Monday, 19 December 2011

What now for North Korea?

Kim Jong IlAfter seventeen years of brutal rule Kim Jong-Il is finally gone
The surreal outpouring of mourning, mirroring that following the death of his father back in 1994, was predictable in light of the incessant propaganda around the man known as “Dear Leader” and the relentless coercion to show respect to him.  Yet the legacy of his reign is one of horror for North Korea’s twenty-three million people: from famine caused by economic mismanagement, to a network of concentration camps, where human experimentation and gas chambers cast grim echoes of the worst abuses in human history.

The question is, what comes now?  The answer, in all likelihood, will be shaped by three key factors…

Is Kim Jong-un a reformer?

For some time it has been clear that Kim Jong-Il’s third son Kim Jong-un was beingKim Jong-Un groomed for leadership, yet very little is known about him. 
Swiss educated, young and facing huge pressures at home (over food shortages) and from abroad (over nuclear weapons), he may be the man to make changes in North Korea and start breaking down the totalitarian system created by his grandfather. 

Such hopes are not entirely unrealistic- after all, who could have imagined that Thein Sein, a long-standing figure in neighbouring Burma’s abhorrent military regime, would lead the country in the dramatic (if very much incomplete) reforms witnessed this year.

Yet, having been picked over his older siblings, and undoubtedly subjected to years of conditioning, the chance of Kim Jong-un carrying on down the same path as his late father is equally likely, if not more so.  Certainly he has not shown any reformist tendencies of yet, but then again, having had little outing on the public stage, neither has he had the chance to.

How deep do the cracks run?
North Korea GeneralsOf course, there is a significant question mark over how much power the new Kim will even have.  Transition periods are never easy for any regime and the fact that North Korea has already undergone one family succession process, by no means guarantees a second.

And, despite the in-built reluctance for anyone to move against the express will of the late leader, some analysts suggest that Kim Jong-un will wield much less control than his father, making him far more answerable to a shadowy network of military generals and Workers Party officials.  His distinct lack of political experience may even leave him acting as little more than a figurehead, with the serious decisions being made elsewhere.

This creates a new level of uncertainty, as whilst the outside world knows very little of Kim Jong-un, we know even less about those sitting behind him.  If his control is limited, the will of maverick generals, potential dissidents, power-hungry officials and rapid ideologues may all come into play.

What will China do?

But the real power may not actually be in North Korea itself.China influence North Korea
For China’s bizarre relationship with its neighbour is far more complex that the apparent ideological bond underpinning the official statement of condolence; in which the Chinese government called on the North Korean people to “unite around the Korean Workers’ Party, and under the leadership of Comrade Kim Jong Un, turn grief into strength and march forward for building a socialist strong country”.

The powers-that-be in Beijing, in fact have far more pressing concerns than such ideological rhetoric: simultaneously seeking to secure regional influence, whilst fearing a North Korean state-collapse and refugee surge; terrified that Pyongyang may ignite a regional war, whilst enjoying the international power and status that comes with being able to (supposedly) hold a nuclear pariah at bay.    

And ultimately, with its geographical proximity, economic ties and political relationship, China remains the one state truly capable of exercising some degree of influence over the new North Korean regime – whichever form its takes; whilst ruthlessly pursuing its own agenda – whatever that transpires to be.

Whilst the future of North Korea will almost certainly be different therefore, it remains unclear exactly what it will look like.  The new leader, the old officials and the Chinese government will all have a huge role to play…with the continued suffering, or the eventual freedom, of millions, as the result.
North Korea propaganda art

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Rifts, rebels and refugees

Much of the cautious optimism that followed Hilary Clinton’s historic visit to Burma, was tainted with unease and confusion over the past fortnight, as Thein Sein’s administration continued to send conflicting signals about its approach to ethnic minority groups.

First, on-going negotiations between the government and Kachin resistance fighters appeared to yield fruit, with the President announcing an unexpected ceasefire of the military offensive that has seen tens of thousands of civilians displaced and war-crimes committed by government troops.  This surprising volte-face gathered momentum as the government publicly acknowledged the suffering of Kachin civilians and allowed a United Nations humanitarian team to deliver relief.

Kachin children in campYet days later, it became clear that the government was channelling fresh troops and supplies into the region, with skirmishes and even aerial bombing raids continuing.  Meanwhile, the Chinese government, which has long been complicit in persecution of the Kachin people, compounded the situation by violating international law and sending thousands of refugees back to squalid and disease-ridden camps on the Burmese side of the border.  

However, even as this unfolded Thein Sein’s lead negotiator was announcing to journalists the goal of peace with all of Burma’s ethnic resistance groups within four years.  His comments suggested that the continuing assault against the Kachin may not be indicative of government policy at all, but rather of troops on the ground failing to follow instructions from the centre.  Some speculate that this could be due to communication difficulties and failure of orders to ‘trickle-down’.  Others have raised the more ominous prospect of soldiers deliberately defying the ceasefire – potentially pointing to a rift between reformers at the top and hardliners on the front line.

