getting control of?

Well, there’s a piece of US legislation I’m a tad concerned about. Representive, Alcee L. Hastings, D-Fla., (wasn’t this dude impeached?) has introduced to the House of Representatives a new bill, H.R. 645 –  National Emergency Centers Establishment Act – which calls for the Department of Homeland Security to establish no fewer than six national emergency centres on military installations. These centres will be FEMA camp facilities on military installations. Let’s pause for a moment – why are national emergency centres being built on MILITARY installations??

The legislation says that no fewer than six will be built, which means any number can be built as long as there are not less than six of these centres. I urge you to read Section 2 of the Bill, because aside from saying the centres would be used to provide temporary housing, medical and humanitarian assistance in the event of a national emergency – s2(b)(4) states: to meet other appropriate needs, as determined by the Secretary of Homeland Security.

Frankly, I think this could be interpreted as anything the Secretary of Homeland Security believes to be an “appropriate need”. I find the language of the Bill too broad and vague (perhaps purposely so?). So, let’s play with some ideas – if the Global Financial Hissy Fit causes social unrest, could these centres become detention centres or camps to throw unruly US citizens into? Since the FEMA centres will be standing on military soil, does this not mean that the military could potentially be involved in domestic/civilian matters (which of course is against the separation of powers)? Would political dissent be seen by the Secretary as an appropriate need to throw citizens into a camp or two? Giving such sweeping authority to one office or person is surely a dangerous challenge to civil liberties.

Worse, it seems that this Bill extends the Presidential power. As I read it, the Bill would give Obama the authority to declare an emergency and direct all federal, state, local, territorial and tribal governments WITHOUT consulting Congress.

Some observers are equating these centres to Nazi concentration camps (political strategist Mike Baker for example). Whilst I’m going to stop short of suggesting this, I am going to suggest we need to ask some serious questions. If we couple the CCMRF brigade training exercises with news about HR 645 – could we draw the conclusion that the US Government is preparing to curb impending mass civil unrest by reinforcing what Bush already started – the militarisation of civilian State institutions?

Once a person is detained in a FEMA facility in a national emergency, considering these new centres will stand on military soil, does this mean military law will apply? If so, there goes any recourse to civilian law and habeas corpus.  Disturbing.

There have been rumours for some time that FEMA already has hundreds of fully operational camps staffed with guards and dogs. And in the middle of an economic crisis, the new centres will cost US $360 million just to get going.

Let’s also look at REX 84, which stands for Readiness Exercise 1984. Back in 1984 (what an Orwellian date!), FEMA and other Government agencies conducted a civil readiness exercise in the event of mass civil disturbance and protests. Basically, REX 84 tested FEMA’s ability to operate under martial law and was part of a Continuity of Government programme. I believe that REX 84 led to rumours of fully operational “concentration camps” in the US and most likely the rumours are also caught up in the immigrant detention centres Kellogg Brown and Roots (a subsidiary of Halliburton) started building in 2006. Here is a Google map of what people are increasingly calling the FEMA concentration camps. And here is a YouTube video showing one of the FEMA facilities.

I plan to look at all this in more detail but if the Bill is passed by Congress and a national emergency occurs in the US, then dear American readers, remember the words of Ronald Reagan:

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” – Opening Chicago press conference with acknowledgment of farmers’ need for federal assistance, August 12, 1986.

UPDATE: The American Civil Liberties Union is also asking questions – demanding information on military deployment within US borders.

March 23, 2009 at 2:00 am 5 comments

Obama’s snowballs

You’ve probably seen this very funny Obama meme, which seems to involve cats, McCain, Sarah Palin, babies and my favourite to be picked on – former Prez Bush. Apparently, Obama was having a bit of fun with one of his staffers and snowballs were being thrown. Somehow, an orange kitty cat became the butt of the joke. Here’s the cat and Bush versions.

