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Thursday March 3rd 2011
Asia view
Kabuki comes home
Mar 3rd 2011, 3:47 by H.T. | TOKYO
WHEN America faced the shutdown of its government in 1995, during a budgetary duel full of exaggerated theatrics, The Economist called it “Budget-bill kabuki”. Even as Washington might well reprise that routine on March 4th, this time the imported show is coming home.
A few hours before dawn on March 1st, Naoto Kan’s ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) passed a budget of sorts, despite an unprecedented revolt from 16 of its lawmakers, who abstained. But for the time being it is only a pale imitation of a budget; it sets out the 92 trillion yen ($1 trillion) the government plans to spend in the next fiscal year, but not the means of paying for it all. Winning support for the latter is so hard, Mr Kan has not yet tried.
This does not mean government will grind to a halt on April 1st. About 44% of spending is backed by taxes that can be renewed automatically. But the rest comes from borrowing, which needs approval either from a majority vote in the upper house, or a two-thirds majority in the lower house. The DPJ has neither, nor has it had any success in persuading the smaller opposition parties to vote with it. Opposition lawmakers are blasé: two whom I interviewed could hardly stop chuckling at Mr Kan’s predicament. They say that for several months into the next fiscal year the government can fund itself through existing tax revenues as well as by raising up to 20 trillion yen of short-term debt, which would avert an immediate budget crisis. In the meantime, they hope that Mr Kan’s popularity will sink so low as to force him into stepping down or annulling parliament as a condition for winning passage of the financing bills. They are preparing for such a showdown in the summer.
This is a dangerous game, however. It is not just government financing that is jeopardised by the political impasse; it is a DPJ child-benefit scheme that some families may be counting on; a long-overdue cut in corporate tax; as well as tax breaks for fishermen and farmers and tariff cuts on imported food and cigarettes. If the budget battle comes to look like it will further strain Japan’s fragile economic recovery, voters may blame the opposition’s intransigence as much as the ruling party’s ineptitude. 
To drive that message home, the DPJ has circulated to some of its opponents extracts from the 2003 autobiography of Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary, which recounts how the Republicans, in sabotaging the budget in 1995, ended up hurting themselves. Opposition politicians acknowledge that even as Mr Kan’s popularity fell to a measly 22% in a Nikkei poll this week, their parties did not reap the benefits. Nor was there widespread demand among those polled for Mr Kan to resign. Then on March 1st it became news when he notched up his 267th day in office: surpassing by a day that of Yukio Hatoyama, his predecessor. How weary voters have become of having leaders who fall like dominoes. 
Yoshimasa Hayashi of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) admits that the latest gridlock may be aggravating voters’ disdain for the mainstream  parties. But he shrugged this off as an occasional feature of Japanese politics, something which tends to pass.
A novel side effect is that some fringe parties seem to be benefiting at the expense of the big ones. Last month we wrote about a tax-cutting party in Nagoya, one of Japan’s largest cities, which we referred to as a Japanese “tea party” movement. (Mr Hayashi mischievously called it a “sake party”, probably in allusion to its leaders’ self-confessed fondness for drink.) On March 3rd the Kyodo news agency reported that a first-term DPJ lawmaker had quit the ruling party to join the Nagoya tax-cutting party, led by her former boss, Takashi Kawamura. DPJ members who remain close to the party’s scandal-tainted former boss, Ichiro Ozawa, preferring him to Naoto Kan, are also reportedly getting closer to Mr Kawamura and his group. Some believe they could bring about a split in the ruling party.  
Mr Kan’s forces are bitterly divided, which is one reason the opposition feels confident it can drive him into a corner. Never mind if polls suggest that no party would come out of an election a big winner. The irony is that the LDP and other opposition parties, such as New Komeito, quietly concur with many of Mr Kan’s ideas about fiscal reform and free trade. (We, too, think they are good ones.) But such is the crass self-interest of many Japanese politicians that the opposition would rather bring down this government than work with it towards meaningful reform. No wonder the public is disenchanted.
(Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons)
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The 15-minute parliament
Mar 2nd 2011, 10:10 by R.C. | CHIANG MAI
I WAS in Chiang Mai in Thailand to catch up with the latest news coming out of Myanmar—or Burma, as its dissidents tend to call it still. I was keen to hear about the progress of its new parliament, which opened amid considerable publicity on January 31st. This was the first time the country convened a parliament in 22 years. Apparently it ushers in a new age of democracy under civilian rule
As Chiang Mai is so close to the Burmese border, it has become the capital of the international dissidents’ Burma. Here are hundreds of Burmese former political prisoners, exiled politicians and activists, as well as international NGO workers, academics and policy wonks, all deeply involved in the country’s affairs. I found that there are almost as many views on the current situation in Burma as there are people to express them.
Some, such as the Burmese journalists who staff the online newspaper the Irrawaddy, are last-ditchers—they refuse to be reconciled to the new civilian façade of the regime in Yangon. Others argue that the army is the only game in town; anyone trying to do any good in Burma has to work with them. These are the pragmatists. They tend to have some faith in the regime’s apparent attempts to move towards a more democratic, less authoritarian system. Many (including the idealists) also argue for the lifting of Western sanctions. The argument goes that sanctions have achieved nothing more than to hand over Burma’s vast oil and mineral wealth to the unscrupulous Chinese (and Thais).
However there was one subject that everybody seemed to agree on—how little Burma’s new parliament actually seems to be working. Apparently, in the month since it opened the lower house has met for a total of just nine hours or so. Sessions of the new parliament have lasted 20 minutes at most—barely enough time for any self-respecting British MP to clear his throat. On average, sessions last only 15 minutes—hence the joke doing the rounds that it is the “15-minute hluttaw” (Burmese for parliament).
Not surprisingly, 15 minutes does not allow much time for getting legislative work done. This is what many critics feared; the regime’s cronies control all the work of the parliament and will thus toil vigorously to limit any opportunity for proper debate or the airing of the opposition’s views. So far, the hluttaw’s massive pro-regime majority has dutifully nominated a new president and vice-presidents, but has yet to form a government.
According to one foreign interlocutor I spoke to, it is the MPs of the largest official opposition party, the National Democratic Front (NDF), who are “the most disappointed right now”. These were the opposition activists who broke with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy over their participation in last November’s elections. They invested a lot of hope in the efficacy of the new parliamentary process when it came to justifying their participation in the elections. Their support will surely wane if parliament proves to be as toothless as it has been over the past month.
And it’s not only the lack of opportunities to speak that worries the NDF. One of their MPs, who refused to give his name quite understandably, was quoted in the Irrawaddy as saying: “We were warned when we arrived here [the new parliament in the capital Naypyidaw] that we couldn’t move around freely. Even though we receive stipends, we feel like prisoners. When we are in session, we are only allowed to go to the dining hall or tearoom or return to our hostels.” Oh for Western freedoms, and for taxpayer-funded duck houses.
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Setting sail for Libya
Mar 1st 2011, 17:09 by J.M. | BEIJING
FOR a fast rising power, China remains unusually shy about military deployment beyond its shores. But its decision to dispatch four military transport aircraft to Libya and a guided-missile frigate to waters nearby suggests that it might be rethinking its posture. The Ilyushin-76 aircraft took off from the far western region of Xinjiang on February 28th bound for the Libyan city of Sabha. The ship, Xuzhou, which had been engaged in anti-piracy duties in the Gulf of Aden, set sail for the north African coast on February 24th. 
The assignments could prove little more than symbolic. Of the 30,000 Chinese estimated to have been in Libya when the unrest began there, some 29,000 are said to have already left the country. China’s defence ministry says Xuzhou will not arrive until March 2nd. It is not clear when the aircraft will reach their destination. Gabriel Collins and Andrew Erickson of China SignPost say they will have to stop for refuelling.  
The deployments are a sign that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which includes the air force and navy, is gaining a bit in confidence following its dispatch of a small flotilla in December 2008 to join international operations in the Gulf of Aden. That was a turning point in China’s military history: the PLA navy’s first active-duty deployment beyond East Asia. China had long been diffident about long-range engagements, fearing they might stir anxiety about China’s military ambitions while at the same time revealing frailties to its potential enemies (America being the biggest concern). 
Western powers have long been trying to cajole the PLA into playing a more dynamic role, both in UN peacekeeping (China is a big contributor of troops, but not of front-line ones) and disaster relief (the PLA did not send forces to help out after the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004). The PLA’s decision to get involved this time, however, is likely far more to do with domestic considerations than a desire to show solidarity with the West. A perceived failure by the PLA to show concern for Chinese lives in Libya would not have gone down well with the country’s fiery online nationalists (to whom the country’s leaders appear to pay considerable attention). 
In 1998, when riots targeting ethnic Chinese broke out in Indonesia, nationalists in China accused the government of a limp-wristed response (see this analysis of the event by Christopher Hughes of the London School of Economics). The Communist Party does not want a repeat of that, especially at a time when it is already worried about possible contagion from the pro-democracy movements in North Africa and the Middle East. Nationalism and anti-government sentiment can be a powerful cocktail in China. 
