Category Archives: Global Affairs

The Diplomat: Myanmar Grapples With Unifying Its Core and Periphery

(The Diplomat 27/7/2016) The challenges of forging federalism in Myanmar will be evident at upcoming talks in August.

Myanmar’s punctuated economic development since gaining independence in 1948 has often been framed through the shackles of ethnic conflict, authoritarianism, and neglectful governance. But as global human rights icon, and now State Counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi takes control of the country’s democratic transformation, she will find that the nation’s struggles are far more deep-rooted. Peace will remain elusive unless Myanmar can bridge its divisive geography.

The national story is defined by a chasm between core and periphery. The low-lying and fertile Irrawaddy River valley region includes the urban economic centers of Yangon, Mandalay, and the capital, Naypyidaw, and is largely populated by the majority Bamar ethnic group.

Meanwhile, awkward terrain on Myanmar’s fringes has encased minorities from neighboring states within the nation’s modern-day boundaries. A mountain chain to its west, rugged jungles to its northeastern border with China, and the Shan Hills on its eastern side have isolated distinct cultures and manifested separatist sentiments.

As such, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is a mosaic of 135 officially recognized ethnicities (excluding the marginalized Rohingya in Rakhine state), all grouped into seven dominant minority border states, with the Bamar predominating in the seven central regions. Nation building has, as a result, been a cumbersome venture.

In 1947, Suu Kyi’s father and then de facto prime minister, General Aung San, penned an agreement granting greater autonomy to the Shan, Kachin, and Chin ethnic minorities at the Panglong Conference, but his assassination months later meant it never came to fruition. Since then, successive state leaders have failed to forge a delicate balance between political decentralization and the military, border, and resource control requirements of state building.

As disenfranchised ethnic groups took up arms in the world’s longest-running civil war, the most promising attempt to broker peace came in October, when former president Thein Sein signed a ceasefire with eight armed-groups—though seven major insurgencies were absent.

But at a meeting tabled for August dubbed the “21st Century Panglong Conference”—between the ruling National League for Democracy party, the military and, it is hoped, representatives from all armed ethnic groups, Suu Kyi is expected to revive her father’s vision of a unified, yet devolved, nation.

“Through peace conferences, we’ll continue to be able to build up a genuine, federal democratic union aspired to by all our countrymen,” she said during a nationwide address on Myanmar’s New Year holiday in April. “That’s why we need a constitutional amendment.”

The nation’s frontier states want more control over their economic and political affairs. And federalism may be the key to de-escalating tension with ethnic groups who feel underrepresented by the Bamar-dominant parliament and aggrieved by Naypyidaw’s central rule and military meddling.

But that may be easier said than done. Suu Kyi will require cooperation from the still powerful military, who are constitutionally entitled to 25 percent of parliamentary seats. But military leaders are likely to be reticent in ceding control over peripheral states, in order to protect their monopoly on the extraction and trade of jade, teak, and other materials in the resource-rich borderlands.

And then there is the risk that decentralization will help crystalize secessionism. The China-backed United Wa State army in the northeast, for example, already has significant military footing, and greater political powers may catalyze a push for separation. It’s an outcome Suu Kyi will be conscious of, with vocal Buddhist nationalists poised to stir discontent over state-weakening territorial losses.

Avoiding an all out disintegration of a devolved Myanmar would also require signaling considerable commitment to connect peripheral regions to the economic core and spread the nation’s now burgeoning foreign direct investment outward.

According to the UN Development Program, poverty levels are at around 26 percent of the total population, but that rate doubles in the rural areas where 70 percent of the population reside, with remote border areas significantly deprived. Constitutional adaptations may not be sufficient to overcome economic grievances unless ethnic states have a fairer share of resource extraction profits, access to social services, financing opportunities, and clear land rights.

The nation’s rickety roads and colonial era rail network will also require considerable work to radiate into the tougher terrain of the isolated border states. “[O]nly 38.9 percent of the total road network is paved, with the secondary and local road network in generally poor condition,” according to a 2014 Asian Development Bank report entitled “Myanmar: Unlocking the Potential.” Inland waterways and air transport facilities also need attention.

A unified core and periphery promises many national dividends—from enhancing the democratic process and connecting markets, labor, and industries, to stabilizing restive borders for trade. But while Suu Kyi has made peace the NLD’s “first responsibility,” the federalist model will need to be closely and rapidly synchronized with plans to spread economic opportunities if the ethnic frontier is to have a vested interest in an integrated Myanmar.

And so, as Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw get to work, just like leaders before them, they must face the nation’s age-old conundrum—how to create autonomy, whilst also achieving unity.

Tej Parikh is an international affairs journalist, and received his master’s degree from Yale University, with a focus on state building, ethnic politics and fragile states. He has published for Reuters, The Diplomat, The Cambodia Daily, the Guardian and Global Politics Magazine. He tweets at @tejparikh90.

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The Huffington Post: Brexit: An Inconvenient Truth for Liberals

(The Huffington Post 5/7/2016) Globalists can no longer parade under the banner of international unity while ignoring imbalance at home.

LORD ASHCROFT POLLS
Large majorities who considered multiculturalism, globalization and immigration as forces for good voted to remain in the European Union; while those who felt they were ills voted by greater majorities to leave, according a poll of over 12,000 voters.

 

If you’re connected to the U.K.’s professed liberal social media network, there’s a strong chance you’ve read a cacophony of Tweets and Facebook status monologues condemning the outcome of the U.K. referendum.

