Tag Archives: Sri Lanka

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It’s been an interesting week in the news. While the domestic political scene has been dominated by President Barack Obama’s comments regarding the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, the real issues of health care reform and reforming the U.S. financial regulatory system appear to have fallen by the wayside, at least temporarily.

In news from outside the United States in the last week:

1. George Mitchell, President Barak Obama’s special Middle East envoy, met with Syrian officials on Sunday. Although no specifics of the meeting were reported, it is believed that Mitchell’s visit is part of Obama’s strategy of improving relations with Syria as part of the broader goal of achieving a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute. The visit was Mitchell’s second trip to Syria in two months.

2. The political situation in Iran appears ready to destabilize, as the government faces both opposition from opposition political parties as well as a standoff between fundamentalist elements within President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad’s cabinet. On Monday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned opposition leaders that they faced “collapse” if they continued protests over last month’s disputed presidential elections. Last week, Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Iran’s former president, lent support to the opposition, speaking at a protest against Ahmadi-Nejad’s re-election. Rafsanjani’s position was closely watched, particularly given his position as head of two powerful conservative bodies in Iran, the expediency council and the experts assembly.

In other developments, over the weekend, President Ahmadi-Nejad fired two cabinet ministers, Hossein Saffar-Harandi, culture minister, and Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, intelligence minister. The firings, which are rare in Iranian politics, represent the latest developments in a political standoff between Ahmadi-Nejad and conservative forces in his government. It was reported on Wednesday that four ministers, including the two fired over the weekend, debated the president’s decision to name Esfandir Rahim Mashaei as first vice president. Mashaei is a close ally of the president, but managed to draw the criticism of conservatives when he argued last week that the position of the Iranian government should maintain a friendly disposition towards the Israeli people. After the appointment was made public, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who as the country’s supreme leader has the final word in governmental affairs, wrote to Ahmadi-Nejad, urging him to fire Mashaei. Ahmadi-Nejad initially refused, but Mashaei nevertheless stepped down over the weekend.  

3. The International Monetary Fund approved a new $2.6 billion loan for Sri Lanka on Friday. The loan is intended to help Sri Lanka rebuild after its 25 year civil war, which ended several months ago after the government launched a series of attacks which incapacitated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebel group. Despite the end of the fighting, however, the government continues to hold thousands of ethnic Tamils displaced by the fighting in detention camps. The detention of so many people led some human rights groups to condemn the IMF’s decision, arguing, as Human Rights Watch did, that the loan “is a reward for bad behavior, not an incentive to improve.” The United States and the United Kingdom both abstained from the decision, an unusual move for the two countries which collectively control almost 22 percent of the voting shares in the organization.

4. Government services in townships across South Africa have been disrupted by a strike by municipal workers demanding higher pay. The strike follows weeks of protest by residents of poor black urban areas in South Africa, who are demanding improvement of water and electricity delivery, better government housing, and reductions in corruption. The protests represent the most significant political challenge to President Jacob Zuma’s government, which came to power on the platform of reducing poverty and addressing corruption. Zuma promised last week to crack down on protestors, but such a strategy appears likely to exacerbate the political crisis facing the government.

5. The standoff in Honduras continued to develop last week, as ousted President Manuel Zelaya visited the Honduran border on Friday. Zelaya vowed to return to power and symbolically crossed the border, briefly stepping in to Honduras before quickly stepping back into Nicaragua to avoid arrest. Talks between Zelaya and the interim government of Honduras appeared to break down this week, as both sides have refused to cede any ground on the most fundamental question: who should be president. Meanwhile, western governments have stepped up pressure on the interim government of Honduras. On Monday, the European Union announced it was suspending all aid to Honduras while the United States has suspending military aid to the country and has threatened to suspend economic aid if progress is not made. Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, heavily reliant on coffee for export earnings.

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Five Stories You Might Have Missed

A new report issued by the International Monetary Fund on Saturday suggests that the globally economy will contract by 1.3 percent in 2009 with a slow recovery beginning in 2010. While the United States has been pushing countries to expand stimulus spending, the IMF said that existing stimulus spending already committed for 2009 should be sufficient to address the crisis. A Friday meeting of the finance ministers of the G7 countries was more cautious, concluding that, “the pace of decline in our economies has slowed and some signs of stabilization are emerging,” but simultaneously warned that “downside risks persist.”