Mahn Nyein MaungThe lack of clarity was heightened further still on Friday, when Mahn Nyein Maung, a prominent leader of the Karen resistance (incidentally also deported by the Chinese government) was handed a seventeen year jail sentence on the meaningless charge of ‘unlawful association’.  By sending him to join the 1546 political prisoners still languishing in Burma’s notorious jails, the government has demonstrated a continued hostility to the Karen people at the very time it is purporting to be engaging with them.

Overall, the only certainty is that at least some elements of the government want no progress and wish to continue various campaigns of ethnic cleansing that have blighted Burma for more than fifty years.  Whether Thein Sein is included in that group remains to be seen, but either way the plight of ethnic minorities must be a priority for William Hague during his visit next month and for the entire international community in its engagement.

Kachin child protesting

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The DRC in danger

The angry protests of Congolese exiles from Toronto to London over the past few days give just a small hint of the tensions currently building in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – where the results of the state’s turbulent election will be released in the coming hours.

The outcome is already clear: with more than 90% of the votes counted, incumbent president Joseph Kabila, leads his closest rival Etienne Tshisekedi by 48%-34%.  Now, supporters of Tshisekedi and his Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) are crying foul play and threatening huge street protests when the result is formally announced

Congo election abusesThey claim that Kabila orchestrated vote rigging, including the distribution of pre-marked ballot papers, whilst using violence to intimidate members of the opposition.  Such accusations are, at least in part, backed up by various international bodies, including the EU whose observers cited serious irregularities during the voting; the Carter Centre, which highlighted forced voting and destroyed ballot papers; and Human Rights watch, which has attributed the majority of the eighteen election-related deaths confirmed so far to Kabila’s troops – urging him to reign them in and emphasising that “elections don’t give soldiers an excuse to randomly shoot at crowds.”

For his part Tshisekedi is still talking to the UN-backed mediation team and has stopped short of calling for his people to come out onto the streets, stating that he will accept any decision made at the ballot box, whichever way it goes.  However, he is concurrently demanding a full breakdown of turnout and vote distribution from all sixty-three thousand polling stations; something that the government is currently unwilling to provide.  The request itself is perfectly legitimate, but continued obstruction by Kabila’s authorities, or indeed the detail of any data released, may well stoke the anger felt by UDPS supporters.  

With such a severe potential for unrest, some are welcoming the fact that the results have so-far been delayed for forty-eight hours, suggesting that the cooling period may in fact be beneficial and could potentially ease tensions.  However, others have taken the opportunity to flee the DRC into the neighbouring Republic of Congo, before what they fear will be a slide into total chaos and a proliferation of the scenes that played out towards the end of the election campaign, when machete-wielding rivals clashed in the capital.

Both citizens and international observers are well aware that, as demonstrated in Kenya during 2007, elections can spark mass violence in even the most stable of states. For the DRC, which is less than a decade out of a brutal civil war that saw three million killed, and which experienced weeks of street battles and loss of life after its last election, the stakes are even higher.

DRC Congo election violence


Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Goodnight Kimberley

At almost nine years old the Kimberley Process stood as one of the most radical and potentially transformative human rights ventures in recent history; providing a binding international tracking and certification framework, designed to end the trade in conflict diamonds once and for all. 

However, five months ago the process was fundamentally undermined by the horrendous decision, signed-off by its weak Congolese chairman with encouragement from the Chinese government, to certify stones from Zimbabwe's Marange diamond fields

Mugabe MarangeThis announcement prompted representatives of the human rights NGO Global Witness, a founding member of process, to symbolically walk out of its July meeting.  Pointing out that the Marange fields were the site of massacres and mass sexual abuse by Mugabe’s troops, and that certifying the diamonds would allow the tyrant to generate significant funds for his military coffers, they warned that the Kimberley Process risked loosing all credibility and would fail to protect innocent people from the abhorrent consequences of the conflict diamond trade.

Their warning was ignored and this week Global Witness formally and completely pulled out of the process, signalling its effective collapse as a legitimate institution.

Some analysts have responded by highlighting that the official terms of the Kimberley Process only ever applied to stones that fund rebel groups, and were never designed to affect those generating revenue for recognised governments such as Mugabe’s.  Yet it is not hard to understand why human rights groups are aggrieved at the prospect of diamonds being certified as legitimate to trade, when they are filling the ‘war chest’ for a brutal regime, as it abuses civilians and makes preparations to steal another election by force.

Furthermore the political failings of those governments involved in the Kimberely Process go beyond Marange:  in withdrawing, Global Witness pointed out that participants similarly neglected to reign in the administration of Hugo Chávez for Venezuela's constant flouting of the process, as well as the widespread smuggling of diamonds from Côte d'Ivoire under now-deposed dictator Laurent Gbagbo.

Following the horrors of the 1991-2002 civil war in Sierra-Leone, when the Revolutionary United Front murdered, raped and maimed thousands of civilians in their quest to control lucrative diamond mines, it became strikingly clear that robust and coordinated mechanisms were needed to remove the incentive for waging such conflict and the ability to profit from it.  Until this year the Kimberley process stood on the verge of achieving this, but whilst the likes of China and Venezuela worked to water it down, other states including the USA and UK lacked the political will to fight for its survival.  Together they have wrecked a hugely promising initiative…and untold lives.

