Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Moral monstrosity: America’s for-profit Gulag system

The private prison population in the US has rocketed 17-fold over the last two decades mostly on the shoulders of the deep-pocketed prison lobby, and the business continues to thrive. Try confining yourself to a small room in your home, like a bathroom or a closet, and spend a few hours there. One only cringes to imagine the detrimental psychological effects that kind of solitude creates for individuals who are subjected to solitary confinement for years at a time, knowing only the walls of their cell and the shades of light that creep across them. The abhorrent state of affairs at the Guantanamo facility often makes international headlines and arguably overshadows the calamity that is the US domestic prison system – where over six million people are subject to some form of correctional supervision, an amount exceeding those who toiled in the Soviet gulags during Stalin’s reign. In the United States, some fifty thousand inmates pass their days in solitary confinement. While there is undoubtedly no shortage of violent criminals in America’s jails, millions are dolled out annually by privately owned prison lobbies directly to politicians in an effort to influence harsher ‘zero tolerance’ legislation and mandatory sentencing for many non-violent offenses.

While the US faces economic stagnation and unprecedented spending cuts to programs of social uplift, business is booming for the private prison industry. Like any other business, these institutions are run for the purpose of turning a profit. State and federal prisons are contracted out to private companies who are paid a fixed amount to house each inmate per day. Their profit depends on spending the minimum amount necessary on each inmate day-to-day, allowing private-hands to pocket the remaining money. For the corrections conglomerates of America, success depends on housing the maximum numbers of inmates for the longest potential time as inexpensively as possible. Consider that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, far surpassing any other nation – for every 100,000 Americans, 743 citizens sit behind bars. The harsher sentences meted out to non-violent offenders in contrast to other industrialized nations speaks volumes of America’s enthusiastic embrace of a prison industrial complex.

Read the full story at RT.com

Nile Bowie is a Malaysia-based political analyst and a columnist with Russia Today. He also contributes to PressTV, Global Research, and CounterPunch. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Friday, 19 April 2013

US seeks allied regime in Malaysia as millions funnelled to opposition

As Malaysia gears up for its most critical general election ever, a prominent opposition figure has come forward with allegations American foundations organized protest rallies and channelled funds to opposition political parties. In early May 2013, Malaysia will face its most competitive political battle since its independence in the form of an election that pits Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which has governed the country since 1957, against the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition that has received extensive training and backing from US government-funded foundations. Washington has often seen Malaysia’s leaders as stubborn, and as the unpopularity of the ruling coalition increases, organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) have significantly greased the wheels to improve the US-friendly opposition’s chances of coming to power through multi-faceted media campaigns and support for anti-government street demonstrations. On one side, Malaysia’s former PM Dr. Mahathir Mohamad often caught the ire of Washington for his unceasing criticism of Israel and US foreign policy, while the incumbent PM Najib Razak has toned down the rhetoric and has pursued a business friendly approach with the West, while deepening economic ties with China.

On the other side, de-facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who formerly served as Deputy PM under Mahathir’s government, leans closely to the United States. During his political tenure, Anwar was sacked for implementing IMF austerity measures while Mahathir spearheaded Malaysia’s recovery from the 1997 Asian financial crisis through currency controls and protectionist measures. After his political fall, he served as Chairman of the Development Committee of the World Bank and IMF in 1998, and later chaired the Washington-based Foundation for the Future, a US-funded think-tank established by Elizabeth Cheney, the daughter of the former US Vice President. Anwar enraged many in Muslim-majority Malaysia when he stated that he would support a policy to protect the security of Israel in an interview with the Wall Street Journal – a stark contrast to the ruling coalitions’ firm stance in support of Palestine. Anwar’s unique credentials and close ties to the US political and financial establishment make him undeniably preferred in Washington.

Read the full story at RT.com

Nile Bowie is a Malaysia-based political analyst and a columnist with Russia Today. He also contributes to PressTV, Global Research, and CounterPunch. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Monday, 15 April 2013

The Doctrine of Kimilsungism

Each year on April 15th, North Koreans pay homage to the founder of their nation, Kim il-Sung – the most revered figure in the North Korean psyche. Despite the tense state of affairs on the Korean peninsula and war-like rhetoric emanating from the North, the mood in the country is one of patriotic celebration as citizens of Pyongyang take part in communal dancing and other festivities to remember their departed leader. Kim il-Sung was a guerilla fighter who fought for Korean independence against the Japanese, who occupied the peninsula prior to the Korean War. He was installed into power by the Soviet Union, which bankrolled the North’s post-war reconstruction efforts and shaped its economic policy. After a turbulent history of being under the thumb of larger regional powers, Kim il-Sung is credited with freeing Korea from the yoke of colonialism, even earning him sympathy from some of the elderly generations living in the South. North Korea’s reverence for Kim il-Sung appears wholly Stalinistic to the Western eye, but there are complex reasons why the North Korean ruling family continues to be venerated unquestionably, part of which deals with North Korea’s race-based brand of nationalism that few analysts take into account.

