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The Christian Science Monitor

Is Myanmar about to rejoin the world?

One of the three most closed and isolated countries in the world is opening up. The long-repressed Burmese say it's unbelievable - but they want to believe in a new Myanmar.

By our correspondent in Yangon, who could not be identified for security reasons.
Yangon, Myanmar

Soon after dawn one recent morning, before the full force of Myanmar's oppressive heat had gathered, a slim young woman in a white blouse and a long green wrap-around skirt stood outside a factory gate on a tree-lined, potholed avenue on the outskirts of Yangon and surveyed the crowd of several hundred women like her squatting or sitting in the dust at her feet.

Moe Wai was doing something that had been unthinkable since the military seized power in a coup a half century ago in what was then called Burma (the military government changed the name of the country to Myanmar in 1989); she was organizing an independent trade union.

She spoke simply to the women and girls who listened silently, all workers at Tai Yi, a ­Taiwanese-owned footwear manufacturer where they earn about $3.50 a day, including overtime. "An organization would be more effective than individuals when it comes to making our demands," she explained.

Little more than a year ago, that kind of talk might have earned Ms. Moe Wai a long jail sentence. Today, however, the right to organize a union is enshrined in a new labor law, one of a slew of liberalizing reforms that Myanmar's nominally civilian government has enacted or planned since it took office in March 2011.

The new government, dominated by President Thein Sein and other former generals, has freed several hundred political prisoners (though many are still behind bars), relaxed censorship (though not abolished it), and held parliamentary by-elections earlier this month that pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi swept in a landslide victory.

Where these changes are leading, and how lasting they will be, nobody is quite sure. Many, like Dhin Dhin Mar who cuts leather at Tai Yi, are reserving judgment. "We'll see how much use this union is when we hear what's happened to our wages," she says.

But there is a palpable mood of hope in Yangon as people allow themselves to dream that their country may at last be on a path out of the fearful, downtrodden poverty to which decades of harsh and incompetent military rule have condemned it.

"The fear factor is gone," says Thiha Saw, a crusading newspaper editor. "People are getting bolder and bolder. We call ourselves 'Brave New Burma.' "

This is no Arab Spring

Do not mistake Myanmar's emergence from its repressive cocoon for an Asian variant of the Arab Spring. The citizenry may have yearned for greater freedom, but the Army had little difficulty in suppressing two outbursts of popular anger – a student uprising in 1988 and the so-called Saffron Revolution led by Buddhist monks in 2007.

Today's transition to democracy – if that is what it turns out to be – is happening on the military's own carefully planned terms, following a blueprint drawn up 10 years ago.

"The [civilian] government itself is an outcome of goodwill of Tatmadaw," the official daily New Light of Myanmar recently reminded its readers, using the Burmese word for the Army.

Just why the military decided to withdraw from the day-to-day running of the country is a question that has scholars and observers scratching their heads. Perhaps the generals realized how far behind its neighbors Myanmar had fallen economically; maybe they feared the country's heavy dependence on China; possibly they concluded they could lead their nation no further up a political and economic dead-end street. In any event, they wanted broader international acceptance and an end to US and other Western economic sanctions; only a move toward democracy would unlock that door.

Some regime opponents remain skeptical. "I know these people," says former Air Force Capt. Zaw Nyunt, who joined the 1988 uprising and then spent six years in exile in Thailand. "This is a period of soft political winds, but it won't last long. When they've got the right engagement with the West ... the winds will change."

Most of those hoping for change, though, are focusing more on what use they can make of the new political space that has opened up, now that the generals appear to have decided that "politics" is not a threat to Myanmar's security.

Most dramatically they voted overwhelmingly for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) in the April 1 elections, giving the party 43 of the 45 parliamentary seats at stake and propelling Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, where she had spent 15 of the past 20 years, to a leading national role.

"This is a free country. We have a right to vote," said Win Win Aye, a housewife explaining why she had gone to the polls. "Aung San Suu Kyi is like a mother to us."

The by-election results will not change the formal balance of power in parliament, where the military's proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) holds the lion's share of the 664 seats. The NLD will not have the votes to amend the Constitution, which the military wrote in 2008 to ensure its continued power: Chapter 1 guarantees the Army's "national political leadership role" and 25 percent of the members of parliament are military officers, a large enough bloc to prevent the majority needed for major constitutional change.

"Essential power will remain with the military, and they will play a central role for the foreseeable future," says David Steinberg, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and doyen of American Myanmar scholars. "I don't think Aung San Suu Kyi will be able to change that."

But the government will no longer be able to treat her as a "nonperson," nor does it want to ignore her any longer; it needs her to play an active role because Western governments will listen primarily to her advice as they consider lifting sanctions.

Aung San Suu Kyi needs the military, too, given its central role in modern Burmese history and its reluctance to return completely to the barracks. "It is particularly important that the military should be behind our reform process," she said just before the elections. "We hope to win the military over to understand that we have to work together."

Curiously, given her bitter experience at the hands of the previous military junta, she may be just the person to rally her former jailers.

Saintly reputation with authoritarian streak

Aung San Suu Kyi is an accidental politician, though she has honed her skills – and her meditation technique – even during long periods of house arrest in her family home, set amid spreading lawns on a small lake in central Yangon.

In 1988 she was living in England, but had traveled to Burma to visit her sick mother. When a student uprising broke out, she became a figurehead, and soon a leader, because of her ancestry: She is the daughter of Gen. Aung San, founding father of the Burmese Army and the nation, who was assassinated before Burma won independence in 1948. He is a national hero, after whom avenues are named.

Aung San Suu Kyi draws strongly on this legacy for her extraordinary popular support across the nation. And on the foundation of this positive name recognition she has built her own reputation from a powerful mixture of charm, charisma, and moral fortitude in resisting dictatorship and refusing exile, even as her British husband lay dying in Oxford in 1999.

"Gen. Aung San had two heirs: his daughter and the Burmese military," says a European diplomat who asked not to be identified by name. "Aung San Suu Kyi wants to unite them and embody their union; she does not present herself as an enemy of the Army as an institution, just of the way they have behaved."

Indeed, the almost saintly reputation she enjoys masks an occasionally authoritarian streak, say some who know her. "When important decisions have to be made quickly, she must act like a captain on the battlefield," says Myo Nan Naung Thein, a sometime aide to the NLD leader. "But discussion and debate are impossible – almost nobody else [in the party leadership] ever says no to her."

The NLD certainly has organizing power, but there is no doubt that the party owes its popularity almost entirely to its leader. It has no political platform beyond vague calls for national reconciliation and the rule of law, and little leadership depth. Though Aung San Suu Kyi is gathering a younger generation of advisers, veterans still fill key party positions.

"I met the 'uncles' recently," Professor Steinberg recalls of a discussion with the NLD top brass. "I was probably the youngest man in the room, and I'm 83."

"If the NLD was a soccer team, it would be one without a midfield and without fullbacks," says Khin Zaw Win, a former political prisoner who now works as a community activist. "They just have one lone striker."

That suggests that even should the NLD score the kind of victory at general elections due in 2015 that it won on April 1, some sort of ruling coalition with the military and the USDP might be the only viable outcome.

"All we've done in the opposition is sit in prison," laments Mr. Myo Nan Naung Thein. "We've read books, but we have been far away from power. If power was handed instantly to the NLD it would be a disaster."

In a country where individual leaders have always been more important than institutions, it is perhaps inevitable that the political process now under way should be based on a personal accommodation between two leaders – Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein, who persuaded her at their meeting last August to run for election.

But "that is very fragile," warns Steinberg. "Things have to move beyond these two people."

Aung San Suu Kyi may be the face of the opposition, indeed the face of Myanmar, to the outside world. "But hers is not the only voice," says Hla Hla Win, a researcher with Egress, a leading educational nongovernmental organization in Yangon. "Civil society leaders are taking new roles, and helping get people's voices heard."

Many other political voices

The voices that Moe Naing wants the world to hear are not obviously political; they are the voices of the a cappella choir he has formed at the Gitameit Music Center. The school is Myanmar's first such venture, housed in a rambling old hardwood-floored home in northwestern Yangon now ringing with the joyous cacophony of students practicing piano, guitar, and cello, and singing in small, poorly soundproofed rooms.

But there is a subtle political component to what Mr. Moe Naing is doing when he directs the choir, which all students must join. And that's what makes his music school more than just a place to learn music, turning it into another small brick in the growing edifice of Myanmar's growing civil society.

"There's a lot of meaning in music," says the former keyboards session musician, sitting in his office in front of a wall-to-wall gilded bas-relief representing Buddha. "Singing choir is working together. We can improve our unity and develop our sharing of ideas. There is a lot more result than just music, and it is thrilling to see this development."

All over Myanmar, but especially in the cities, young people are hard at work trying to rebuild social networks and give those networks purpose in a country where 50 years of dictatorship means they are starting from scratch: The military trashed the education system, banned independent unions and professional organizations, reined in charity groups, and ruled a fractured society with an iron fist.

For example, in a classroom at the British Council (the British government's cultural arm), the English Conversation Club that meets each Sunday afternoon is an exercise in consciousness raising as much as a lesson in vocabulary and grammar.

On a recent Sunday, volunteer teacher Khin Soe Min led a discussion of a simple fictional story the group had read about a tree in danger of being cut down to make way for a mall, threatening the birds, insects, and squirrels that had made their homes in its branches.

Demonstrations, letters to the mayor, and an appeal to the courts blocked the building of the mall and saved the tree. "If you stay silent, nothing happens. If you want something, you have to do something," Mr. Khin Soe Min said. But that was only part of the message he had hoped to get across. The value of trees, and the importance of the natural environment, was another key element, he explained. "I don't just want people to protest. I want them to understand why they are demonstrating, because they have knowledge."

Knowledge is in desperately short supply in Myanmar, where schools are poorly staffed, universities have been repeatedly closed to choke off student unrest, many educated Burmese have gone into exile, and international isolation has starved students of learning material.

But since cyclone Nargis killed 130,000 people and ravaged the Irrawaddy Delta in 2008, prompting a wave of volunteers to help with relief efforts, a plethora of nongovernmental organizations has sprung up to provide the sort of welfare and social services the government should provide but does not. Gradually, some of them have expanded their activities into the political realm of civic education.

Khin Zaw Win, for example, regularly leads groups of young trainers into the countryside where they typically base themselves at a Buddhist monastery and hold week-long courses for village leaders on leadership, management, social development, and any other issues they ask about.

"The questions are interesting," says Mr. Khin Zaw Win. "What is parliament? What is a member of parliament meant to do? What can we do about relations with China and the impact of their hydro projects on the environment? No question is too simple, and it's a pleasure to answer them. People are so hungry for this kind of thing."

"After decades of quiescence, we've found our people are quick to wake up ... and understand they have a part to play in the destiny of our country," says Aung San Suu Kyi.

Shaking citizens awake

Among those shaking his countrymen awake is Poe Phyu, a young lawyer who has made a name for himself helping peasant farmers defend their land rights – and has been sent to jail twice for his pains. He consults in a small, bare-walled, concrete-floored apartment furnished with just two desks and a few plastic chairs, overlooking a noisy alley in central Yangon. A few weather-beaten farmers wait patiently as he expounds (loudly – he is partly deaf as a result of prison beatings) on his new interest, labor unions.

Mr. Poe Phyu is helping the women at Tai Yi set up their union, but he admits that he is learning as he goes. "Burmese labor lawyers like me suffer from idea bankruptcy," he complains. "Most of us in this field have not learned international labor standards." So he is teaching himself: On the floor by his desk are piles of documents he found on the Internet – the Constitution of the "Labour Protect" trade union in South Africa, a piece of European Union legislation on works councils, guidelines from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on good industrial relations practice.

Basic grass-roots efforts like this are having an impact, both on people's awareness and on government and business behavior. "NGOs have influence," says Kyaw Thu, who heads a coalition of local and international activist groups.

NGO lobbying persuaded parliament to amend a land law last year, he points out; a media campaign by environmental groups forced the government to suspend construction of a coal-fired power plant near the planned port of Dawei last January; and a women's group working with the Rakhine ethnic minority obliged Indian investors to do environmental and social impact assessments before going ahead with a development project that threatens to displace local families.

But the pressure groups' crowning victory, a triumph whose implications reverberated far beyond Myanmar's borders, came last September, when the government suspended work on the Myitsone Dam.

The shadow of China changes shape

Myitsone lies at the confluence of two rivers that join to form the Irrawaddy, Myanmar's sacred watercourse. It also lies at the confluence of two key challenges for the Myanmar government – its relations with neighboring China and its relations with ethnic minorities.

Ever since the previous military junta signed a $3.6 billion deal with a Chinese state-owned company to build a giant dam and hydropower station at Myitsone, in the northern state of Kachin, the project has been controversial.

Environmentalists feared ecological damage; the Kachin Independence Organization, which has been at war with the government on and off for decades, was angered by the desecration of its homeland; many people in Myanmar resented the fact that 90 percent of the project's electricity would be fed to China, while they themselves suffer persistent power cuts.

The dam, however, was a centerpiece of Sino-Burmese cooperation and an emblem of China's leading role in Myanmar's economic development. So when the new government bowed to a public campaign last September and announced the suspension of work on the project, it was a clarion call to the world that Myanmar's relationship with China was changing, and that the country was ready to reorient itself.

For 15 years, Myanmar has been an international pariah, subject to economic sanctions by the United States and other Western governments as punishment for human rights violations against political opponents and ethnic rebels. Starved of capital, technology, and markets, the ruling generals turned to China for diplomatic and economic support.

Chinese businessmen have poured into the north of the country, selling Chinese-made goods, establishing rubber plantations, and buying up timber, gems, and jade. Beijing sold the weapons to the junta, and its state-owned enterprises launched giant construction projects, such as a pipeline designed to carry oil and gas from a port on Myanmar's Indian Ocean coast to central China.

That pipeline, giving China its first direct access to the Indian Ocean, will be of extreme geopolitical significance to Beijing. Myanmar's generals, many of whom cut their teeth fighting Chinese-backed Communist rebels 40 years ago, appear to have seen potential danger in becoming so important to China, while needing its giant neighbor so badly.

The danger might be diffused if Myanmar had better relations with the West, and comments by senior US and European officials in the wake of the recent elections suggest they are prepared to start lifting sanctions, if only gradually.

Officially, Beijing has welcomed such a prospect. On the ground, though, Chinese influence seems bound to wane, say Chinese analysts.

"If Burma is to build relations with the West, it will have to make gestures that sacrifice Chinese interests," argues Du Jifeng, a Myanmar expert at the China Academy for Social Sciences in Beijing. "Chinese political and economic interests will definitely suffer, and Burma will not have to rely so much on China anymore."

That, of course, suits US policymakers, as they implement President Obama's "pivot to Asia," a shift of US geostrategic emphasis toward China's neighbors – such as Vietnam, the Philippines, and Myanmar – who are nervous about the Asian giant's burgeoning influence in the region.

Though the suspension of the Myitsone Dam project appears to have been mainly a gesture to the outside world, it also gratified the Kachin, one of the myriad ethnic minority groups that together make up more than 30 percent of the population and which have long resented domination by the majority Burmese ethnic group.

The Union of Myanmar, as the country is formally known, is a union in name only. The government has been fighting civil wars – using often savage tactics – with one or other of the ethnic minority armies in Myanmar's mountainous periphery ever since the country was founded in 1948.

Currently, only the Kachin are engaged in open hostilities. But more than 50,000 men and women remain under arms, and cease-fires with other ethnic groups such as the Shan, the Karen, and the Mon – leaving the rebels in administrative control of large areas – have only frozen the conflicts without resolving the minorities' grievances or granting their demands for political, economic, and cultural autonomy.

"The biggest challenge facing the country since independence is the relationship between the majority and minority populations," says Steinberg, of Georgetown University. "The real question is not democracy but a fair distribution of power and resources, and this is very, very difficult because there is exceedingly little trust on either side."

There are few signs yet of any willingness to compromise. The military has made national unity one of its cardinal values and sees federalism as the first step toward disintegration of the state. Aung San Suu Kyi campaigned recently on a platform of national reconciliation and wore ethnic dress when she visited minority areas, but she has never set out her vision of how she would seek to end more than six decades of civil war.

"The key to stability and democracy here is an answer to the ethnic issue," says the European diplomat. "That is the central problem facing the country, and there is still a big question mark hanging over it."

A whiff of profit attracts investors

Nor is the economic future entirely clear either, as the government and its team of foreign-trained advisers scramble to drag the country into the 21st century.

Myanmar has fallen decades behind its neighbors. Here, computers have not entirely replaced ancient ledgers, the infrastructure largely dates from the British colonial era, and once grand public buildings lie in disrepair.

Fifty years ago, Burma was a prosperous nation, the largest rice exporter in the world; but half a century of mismanagement under military rule ground it down until it became the second-poorest country in Asia, after Afghanistan, and the third-most-corrupt country in the world, according to Transparency International's rankings, above only North Korea and Somalia.

Myanmar is rich in natural resources, though. It has oil and gas reserves, huge stands of tropical timber, gems, jade, and precious metals. It also has a population of 60 million people, making it the second-largest market in Southeast Asia, and the lobbies of Yangon's handful of smart hotels are full of foreign businessmen who sniff profits on the winds of change.

Myanmar's own citizens have not yet seen any economic benefit from the new government, aside from pensioners and civil servants whose incomes were raised last year. But the authorities are drawing up a new foreign investment law and a new Special Economic Zone regime that they hope will encourage job creation by international companies.

Even if Western sanctions are lifted soon, though, allowing US and European companies to invest in Myanmar and allowing its banks to carry out international financial transactions, "we will not see an overnight El Dorado," cautions one Western diplomat.

"The most important thing is that the foreign investment climate be transparent and predictable," says one local economist with inside knowledge of policymaking who asked not to be identified by name. "This means that we have many problems to solve. All the systems we have used for 60 years need to be changed."

The government has made a start on economic reforms by unifying the exchange rate. But it has yet to tackle the antiquated and isolated banking system – most of Myanmar's economy works on cash – let alone start building the sort of independent judiciary that could rule in contract disputes or challenge the interests of the small group of crony capitalists who dominate the economy, amassing huge fortunes thanks to their close ties with the military.

Daunting practical problems confront would-be businessmen as well: Mobile phones work only intermittently, Internet connections are impossibly slow, power outages are frequent, the roads are often almost impassably potholed, and most of the railroads, built more than 100 years ago, are in disrepair.

Perhaps even more seriously, the country's workforce suffers from an acute shortage of skills and education.

"Everyone is talking about democracy and change, but we don't have the institutions we need, and we don't have the knowledge," complains the economist. "We should have an advantage as a latecomer, being able to learn from other countries' mistakes. But we can take that advantage only if we know what happened in other countries, and almost nobody here does know."