China’s propaganda machinery has been playing up the significance of the deployments. What the state-run media call the biggest operation in China’s history – which includes the dispatch of civilian aircraft—to rescue Chinese overseas is being touted as a sign of the country’s emergence as a “responsible great power” (see this dispatch, in Chinese, on the website of Guangming Daily, a Beijing newspaper). The term echoes the appeal made in 2005 by Robert Zoellick, then America’s deputy secretary of state, for China to play its part as a “responsible stakeholder”. It is one aimed at pleasing nationalists at home while trying to show the outside world that China is merely doing what is expected of it. 
China’s vote on February 26th in favour of a UN resolution imposing sanctions on Muammar Qaddafi and calling for an international war-crimes investigation will certainly be looked at with favour by the West. It too appeared to mark a shift, China having usually avoided punishing countries for behaviour within their borders (sanctions imposed on North Korea for its testing of nuclear devices being a notable recent exception). Again, the reasons for China’s actions are likely to be domestic. Mr Qaddafi’s political control appears tenuous and Chinese lives are at risk. The Communist Party does not want to appear to be propping up the man endangering them. 
China has long condemned what it describes as “interfering in other countries’ internal affairs”. Since 1989 it has been particularly fearful of setting a precedent for international action against itself should it stage another bloody crackdown on dissent such as on the Tiananmen Square protests that year. But China sees the situation in Libya as very different from that in China after Tiananmen​—​when the Chinese leadership, despite its squabbles, maintained a firm grip on power and largely kept the armed forces on side. 
A blog entry published on February 27th on the website of Caijing, a Beijing magazine, (here, in Chinese), suggested that it was time to give up the non-interference policy in the case of Libya. The article, boldly titled “Support the dispatch of American troops to Libya”, argued that “human rights come before sovereignty”. Its author, a Chinese journalist, said that when “a tyrant enslaves his country and tyrannises and massacres his citizens” talk of non-interference is “dog farts”. That, very probably, is going further than the party would like.
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The people doth not protest
Feb 28th 2011, 15:39 by J.M. | BEIJING
AN ATTEMPT by unidentified microblog users to whip up a “jasmine revolution” in China has produced little visible response so far except for police jitters and a revived official antagonism toward the foreign media. It has also created friction between China and America’s outgoing ambassador, Jon Huntsman, who was seen on February 20th near a McDonald’s outlet in Wangfujing, in downtown Beijing, where messages circulated on the internet had called on people to congregrate. (Mr Huntsman said it was a coincidence.)
The ambassador has now issued a statement strongly condemning the detention and harassment by police of several foreign journalists who tried to cover the response to another call for protest, this time on February 27th.  One of the journalists was punched and kicked, by people who appeared to be plainclothes police, and then detained for several hours. Several reporters had their cameras and video equipment confiscated. A report by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (which has since been removed from the club's website) counts 16 news organisations whose staff were harassed by police: either assaulted, manhandled, deprived of their equipment or detained. Mr Huntsman called on the Chinese government to “hold the perpetrators accountable”.
Chinese officials have accused the foreign media of overreacting to the attempt at a protest; a handful of ordinary citizens did appear to respond to the call in Beijing and Shanghai, but only a handful. They were quickly taken away by police and were at all times outnumbered by journalists. But the police response suggests a kind of worry on the part of the officials: they seem to be profoundly concerned about the country’s vulnerability to large-scale upheaval. The massive security deployments on February 20th and 27th, and the accompanying detention and surveillance of dissidents, indicates they feared a real possibility of serious unrest. They pulled out all the stops to cow the government’s critics into silence.
In Beijing this has included measures directed at the foreign media that are reminiscent of the dark days that followed the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Todd Carrel, a reporter for ABC news, suffered serious and lasting injury at the hands of plainclothes thugs on the square in 1992, while covering the anniversary of the crackdown. In the buildup to last weekend, numerous foreign correspondents were given warnings by the police that they would need official clearance to report in either Wangfujing, ordinarily a busy shopping street, or Tiananmen. Although officials have often insisted on clearance to conduct journalistic activities on Tiananmen, the extension of such restrictions to Wangfujing was new.
In many cases the police insisted that journalists visit them at an office building to receive these warnings. One colleague was told that he had to turn up at the building on Sunday afternoon, just when the protest was due to happen. When he said this was not convenient, he was told there might be future difficulties with his visa if he did not comply.
The security in Wangfujing that afternoon was extraordinary. I walked up the length of the broad pedestrian street and saw as many plainclothesmen and uniformed police as I did shoppers. Two police officers stood at the ready with attack dogs. I saw one foreigner being escorted away by police and others being stopped to ask for their identity papers. Later, say reports, water was sprayed over the street in what appeared to be a deliberate attempt to scatter anyone who might linger. Civilians in red armbands, a sort of unarmed militia who are often mobilised to assist police with major security operations, such as during Beijing's Olympic games in 2008, were out in force on Wangfujing and streets leading into it. Any attempt at protest would not have lasted a minute under such scrutiny.
The government is always edgy as it prepares for the annual session of the country’s legislature, which begins this year on March 5th. But as security precautions as far afield as Kashgar suggest, it is more than usually nervous this time. Copies of The Economist on sale in Beijing had last week's Banyan column (about China in the context of the Arab world’s turmoil) ripped out by censors. CNN’s reports on the upheaval are often blacked out. Even Mr Huntsman’s name has become a blocked search term in China.
China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, in what might have been partly an attempt to assuage any would-be revolutionaries, promised in an online “chat” on Sunday (hours before the called-for protest in Wangfujing) that the government would continue efforts to tame inflation. Rapid increases in house prices have been causing strong resentment among those not yet on the housing ladder. “I only have two years left for my tenure of office. I think the work in the two years will be not at all easier than that in the previous eight years, but will be much tougher instead”, said Mr Wen. Certainly China’s police are braced for trouble.
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Unsafe at any budget
Feb 28th 2011, 11:51 by H.C.
“HUMAN error” has been blamed officially for the terrible accident that sank a boat in Ha Long bay and killed 12 people last week. Surely that can’t be wrong. But whose error exactly?
The boat’s 22-year-old captain—who did not go down with his ship—and one of his colleagues have been charged with negligence, according to reports published on February 21st. The valves that connected their junk’s engine-cooling pipes to the water had been left open overnight, swamping the hull. The Bien Mo sank suddenly, at around five o’clock in the morning. Eleven foreign tourists and a Vietnamese guide were drowned. Nine tourists survived.
In one respect, such accidents are not uncommon. In January 2009 a boat sank in central Vietnam and killed some 40 Vietnamese citizens. Though that disaster was blamed on similar conditions its story did not attract much in the way of international headlines.
The mere loss of human life may not be enough to attract the government’s attention. What happened in Ha Long bay last week has demanded special notice as the worst accident to afflict Vietnam’s tourist industry in the past 25 years. Safety standards have tended to be lax in Ha Long bay: that much was already known. But now other operators are expecting to feel a painful pinch.
Like several other of the fastest-developing parts of the world, Vietnam has done a remarkable job of drawing increasing numbers of foreign visitors in the past ten years. Its ongoing struggle has been to convince affluent tourists that their exotic holidays can be safe ones too.
People who work in Vietnam’s tourism business seem to be in agreement about what caused the disaster in Ha Long bay: cheapskate outfits sail clapped-out, “tired” old junks, piloted by “cowboys”. Tim Russell owns a travel company called Come and Go Vietnam and also blogs about the local industry. He tends to be quite critical of some of his competitors. A recent post of his, titled “Will anyone learn this time?”, summarises the frustrations felt by who work in his field.
Mr Russell makes one especially sharp point. “The Tripadvisor forums are full of Hanoi-based agents saying ‘Let’s not point the finger, these things happen etc etc,’ and, worst of all, claiming that if the people on board had booked more expensive tours, they wouldn’t have died, as if safety is something reserved for luxury travellers [sic].” The hope seems to be that the right sort of tourist can be lulled into ignoring the odd disaster—if only they can be reassured that their own boats will enjoy smooth sailing.
Luxury travel has taken off in Vietnam in recent years (if you don’t fancy taking a heavily congested, four-hour drive to the bay you can opt for a helicopter ride to your private boat) and it’s something that the local travel industry is keen to promote. The luxury sector is doing what it can to distance itself from the headline-grabbing accident. But a large segment of the market has ever been—and still is—strictly “budget”: banana-pancake-eating backpackers, price-sensitive Chinese packages and super-cheap deals for the domestic market.
The discount sector manages to eke out a profit by fudging many of the checks and balances applied by scrupulous international operators. In 2009 a busload of Russians travelling from beachside Mui Ne, a hotspot for Russian tourists, to the old hill station of Dalat went over the verge of a steep and winding road. More than ten people were killed. Local authorities promised quick action; the driver, who survived the crash, was charged days later. But making a villain of a driver here and a driver there does not address the root of the problem, nor, presumably, the perception of Vietnam as a safe place to visit.
That the Bien Mo was a somewhat ramshackle affair is obvious from this blog post. Though backpackers in Vietnam tend to be sniffy, their photos are eloquent. The most recent reports claim it was unlicensed. According to other reports the company at fault for the sinking of the Bien Mo was responsible for another accident, in 2009, which drowned four people in the same area.
A sustainable-tourism consultant who has worked in Ha Long bay (and asked not to be named) responds with horrified sarcasm. “Wow, so it happens again.” Many of the boaters allowed to ferry around tourists lack “even the most basic safety procedures or equipment.” If the still nascent industry is to flourish, responsible agencies are going to have to start concerning themselves with the industry as a whole.