Imperial Japan ruled the Korean peninsula for thirty-five years beginning in 1910, and historians claim that Koreans of the time had little patriotic or nationalistic sensibilities and paid no loyalty toward the concept of a distinct Korean race or nation-state. The Japanese asserted that their Korean subjects shared a common bloodline and were products of the same racial stock in an attempt to imbue Koreans with a strong sense of national pride, suggesting the common ancestry of a superior Yamato race. Following the independence of the DPRK, its leaders channeled the same brand of race-centric nationalism. Domestic propaganda channeled rhetoric of racial superiority different from that of the Aryan mythology of Nazi Germany; mythmakers in Pyongyang focused on the unique homogeneity of the Korean race and with that, the idea that its people are born blemish-free, with a heightened sense of virtuousness and ethics. The characteristic virginal innocence of the Korean people is stressed incessantly in North Korean propaganda, obliging the guidance of an unchallenged parental overseer to protect the race – that’s where the Kim family comes in.
Both Kim il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-il, who ruled North Korea from 1994 to 2011, are credited with super-human feats that North Korean school children learn about from the cradle. The domestic portrayal of Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il is that of a firm parental entity who espouses both maternal concern and paternalistic authority. The personality cult around the Kim family is itself is built into the story of racial superiority, mythicizing Kim il Sung into a messianic entity destined to lead the Korean people to independence through a self-reliance philosophy known as the Juche idea. The Juche ideology channels vague humanistic undertones while trumpeting autonomy and self-reliance. Analysts argue that the Juche idea and the volumes of books allegedly written by the leaders on a broad series of Juche-based social sciences is essentially window dressing designed more for foreign consumption. Foreign visitors are lectured about Juche thought and kept away from the central ideology, which is that of a militant race-based ultra-nationalism.
Defectors also claim that there is a stronger effort on indoctrinating the masses internally with the official fantasy biographies of the leaders to further their messianic character, rather than a serious application of teachings such as Juche thought. In North Korea, the leader is never seen exerting authority onto his people; he is instead depicted as caring for injured children in hospitals and nurturing soldiers on the front lines. State media has once described Kim Jong-il as “the loving parent who holds and nurtures all Korean children at his breast.” The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea may have a communist exterior, however it bares little resemblance to a Marxist-Leninist state in its commitment to improve material living standards; economics are nowhere near a central priority in contrast to the importance placed on the military. Domestic propaganda encourages its subjects to remain in their natural state of intellectual juvenescence and innocence, under the watch of the great parent. Kim il-Sung, given the title of “Parent Leader” in state media, was portrayed as a nurturing maternal figure, fussing over the food his soldiers consumed and making sure they had warm clothing.
Much like the mysticism around Japan’s Mount Fuji during the time of the Imperial Japanese occupation, Korea’s highest peak, Mount Paektu, was designated a sacred place and given a central role in official mythology. Kim Jong-il’s birth supposedly took place on the peaks of Mt. Paektu beneath twin rainbows in a log cabin during the armed struggle against the Japanese occupiers. His biography reads, “Wishing him to be the lodestar that would brighten the future of Korea, they hailed him as the Bright Star of Mount Paektu.” Images of fresh snowfall and snow-capped peaks of Mount Paektu are conjured to exemplify the pristine quality of Korean racial stock, and state media often refers to the DPRK as the “Mount Paektu Nation” and Kim Jong-un as the “Brilliant Commander of Mount Paektu.” Pyongyang is often depicted under snow, symbolizing the purity of the race, described by state media as “a city steeped in the five thousand year old, jade-like spirit of the race, imbued with proudly lonely life-breath of the world’s cleanest, most civilized people – free of the slightest blemish.”
Nearly all of the North’s domestic propaganda maintains a derogatory depiction of foreigners, especially of Americans, who are unanimously viewed as products of polluted racial stock. Six decades of ethno-centric propaganda has reinforced the North’s xenophobia and unwillingness to interact with the outside world. In his book ‘The Cleanest Race,’ DPRK expert B.R. Meyers cites a conversation between North and South Korean personnel discussing the increasing presence of foreigners in the South, to which the North Korean general replied, “Not even one drop of ink must be allowed.” Domestic propaganda reinforces the trauma and devastation experienced during the Korean war, when nearly a third of the North Korean population were killed in US led aerial bombardments, flattening seventy eight cities and showering over fourteen million gallons of napalm on densely populated areas over a three year period, killing more civilian causalities than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Credible threats to the DPRK’s national security have allowed the ruling family to consolidate power, while legitimizing the ‘Songun Policy’ or military-first policy.
North Korea’s most unstable period came after the death of Kim il-Sung in 1994, as economic difficulties deepened following the fall of the Soviet Union and severe environmental conditions that resulted in a period of the famine from 1995 to 1997, killing nearly one million people. As the economy collapsed, social discipline and internal security began to breakdown outside of Pyongyang. Defectors reported seeing streets littered with famished corpses of the starving. Instances of soldiers robbing civilians in search of food and cases of cannibalism in rural areas were prevalent. Kim Jung-il maintained in this period that the US-led economic blockade against Korea was the dominant cause of the famine and economic stagnation. Kim Jong-il realized that having the backing of military generals was crucial to maintaining his power and authority, so as to quell the possibility of an ambitious general staging a military coup. The introduction of ‘Songun Policy’ gave members of the army preferential treatment with respect to receiving food rations, in addition to granting more authority to hardline generals. Much of the food aid received from abroad was redistributed directly to the military.
Kim Jong-il, having overseen the most arduous and economically stagnate period of North Korean history, sought to legitimize his rule through the procurement of nuclear weapons. “In 2006 the Dear General successfully saw the acquisition of a nuclear deterrent that would protect the Korean race forever. Truly, the son had proven himself worthy of his great father,” as described by state media. The state propaganda apparatus had done much to equate this accomplishment as the pride of the nation, depicting it as integral to the national defense of the country and the race. Understanding the role of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons is crucial for policymakers in the US and South Korea, who have placed the North’s denuclearization as a prerequisite for dialogue. North Korea cannot be expected to commit political suicide, nor can it be made to forfeit its main source of pride, legitimacy and defense in exchange for only thin assurances of security and prosperity from the US.
The North Korean regime is complicated, and its doctrine of race-based militant ultra-nationalism bares more resemblance to National Socialism than to Communism. The DPRK is a product of brutal occupation, subsequent isolation, and decades of failed rapprochement policies on the part of South Korea and the US. It will take decades of interaction with the outside world to undo the social conditioning that North Koreans have lived under for six decades, something that can only be accomplished with delicate diplomacy and the incremental normalization of inter-Korean relations. Kim Jong-un has revolutionary credentials, and eventually the old guard of generals and advisors that surround him will pass, and he will exert total control over the nation and its direction. At its current pace of military development, the North will have the technology to act on its many threats in the coming years. If the current crisis tells the world anything, its that the approach of the US and South Korea is not conducive to peace, and further calls for the North to denuclearize will not yield results any different from what the world has already seen. While Kim Jong-un’s actions in the present scenario are grounded in building his domestic appeal, the underlying message is that North Korea is a nuclear state, and it wishes to be recognized as one for the purposes of defense and national security.
The policies of conservative President Lee Myung-bak deeply strained inter-Korean relations, and incumbent President Park Geun-hye has picked up where he left off. Although it would be described as unrealistic by South Korea’s conservative establishment, the only possible method for rapprochement that could actually work would come in the form of South Korea distancing itself from the United States. Given the unique paranoia and xenophobia of North Korea’s regime and how they’ve managed the country in near-isolation since its independence, the only hope of changing the regime’s behavior is accepting it in its current form, increasing inter-Korean cooperation in areas of trade and tourism through the construction of special industrial zones in the North. The Sunshine Policy years spearheaded by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung showed that inter-Korean relations faired far better under a policy of openness and economic exchange over the conservative approach of the South Korean right.
Sanctions, demands of denuclearization, and backing the North into a corner will only yield the same familiar results – an ugly stalemate that throws the Korea peninsula into a serious security crisis every so often. South Korea has a better chance of convincing the North to denuclearize only after trust and normalized relations are established, and that can only happen if the South is willing to scale back its military partnership with the US and acknowledge Pyongyang’s right to defend itself. Although Seoul would be viewed as giving into Pyongyang’s threats, a revival of the Sunshine policy is the only way to mend relations between the two Koreas. Regardless of Pyongyang’s nuclear policy, the establishment of inter-Korean industrial zones and economic spaces will herald greater opportunity for civilians from both Koreas to come into contact, allowing opportunities for North Koreans to be exposed to outsiders and to become familiarized with modern industrial technologies and work methods.
North Korea’s approach in the current scenario is widely viewed as irrational, and it has behaved in a way that undermines its legitimate security concerns. The only way to deradicalize the North’s xenophobic ethno-militarism is through economic exchange and the normalization of relations, and that can only happen if the South incrementally scales back its military exercises and recognizes the North as a nuclear state. There is no reason for tension on the Korean peninsula today, and if new policy directions were taken by the administration in Seoul, such instability would not have to occur. Being part of the same race, a neutral-Seoul could have much greater influence over Pyongyang than China ever could, and the normalization of relations would yield mutually beneficial economic growth that would stabilize the North and reduce the long-term insecurities that Kim Jong-un would face – inter-Korean cooperation is in the interests of all countries in the region. The current standoff on the Korean peninsula is much like a fork in the road of inter-Korean relations; pride should be pushed aside because its either sunshine or war.
This article originally appeared on CounterPunch.
Nile Bowie is an independent political analyst and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com