"There is a danger that the reforms will founder because the capacity to conceive and implement them is so limited," agrees Steinberg. "That, rather than opposition to reform, could be the real danger to the country."

An 'unbelievable' tipping point

Opposition to the reforms does undoubtedly lurk in high places; hard-liners in the military are keeping their counsel at the moment, but how long will that last? The generals might accept that the opposition's landslide victory at the recent by-elections was the price the country had to pay for rapprochement with the West, but if future economic reforms strike at corruption and threaten the military's economic interests, will they be prepared to pay that price, too?

The 2008 Constitution gives the Army the legal right to take the national reins again in the event of an ill-defined "emergency," but for the time being, that possibility seems remote.

"We've reached the tipping point," says Khin Zaw Win. "It would be very costly for anyone who tried to turn the clock back now, and I don't think it is in the realm of the possible anymore."

Looking back on a year of reforms, and forward to the further liberalization that the government has promised, one young journalist captures the mixture of bewilderment and hope that the changes have stirred in so many of her fellow citizens: "It's unbelievable," she says. "But I believe it."

[Editor's note: Our correspondent in Yangon could not be identified for security reasons.]


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The Christian Science Monitor

No more political prisoners in Myanmar?

Many are skeptical of Myanmar’s recent promise to let them all go by the end of the year.

By Joseph J. Schatz, Correspondent / July 24, 2013 at 9:35 am EDT
Yangon, Myanmar

No more political prisoners in Myanmar?

That’s what President Thein Sein is promising the world, by the end of the year.

His reformist government made a downpayment on his vow by releasing 73 prisoners on Tuesday, just after a trip to Europe that included a visit to 10 Downing Street to meet with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

But critics, including former prisoners who did time for their political activities, argue there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. For one thing, people are still being locked up on grounds that they consider political, such as for recent protests against a Chinese-run copper mine in northwestern Myanmar.

The government’s prisoner releases, which have occurred periodically since the transition from military to civilian rule began in 2011, also appear politically timed and motivated, they say, always coming right before or after a big meeting with an American or European leader.

“This is great news, but we have doubts,” says Thiha Win Tin, who was imprisoned for political activities surrounding the antigovernment “Saffron Revolution of 2007 and served three years of a five-year sentence before being released in one of Thein Sein’s initial amnesties in 2011. “Sometimes they play a political trick for international image.”

The 20-something is a member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, formerly an underground organization that advocates for a general, and immediate, amnesty.

Still, it’s improvement from two years ago, when Thein Sein denied the very existence of political prisoners.

The state-run English language newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, said Wednesday that the prisoner amnesty was granted “with the aim of placing emphasis on humanitarian grounds and encouraging them to be able to serve the national interest after understanding the goodwill of the State.”

It also helped change the subject, for the moment. United Nations Chief Ban Ki-moon, who earlier this month criticized the Myanmar government for not doing enough to stem anti-Muslim violence, cheered Tuesday’s announcement. “He hopes that these and other measures undertaken recently in the country’s transition to democracy will further strengthen efforts toward a comprehensive nationwide cease-fire and national reconciliation in Myanmar,” said a spokesperson.

The prisoner issue is a continuing obstacle in the relationship between the United States and Myanmar. The European Union has eliminated most sanctions on the former pariah state. But even though the US government has eased restrictions, the existence of political prisoners is one key factor that has prevented President Obama and the US Congress from fully abolishing them.

It’s notoriously difficult to determine how many such prisoners remain in Myanmar’s jails, given the still-opaque nature of the government. Estimates range from just over 100 to several hundred.

In part it goes to the definition of “political prisoner.” Some say it should include only “prisoners of conscience” jailed for peaceful political activities. Other say it should encompass the many jailed members of ethnic militias in Myanmar’s long-contested border areas, and rural villagers who may have unwittingly been caught up political disputes.

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Reforms in Myanmar: 4 reasons the military changed course

For more than half a century, Myanmar’s military governments were synonymous with brutality and corruption. Accused of savagery in their prosecution of civil wars with rebellious ethnic minorities, drug running, forced labor on a massive scale, and other human rights violations, successive generals brought the country, once one of Southeast Asia’s most prosperous nations, to economic ruin.

A year ago the military stepped aside, handing power to a nominally civilian government made up largely of former generals that have instituted political reforms, signed ceasefires with most of the ethnic minorities, and promised economic modernization. Here are four reasons why the military changed its course:

By A Correspondent   
posted March 30, 2012 at 11:36 am EDT

Leaders protecting themselves

Gen. Than Shwe, the man who ran Myanmar (Burma) until last year, may have had his eye on history when he handed over power. Traditionally, Myanmar's military dictators who handed over power to the successive dictator have soon found themselves in jail or under house arrest and their relatives stripped of the wealth they had accumulated.
 
By paving the way to a nominally civilian government, Than Shwe made sure that power is no longer wielded by one man who would be strong enough to turn on him. Instead, power in Myanmar today is diffused among the military, different factions of the government, and an increasingly active and demanding parliament.

Than Shwe is now quietly in the background, presumably enjoying the material fruits he gathered while he ran Burma and decided who should be granted lucrative business deals in the resource-rich country.
 
Decreasing dependence on China

Isolated from most of the western world by its behavior and by economic sanctions, Myanmar has been forced to rely more and more on its giant neighbor China. Beijing did its diplomatic best to support Myanmar in international fora and became Myanmar’s indispensable ally: the generals get all their weapons from China (which can set the price and the quality, in the absence of competition), do 35 percent of their trade with China, and have let Chinese firms build controversial dams in Myanmar to feed the Chinese appetite for hydroelectricity.
 
Chinese businessmen and traders have been flooding into northern Myanmar in recent years, and they are not popular with the local people. Indeed, the Burmese have long mistrusted China, and the military has not forgotten that it spent a lot of time, and lost a lot of lives, putting down a Communist rebellion supported by Beijing.
 
The Myanmar government appeared to decide that the only way to lessen its humiliating and debilitating dependence on China was to introduce a little competition from western nations. But to do that, they had to persuade Washington and the European Union to lift the economic sanctions imposed because of their human rights violations. The best way to do that was to launch a political opening, and persuade the world that Myanmar was on the road to democracy. Hence the elections.
 
Ending western sanctions and economic woes

For 26 years, until 1988, the military government led by Ne Win imposed what it called a “Burmese Road to Socialism” which bore many similarities to North Korea’s economic path and led to many of the same appalling results. Subsequent efforts to open up the economy bore some fruit, but as more and more senior Myanmar officials traveled around Southeast Asia, the realization of just how far behind this country fell sunk in. Fifty years ago Burma was the biggest rice exporter in the world. Today it is the poorest country in Southeast Asia. They see this as a matter for national shame.
 
Myanmar has committed itself to joining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) common market in 2015; if it is going to be able to catch up and keep up it needs to bring its economy into the 21st century, and to do that it needs international help from as many directions as possible. That means an end to western sanctions – and that means democratization, or at least enough to satisfy the West.
 
Little credit goes to "Arab Spring"

What is happening in Myanmar, however, is not an Asian version of the “Arab Spring.” The generals launched themselves on the road to political reform several years ago, albeit slowly – long before they might have been frightened into it by events in the Middle East.
 
More importantly, the reforms have not come as a result of popular uprisings; in fact the government successfully (if brutally) put down uprisings in 1988 and 2007, when many observers thought Buddhist monks might be leading a “Saffron Revolution.” Instead, the reform process has been imposed from the top down. The generals decided for their own reasons (see previous points) that they wanted to leave power on their own terms.

Of course, watching the “Arab Spring” unrest spread around the Middle East, they probably congratulated themselves for being prescient.

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The Christian Science Monitor

Myanmar's about-face: 5 recent reforms

Since 1962, Myanmar's dictatorship has jailed the opposition, beat up monks, denied aid to disaster victims, and run scorched-earth campaigns against ethnic minorities. That may be changing, however. Here are five key changes the regime has made in just a matter of months:

By Simon Roughneen, Correspondent   
posted February 8, 2012 at 11:36 am EST

1.Holding free and fair elections

April 1, 2012, is the date Myanmar’s military-backed civilian government has set aside for parliamentary by-elections.

Opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi – forced to live under house arrest for years – is slated to run, along with other candidates from her National League for Democracy (NLD) Party.

If the vote is free and fair, as Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, has promised, it could go a little way in helping to democratize the government. The United States says it will reduce sanctions after April 1, if the elections are fair. But the key test is what comes after that.

In 1990, the NLD won elections only for the Army to keep Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years rather than let her govern. Aung San Suu Kyi remains hugely popular and there is little doubt she will be elected this year to parliament.

Though letting Aung San Suu Kyi take a seat would be a significant about-face for the government, only 40 seats of the 440 lower house seats are available, so the balance of power would not change. The Army holds a veto-wielding 25 percent of the seats, and almost 80 percent of the rest are held by the Army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.

2.Currying favor with the West

Looming north of Myanmar (also known as Burma), booming China is its biggest investor and ally. Beijing has regularly protected its neighbor from condemnations and sanctions attempts by the United Nations Security Council.

As evidence of the close ties, Myanmar’s military government proposed a $3.6 billion dam project to China in 2006 and signed a contract in 2009 with China Power to build it.

The mammoth Myitsone dam in Kachin State in the north, close to southwest China, was controversial from the beginning with locals, as it was slated to flood an area the size of Singapore but send 90 percent of the power generated to China. Still, it didn’t seem to budge Myanmar.

Anger culminated in 2011 when citizens campaigned against a dam that would, they say, undermine the ecology of the Irrawaddy River, the country’s main waterway.

Then, Mr. Thein Sein shocked China – and many Burmese citizens skeptical that the government would undertake real reform – by suspending the deal last September.

And just as the US has been cozying up to Vietnam after Hanoi took umbrage at China’s muscle-flexing on the disputed South China Sea, Myanmar’s reforms give Washington, which has been eyeing resource-rich Myanmar, a reason to scale back sanctions and become friendly.

If Myanmar complies with the list of reforms the West has requested, then the US will allow its companies to invest in Myanmar, broadening its footprint in Asia, to China’s chagrin.

But there may be limits to a greater US presence in Myanmar. China has put $14 billion into Myanmar in recent years and is well placed to counter what it sees as US encirclement in Asia. Aung San Suu Kyi has said that Myanmar needs friendly relations with China, no matter how ties with the West change.

3.Calling for peace

Myanmar’s Army has long been accused of widespread human rights violations in ethnic minority regions, a vast arc stretching from the Myanmar-Bangladesh frontier in the west to the border with Thailand to the southeast. Two areas of fighting have been particularly bloody.

Myanmar’s Army and the Kachin Independence Army, a 10,000-strong militia seeking increased local autonomy for the largely-Christian Kachin, one of the larger of Myanmar’s 130-odd minorities, have been fighting since June 2011. The government of Myanmar and the KIA are having talks in China about a truce, but fighting continues. Still, though some estimate it could take a few years, talks could pave the way for peace in Kachin State.

And then there is the Karen National Union (KNU), a militia from the Karen ethnic group living mainly near the Thai border, which has been fighting the Army since around the end of World War II.

There have not really ever been any formal truces, but earlier in January the government announced a truce with the KNU that is being taken as a signal that Myanmar’s government wants to make peace – though many exiled dissidents are hesitant.
4.Releasing prisoners

The big story in Myanmar lately has been the freeing of some 600 political prisoners.

Among those released were Zarganar, the country’s most famous comedian, jailed after criticizing the government’s (lack of) response to 2008 cyclone Nargis, which killed at least 140,000 people – though Burmese officials quoted in WikiLeaks cables say the toll could have been twice that.

Also freed was Paw U Tun, better known by his nickname Min Ko Naing, or “Conqueror of Kings,” who led student protests against Army rule as far back as 1988 and was again jailed after the 2007 “Saffron Revolution,” named for the color of robes worn by the thousands of monks who fronted the protest.

The sight of these men and women walking free has been compared to Nelson Mandela’s release from jail in South Africa in 1990.

And the man at the helm, Thein Sein, has been called an F.W. de Klerk – the regime insider who ended apartheid in South Africa.

Aung San Suu Kyi says she trusts Thein Sein, but many dissidents, particularly those in exile, remain skeptical, saying he is the figurehead rather than the driving force behind changes that have baffled and surprised many.

5.Relaxing curbs on press and people

Myanmar's long years of military rule meant some of the tightest restrictions on the press anywhere outside of North Korea. A censorship board vetted all publications – and still does, for political or news content at least – and routinely excised chunks of articles and more if the content was in any way "critical" of the government.

The country's parliament is scheduled to discuss a new media law in coming weeks, with local journalists hopeful the censors will be disbanded.

In late 2011, the Myanmar government also announced laws permitting the formation of trade unions – banned up until then as the government feared the prospect of groups of disgruntled workers in Myanmar's decrepit economy forming mass associations. It also announced a new code permitting public demonstrations, so long as these are pre-approved by the police.


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« Reply #8266 on: Aug 22, 2013, 07:27 AM »


Bo Xilai defiant as trial opens in China

Disgraced politician denies first bribery charge levelled against him in Jinan court, where he is also accused of corruption and abuse of power

Jonathan Kaiman in Jinan and Tania Branigan   
theguardian.com, Thursday 22 August 2013 10.26 BST

The trial of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai began on Thursday morning at a courthouse in eastern China amid small protests and intense media scrutiny, opening the last chapter in the country's most dramatic political shakeup in decades.

But in a surprising show of defiance, Bo denied the first bribery charge levelled against him: that he received about 1m yuan (£115,000) in bribes from Tang Xiaolin, the head of Dalian International Development, between 2002 and 2005.

"Regarding the matter of Tang Xiaolin giving me money three times, I once admitted it against my will during the Central Discipline Inspection Commission's investigation against me," he said, referring to the country's top anti-corruption watchdog.

"Back then, I was not fully aware of the details, my mind was blank," he added.

Bo has been formally accused of bribery, corruption and abuse of power, and is standing trial at an intermediate court in Jinan, the capital of coastal Shandong province. He arrived at the courthouse in a silver minivan at around 8.20am and the trial formally began shortly afterwards, according to official reports on Sina Weibo, the country's most popular microblog. The posts included a photograph of Bo Xilai in court – it is the first time he has been seen by the public in 17 months.

In the courtroom's public area were 110 people including five of Bo's relatives and 19 media representatives, according to a post on the courthouse's Weibo microblog.

Bo stands accused of receiving bribes totalling 21.8m yuan between 2000 and 2012 from the heads of two companies, Dalian International Development and Dalian Shide Group, according to an indictment posted to the court's live feed. He took the bribes "either by himself or with the aid of his wife and his son", the indictment said.

At around 11.30am the court posted a photo of Bo standing trial, looking clean-shaven and composed in a white dress shirt and black slacks. It was the first publicly released image of Bo in 17 months.

Bo, a 64-year-old former commerce minister and provincial governor, was once considered a main contender for China's most powerful ruling body, the seven-person politburo standing committee. His populist rhetoric and tough stance on crime earned him wide public support in the south-western metropolis of Chongqing and north-eastern city of Dalian, where he served in top party posts.

Pictures posted online showed small demonstrations outside the courthouse the morning of the trial. In one a man holds a portrait of Mao, while the man next to him holds a poster reading: "Chongqing's experiments benefited the country and the people. Wealth for all is what the people want."

Other protesters, drawn by flocks of domestic and international journalists on the barricaded streets surrounding the courthouse, took the opportunity to air personal grievances. One man climbed a fence and began yelling before police bundled him off in front of a smartphone-wielding crowd.

Bo's career imploded in 2012 when his second-in-command, Chongqing's police chief Wang Lijun, defected to a US consulate in south-west China carrying stacks of incriminating documents. The ensuing fallout revealed that Bo's estranged wife, a former lawyer named Gu Kailai, had murdered a British businessman in a Chongqing hotel the previous autumn, ostensibly over a business deal gone sour.

In September 2012 Wang was sentenced to 15 years in jail for charges including abuse of power, defection and taking bribes. Gu was arrested and convicted of "intentional homicide" for poisoning the businessman, Neil Heywood, with cyanide. Both are in prison. Many details of the case are still unclear.

The trial's outcome will almost certainly have political implications. In China the ruling Communist party controls the courts and often determines verdicts well in advance.

Bo's trial is widely considered the country's most closely watched and politically charged since Mao Zedong's widow, Jiang Qing, was tried in 1980 for overseeing atrocities during the Cultural Revolution.

Bo's 25-year-old son, Bo Guagua, currently a student at Columbia Law School in New York City, told the New York Times this week that he had been denied contact with his parents for the past 18 months.

"I can only surmise the conditions of their clandestine detention and the adversity they each endure in solitude," he said, adding that he hoped his father would be able "to answer his critics and defend himself without constraints of any kind".

Despite official statements describing the trial as open, foreign media have not been allowed to enter the courthouse, as was the case during Gu's trial last year.

"Bo Xilai's case seems to be a public trial but whoever sits in the courtroom is strictly and carefully selected," said He Weifang, a well-known law professor. "Bo's case is very political, not an ordinary criminal case, so we can't make a judgment about it based on independent judicial operations."

He added: "If all the details about how Bo was promoted or all the power behind him were revealed, that would be shocking."

Analysts say the case poses a challenge for the country's newly anointed president, Xi Jinping. If Bo's sentence is too lenient some will question Xi's often-repeated promises to tackle endemic corruption within the party. If it's too severe he risks alienating Bo's support base and underscoring the question of why Bo was allowed to ascend the party ranks despite his crimes.

Xi launched an anti-corruption campaign shortly after taking over as China's leader and has vowed to tackle both "flies and tigers" – meaning both top officials and lowlier cadres.

While the verdict may not be revealed for weeks, analysts predict that Bo will receive a hefty prison sentence. In China 98% of criminal cases end in convictions.

The former railways minister Liu Zhijun was given a suspended death sentence for bribery and abuse of power last month, although such judgments are almost always commuted to imprisonment. Xinhua confirmed last week that another senior official – Liu Tienan, a former deputy director of the country's top economic planning body – was under investigation by prosecutors for taking bribes.

He Weifang said Bo's case was "setting up the authority for the new leadership … but it may also ruin the legitimacy of the party. For example people believe that he embezzled much more than is being announced. If all the details about how Bo was promoted or all the power behind him was revealed, that would be shocking."

Wu Qiang, a political scientist at Tsinghua University, described Bo as a "sacrificial lamb" of political conflict. He said the government was very serious about the current anti-corruption campaign because it was tied to the survival and legitimacy of the party and the support of the masses.

But he added: "Bo's case can be seen as a sign of the fight against corruption, but the nature of Chinese political power means that corruption can't be solved completely. The senior levels of government, including Bo, are overlapping with multiple roles.