You can see other versions here. Now, these snowballs are not like Rumsfeld’s snowflakes and I can’t give Obama any advice on his throwing arm or his aim. But seems Indiana University is prepared to give Obama some words of wisdom. Imagine you had the proverbial 2-minute elevator ride with the Prez – what advice would you have for him? If you’re a bit stuck, you can consult the University’s latest issue of Perspectives on Policy, which sees 30 academics dishing out thoughts on health care, education, the environment and so on. Here are some of their ideas:

  • Boost consumer spending by using federal funds to reduce state sales taxes.
  • Use the power of technology to improve citizens’ health, not just the health care system.
  • Take advantage of the global interest in learning English to help young Americans engage with the world.
  • Reach out to China and India, the world’s most populous countries, to tackle climate change.
  • Create an Arts Corps of people to share the experience of having one’s life changed by art.
  • Send Mahlia and Sasha to ballet class. “It will send such a powerful message to children all over the world.” (Chair of the Department of Ballet).
  • “…we need to value science for what it can teach us about uncertainty, as well as for its ability to reduce uncertainty” (conservation biologist) because it can provide strategies for “weathering surprises, reducing damage and hastening recovery.”

I would advise: no matter how tough it gets, erase the word “secrecy” from the US Government dictionary – make sure all your policies are transparent, not just your talk. And think very carefully about throwing money into the potential black hole of bailouts – because the economy as we know it is stuffed. We need to think about what the post-global financial economy and society will look like. Let’s not go back to the greedy bankers, pillaging of the environment and obscene consumerism. There is a gentler way. We must find it.

So…what advice would you give Obama right now?

February 24, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Failing the test?

I blogged the other day on Obama’s tests, one of which was the reopening of a lawsuit on behalf of CIA “extraordinary rendition” victims. The lawsuit is Mohamed et al v Jeppesen Dataplan Inc. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you’d better read my earlier post first. But in a nutshell, Obama has promised to close Guantanamo Bay and revoke Bush anti-terror policies but he seems to be cautious about renditions – believing that the practice should continue but with assurances that suspects aren’t tortured. Frankly, not sure how you can monitor this effectively when suspects are imprisoned abroad, out of sight, out of mind.

Two years ago, Bush and his gang effectively closed down the lawsuit against Boeing subsidiary, Jeppesen Dataplan (the company that provided the planes for rendition flights on behalf of the CIA), bleating about national security and invoking the State secrets privilege. But now we have an unexpected headline – Obama Backs Bush on Rendition Case. For those of us who were hoping the Prez of Hope & Change, with his mantra of transparency and Yes We Can, might reverse the Bush Administration’s stance on the Boeing case…, we can’t hope for that now. This was Obama’s first national security case and I was expecting better than this.

In a rerun of Bush-era legal argument, Department of Justice lawyers told the Ninth Circuit federal appeals court in San Francisco that the Obama administration believes State secrets and national security is at risk if the case proceeds. A DOJ lawyer said the entire subject matter remains a State secret. Is this Change???

We need to remind ourselves just what can happen to people when they are spirited away on rendition flights to prisons in countries that cooperate with the US. The word begins with T – for torture. Here is just one example : a victim, who was spirited off to Gitmo, had his genitals sliced open and had to bear the pain of hot liquids being poured into the open wound.  And then of course there’s waterboarding or simulated drowning (but apparently this is way down the list of techniques).

I followed Obama’s campaign closely because I was interested to see how he would be different from Bush.  I vividly recall Obama and Biden carrying on about Bush Administration secrecy. So I had a look at Obama’s campaign website to refresh my memory. This is what is said about State secrets:

“Secrecy Dominates Government Actions: The Bush administration has ignored public disclosure rules and has invoked a legal tool known as the “state secrets” privilege more than any other previous administration to get cases thrown out of civil court.”

During Obama’s campaign, he referred to this as The Problem (have a look on the campaign website under Plan to Change Washington) and said it needed to be addressed. Yet, Obama’s administration has just invoked the same argument – State secrets privilege.