Sunday, 7 April 2013

UN Arms Trade Treaty’s Deadly Loophole

Foundation fellows and diplomats have lauded the overwhelming approval of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) by the General Assembly of the United Nations, with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon describing it as a means to obstruct the illicit arms flow to warlords, pirates, terrorists, criminals and the like. Many who have critically monitored the situation in Syria and the ramifications of foreign intervention in Libya may have difficulty swallowing Ban’s words, as some would argue that the UN has itself been complicit in these crises for turning a blind eye to arms and funding going to al-Qaeda-linked rebels in various countries. Twenty-three countries abstained from the vote (representing half the world’s population), including Russia, China, India, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Egypt, while three – Syria, Iran, and North Korea – voted no. Iran’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Gholam-Hossein Dehqani called the treaty a political document disguised as an Arms Trade Treaty, and with highly legitimate reasons for doing so.

The right to acquire and import arms for their (importer states’) security needs is subject to the discretionary judgment and extremely subjective assessment of the exporting states. That is why this text is highly abusable and susceptible to politicization, manipulation and discrimination,” said Dehghani, referring to conditions that arms exporting states would be able to impose on importing states. The pact prohibits the export of conventional arms to countries deemed guilty of violating international human rights laws and committing crimes against humanity – sure, this appears to be ethical and just at first glance, but more careful reflection is required. If we assume that the United Nations makes the call on which states qualify as human rights abusers and which states do not, then Israel would not be hindered from purchasing conventional weapons, but a country like Syria would be barred from purchasing arms to defend itself and its territorial sovereignty.

What makes the treaty not only toothless, but also particularly dangerous, is the fact that it lacks any explicit prohibitions regarding arms proliferation to terrorists and unlawful non-state actors. "Without such provisions, the ATT would in fact lower the bar on obligations of all states not to support terrorists and/or terrorists acts. We cannot allow such a loophole in the ATT," said Sujata Mehta, India's lead negotiator for the ATT in a statement. What this means is that NATO and Gulf states that supply arms to opposition groups in Syria will retain the flexibility to continue to do so, while at the same time having a greater say over whether individual importing states can arm themselves in accordance with their legitimate defense and national security interests. There is no doubt that certain states would take advantage of this loophole’s vast potential for misuse.

The treaty does not recognize the rights of all states to acquire, produce, export, import and possess conventional weapons for their own legitimate security purposes. In theory, this treaty gives the United States, the world’s largest arms exporter with heavy sway over the UN, much greater ability to influence whether or not an individual country is allowed to obtain weapons for its own defense. The treaty, in its glaring bias and predictability, completely fails to prohibit the transfer of arms to countries engaged in military aggression against other nations, such as Israel. “Somebody probably wants to have free rein to send arms to anti-government groups in countries ruled by regimes they consider inconvenient... When we started work on the document, the General Assembly set the task of establishing the highest possible international standards in the area of arms transfers. In reality though, the treaty has established minimally acceptable standards,” said Russian treaty negotiator Mikhail Ulyanov in a recent interview.