"They have four identities: capitalist, entrepreneur, political entrepreneur and bureaucrat. Those four identities are highly coinciding with each other. From the senior levels to bottom levels in Chinese government there is no exception."


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« Reply #8267 on: Aug 22, 2013, 07:32 AM »

Venezuela to install 30,000 surveillance cameras across the country

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, August 21, 2013 17:21 EDT

Venezuela is installing 30,000 surveillance cameras to crack down on rampant crime, officials said Wednesday.

Most of the Chinese-made equipment will be put up in the capital Caracas. Some is already in place in a municipality within the Caracas metropolitan area as part of a pilot program.

“The goal is the installation of 30,000 security cameras nationwide, as well as other types of sensors that allow the collection of information in real time,” Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez told reporters.

Venezuela is considered the most violent country in South America, with 16,000 murders recorded there last year. During the first quarter of this year, the figure stood at 3,400, according to official statistics.

The equipment, manufactured by Chinese company CEIEC, will be delivered to Venezuela under cooperation agreements agreed by Caracas and Beijing.

The information picked up by the devices will be made available to police for use in crime probes.


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« Reply #8268 on: Aug 22, 2013, 07:37 AM »

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08/22/2013 11:57 AM

Bow, Arrow, Facebook: Brazilian Tribes Fight for Their Land

By Jens Glüsing

Indigenous peoples in Brazil have lost their patience. Promised more land decades ago, they have recently begun forcing the issue by occupying farms and ranches. The government of President Dilma Rousseff has taken sides with the farmers' lobby.

When the helicopter appears above the tops of the mango trees, Alberto, a headman with the Terena tribe, raises his spear into the air, shouts a war cry and calls his men together. About 200 members of the tribe congregate on a meadow. Some shoot arrows at the helicopter, while others swing clubs and cock catapults. Many are wearing headdresses and war paint. "This land belongs to us!" the chief shouts. The helicopter rattles away into the distance.

The police helicopters fly across Fazenda Buriti, a large cattle range in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, two or three times a day. Indigenous people armed with clubs are guarding the entrance of the ranch, which they have occupied for the last three months.

Fazenda Buriti is one of 62 farms in the state that the indigenous people have overrun, part of their revolt against the government from the Amazon region to the southern Pampas area. They are fighting for their land, protecting the borders of their reservations, resisting the construction of hydroelectric power plants in their regions and protesting against the advance of the agricultural industry, which is destroying their homeland.

The occupations are a reaction to Brazil's ruthless treatment of its indigenous peoples. Thirteen years ago, the government promised to turn over the ranch's 145 square kilometers (56 square miles) to indigenous tribes. But the farmer used legal maneuvers to delay the transfer -- until the indigenous people lost patience. With the help of Facebook, they gathered together more than 1,000 members of their tribe from the surrounding region and invaded the farm in the early morning of May 15, wielding homemade explosives, swinging wooden clubs and waving spears. Private security guards fired into the air, but they were vastly outnumbered. Together with the rancher's wife, family and members of the staff, they took refuge in the house. After tough negotiations, the owners were allowed to leave. The police moved in with live ammunition 15 days later. One of the occupiers was shot to death and another one was wounded, but the indigenous people are not giving up.

Since then, the Terena have built a village on the grounds of Fazenda Buriti. They are farming the fields, planting manioc and corn; some are driving around in the farmer's tractors. At night, they sleep in huts made of wood and plastic sheeting. "Our reservations are too small," says Chief Alberto. "If we don't get more land, my people will go hungry."

Looking for a Decent Price

When the police tried to storm the farm, the occupiers burned down the farmer's house. "We have nothing against the farmers," insists the Terena chief. "We want the government to compensate them."

The farmers and the indigenous people agree on this point. "If the government pays a decent price, I'll sell right away," says owner Ricardo Bacha, a former member of the state parliament. He is now negotiating with government officials over compensation.

Rancher Bacha is sitting in the office of the powerful farmers' association in the state capital Campo Grande, an imposing glass-and-steel structure, surrounded by organization officials. He is wearing a plaid shirt and jeans, and his face is tanned. He inherited the farm from his grandfather, who was given the land by the government in 1927.

The land used to belong to Paraguay, until Brazil annexed it in 1870, after a war. At the time, the government drew the new border straight through ethnic communities, and it had the indigenous people rounded up like cattle and locked away on reservations. Then it divided up the land among white settlers.

Once the military dictatorship ended in the mid-1980s, Brazil received a new, democratic constitution. It awarded the indigenous peoples the rights to the regions from which they had been expelled decades earlier. But the land, once covered by jungles, now consists of soybean and sugarcane plantations as well as grazing land for cattle.

The factory farms have expanded their cropland in Mato Grosso do Sul by more than 30 percent in the last four years; the state has some of the most fertile soil in the country. "We won't give up the estates voluntarily," says Bacha who, like most of the farmers, carries a weapon. "I'm not going to face off against 300 wild Indians without a gun." He has also hired a private security service notorious for its brutality.

Capitulating to the Farm Lobby

That some farmers will stop at nothing is well known. Some 564 members of indigenous tribes were murdered in Brazil in the last decade, including 319 in Mato Grosso do Sul alone. In February, three farm guards shot and killed a 15-year-old boy, merely because he wanted to fish on the estate.

The government, meanwhile, has capitulated to the farm lobby. When President Dilma Rousseff visited Mato Grosso do Sul in April, the farmers booed her. Soon afterwards, she completed a radical shift on indigenous policy by freezing the planned reservation expansions. She also plans to amend the approval process.

The National Indian Foundation, FUNAI -- a group run by anthropologists -- is currently in charge of drawing the new borders. But Rousseff now wants to consult with other organizations, including EMBRAPA, an agricultural research institute affiliated with white farmers.

"Rousseff has deprived FUNAI of its power," says former priest Egon Heck, a Brazilian of German descent, of the church aid organization CIMI. The products produced by large landowners contribute substantially to Brazil's export revenues, and ranchers can always find a sympathetic ear with the president. In contrast, she has never met with lawmakers who represent the indigenous peoples. "They have no lobby," says Heck.

There are 305 tribes in Brazil, and they speak 274 different languages. But not all tribes are as combative as the Terena. The Guaraní, for example, the largest indigenous population group in Mato Grosso do Sul, tend to direct their despair against themselves with their headmen reporting a dramatic rise in suicides recently. Some 56 Guaraní committed suicide last year alone. Most were youths.

Since the Guaraní lost their land to farmers, they have had to take on work outside their communities, working as day laborers on sugarcane plantations, for example. "Suicide isn't really part of our culture," says Wilson Matos, an attorney. "Young people are killing themselves because their homeland has been destroyed. When you take away a Guaraní's land, you rob him of his life."

Waiting for Poison

Matos, the son of a Guaraní father and a Terena mother, lived on a reservation until he was 14. Then he became the first member of an indigenous tribe in Mato Grosso do Sul to embark on a career as a lawyer. He ran the region's Indian authority, and now he defends indigenous offenders. He claims that need drives most of them to commit their crimes.

His fellow tribe member Evaldemir Cáceres, for example, lives with his extended family next to a four-lane highway on the outskirts of the provincial city of Dourados. The tribe members have patched together huts out of plastic sheeting and wood and the shantytown is home to 86 people. There is no electricity or running water, the children play in the dirt and most can neither read nor write.

They were promised a large tract of land near Dourados 43 years ago, but the establishment of this new reservation was repeatedly delayed. Instead, they were left with the miserable spot between the road and a brickyard where they now live. They receive a small amount of social welfare from the government. They grow manioc behind the huts, and pay rent to a landowner for the beds. White gunmen on motorcycles circle the shantytown at night, threatening women and children. The goal, say the tribe members, is to intimidate them.

At the end of last year, Cáceres and the other Guaraní headmen wrote in a letter to the government: "Send us poison so we can kill ourselves!"

They are still waiting for an answer.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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« Reply #8269 on: Aug 22, 2013, 07:44 AM »

PIG PUTIN'S RUSSIA ...

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08/22/2013 01:21 PM

Northeast Passage: Russia Moves to Boost Arctic Shipping

By Marco Evers

This year has seen a record number of ships pass through the Northeast Passage in the Arctic Ocean. Russian President Pig Putin is doing all he can to make the route even more attractive.

The earth has rarely been as warm as it is today -- and it has never been this small. In the distant past, traveling from Hamburg to Shanghai by ship meant sailing around Africa, a journey of at least 28,000 kilometers (17,400 miles). A short cut became available in 1869, with the opening of the Suez Canal, an event so epochal that Giuseppe Verdi was asked to compose a hymn for the celebration. After that, the Hamburg-Shanghai route measured only about 20,000 kilometers.

Now another hymn could be needed, albeit a Russian one. Global warming has led to the rapid melting of Arctic sea ice. Where the thick ice pack stretched off the Siberian coast in August only a few years ago, there is nothing but the gray and cold Arctic Ocean today.

The ice cap off Siberia now almost completely disappears in the summer months. Although there are still isolated floes, the Arctic Ocean is navigable. Coastal ice vanished for the first time in the summer of 2005, and it has been disappearing every summer since 2007. There was never as little Arctic ice as in mid-September 2012, and the ice has never melted as quickly as it did in the first half of July 2013, with an area twice the size of Bavaria disappearing every day.

The Barents Sea is now open, as is the Kara Sea, and even the Laptev Sea and the Chukchi Sea are currently navigable without an icebreaker escort (see map). The ice cap only remains intact farther to the north.

The record thaw in the polar region is giving hope to many ship owners, Russian politicians and energy companies like Gazprom and Novatek. As a result of climate change, a maritime route of only 14,000 kilometers now separates Hamburg and Shanghai. And an irresistible treasure lies buried about halfway along this route, in the virtually uninhabited but thawing permafrost of northwestern Siberia: one of the largest natural gas deposits on the planet.

Euphoric Tones

Adventurers and explorers have tried to conquer the legendary Northeast Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans for more than 500 years. Many failed, drowned or froze to death. It wasn't until 1879 that a Swedish expedition managed to cross the Northeast Passage for the first time.

The Soviets, with the help of powerful icebreakers, managed to use the route a number of times after 1932, primarily to transport lumber and pelts. But the route never played a role in international maritime traffic. It remained sensitive -- politically, geographically and, most of all, climatically -- until today.

Russian President Pig Putin has recently taken on euphoric tones when referring to the "Northern Sea Route," as the Russians call their section of the Northeast Passage. With the help of billions in infrastructure investments, Putin hopes to turn the route into the Suez of the north. In his words, the seaway along the tundra has a golden future as an "international trade route."

But the only thing international about it will likely be the customers. The Russians insist that they control the entire Northern Sea Route, even though parts of it pass through international waters.

When Putin recently met with Sergei Frank, the director of the state-owned shipping company Sovcomflot, which is involved in the Northeast Passage, Frank was able to relay this piece of encouraging news to the president: "The new route is coming alive before our very eyes."

Such words still sound brash today. Many polar settlements from the Soviet era have turned into ghost towns. If a ship were in distress in the region, it would take many days for rescue teams to arrive at the scene. Nor are their ship repair yards in the region should a vessel run into technical problems.

Perhaps more concerning, there is also a lack of precise charts and modern meteorological equipment. And no one knows what to do if there were an oil spill.

'Far Greater Impact'

It is clear, however, that even a leak of very small amounts of pollutants, be it oil or residue from a ship's diesel engines, could have dramatic consequences in the polar region. "Toxic substances have a far greater impact here than at other latitudes because they are degraded very slowly," says physicist Marcel Nicolaus of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in the northern German port city of Bremerhaven.

It's been only four years since two German cargo ships used the polar shipping route for the first time. The Beluga Fraternity and the Beluga Foresight put out to sea from the South Korean port city of Ulsan in late July 2009 and reached Rotterdam in record time by traveling along the Siberian coast.

In 2010, four ships braved the Northeast Passage, and 46 followed suit last year. Still, the voyage remains a massive undertaking for lack of a safe shipping channel. The trick is to navigate a ship through sea mile after sea mile of ice fields and shallow straits.

In addition, each permit to travel the passage has thus far been preceded by a series of bureaucratic hurdles. This is expected to change radically, now that a new agency opened for business in Moscow in March. The Northern Sea Route Administration (NSRA) was created to develop infrastructure and substantially increase traffic along the route.

As of Thursday, the NSRA had already issued permits to 431 ships to traverse the Northern Sea Route. The agency doesn't even expect an "ice class" from many ships, meaning they are allowed to enter the Arctic Ocean without a hull that is specially reinforced against ice.

The intercontinental highway through the polar sea has been open since July and will begin closing again in late October. Until then, cargo ships carrying ore, coal, fertilizer and grain, as well as supertankers carrying crude oil and liquid natural gas, will travel back and forth between Europe and the Far East. For the first time, Chinese freighters are now among the ships traveling through the Northeast Passage. The Yong Sheng (14,000 gross register tons) is scheduled to arrive in Rotterdam on Sept. 11.

An Arctic Gas Port

Freight volume is at about five million tons this year and is expected to triple by 2017. A French luxury cruise ship has now been given the green light to traverse the Northeast Passage, as has a yacht piloted by 74-year-old English sailor Tony Kearney, AKA "Arctic Tony."

A 40-year-old icebreaker operated by Greenpeace, however, was twice denied a permit. Last year, the environmental organization used the Arctic Sunrise to board a Gazprom oil rig.

Most of the ships currently using the Northern Sea Route are Russian, while others are sailing under the flags of Panama, Liberia, Cyprus, Great Britain, China, Hong Kong, Antigua, France, Norway and the Netherlands. Reederei Nord, a Hamburg-based shipping company, is sending its oil tanker, Two Million Ways (40,000 gross register tons), through the polar sea. The company chose not to comment on the voyage.

A large portion of polar traffic is not headed for the Far East, but for northwest Siberia. In the short Arctic summer, dozens of dredgers, excavators and other special vehicles are arriving off the coast of the Yamal Peninsula, where Russian gas producer Novatek is spending more than €15 billion to build the Sabetta Arctic port and an ultramodern liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal. When cooled to minus 160 degrees Celsius (minus 256 degrees Fahrenheit), natural gas is reduced to only one six-hundredth of its original volume.

Starting in 2016, the Yamal gas will be transported to Europe via the Northern Sea Route. Gas destined for the E.on gas company and the German market will also traverse this route, reducing the importance of pipelines.

In a westerly direction, at any rate, says Novatek Director Frank, the company will be able to operate its shipping traffic all year long, no matter how much ice develops in the winter. In an easterly direction, however, the route will remain restricted to the summer months for now. The current navigable window is five months. But Novatek's Russian investors hope that as climate change progresses, the season could last up to eight months.

'Very Skeptical'

Still, the eastern part of the sea route remains hazardous, even during the summer months. Weather forecasts are unreliable, and ice and fog command the full attention of crews. The NSRA generally requires ship captains to be accompanied by seasoned Arctic skippers while traversing the eastern section. Furthermore, many ships still need an icebreaker escort in the summer. Russia operates six nuclear-powered icebreakers, and a seventh ship is currently being built.

Those who enlist the services of an icebreaker to use the Northeast Passage can expect to pay a hefty sum, partly because of the NSRA's somewhat murky fee structure. But, as the Russians explain, the cost of several hundred thousand euros per cargo ship is offset by substantial savings. A voyage from Shanghai to Hamburg takes 35 days via Siberia -- up to 15 days fewer than through the Suez Canal. Fuel savings alone, say the Russians, are enough to offset the fees. Besides, they add, ships are not exposed to the risk of piracy in the north.

As important as the Northeast Passage may become for transporting oil, gas, coal and ore, it is unlikely to significantly affect container shipping, in which on-time delivery is critical. Niels Harnack, managing director of the China Shipping Agency Germany, prefers to continue sending his ships through the reliable Suez Canal. Harnack says that he is "very skeptical" over whether a "reliable scheduled service" will be possible in the Arctic Ocean. "In the short and medium term," he adds, there will be "no shift in the classic shipping routes between Northern Europe and China."

And in the long term? It is clear that ice will continue to disappear in the Arctic. Experts believe that the North Pole will be completely ice-free in the summer months by as early as 2030, while others say that this won't happen until 2050 or 2080. In that case, both the Northeast Passage and the Northwest Passage, north of Alaska, which remains frozen today, will be open to shipping.

The seaway across the pole would then be the shortest route between continents. And it would come with another advantage: No country could claim it exclusively for itself.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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« Reply #8270 on: Aug 22, 2013, 07:48 AM »

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08/21/2013 03:35 PM

Dangerous Friends: Power Struggle Splits Turkish Ruling Party

By Hasnain Kazim and Maximilian Popp

Turkey's prime minister has quashed opposition in the streets, but now he faces a more menacing foe: challengers within his own party and from the nebulous Gülen movement. It could spell the end of political Islam in Turkey as we know it.

The many hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets in Istanbul did not succeed in toppling their country's prime minister or in continuing to occupy Gezi Park on the city's Taksim Square. The protests against the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sparked in late May by plans to level Gezi Park, have subsided. Yet the uprising's effects may last well beyond this summer.

Members and supporters of Erdogan's conservative-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) have long refrained from expressing any criticism. Now, though, AKP followers are turning against the prime minister, with Erdogan's competitors within the party using the post-Gezi unrest as an opportunity to distance themselves from him.

In the English-language edition of the pro-government daily newspaper Zaman, columnist Yavuz Baydar recently compared Turkey under Erdogan to the United States during the McCarthy era. The conservative-Islamist Journalists and Writers Foundation (GYV) likewise warns that these current developments in Turkey overshadow any attempts at further democratization.

Most striking about this criticism are its sources -- both Zaman and the GYV belong to the movement surrounding Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, who is believed to have enormous influence within the government.

Gülen himself has been living in self-imposed exile in the US for years, having left Turkey after public prosecutors accused the elderly imam of working to foment an Islamist revolution. His followers have established schools in 140 countries, as well as a bank, media outlets and hospitals (see graphic).

Gülen's followers present themselves outwardly as modern. Their numbers are growing in Turkey, where poorer families praise Gülen's commitment to education, and businesspeople appreciate his business-friendly approach. But individuals who have left the fold have told SPIEGEL of brainwashing and sect-like structures within the movement.

In US State Department diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks, American diplomats described Gülen's followers in 2004 as "Turkey's most powerful Islamist grouping, feared by the core institutions of the Turkish State" saying the network "controls major business, trade, and publishing activities, has deeply penetrated the political scene -- including AKP at high levels."

The AKP as a Gathering Place for a Wide Variety of Groups

The AKP serves as a gathering place for a variety of groups. This includes, in addition to a number of splinter groups, both Erdogan's supporters and followers of the Gülen movement. Following the AKP's 2002 electoral victory, the two camps entered into a strategic partnership: Gülen would secure votes for the AKP, and Erdogan would protect Gülen's followers.