For many in the Remain camp—hailing from London, its suburban corridors and university towns—the June 23 vote to leave the European Union was an apparent victory for “the racists, the ignorant and the uneducated.”

But in their blind outrage many have revealed their very own insularity. There is a failure to understand how different economic, political and social narratives can precipitate alternate belief systems—ones that feel fearful of immigration, subordinated by multiculturalism and disadvantaged by international trade.

If Britain’s avowed progressives are to truly challenge the salience of xenophobic, nationalist and anti-expert rhetoric, they need to first digest that globalism is not a value everyone can afford to espouse, nor is it just unique to Remain voters.

The snapshot analysis of the 17.4 million who voted Leave—the elderly, lesser educated and lower income individuals—offered scapegoats for a result truly cast by the entirety of British society, and borne in the nation’s disparate economic and cultural experiences of globalization.

Inequality and Inequity

Over the past decades, Britain has undergone one of the largest de-industrializations of any major nation. Manufacturing output shrank from over 30 percent of economic output in the 1970s, to nearer 10 percent today, as shifting global trade patterns and technological productivity transformed the nation into a service-orientated society.

Industrial, coastal and agricultural Britain languished in obsolescence, as financial, commerce, research and cultural hubs blossomed into wealthy, tolerant and cosmopolitan havens. And by the late 2000s, income inequality among Britain’s working-age population had risen faster than in any other high-income nation since 1975, according an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study in 2011.

Riding high on Britain’s deregulated globalized capitalist system a professional, political and media elite captured the zeitgeist of individualism and a largely feckless working class, caricatured as the “Chav”—a British pejorative used to describe the young lower class.

And, with the post-financial crisis age of austerity, influx of eastern European migrants and the images of last year’s ‘migrant’ crisis on the continent, which disproportionately threatened the less affluent, animosities grew in a largely unequal and upwardly immobile society.

“Many people have grown tired of waiting for the benefits of a vastly interconnected world to trickle down,” wrote Reva Goujon, a global strategic analyst at the Texas-based intelligence firm Stratfor, in a company report. “As the world whizzes by them, their wages remain flat and jobs become scarcer.”

It is little surprise then that large majorities who considered multiculturalism, globalization and immigration as forces for good voted to remain in the European Union; while those who felt they were ills voted by greater majorities to leave, according the Lord Ashcroft Poll of over 12,000 voters—globalism dichotomized the nation.

The inconvenient truth for many Remainers is that they benefited most from the post-industrial status-quo, and therefore had the most reason to protect it. While Leavers voted symbolically against a system that did not work for them—and not to frivolously spite liberal principles, as social media feeds may suggest.

Promises to “take back control” from foreign interests and reduce immigration were bound to foment eurosceptic appeal among the disenfranchised and economically excluded millions. And it’s a damning harbinger for the U.S., with an equally torn narrative over trade and immigration.

Illiberal Liberalism

Unless British society can overcome its vogue for mindless virtue signaling, ridiculing and vilifying those who do not effuse liberal values, nuance—like the logic of experts—will forever fall on deaf ears. And, its exclusionary impact will continue to strengthen the appeal of simplistic xenophobic explanations.

Because calling someone a racist, or stupid, is not a policy prescription. It does nothing to tackle the roots of racism, fascism or nationalism, or offer a path for inclusive prosperity. And too many feel its is enough to make a spectacle of globalism and liberal values without actually acting to ensure they can be universally adopted.

A truly progressive form of liberalism in Britain must rather decentralize economic power, devolve politics, fight inequality and elitism, bridge the North-South divide and raise British expenditure on investment.

It must also pragmatically engage with alternate narratives, to avoid a continueddestabilizing polarity in British politics—in which the far left and right amplify in reaction to one another—and to regain the middle ground. That challenge is clearly harder now that some see Brexit as a vindication for racism.

The Remain camp must see its own culpability in failing to convince swathes of moderates. In fact, some now emerging, liberal, Leave voters, justify their vote by saying greater constitutional autonomy is paramount in addressing Britain’s long ignored socio-economic fissures.

And so, among the multiple introspective questions Brexit should impel upon militant Remainers, its greatest may be to the in-denial leaders in Brussels themselves. How can an effective political, monetary, and eventually, fiscal, supra-national union of over 500 million people be achieved when nation states are not only disparate to each other, but also, within themselves?

It is this fallacy—carried by a somewhat privileged ignorance—that we all have the same agency and all stand to benefit equally from globalism, that has led to Brexit and an unravelling of the European project. We cannot continue to parade under the banner of international unity, without addressing imbalance at home.

The Diplomat: In Myanmar, Suu Kyi’s Brand Is a Double-Edged Sword

(The Diplomat 14/5/2016) Myanmar is being overwhelmed by foreign investments before its new government has built up the capacity to receive them.

While Aung San Suu Kyi’s inauguration as Myanmar’s state counsellor early last month was largely academic, it certainly wasn’t short on significance. With the globally revered democracy icon vowing to be “above the president” anyway, the international community is now queuing up to engage with the once pariah state.

But though Suu Kyi’s ‘brand’ has the power to attract rapid change for the nation, it could also quickly become Myanmar’s Achilles heel.

U.S. business delegations are expected to arrive in the country shortly to assess investment opportunities, says Scot Marciel, the new U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, also known as Burma. And on May 3, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida met with Suu Kyi as he reportedly weighs a development assistance offering worth $910 million. These visits follow the early-bird brigades of China, Italy, Germany, and Canada, which have already held talks with the new government since it came to office on March 30, according to The Myanmar Times.