The treaty applies to the transfer of conventional weapons such as battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers, small and light weapons, while the proliferation of UAV drones and other modern military technology is not addressed or scrutinized. While feel-good rhetoric prevails and politicians pat themselves on the back, the United Nations by its own admission concedes that the treaty does not ban or prohibit the export of any type of weapon. It is clear that the countries that rely most on the illicit trafficking of arms to execute their foreign policy objectives have had noticeable influence over the contents of this treaty. The treaty depends on how stringently individual countries implement it, and international arms transfers that involve barter deals or leases are also not scrutinized.

While many call it a welcomed development and the first step in regulating the $70 billion global conventional arms trade, there is little evidence that it will accomplish anything more than increase the frequency of illicit transfers under different guises and further legitimize the ‘Good Terrorist-Bad Terrorist’ dichotomy – it also contains no language concerning the right to self-determination by people who are under occupation, as is the case in Palestine. The treaty contains some reasonable common-sense measures, such as introducing national systems that monitor arms circulation in countries that lack such systems, but the absence of progressive processes lends credence to accusations that the text is highly industry-friendly and serves to reinforce the status quo.

Most importantly, the treaty pays no focus to actually reducing the sale of arms by limiting global production, which should rightfully be the objective of a treaty that uses global mass causality figures to legitimize itself. According to the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, armed violence kills more than half a million people each year, a figure that should rightfully strengthen calls to regulate and decrease global production rather than solely focusing simply on trade. Rather, the treaty institutionalizes and legalizes the arming of good terrorists while denying arms to unfriendly governments. Until the UN can cease being an appendage of a handful of the most powerful arms exporting states, there is little hope that any international arms trade treaty can reduce human suffering and have a meaningful impact on the lives of the most vulnerable in conflict zones around the world and elsewhere.

Nile Bowie is an independent political analyst and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com 

Friday, 5 April 2013

Understanding US Funding to Malaysian Civil Society

In 2012, the New Straits Times came under fire for accusing NGOs and actors within Malaysia’s civil society of scheming anti-government activities in an article titled “Plot to destabilise govt,” by journalist Farrah Naz Karim. The NST piece claimed that because various NGOs received funding from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a non-profit foundation financed by the United States government, this was proof of a foreign destabilization agenda. Online news portal Free Malaysia Today published a counter argument written by Anisah Shukry, “NST report: ‘Ridiculous and rubbish’,” which contained valid refutations by accused figures in civil society who called on the NST to practice greater journalism ethics. Karim’s NST piece failed to substantiate these accusations with analysis and it was no doubt flawed, it is also clear that the author did not personally have a great deal of knowledge about the parties and institutions involved, evident in her erroneously referring to the Israeli government as the “Jewish government”.

Although this article raised contentious sentiments and leveled serious accusations without a clear explanation, the issue itself should be critically examined. Its no secret that the National Endowment for Democracy has a presence in Malaysia, and according to its official website, it provides over $1 million USD to various projects in Malaysia each year. This funding has been perceived suspiciously because of the overtly political nature of the NED’s programs and the fact that senior US political figures have leading roles in the organizations active in Malaysia. According to the NED’s history statement on its official website, the CIA was responsible for distributing covert funding overseas throughout the 1960s, prompting the Lyndon B. Johnson administration to call for the establishment of “a public-private mechanism” to fund overseas activities openly. Alan Weinstein, one of the founders of the National Endowment for Democracy, was famously quoted in a 1991 interview with the Washington Post reaffirming, “A lot of what we [NED] do was done 25 years ago covertly by the CIA.”

The National Endowment for Democracy is funded primarily through the US Congress, within the budget of USAID, the US agency for development assistance, which is part of the US State Department – this means that the money the NED gives to foreign countries comes from public funds paid by citizen taxpayers. Funding mostly flows to its two main component parties, the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), both affiliated with the Republican and Democratic political parties in the United States. While the NED remains accountable to the US Congress and is required to publish its disbursements, this doesn't apply to the organizations that it in turn finances, such as the IRI and NDI, both the main recipients of funding in Malaysia. According to historian William Robinson, "NED employs a complex system of intermediaries in which operative aspects, control relationships, and funding trails are nearly impossible to follow and final recipients are difficult to identify."

Former CIA agent Philip Agee stated in an interview in 2005 that “when they [NED] say the promotion of democracy, or civic education, or fortifying civil society, what they really mean is using those euphemisms to cover funding to certain political forces and not to others. In other words, to fortify the opposition of undesirable foreign governments as in the case of Venezuela, or to support a government that is favorable to US interests and avoid of coming to power of forces that are not seen as favorable to US interests.” Critics of the NED claim that the institution has been used for decades to shape popular discourse abroad in favor of political candidates that are friendly to US policies by funding media outlets that highlight human rights abuses and unpopular government policies, and by supporting popular movements that seek to discredit the ruling government or electoral system of a country.

What can be deducted from the NED’s operations in Malaysia? The organization provides grants to a wide array of institutions, among them are some fairly benign groups. The Merdeka Center for Opinion Research receives $60,000 annually to conduct public opinion research; it is one of three organizations that have been accredited by the Election Commission to be observers for the 13th general election and its findings on various issues appear to be fairly accurate. Other such recipients are Lawyers for Liberty, Malaysiakini, and Suaram, who accumulatively receive nearly $200,000 annually. “We make it clear in our annual human rights report that NED provides us with funds so that we are able to monitor the violation of civil and political rights in Malaysia. It’s not some top-secret thing, but NED doesn’t decide what we do in Malaysia. We decide what we plan to do, then we apply for funding for those projects. They don’t dictate nor direct anything,” said Suaram chairperson K Arumugam in an FMT article.