In recent months, though, that alliance has begun to crumble. Erdogan has removed from their posts important justice-system officials and party functionaries who he suspects of having close ties to Gülen. Indeed, it seems the movement has grown too influential for Erdogan's liking. Now, in the wake of the Gezi Park uprising, the power struggle is breaking out into the open.

Erdogan's camp, meanwhile, is taking systematic aim at businesses close to Gülen. Zaman describes it as a "systematic smear campaign," writing in a statement, "Now, it is sad to observe harsh and hostile criticism raised by groups we consider friends." Still, the GYV published a statement last week in which it attempted to defuse the recriminations against Erdogan.

This conflict within the party is more dangerous for Erdogan than the demonstrations on the street ever were. A split within the AKP could mean the end of political Islam in Turkey. In this case, ideological differences play only a secondary role. Instead, Gülen's supporters seem more interested in posts and privileges. Gülen's network uses "trendy concepts, such as dialogue and tolerance, but the organization follows an extremely strict and hierarchical order," says Mustafa Sen, a sociologist at the prestigious Middle East Technical University, in Ankara.

Ahmet Sik, one of Turkey's most renowned journalists, planned to publish a book in the spring of 2011 on the dangerous power held by the Gülen movement. Shortly before the book's release, security forces stormed his publishing company and confiscated manuscripts of the book, "The Imam's Army." The author now stands accused of being a member of a terrorist organization attempting to overthrow Erdogan's government.

A New AKP Government -- without Erdogan

"It's true the Gülen movement has a commitment to education," Sik says. "But why does this network want to control the country, why does it dominate the justice system, the armed forces and the intelligence service? Why won't this powerful organization disclose its finances?" Sik says he is unconvinced of the network's honesty.

"The truth is that it's about obtaining power, not through elections, but by gradually infiltrating institutions," he says. He suspects that the movement's goal is to see a new AKP government -- but one without Erdogan. The new leader in such a government could be current President Abdullah Gül, considered to be both a member of the Gülen wing of the AKP and Erdogan's main rival within the party.

"The movement will stop at nothing in its struggle to become the hegemonic power," says Hakan Yavuz, a political scientist at the University of Utah. "It terrorizes people."

Gareth Jenkins, a specialist on Turkey at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, feels certain that the Ergenekon investigations, which resulted last week in draconian sentencing, were largely overseen by Gülen supporters within the law enforcement and judicial systems.

Accordingly, few observers believe that leading politicians close to Gülen could truly offer a democratic alternative to Erdogan. "They want to control the government, and they don't stand for opposition," says Sik, the journalist.

Following massive international protest, Sik has been released from prison for the time being, but the trial against him is ongoing and he expects to be convicted. "The justice system has shown itself severe in its handling of all critics, demonstrators and supposed conspirators," he says. "Why should it spare me?"

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein


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« Reply #8271 on: Aug 22, 2013, 07:56 AM »


Is standing up for European values too great a risk in Germany?

No wonder voters seem apathetic: Germany's political elite has shied away from answering key questions about the the future

Rebecca Harms   
theguardian.com, Thursday 22 August 2013 14.01 BST   

The Euro logo is seen in front of the European Central Bank
'When, if not now, is the time to defend the shared values that allowed this country to evolve after 1945?' Photograph: Daniel Roland/AFP/Getty Images

It has been a hot summer in Germany. It appears that temperatures have been too high for a heated election campaign. The debates have been sluggish and drawn out. And even if the major TV duels are yet to be fought: what are the issues that will jolt the Germans from their summer lethargy and make them flock to the polling stations?

Arguments over equitable taxation or the merits of the state and its institutions have been exchanged for ages. Likewise, the price of abandoning nuclear power and achieving the energy transition is perceived as a permanent topic. So far, none of these disputes have really hit home. Nothing has truly gripped the public and sparked the kind of debate that captivates the mind beyond the evening news and comment pages.

The only issue to defy the general weariness is the discussion about civil liberties and democracy triggered by whistleblower Edward Snowden's actions. Of course, the runup to an election is not a time that would allow for an objective investigation of programmes such as Prism or Tempora. But the debate on secret services, surveillance and civil rights should indeed be pursued – now more than ever.

No other country in the European Union has benefited more in terms of its democratic development from being firmly rooted in the EU than Germany. When, if not now, is the time to defend the shared values that allowed this country to evolve after 1945, and again since 1989? If the European commitment to freedom, democracy and justice is to carry any weight, the debate about data privacy and civil rights must be a central campaign issue.

The word from Berlin is that the German public remains largely unmoved. But voters are left indifferent because the debate has been absurdly reduced to the question of whether Merkel or the SPD's Frank-Walter Steinmeier (who was previous in charge of foreign affairs) knew more or less about the collaboration between the NSA and the German intelligence agency BND, and acquiesced in it. If you want to engage the citizenry, then the real argument is about how we can meet Snowden's request for asylum in a democratic country.

Engaging the people means contesting some of the alarming approaches adopted by western security policy since 9/11. Getting the people involved means defending the European way, which is not anti-American, but seeks to realign the relationship between liberty and security. The prerequisite for this, however, is that we place greater belief in, and demand more of, our common European way.

Is standing up for European values too great a risk in Germany, nearly 25 years after reunification? In Brussels, necessary decisions have been put off for quite some time. As the date of the German election draws nearer, the more openly it is admitted that nothing will happen before the end of September.

Many Europeans were expecting the German campaign season to spawn precisely those heated debates on EU policy. They do not want philosophical musings, but clear answers: what will happen in Greece? What can we learn from the failure of a strategy that relied solely on austerity measures? How can Europeans escape the debt trap? How will we correct the design flaws of the euro? How must a banking union be constructed to safeguard states and citizens against repeated bankruptcy through speculation and other shady dealings? How can we achieve economic recovery and the long-term renewal of Europe's industries? How will we make good on the European promise of a better life in the face of growing poverty and unemployment, particularly in the union's southern and eastern regions?

These are vital questions – for Germany and for Europe. There has been a tendency to steer clear of these questions in this federal election campaign. Germany's political elite is given to a certain fear of the electorate whenever the EU crops up as an issue. Yet it is the same elite that has long neglected to explain to the public how valuable the EU is for us in every way, and has instead never missed an opportunity to proclaim that the community is costing us too much. That is why Germany again lacks an impassioned debate about the rights and wrongs of the future European path.

As a German European, I am disappointed by the mixture of incapability and carelessness back home. After all, in today's EU a lot, albeit not everything, depends on Germany. And Germany itself has enjoyed great economic success over the past 50 years, thanks to debt cancellation, the Marshall plan, German reunification and above all, thanks to Europe. The existence of the European Union has also allowed German society to evolve and has made the country one of the most popular destinations.

The debate about our shared European future is an existential one. It requires passion and attractive ideas. That would be good for the German electoral campaign – and for the reputation of German politics in Europe.

************

SPIEGEL ONLINE
08/21/2013 01:00 PM

Wake Germany Up When the Election Is Over: Election? What election?
 
German politicians and newspapers are doing their utmost to spark voter interest in the country's upcoming federal election, but no amount of scandal-mongering, however legitimate, appears to be enough.

Voters are more interested in discussing their summer vacations, the weather, family, food and drink, according to an Allensbach Institute analysis cited by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) on Wednesday. What's more, only 39 percent of those surveyed said that the topic of politics had "recently" come up in conversation. Only 29 percent said they had discussed the fact that the election is coming up on September 22 -- the lowest level ever recorded ahead of a national vote.

The "lethargic pre-election period," as the FAZ called it, has been characterized by complicated scandals, namely, the Defense Ministry's drone and Euro Hawk missteps, along with the news that America's National Security Agency has been collecting data exchanged by German citizens to a practically unfathomable degree.

But when it's summertime and the living is easy, the government is apparently free to waste taxpayers' money and abandon their personal privacy to the whims of a shadowy foreign intelligence agency. Pass the potato salad, please!

Zzzzzzzzz

Among the issues at hand, NSA surveillance appears to have gained the most attention from voters. The majority find the prospect of their telephone and Internet communications being monitored unsettling, but just 46 percent have actually had a conversation about it. Even among those respondents classified as politically engaged, only 56 percent have discussed the matter.

Another survey found that election apathy is particularly rampant among -- wait for it -- young people. The poll, published by weekly newsmagazine Stern on Wednesday, found that among 18- to 29-year-olds, a mere 46 percent were able to name the date of the upcoming federal election, compared to 73 percent among the general population.

Like the Allensbach Institute, Stern also registered a low level of interest in the campaign overall. While 28 percent of respondents said they were highly interested in the current campaign battle, politicians and political parties, the rest said they were either "less strongly" or "not at all" interested in the race. Wake them up when it's over.

*********

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
08/21/2013 01:00 PM

The Little Germans: Alienation Still Divides East from West

A Commentary by Alexander Osang

Almost 25 years after the Berlin Wall fell, a profound sense of otherness endures between residents on both sides of the former divide. Rather than trying to change or ignore this, both sides should simply accept it.

A few months ago, I was in Kimball, a small town in the US state of Nebraska, when I received a nighttime call from Germany. I was fast asleep in a nameless motel along Interstate 80. I couldn't have been much farther away from Germany, and yet Germany always manages to catch up with you no matter where you are. It was Michel Gaissmayer, a cultural manager of sorts who invites me at regular intervals to go to "Hinterm Horizont" ("Beyond the Horizon"), a musical by the German rock star Udo Lindenberg that he was involved in.

"I'm in Nebraska," I said.

"Oh," he replied. "I just wanted to offer you my condolences."

I sat up in my motel bed. "For what?"

"Your friend Reinhard Lakomy died yesterday."

Reinhard Lakomy was a singer from East Berlin. He had long white hair and a moustache, and in the days of the former communist East Germany, he was famous for a record called "Traumzauberbaum" ("Magical Dream Tree"). I had never owned the record and couldn't recall ever having spoken with Lakomy. On the other hand, he was now dead.

"Well, 'friend' is a bit of a stretch," I said.

"In any case," Gaissmayer said, "I'm very sorry."

Michel Gaissmayer is an old West German who had close ties to the German Democratic Republic (GDR) when the Berlin Wall was still standing. This experience seems to have taught him that all of us East Germans know each other. When one of them dies, everyone else cries. I sat in bed and tried to behave appropriately. But I felt nothing.

I had to think of that experience recently when Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democratic chancellor candidate for the upcoming elections, fathomed the soul of the East German voter.

Steinbrück had criticized Chancellor Angela Merkel for not being a European visionary and not being able to give great speeches. He attributes this to her East German origins. I can understand why he might say that. Like Merkel, I spent the first half of my life in the GDR, and I have no recollection of ever having developed a European vision there. And I hardly knew anyone else with a European vision, either. Moreover, I don't remember that there were many fans of great speeches in the East. We had other priorities at the time, and there are certain things that aren't easy to learn later in life.

Still, given that we're in the midst of an election campaign, Steinbrück's remarks triggered an outcry across the political spectrum. Some demanded that he immediately withdraw his candidacy for the chancellorship or at least apologize. Steinbrück, however, went to the eastern German city of Halle an der Saale and made everything much worse by saying: "East Germany is a region of capable and hands-on people who have very energetically taken control of their affairs."

It's an interesting sentence. If you replace East Germany with Central Africa, you can see how foreign the eastern part of Germany is to Steinbrück. For him, it's like looking into a dark, bottomless pit. Capable and hands-on are words you would normally use to describe retirees or people in a disaster zone who keep a stiff upper lip. There are photos showing Steinbrück on the coast of the Baltic Sea in eastern Germany in which he is apparently trying to interact with the locals. He is waving his arms, smiling and wearing a funny hat, as if he were making contact with the inhabitants of a South Sea island. The locals, for their part, are eyeing him with annoyance.

A Different Type of Glass Ceiling

Matthias Machnig, a fellow SPD member and West German who is a cabinet minister in the government of the eastern state of Thuringia, says that Steinbrück knows his way around in the East. He apparently has relatives there. "A first cousin," Steinbrück said in an interview. A first cousin! What's more, he worked at the Ständige Vertretung, West Germany's diplomatic representation in East Berlin, in 1981. He reportedly once went on an outing into the countryside with his first cousin, as well. It was cold, and a lot of vodka was consumed. The way it was described made it sound like the two cousins had moved to Siberia.

It's been almost 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down. At times, it feels as if East and West Germans are becoming more and more estranged. I recently sat at a table with a few representatives of the "third generation East." They were at least 15 years younger than me, and they had the serious expressions of people who know that they still have a long way to go.

They could work their way up to the top ranks of their state governments, universities and companies, and perhaps even the Bundesliga, Germany's premier football division. However, in the long term, it can't possibly be acceptable for the competent, hands-on East Germans to almost never be in positions of power. Former East Germans head only one television network and one of the 50 companies listed on Germany's blue-chip DAX index, and there are no former East Germans at the helm of any national newspapers, magazines or Bundesliga teams.

The only East German coach to find post-reunification success in the Bundesliga has been named Hans Meyer, and he's considered a bit of a special case. He has never won a championship, but he has said a few funny things that were well received in the West. He's retired now. Like Hans Meyer, the typical East German could have gone down in history as a quirky, good-natured type who poses a threat to no one -- a class clown of reunification.

The East Germans have produced plenty of "unfinished" talents, such as footballer Michael Ballack, who never won an international championship, or Matthias Platzeck, the governor of the eastern state of Brandenburg, who suffered sudden hearing loss just as his political career was taking off. The East Germans have produced successful actors and writers and popular musicians, as well as the host of Fernsehgarten, a popular TV show on the public broadcaster ZDF. The most popular East German TV star is a comedian who goes by the stage name Cindy aus Marzahn (Cindy from Marzahn) and wears a pink tracksuit.

Still, the most frightening group of German terrorists -- those in the neo-Nazi group National Socialist Underground (NSU) -- was made up of three East Germans. When a woman murdered her children, she was dubbed an "East German mother" in the news. A GDR background was enough to explain away any malfeasance. Conversely, when a man ate another person, he was called "the cannibal from Rotenburg." It's a city in western Germany, of course, but why should that be pointed out?

And this meant that those in the West never actually had to take the East seriously.

From Mädchen to Mutti

Of course, Angela Merkel exploited this during the early stage of her career. As a woman and an East German, she was able to outmaneuver the macho types in her party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and later her macho male rival in the SPD. Indeed, one of the great moments of German television came when Gerhard Schröder, the incumbent SPD chancellor, lost to Merkel in the 2005 election and seemed unable to comprehend his defeat by this woman.

Merkel had an East German hairstyle and an East German accent, and, as with many East Germans, people didn't know exactly what her agenda was. She hadn't fought the battles of West German politics, but she had been a member of the Free German Youth (FDJ), the youth organization of communist East Germany. Sure, she had no networks -- but she also didn't have any old connections that she had to pay deference to. Unlike the typical higher-ups in her conservative CDU, she wasn't Catholic, she was divorced, and she liked to bake plum cake. She was a phenomenon.

I know someone who was invited to a dinner at Merkel's house shortly after she'd been elected chancellor. He brought along a bottle of wine, and because she was the chancellor, he spent a long time searching for the best German wine he could find. When he appeared at the door with the bottle of wine, Merkel's husband said, in an East German accent: "I guess you couldn't get any French wine."

It's a wonderful story from the days when Merkel still seemed manageable, a sort of project of German reunification. But, over time, the marvel surrounding Merkel has subsided. She runs Germany like someone directing traffic. She has no vision. And she doesn't give great speeches. The things that once made her interesting are now disadvantageous to her, especially the tepid, stubborn East German mentality with which she now clings to power. While Helmut Kohl, the former CDU chancellor and Merkel mentor, once referred to her as "mein Mädchen" (my girl), she has now acquired the nickname "Mutti" (Mom).

The low point was reached when Germany was being shaken to its very democratic foundations by revelations about the NSA spying scandal -- and Merkel chose to go on vacation. Indeed, she has always been suspiciously relaxed when it comes to her relationship with the United States. Journalist and commentator Jakob Augstein summarized the mood in a recent column for SPIEGEL ONLINE, writing: "Angela Merkel was 35 when the GDR sank into the vortex of reunification. You can still learn something at that age, and for an up-and-coming East German politician, there was a lot to learn. Today, one might say that Merkel learned the wrong things."

Augstein also gave Merkel a moniker with which she ought to go down in history: "The Little Chancellor." Doing so made it sound like he had adopted a child: He gave the child what he could, but her innate character eventually broke through. After all, she's an East German, and what can you do? It isn't something you can drum out of a person.

Germany also has a president who hails from the former East Germany. But if Joachim Gauck doesn't give a truly great speech soon, things won't be looking good for him, either.

Persistent Alienation

This year, I spent a few weeks traveling with the Dynamo Dresden football team. My goal was to figure out what had gone wrong. Dresden was once the pride of eastern Germany. When FC Bayern Munich won the Champions League in May, Dynamo Dresden was playing in the northern city of Osnabrück, struggling to avoid being relegated to the next tier below the Bundesliga's second division.

During a home match, I met the club's new manager in the VIP stands. His name is Christian Müller, and he's from the western German city of Cologne. He studied management in Freiburg (another western German city) and Paris, ran the rights department at the German League Association and was prepared to lead Dresden into the future. Müller had a plan: He wanted to create a bond between the club and middle-class residents of Dresden, people like the GDR residents depicted in the Uwe Tellkamp hit novel "The Tower."

Müller invited me to attend the club's 60th birthday at the German Hygiene Museum, in Dresden. The room was full. A few musicians were playing wind instruments on the stage to an audience that included people like TV host Gunther Emmerlich, former Dynamo team captain Dixie Dörner and a man who had been chairman of the district council in the GDR era. I didn't notice any representatives of the middle class.

The celebration lasted four hours, but it only got as far as reunification. The five top players of all time were selected. The last one was Reinhard Häfner, a great footballer from the 1970s who became Dynamo's coach and lifted the team into the top Bundesliga division in 1991. But he was let go before as coach before the team actually start playing in it. The club's managers felt that he wasn't good enough to work in the West, so they brought in someone from Hamburg.

There was no tradition to build upon. And there was no middle class to create bonds with, either. Instead, there was only a great sense of alienation. It isn't easy to accept that, but it would be a start.

At some point, while lying in my motel bed in Nebraska, I remembered a line from a song by Lakomy, the deceased singer: "Today I'm alone / and that's also necessary every once in a while."

I couldn't think of anything else.

Dawn arrived, and I left Nebraska. There was nothing for me to do there. I was just there because I have a plan to spend at least one night in every US state. Of course, it's probably just the result of an East German inferiority complex that I developed in the years when I could only travel through America in films, songs and books.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

*********

Small neo-Nazi anti-immigration protest in Berlin dwarfed by turnout for anti-neo-Nazi protest

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, August 21, 2013 15:55 EDT

German neo-Nazis have protested against a new political refugee centre in Berlin, seeking to stoke anti-foreigner sentiment a month before elections and sparking large counter-demonstrations.