Whether for business gains or foreign policy leverage, Myanmar—sandwiched between the Indian and Chinese economic powerhouses—is prime real estate.

But in a country severely lacking in institutional capacity, “the tsunami of aid” may actually hinder Myanmar’s transition says Lex Rieffel, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Brookings Institution, a U.S. think-tank. Foreign donors absorb precious ministerial time in coordination visits; they also hire the most qualified local citizens and drive up property prices in Yangon, the country’s largest city, says Rieffel.

Untamed foreign direct investment can be equally insidious by competing with domestic industries through unethical business practices or by feeding corrupt hands, particularly in the nation’s elite-tied gas, jade, and timber resource extraction industries.

Meanwhile, a rapid influx of aid also goes against the new government’s vision. National League for Democracy leader Suu Kyi (also the foreign minister) and proxy president cum long-time friend, Htin Kyaw, do not seek “abrupt changes” and have outlined, though vaguely, phases for Myanmar’s economic transition.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner wishes to lay out her own unique economic vision. During a 2013 visit to Singapore Suu Kyi stopped short of suggesting Myanmar should follow in the footsteps of free-market capitalism’s model student. “Perhaps Singapore could learn from us a more relaxed way of life,” she said at the time.

And the NLD’s 2015 election manifesto is also littered with ‘Suu Kyi-isms.’ It seeks to lift FDI but only with the “highest international standards” that can bring “sustainable long term mutual benefits.” The five economic pillars—fiscal prudence, efficient bureaucracy, agriculture, monetary and fiscal stability, and infrastructure—are considered necessary groundwork before global financial flows accelerate the nation’s growth.

The party, which won 80 percent of available seats in the November elections, wants to achieve a “controlled opening,”avoiding the asset bubbles, income inequality, corruption, and international risk exposures befalling some of its Asian neighbors.

For some, that ship has already sailed. Unanchored by the reforms under former president Thein Sein, which led to a tapering in international sanctions, Myanmar’s economy is expected to grow at a breakneck 8.4 percent this year, according to the Asian Development Bank’s latest outlook report—the highest in Asia. Meanwhile, FDI rose to a record $9.4 billion in the 2015-16 fiscal year.

And according to the local Daily Eleven newspaper, the country projects a cumulative $140 billion in FDI through 2030, assuming the United States restores the generalized system of preferences and lifts remaining sanctions.

But Suu Kyi needs time to assemble an able bureaucracy to implement the laws and regulations to manage incoming funds. Otherwise, the new funds may be destined to circulate among the corrupt—bypassing the 26 percent of the population below the poverty line.

She also faces the small tasks of negotiating governance terms with the military, forging peace deals with warring ethnic groups, and weighing controversial large-scale construction projects like the currently shelved $3.6 billion China-led Myitsone dam.

Myanmar’s economic sustainability is already at stake, before it has even taken off. As one poetic Yangon resident put it, “The foundations needs to be laid, and the cement needs to dry first before Myanmar can dream of building further.”

Tej Parikh recently received his master’s degree from Yale University, with a focus on state building, ethnic conflict, and fragile states. He has written for the Guardian, Reuters, The Cambodia Daily, The Diplomat andGlobal Politics Magazine. He tweets at @tejparikh90.

Beyond Violence: The Nation State: Bounded Humanitarianism

(Beyond Violence 10/6/2016) National sovereignty is weakly aligned to global altruism. Accountable to its own constituents, foreign policy, fundamentally a tool to serve and protect national interests, can act like a cap on humanitarianism.

When national interests are at stake, international policy suffers from myopia, self-interest and double-standards. And it lies at the very heart of our collective failures in peace, human rights and economic prosperity.

Security is one such national priority that doesn’t necessarily aggregate globally. Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the ultraconservative Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, an ideology said to inspire al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Islamic State group, is a longtime western ally, for example. A swing nation in global price of oil, military, trade and investment partner, and a strategic Sunni counterweight to Shiite Iran: Saudi Arabia is crucial in the west’s attempts to shelter itself from a geopolitically unstable region.

This is despite the Saudi’s atrocious human rights record, beyond dubious executions, including poor women’s rights, freedom of expression and treatment of migrant labor. And, despite, the nation being ”… a critical financial support base for Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and other terrorist groups,” according to a leaked December 2009 memo signed by then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Likewise, economic stability also requires expediency. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s red carpet welcome to Britain in October, the lavish banquets and processions, were a segue to a multi-billion dollar business deal for Chinese investment, as Britain navigates its waning global influence and tetchy ties with the European Union.

For some a shrewd deal, for others a hypocrisy. Activists protested British pandering and silence over a country with a track record for curtailing the freedom of speech and abusing the rights of theTibetan and Uighur minority ethnic groups.

And money doesn’t have to be the only motive to turn a blind eye to human rights. In December,Reuters reported that the U.S. State Department disregarded its own staff’s damning findings of Oman’s forced labor and human trafficking record, by inflating its score in a mandated “Trafficking in Persons” report. This, apparently, was a move to support international relations with the Gulf ally, which played a key role in helping to broker last year’s Iran nuclear deal.

Foreign interventionism has also been self-serving. The toppling of dictatorships in Iraq and Libya, and attempted disposal of the Taliban in Afghanistan, had a core purpose in shoring up the west’s security interests. But after military intervention, insufficient attention has been given to state-building and post-conflict development in these countries, which instead fester in a power vacuum, and have given rise to greater security threats, including I.S.