There are clear reasons why Suaram receives funding; it publishes books and political articles written by its founder, Kua Kia Soong, that are highly critical of the Malaysian government and are capable of arousing passions in ethnic minorities who feel marginalized through arguing in favor of regime change. Other US government funded studies on Malaysia highlight where Washington stands on sensitive issues in the country. The US Congress Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission published a scathing report titled “Institutional Racism in Malaysia,” which calls Malaysia “a racist and religious extreme state” and uses extremely provocative language to liken Barisan Nasional to an apartheid regime. The cultural and political autonomy, and the economic status that minority groups enjoy in Malaysia lend credence to the fact that these allegations rely on half-truths and are significantly exaggerated and distorted. It should be seen as significant that funding from the US government is channeled to political or politically affiliated actors that are not neutral, but open in their anti-government sentiments.

What is more significant is the funding that goes into the Malaysian projects of the IRI & NDI, which operate under a significant lack of transparency are not required to publish detailed financial disbursements. According to the NED, the International Republican Institute receives an annual $450,000 for its Malaysian programs, which assist “political parties and their associated think tanks in being effective representatives of their constituencies”. Contrary to what one would expect from a civil society group, the IRI is led not by peace activists and community leaders, but high-level US politicians. IRI is chaired by conservative Senator John McCain, who has taken extremely aggressive positions in favor of US conflicts overseas and has staunchly supported Israel; vice chairman Richard S. Williamson served in senior foreign policy positions under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; treasurer J. William Middendorf II served as Secretary of the US Navy and was one of the architects of the deeply unpopular North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

IRI’s president, Lorne Craner served as Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the US State Department. “IRI works in countries important to U.S. interests, where we can make a difference… IRI focuses on three tasks: helping political parties broaden their appeal, ensuring that they rule justly once elected and aiding civil society in guaranteeing good governance… IRI can help catalyze the efforts of democratic activists in a country -- so long as they want change more than we want it for them,” writes Craner in a statement on IRI’s official website. According to the NED’s website, IRI received $802,122 in 2010 to work with “state leaders in Penang and Selangor to provide them with public opinion research, training and other resources to enable them to be more effective representatives of their constituents”. IRI claims that it “does not provide direct funding to political parties” in Malaysia, but their lack of transparency, significant budget and emphasis on helping broaden the appeal of political parties in opposition-held states suggests at the very minimum that funding is taking place indirectly.

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim photographed at the National Endowment for Democracy’s Democracy Award ceremony in 2007 alongside IRI President Lorne Craner, NED President Carl Gershman, NDI Board Member Tom Daschle, NDI President Ken Wollack, and others.  
NED's Statement of Principles and Objectives, adopted in 1984, asserts that ‘No Endowment funds may be used to finance the campaigns of candidates for public office.’ But the ways to circumvent the spirit of such a prohibition are not difficult to come up with; as with American elections, there's ‘hard money’ and there's ‘soft money’,” writes William Blum, historian and former US State Department employee. The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs receives $285,000 for their Malaysian projects, which include promoting “openness and accountability in government by building political and civic organizations, safeguarding elections, and promoting citizen participation.” Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State, who has been a cheerleader for American exceptionalism and NATO militarism, chairs NDI. In addition, former US Senator Thomas Daschle and Kenneth Wollack, former legislative director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), both have high positions in the NDI. According to the NDI’s official website, it conducts “state-level parliamentary workshops in Selangor and Penang” because “opposition parties have had limited experience in government, many of the parliamentarians elected in 2008 lacked a fundamental understanding of parliamentary processes and of representing constituent concerns.” 

The following text was amended and removed from NDI’s description of its programs, and no longer appears as of 2013: “In 2006, NDI conducted a workshop for BERSIH that focused on improving the action plans of each participating organization or political party. In 2007, NDI and BERSIH conducted a series of workshops in the politically neglected provinces of Sabah and Sarawak to educate previously disenfranchised political aspirants.” The New York Times in its 2011 article, “U.S. Groups Helped Nurture Arab Uprisings,” reported that “a small core of American government-financed organizations were promoting democracy in authoritarian Arab states” and that “the United States’ democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known,” specifically mentioning the training efforts provided by the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute.

Both active and former US politicians who represent the foreign policy of the United States government control these institutions – they award generous grants on behalf of the US taxpayer to organizations that are consistent with their objectives. Malaysia’s opposition parties have received training from US-government linked foundations such as the IRI and NDI. Anwar Ibrahim has participated in NED programs and maintains cordial relations with its president, Carl Gershman. As the United States shifts its economic and military focus to the Asia Pacific region, it has channeled millions into “democracy promotion” to nurture the emergence of friendly regimes in the region to serve its own strategic interests. Interestingly enough, the NED does not conduct operations in countries that have close relations with the United States, despite having less democratic environments than that of Malaysia, like in Qatar or Singapore. Civilian movements that promote democratic participation and media transparency in countries like South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Japan are also completely ignored by the NED and the US political establishment. 

Revelations that the Malaysian government paid American columnists to smear the image of Anwar Ibrahim in the US media have enraged Malaysians far and wide. These realities are regrettable, but why are many unwilling to scrutinize the flipside – recipients of US funds who smear the BN in their writings? Why are Malaysian dissident opinions perceived to be valid when the US funds these figures, while anti-Anwar positions are illegitimate when Malaysia funds writers who hold those views? Moreover, why is there a lack of interest in the most militaristic nation on earth spending millions to “bring liberty to the land,” as touted by the International Republican Institute? While it may be journalistically irresponsible to make accusations of plots and destabilization, the millions spent training and cultivating opposition parties is proof that the United States has a post-Najib agenda of its own.