The far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) tried to drum up anti-foreigner feelings at a rally near the asylum seekers’ centre, a former school set amid drab tower blocks in the city’s east.

In angry scenes overnight, more than 500 anti-fascist protesters confronted the about 40 anti-immigration activists, who eventually left in a street tram under police protection.

Hundreds of riot police separated the groups. One officer was injured by a bottle thrown in his face. In total 25 people were arrested, one for making an illegal straight-armed Hitler salute.

Stuck in the middle have been about 80 political asylum seekers, among them seven children, mostly from war-torn Afghanistan and Syria as well as Serbia — the first of about 200 people expected at the centre.

Around their temporary new home, where they arrived Monday, they have faced signs saying “No to the home” and “Have a nice flight home”. Reports said some refugees had already left in fear.

The racist sentiment was widely condemned by politicians.

“It is unbearable how right-wing demagogues are trying to sow fear,” said Berlin’s Mayor Klaus Wowereit. “Berlin is a city that is open to the world, and that’s why we must allow no space for xenophobia.”

Immigration has not been a major theme in the campaign ahead of the September 22 election, and no far-right party has ever crossed the five-percent hurdle for entry into the national parliament.

But Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich warned that, despite rising numbers of asylum seekers, “these people in need must not be exploited by right-wing extremists for their propaganda of hatred”.

Amid the Syrian war and other conflicts, the number of asylum seekers in Germany has risen to 52,754 people so far this year — 90 percent more than in the same period last year.

Meanwhile, most of the refugees hunkered down inside the former Max Reinhardt high school, named after an Austrian-born Jewish theatre director who fled Nazi Germany to the United States.

One man who briefly looked out the door Wednesday was Winnie, 20, a former shopkeeper from Afghanistan who fled with his wife and child.

He said that as a Hindu he faced persecution by the Islamist Taliban and that he had paid people-smugglers $15,000 to organise a 25-day escape journey to Germany.

Baffled by the confrontations outside, he said “We don’t know who is friendly to us and who is not”. He added that nonetheless, “I feel safe. More than in Afghanistan.”

A few blocks away, the Islamophobic group Pro Deutschland took the opportunity to launch their election campaign.

About a dozen party members were shielded by police as 100 counter-demonstrators sought to drown them out with boos and whistles.

The party’s leader Manfred Rouhs, 47, charged that 90 percent of political asylum seekers in Germany turn out to be “economic refugees”, and that political refugees should first seek help closer to home.

Outside the refugee centre, meanwhile, anti-fascist protesters had set up a vigil in a tent, playing music and putting up signs that said “Nobody is Illegal” and “Refugees welcome”.

One activist, Florian Klein, a 25-year-old student, said that neo-Nazis had in recent weeks sought to stoke neighbourhood sentiment by spreading “fear, lies and prejudice”.

“With the vigil, we want to tell the asylum-seekers, ‘you are not alone, you are welcome’,” he said.

“To the racists and neo-Nazis … we want to show the red card, we want to push back.”

After the dark era of Nazi Germany, he said: “We know what persecution means. If, 80 years later, there are conflicts in other countries, and other people need refuge, we must help them.”

Some neighbours made a point of welcoming the refugees, among them a young family who dropped off a bag of toys from their two-year-old daughter Jasmin.

“These people really have absolutely nothing,” said Cindy Laqua, 29. “And the children have the very least to do with the whole situation.”

Her partner, Omar El Aoud, said the events of the past few days were “disappointing”, adding: “How can you blame the people who are inside here?”


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« Reply #8272 on: Aug 22, 2013, 07:59 AM »


Gibraltar row: Spain 'misinformed' over artificial reef

Expert who built the reef says it's a haven for marine life, a model copied by Spain, and benefits its fishing industry

John Vidal   
theguardian.com, Thursday 22 August 2013 10.44 BST   

Spain's demands that Gibraltar dismantles the artificial reef at the centre of a diplomatic spat with Britain have been dismissed as "misinformed" by the reef's creator after it emerged that there have been no complaints made about it in over 30 years, its construction mostly benefits the Spanish fishing industry and Spain has received millions of euros from the EU to create similar reefs of its own.

Spanish foreign minister José Manuel García-Margallo further fuelled the dispute between the two countries this week by insisting that the 72 hollow concrete blocks that have been recently dropped by a conservation group on the seabed in Gibraltar waters must be removed as a precondition of any settlement between the UK and Spain.

He told the Guardian the creation of the artificial reef "was done to cause us problems" and "only to stop us fishing."

In a column in the Wall Street Journal García-Margallo also wrote: "The dumping of concrete blocks constitutes a violation of the most basic rules of environmental conservation. These waters account for 25% of the activity of local fishermen … it is first necessary for the UK to show that it intends to undo the damage that has already been caused, in particular by removing the concrete blocks."
Gibraltar Satellite map of Gibraltar showing reef location

Local Spanish fishermen have claimed that the reef has removed one of their best fishing grounds but this is dismissed by Eric Shaw, head of the marine section of the Gibraltar ornithological and natural history society who started the reef in 1973 in an attempt to give marine wildlife an environment to breed and colonise.

"There was just sand before and no life. So we tried to provide an oasis by dropping old boats there. It is now a fish nursery. Bream and, in season, tuna spawn there, as well as invertebrates. It's like we have put in a block of flats and [marine life] has moved in. The reef has no intention beyond conservation."

The artificial reef, which has been extended to stretch much of the way around the tiny territory, was the first to be constructed in Europe and is now one of Europe's biggest. It is made of over 30 scuttled vessels and wrecks, including old boats, gravel barges, and floating platforms. It is extended when funds are available or old boats are donated to conservation charity The Helping Hand, which dropped the concrete blocks earlier this year.

"The sandy seabed has been replaced by an oasis of highly diverse marine life. You will find corals, gorgonians, lobsters and crabs. There are sponges, anemones, octopus and eels. There are shoals of fish, small and large, from anchovies and bream, to scorpion fish and bass. Over the years, private vessel owners, companies and officials have donated not only their vessels but also their time, thoughts and efforts in order to improve the marine habitat of Gibraltar," says a spokesman for The Helping Hand.

Shaw dismissed Spanish government complaints that the reef has been built without their consultation or consent as politically motivated. "Since we started building it 30 years ago, no-one has ever complained about it. We have received no letter or complaint in 30 years. All the Spanish authorities have ever asked us is how do we construct it. This is a diversionary tactic by the Spanish politicians."

Gibraltarians said they were confused by the Spanish attack on the reef because it has been a model for many others built along the coasts of Malaga, Granada and Almería. Spain has received millions of euros from the EU to create reefs. Some have become tourist destinations, attracting divers.

This week the row escalated when a formal complaint was lodged in a La Linea court alleging that nine Gibraltar government ministers had committed an environmental crime under Spanish law by ordering the creation of the reef. The case is unlikely to be heard because the reef is entirely in Gibraltarian waters.

Shaw also dismissed claims by the local Spanish fisherman that they have lost earnings of €1.5m since 24 July, when the blocks were put in place. "There is no commercial fishing in Gibraltarian waters and there is only one Spanish fisherman who regularly comes. He is from La Linea and has a very small boat and picks up very little." Larger Spanish trawlers sporadically enter Gibraltarian waters but are thought to catch little.

"There is no commercial fishing in Gibraltar. The reef is good for Spain and its fishermen above all because the fish breed there. They can be caught anywhere," says Shaw.


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« Reply #8273 on: Aug 22, 2013, 08:03 AM »


European broadcasters shut down emergency Greek TV service

Body representing Europe's public service broadcasters pulls plug on ERT following launch of Greek broadcaster EDT

Lisa O'Carroll   
theguardian.com, Wednesday 21 August 2013 14.05 BST   

The body representing public service broadcasters throughout Europe, including the BBC, has shut down the emergency TV service it has been running in Greece since June when the government abrupty shut down the country's national broadcaster.

On Wednesday the European Broadcasting Union said it made the decision to cease streaming ERT, the PSB shut down in June, following the launch of a news service by the Greek government's new broadcaster, Greek Public Television (EDT).

"The EBU made a commitment to supply satellite capacity and relay the ex-ERT signal until a terrestrial signal carrying basic public service media output could be established. This pledge has been honoured," it said in a statement.

"The EBU believes that independent public service media is indispensable for democracies, culture and societies. This is why on 11 June, when the Greek government abruptly shut down ERT, the EBU felt it had no option but to immediately take action," it added.

EDT, the new broadcaster has been airing mainly documentaries and old Greek movies over the last two months but on Wednesday morning launched its first news service with a two-hour programme.

The broadcast that began at 8am, focused mainly on the analysis of domestic news by a panel of journalists, but also included international news items based on BBC website stories and footage from al-Jazeera and Sky News.

EDT has also spent the summer recruiting staff and is expected to end up with around 2,000 on its workforce, 700 fewer than ERT, which was closed by the Greek government as part of sweeping cost-saving measures.

"The political independence and sustainable funding are the two core ingredients for all public service broadcasters. The signs are encouraging, they have produced a good media law [and] look to have a good board which will be announced later today. They now need to make sure their independence is safeguarded," said Ingrid Deltenre, the director-general of the EBU told the Guardian.

Greece's conservative-led government cited the need to cut costs under pressure from the bailout troika of the EU, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank as its reason to close ERT and fire all 2,700 staff.

Since it was closed, journalists and other production staff have maintained operations in the broadcaster's building in Athens and produced 24-hour programming that the EBU has been streaming by satellite and on the internet.

Some staff are still occupying the main Athens building, leaving the new EDT staff no option but to use a much older building in the city, which is thought to have been last used during the Olympics.

The government could have used the ERT building but was reluctant to use police to remove the occupants.

"If they had had the infrastructure, the studios, they could have just plugged in. So it is still difficult for them. We have been very involved, we have been in contact with the minister at least once a week and with the interim management," said Deltenre.


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« Reply #8274 on: Aug 22, 2013, 08:06 AM »


Press freedom watchdog to Cameron: UK has abused anti-terror laws

Roy Greenslade   
Wednesday 21 August 2013 13.11 BST     

One of the world's leading press freedom watchdogs, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, has written a letter to prime minister David Cameron about the detention of David Miranda.

Copies of the letter, signed by the CPJ's executive director, Joel Simon, have also gone to deputy PM, Nick Clegg, Labour leader Ed Miliband, home secretary Theresa May, foreign secretary William Hague and the chairman of the home affairs select committee Keith Vaz.

Here it is in full:

Dear Prime Minister Cameron,

The Committee to Protect Journalists, an international media freedom organisation, calls on you to launch a thorough and transparent investigation into the detention and harassment of David Miranda by the London Metropolitan police and to ensure that his confiscated equipment and data are returned at once.

The use of anti-terror laws to seize journalistic material from Miranda, partner and assistant to Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, is deeply troubling and not in keeping with the UK's historic commitment to press freedom.

As reported by The Guardian and other media outlets, Miranda was transiting through London en route from Berlin to Rio de Janeiro when British police stopped and detained him at 8.05 on Sunday at Heathrow international airport.

Miranda has been assisting Greenwald in his reporting, which over the past three months has focused on state surveillance on the basis of documents leaked to Greenwald and the US filmmaker Laura Poitras by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Miranda was acting as a courier of materials between Greenwald and Poitras, The Guardian said, because electronic communications between the two had become insecure in the wake of the Snowden leaks. The Guardian said it paid for Miranda's flight.

As has been widely reported, police held Miranda for the maximum nine hours allowed by the Schedule 7 of Britain's Terrorism Act 2000. They aggressively questioned him about the Guardian's work on the Snowden files, without providing access to a lawyer until the last hour.

They threatened to send him to prison and confiscated all of his electronic equipment, including laptop and hard drive, smart phone, smart watch, memory sticks, DVDs, and a games console.

The electronic equipment, which contained information of journalistic interest, has not been returned, nor did the detaining officers inform Miranda when they would be returning it. The officers, Miranda told The Guardian, coerced him into surrendering the passwords to his computer and phone by threatening him with jail if he did not comply.

Schedule 7 of Britain's Terrorism Act 2000 gives police broad authority to detain, search, and question persons traveling through UK airports in order to determine their possible involvement in terrorism.

Schedule 7 has been widely criticised for allowing police to stop people without suspicion that they have committed a crime, and the UK government is reviewing aspects of the legislation, according to news reports.

It is clear that the police officers who questioned Miranda did not suspect him of terrorism, as they focused their interrogation on Greenwald's, Poitras's, and The Guardian's reporting on state surveillance programs.

Rather, it appears they abused the law to circumvent routine safeguards of the confidentiality of sources and to obtain access to journalistic material. The U.S. has confirmed that it was notified of Miranda's detention, which suggests a coordinated effort.

Miranda's detention is the latest example in a disturbing record of official harassment of The Guardian over its coverage of the Snowden leaks. As Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger wrote in a column on Monday, the newsroom has been subjected to government pressure since June to surrender the Snowden-leaked materials in its possession or to destroy them.

On July 20, a day that Rusbridger called "one of the more bizarre moments in The Guardian's long history," two security agents from government communications headquarters looked on as journalists destroyed newsroom hard drives, even though Rusbridger had pointed out that the information existed outside the country.

We call on your government to explain the detention and aggressive interrogation of Miranda; publicly clear him of any connection to terrorist activity; and return his seized equipment as well as any copies made of its contents.

Taking these steps would counter the unsettling perception that the United Kingdom has abused its anti-terrorism laws to impede legitimate journalistic activity carried out in the public interest.

Sincerely, Joel Simon, Executive Director
Norwegian editors and Danish newspaper support The Guardian

The Association of Norwegian Editors have offered their support to The Guardian in a letter to Alan Rusbridger from its assistant general secretary, Arne Jensen.

It says: "We are deeply concerned about what has happened, and we want to share your effort to warn the international media world about the implications of this threat to journalism."

Jensen says the incidents have prompted the association to invite Rusbridger to speak at a conference "to share with us The Guardian's experiences with authorities that try to prevent journalists from doing their job."

And the Danish newspaper, Politiken, has also written to register its "upset after reading about your encounter with the British police and authorities."

Its letter, by international editor Michael Jarlner, says:

    "We consider it an attack on the entire press freedom, which must necessarily raise concerns not only in the UK, but also throughout Europe (and the US)."

Politiken would like to see a co-ordinated response by papers across Europe.
But some British journalists (and newspapers) see it differently…

With The Guardian's journalism under attack from both the British and American governments, we might have expected the rest of Fleet Street to rally in defence of press freedom.

Not so, however. The deafening silence I have referred to over the last two days, here and here, has continued today.

There has been sparse coverage of the story and an absence of supportive editorial comment.

Worse, in several references to the disgraceful Miranda detention and astonishing government-ordered destruction of hard drives, The Guardian has come under attack.

One major example is by Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail in which he implies that The Guardian's journalism is unpatriotic.

Most of the commentators at the Daily Telegraph - Dan Hodges, Louise Mensch, Tim Stanley - have been negative. But today's Telegraph includes an article by Tory MP Dominic Raabe that redresses the balance - and the trio would do well to read it.

I must also mention a wonderful satirical piece in The Independent by Matthew Norman. It includes the sentence:

    "It is an abundant disgrace that British police officers detained and interrogated a foreign national they had not the slightest cause to suspect of any offence, let alone terrorism, in this predictably crude and cretinous manner."

Exactly.
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« Reply #8275 on: Aug 22, 2013, 08:07 AM »


Soviet Army monument in Sofia painted pink on anniversary of Prague spring

Below the figures of Soviet soldiers, daubed overnight by an unknown artist, reads an inscription: 'Bulgaria apologises'

Associated Press in Sofia
theguardian.com, Wednesday 21 August 2013 12.55 BST   

Unknown artists have painted a Soviet Army monument in the capital, Sofia, pink in honour of the anniversary of the Prague spring.

Residents discovered on Wednesday morning that the figures of Soviet soldiers had been brightly coloured and an inscription added below in Bulgarian and Czech that read: "Bulgaria apologises."

On 21 August 1968, armies of five Warsaw Pact countries – the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and East Germany – invaded Czechoslovakia to crush democratic reforms known as the Prague spring. One hundred and eight people were killed with 500 seriously injured.
Sofia monument to Soviet invasion painted with superheroes The same monument in 2011. Photograph: Oleg Popov/AP

Bulgaria, an ally of the Soviet Union for decades, was the first country to call for the invasion and the last one to formally apologise for its participation, in 1990.

In 2011, grafitti artists transformed the soldiers in the monument into popular superheroes and cartoon characters, including Superman, Santa Claus and Ronald McDonald.


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« Reply #8276 on: Aug 22, 2013, 08:43 AM »

In the USA....

NSA illegally collected thousands of emails before Fisa court halted program

Declassified court ruling from 2011 found government 'disclosed substantial misrepresentation' of data collection program

Spencer Ackerman in Washington
theguardian.com, Wednesday 21 August 2013 22.27 BST   

The secretive court that oversees surveillance programs found in 2011 that the National Security Agency illegally collected tens of thousands of emails between Americans in violation of the fourth amendment to the US constitution.

The foreign intelligence surveillance (Fisa) court ruling stemmed from what intelligence officials told reporters on Wednesday was a complex technical problem, not an intentional violation of American civil liberties.

In his 86-page opinion, declassified on Wednesday, Judge John Bates wrote that the government informed the court that the "volume and nature of the information it has been collecting is fundamentally different from what the court had been led to believe".

The ruling is one of three documents released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and comes amid growing public and congressional concern over the scope of NSA surveillance programs.

An intelligence official who would not be identified publicly described the problem to reporters during a conference call on Wednesday.

"If you have a webmail email account, like Gmail or Hotmail, you know that if you open up your email program, you will get a screenshot of some number of emails that are sitting in your inbox, the official said.

"Those are all transmitted across the internet as one communication. For technological reasons, the NSA was not capable of breaking those down, and still is not capable, of breaking those down into their individual [email] components."

If one of those emails contained a reference to a foreign person believed to be outside the US – in the subject line, the sender or the recipient, for instance – then the NSA would collect the entire screenshot "that's popping up on your screen at the time," the official continued.

"On occasion, some of those [emails] might prove to be wholly domestic," the official said. If a foreign person being targeted is in contact with an American, "you can get all that US person's screenshot" from his or her inbox.

The Fisa court estimated, based on models provided by the NSA, that the surveillance agency was collecting up to 56,000 purely domestic communications a year in the three years before the court ruling, as the Washington Post first reported.

Somewhere between "2,000-10,000" of those involved multiple communications acquired in single collections, such as the e-mail inbox screenshots. Approximately 46,000 involved collections of single emails or other internet communications.