And electoral accountability can constrain foreign policy more directly. It may explain why the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama dithered, and acted softly in Syria, with the failures and cost of the Afghanistan and Iraq interventions fresh in voters’ minds. Some 60,000 civilian deaths after the conflict started, the U.S. began sending aid to rebels. And, over a year after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crossed Obama’s chemical-usage threshold, the U.S. began bombing in Syria, targeting I.S.

Multilateral organisations were once thought to be the solution, to speak out, coordinate and neutralize national and transnational tragedies where a conflict of interest prevails. But humanitarian institutions themselves face diplomacy and politics, accountable to their boards and donors, and not directly to the people they seek to serve.

And are they powerful enough, when four out of five Yemenis are in desperate need of humanitarian aid, and Saudi Arabia seems to be blocking U.N. food donations? Are they politically neutral enough, or merely an aggregation of individual foreign policy? When Russia and China vetoed a 2011 U.N. Security Council vote for a crackdown on al-Assad, it would suggest the latter, as would the Saudi endeavor to block a U.N-led war crime inquiry into the Yemen intervention.

A globalised system of trade, migration and money flow, promised to bring capitalist economics, peace and ultimately, interests together. And while it has overseen a worldwide reduction in poverty, and the near obsolescence of inter-state war, it’s still a system that relies on the whim of the powerful to help the indigent.

Though the nation state is the established, and proven, model of governance and prosperity, and while globalisation has challenged the notion of tribalism, our interests and accountability remain fundamentally aligned to the geographies we govern.

The point is not to reconstruct the nation state, but to rethink the international architecture in which it operates.

The 21st Century must now harbor global identities and perspectives by embracing new interconnections and technologies, and design truly independent and accountable worldwide institutions and laws, if we are to see beyond our borders and let humanitarianism prevail.

Tej Parikh is an international affairs journalist and received his master’s degree from Yale University last year, with a focus on state building, ethnic politics and fragile states. He has written for the Guardian, Reuters, The Diplomat, The Cambodia Daily and Global Politics Magazine. He tweets at @tejparikh90

The Diplomat: Myanmar’s Democracy Paradox

(The Diplomat 26/2/2016) The lengthy talks over the exact shape of Myanmar’s government, and the identity of its new president, are just the first signs that the country’s path to democracy may not be orthodox.

On November 11, democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, received a congratulatory phone call from U.S. President Barack Obama, after her National League for Democracy party romped to victory in Myanmar’s national election.

But while Western powers rejoice, and though Suu Kyi’s has sewn the seeds for democracy in Myanmar, the ground remains infertile.

“The distinguishing mark of a universal value is not that it already enjoys universal acceptance,” said development economist Amartya Sen. “But, that people everywhere have reason to see it as valuable.”

Unfortunately the nation that the NLD inherits is far from adopting universal values, with interests Balkanized along economic, ethnic and political lines.

The country lacks the cross-cutting cleavages to allow democratic change to take off, such that democracy today may paradoxically destabilize Myanmar, by giving power to entrenched, divided and unequal interests.

Suu Kyi does not seek “abrupt changes,” and hopes to bring about a steady transition of rule from decades of military dominance.

On the economic front the NLD is likely to continue pushing the country along its path to greater liberalization.

Foreign direct investment rose to over $8 billion in the 2014/15 fiscal year, but much of the money remains concentrated in the country’s jade, oil and gas industries – tied to former generals.

Urban “elites” and large corporations under armed force control are most likely to benefit from increased liquidity as the country opens up further – while poverty is expected to remain high in the country’s largely rural and ethnically segregated provinces.

“[The number of ultra-high-net worth] individuals in Myanmar could grow by more than seven times in the next decade – the fastest such pace of growth anywhere,” said Wealth-X, a wealth intelligence consultancy.

If the rural and unlanded are unable to tap into the country’s economic fortunes – fenced out by rising elites – vast chasms in wealth will remain an obstacle to building the broad-based citizen coalitions necessary for an efficient democracy.

Though democracy may be a banner for freedom in the west, true freedom will not be possible in Myanmar unless people have the power to make economic choices.

Beyond economic division, rife ethnic and religious conflict is likely to inhibit the creation of a society with cross-cutting interests, especially as recent peace talks continue in the absence of representation from the most active ethnic rebel groups.

Anti-Islamic sentiment has been mercilessly stirred-up among the near 70 percent Bamar population – carried in part by radical Buddhist monk Wirathu’s 969 movement, a nationalistic organization.

The majority Bamar thus forms an overriding part of the electorate with little tying them to the ethnic groups in Myanmar’s border states – where mountainous geography to its north and west has facilitated the preservation of distinct ethnicities, and the more traversable Shan plateau terrain on its Thai border has facilitated restiveness.

For all the promise of a more democratic Myanmar, even politically it is shaping up to be a pseudo-authoritarian state – lacking the natural forces to be truly representative at all levels.

Facing weak opposition and an winning an overwhelming 80 percent of available seats, the NLD take power with Suu Kyi vowing to “make all the decisions,” despite being barred from taking presidential post by the same constitution that retains 25 percent of seats for the military.

But, with question marks over how the military exercises its power, the political environment that Suu Kyi inherits may ironically be just the stage necessary to develop the nation.

Without a somewhat dictating hand, the liberties that unrestrained democracy brings may translate into the freedom to subjugate, hate and divide. But, with Suu Kyi’s aura, she can attempt to carve out a unifying long-term vision for the country.