This article appeared on Free Malaysia Today.

Nile Bowie is an independent political commentator and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He covers a wide range of international issues and is not affiliated with any political party. He can be reached atnilebowie@gmail.com

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP): Corporate Power-Tool Of The 1%

One of the least discussed and least reported issues is the Obama administration’s effort to bring the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement to the forefront, an oppressive plurilateral US-led free trade agreement currently being negotiated with several Pacific Rim countries. Six hundred US corporate advisors have negotiated and had input into the TPP, and the proposed draft text has not been made available to the public, the press or policymakers. The level of secrecy surrounding the agreements is unparalleled – paramilitary teams scatter outside the premise of each round of discussions while helicopters loom overhead – media outlets impose a near-total blackout of reportage on the subject and US Senator Ron Wyden, the Chair of the Congressional Committee with jurisdiction over TPP, was denied access to the negotiation texts. “The majority of Congress is being kept in the dark as to the substance of the TPP negotiations, while representatives of U.S. corporations — like Halliburton, Chevron, PhaRMA, Comcast and the Motion Picture Association of America — are being consulted and made privy to details of the agreement,” said Wyden, in a floor statement to Congress.

In addition to the United States, the countries participating in the negotiations include Australia, Brunei, Chile, Canada, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. Japan has expressed its desire to become a negotiating partner, but not yet joined negotiation, partly due to public pressure to steer-clear. The TPP would impose punishing regulations that give multinational corporations unprecedented rights to demand taxpayer compensation for policies they think will undermine their expected future profits straight from the treasuries of participating nations – it would push the agenda of Big PhaRMA in the developing world to impose longer monopoly controls on drugs, drastically limiting access to affordable generic medications that people depend on. The TPP would undermine food safety by limiting labeling and forcing countries like the United States to import food that fails to meet its national safety standards, in addition to banning Buy America or Buy Local preferences.

According to leaked draft texts, the TPP would also impose investor protections that incentivize offshoring jobs through special benefits for companies – the TPP stifles innovation by requiring internet service providers to police user-activity and treat small-scale individual downloads as large-scale for-profit violators. Most predictably, it would rollback regulation of finance capital predators on Wall Street by prohibiting bans on risky financial services and preventing signatory nations from exercising the ability to independently pursue monetary policy and issue capital controls – signatories must permit the free flow of derivatives, currency speculation and other manipulative financial instruments. The US-led partnership – which seeks to impose ‘Shock and Awe’ Globalization – aims to abolish the accountability of multinational corporations to the governments of countries with which they trade by making signatory governments accountable to corporations for costs imposed by national laws and regulations, including health, safety and environmental regulations.

The proposed legislation on Intellectual Property will have enormous ramifications for TPP signatories, including Internet termination for households, businesses, and organizations as an accepted penalty for copyright infringement. Signatory nations would essentially submit themselves to oppressive IP restrictions designed by Hollywood’s copyright cartels, severely limiting their ability to digitally exchange information on sites like YouTube, where streaming videos are considered copyrightable. “Broader copyright and intellectual property rights demands by the US would lock up the Internet, stifle research and increase education costs, by extending existing generous copyright from 70 years to 120 years, and even making it a criminal offense to temporarily store files on a computer without authorization. The US, as a net exporter of digital information, would be the only party to benefit from this,” said Patricia Ranald, convener of the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network.

In the private investor-state that the TPP is attempting to establish, foreign corporations can sue national governments, submitting signatory countries to the jurisdiction of investor arbitral tribunals, staffed by private sector attorneys. International tribunals could have authority to order governments to pay unlimited cash compensation out of national treasuries to foreign corporations and investors if new or existing government policy hinders investors’ expected future profits. The domestic taxpayer in each signatory country must shoulder any compensation paid to private investors and foreign corporations, in addition to large hourly fees for tribunals and legal costs. A good example of how this agreement neuters national sovereignty comes from Malaysia, which was able to recover from the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis more quickly than its neighbors by introducing a series of capital control measures on the Malaysian ringgit to prevent external speculation – the TPP’s proposed measures would restrict signatory nations from exercising capital controls to prevent and mitigate financial crises and promote financial stability. 

The TPP regime ensures that foreign investors and multinational corporations retain full rights to undermine the sovereignty of participatory nations by skirting domestic regulations and limiting the abilities of national governments to issue independent economic policy. There has never been such a sweeping corporate assault on sovereignty, and that includes US sovereignty. Leaked TPP documents detail how the Obama administration intends to surrender US sovereignty to international tribunals that operate under World Bank and UN rules to settle disputes arising under the TPP, specifically designed to leave Congress out in the cold while creating a judicial authority higher than the US Supreme Court. In theory, the TPP would give international judicial entities the authority to override US laws, allowing foreign companies doing business in the United States the privilege of operating in a legal environment that would give them significant economic advantages over American companies that remain tied to US laws, placing domestic companies who do not move offshore at a competitive disadvantage.

Facing the emergence of strong developing economies like the BRICS group and other nations that seek greater access to industrial growth and development, the Obama administration realizes that it must offer Pacific nations – who would otherwise have greater incentives in deepening economic ties with China – an attractive stake in the US economy. As the Pentagon repositions its military muscle to the Asia-Pacific region, the TPP is clearly the economic arm of the ‘Asia Pivot’ policy, roping strategic economies into a legally binding corporate-governance regime, lured in by the promise of unfettered access to US markets. The Obama administration is essentially prostituting the American consumer to foreign corporations to usher in a deal that would impose one-size-fits all international rules that even limit the US government's right to regulate foreign investment and the appropriation of natural resources, solidifying a long-discussed model of finance capital-backed global governance.