(Photo credits: Northern Vietnam Travelogue and Wikimedia Commons)
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A modest model in the Arabian Sea
Feb 26th 2011, 9:32 by A.R. | DELHI
MOHAMED NASHEED, the dapper young president of the Maldives, thinks the jasmine revolutionaries of the Arab world may have something to learn from his own small country’s transition to democracy. The Indian Ocean archipelago, which has historical ties to the Arab world, saw the ouster of its own strongman, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, just two years ago. Mr Gayoom had ruled as president for three decades, jailing and torturing his opponents along the way, until he was eventually persuaded in 2008, after popular protests, to hold a free election—and then to respect its result, which brought the opposition to power.
The relatively orderly transition—closer to the regime change experienced in Tunisia than to the violent horrors now under way in Libya—did not produce an entirely smooth outcome. Opposition lawmakers have since been able to block the government’s policies, leading, in mid 2010, to the resignation of the cabinet in protest. But even such disagreements are resolved peacefully. “We are in the process of consolidating our democracy” says Mr Nasheed, on a visit to Delhi for a conference on promoting liberal governance in South Asia.
“For so many years Maldivian rulers tried to emulate society in Egypt,” he argues; now the Egyptians should return the favour. He urges them not to rush to an election, without first allowing time for the formation of stable political parties. Elections should be held only after a constitution is in place. Mr Nasheed notes that since its first multi-party presidential elections the Maldives has also held a parliamentary poll (in 2009) and then local elections (last year). “We are a 100% Muslim country. We feel if democracy can survive in the Maldives it can survive in other Islamic countries. Islam and democracy are not in conflict.” Asked if Mr Gayoom, who seems to show an interest in returning to politics, should be prosecuted for previous wrongdoing, Mr Nasheed demurs. He reckons that “vengeance” against the previous leader would be counterproductive.
Not all is going swimmingly. Islamic radicals, as in north Africa, are a worry. Individuals from the Maldives—frustrated young men—have been arrested while training with extremists in Pakistan. One of the terrorists who attacked India’s commercial capital, Mumbai, in November 2008, killing some 170 people, was rumoured to be Maldivian. (Most of the attackers were Pakistani; Mr Nasheed says he has seen no evidence to prove there was any Maldivian among them.) But the president argues that the religious extremism which flourished under authoritarian rule is now weakening under democracy. “When political space is available, then liberal forces will be able to organise themselves and win the support of the people.”
He points out that in last year’s local elections radical Islamic parties won just 2% of the vote. Next he wants liberal Muslims to take initiatives to outsmart the radicals: it is time for an “ideological confrontation”, with South Asian Muslims learning tactics from moderate and liberal Muslims from farther East: Malaysia and Indonesia. Mr Nasheed plans to play host to a conference on the topic, probably later this year.
It helps that the Maldives also has resources to alleviate poverty. Tourism and the local fishing industry are flourishing (the latter boosted by anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean, which also help to deter poachers). Income per person, at $4,200 per year, is the highest of any country in South Asia and is enough that the Maldives is no longer classified in the “least developed” category. How much any of its success can be replicated in the larger countries of north Africa or the Persian Gulf is open to debate—the Maldives are home to just 350,000 people, and its democracy cannot be considered to be robust until many years have passed. But even a small example of success should be a welcome model for the revolutionaries on the other side of the Arabian Sea.
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Digging out
Feb 23rd 2011, 13:57 by A.T. | HONG KONG
ON TUESDAY morning, February 22nd, an earthquake rocked Christchurch, the second-largest city in New Zealand. By Thursday the official death toll had risen to 98, with more than 200 people yet missing. As efforts to find people buried alive in the rubble of the city centre intensified, hope began to give way; no one has been rescued since Wednesday. One of the most massive structures to have been destroyed was the Canterbury Television (CTV) building, which was home to an English-language school where an unknown number of foreign students have been living. Sixty to 120 people are thought to have been trapped inside.
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Slow train coming
Feb 22nd 2011, 17:09 by A.R. | DELHI
FOR a country so beloved of trains, India has taken a long time to acquire a standard emblem of a modernising country: a high-speed rail link from its capital city to its swanky new international airport. At long last then, on February 23rd, Delhi’s airport express opened to public service, whisking its first handful of passengers at a relatively nippy pace: from the centre of the city to the airport in 20 minutes.
The airport express is pleasantly efficient: on time, clean, air-conditioned and particularly satisfying as it whizzes smoothly past cars that trundle along a parallel motorway. It brings a welcome boost to Delhi’s public transport (a good new metro system is also expanding), and reveals new vistas, notably of a green, wooded area near Dhaula Kuan, a suburb. For a metropolitan area with a population of some 17m, developing better train lines should be a priority.
However the rail line also reveals troubling details for those who hope to see rapid improvement in India’s generally woeful infrastructure over the next few years. The service was supposed to operate in time for the Commonwealth games in Delhi, in October 2010. Instead, after 57 billion rupees (some $1.3 billion) have been spent, it has opened five months late. Recriminations fly back and forth between the private company that is to manage the train for the next three decades—Reliance Infrastructure—and its partner, a public body, Delhi Metro Rail, which was responsible for building the structure of the line. Each side blames the other for delays. And though the trains are running, they are yet unable to travel particularly fast; two intermediate stations are not complete; and a promised city check-in service for luggage is not yet working.
Such teething problems will no doubt be worked out, though it is unclear when. But the animosity between the private and public partners is discouraging. India’s government talks of spending $1 trillion over the next decade or so to improve infrastructure around the country, from ports and roads to railway lines and power generation. Although private actors have sharply improved some aspects of Indian infrastructure in recent years—by running airlines and airports, as well as mobile telephone services, for example—in many parts of the country public-private co-operation is hardly moving at all.
The central government would like private concerns to provide capital for big projects, rather than just serve as contractors for official plans. But private firms are often slow to do so, having yet to be convinced that they will see quick, or even sufficient, returns. Firms also lament that even public bodies have trouble securing land rights for big projects.
Nonetheless, Delhi’s new train and metro are welcome examples of an Indian city that has succeeded in thinking creatively about how to ease dreadful congestion. Other booming cities, notably Mumbai and Hyderabad, are now reaching out to private actors to help build city rail networks, just as many states have handed over airport construction and operation to firms. The only hope of spending $1 trillion on infrastructure in an effective way is to get more private partners involved. Delhi’s airport express got off to an imperfect start. But better late than never.
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When luck ran out
Feb 22nd 2011, 12:53 by C.H.
AT 12:51pm local time an earthquake shattered Christchurch, killing at least 65 people in New Zealand’s second-largest city. With many more of its 380,000 residents reported to be trapped or missing, that toll is sure to rise. John Key, the prime minister, rushed to the city and soon judged that this might rank as his country’s “darkest day”.
As a rule, events in New Zealand tend not to trouble the international news pages. That has changed lately, with a run of horror stories from the country’s South Island. First came an earthquake that struck Christchurch last September. Despite extensive damage, no deaths resulted. There were no such miracles left in November, when an explosion at an underground coal mine across the Southern Alps from Christchurch killed 29 men. On February 22nd, Christchurch’s luck ran out.
Although the latest tremor was technically less severe than September’s (6.3 magnitude as opposed to 7.1 then) it was also shallower (5km rather than 10km), with an epicentre less than 10km away from the city centre—last time it had been 30km away. The timing also had a terrible effect: September’s quake occurred in the early morning on a weekend, but this time round the streets were bustling with lunchtime workers, shoppers, tourists and schoolchildren.
New Zealand is better equipped to cope with such a blow than is any poor country—Haiti, for instance. Even so this time the material damage, let alone the human cost, is massive. Older, colonial-era buildings in the most “English” of New Zealand’s cities had borne the brunt of September’s earthquake. With the city’s infrastructure weakened then, and during the run of aftershocks since, many of its newer buildings toppled this time—as did the spire of Christchurch’s iconic Anglican cathedral. The quake was felt far afield, including in the Southern Alps, where great chunks of a glacier fell. Damage at the port of Lyttleton was severe.
In Christchurch proper the mayor, Bob Parker, declared a state of emergency, and the airport has closed to all but relief flights. One-third of the city was reported to be without electricity, with widespread damage to roads, water, sewage and gas infrastructure. Emergency services, though quick to react, were swamped by the scale of the damage. A relief centre in the city’s Hagley Park was soon filled to capacity.
Overnight, as rain started falling, extra personnel, including military, were heading for Christchurch, while a team of search-and-rescue specialists were crossing the Tasman Sea from Australia. The city’s ability to cope with the Rugby World Cup, likely to be New Zealand’s largest-ever international event, in September and October, is now under question; hotels have been hard hit and the main stadium is being assessed for damage.
New Zealand’s dollar and stockmarket both slumped on the news, and in Wellington, the capital, an emergency cabinet meeting approved special measures to meet the cost of the aftermath. Mr Key’s conservative coalition government faces an election scheduled for November 26th. Last year the government and Mr Key in particular won praise for their handling of 2010’s disasters, and their poll rankings have remained strong. But the economic cost of this latest disaster, coming on top of last year’s bill—estimated to be NZ$3.5 billion by New Zealand’s Earthquake Commission—is sure to sting. New Zealanders are already coping with climbing cost-of-living and unemployment rates. The government’s political fortunes, already hit by the recession, might hinge on this disaster’s long-term effect on Kiwis’ finances.