She must tame military influence, manage inefficient ministries and act as a mediator across all ethnic parties.

A centrally planned development with employment projects, infrastructure investments and social welfare enhancement may create an economy that truly binds the vested interest of its people, rich to poor, Bamar to non-Bamar. Only when these divides are bridged will true democracy take root.

Suu Kyi’s task may echo that of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father.

A small ethnically divided nation, Lee championed nationalism and prepared Singapore for the global free market in his role as a visionary authoritarian. Suu Kyi, with her own maternalistic style, now has the opportunity to guide Myanmar – to forge a national identity and to create inclusive and broad-based development as the country opens.

There is a balancing act in Myanmar, fighting for the short-term phantom of democracy today may just inhibit its long-term evolution.

And so, while Aung San Suu Kyi embodies “the spirit of democracy” – in reality, it may be her role as a benevolent single-handed ruler that guides Myanmar forward.

Tej Parikh is an international affairs journalist currently based in Southeast Asia. He recently received his master’s degree from Yale University, with a focus on state building, ethnic conflict and fragile states. He tweets at @tejparikh90. He has written for the Guardian, Reuters, The Cambodia Daily and Global Politics Magazine.

Global Politics Magazine: Should We Empathize With Extremists?

(Global Politics Magazine 17/2/2016) When U.N Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suggested in a recent Security Council speech that an Israeli drive to build settlements beyond its territory partly fueled Palestinian extremism, it drew ire from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“There is no justification for terror,” responded Netanyahu. “The comments of the U.N. Secretary-General encourage terror.”

In the epochal ‘war on terror,’ the Netanyahu ‘them versus us rhetoric’ has dominated—from ground zero in New York to the bloodstained cafes of Paris.

Amid these ruins, anger and vengeance fester. But could this very human reaction to affliction exacerbate our struggle with violent fundamentalism?

Throughout history, humans have reacted to perceived grievances, oppression and struggle with violence. While ends do not justify the means—understanding injustices, rather than suppressing them, are the key to peace building.

Mr. Ban’s explanation for the Palestinian violence—occupation, settlement encroachment and a paralyzed peace process—was not offered by way of justification for violence. But he was seeking to bridge divides and perhaps connect Palestinian and Israeli narratives through a call for introspection.

For a victim of violent extremism it would be more gratifying to respond with commensurate force. But in order to break cycles of violence, targeting motivations are essential to de-fueling the fire.

Of course, grievances can be distorted and amplified, but no dialogue and divisive policy toward those associated with radical thoughts does little to halt or reverse the radicalization process. In fact, it solidifies it—by entrenching the view that ‘terrorists will be terrorists.’

In a recent study, the Quilliam foundation, an anti-extremism think tank, noted that “[Governments] must…ensure that the grievances that are exploited by extremists are not unwittingly exacerbated and that counter-narrative approaches are not derailed.”

Radicalization, defined as the process by which an individual or group comes to adopt extreme political, social or religious ideals, is not unique to any region or religion. It happened in 1930s Nazi Germany—and is occurring today in Burma, led by radical Buddhist monks opposed to Islam.

Though highly idiosyncratic, radicalization appears to find energy from a nexus of state building failures—be it ethnic conflict, economic inequality or social injustice, perceived or otherwise.

A greater awareness of the environments in which extremist ideologies, religious or otherwise, could permeate has led to a growing Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) movement.

The Soufan Group, a strategic intelligence firm, analogized CVE to inoculating against disease as opposed to costly and ineffective approaches of treating it after an ‘infection.’

For example, the UK’s Prevent CVE initiative broadly aims to support those vulnerable to extremism, address grievances and challenge ideologies.

But, many CVE programs have under-performed for lack of a clear vision and funding for essential community and NGO-level participation say experts.

Fashioning coherent, coordinated and well-resourced CVE programs on a domestic level is key to long-term security—alongside measured military action, intelligence gathering, law enforcement and state building assistance.

As events in Paris showed last year, nations remain exposed to homegrown extremism, which thrives in the dense, destitute and segregated districts of our capitals.

Molenbeek neighborhood, on the edge of Brussels—where several arrests were made in connection with the November Paris attacks—had a reputation for unemployment, crime and drugs. But, it largely fell under the radar amid Belgium’s bureaucratic and decentralized governance systems.

Such vulnerable environments will become ever more volatile as the estimated 27,000-30,100 battle-hardened Jihadi fighters who are currently in Iraq and Syria start filtering back to their home countries.

Yet for the past 15 years we have let anger drive our counter-terrorism policy, with quick-fire military reprisals to satisfy the short-term illusion of security. As things stand now, efforts aimed at de-radicalization, together with counter-narrative and general community development policies closer to home have barely gathered steam.

The desire to vilify those who commit and associate themselves with terrorist acts is understandable.

But we must not let such emotions cloud our awareness of the very rational processes and environments that lead people—at home and abroad—toward extremism in the first place.

Reuters: Is political correctness over ‘refugees’ putting lives in danger?

(Reuters 27/11/2015) “They are refugees, not terrorists,” read one late-summer Facebook status at the height of Europe’s “migrant crisis.”

With evidence that Ahmad Almohammad, one of the eight Paris attackers, masqueraded as a refugee en route to Europe, alongside BBC interviews with ‘migrants’ themselves expressing concern for phony refugees — a more intense light has been cast upon Europe’s pro-refugee activists.

From the southern borders of Hungary to the camps of Calais, Europe’s humanitarians have united to assist the stream of migrants entering the continent — while politicians bumble over policy and right-wing heretics tune-up anti-migrant rhetoric.