Of the 26 chapters of the proposed TPP draft text, it is reported that only two chapters cover trade issues, related to slashing tariffs and lifting quotas. The TPP would obligate the federal government to force US states to conform state laws to over a thousand pages of detailed stipulations and constraints unrelated to trade – from land use to intellectual property rights – authorizing the federal authorities to use all possible means to coax states to comply with TPP rules, even by imposing sanctions if they fail to do so. According to leaked documents, US standards for property rights protection would be swept away in favor of international property rights standards, as interpreted by TPP’s unelected international tribunals, giving investors principal control over public land and resources “that are not for the exclusive or predominant use and benefit of the government."

Due to the unconstitutional nature of the TPP, members of Congress would likely object to many of its stipulations – naturally, the Obama administration is employing its executive muscle to restrict congressional authority by operating under “fast-track authority,” a trade provision that requires Congress to review an FTA under limited debate in an accelerated time frame subject to a yes-or-no vote so as to assure foreign partners that the FTA, once signed, will not be changed during the legislative process. No formal steps have been taken to consult Congress as the agreement continues to be negotiated, and Obama looks set to subtly ram the treaty into law. Such is the toxic nature of US policies that seek to bring in disaster-capitalism on a global scale, while keeping those whose lives will be most affected by deal completely in the dark. The message behind this unfettered corporate smash and grab is simple – bend over!

Recent statistics claim that the combined economic output of Brazil, China and India will surpass that of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States by 2020. More than 80% of the world's middle class will live in the South by 2030, and what a different world that would be. The United States is economically ailing, and the TPP – Wall Street’s wet dream and Washington’s answer to its own dwindling economic performance – is designed to allow US big business a greater stake in the emerging Pacific region by imposing an exploitative economic model on signatory nations that exempt multinationals and private investors from any form of public accountability. The TPP’s origins go back to the second Bush administration, and it still remains in the negotiating phases under Obama’s second administration. The overwhelming lack of transparency surrounding the talks lends credence to what is known already – that the contents of this trade agreement serve the interests of those on the top of the economic food chain while the rest of us stagnate on the menu.

This article appeared on Counterpunch.

Nile Bowie is an independent political analyst and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com 

Monday, 1 April 2013

Interview: Korean Peninsula In Crisis

ZUERST! Magazine’s Manuel Ochsenreiter recently spoke with Nile Bowie, an Asia Pacific-based political analyst with experience working in North Korea, to discuss the current situation on the Korean Peninsula and the shape of things to come. 

The situation on the Korean peninsula is intensifying and becoming more and more dramatic and Pyonyang’s rhetoric is notably more aggressive. Why is all of this happening now and how did the situation come to be this way?
Since the formal end of the Korean War in the early 1950s, the North has often ratcheted up tension through tough talk when they saw the need. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea was relatively well off and they were in fact economically ahead of the South – the regime had a stronger sense of security and its rhetoric reflected that. Once the Socialist bloc countries came down, North Korea became quite alarmed. Kim Jong-il was reportedly quite shaken up by the execution of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was a friend of North Korea and oversaw a similar regime. Kim Jong-il succeeded his father in 1994 and initially first sought to improve relations with the US as a means to ensure the security of his regime. During the Clinton administration, relations were moving in a better direction – former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang and met with the leadership, the US agreed to provide two light-water nuclear reactors to meet the energy needs of the North, and South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung visited Pyongyang in 2000 for the historic inter-Korean summit.

Things were notably optimistic at that time, but when Bush came to power and declared Pyongyang a member of the Axis of Evil, he infuriated the Koreans and it soon became evident that North Korea could no longer rely on its strategy of seeking security assurances and better relations with the US. Since that time, the proliferation of nuclear weapons has been the number one priority because they believe no foreign powers would dare invade a nuclear-capable state. The root objective under their nuclear rhetoric is to scare the world into fearing a conflict with the North so as to protect the regime from being toppled. Also, in the current scenario, Kim Jong-un is keen to consolidate power and solidify his image as a capable and tough leader. There are many reasons why the North is pushing so hard at the moment, but the core reason is to keep the world on its toes and to secure food aid and concessions once it tones down its rhetoric.

It must be acknowledged that the current scenario is where it is today because of a fundamental failure of US policy in the Korean peninsula. I think its also worth noting that North Korea is less interested in peace with the United States, it has seen how the US turned on Muammar Gaddafi after he agreed to denuclearize and seek normal relations – they witnessed the destruction of Iraq and today it sees US policy in Syria and the way Iran is treated. It has much less faith and trust in the United States than it did during the Clinton administration, and thus, we see the kind of muscle flexing so characteristic of Kim Jong-un’s young regime. I can’t imagine that Pyongyang would behave any differently unless the United States drastically changed its approach.
Some analysts say that the new leader Kim Jong-un is differentiating the style of his regime from that of his father and grandfather to claim authority among the elite generals and to consolidate his power. Is this what is happening?
Its definitely true for the upper echelons of leadership in North Korea that having the backing of military generals is crucial to maintain power and authority. When Kim Jong-il took the helm, he realized that keeping the military happy was key to maintaining his authority, so as to quell the possibility of an ambitious general staging a military coup while Kim was in ill health, etc. Kim Jong-il introduced ‘Songun’ Policy, which is a military-first policy that gave members of the army preferential treatment in rations and there is no doubt that hardline generals also exercised more authority than ever before. Its clear to seasoned observers that Kim Jong-un is ultimately a figurehead and that the elite generals are making much of the tough decisions.