Today’s earthquake has once again underlined New Zealand’s treacherous seismic conditions. Positioned at the southern end of the Pacific Ocean’s “ring of fire” and at the convergence of the Indo-Australian and Pacific plates, its islands are no strangers to the odd tectonic jolt. But its quakes, however frequent, are usually quite small. And the sparseness of the country’s human population, at just 4m, has meant that severe damage and loss of life are rare. Till now, no quake had killed many people since 1931. The severity of the September quake, along a fault line previously unknown to seismologists, had been a shock. Worse still could yet come to Christchurch, as aftershocks—one of them already measured 5.0—harass and terrify its survivors. 
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Catching a whiff of jasmine in Kashgar
Feb 20th 2011, 16:30 by J.M. | KASHGAR
TWO fire engines stood parked by the road leading past Kashgar's main mosque. They were clearly not deployed to fight any fires. Atop one sat a helmeted officer behind a shield. The nozzle of the vehicle's water hose pointed to the junction where an alley leads into the maze-like old city of this ancient oasis town. An officer in camouflage uniform sat on the other vehicle. In a nearby government compound, several more security personnel could be seen wearing helmets and carrying shields, standing next to a line of armoured vehicles. They had not been there the day before.
Kashgar is no stranger to security measures. It belongs to a part of China's Xinjiang region that is periodically racked by separatist incidents, sometimes violent, involving members of the ethnic Uighur community.  It has been particularly edgy in the past two or three years. An outbreak of deadly clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese in 2009 in Urumqi, the provincial capital, has left the authorities uneasy.
But today the government perhaps had reason to be a little more jittery than usual. Calls had been circulating on the internet for Chinese to gather in central areas of 13 major cities (none in Xinjiang were named) on February 20th to stage a "jasmine revolution"—in reference to the upheavals that have are convulsing the Arab world. An unsourced posting to an American-based Chinese website, Boxun.com (in Chinese, and currently under a DDOS-style attack) seems to have started the flurry. Chinese authorities quickly moved to suppress it by blocking posts on microblogs that contain the word “jasmine”. They stepped up surveillance of several activists and deployed large numbers of police near central Beijing, apparently to pre-empt any protests.
Banyan’s latest column discusses why China does not, in fact, appear to be on the brink of a pro-democracy upheaval. In Xinjiang however the authorities might worry that Muslim Uighurs can identify more readily with their democracy-seeking co-religionists in the Middle East and Africa. Many of Kashgar's Uighurs do have much to complain about, from discrimination to unemployment to a makeover of their old city which has forced thousands of them from their homes into soulless new apartment buildings. Soon after my arrival on February 18th I noticed I was being followed by a black Volkswagen. It remained on my tail until I left the city 48 hours later. When I proceeded on foot, one of its occupants would get out of his car to lurk behind me. Kashgar's police have a reputation for intimidating foreign correspondents in this way.
They probably have little to fear, however, from any popular uprising in support of democracy. Xinjiang's troubles tend to be related to ethnic tensions rather than democratic yearnings (though some activists might hope that ending rule by the Han-dominated Communist Party might pave the way for democracy). In Urumqi, tensions between the communities have become so ingrained in the aftermath of the rioting in 2009 that it is hard to imagine Hans and Uighurs marching together to call for political reform. Security is far less visible than it was then, but squads of black-clad riot police, some with batons and others with rifles, can still sometimes be seen in the streets.
Xinjiang does have at least one strong connection with recent events in Egypt, however. It was here that Chinese authorities pioneered the technique of shutting off the internet and mobile-phone messaging systems as way of controlling unrest. Five days cut off from the internet was not enough to stymie the masses arrayed against Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Xinjiang was subject to similar restrictions for months in the wake of its riots. This created at least some sense of common cause between Uighurs and Hans. Members of both communities complain that business was badly disrupted by the blackout.
(Picture credit: AFP)
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Exporting yoga
Feb 17th 2011, 13:11 by S.C. | HONG KONG
WHEN I lived in Delhi I would make an occasional pilgrimage to the city’s fascinating INA market. The initials stand for Indian National Army, but that’s no clue to what’s inside. The market is famous for catering to the culinary cravings of homesick expatriates and rootless cosmopolitans. The moment I arrived, I would be shadowed by a helpful man carrying a wicker basket, which I would quickly fill with bok choy, lemongrass and other alien ingredients on offer from the maze of stalls.
The green-tea soba noodles and miso paste I bought there represent two small contributions to the $6.7 billion of goods that India imported from Japan in the fiscal year ending March 31st 2010. That figure should grow thanks to the trade-and-investment deal the two countries signed on February 16th. Anand Sharma, India’s commerce minister, says that imports and exports combined might reach $25 billion by 2014.
Let’s hope so. INA market aside, trade between Asia’s second- and third-biggest economies is a disappointment. India accounts for only 1.2% of Japan’s exports and 0.8% of its imports, according to the country’s Ministry of Finance. Japan sells more to Mexico and buys more from Vietnam. As Geethanjali Nataraj of the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) points out, India’s exports to Japan are confined mostly to minerals (such as iron ore), agricultural products, pearls, precious stones and imitation jewellery. Japan is also the biggest importer of Indian shrimp.
What else does India have that Japan might want? Delhi’s INA market provides a hint. Alongside the expatriates, the market attracts Delhi’s Malayalam-speaking population from the southern state of Kerala, who are fond of the flaky, layered Malabar parathas kneaded, tossed and fried at the market’s food-stalls. The INA market is also where they buy their nurses' uniforms before travelling to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Gulf, which rely on Indian migrants, many of them from Kerala, to do a lot of the work.
India has lots of labour to export. Its workforce may swell by 110m people by 2020, according to a projection by Goldman Sachs. Japan’s labour force will shrink by 3.5m over the same period, according to the ILO. Here surely there is an opportunity for mutually beneficial exchange.
The India-Japan trade deal makes a nod in this direction by placing an unusual emphasis on services. The agreement will allow Indian accountants, engineers and management consultants to ply their trade in Japan. It also opens the door to Indian dancers, tabla players and yoga teachers to pass on their art to Japanese students. Nurses, too, may join them after the two countries conclude a “social-security” agreement over the next three years. When that happens, I’m sure the INA shopkeepers will be quick to offer Japanese-style scrubs alongside the cold-rinse noodles.
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A glacial turn
Feb 17th 2011, 11:58 by T.Y. | TOKYO
TURNING around a massive whaling ship is difficult. For Japan to change course on its whaling policy is harder still. The first part however was achieved on February 18th when Japan's agriculture minister, Michihiko Kano, said that this year’s Antarctic whale hunt would be called off a few weeks early. The Nisshin Maru, a towering whaling vessel, had already suspended its activities; now it and the entire fleet are returning home. 
Having left Japan in December, the Nisshin Maru had not been able to harpoon a single whale since February 10th. According to the Kyodo news agency it had caught only 170 minke whales out of a planned 850, and only two fin whales, of a planned 50. The hunt was cancelled in order to protect the crew from "continuous obstruction" from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an anti-whaling group, said Yukio Edano, Japan's chief of cabinet. Yet the squabble on the high seas is less violent than last year, when a Sea Shepherd vessel collided with the Nisshin Maru, broke in two, and sank. This year's early end to the hunt is without precedent.
In contrast to foreigners' tolerance of sushi—many people in many countries still gobble tuna despite it being endangered—the same communities condemn Japan for whaling, even though the most serious conservation worries have subsided. Almost every other country has quit it, but Japan continues whaling for a myriad reasons, including national pride and anxieties about tradition and sovereignty. These are the same reasons that Japan maintains its dolphin hunts in the face of international criticism—an issue made notorious by the Academy Award-winning documentary "The Cove", which secretly filmed a particularly bloody annual catch in a small Japanese fishing village. Several of the Japanese cinemas that were bold enough to show the film ended up cancelling screenings in the face of protests. 
Although the Japanese public is disturbed by Sea Shepherd’s reckless antics and the negative cinematic portrayal of their countrymen, changing course on whaling and dolphins wouldn't affect most people's lives. Once a typical item on school lunch menus, whale meat is now a rarity on the nation's tables. Dolphin meat is uncommon too.
Ending the hunt early may open the possibility for a political compromise over what is a thorny, global cultural disagreement. Sea Shepherd’s harassment has managed to limit the catch to a fraction of what the Japanese fleet had hoped for. Expectations are now mounting in the anti-whaling community that the Nisshin Maru’s early withdrawal could be the start of a permanent end to Japanese whaling. 
Yet the government does not have a strong incentive to give up whaling altogether. On the contrary, after responding only meekly to the numerous perceived affronts on Japan's territorial sovereignty in recent months, the last thing government wants is anything that could be seen as another diplomatic climb-down. 
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The terrible two
Feb 16th 2011, 11:26 by H.T. and D.T. | SEOUL
DESPITE a concerted international effort since the start of the year to soothe heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula, the South Korean government is bracing for a different type of aggravation from Pyongyang: terrorism, perhaps. Nothing is certain, of course. But if these fears were to be justified, it would reopen one of the darkest chapters in the fratricidal north-south relationship since the 1950-53 Korean war.