"NSA has acquired, is acquiring, and if the certifications and procedures now before the Court is approved, will continue to acquire, tens of thousands of wholly domestic communications," Bates wrote in his ruling.

The exact total remained a mystery to the court. "The actual number of wholly domestic communications acquired may still be higher," Bates wrote.

The Court had more precise visibility into the NSA's total internet acquisitions annually. NSA consumed 250 million internet communications each year, according to an assessment by Bates in 2011. Some 9% of that was collected as the communications transit across the internet, a process known as "upstream" collection. The remaining 91% comes to NSA from its internet service provider partners.

It was the NSA's handling of data collected upstream that the Fisa court found to be constitutionally problematic.

Wholly domestic communications are banned from the NSA's collection under section 702 of the 2008 Fisa Amendments Act. An NSA document leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden and published by the Guardian on August 9 referred to an October 2011 change in the rules, by which the NSA must purge data it improperly collected but that said the NSA could still search its so-called "702" databases for "certain US person names and identifiers," though not until an "effective oversight process" was implemented.

Senator Ron Wyden, a member of the intelligence committee, refers to the NSA's still-current authorities to query those databases for US person information as a "backdoor search" loophole.

Intelligence officials on Wednesday's conference call said that the Fisa court paused the program but found that it was "technologically impossible to prevent this from happening". The court found the NSA's procedures for purging wholly domestic communications "needed to be beefed up, and that's what was done," an official said.

Intelligence officials released the post-2011 so-called "minimization" procedures they developed after the court paused the program. They included "post-acquisition technical means to segregate transactions that were most likely to contain US person information." Those that couldn't be were subjected to other restrictions that "significantly limited the government's ability to use or disseminate" information about Americans.

The officials also said the NSA can now retain upstream data for only two years rather than five.

But the interception of email mailbox "screenshots" that can contain wholly domestic communications apparently continues.

The declassified ruling gives a glimpse of the court's apparent frustration over the accuracy of information it was given about NSA programs.

In a footnote, Bates wrote that the court was "troubled that the government's revelations regarding the NSA's acquisitions of internet transactions mark the third instance in less than three years in which the government has disclosed a substantial misrepresentation regarding the scope of a major collection program".

In 2009, Bates wrote, the court found that its approval of a government interpretation of section 215 of the Patriot Act to justify the bulk collection of all Americans' phone records – a different authority than section 702 of the Fisa Amendments Act – was substantially flawed.

That approval was "premised on a flawed depiction" of how the program operated, Bates wrote, "buttressed by repeated inaccurate statements in the government's submissions" to the court.

The court concluded in 2009, Bates said, that the standards the government used to search the phone records databases for threats to national security were "so frequently and systemically violated that it can be fairly said that this critical element of the overall … regime has never functioned effectively".

Wyden said the disclosed Fisa Court ruling – which he first revealed existed last year – pointed to the need to close the "backdoor search" loophole.

"The ruling states that the NSA has knowingly acquired tens of thousands of wholly domestic communications under section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, even though this law was specifically written to prohibit the warrantless acquisition of wholly domestic communications," Wyden said.

"The FISA Court has noted that this collection violates the spirit of the law, but the government has failed to address this concern in the two years since this ruling was issued. This ruling makes it clear that FISA Section 702, as written, is insufficient to adequately protect the civil liberties and privacy rights of law-abiding Americans and should be reformed."

Mark Udall, another critic of the NSA's bulk collection efforts who sits on the intelligence committee, said: "I am glad the NSA is taking this step at owning its mistakes, but it is also a sign that we can and must do more to protect innocent Americans with no connection to terrorism from being monitored by our government — whether intentionally or not. I will keep fighting to ensure that the NSA is not violating Americans' privacy rights."

In the nearly three months since the Guardian began reporting on NSA surveillance programs, US intelligence officials have frequently said their violations of laws and rules involving American data are simply technical problems – something Wyden and Udall criticized as misleading in late July.

Bates' 2011 opinion criticized the NSA for a similar swearing to the court. "There is nothing in the record to suggest that NSA's technical means are malfunctioning or otherwise failing to operate as designed," he wrote.

The current Fisa court presiding judge, Reggie Walton, told the Washington Post last week that the Fisa court remains reliant on government assurances, rather than its own independent oversight capabilities, to determine that the NSA and the government is in compliance with surveillance law and agreed-upon procedures.

In a covering letter published alongside the documents, the director of national intelligence James Clapper said the decision to declassify, which followed Barack Obama's order for the intelligence community to be more transparent, was "not done lightly" but the "harm to national security is outweighed by the public interest".

************

August 21, 2013 04:00 PM

Obama Administration Wants Warrantless Searches On Our Cell Phones

By John Amato
CrooksAndLiars

So much for the fourth amendment. Is it time to bring back rubber hoses?

    If the police arrest you, do they need a warrant to rifle through your cellphone? Courts have been split on the question. Last week the Obama administration asked the Supreme Court to resolve the issue and rule that the Fourth Amendment allows warrantless cellphone searches. In 2007, the police arrested a Massachusetts man who appeared to be selling crack cocaine from his car. The cops seized his cellphone and noticed that it was receiving calls from “My House.” They opened the phone to determine the number for “My House.” That led them to the man’s home, where the police found drugs, cash and guns.

    The defendant was convicted, but on appeal he argued that accessing the information on his cellphone without a warrant violated his Fourth Amendment rights. Earlier this year, the First Circuit Court of Appeals accepted the man’s argument, ruling that the police should have gotten a warrant before accessing any information on the man’s phone. The Obama Administration disagrees. In a petition filed earlier this month asking the Supreme Court to hear the case, the government argues that the First Circuit’s ruling conflicts with the rulings of several other appeals courts, as well as with earlier Supreme Court cases. Those earlier cases have given the police broad discretion to search possessions on the person of an arrested suspect, including notebooks, calendars and pagers. The government contends that a cellphone is no different than any other object a suspect might be carrying.

    But as the storage capacity of cellphones rises, that position could become harder to defend. Our smart phones increasingly contain everything about our digital lives: our e-mails, text messages, photographs, browser histories and more. It would be troubling if the police had the power to get all that information with no warrant merely by arresting a suspect.

Nowadays many of us use our cell phones just like our personal computers. Is the Obama administration arguing that it's OK to search your computer? And even if you don't use it like a computer, I bet you access your email account on it and if the courts agree with the White House then any thoughts of protections from the police are over. I bet Ray Kelly believes that in a Stop and Frisk situation, it's just dandy if a cop then searches through your cell phone fishing for information that can lock you up as well. It makes sense, doesn't it?

Digby writes: They really want to get to your private information:

    This would conveniently make it so that the local, state and federal police can just seize someone's phone to get all that lovely personal data without having to make up some phony rationale about it being related to terrorism. (That whole thing's getting a little touchy, dontcha know?)

    If the courts ultimately side with the Obama administration, anyone can be arrested on a trumped up charge, their cell phone seized, their email and other personal info accessed all without probable cause. And heck, if they just happen to find something ... well, that's your bad luck isn't it? If you don't have anything to hide ...

    This has nothing to do with keeping the babies safe and everything to do with a government that has decided that the 4th Amendment is getting in its way and that an expectation of privacy is an anachronism that only a bunch of irrelevant cranks or criminals care about. I don't see how you can interpret their actions any other way.

And as Duncan always says: Shit Is F*&ked Up And Bullshit.

    And the point is that getting access to your "cellphone" is no longer about having access to your contact list, phone logs, and a few voicemails you failed to delete, it's about having access to a big chunk of how you interact with the world in every way.

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Bradley Manning's sentence: 35 years for exposing us to the truth

This was never a fair trial – Obama declared Manning's guilt in advance. But Manning's punishment is an affront to democracy

Birgitta Jónsdóttir   
theguardian.com, Wednesday 21 August 2013 15.29 BST   

Link to video: Bradley Manning: 35 years in jail for an outsider who had trouble fitting in – video

http://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2011/may/27/bradley-manning-wikileaks-iraq-video

As of today, Wednesday 21 August 2013, Bradley Manning has served 1,182 days in prison. He should be released with a sentence of time served. Instead, the judge in his court martial at Fort Meade, Maryland has handed down a sentence of 35 years.

Of course, a humane, reasonable sentence of time served was never going to happen. This trial has, since day one, been held in a kangaroo court. That is not angry rhetoric; the reason I am forced to frame it in that way is because President Obama made the following statements on record, before the trial even started:

    President Obama: We're a nation of laws. We don't individually make our own decisions about how the laws operate … He broke the law.

    Logan Price: Well, you can make the law harder to break, but what he did was tell us the truth.

    President Obama: Well, what he did was he dumped …

    Logan Price: But Nixon tried to prosecute Daniel Ellsberg for the same thing and he is a … [hero]

    President Obama: No, it isn't the same thing … What Ellsberg released wasn't classified in the same way.

When the president says that the Ellsberg's material was classified in a different way, he seems to be unaware that there was a higher classification on the documents Ellsberg leaked.

A fair trial, then, has never been part of the picture. Despite being a professor in constitutional law, the president as commander-in-chief of the US military – and Manning has been tried in a court martial – declared Manning's guilt pre-emptively. Here is what the Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg had to say about this, in an interview with Amy Goodman at DemocracyNow! in 2011:

    Well, nearly everything the president has said represents a confusion about the state of the law and his own responsibilities. Everyone is focused, I think, on the fact that his commander-in-chief has virtually given a directed verdict to his subsequent jurors, who will all be his subordinates in deciding the guilt in the trial of Bradley Manning. He's told them already that their commander, on whom their whole career depends, regards him [Manning] as guilty and that they can disagree with that only at their peril. In career terms, it's clearly enough grounds for a dismissal of the charges, just as my trial was dismissed eventually for governmental misconduct.

    But what people haven't really focused on, I think, is another problematic aspect of what he said. He not only was identifying Bradley Manning as the source of the crime, but he was assuming, without any question, that a crime has been committed.

This alone should have been cause for the judge in the case to rethink prosecutors' demand for 60 years in prison. Manning himself has shown throughout the trial both that he is a humanitarian and that he is willing to serve time for his actions. We have to look at his acts in light of his moral compass, not any political agenda.

Manning intentions were never to hurt anyone; in fact, his motivation – as was the case for Ellsberg – was to inform the American public about what their government was doing in their name. A defense forensic psychiatrist testified to Manning's motives:

    Well, Pfc Manning was under the impression that his leaked information was going to really change how the world views the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and future wars, actually. This was an attempt to crowdsource an analysis of the war, and it was his opinion that if … through crowdsourcing, enough analysis was done on these documents, which he felt to be very important, that it would lead to a greater good … that society as a whole would come to the conclusion that the war wasn't worth it … that really no wars are worth it.

I admit that I share the same hopes that drove Manning to share with the rest of the world the crimes of war he witnessed. I am deeply disappointed that no one has been held accountable for the criminality exposed in the documents for which Manning is standing trial – except him. It shows so clearly that our justice systems are not working as intended to protect the general public and to hold accountable those responsible for unspeakable crimes.

I want to thank Bradley Manning for the service he has done for humanity with his courage and compassionate action to inform us, so that we have the means to transform and change our societies for the better. I want to thank him for shining light into the shadows. It is up to each and everyone of us to use the information he provided for the greater good. I want to thank him for making our world a little better. This is why I nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, for there are very few individuals who have ever brought about the kind of social change Manning has put in motion.

The wave of demands for greater transparency, more accountability, and democratic reform originate with Manning's lonely act in the barracks in Iraq. He has given others – such as Edward Snowden – the courage to do the right thing for the rest of us. The heavy hand dealt Bradley Manning today is a massive blow against everything many of us hold sacred – at a time when we have been shown how fragile and weak our democracies are by the revelations of, first, Manning, and now, Snowden.

There is no such thing as privacy anymore; nor is there such a thing as accountability among our public servants. Our governments do not function for the benefit of the 99%. If Manning had received a fair sentence that was in proportion to his supposed crime – which was to expose us to the truth – then there would have been hope.

Instead, we are seeing the state acting like a wounded tiger, cornered and lashing out in rage – attacking the person who speaks the truth in order to frighten the rest of us into silence. But to that, I have only one answer: it won't work.


**************

Bradley Manning: a sentence both unjust and unfair

Pfc Manning sought to hold his country to the values it claims to uphold, yet his prison term dwarfs other military convictions

Editorial   
The Guardian, Wednesday 21 August 2013 20.15 BST   

Bradley Manning has received a prison sentence that was 10 years longer than the period of time after which many of the documents he released would have been automatically declassified. The military judge handed down the longest ever sentence for a leak of US government information.

Mr Manning, according to this logic, did more harm than the soldier who gave a Jordanian intelligence agent information on the build-up to the first Iraq war, or the marine who gave the KGB the identities of CIA agents and floorplans of the embassies in Moscow and Vienna. Mr Manning did three times as much harm in transmitting to WikiLeaks in 2010 the war logs or field reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, as Charles Graner did. He was the army reserve corporal who became ringleader of the Abu Ghraib abuse ring and was set free after serving six and a half years of his 10-year sentence.

Among the 700,000 classified documents Mr Manning downloaded while stationed in Iraq was a video that showed a US Apache helicopter in Baghdad opening fire on a group of Iraqis, including two Reuters journalists and their children, who had attempted to rescue a severely injured man. More devastating than the film was the cockpit chatter of the soldiers who joked as they shot people in the streets.

"Look at those dead bastards," said one. "Nice," said another.

The Apache crew has never been charged with any offence (all their adult targets were listed as insurgents) and neither has any other individual as a result of Mr Manning's revelations. But the shortened 17-minute version of the video has been viewed more than 3m times on YouTube.

So, the central question to answer in judging the proportionality of this sentence is whether the desire to punish a whistleblower driven by moral outrage stems from the alleged harm he did US military and diplomatic interests, or whether it derives more from sheer embarrassment. The judge presiding, Col Denise Lind, had already thrown out the gravest charge, that of "aiding the enemy". Col Lind had also limited the admissibility of evidence regarding the "chilling effects" that Mr Manning's actions had on US diplomacy by releasing 250,000 state department cables. A military witness conceded there was no evidence that anyone had been killed after being named in the releases.

Mr Manning's recent apology for his actions does not, and should not, detract from the initial defence he gave for them, when he spoke of his shock at the "delightful bloodlust" displayed by that helicopter crew, or his belief that stimulating a debate about the wars was the right thing to do. We know what his motives as a whistleblower were and we have applauded them. They are certainly not akin to treachery or any act fit to be judged – if anything is – by an espionage act rushed onto the statute book in 1917 after America entered the first world war.

Mr Manning exposed the abuse of detainees by Iraqi officers under the watch of US minders. He showed that civilian deaths during the Iraq war were much higher than the official estimates. If they were published today, these claims would be uncontentious. They have already slipped into the official history of this war. But the author of this orthodoxy will continue to pay for the record he helped establish by a prison term that he will serve well into the next decade, which is when the first date for his parole application becomes due. Mr Manning was seeking to hold his country and its army to the values they claim to uphold.

It is unclear what the US military hopes to achieve by securing a sentence that dwarfs those of other military convictions. Deterrence features large in its thinking. Whistleblowing will not only endanger your career, it wants to say, but your freedom – for most of your adult life. In 2008, one could have hoped that the US had a president whose administration would distinguish between leaks in the public interest and treason. But this sentence tells a different story. Mr Manning's sentence, which is both unjust and unfair, can still be reduced on appeal. Let us hope that it is.

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Bradley Manning to request pardon from Obama over 35-year jail sentence

Manning says 'It's OK – I'm going to get through this' after military judge hands down stiff penalty for WikiLeaks disclosures

• Six things we learned from Manning's court martial
• Bradley Manning was a lonely soldier with a troubled past
• Editorial: A sentence both unjust and unfair

Paul Lewis at Fort Meade
theguardian.com, Wednesday 21 August 2013 20.30 BST   


Link to video: Bradley Manning's defence attorney reacts to 35-year sentence

http://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2013/aug/22/bradley-manning-defence-attorney-reacts-sentence-video

Bradley Manning will send a personal plea to Barack Obama next week for a presidential pardon after he was sentenced on Wednesday to 35 years in prison for passing hundreds of thousands of classified military documents to WikiLeaks.

**************

August 22, 2013

After Sentencing, Manning Says, ‘I Am Female’

By BRIAN STELTER
NYT

Pfc. Bradley Manning, the Army private who pleaded guilty to leaking government files to WikiLeaks and was sentenced on Wednesday to 35 years in military prison, said in a statement Thursday that “I am female” and wants to begin living life that way.

In a letter to supporters titled “The Next Stage of My Life,” Private Manning wrote, “I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition.”

The letter went on to request that Private Manning’s supporters “refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility).” It was signed, “Chelsea Manning.”

In the past Private Manning has described himself as gay, and some supporters described him as transgender. In an online chat conversation, published by the Web site of Wired magazine in 2010, Private Manning told the man who eventually turned him in to the authorities, Adrian Lamo, that “I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me plastered all over the world press as a boy.”

Private Manning’s apparent struggles with gender identity were invoked by the defense team at the trial. A widely circulated photograph showed Private Manning wearing lipstick and a blonde wig; Private Manning had e-mailed the photo to an Army psychologist with the subject line, “My Problem.”

In an interview on the “Today” show on Thursday, Private Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, said his client waited to speak publicly about being a woman until after the sentencing.

“Chelsea didn’t want to have this be something that overshadowed the case,” Mr. Coombs said.

Private Manning’s comments on Thursday were the first since the 35-year sentence was handed down on Wednesday. Private Manning, 25, did not speak at the short sentencing hearing.

Private Manning provided more than 700,000 government files to the WikiLeaks organization, which then shared some of the files with media companies, including The New York Times, and the public. The files contained diplomatic cables, incident reports from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and dossiers about detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Some proved to be deeply embarrassing to the American government, while many others were seemingly innocuous.

Mr. Coombs said on “Today” that what drove Private Manning to leak the files was a “strong moral compass.” He said he expected his client to be pardoned by President Obama. Private Manning’s supporters, who are well-organized online, are now concentrating their efforts around calls for a presidential pardon.

Private Manning is expected to serve time at the Army prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. In the run-up to Private Manning’s sentencing, some supporters wondered whether he would be able to receive sex reassignment treatment in prison. A spokeswoman for Fort Leavenworth told Courthouse News that “the Army does not provide hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery for gender identity disorder.”

Mr. Coombs acknowledged as much on “Today.” He said that his client had not signaled an interest in sex-reassignment surgery, but he is hopeful that Fort Leavenworth will “do the right thing” and provide hormone therapy. Such therapeutic regimens can help people with male physical features turn those features more feminine.

Mr. Coombs said that if the military did not provide hormone therapy willingly, “then I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure they are forced to do so.”