The European psyche on migration appears to have been caught off guard by the sheer pace of events — with the European Union’s statistics agency Eurostat estimating over 700,000 asylum applications in 2015 as just the tip of the iceberg.

The sudden on-screen bombardment of border camps, sea-faring tragedies and protests, seems to have dichotomized the continent into gung-ho humanitarians or fearful conservatives — leaving the continent devoid of the crucial middle-ground to move forward with effective solutions.

Social media messages post-Paris reverberated like deja-vu. “They are not terrorists — less than 0.00007 percent of Muslims are terrorists,” said one Facebook user to rapturous approval. The message appeared directed at the potential right-wing backlash.

Unfortunately, the cruel reality underlying that Facebook status — is that despite the statistically miniscule number of radical Muslims – it takes just one, armed with an AK-47 and explosive belt to kill and maim hundreds.

Why then have Europe’s humanitarians remained so staunchly pro-refugee?

In a Forbes guest post written by Steven Emerson, an executive director, and Pete Hoekstra, a senior fellow, at the Investigative Project on Terrorism, they lament the role of political correctness toward radical Islam in obstructing frank discussion.

“Remember that they [politicians] blamed the Benghazi massacre on an Internet video. Perhaps they will blame the ISIS [Paris] attacks on a TV show,” they said.

The reality of Paris is that a “refugee,” with allegiance to a militant group that puts forward a toxic interpretation of Islam, killed 130 innocent people.

It seems that merely reflecting on the role Islam has to play, and the risks of mass refugee intake, may leave people open to accusations of xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism.

It was a fate British Prime Minister David Cameron risked last week when claiming that we can no longer deny any connection between Islam and extremism. “Extremists are self-identifying as Muslims,” added Cameron.

Unrelenting political correctness is a double-edged sword; protecting people from offense, but failing to allow hard truths through.

In Europe, the clashing liberals and right-wingers fail to recognize that a clear understanding of the migrant issue requires elements of both viewpoints.

Helping the hundreds of thousands of needy people arriving on European shores is virtuous and a central tenet of a continent that has thrived with the free flow of individuals from diverse backgrounds.

Preventing refugees from entering Europe risks the build-up of marginalized and impoverished individuals on its borders. That creates the risk of igniting the powder keg that is the Balkans; a reality Europe’s fence builders are inviting.

But, likewise, letting too many refugees into the EU risks creating instability in Europe’s core, which is currently in the midst of a right-wing resurgence and slow economic recovery.

Unfortunately, with policymakers caught somewhere in between the activist and right-wing voices, policy, too, has become schizophrenic. While some EU states have agreed to house refugees, some union members, such as Germany, the UK and the Netherlands, have flirted with the idea of making their states less attractive to migrants by reducing the “pull” factors of welfare support.

This is a potent mix. Accepting thousands of refugees requires long-term commitments to their financial and social needs. Otherwise, Europe will create a breeding ground for disillusioned young individuals susceptible to perversions of Islam, or any other extremist agenda.

When the evocative scenes of Europe’s migrant crisis subside, the fear is that the humanitarian forces to integrate Europe’s new populace will also fade. Europe may not be importing terrorism today — at least not on the scale some on the right-wing seem to think — but a failure in assimilation can create a tinderbox for future extremism.

This means being more balanced on refugee intake, and filtering the flow of migrants into the continent effectively. Thus far, that effort has been wholly inadequate.

When the BBC’s Ed Thomas and Gabriel Gatehouse traveled to the Greek island of Leros last week to speak to Syrian migrants en route to Europe, one Syrian man said, “Check me properly, ask me the right questions… you must check, for my safety and your safety.”

The emotion of the migrant crisis has caught Europe unaware, and divided it between unrelenting fear and impractically open arms. The lack of rationality and perspective on the problem risks sinking the continent deeper into fear and danger.

Beyond Violence: The Cognitive Dissonance of Trumpian Logic

Beyond Violence ( 29  September 2015) “We will make America great again,” the stirring words of Donald Trump as he announced his candidacy for the 2016 U.S. presidential election in June. As Republican debate gains steam, sketchy details of a Trumpian utopia have emerged; largely expressed in terms of the U.S. reasserting its economic and foreign policy might—it seems, purely for the aura of being ‘the best’. The rhetoric and supposed national goal adopted by Trump’s campaign are reflective of hypocritical and damaging attitudes that are perpetuating the status quo of today’s world order.

Two days following Trump’s statement, the U.N. refugee agency released figures showing that there are more displaced people now, than at any other time since World War II. One in every 122 humans is, today, either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. War, conflict, and persecution are driving new human movements—and are increasingly bringing once distant nationalities, cultures, and religions closer together.

Countries of the developed world face the influx of peoples from where development has ‘failed‘ or been shrouded by conflict. Such global dynamics have subsequently influenced national politics. As the border fence rises in Hungary, ‘migrants’ swell in Calais, and Republicans stew over agendas on Mexican immigration—nationalist voices and right-wing politics are on the ascendency. And, driven by humanity’s innate aversion of ‘the other,’ fear mongering has become a political strategy befitting the times.

By painting people from different abodes and religions with the same brush, right-leaning ideologues are achieving such fear. They fear the importing of ill behaviors as individuals from these stigmatized backgrounds arrive at their shores. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” proclaimed Trump of Mexicans coming to the U.S., adding that such issues are “probably [coming] from the Middle East [too].” There, the ISIS limelight has also burdened the Islamic world. U.S. television host and political commentator, Bill Maher, proclaimed in September 2014 that; “the Muslim world has too much in common with ISIS.”. These incendiary broad-brush decrees derive from a lack of perspective, where poverty, conflict, and illicit activities of certain peoples are used to color entire associated groups.