Kim Tae-hyo, President Lee Myung-bak’s advisor for national security strategy, told The Economist on February 15th that Mr Lee’s determination to launch a disproportionately strong response in the event of another North Korean attack (like the one on Yeongpyeong island in November) was no empty threat. “This is the best way to keep the peace and avoid war,” he said.
“I believe North Korea has already caught South Korea’s message and because of this it will not choose to make any aggression in the daytime or in the open space that everyone knows the source of. South Korea is looking at many other possibilities, such as terrorism and other kinds of provocations, other than military means,” he said. Elsewhere in the government people speculate that such shadowy threats could include assassinations or the use of biological warfare. “We need a lot of imagination,” Mr Kim says darkly.
The tone in Seoul, when it comes discussing the dangers from North Korea, remains strikingly hawkish, not least because many fear that the succession between Kim Jong Il and his son and heir, Kim Jong Un, is not yet consolidated. The youngster may need to perform more acts of belligerence to shore up his credibility in the eyes of the trigger-happy army. What’s more, higher food prices may make the internal situation in the penniless North even more fragile, not least if China has to go easy on the handouts it provides to its allies in Pyongyang in order to preserve its own foodstocks
It was no comfort that North Korea pulled out of military-to-military talks with the south on February 9th , even though, as one official put it,  weeks before it had been engaged in “peace offensives” with all-and-sundry. The stumbling point was North Korea’s refusal to discuss the sinking last March of the Cheonan, which South Korea and many of its allies blame on the North. It is not surprising Pyongyang finds that a big hurdle, because it denies torpedoing the Cheonan. But it can hardly have expected South Korea, which lost 46 men as a result of its sinking, to shrug it off.
Some are hoping that the North will return to military-to-military talks after South Korea and the United States hold 11 days of joint military operations due to start on February 28th. But if not, South Korea will be on heightened alert. If it is terrorism they are worried about, North Korea has form. In 1987 a Korean Air flight from Baghdad to Seoul was bombed by two agents apparently acting on orders from “Dear Leader” Kim, with a resulting loss of 115 lives. In 1983 North Korean agents attempted to assassinate South Korea's then-president while he was visiting Myanmar. (They missed their mark, but killed 21 other people and lost the hermit kingdom its welcome in Myanmar.) Since those dark days the threat seemed to recede and in 2008 George Bush’s administration removed North Korea from Washington’s list of states reckoned to sponsor terrorism. These new rumblings from Seoul would seem to push in a different direction.
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Putting "shit" in context
Feb 15th 2011, 16:27 by R.M. | SYDNEY
WHEN a television reporter confronted him on February 8th over a remark about the death of an Australian soldier in Afghanistan, Tony Abbott, Australia’s opposition leader, fell strangely silent. Channel Seven, a commercial network, had used freedom-of-information laws to obtain footage from defence authorities. It showed Mr Abbott being briefed in Afghanistan last October about Lance-Corporal Jared MacKinney, who died in battle with the Taliban the previous month. On hearing the story, Mr Abbott told Colonel James Creighton, the American commander of the Australian troops: “It’s pretty obvious that, well, sometimes shit happens, doesn’t it?”
Mr Abbott is one of Australia’s most combative political figures. When he was initially confronted with this footage, he accused the reporter, Mark Riley, of taking his remark out of context. Pressed to explain himself further, Mr Abbott seemed flustered. He stared Mr Riley down, nodded his head agitatedly and said nothing for about 20 seconds—then abruptly ended the interview. This “Abbott moment” has come to seem like a greater liability for him than anything he actually said in Afghanistan. Channel Seven’s portrayal of the video in its news broadcast has provoked a rage of its own: were they to have shown the full context of Mr Abbott’s briefing indeed he would not have seemed so insensitive about the soldier’s death. But more questions have been raised since about Mr Abbott’s own handling of the affair. For a leader of the conservative Liberal party he shows not only a poor choice of words in Afghanistan, but also a spectacular failure to explain himself on television to voters at home.
The “shit happens” affair coincided with the start of Australia’s parliamentary year. Soon afterwards, there were leaks about disunity in Mr Abbott’s political ranks, over his proposals to cut spending on reconstruction work after the recent flood and cyclone damage in Queensland. Mr Abbott opposes a plan put forward by Julia Gillard, the prime minister, to raise a special levy from taxpayers to pay for the damage. He prefers to cut aid that would help Indonesia build more government schools as alternatives to extremist Islamic schools, among other programmes.
Then came an even more damaging leak. On February 17th the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Scott Morrison, the opposition’s spokesman on immigration, had urged his colleagues to exploit voters’ anxieties about “Muslim immigration”. Mr Abbott tried to brush off the report but the inevitable controversy has further divided his parliamentarians. This coincides with the government’s decision to define multiculturalism as a centrepiece of immigration policy.
All this has helped to give Ms Gillard her best week yet since scraping to power last August at the head of a minority Labor government. She tends to perform her best with parliament in session; its resumption comes with good timing for her. And on February 13th, she secured agreement from Australia’s state governments for a revamped plan to reform hospital funding. But an opinion poll released the next day suggested she is still struggling to restore voters’ confidence in the government. Labor’s first vote was a perilous 32%. After distribution of second votes, Labor trailed the opposition by 8%.
Labor’s poor showing federally might in part reflect the party’s crisis in New South Wales, the most populous state. After 16 years in power, a deeply unpopular Labor government there faces an election on March 26th; opinion polls suggest the opposition Liberals will sweep it from office. But the fortunes of the two national leaders slightly muddy the federal polls further. Australians have not really warmed to either Ms Gillard or Mr Abbott. Though she is hardly beloved, Ms Gillard still holds a 10-point lead as preferred prime minister and the number of voters who disapprove of Mr Abbott’s performance as opposition leader outstrips those who approve.
The gap is widest (46% to 38%) in a poll by Essential Media Communications, a research company. Peter Lewis, a director at Essential Media, reckons this bodes badly for Mr Abbott’s survival as Liberal leader. Mr Abbott, he says, is entering “the political twilight zone of disapproval from which some never return”. With his Afghanistan remark, Mr Abbott has at least managed to end the taboo on using a certain expletive in Australian broadsheets’ headlines. Despite his side’s healthy polling numbers he has much work ahead to avoid shit’s happening to him.
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The land that maps forgot
Feb 15th 2011, 16:06 by T.J. | COOCH BEHAR
(Click here for an enlarged view of the map, courtesy Jan S. Krogh)
THOSE of us who keep an eye out for anomalies in the world’s maps have long held a fond regard for what might be called Greater Bengal. A crazed array of boundaries cuts Bangladesh out of the cloth of easternmost India, before slicing up the surrounding Himalayan area and India’s north-east into most of a dozen jagged mini-states. But the crème de la crème, for a student of bizarre geography, is to be found floating along the northern edge of Bangladesh’s border with India.
EVER since Bangladesh achieved its independence in 1971, struggles over territory and terrorism, rather than the exchange of goods and goodwill, have dominated its relations with its mega-neighbour. Forty years on, both countries appear to be nearing an agreement to solve the insoluble—by swapping territory.
The planned exchange of parcels of each other’s territory is concentrated around some 200 enclaves. These are like islands of Indian and Bangladeshi territory surrounded completely by the other country’s land, clustered on either side of Bangladesh’s border with the district of Cooch Behar, in the Indian state of West Bengal. Surreally, these include about two dozen counter-enclaves (enclaves within enclaves), as well as the world’s only counter-counter enclave—a patch of Bangladesh that is surrounded by Indian territory…itself surrounded by Bangladeshi territory.
Folklore has it that this quiltwork of enclaves is the result of a series of chess games between the Maharaja of Cooch Behar and the Faujdar of Rangpur. The noblemen wagered on their games, using villages as currency. Even in the more sober account, represented by Brendan R. Whyte, an academic, the enclaves are the “result of peace treaties in 1711 and 1713 between the kingdom of Cooch Behar and the Mughal empire, ending a long series of wars in which the Mughals wrested several districts from Cooch Behar.”
That was before the days of East India Company rule, before the British Raj and long before the independence of South Asia’s modern republics. These places have been left as they were found by both India and Bangladesh: in a nearly stateless state of abandonment. They are today pockets of abject poverty with little or nothing in the way of public services.
In a 2004 paper titled “An historical and documentary study of the Cooch Behar enclaves of India and Bangladesh”, Mr Whyte, in reference to the intractability of the boundary issues at partition, asks whether India is still “waiting for the Eskimo”.
When in 1947 Mr Feroz Khan Noon suggested that Sir Cyril Radcliffe should not visit Lahore for he was sure to be misunderstood either by the Muslims or the Sikhs, The Statesman wrote: “On this line of argument, he [Sir Cyril] would do better to remain in London, or better still, take up residence in Alaska. Perhaps however there would be no objection to his surveying the boundaries of the Punjab from the air if piloted by an Esqimo”.
Apparently the newspaper thought that anyone’s sorting this border dispute anytime soon was highly improbable. Sir Cyril’s success seemed as implausible—in those waning days of the British empire—as the notion of an Inuit flying an aeroplane. Most of a century later and a flying “Esqimo” seems like no big deal, while progress on the zany borders of Cooch Behar has made no progress at all.
There is now talk that a land swap might be sealed when India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh visits Bangladesh later this year. If it goes ahead, India stands to lose just over 4,000 hectares of its territory, or about 40 square kilometres. It has 111 enclaves of land within Bangladesh—nearly 70 square kilometres. Bangladesh has 51 enclaves of its own, comprising 28 square kilometres surrounded by India. The transfer proposed would simplify the messy boundary immeasurably—and entail something like a 10,000-acre net loss for India.