Kim Jong-un is only 28 and its clear that he does not possess all the knowledge needed to govern the country, so I believe his advisers are governing through him. Kim is important because of his hereditary credentials – he is the grandson of the great leaders and North Koreans are told that he is the modern incarnation of Kim il-Sung, his grandfather and founder of North Korea. If anything, the ruling elite is more satisfied under Kim Jong-un because they exert more control than before. Any military coup is highly unlikely and it would ultimately fail because the population identifies with the Kim dynasty and reveres them in a religious way, much like how citizens of Imperial Japan worshipped Emperor Hirohito. Much of the old guard is indeed elderly, and once they die off, Kim will be left to his own devices. That will be the make or break period for Kim where he will either mismanage the country and bring out its collapse or invasion, or pursue cautious reforms. The stakes are much higher in that kind of scenario and it's a bit scary to think about. 
How serious are the war drums from Pyonyang? Does Kim Jong-un really plan to attack South Korea and throw East Asia into chaos?
I think the purpose of much of this rhetoric is simply to intimidate the South and US into not striking Pyongyang first. South Korea recently elected Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the former military dictator Park Chung-hee, and I think the North is definitely testing her. Her administration appears to be increasingly out of touch with the situation; she has more or less insisted that North Korea’s denuclearization is a prerequisite for dialogue and the normalization of relations. She can’t expect the North to commit political suicide by disarming; they would never do such a thing. As far as the North is concerned, they will probably not preemptively strike the South because they fear being militarily defeated by joint US-ROK forces, but they would definitely attack in retaliation or if they are provoked to such an extent. Pentagon estimates claim that over one million civilian casualties could perish in the first twenty-four hours of a new Korean war. The stakes are really too high for any one side to be provoking the other. The US-ROK understand why the North is behaving this way, and still they refuse to play from different sheet music, contributing to more instability – this is rooted in national pride and not wanting to look weak. The lack of dialogue and the positions of all sides are absolutely silly, reckless and counterproductive.

You have visited North Korea yourself. What is your impression about the country, the people and the political elite?
One of my part-time jobs is with a tourism agency in Malaysia that specializes in exotic locations, so I focus on sending people to North Korea. I have visited the country several times in the capacity of a tourist and it is a very special destination. Socialism collapsed shortly after I was born, so going to North Korea is very much like walking through the pages of history in some way. Central planning is evident in everything. You walk down sweeping boulevards filled with monuments and statues embodying the state mythology, you can hear speakers playing revolutionary songs and propaganda messages, you can see brigades of young people in Mao-jackets carrying party flags, you pass-by shop windows that sell products of an era long past; traveling there really gives one the feeling of being in a different time. I haven’t been as lucky as Dennis Rodman when it comes to mingling with the political elite, but I have been fortunate enough to establish some meaningful people-to-people connections with North Korean civilians, most of whom are humored by my poor Korean language skills, quirky antics, and unquenchable appetite for kimchi and rice wine.

The people there are very pure and unspoiled – they have no idea about the Internet, pop culture, consumerism, and what have you. North Korean people have been kept in an intellectual bubble since the 1950s and they are initially a little standoffish among foreigners from the onset, but they are genuinely very gentle and conservative people and if you have the basic ability to communicate with them in their language, you’ll get nothing but big smiles from them and they will soon become very interested in you. North Koreans are highly communal people; I visited Pyongyang in December 2012 and what looked like the entire civilian population were on the streets manually clearing snow and ice from the roads with crude tools, even up and down large stretches of highway. Although North Koreans are not exposed to the outside world, they are highly skilled and intelligent; many of them speak numerous languages and play several musical instruments with incredible skill and they share a passion for studying, music and education with their Southern brethren. They possess admirable levels of personal discipline. I’ve met so many beautiful people in that country and it would be such a deep tragedy if their lives were destroyed in this conflict.
Russian and Chinese analysts have accused the US of adding fuel to the fire in the way they approach North Korea. What do you make of this?
Washington’s recent deployment of two nuclear-capable US B-2 stealth bombers to South Korea illustrates everything that is wrong with US policy toward the North. There is no doubt that both Beijing and Moscow are deeply unhappy with the ceaseless annual war-games that the US and South Korea carry out on North Korea’s doorstep. These moves increase tensions, raise antagonisms and in the case of the B-2 flyover, it in fact legitimizes Pyongyang’s rhetoric of the US coaxing nuclear war on the peninsula. The majority of the world is calling for a dialogue-based approach to this conflict, and the political left in South Korea is calling for a revival of the Sunshine policy; they want to see reestablished inter-Korean tourism projects and economic cooperation, in addition to expanding the joint industrial zones and the opening of new Special Economic Zones. There are a number of approaches in which the South and US can approach the North that would be mutually beneficial for all parties, but at the moment, they are unwilling to do so.
Who benefits from the crisis on the Korean peninsula?
At the moment, the biggest beneficiary is the US military industrial complex and the defense industry. It’s more obvious than ever that the US policy toward North Korea is really designed to preserve the situation as best it can without having it topple over into war. Obama’s administration is interested in pivoting its military muscle to the Asia-Pacific region, a part of the world that is relatively peaceful in contrast to Africa and the Middle East. North Korea is the regional madman, and having such a country – one that is all bark and very little bite – is extremely useful for the Pentagon. The regime in North Korea legitimizes American presence in South Korea and Japan, and gives the US a strong pretext to increase its military muscle on China’s doorstep – as long as the situation doesn't deteriorate and force Washington into an ugly war it doesn't want to fight, the US will continue to manipulate the North Korean threat to suit their objectives. I believe South Korea is interested in reconciliation, but the current administration is unwilling to think out of the box. To their credit, North Korea’s rhetoric has made it very politically difficult for Park Geun-hye to take a soft-line on North Korea without alienating her main conservative support base. The South moves firmly in step with the United States and there is little indication that they will embark on any meaningful shift in foreign policy anytime soon. If the Obama administration is not careful, it will provoke Pyongyang into doing something rash and by then, it will already be too late to rectify the situation.
Nile Bowie is an independent political analyst and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He has travelled North and South Korea extensively and can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com