Conflict Diamond Picture

Saturday, 3 December 2011

The hand of Kagame?

Charles Ingabire killed by KagameSketchy details are still emerging around the murder of Rwandan journalist and dissent Charles Ingabire, who was gunned down in the Ugandan capital Kampala last week.  Even during his funeral on Saturday people were scared to talk openly about what happened, with many refusing to be photographed and using pseudonyms when speaking.

This ambiguity and apprehension revolves around the possible –or as some would argue the likely – role of Rwandan President Paul Kagame; the one-time liberator who now rules Rwanda through tyranny and brutality, in a manner described as worse than Robert Mugabe’s.

The motive for Kagame’s involvement in the murder is clear: as editor of the anti-regime Inyenyeri news website, Ingabire has been a constant thorn in the side of the President and his cronies, leading to threats and harassment, that forced him into Uganda as a political refugee.  Sustaining his online work in exile, he continued to provoke the regime, which will now certainly benefit from his demise.

Of course motive alone is not enough, but Kagame has previous for similar outrageous and callous acts.  Just one year ago Leonard Rugambage, the acting editor of the banned dissident newspaper Umvugizi, was  shot dead outside his Kigalai home, with the distinct appearance of official involvement

More broadly, Kagame’s approach towards critical journalists is underscored by Rwanda’s position as the tenth worst offender in the Press Freedom Index.  Reporters Without Borders, the organisation that compiles the index, has expressed outrage at Ingabire’s murder – highlighting the constant threats and attacks against outspoken Rwandan journalists both at home and in exile.

The exile point is particularly important, as in recent years it has become clear that Kagame is not averse to having his henchmen pursue political opponents abroad.  The government-led campaign against Hotel Rwanda hero Paul Rusesabagina, has involved the repeated ransacking of his home in Brussels; and in May the British police warned a political refugee that his life was at risk from Rwandan agents.

Having acted in Europe with such bloody-mindedness it is hardly beyond the realms of possibility that it was Kagame who sent killers on a short trip North of the border to remove one of his most persistent public critics.  

Paul Kagame

Thursday, 1 December 2011

By you now and always

The letter from President Obama, that Hillary Clinton handed to Aung San Suu Kyi this week, carried a clear and powerful message: “we stand by you now and always.”  And on this occasion, the actions have backed up the words.  

Hillary Clinton in BurmaClinton’s visit to Burma, the first by a US Secretary of State since the military took power in 1962, was a commendable diplomatic success; finding the fine line between legitimising the nominally-civilian government of President Thein Sein on the one hand, and dismissing the genuine signs of liberalisation that it has made on the other.

Whilst calling for the release of political prisoners and an end to hostilities against ethnic minority groups -stating in no uncertain terms that until further progress has been made, sanctions will not be lifted- she simultaneously rewarded the government for its tentative progress. 

By raising the potential of full diplomatic relations, announcing that the US will no longer block cooperation between Burma and the International Monetary Fund, and committing to increased development assistance, Clinton effectively empowered the reformist elements of the government and potentially pushed hard-liners further into the political shadows.

Then came the Pièce de résistance: two meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon.  To activists who spent years campaigning for Suu Kyi’s release this was an historic moment: not so long ago her freedom seemed a distant goal, yet now, poised to re-enter electoral politics, she is playing host to the the Secretary of State on Burmese soil.  It is little wonder that the National League for Democracy Leader had been so supportive of the visit, but her joy at the meeting was clearly outstripped by Clinton, who expressed her unbridled admiration for Suu Kyi, and gave assurances of the US government’s full support.

At such a critical time for Burma, these signals are exactly what is needed and can only provide impetus to the improvements already emerging.

Of course, as was inevitable, talk of realpolitik surrounded this admirable support for Burmese democracy.  With China’s influence in the country already shaken by the cancellation, at the behest of local activists, of a Chinese damning project in September, some analysts viewed Clinton’s venture as an attempt by the US to undermine its rival further still.  Yet despite confusing signals from Beijing, with formal support for the visit offset by critical editorials in state-run papers,  there is currently no real evidence to back up  fears that the US is looking to use Burma a geopolitical pawn.

Conflict in Kachin stateA far larger and more concerning undermining factor in the struggle for reform, is the on-going abuse of ethnic minority groups: one area in which no progress has been made, with the situation in may states actively worsening.  This week Karen activist Zoya Phan highlighted that the number of civilians internally displaced by the government’s war crimes has in fact doubled over the last year, whilst the Guardian shone a light on the long-running and barbaric persecution of the Rohingya people, continuing today with little international opposition.

In Kachin state too, despite peace talks between the government and resistance fighters, military assaults and human rights violations take place on a daily basis.

For these reasons, combined with the prospect of real change, international support for the Burmese people now needs to be stronger and louder than ever before.   If this weeks engagement by the USA is anything to go by- we have cause to be optimistic.  Hillary Clinton with Aung San Suu Kyi