For India’s governing Congress party, making a gift of land to Bangladesh—in all an area equivalent to the size of 2,000 test-cricket stadiums—will not come easy. During a time of ideological waffle, it is an issue which India’s opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can use to flaunt its nationalistic (oftentimes pro-Hindu, ie anti-Muslim) credentials and to attack Congress at a weak spot—its perceived softness towards illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, most of them Muslims. By many estimates, more than 15m illegal migrants have entered India from Bangladesh since 1971. The BJP has been trotting out the round figure of 20m for years.
Meanwhile, construction of a border fence, 2.5m high, on India’s 4,100km border with Bangladesh, the world’s fifth-longest (due to all its zigging and zagging), continues unabated. It is a bloody border, too. Indian soldiers enforce a shoot-to-kill order against Bangladeshi migrants caught making their mundane way from one side of the line to the other.
But what’s in it for India? Its broader desire to clarify its fuzzy borders with all its neighbours provides one attraction. The dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir has eluded resolution. China’s claim of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh remains an open sore. Drawing one steady borderline in the east looks comparatively easy.
India must also hope that its generous co-operation in the territorial dispute might help Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, secure popular Bangladeshi support for a rapprochement with India. Her Awami League (AL) government has proven itself a willing partner: working to deny Bangladeshi territory to the insurgent groups who challenge Indian sovereignty in its north-eastern states; and cracking down Bangladesh’s homegrown Islamic-extremist fringe. But as many of Sheikh Hasina’s fellow citizens see things, India has yet to reciprocate following their government’s consent last year to allow India to use Bangladesh’s ports and roads. The main opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), whose leader likes to say that no foreign vehicles should be allowed to use Bangladesh’s territory, scents blood.
Indian diplomats know this. A diplomatic cable from the American embassy, leaked to the world by WikiLeaks, summarises discussions held in 2009 between India’s then High Commissioner to Bangladesh and the American ambassador. India, the Americans thought, would like to establish a bilateral agreement with Bangladesh on counterterrorism, but was impeded by its understanding “that Bangladesh might insist on a regional task force to provide Hasina political cover from allegations she was too close to India”.
Such international intriguing tends to ignore the people who actually in the enclaves—150,000 by some estimates—who are left waiting. Their chief grievance is a complete lack of public services: with no education, infrastructure for water, electricity etc, they may as well not be citizens of any country. NGOs are barred from working in the enclaves. The question of their citizenship is a major obstacle in resolving the problem: referendums are out of the question, as India does not want to create a precedent which could inspire Kashmiris or north-easterners fighting for independent statehood.
The people who actually live in enclaves (and counter-enclaves) in a certain sense “don't see” the borders. They speak the same language, eat the same food and live life without regard to the politicians in Dhaka, Kolkata and Delhi. Many of them cross the border regularly (the bribe is US$6 a trip from the Bangladeshi side).
A few years ago, away from Cooch Behar, on the eastern border with India, I met a man who lived smack on the border between Tripura state and Bangladesh. His living room was in Bangladesh, his toilet in India. He had been a local politician in India, and was now working as a farmer in Bangladesh. As is typical in such places, he sent his daughters to school in Bangladesh, and his sons to India, where schools, he thought, were much better. To his mind, the fence dividing the two countries was of little value. But, he conceded, “at least my cows don’t run away anymore.”
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Into the graveyard of envoys
Feb 15th 2011, 15:53 by A.R. | DELHI
WHAT is the point of having a special envoy to both Afghanistan and Pakistan? The White House is poised to say that Marc Grossman, a career diplomat with a solid background in Europe but limited experience of South Asia, will fill the shoes of Richard Holbrooke, its former “Af-Pak” emissary. Mr Holbrooke died of a heart attack two months ago. Finding a replacement has been difficult.
More senior figures—Strobe Talbott and others who were rumoured to have turned down the post—may have concluded that the task of the envoy was a thankless one. Mr Holbrooke spent relatively little time in Afghanistan or Pakistan and did not achieve much: he struggled to get to the region once every couple of months, according to Rory Stewart, a British MP with an interest in Afghanistan. His main job seemed to be to persuade congressmen and others back in Washington to take note of Af-Pak.

Mr Grossman’s most prominent previous post was as ambassador to Turkey. He did also serve as a junior diplomat in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. An idealist, in a paper for diplomats published in October he wrote of the need for America to promote democracy and “fundamental values such as the sanctity of the individual”. Such thinking will be challenged in Pakistan—for example over its illiberal blasphemy law which is used by extremists to intimidate and threaten moderates and free-thinkers. A quirky proposal Mr Grossman made last year, in a report for the German Marshall Fund, that Afghanistan should produce crops for biofuels rather than opium, drew little response from policymakers.

It seems he will have limited clout. The charismatic Mr Holbrooke often rubbed people the wrong way, not least his Af-Pak protagonists, starting with Mr Karzai. The loose-lipped American general, Stanley McChrystal, put it memorably, “Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke. I don’t even want to open it.” But Mr Holbrooke's experience in the Balkans, pulling off the Dayton agreement, and his close ties to senior Democratic figures showed he had the ear of America’s leaders. By contrast it is not clear what the retired diplomat, Mr Grossman, will add to the current, and not obviously effective, American ambassadors now serving in Kabul and Islamabad. Officials in the region may treat him sceptically.
America’s relations with Pakistan are poor and not only because an American, Raymond Davis, who is attached to the embassy, shot dead two Pakistanis in the street in January. Anti-Americanism in the country is high, despite America's generous provision of both civilian and military aid. American officials from the Pentagon and the CIA at least have established and close relations with Pakistan’s army, notably the ISI, the military intelligence outfit. The billions of dollars that America devotes to Pakistan’s army each year ensure that such visitors get a hearing on visits to the country. Mr Grossman, by contrast, would have few resources to lavish or withhold. He also risks being outshone by more prominent occasional envoys, such as John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and already a semi-frequent visitor to Pakistan. Mr Kerry was due in the country on February 15th.

Across the border in Afghanistan, American relations with Hamid Karzai’s government are hardly any better. Various diplomatic cables, published last year by WikiLeaks, showed American diplomats’ exasperation with the Afghan president. A special envoy to the region may be able to bring a perspective of Pakistan’s interests to Afghanistan, or to help judge how much Pakistan’s government is really prepared to patch up its tattered relations with Mr Karzai. Mr Grossman at least has the advantage of representing a fresh start for American diplomacy. His first task, however, will be convincing his interlocutors that he can make an impression.
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Inflation revisionism
Feb 15th 2011, 6:40 by S.C. | HONG KONG
CHAIRMAN MAO used to rail against the evils of revisionism. But statisticians unlike ideologues like to review, update and tinker with their past pronouncements. So it is that China's National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) today published a revised set of inflation figures, dating back to the beginning of last year. The number that grabbed the most attention was the latest one, showing that consumer prices rose by 4.9% in the year to January. Most China-watchers were expecting a figure well over 5%.
Investors seem pleased that inflation was lower than feared. But some analysts took a more Maoist attitude to the revised figures. One broker told Bloomberg that the National Bureau's tinkering "suggests a fudging of the numbers". 
What has the NBS done, exactly? Like all inflation measures, its index reflects the cost of a basket of goods. The NBS must decide what to put in the basket and what weight to give each goodie. Their choices should change as consumer habits evolve. For the new series, the NBS has increased the weight of housing (by 4.22 percentage points) and cut the weight of food (by 2.2 points). It has also made a number of smaller tweaks: cigarettes and alcohol, for example, apparently now figure less prominently in the spending of abstemious Chinese. Although the NBS is happy to reveal how the weights are changing, it is not yet ready to say what the weights actually are. But HSBC's Qu Hongbin and Sun Junwei have hazarded a guess (see the table below). 
What difference do the new weights make? Not a lot, according to the NBS. They say that if they'd calculated January's inflation figure using the old weights, it would have come out even lower: at 4.918%, rather than 4.942% (see chart below). Nothing much for the anti-revisionists to denounce, then?
Maybe. But the weights weren't the only things the NBS changed. According to a comrade interviewed on the NBS's website, the bureau also updated the products themselves, dropping some anachronistic goods and including some more modern conveniences. Moreover, within any broad category such as "food", the relative weights of subcategories, such as grain and meat, may also have changed, according to Yu Song and Helen Qiao of Goldman Sachs.
Does that amount to "fudging the numbers"? Not necessarily. A reweighting of the index was due—China carries out a big one every five years. It is not as if the bureau picked this moment to reweight the index just because inflation was uncomfortably high. Moreover, I'm not sure anything is gained by understating the official figures. The broader public doesn't follow them closely enough to worry about the difference between an official figure of 4.9% and one over 5%. They only know that the price of vegetables in the market is rising too fast. 
Yu Song and Helen Qiao in particular are not saying the revisions produced a less accurate figure, only that they may have produced a lower one. But until the NBS tells us how it fills its basket, it's hard to say for sure. 
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Going, going, dong
Feb 14th 2011, 10:08 by R.C. | JAKARTA
IT’S only been a few weeks since the Vietnamese Communist Party’s 11th Congress declared that everything was fine and dandy with the rapidly developing nation—yet on Friday February 11th came yet another devaluation of the currency, signalling that the economic outlook is indeed as precarious as many of us had feared.