So I decided to do a spot of research on FindLaw into State secrets privilege. As far as I can tell, the concept of State secrets privilege was recognised by the US Supreme Court in United States v. Reynolds, 345 U.S. 1 (1953) – a case relating to an Air Force plane crash. The Supreme Court upheld the Government’s assertion that to cough up documents would reveal secret squirrel military stuff. The original intent of the privilege, as I understand it, was to stop specific or individual documents or evidence being introduced into court that may in fact harm national security. There are, after all, legitimate State secrets.

But Bush extended this privilege beyond belief to entire law suits (to get them thrown out of Court) and to obtain a sweeping immunity for his administration’s actions. He also used it to defend the illegal wiretapping programme his Government carried out. He took a rarely invoked concept and used it in a pre-emptive manner to cover up his Government’s actions.

In fact, good old Dubya (perhaps not that stupid after all) issued Executive Order 13233 in November 2001 that would “permit former presidents to independently assert the state secrets privilege to bar disclosure of records generated during their tenure. More than that, the Bush order would make the state secrets privilege hereditary, like some divine right of kings, enabling the heirs of deceased presidents to assert the privilege after their death.”  So much for the Rule of Law.

So I don’t get it: is Obama inheriting Bush’s powers and throwing away his rhetoric of transparency? Is it just more of the same? Even Democrat Senators are shaking their heads and asking questions.

Image credit: Wikipedia

February 19, 2009 at 2:00 am 1 comment

Obama’s tests

The Prez of Hope & Change is facing some tests. In chronicling Bush’s usurpation of power, I have mentioned a number of times rendition or extraordinary rendition, which is the apprehension and extrajudicial transfer of a person from one state to another. Otherwise known as abducting foreign nationals and spiriting them away under cover of night to Gitmo or some other secret squirrel prison for torturing questioning and interrogation. The barbaric interrogation processes that went on at Guantanamo Bay we hope will now belong in the dark past of Bush and his croneys. Obama is talking of dismantling the detention centre at Gitmo and closing the shutters. (Interestingly though, Obama’s second highest negative approval rating (50%) is for his order to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility for terror suspects within a year.)

But….under Executive Orders Obama has already signed, the CIA will STILL have the power and authority to carry out renditions and spirit people away to prisons in countries that cooperate with the US. This counterterrorism technique will remain whilst Gitmo reverts to being a naval base. Prisoners who have been forceably “disappeared” are busy suing Boeing Corp (because they assisted the CIA through rendition flights to countries who often carried out more torture than the US). This lawsuit, which was closed down by Bush, is being reopened this week and will Obama’s first test when it comes to his declaration of transparency and willingness to act when it comes to torture and rendition.

So why keep (and possibly expand) a programme that has brought embarrassment to the US and violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (by depriving people of liberty and security, and torturing)? The good news at least is that Obama has ordered a task-force to examine how renditions could still be used as a counterterrorism technique without people languishing away in foreign prisons for years. He talks about “limited circumstances” when rendition might still be a viable option but I don’t think the Exec Order made it clear what the limited circumstances might be. In my view, there is no circumstance at all that should allow for people to be (let’s face it) kidnapped and forceably spirited away to God knows where to face God knows what.

So the response to torture and rendition is Obama’s first test. His next test will take place on February 12. This is the date Bush set for the doling out to Big Oil companies of leases for oil and gas drilling on nearly 100,000 acres of federal land in Colorado, US. The parcels of land are home to endangered species such as sage grouse and Colorado River cutthroat trout. The public lands are also migration routes for big-game and their winter grazing grounds. But then Bush never cared for endangered species so why be surprised that he’d offer acres of beautiful land to be auctioned on February 12.

So the test is: will Obama stop the leases and save the public lands and endangered species? There is some hope that he will. Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, stopped the sale of leases on 77 parcels of Federal land near Utah and sensitive areas like Arches and Canyonlands national parks. Bush of course authorised the sale of the leases in the 11th hour of his administration.