In news outside the global economic crisis from the last week:

1. The outbreak of a new flue strain has raised concern in Mexico, as 68 people have died and more than 1,000 have been infected. The World Health Organization is monitoring the situation to determine if it is likely to reach pandemic status. While the Mexican government is urging people to remain calm, authorities have already canceled more than 500 public events and many residents in Mexico City have opted to stay home rather than travel for shopping and work. Tests have also confirmed the virus has made people in California, Texas, Kansas, and New York ill.

2. Elections in Iceland have produced the country’s first center-left government. The previous government of Iceland had been forced to resign as a result of the devastating impact of the global financial crisis on the country. Preliminary election results give Johanna Sigurdardottir’s Social Democrats 30 percent of the vote. With their coalition partner, the Left Greens’ 22 percent of the vote, the coalition appears well-positioned to drive the political agenda in Iceland. Sigurdardottir becomes the first openly gay person elected head of state in the modern world. The first item on her agenda: Icelandic membership in the European Union.

3. While the Obama administration is hoping to resume the six-party talks with North Korea, the government of North Korea appears to be taking a more hardline stance. Earlier this month it test fired a long-range missile, sparking a confrontation with the UN Security Council. Last week, the government of North Korea last week announced it would put two U.S. reporters on trial, charging them with illegal entry and “hostile acts.” Additionally, after expelling international atomic inspectors two weeks ago, North Korea has announced its intention to resume plutonium extraction. It is widely believed that North Korea already possesses enough plutonium for six to eight nuclear bombs. According to some observers, the deteriorating relations between North Korea and the West may be part of the country’s efforts to force the United States into direct, bilateral negotiations.

4. The sharp upsurge of violence in Iraq, including two suicide attacks that killed 75 people outside a Shia shrine in Baghdad on Friday, have raised concerns that Iraq is sliding back into civil war. Recent attacks raise the concern of sectarian violence, suppressed by a strong U.S. presence over the past year, but never entirely defeated.

5. Reversing a longstanding policy of the Bush administration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced on Thursday that the United States would be willing to work with a Palestinian government backed by Hamas so long as the organization met international demands to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.  The Bush administration had refused to work with Hamas, which has effectively controlled the Palestinian government since it defeated its rival, Fatah, in elections in 2007. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under pressure to engage meaningfully in international diplomacy and to be seen acting.

And because it was such a busy week internationally, here are two bonus stories from this week:

6. The rebel Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka on Sunday declared a unilateral ceasefire, a move almost immediately rejected by the government. An operation launched by the government last month has effectively confined the Tamil Tigers to a small enclave in the northern part of the country, and the government is expected to announce the defeat of the Tigers any day. But the United Nations has described the situation as a humanitarian disaster, with more than 6,500 civilians already killed and as many as 100,000 refugees created as a result of the fighting.

7. It was announced on Friday that China has become the world’s fifth largest holder of gold reserves, with 1,054 tones of gold. Seen as part of a broader strategy to diversify its nearly $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, the government of China has slowly been building its gold reserves over the several years. However, even with the recent purchases, China has a level of gold reserves (as a percent of its total reserves) far below that of the United States and other developed countries.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

Perhaps the most shocking news from the previous week came in a series of stories and rumors that the U.S. government may move to nationalize some banks in an attempt to address the ongoing global economic crisis.  In an interview on Tuesday, former Federal Reserve Chairman (and ardent free marketeer) commented that, “It may be necessary to temporarily nationalize some banks in order to facilitate a swift and orderly restructuring.” In the same story, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham concurred, noting, “If nationalization is what works, then we should do it.” Speculation that Citibank and Bank of America may be the first banks to be nationalized drove their stock values down and led to both dramatic selloffs on Wall Street and a sharp increase in the price of gold, normally used to hedge against uncertainty. The events forced the Obama administration to attempt to reassure global markets, as White House Press Secretary Robert Ribbs said, “This administration continues to strongly believe that a privately held banking system is the correct way to go, ensuring that they are regulated sufficiently by this government. That’s been our belief for quite some time, and we continue to believe that.” Remember when the Democrats were the ones who wanted greater government control over the economy, and Republicans opposed such intervention? Seems the global financial crisis makes the conventional wisdom less and less relevant.