Not only was it the fourth devaluation since late 2009 (and the sixth since the summer of 2008), but it was a big one: a full 8.5%. This means that the incredibly shrinking dong is now worth only 20,693 to the American dollar, down from 18,932. How envious the Irish and Greeks must be—this used to be the good old-fashioned way to dodge doing anything serious about a misfiring economy, before the pesky euro came along.
Doubtless the latest devaluation will help the Vietnamese economy in the short term. It always does, by making exports cheaper and thus easier to sell abroad. But the devaluation will do nothing to resolve the deeper and relatively intractable problem of the Vietnamese economy, namely that pent-up consumer demand is sucking in imports (which will now be more expensive), while the country doesn’t make enough things of high-enough value for total exports to cover the increase. The result is a huge trade deficit, $12.4 billion last year.
Investors also fret about high and rising inflation (12.2% for January year-on-year) and precariously low currency reserves. All this adds to the pressure on the dong, with more and more Vietnamese selling the currency in favour of keeping gold and dollars at home.
These are all symptoms of an overheating economy. Yet to judge by the leadership’s pronouncements at the party congress, it is still fixated on meeting high targets for growth rather than pausing for breath and balancing the books. 
None of this impresses bankers and outside investors very much. Vietnam has been a poster-child of South-East Asian development over the past decade. I was at a briefing a couple of weeks ago held by one of the big banks and heard their analysts talking up the prospects of Indonesia and the Philippines this year, rather than Vietnam.
In its latest newsletter one of the more bullish investors in Vietnam, Dragon Capital, tries to cheer us up a bit by professing to detect a “twist” in the devaluation, finding that “the new rate has actually prevailed in business transactions for the past 4 months…so the devaluation will not have a very drastic impact on macro outcomes”. Somehow, I don’t find that very reassuring. What’s the new, new rate now I wonder?
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Green Leaf sprouts from plant
Feb 12th 2011, 10:23 by K.N.C. | OPPAMA
A SPY ring, perhaps answering to China, may have stolen confidential files on the business model of Nissan's new electric car, the Leaf. Or so says the carmaker's boss, Carlos Ghosn. But The Economist has been allowed a peek at the technology under the hood—literally. We recently visited the factory, an hour outside of central Tokyo, where the eco-friendly cars are being built.
The Oppama factory employs around 2,100 workers. The workers’ average age is 42 and each of them has worked there, on average, for 22 years. About two-thirds of the workers are classic, full-benefit company employees who have been trained carefully and now enjoy perks, while the rest are part-time or contract employees, mostly in non-manufacturing, support-staff roles. The carmaker’s practice of maintaining skilled employees—so unlike electronics manufacturers, who tend to hire temps—helps explain one of the Leaf's most interesting, behind-the-scene features: it is somehow bolted together on the same assembly line as three other Nissan models, cars with conventional, internal-combustion engines.
The right parts are delivered to each production stage with the co-ordination of sophisticated computer technology. Yet it is the skill of these seasoned workers that enabled Nissan to add the Leaf to the existing line. Electric vehicles (EVs) have far fewer parts, and many stages in the process of their assembly are entirely different. So the line workers need to work differently. Battery bays are spread along the chassis and beneath seats; the small motor is popped gently under the bonnet at the same time as seat-belts are attached.
That said, adding a very different type of vehicle to an existing assembly line may be one of the reasons for the slow ramp up of Leaf deliveries. Nissan plans to make 50,000 Leafs (“Leaves”?) in Japan this year, and to start production at other factories in Europe and America. More than 20,000 American customers are stuck on a waiting list: Nissan shipped barely 100 Leafs in December and January combined. This hasn't stopped it from posting ruddy results. This week Nissan reported that sales grew 19%, to ¥6.4 trillion ($74 billion), over the past nine months and that its operating profit almost doubled, to ¥448 billion.
The Leaf's core technology, the battery, is handled by Nissan alone. Sales in Japan have been fuelled by a generous government subsidy on green cars, which in effect lowers the price from ¥3.6m to ¥3m (around $35,000). When that buyer’s incentive expires later this year, the car may have a tougher time competing domestically.
The best part of such factory visits? Not the sights but the sounds. In the accompanying video, be sure to listen to the fantastic industrial cacophony of metal-bashing carmaking, accented by the high-pitched digital melody of the automatic trolleys that deliver parts to the line.

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Please don't slam the door
Feb 9th 2011, 14:53 by D.T. | SEOUL
THE cordiality seemed good while it lasted. Following the deadly Cheonan and Yeonpyeong island incidents of the past year, the fact that army officers from both North and South Korea were able to shake hands and sit down to discuss preliminary details to do with top-level military talks looked like a major improvement. But that was yesterday. Today the North’s delegation walked out of the meeting room at Panmunjom, the “truce village” in which an armistice was signed in 1953, bringing the Korean War to a halt (or at least a very long pause).
South Korea has been demanding an apology from the North for both of those 2010 attacks, or at the very least for a show of “sincerity”. It had been believed that the Pyongyang delegation, led by Colonel Ri Sun Gyun, would strike a relatively conciliatory tone. But then his actual decision to walk out of a meeting “charged with emotion” (in the words of one South Korean official) is more in line with classic North Korean tactics.
Earlier today, it had been announced by the South that they had agreed in principle to begin discussions on reunions for separated families. Now this decision has been reversed, in light of the developments at Panmunjom. The North tends to be more than happy to discuss reunions, but it is rather less keen to deal with such thorny issues as its recently revealed uranium-enrichment programme.
Though officials from South Korea’s unification ministry say the talks have “collapsed”, it will be a surprise if we do not see Colonel Ri back at the table soon. North Korea, eager as always for aid and recognition, leaps at any opportunity to increase the level of tension and keep its adversaries in Seoul guessing. But ultimately it wants to get back to talking, in the hope of extracting concessions later. China too is thought to be keen for the North to participate in intra-Korean discussions, as a foundation for a later return to six-party talks. At this point though, a dignified silence from the South would be a better move.
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An aye for sanctions
Feb 8th 2011, 16:09 by R.C. | JAKARTA
EVER since national elections in early November and then the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the pro-democracy opposition, from something close to 20 years' in detention, Myanmar-watchers have been waiting with bated breath to see which way she and her party would jump on the tricky issue of sanctions. At last, it seems, we have something of an answer.
Maintaining Western countries’ sanctions against Myanmar and its military regime were for many years a rallying cry for human-rights activists and opposition groups. Recently though there have been calls from within that community to reassess the policy in the light of what some see as progress towards greater freedom and democracy—such as the elections, the meeting of a first parliament in 20 years, to say nothing of the release of Ms Suu Kyi herself. The pressure has been mounting. The Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has called several times for sanctions to be lifted. More pertinently perhaps, five of Myanmar’s “ethnic-based” opposition parties recently argued for the same.
On February 7th Miss Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), issued a statement to the effect that—after a lot of consultation and discussion—they have decided that sanctions should stay. At least for the moment. The length of time it took for the NLD to say this reflects the fact that the issue has become a subject of live debate within the party. Nonetheless, the NLD was quite clear about the fact that the progress that others have claimed to see is in fact a sham; the regime, they say, should not be rewarded for doing so very little.
The NLD rebutted the charge that the sanctions serve only to impoverish the ordinary people of Myanmar—the very people that the NLD professes to represent—rather than to penalise the regime. One NLD official, Tin Oo, was quoted as saying that after extensive research the party had found “that sanctions affect only the leaders of the regime and their close business associates, not the majority of the people.” So, that would appear to be that, then.
But not quite, I think. The NLD must be aware that it will have disappointed many policymakers and business interests in the West who have been hoping to return, if only to offer some counterweight to China and Thailand in their accelerating exploitation of Myanmar’s natural resources. Accordingly, the NLD has given itself some wiggle room. Spokesmen say that the party is keen to “listen” to the people who argue that sanctions ought be lifted, and to have more discussions. We haven’t seen the last of this matter.
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Murder in God's name
Feb 8th 2011, 12:47 by R.C. | JAKARTA
INDONESIANS are reeling from one of their country’s most awful incidents of religious violence in years. It happened on February 6th, in a village in Banten, the western end of Java, not far from Jakarta, a district where strictly Islamist parties poll well. Out of keeping with the more usual pattern of Muslim-versus-Christian attacks, this was a mob attack by Muslims against men who claimed to be their own fellows: members of a Islamic sect called the Ahmadiyah.
Three Ahmadis were killed and five seriously injured in a frenzy of violence: footage of the assault was deemed too graphic to be shown on Indonesian TV news, which tends to have a fairly high tolerance for the stuff. Instead the footage is circulating on the internet, if you have the stomach. Indonesians are asking what could have motivated religious people to commit such a barbaric act (“sadistic” is a word being bandied around)—and why the police were so feeble in their attempts to stop it.
Nerves have been frayed further by another spate of religious violence, first reported this morning. Elsewhere in Java a Muslim mob burned down three Christian churches, all the while calling for the death penalty to be brought against a Christian man whom they accused of blaspheming against Islam. They were apparently unsatisfied by the judgment of a court, which had already given him the harshest sentence available (five years in jail) for distributing leaflets that insulted Islam. This sort of mob violence is not rare enough.