When asked whether Private Manning’s ultimate goal was to be housed in prison with women, instead of men, Mr. Coombs said, “No, I think the ultimate goal is to be comfortable in her skin and to be the person that she’s never had an opportunity to be.”

Television presenters, including the one who interviewed Mr. Coombs, NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, weren’t immediately sure how to tell the name-change story; Ms. Guthrie, for instance, used the pronoun “she” to refer to Private Manning throughout most of the interview, but used “he” when trying to emphasize the change had just been announced.

**************

The Caucus - The Politics and Government blog of The New York Times
August 21, 2013, 2:36 pm

Senior House Democrat Sues I.R.S. Over Tax Exemptions

By JONATHAN WEISMAN

Representative Chris Van Hollen filed suit in Federal District Court on Wednesday to force the Internal Revenue Service to block tax-exempt “social welfare” organizations from engaging in any overt political activity.

The suit, joined by the campaign watchdog groups Democracy 21, Public Citizen and the Campaign Legal Center, signaled that forces for increased campaign finance regulation may be regaining their footing after the controversy over the I.R.S.’s targeting of political groups had put them on the defensive for months.

But the battleground appears to be shifting from Congress to the courts.

For decades, the I.R.S. has struggled with defining the meaning of “social welfare” when determining whether a group should be eligible for tax-exempt 501(c)(4) status. The government has generally said a group’s “primary” purpose should be social welfare, allowing a significant amount of its work — roughly 49 percent — to be partisan politics. And those groups do not have to publicly disclose their donors.

With the Supreme Court’s deregulation of campaign finance laws, the issue has become more controversial. In 2012, 501(c)(4) groups pumped $256 million into the presidential campaign cycle, triple the amount spent in the 2008 cycle and 33 times the $7.6 million they spent in 2004.

The lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia and citing the tax law that created such tax exemptions, says the I.R.S. should rule that the exemptions should go only to groups exclusively engaged in social welfare work. That would prohibit any tax-exempt activity aimed at electing or defeating specific political candidates.

Many Democrats have sought legislative remedies to force more disclosure amid the flood of money to outside political groups. But the scandal over the I.R.S.’s targeting of political groups — conservative and liberal — for extra scrutiny has diminished the already low prospects of any such legislation.

Advocates of the lawsuit said the case law was clear. Congress never intended a 501(c)(4) to be buying attack ads aimed at candidates. And they said Republicans should back the effort if they really believe the I.R.S. should not be trying to determine the lawful balance between “social welfare” and political activities.

“If you agree the I.R.S. should not be in the business of looking into the activity of every organization to determine how much is political versus social welfare, then you should welcome this,” said Mr. Van Hollen, a senior House Democrat from Maryland.

By and large, Republicans have reached a similar conclusion but with an opposite remedy. The I.R.S., they say, should simply leave the groups alone and not infringe on their activities at all.

*************

Obamacare Turns Republicans Against Insurance

By: Crissie Brown
Aug. 21st, 2013
PoliticusUSA

Republicans have not proposed a replacement for the Affordable Care Act, and won’t, because Obamacare has turned the GOP base against insurance itself.

Earlier this month the Republican Study Committee said they would soon roll out a comprehensive replacement for the Affordable Care Act. But don’t hold your breath. While House Republicans have held 40 votes to repeal Obamacare, they have yet to offer a replacement as part of their “repeal and replace” mantra.

“Health insurance is now tainted by Obamacare”

In fact, back in April the House GOP caucus rejected Majority Whip Eric Cantor’s proposal to ensure coverage for people with preexisting conditions … because the proposal seemed to support part of Obamacare.

And that, Jonathan Bernstein argues, is why we’ll never see a GOP replacement plan:

    But conservatives have decided that no policy overlap with Obamacare is acceptable. Tea Partiers have chosen to oppose not only Obamacare but any policy which even faintly resembles any piece of that omnibus legislation. We saw this in the House defeat of Eric Cantor’s high-risk poll bill this spring, when conservatives revolted against his effort to propose a GOP plan protecting those with preexisting conditions.

    But that refusal to accept any of the substance of Obamacare has run Republicans right into a brick wall. Thanks to the way that the ACA was put together – it really is a mammoth omnibus bill which incorporated practically every plausible policy idea out there – it turns out that practically everything you can do to provide health insurance is now tainted by Obamacare.

“Declare victory or declare war”

The problem, as Ezra Klein explains, is that Obamacare began as a Republican plan:

    Of course, as Gingrich correctly points out, the Republicans have no idea what is it is they’ll do – save for undoing what the Democrats did. But for all Gingrich’s bluster on the subject, the simplest way to understand that policy vacuum is to understand Gingrich’s pre-Obamacare health-care plan: It was Obamacare.

    “We should insist that everyone above a certain level buy coverage (or, if they are opposed to insurance, post a bond),” he wrote in his 2008 book, Real Change. “Meanwhile, we should provide tax credits or subsidize private insurance for the poor.”

    So that’s an individual mandate plus tax subsidies to purchase insurance. That’s the core of Obamacare. And it’s no surprise Gingrich supported it. Lots of Republicans did. Gov. Mitt Romney even signed a plan like that into law in Massachusetts.

But once President Obama proposed it, Republicans flipped to oppose it:

    Conservative elites had two options when Democrats began to adopt their policy ideas: Declare victory or declare war. Key figures like Gingrich could’ve stepped before the cameras and chortled about Democrats giving up on single payer and slinking towards conservative solutions. For Hillary Clinton to run in 2008 with Bob Dole’s health-care plan was an amazing moment in American politics. For Barack Obama to reverse himself on the individual mandate and embrace the Heritage Foundation’s approach to personal responsibility was further proof that Democrats had lost the war of ideas here. Republicans could have declared victory and, by engaging constructively, pushed the final product further toward their ideal.

    They chose war instead. And that meant eradicating any trace of support for the policies they had come up with.

“Young Invincibles”

Indeed Ed Kilgore writes that Republicans have now turned against the very idea of insurance:

    But the GOP’s problem on health policy goes deeper than having to erase their own tracks. There are three persistent obstacles to the development of a conservative “replacement” for Obamacare.

    (1) A growing tendency to oppose the very idea of redistribution of risk and cost, which is essential not just to public health reform efforts, but to private health insurance. Conservatives often seem to want to go back to those days when patients paid doctors with cash or did without health care altogether. That’s “personal responsibility” with a vengeance.

A new ‘study’ by David Hogberg of the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research encourages young, health Americans – Hogberg calls them “Young Invicibles” – to not buy health insurance at all:

    This study finds that in 2014 many single people aged 18-34 who do not have children will have a substantial financial incentive to forego insurance on the exchanges and instead pay the individual mandate penalty of $95 or one percent of income. About 3.7 million of those ages 18-34 will be at least $500 better off if they forgo insurance and pay the penalty. More than 3 million will be $1,000 better off if they go the same route. This raises the likelihood that an insufficient number of young and healthy people will participate in the exchanges, thereby leading to a death spiral.

But as Jonathan Bernstein writes, this ‘study’ completely ignores that health insurance offers benefits:

    Hogberg seems to understand that even young, healthy people have occasional medical needs; he cites figures that “those aged 18-34 average about 2.7 physician visits per year” and that women in that age group use the health-care system more than men do. And yet he doesn’t account for that at all in his cost calculations. He just looks at premiums, subsidies and the “mandate” penalty for going without. It’s probably true that the healthiest of the young healthies, especially men, can go years between doctor visits (and would do so even if insurance covered everything). But even young healthies get the flu, or sprain an ankle, or otherwise need a bit of medical attention. Some even want regular check-ups just to be safe! Those visits cost money; any proper study of costs and benefits would take them into account.

The “Young Invincibles” are not, in fact, invincible. Hogberg’s response?

    In a market without guaranteed issue, consumers run the risk of insurers not selling them policies when they get seriously ill. But that risk is largely gone under the exchanges. For instance, a young person who gets a serious illness in June only has to wait until October to sign up for insurance and then wait until January 1 of the next year to receive coverage.

So if you’re a “Young Invincible” and you get in a car accident in June, either pay for the hospital visit yourself, or lie beside the road until January and call for an ambulance once your new insurance kicks in.

“They’re going to become older not-so-healthies”

Even that ignores the deeper problem, as Bernstein explains:

    There’s a larger issue here, too. While Hogberg is focused only on the immediate financial incentives for young healthies (which is fine; it’s a real and important question), there’s also a question about the long-term interests of this cohort. Because the one thing that’s going to happen to most young healthies is that they’re going to become older not-so-healthies, and at that point most of them are going to be very happy to have a functioning insurance market. Those who are young and childless may, before all that long, become parents — again, parents who badly want to buy insurance. And those young healthies may even have a major financial stake in what happens to their 40- and 50-something parents; they may care quite a bit that their parents aren’t wiped out financially by health care before they are Medicare-eligible.

The whole point of health insurance is that premiums paid by healthy people fund benefits paid for sick or injured people. Yes, over an average lifetime, you will pay more in premiums than you receive in benefits. That’s how insurance companies pay their employees. But by paying premiums every month – in a well-regulated and effective insurance market – you avoid (most of) the short-term cash crunch of a serious illness or injury.

“It’s not a positive development for the Republican opponents”

As it happens, most Americans recognize that reality and do buy health insurance, and the USA TODAY reported that states now expect participation in the Obamacare exchanges to exceed expectations:

    Estimates from 19 states operating health insurance exchanges to help the uninsured find coverage show that at least 8.5 million will use the exchanges to buy insurance, a USA TODAY survey shows. That would far outstrip the federal government’s estimate of 7 million new customers for all 50 states under the 2010 health care law.
    [...]
    “For the most part, that’s a very good thing,” said Paul Ginsburg, president of the Center for Studying Health System Change. “First, these are people who need health insurance. And second, the scenario that only sick people will enroll is less likely.”
    [...]
    “It’s not a positive development for the Republican opponents who would like to see this fail,” Ginsburg said. “But it’s still very early in the process.”

Of course conservatives are predicting that most of those 8.5 million will be sick people who couldn’t get other insurance, or workers whose bosses are cutting health insurance benefits. And some will be. But most Americans – even “young invicibles” – know they’re not really invincible.

Republicans’ intransigence has left them arguing that people should lie beside the road for six months before calling an ambulance. Except of course Republicans don’t actually say that. Instead they say, truthfully, that emergency rooms will treat you even if you don’t have health insurance.

In other words, the “party of personal responsibility” advocates … free-riding on publicly-funded emergency room care.

Reflexive partisan opposition has left them no other choice.

***************

Disaster for the GOP as Republicans Are Flocking to a Key Obamacare Benefit

By: Jason Easley
Aug. 21st, 2013
PoliticusUSA

The Republican effort to repeal Obamacare may hit a brick wall in their own party as 62% of young Republicans are signing up and staying on their parents’ health insurance

According to a study by The Commonwealth Fund, “While public opinion polls have consistently shown a partisan divide in views of the health reform law, the survey finds that young adults who identified themselves as Republicans enrolled in their parents’ policies in greater numbers than young adults who identified themselves as Democrats. In March 2013, 63 percent of Republican young adults had enrolled in a parent’s policy in the past 12 months, compared with 45 percent of Democrats.”

The study also found that the Republican misinformation campaign about Obamacare has been a failure, “Starting in September 2010, the Affordable Care Act required all insurance plans offering dependent coverage to offer the same level of coverage at the same price to their enrollees’ adult children up to their 26th birthday. The survey finds that increasing numbers of young adults over the period 2011 to 2013 became aware of this requirement. By March 2013, 62 percent of the age group eligible to join a parent’s policy were aware of the provision. In particular, awareness increased among young adults with low income and those with a high school education or less, as well as among those who considered themselves Republicans and 23-to-25-year-olds.”

Remember when pundits and so called experts on both the left and right were proclaiming that President Obama was wasting his time trying to educate people about the ACA? They were certain that Republicans had won the battle, and that the ACA was going to be unpopular forever. It turns out that those critics were wrong.

President Obama has so effectively gotten his message out about the benefit of parents being able to keep their kids on their health insurance through college that nearly 2/3 of Republicans are taking advantage of this. It turns out that the president wasn’t wasting his time. He was pushing back against a Republican misinformation campaign, and he won.

The problem that Republicans are facing is best illustrated by this graphic from The Commonwealth Fund:

young-adults-2

Young adults, including young Republicans, want health insurance. The strategy of repeal and don’t replace is pushing them away from the Republican Party. The GOP message on the ACA appeals mostly to the existing base of older white voters who are most likely already on Medicare.

In other words, the endless Republican campaign to repeal all of Obamacare is hurting them with young voters, young members of their own party, parents who are Republicans, and the country in general. Republicans haven’t caught on yet that there are parts of the ACA that the American people really, really like.

The tide has definitely turned on Obamacare. Republicans believed that Obamacare was their greatest weapon, but their opposition to the ACA might end up being the cause of their greatest defeat.

***************

Republicans Have Lost Their Grip on Reality and Are Disregarding the Constitution

By: Rmuse
Aug. 21st, 2013
PoliticusUSA

A mental or psychiatric disorder is a psychological pattern reflected in behavior that is generally not considered part of normal development. Generally, mental illness is defined by a combination of how a person feels, acts, thinks or perceives, and can be associated with particular functions of the brain that causes the sufferer to be hostile to or disruptive of the established social order and engaging in behavior that violates accepted mores. The danger is that the mentally afflicted believe their condition, regardless how severe, is normal and that anyone who disagrees with them is their mortal enemy including their allies; such is the current iteration of the Republican Party.

It is reasonable to assume that racism, extremist religion, and disbelief in reality are manifestations of Republican psychiatric disorders and they are particularly rampant in the extremist tea party wing. It is generally agreed by mental health experts that mental illness is not contagious, but they have not yet conducted in depth studies into the plague ravaging the Republican Party. It is unfair to blame the lunacy rampant in Republican ranks solely on delusional teabaggers because what was once regarded as extreme is the new normal for the GOP from the leadership to freshman representatives in Congress and state legislatures. It is true there are a small number of Republicans who have not yet fallen victim to teabagger insanity, but they are being called upon by the psychologically demented to either get out or they will be replaced.

After the electoral loss in 2012, while the RNC’s internal studies revealed extremism coupled with their anti-women and anti-minority policies were major contributing factors to their loss, a segment of the party countered that the problem was the party was not extreme enough. The mindset among extremists was that if Republicans had convinced voters they really wanted lunatics ruling in Washington, the people would have overwhelmingly supported intemperate conservatives Republicans have become. Last Friday, a coalition of teabagger groups sent a letter to Senator Lamar Alexander demanding his retirement because “our great nation cannot afford compromise” that exposes teabaggers concrete thinking that is a symptom of mental illness. Yesterday, a teabagger decided to challenge Alexander in the Tennessee Republican primary because Alexander is not extreme enough and teabaggers are tired of him compromising as part of governing.

Former senator Jim DeMint, current president of the Heritage Foundation and extreme teabagger told attendees at a town hall that “Republicans too afraid to shut down the government over health care reform should “be replaced” and it exposes another break from reality as well as teabagger’s willingness to create more distress for Americans because their unrealistic demands are unmet. DeMint also said that if Republicans were successful passing a budget defunding the health law under threat of a government shutdown that “we don’t know if Obama will sign a bill to defund Obamacare” suggesting the President will actually sign a bill abolishing his signature health law.  It is the height of insanity to think for one second that threats from lunatics on the right will force the President to sign a bill reinstating lifetime limits, pre-existing conditions, and exorbitant fee increases, not to mention removing access to health insurance for 30 million uninsured Americans to prevent Republicans from shutting down the government. Another indicator of mental illness is obsessive compulsion Republicans have displayed over the Affordable Care Act, and their obsession has cost taxpayer millions of dollars voting to repeal the health law despite it will never get past the President’s veto pen.

Yesterday it was reported here that some extremists in Republican ranks left the party because they “can no longer associate ourselves with a political party that goes out of its way to continually restrict our freedoms and liberties,” and they were not talking about the DNC. That is how extreme most Republicans have become regardless their policies are having a profoundly damaging effect on all aspects of the nation. In fact, it was reported here that American businesses are suffering the consequences of madmen obstructing sound economic policies championed by Republican extremists and it was just a matter of time before the lunatics laying waste to the American people would affect the business world. Republican extremism has touched all aspects of society now and still, they are ramping up insane policies that are driving one of their most dependable voting blocs, senior citizens, to turn sharply against the GOP.

In the same manner that mental disorders are not contagious, they are not necessarily caused by any event. However, when the American people elected an African American man as President it drove the current crop of Republicans and their teabagger cohort mad, and like crazy people are wont, they took out their raging psychosis on innocent bystanders; the American people. President Obama is, at best, a left-leaning centrist, but he is a Black left-leaning centrist and his race drove the conservative movement’s decline into insanity with valuable assistance by non-stop ranting that this Black man was taking their guns and religious freedoms. There has been no dearth of paranoia that the President is on a crusade to destroy Christianity because of the religious right’s delusional belief he is a Muslim and it contributed to the rise of extremism that is now the Republican Party.

There are many on the left describing the mental state of Republicans and the resulting internal war to seize control of the conservative movement as the beginning of the end of the GOP’s relevance in American politics and that may be true. However, Republicans still control the nation’s purse strings and they are using their five week recess to marshal support for the upcoming budget and debt limit battles. The extremists are single-minded in shutting down the government and as dangerous as that prospect, the real peril lies in their threat to block a debt limit increase over funding the health law. There are some in Congress who suggest permanently denying a debt limit rise regardless the certain worldwide financial crisis that would ensue and it exposes them for the truly insane people they are.

Republicans have lost their grip on reality and it manifest itself their blatant disregard for the Constitution save the 2nd and 10th Amendments. Their obsession with the President has motivated them and their supporters to discuss impeaching Obama despite they have no grounds,  and many of the lunatics still consider the ACA an unconstitutional breach of power. America likely had a few crazy politicians in office throughout its history, but the level of insane extremism has never permeated an entire party or posed a profoundly serious threat to the nation. There is no cure for mental illness and even if there were the insanity ravaging the conservative movement is as untreatable as it is boundless. Obviously, the majority of American people are not insane and certainly do not support the lunacy rampant in the conservative movement, but there is little they can do now and the GOP is just sane enough to prevent them from voting the crazy out of Congress and state legislatures in coming elections. Maybe the GOP insanity will be the party’s undoing, but in the meantime Americans are paying dearly for sitting home and allowing raving racists, disillusioned religiosos, Obamacare obsessed fanatics, and crazed economic extremists to rise to power.

*************

Prozac Needing John Boehner Tells Interns You Are Not Here To Change The World

By: Jason Easley
Aug. 21st, 2013
PoliticusUSA

A drunk House Republican intern left their manual at a house party, and now the world learns that John Boehner’s inspires the youth by telling them not to try to change the world.