Here are five stories from the previous week you might have missed if you’ve been trying to keep the players in the nationalization debate straight:

1. On Friday, the government of Mexico confirmed the country was following the general trend in much of the rest of the world, heading into recession. In the final quarter of 2008, the Mexican economy contracted by 1.6 percent. In an attempt to stimulate the economy, the government cut interest rates. But close ties to the ailing U.S. economy have acted as a drag on the Mexican economy, undermining the ability of the Mexican government to develop an effective stimulus program.

2. The United Nations-backed naval taskforce in the Gulf of Aden appears to have been generally successful in addressing the problem of piracy in the region. A number of U.S. and E.U. naval vessels, as well as ships from several other navies, have been operating off the coast of Somalia in an attempt to curtail the piracy which had become endemic to the region. The government of Somalia remains unable to assert control over its territorial waters, and piracy was one of the few ways in which Somalis were able to earn a living.

3. The government of Pakistan and Taliban fighters in the northwestern part of the country agreed to a “permanent ceasefire” on Saturday.  In exchange for agreeing to the ceasefire, the Pakistani government has offered to reinstate Islamic sharia law in the region. Many observers are concerned that the ceasefire may create a safe haven in Pakistan for Taliban and al Qaeda fighters could regroup.

4. Latvia’s Prime Minister, Ivars Godmanis, became the second victim of the global financial crisis on Friday, as he was forced to resign from office amid widespread popular protest. Like the government of Iceland before it, the Latvian government had been forced by the global economic downturn to launch a series of austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund. A number of other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, including Hungary and Ukraine, have already implemented structural adjustment programs. Several others, including Serbia, Romania, Lithuania, and Estonia, are also seen as vulnerable.

5. The conflict in Sri Lanka continues. After the government had made significant advances into rebel territory over the past several weeks, Tamil Tiger rebels responded on Friday night with a surprise air raid on the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. Initial reports indicated that at least 42 people were injured in the attack. An estimated 70,000 people have been killed since the civil war began in 1983.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The conflict between Hamas and Israel in Gaza continued this week, with Israeli air strikes and rocket attacks by Hamas through much of the week culminating with an Israeli ground attack over the weekend.  So far, more than 400 Palestinians and 4 Israelis have been killed in the fighting.  A Libyan-sponsored United Nations resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire was blocked by the United States on Saturday.  Meanwhile, some international observers warned that the use of military force will not achieve a stable solution to the Gaza conflict

In other news from the previous week:

1.  The Chinese government has moved to isolate dissidents who support Charter 08.  The Charter, often referred to as the most significant push for opening the one-party state in China since the Tiananmen Square protests, has been signed by 7,000 Chinese and foreign intellectuals.  The Charter warns of “the possibility of a violent conflict of disastrous proportions” if the Chinese Communist Party does not move towards greater democratization and political openness. A number of signatories to the document have been detained by police, and the government has cautioned the media against carrying interviews with the Charter’s signatories.

2.  Tensions between Russia and Ukraine are growing as both sides seek to mobilize support for their position in Europe.  Russia cut off natural gas flows to Ukraine last week, accusing the Ukrainian government stealing gas from the pipeline; the Ukrainian government denies the charges.  The standoff is a major concern for several members of the European Union, which secures up to 20 percent of its natural gas demands through the disputed pipeline. 

3.  Cuba celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution on January 1.  The revolution led to the overthrow of the dictatorial government of Fulgencio Batista and the establishment of a communist state under the leadership of Fidel Castro.  The resignation of Fidel Castro earlier this year, the economic slowdown on the island, and the devastation brought by two hurricanes have left the country in crisis.  As a result, celebrations of the revolution were scaled back.  The future of U.S.-Cuban relations is likely to be a significant policy question for the incoming Obama administration.

4.  John Atta Mills, the leader of the opposition National Democratic Congress, was declared the winner of Ghana’s presidential runoff elections on Sunday.  He defeated Nana Akufo-Addo of the ruling New Patriotic Party to win the presidency in elections characterized as free and fair.  Ghana has long been viewed as the model for political and economic reform in Africa, and the peaceful political transition in Ghana is viewed as a model for other struggling countries.

5.  On Friday, the government of Sri Lanka announced it had seized control of the northern town of Killinochchi in the northern part of the country.  Sri Lanka has effectively been divided in half for years, with the northern part of the country under the de facto control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the Tamil Tigers) and the southern part of the country under the control of the Sri Lankan government.  The government’s victory in the Tiger stronghold of Killinochchi is widely seen as a dramatic blow to the Tamil Tiers.