Prejudicial views are not only unjust, but holding oneself to a higher moral worth on the basis of origin is also fundamentally hypocritical. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes, a 17th century political philosopher, described the natural state of humanity, devoid of a social contract or political ordering, as “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.” As ‘rational’ beings—animal spirits, driven by self-interest, prevail. In the developed world, where the iterative processes of development have played out over a longer time span, the laws, rules and regulations that tame our very innate behaviors have been reinforced. In the developing world, stunted by a colonial past, conflict and poor governance—crime and illicit activities find room to thrive. The restraining forces of the rule of law are yet to be effectively established, implemented, and enforced. Civility arises from development, not the other way round.

The developed world is thus not necessarily more civilized; it is rather better restrained from reverting to a Hobbesian ‘natural state’. When fissures open in its own ‘social contract,’ it too is not immune to the behaviors condemned in the developing world: As riots erupted across London in 2011,Libya and Iran ironically imposed U.K. travel warnings for its citizens, as opportunistic bandwagon rioters took advantage of temporary lawlessness to blindly loot due to…“taxes.”. And, across the developed world, the financial crisis was evidence of a failure of regulation in containing our avariciousness. Humans are, at the core, essentially one—regardless of origin, religion, and race.

Exercising caution through screening, documenting, and monitoring is important when opening doors to unknown persons—a point often overlooked by today’s petitioners and refugee activists who claim ‘more needs to be done.’ Yet, to seek political gain from stoking fear is to hold double standards between people of the developed and developing world. Advocates of such views suffer from a somewhat cognitive dissonance—preferring to see the absolute distinction of culture, religion, and nationality in the international ills of terrorism, refugee crises, and illicit trade ahead of the very common humanness of these issues or the role of interlinked global systems. Such a mindset subordinates the crucial importance of supporting development around the world.

In reality, the international ills facing the developed world today are largely the result of failed state building elsewhere. In a globalized system a gap in the laws that bind state, market, and civil society at the national level, sow the seeds for international maladies.

This is an unalterable paradigm where fearful, futile, and narrow-minded views of the developing world dominate, and where Trump-esque machismo foreign policy, that champions dominance for profiteering and ‘greatness,’ percolates in a world that yearns for peace, development, and inclusion.

Beyond Violence: Rising above the rhetoric

(Beyond Violence 27 July 2015) “When did a fence help anyone?” retorts Laszlo, a volunteer at Szeged train station, as a fifty-strong crowd of refugees herd around a new box of donations. The Hungarian government’s public disdain for immigrants intensified in mid-July with construction work commencing on a 175 km long a border wall with Serbia. At this transport hub in Hungary’s Southern Great Plain, civilians like Laszlo are banding together in support for those who have already made the arduous journey into central Europe. They are not just humanitarians – but symbols for coexistence, amid Europe’s growing xenophobic rhetoric.
blog imageA man familiarises himself with the help centre

Pooling the technical and monetary support of non-government organizations (NGO), Szeged’s locals have built an information booth with key facilities for refugees arriving in Hungary. “They come from all over; Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq” says Agnes, a staff member at Hungary’s Helsinki Committee, a human rights NGO. According to government figures, so far this year 60,000 migrants had arrived in Hungary – the second highest influx per capita in the European Union (EU).With Hungary’s presence in the Schengen Zone – entering the country is the Holy Grail to progressing, unhindered by border controls, toward the coveted countries of Northern Europe. “Many travel overland up through the Balkans, and then cross from Serbia,” Laszlo explains. “They will end up in Germany, Scandinavia and England.”

The ‘illiberal’ Hungarian government, led by populist president Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party, has recently ramped up nationalist strategies amid the inflow of refugees. Anti-immigration billboards written in Hungarian have sprung up around the country proclaiming, ‘if you come to Hungary, you cannot take the jobs of Hungarians’. The right-wing party also launched a national consultation entitled ‘immigration and terrorism’ – and flouted an EU asylum rule, which requires asylum seekers to be taken back to their first EU country of entry for asylum processing.

The political maneuvering has catalyzed both anti-immigration and humanitarian movements. On July 10, the extremist Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement attacked asylum seekers at Keleti train station in the country’s capital, Budapest – and just five days later a protest against the treatment of refugees began in front of the capital’s towering Saint Stephen’s Basilica. Protesters have faced an uphill battle in a country shifting further right, with activists even being arrested for defacing government propaganda.

Yet, in Szeged, a community has risen above the rhetoric and embraced compassionate values toward the arriving refugees. When asked whether the government offered any support to their voluntary work, Laszlo responded simply, “f**k no.” The plight of refugees arriving via Serbia circulated on Facebook, before volunteer doctors, organizational staff and students coordinated to set up the help station.


A family plans their next steps

‘You are now in Hungary’ reads the first line of the refugee’s information sheet – complete with travel, legal and health advice. Following capture by border police they are brought to Szeged train station – where they rehabilitate and receive free tickets to travel on to refugee camps around Hungary. Many simply use it to refresh and continue deeper into Europe.

“Shavers and shaving cream” yelps a young volunteer, waving the grooming instrument about in her hand. Facilitators come even in the form of 8th grade students. “The community have come together to provide free Wi-Fi, sanitation facilities and also security guards to protect the refugees from skinheads,” she added. Every time a new clothes donation arrives from nearby a charity or individual the crowd swarms in excitement.