The internship manual was obtained by Gawker, and really all you need to know about Boehner is how he “inspires” his interns:

Those rules listed above my be the Boehnerest Boehner things ever written. It is easy to see why the Republican Party is so downtrodden and defeatist after reading these supposed rules for success. Who outside of Homer Simpson has ever told young people not to try to change the world?

The Republican Party’s culture of negativity is woven into the fabric of everything that they do. Speaker Eeyore has embraced the dark cloud attitude of entire party. Of course, what else would you expect from a Speaker who wants the House judged not on the laws that they passed but on the laws that they repealed. (Newsflash: Boehner is a failure on both counts.)

We can only imagine some of Boehner’s other advice to his interns that ended up on the cutting room floor. The Speaker of the House told America’s next generation that:

* There is nothing in this world worth fighting for.

** If you think things are bad right now, remember this is as good as it gets.

*** Why bother getting out of bed?

**** Trying just sets you up for disappointment after you fail.

***** Don’t give 100% effort when you can get by with 10%.

****** Seriously, why bother?

We already knew that Boehner couldn’t lead. Now it is clear that the man can’t inspire.


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« Reply #8277 on: Aug 23, 2013, 06:27 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
08/22/2013 05:01 PM

Guardian Editor: 'British More Complacent' about Surveillance

The Guardian has been on the front lines of exposing vast surveillance undertaken by the US and the UK -- and has been targeted by the authorities as a result. In an interview, Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger talks about his confrontation with the government and why the scandal isn't making waves in Britain.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What was your first reaction after being asked by Whitehall officials to hand over or destroy the hard drives containing information from whistleblower Edward Snowden?

Rusbridger: We had been having a perfectly cordial conversation with government officials before that. I don't know why they suddenly changed their mind and decided to take legal action. I obviously anticipated that they might do this, which is why we had already made arrangements in the US. So I tried to persuade the officials that this is a pointless thing to do. They wouldn't be persuaded, however. So I thought it was better to just move the reporting out of London I was happy to destroy the material in London.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Both GCHQ and the government had to anticipate that you would go public with this.

Rusbridger: Yes, it would have been naive to think that we would not tell our readers at some point.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So why did you decide to write about it only now?

Rusbridger: There were one or two little operational reasons why I didn't write about it immediately. Secondly, we were in a slightly bizarre thing where the conversation had begun without any threats. It had begun as a discussion and we had agreed to keep this private. I thought it was useful to both ends to have a channel of communication so that you didn't have to start sending in police or go to law. There was an element of the constellations that were protected by an off the record-agreement, which is why when I wrote about it I didn't name the officials. So having not written about it on the same day, it would have looked a little bit odd to break the whole news story three days later on.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you think motivated GCHQ and Whitehall to intervene?

Rusbridger: I can only speculate. My assumption is that there were different factions in Whitehall and the government. There were people who favored a very confrontational approach and sending in police. And there were others who were arguing that that would be counterproductive and that it would be better to have a conversation. At some point the hardliners won.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: There were plans to send police to the Guardian offices?

Rusbridger: I understand that there were, yes. In a different context the police have been inside News International (during the phone hacking scandal), but I think most people can see that those are different things.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In your case, there was obviously the fear that hackers or spies could gain access to the material in your possession.

Rusbridger: They (government officials) said that they had that fear. That may or may not be genuine, I don't know. There are other things about the urgency and how they behaved that make me doubt whether that was really the reason. One minute it was very, very urgent and at other times they've moved quite slowly. I don't think they've been consistent.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you satisfied with the impact of your reporting on the British public?

Rusbridger: I think the debate has been much better in the United States and in parts of Europe than in the UK. I am not sure I can totally explain it, but for some reason, the British appear to be a little bit more complacent about these things.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Guardian seems to be rather alone when it comes to reporting on this issue.

Rusbridger: Just as we were with the phone-hacking scandal. Maybe another explanation is that you have to be quite digital to really understand the nature of the threat here. The pride of an Englishman is his castle, most Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail readers believe that. They can't imagine the police coming through the front door into their homes, and they don't quite see that the police may already be inside their homes. They don't even need to go through the front door. I don't think that's being explained to the people well enough and this is what it's all about.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: It's not just journalists, though. The opposition has likewise been reluctant to focus on the surveillance scandal.

Rusbridger: Thus far, there has been virtually no debate in Westminster and barely a single MP has raised their voice. The Liberal Democrats are compromised by the fact that they are in government and Labour has a patchy record of defending our civil liberties. I think the penny is dropping on the Conservatives. There was a piece in the Telegraph by Conservative MP Domimik Raab. Tory MP David Davis is gearing up on it as well. And there was an online piece with a comparison to the arrest of Tory MP Damien Green in 2008. It may be that Conservative back benchers will get going on this before Labour does.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think it helps that Glenn Greenwald appears to be starting something of a personal vendetta?

Rusbridger: I'm sure this is not what he thinks. Glenn has been effective and actually quite careful in what he has written so far. I think in the coming weeks, more will emerge about the relationship between government, intelligence agencies and tech companies.

Interview conducted by Christoph Scheuermann

**************

UK ‘has secret Middle East web surveillance base’: report

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, August 23, 2013 4:47 EDT

Britain is running a secret Internet surveillance station in the Middle East, a report said Thursday citing the latest leaked documents obtained by fugitive US security contractor Edward Snowden.

The Independent newspaper said it was not disclosing the country where the base is located, but said the facility can intercept emails, telephone calls and web traffic for the United States and other intelligence agencies.

The British base taps into underwater fibre-optic cables in the region, the newspaper said.

It passes the information back to the British electronic eavesdropping agency GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), in Cheltenham, southwest England, which then shares it with the US National Security Agency.

Britain’s Foreign Office said when contacted by AFP about the report that “we do not comment on intelligence matters”.

The Independent did not say how it obtained the details from the Snowden files.

Snowden, a former NSA contractor, first released details of US and British surveillance activities through the Guardian newspaper earlier this year. Russia has granted him temporary asylum as he bids to avoid prosecution in the United States.

British counter-terror police on Thursday launched a criminal investigation into documents seized from the boyfriend of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who broke the Snowden story.

The Guardian said this week that GCHQ experts had on July 20 supervised the destruction of the hard drives and memory chips on which its Snowden material had been saved.

The government has confirmed that Prime Minister David Cameron’s most senior policy advisor, Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood, was sent to tell the Guardian they had to either destroy or return the material, or face legal action.

*************

British court rules police can partially examine documents seized from Greenwald’s partner

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, August 22, 2013 14:29 EDT

Britain’s High Court ruled Thursday that material seized from the Brazilian partner of a journalist working to publish secrets from US leaker Edward Snowden can only be partially examined by police.

Police in Britain launched a criminal investigation over the data, claiming the files it has seen are “highly sensitive” and would be “gravely injurious to public safety” if revealed.

David Miranda, 28, the partner and assistant of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, was detained for nine hours at London Heathrow Airport under anti-terror laws as he changed planes on Sunday.

The Brazilian, who helped Greenwald work on the Snowden material, had his laptop, phone, memory cards and other electronic equipment confiscated by agents.

Snowden, a former US National Security Agency contractor, leaked information on mass surveillance programmes conducted by the NSA and Britain’s electronic eavesdropping agency GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters).

He has been granted temporary asylum in Russia as he flees a US bid to prosecute him.

Based on the material Snowden provided, British newspaper the Guardian has published a series of reports detailing the programmes, infuriating Washington.

Calling Thursday’s ruling a partial victory, Miranda’s lawyer Gwendolen Morgan said the Home Office, or interior ministry, and London police headquarters Scotland Yard now had seven days to prove there was a genuine threat to Britain’s security.

“The defendants are not to inspect, copy, disclose, transfer or distribute — whether domestically or to any foreign government or agency — or interfere with the materials obtained from Mr Miranda under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act, save for the purposes of protection of national security,” she said outside court.

“The very chilling effect of the implications of today’s judgement are something that journalists worldwide should be very concerned about,” she added.

Miranda will get his property back by midnight Saturday, Morgan said.

A lawyer for London’s Metropolitan Police force, Jonathan Laidlaw, told the High Court that a mass of data had been discovered by officers, who were still examining the material.

Tens of thousands of pages of material are in police hands, the court heard.

“That which has been inspected contains, in the view of the police, highly sensitive material disclosure of which would be gravely injurious to public safety,” he said.

“Thus the police have now initiated a criminal investigation.

“I am not proposing to say anything else which might alert potential defendants here or abroad to the nature and the ambit of the criminal investigation which has now been started.”

Home Secretary Theresa May said before the hearing that the police were right to act if they thought Miranda was carrying material for Greenwald that could be useful to terrorists.

A Home Office spokesman said afterwards: “We are pleased the court has agreed that the police can examine the material as part of their criminal investigation insofar as it falls within the purposes of the original Schedule 7 examination and in order to protect national security.”

Separately, David Anderson, Britain’s independent reviewer of terror legislation, said Thursday he would launch an investigation to consider whether the anti-terror laws used to detain Miranda were “lawfully, appropriately and humanely used”.

On July 20, the left-liberal Guardian newspaper, under the supervision of GCHQ experts, destroyed the hard drives and memory chips on which its Snowden material had been saved.

Before Thursday’s hearing, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger had informed government officials that copies of the encrypted files existed outside Britain and that the newspaper was not their sole recipient.

It has been confirmed that Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood — Britain’s top civil servant and Prime Minister David Cameron’s most senior policy advisor — was sent to tell the Guardian they had to either destroy or return the material, or face legal action.

Cameron has faced calls to address parliament on the matter.

The destruction of the hard drive and Miranda’s detention have triggered unease in several countries over press freedom and human rights.


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« Last Edit: Aug 23, 2013, 08:07 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #8278 on: Aug 23, 2013, 06:30 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
08/23/2013 01:32 PM

World from Berlin: NSU Crime Spree Report Finds 'Devastating' Errors

Nineteen months in the making, a panel of German parliamentarians across the political spectrum have released their report on a series of right-wing murders that authorities failed to detect for years. German media say the findings show surprising unanimity, but lack the legislative power to effect real change.

A committee of German lawmakers have published a long-anticipated report on the National Socialist Underground (NSU), the murderous neo-Nazi cell uncovered nearly two years ago, and how its three members were able to commit dozens of crimes without arousing the suspicion of law enforcement.

The report is more than 1,000 pages long, and was presented to the public on Thursday. It lays out 47 recommendations on how to improve the German state security system so that cases like that of the NSU don't happen again. Notable among the committee's recommendations is a call for more racial diversity among police and security forces. Yet in Germany's fractured and decentralized system of law enforcement, any kind of affirmative action program would face immense challenges.

The NSU is believed to have committed 10 murders between 2000 and 2007, and nine of the victims were of Turkish or Greek origin. Rather than looking into racial motivations for the murders, police immediately suspected the victims were involved in organized crime and drug trafficking. They pursued family members of the deceased as potential suspects, and ignored clues pointing to the right-wing extremist origins of the crimes.

All five political parties in parliament had representation on the committee, and German media commentators praised the rare unanimity with which they all spoke. However the media also noted the recommendations are non-binding, and may be difficult to implement on a nationwide basis.

Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"In the next legislative period, lawmakers must ensure that the necessary reforms are implemented and the desired culture of reporting mistakes can actually develop. Wherever the committee looked, they came across mistakes and negligence, sometimes even subtle or outright racism. The beginning of a long chain of failures began when three neo-Nazis slipped away from police in Jena in 1998. Domestic security agents crouched down to look at clues, but failed to interpret them correctly. Commissioners became obsessed with the idea that Turks were killing Turks. They traveled to Anatolian villages to interrogate relatives. The neo-Nazis were the only ones no one thought to suspect."

"Many an investigator tried to downplay their failures to the tune of, 'First we were unlucky, then we were even more unlucky.' The verdict of the committee is more along the lines of, 'First the authorities were incompetent, then they were amateurish.'"

"It would be good if the federal prosecutor general, as recommended by the committee, were granted more power to seize authority over cases in other jurisdictions. A dense federalist bureaucracy hindered the work of the domestic security system. This is where the unanimous recommendations of the committee are unfortunately weak. Exchange of information should be better, but the authorities have already committed to that. And the parties were unable to agree on an end to the federalist patchwork of jurisdictions."

Conservative Die Welt writes:

"With the NSU committee, Germany's parties managed to diverge from the (typically politicized) path that such inquiries frequently take, working together to find out the causes for one of the country's most brutal series of terrorist murders. Together, they co-authored the 1,000-page report that named failures and made recommendations. With that, the committee has marked the end of a great moment for parliament, one in which all participants were clear on what they had to address -- a failure of the state on a scale that was unimaginable before the NSU came to light."

"But the clarification of the events surrounding the terrorist cell continues in court. … Though there, too, not all of the open questions will be answered. Still, the difficult search for answers is necessary to fulfill the promise the politicians made in their report: Never again!"

Left-wing Die Tageszeitung writes:

"The final report of the NSU committee in the Bundestag is an impressive document of self-enlightenment. With the same bluntness that the PISA study exposed the shortcomings and injustices of the German educational system, the NSU report shows the vulnerabilities and blind spots of the security apparatus on matters of racism."

"Of course it could have been formulated with more harshness, as noted in criticism from lawyers for the murder victims' relatives. But the committee's judgment of civil servants, state attorneys and ministers is damning. The police? Conducted one-sided investigations. The domestic security agency? Grossly underestimated the danger of right-wing terrorism. Politicians? Were uninterested. Yes, technically we knew all that before. But now it's official, we have it in writing."

"It's good that there's consensus. Now it comes down to implementing these recommendations in the day-to-day practices of authorities. Only then will we be able to say we've learned something from this murder series that was overlooked for so many years."

Center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The findings of the parliamentary inquiry are accurate. They are also devastating, shameful and, in their own way, trivial. A lack of cooperation, institutional egotism, obstinacy at the federal level and shoddy investigative work may have contributed to the fact that the racially-motivated murders and robberies remained unresolved, and that right-wing extremist terrorism remained under the radar of law enforcement. What the report does not provide, however, is an explanation for the atrocities, as well as answers to why they were able to occur in the first place."

"The parliamentary committee has oversimplified the circumstances that led to the crimes. Its criticism centers on the failings of the public authorities. According to the committee, they are to blame for the crimes, and their failings are the root of the problem. These institutional failings are repeatedly referred to as "structural," "systemic" and "multiple." This harks back to the committee's initial suspicions that the authorities had actually been contributing to the racially-motivated violence. The magnitude of these allegations -- as well as their dubious dismissal -- doesn't seem to be causing any stir."

"It seems as though the committee members did, at some point, come to their senses. Though their recommendations are numerous, they would do little to change the way in which the police, domestic security agents and the judiciary operate on a daily basis. That is, if the recommendations are taken into account at all."

-- Andrew Bowen


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« Reply #8279 on: Aug 23, 2013, 06:32 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
08/22/2013 04:30 PM

Third Gender: A Step Toward Ending Intersex Discrimination

A Commentary By Silvan Agius

Hailed as a sign of the times by some and the end of Western civilization by others, a German law introducing an "indeterminate" gender option on birth certificates has sparked a wave of media interest. But the change is only a small victory in the fight for intersex recognition.

Intersex people, that is, those who are born neither exclusively male nor exclusively female, form one of the most invisible groups in our society. Contrary to popular belief, this has little to do with their supposed rarity and more to do with the violence our society inflicts upon those who don't conform to binary and mutually exclusive "male" and "female" categories.

Reductively, when we were born, the first question asked about each of us was, in all likelihood, were we a boy or a girl? Questions about our health and well-being trailed behind, if asked at all. As we grew older, we were all instilled with gender roles based on the sex assigned to us at birth. We were taught how to perform our gender in ways that meet social expectations. Any divergence was punished, while affirmations of our socially accepted gender were rewarded.

Such a setting leaves no space for the expression of variance or ambiguity, no matter how small. In turn, most of us internalized a sense of disgust when presented with sex and gender ambiguity.

Relatively few people are aware that the bodies of infants detected as intersex are medicalized, and their genitalia routinely modified to fit a surgeon's expectations of female or male standards without their consent. The first surgeries and treatments are often performed on newborns or toddlers, with the proxy consent of their often puzzled and inadequately informed parents. These medical procedures are typically cosmetic, and rarely necessary for the well-being of intersex people.

The Australian Example

On the contrary, the predominant rationale for such surgeries continues to be stigma and the maintenance of our skewed understandings of binary sex that are maintained through the erasure of intersex differences. It is a vicious cycle that comes with a hefty price for intersex people, often paid in silence and solitude while trying to make sense of why their bodies were violated and their lives so deeply scarred.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, though. Awareness of these human rights breaches is growing and more attention is being paid to the needs of intersex people than ever before.

The Swiss National Advisory Commission on Biomedical Ethics apologized in November 2012 for past treatment, calling for "an end to surgery for psychosocial reasons." The Commission also called for the deferral of non-trivial treatment until a child can consent, a policy enforced with criminal sanctions. They say that "there is no guarantee that a decision which is good for the child" will also be best for the future adolescent or adult.

This year, Australia has made great strides through the adoption of an anti-discrimination law that protects "intersex status" alongside established grounds such as "sex" and "race." The government has also adopted new guidelines on the recognition of sex and gender, which are currently being implemented. The Australian healthcare system is removing gendered references in its services, focusing on the specific biological needs of patients instead of their legal sex or gender.

Additionally, the Australian Senate is engaged in a formal inquiry into the involuntary or coerced sterilization of intersex people. An earlier Senate report on the sterilization of people with disabilities recommended the replacement of a flawed "best interests of the child" test with a new "best protection of rights" test. It also flagged concerns about the scope of "therapeutic" surgery.

Increasing Awareness

The new German law that will enter into force on November 1 has sparked a wave of interest in the media, mainly due to the creation of an "indeterminate gender" option on birth certificates. While hailed as the sign of the times by some and the end of Western civilization by others, no reporter has yet asked how this will effectively improve quality of life for intersex people, particularly when cosmetic genital surgeries on infants are set to continue.

In short, while there may be some limited benefits from the new German law, real progress for intersex people is not measured through the number of available labels but through an end to the human rights breaches currently being inflicted. Surgical or hormonal treatment for cosmetic, non-medically necessary reasons must be deferred to an age when intersex people are able to provide their own free, prior and fully informed consent.

Intersex issues should cease to be understood as medical and instead be addressed more prominently by human rights institutions. The right to bodily integrity and self-determination should be ensured and past abuses acknowledged. Governments should learn from Australia and follow its lead by addressing human rights concerns in partnership with intersex people themselves.

The new German law has raised awareness. Now we need the solutions.

Silvan Agius is the policy director at ILGA Europe -- the European chapter of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. The article was co-authored by Morgan Carpenter and Dan Christian Ghattas of OII -- the world's largest network of intersex people.


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