Meanwhile, Obama’s third test will be the ACLU, who have asked the new Prez’s administration to cough up secret squirrel documents that demonstrate the legal justification of Bush era warrantless eavesdropping, interrogation and secret prisons. Bush has always refused to cough up using the excuses of national security, secrecy and privilege.  But Obama has given the ACLU a door to open because he recently rescinded a 2001 Justice Department memo that basically gave agencies a legal cover to hide behind.

So the ACLU will put Obama’s rhetoric around transparency to the test and hopefully get their hands on documents that will reveal what we all know and suspect – that there was never any legal justification for ordering antiterrorism measures like water-boarding. I doubt very much that we’ll find legal opinion that would allow the President of the United States to disregard existing law!

Image credit: Associated Press

February 10, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

There are still known unknowns

Seems that the masterful poet, Donald Rumsfeld (he of “there are known unknowns” fame), has encountered a real unknown – a Metro system bus. Rummy tried (and failed) to catch a public bus in Washington DC (eh? he’s sunk to the depths of the public transport system now?). Old Donald was waiting for the No. 42 bus at Dupont Circle. In his hand was a plastic SmarTrip card, a rechargeable fare card used on DC’s metro system.

Now, let’s remember that Rumsfeld was the former Secretary of Defense (how could we forget?). He was perfectly capable of launching an invasion into Iraq but seems the intricacies of how to catch a public bus are way beyond him. Apparently, he was standing alone (yeah, well I for one wouldn’t wish to stand next to him) at the 42 Metrobus bus stop looking at his card (probably wondering what the hell to do with it). Along came a bus, packed with people. So Rummy took off and walked down the hill. Guess he was too distracted, thinking about his memoirs that will hit book shelves in 2010.

And speaking of a fall from grace old dudes, hasn’t Dick Cheney left office? You wouldn’t think so reading this story. The former VP has been busy giving interviews and warning that there is a high probability that terrorists will launch a catastrophic nuclear or biological attack and that Obama’s administration will make it easier for said terrorists. Cheney is fretting about the release of “hard core terrorists” from Gitmo and refers to Guantanamo as a “first-class program” (in what? torture?).

He went on to bleat: “The United States needs to be not so much loved as it needs to be respected. Sometimes, that requires us to take actions that generate controversy. I’m not at all sure that that’s what the Obama administration believes.”

Really. This tired old dude just needs to ride off into the sunset. We’ve had enough of this rhetoric about war, fear and terrorists about to pounce. Let Obama do what he can now that we are breathing in an atmosphere of hope and change. Go off and retire somewhere far, far, far away PLEASE. NOW.

Image credits: Huffington Post and Foreign Policy.

February 8, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

The English language according to Dubya

At long last: Dubya is about to ride off into the sunset, only to be remembered as the worst Prez in history. He leaves office with a 22% approval rating. Since Australia is ahead of the US, I get to farewell Dubya ahead of my US readers (by the way, I’ve installed a cluster map on TS blog. I was surprised to see how many readers I have in the US – more than two at last!).

What better way to farewell Dubya than to celebrate his masterful oratory skills. Here is a collection of my favourite Bushisms, enjoy:

  • There are some monuments where the land is so widespread, they just encompass as much as possible. And the integral part of the  – the precious part, so to speak – I guess all land is precious, but the part that the people uniformly would not want to spoil, will not be despoiled. But there are parts of the monument lands where we can explore without affecting the overall environment. Say what??? Washington, D.C. March 13, 2001.
  • “[It’s] time for the human race to enter the solar system“. Ranks as one of my personal favourities along with:
  • “I know the human being and fish can co-exist peacefully”. Michigan, September 2000, explaining his energy policies.
  • “I want to thank my friend, Senator Bill Frist, for joining us today…..He married a Texas girl, I want you to know. Karyn is with us. A West Texas girl, just like me”. Nashville, Tennessee – May 27 2004.
  • “I just want you to know that when we talk about war we’re really talking about peace”. Washington, June 18 2002.
  • “I’ll be long gone before some smart person ever figures out what happened inside this Oval Office”. To Israeli journalists in Washington in an interview – May 12, 2008. Ah actually Dubya: I think we’ve been onto you for some years now.
  • “I remember meeting a mother of a child who was abducted by the North Koreans right here in the Oval Office”. Washington, June 26 2008.
  • “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning”. South Carolina, January 11, 2000.
  • “You teach a child to read and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test”. Tennessee, February 21, 2001.