A new box of donations arrive

In spite of the Szeged group’s activism, “Hungarian people are generally fearful and impacted by government views,” adds Laszlo. With Europe’s economic fallout right-wing politics has seen a resurgence from the United Kingdom to Germany. Weak growth combined with heightened concerns over extremism has stoked the rise of anti-immigration, anti-EU and even anti-Islam movements.

While issues of sovereign debt and immigration may unravel the EU, the ascendency of xenophobia alongside it attacks the very foundation of the European project – peace. Developments in Hungary including the scapegoating of foreigners, threats against refugees and the rise of a border wall, echo a Europe of yesteryear. The signs from history, where fervent nationalism has subordinated ‘the other’ through discrimination, segregation and violence, appear to be nascent in Europe today.

Those at the Szeged help center have not folded to the prevailing narrative of their government. “These people are fleeing war and conflict; not coming to steal our jobs” says another volunteer. A global vision has enabled them to see beyond the nationalist pictures painted by Hungarian authorities – and to focus on universal human values. Harnessing these mindsets and energies in civil society will be critical in stemming xenophobic movements in Britain, France, and Germany and beyond.

As young Afghan men walk about jovially, Syrian mothers tend to their children. There is a sense of relief and calm about their faces. Within 48 hours most would have left – to be replaced by a new group of exhausted and disoriented refugees.

While fences spring to preserve nationality – the small group of volunteers outside Szeged station are illustrating that there are no barriers to our common sense of humanity.


New hope- en route to Budapest

La Pura Vida

At the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, Leon’s parque central enlivens to a cacophonous tune. The clamour of market stalls, murmur of hymns and crackle of fireworks add to the joyous yelps of children opening their new presents in the town square. A young Nica boy acquaints himself with the controls of his new remote-controlled toy car as it accelerates from the commotion toward a quaint cafe.

It speeds through the heated scent of roasted coffee beans, before braking suddenly beneath the eaterIMG_20141224_210440y’s artsy wall decor. Next to portraits of Nicaraguan revolutionaries is the chalked quote of the day written in swanky italics, today’s is from Bertrand Russell; ‘the Good Life is inspired by love and guided by knowledge.’

The good life or the pure life, La Pura Vida, is a phrase adopted by Nicaragua’s southern neighbours, Costa Rica, yet synonymous with the wider Central American region. From Guatemala’s colonial town of Antigua, through to Panama City’s old quarter, Casco Viejo, people are unified by their unique pace of life. Here an unhurried, restful and contented demeanor largely underscores everyday interactions and transactions. Its as if the chase for a further buck is outweighed by the stress it necessitates.

Russell’s quote perhaps resonates most with Costa Rica. Following victory in the country’s civil war in 1948 the then President abolished the army; a constitution that still remains today. Instead, finances have been channeled toward education, which has aided in improving living standards and the country’s welfare system. La Pura Vida has become about living sustainably, with economic growth not only in harmony with the environment, but also with lifestyles. For IMG_20141225_124739critics, a culture that checks the pace of life also arrests economic development, and is therefore seen as complacent, lazy and inefficient. Yet La Pura Vida advocates would argue that its viability avoids the stresses and the ‘rat race’ induced excesses of modern-day capitalism.

Along the PanAmerican Highway at Penas Blancas, on the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, scores of Costa Rican women meet crossing tourist buses. They offer wholesome hot empanadas, crisp plantain and sandwiches to hungry travellers. Despite the urgency of their situation, they approach in laughter, bantering among one another and not competing for customers. There is a somewhat genuineness to the services they provide, offering disposable plates, napkins and water at no extra cost. A stark contrast to what may be more common in the ‘western world,’ where the centrality of money almost devalues the humanness of service into purely a ‘transaction’. The women at Penas Blancas cherish the esteem and satisfaction, in addition to the  finances, that their occupation brings.

IMG_20141225_123830For the Central American region as a whole, historic circumstances may have built the foundations for current lifestyles and culture. A long suffering people, from the time of Spanish conquest through to extensive periods of civil war, the populace is arguably inured to the plundering of its wealth. ‘Seven families own Guatemala, we are not part of any’ adds Jairo in laughter, pointing down the cobbled street, as he polishes a mustachioed man’s shoe under the shade of Antigua’s iconic Santa Catalina arch.

Poor governance and rife inequality have humbled these people. There is a somewhat gratitude for the possessions they do own, and a worriless approach to life that maximizes on community ties and minimizes on greed. From Plaza Salvador del Mundo in San Salvador, to Plaza de la Independencia in Granada, Nicaragua, families and friends congregate each evening to share platos tipicos and enjoy card games. Perhaps a difficulty to dream beyond the confines of what they do have has sharpened their sense of the present, and desire to obtain total satisfaction from it.

Now the clatter IMG_20141228_080017of horse hooves join the pandemonium in Leon, as carriages shuttle families to and fro. As lemon and guava juice mixers run low, locals share white rum shots by handing out cups to any sober looking passers. Like the wayward toy car there is a seeming disorder to proceedings here. Yet like the boy at its control; the beat of Central America is driven by gratitude and steered by a smile. La Pura Vida

Related Articles:

Living La Pura Vida- The Huffington Post

‘Speed Limits’ examines modern society’s ever quickening pace of life – LA Times

Which countries have a faster pace of life?-  The Business Insider