And here is the Bushism that sums up for me all the damage he has done to this world, to the US Constitution and to the reputation of the US and its citizens:

“Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we”. Washington, August 5 2004.

So join with me in saying hasta la vista Bush. May your brother, Jeb, never see the inside of the Oval Office.  And can we finally rejoice in having a US Prez who can skillfully string a sentence together?  Yes We Can!

Sources: Alternet and The Australian (hard copy) January 16 2009. Image source:

January 20, 2009 at 2:00 am 2 comments

Nutter of the year nomination

dsc_0515I am nominating someone for the ThinkingShift 2009 idiot of the year award. And this person has an apt name  – Mayor Michael Nutter. And a nutter this dude appears to be. He is the Mayor of Philadelphia and wants to contribute to the dumbing-down of contemporary society. He (wait for it) wants to close libraries in Philadelphia to save money.

He wants to close 11 of the city’s 54 branch libraries at an estimated savings of $8 million a year. Nutter is also planning to deactivate seven fire department engine and ladder companies and close scores of city swimming pools. Tough luck if the city suffers a major fire!

Now, I’m not familiar with this city although I visited it once to deliver a workshop. But seems to me that any city that shuts libraries (and swimming pools) is closing off educational and social opportunities for children and adults. Don’t know about your local library but mine is used by young kids to improve their reading skills; older people as a recreational place to meet and borrow resources they can ill-afford; young mothers who participate in a book club whilst their young children listen to stories being read to them. Libraries contribute to the social fabric and provide a sense of community. Particularly in poorer areas, libraries provide a safe haven for at-risk kids. I could provide a very long list to this Nutter dude of what libraries do. But I won’t reinvent the wheel – Nutter can go here and find out all the ways libraries contribute to society, education and ciitizenship.

And swimming pools? Well, not everyone can afford a sparkling backyard pool and having one is not environmentally responsible anyway. So if you close community swimming pools, where do the kids and parents go on hot summer days? I guess Nutter will be happy when he finds kids scrawling graffiti on public buildings or participating in petty crime because the libraries and swimming pools have been slammed shut in their faces.

Thankfully, this ridiculous proposal of Nutter’s is turning into a fur fight that I will be watching with interest. A group of private citizens and some City Council members have filed a suit to stop this nutter. And a sensible judge has ruled in the plaintiff’s favour. But in an astonishing display of hubris, Nutter responded that the ruling hampers his Executive power to run the city, which apparently includes some scheme to “re-purpose” the libraries into “knowledge centers” by turning over public libraries to private sources. And we all know what that could mean: fewer services, reduced hours, less staff – all in the name of profit seeking.

I’m no Mayor but wouldn’t it be a smarter move to examine let’s say the number of motor cars clogging up the city’s roadways and perhaps tax those who bring their cars into the city. London hits its citizens with a congestion charge so why not consider this?  Or what about conducting an energy audit of city buildings and schools and implementing energy saving techniques such as occupancy sensors, energy efficient fluorescent lighting and so on.  Nutter could also have a look at highly paid city officials’ salaries, including his own, and perhaps give them all a haircut. And he could check out all the contractors the city is hiring and terminate those for non-essential services. He could also ask all city departments to examine their own spending and nominate three ways they could cut back. Heck, Philadelphia ask me to be your Mayor – I could come up with dozens of ways to prune the city budget without slashing libraries and swimming pools!

January 6, 2009 at 2:00 am 5 comments

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