But Sunday’s lynching was something on a different scale entirely. These murders were aimed at the sect itself. Ahmadiyah was established in India in 1889; modern Ahmadis believe that their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was a prophet and messiah. This, of course, contradicts orthodox strains of Islam, which all hold that Muhammad was the final prophet.
Non-Ahmadi Muslims have long regarded Ahmadiyah as an apostasy. Its adherents are a persecuted minority almost everywhere they are to be found: the Pakistani Taliban carried out an especially terrible massacre of Ahmadi worshippers in May 2010. There have been attacks on them before in Indonesia, perhaps three in the past decade, but nothing remotely as gruesome as what happened on Sunday. A local group of Ahmadis had gathered at the home of their leader and then refused to disperse, despite complaints made by their neighbours. A 1,500-strong mob then arrived at the house, dragged the people from inside their mosque and fell on them with machetes, knives and sticks.
The sheer savagery of the attack shocked the rest of the country. Many Indonesians also felt let down by the police, not for the first time. The local police had been aware of the threat posed to the Ahmadis, and indeed they asked them to leave, for their own safety. The Ahmadis had replied that is was the police’s job to guarantee their safety, according to the constitution.
The footage of the attack shows that the police’s attempts to stop the mob were half-hearted at best. To critics of Indonesia’s police force, their pitiful effort is further proof of a lack of direction and authority at the top. The president, Susilo Bambang Yudhyono, has dithered in his defence of Ahmadiyah, sometimes suggesting that he might sympathise with its persecutors. As one disappointed adviser to the government told me, yet again the state has proven itself to be weak and ineffective when it comes to upholding laws concerning the freedom of religion.
And all this in Interfaith Harmony Week, launched amid considerable pomp and ceremony at the Jakarta Convention Centre on the very same morning at the attacks. As my government interlocutor admitted, Indonesia still has a way to go to “walk the talk” one hears so often: of a peaceful and tolerant country of many faiths. 
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Sex, torture and videotape
Feb 8th 2011, 6:30 by J.C. | JAKARTA
IT CAN be hard to know what to make of Indonesia these days. On the one hand, it delivered the world’s third-best economic performance during the recent global financial meltdown, and hears itself mentioned in the same breath as China and India among global investors looking for a place to park their spare billions.
But this newfound international recognition—Indonesia recently joined the G20—and the ongoing economic boom seem to be doing nothing for the country’s ongoing democratisation and anti-corruption drives, both of which have stalled in their tracks.
Take me back to never-never land
And then there’s the matter of Indonesia’s old-fashioned moral compass, which is plainly coming unstuck. But there is fierce disagreement about which kind of morals need defending.
On January 31st a district court in Bandung, two hours’ drive from Jakarta, sentenced Nazril “Ariel” Inham, frontman for the pop group Peterpan, to three and a half years in prison for making a series of homemade sex tapes with his celebrity girlfriends. (Shades of Hong Kong’s Edison Chen!) Never mind that the recordings were only released after they were stolen from Ariel’s house near Bandung; they were posted online in June 2010. Under the law that resulted from the Bill on Pornography and Pornaksi, his “pornoaction” was liable for prosecution, regardless of whether or not he was involved in its dissemination. A national sensation ensued, bringing out screaming teenyboppers in support of the defendant and fire-breathing Islamist groups demanding that poor Ariel be lynched. The panel of judges who tried his case ruled that the pop star himself was guilty of “giving other people the opportunity to spread, make and provide pornography.”
The verdict made little sense from a legal perspective, but it makes perfect sense in today’s climate of moralistic iniquity. Attacking pornography has become the easiest way to attract populist sympathy. While Ariel himself didn’t post the (quite popular) sex tapes, the judges appear to have been cowed by radical protestors who vowed to burn down the courthouse if the young lothario was acquitted. It didn’t help that the president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), a no-nonsense retired general, took a personal interest in the case last year, ordering the national police to go after everyone involved. The sex-tapes ruling was only the latest black eye for the country’s judiciary, which in recent months has been caught arranging to acquit defendants charged with corruption in exchange for a share of the spoils. Meanwhile popular musicians, as well as journalists and poor people, are sent to prison. In August 2010 the Supreme Court inexplicably overturned the acquittal of the editor-in-chief of Playboy Indonesia and sentenced him to two years in prison. He was jailed on a charge of indecency, despite the fact that his now-defunct magazine had never published a single nude photo.
Not only is the ongoing morality crackdown at odds with the reformasi movement, which ousted a long-reigning dictator, Suharto, in 1998, but the state officials who are charged with enforcing it have themselves been implicated in profile corruption cases and—yes, even sex scandals. Top prize must go to the senior national police officials, state prosecutors, and judge who were implicated last year in fixing the trial of a rogue taxman, Gayus Tambunan, who bilked the government for $11m by helping big businesses avoid paying taxes. “SuperGayus”, who subsequently became a household name, was retried and sentenced to seven years in January. But not before bribing his way out of police detention on more than 60 separate occasions, taking holidays in Bali, Macau and Malaysia. Two members of SBY’s own cabinet were alleged to have had extramarital affairs, while another lawmaker from the president’s party was accused of rape. All three are still in their jobs.
SBY, who boasted of Indonesia’s democratic and economic gains during a speech before the World Economic Forum in Davos, must have been thanking his lucky stars that the verdict in the “Peterporn” trial came afterwards. Otherwise, he might have been asked to explain an awkward discrepancy to the world’s press. For on January 24th three soldiers from SBY’s beloved armed forces took jail sentences of less than one year each, after being convicted of brutally torturing two Indonesian civilians in the restive province of Papua last year. Their crimes too were caught on video, then leaked and posted online. But then Ariel received a sentence of more than four times that length, for the crime of making sex tapes in his own home. The irony raises a difficult question for the new Indonesia: is sex now considered to be a worse offence than torture?
(Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons)
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Broadsides from broadsheets
Feb 7th 2011, 15:57 by T.Y. and K.N.C. | TOKYO
BLACK minivans loaded with stereo speakers cruised the streets of Tokyo today, blaring nationalistic slogans and 1930s military-parade music: how the far rightists celebrate "Northern Territories Day". To mark the occasion, an official holiday since 1981, the government spent ¥200m to take out about 75 full-page newspaper advertisements today to remind the public about the chain of islands it describes as "occupied" by Russia. The Soviet Union claimed the islands in the slipstream of the second world war (and calls them the Kurils).

The newspaper adverts (for example, this one) depict a cute Japanese girl with a flag of Japan painted on one side of her face and a map of the islands on her other cheek. "I can help with the return of the Northern Territories" reads the headline. In August 1945 some 17,300 Japanese lived there; today 16,300 Russians do, according to the ad. Japanese need visas to visit, it explains.

February 7th makes for an ironic date. It was chosen because on it was on this day in 1855 that Japan and Russia began friendly diplomatic relations, signing a treaty on commerce and navigation. Today’s newspaper ads point readers to an official website filled with photos of government officials and ordinary (or in some cases goofy-looking) citizens present placards that insist on the importance of “the northern territories” being returned to Japan. "We have to raise our voices and show our strong will to demand the return of the territories," a sign implores. Thus the government signals its assent to those jingoistic sound trucks.

The matter has come to seem especially urgent of late. On November 1st President Dmitri Medvedev became the first Russian leader to visit the islands. High-ranking colleagues, including Russia’s defence minister, followed soon after.

Japanese leaders are of two minds or more when it comes to the question of how to proceed, which may help explain their exuberantly toothless newspaper campaign. Yukio Hatoyama, the most recently toppled of Japan’s many former prime ministers and a native of nearby Hokkaido, urges an incremental approach, aimed at the initial retrieval of only two of the four disputed islands. Seiji Maehara, the foreign minister, scoffs at this. He is determined to continue pressing for the return of all four islands—and he will have the opportunity to do so when he makes his first official trip to Russia, on February 10th.
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Remember 1998
Feb 7th 2011, 8:44 by N.O.
AS PRO-DEMOCRACY protests in Egypt enter their third week, and President Hosni Mubarak’s hold on power seems to grow weaker by the day, some pundits are telling us not to celebrate too soon. We’ve been here before, they say, pointing to the Iranian revolution in 1979, when demonstrators toppled an American-supported autocrat only to see his rule replaced by a theocracy, led by the West-baiting Ayatollah Khomeini. True enough. But not all protest movements end badly. Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, offers a more sanguine precedent.
The scenes unfolding on Cairo’s Tahrir Square are not dissimilar from those that occurred in Jakarta in May 1998: thousands of protesters, mostly educated middle-class students, occupied the city’s sprawling parliament complex to demand the resignation of Suharto, who had ruled as a dictator for 32 years—nearly the same period that Mr Mubarak has held power in Egypt. (Before Egypt and Indonesia were brought into the American camp by Sadat and Suharto, they had been two of the four founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement.) Surrounded by soldiers, women in hijab protested side by side with their male classmates, chanting anti-Suharto slogans, denouncing “corruption, collusion and nepotism”, and calling for a full-fledged democracy. The Asian currency crisis had brought the country’s once-booming economy to its knees, and the price of basic goods had rocketed. Indonesians in 1998, like the protesters at Tahrir Square today, had had enough.
Jakarta’s protesters soon got their way: Suharto resisted at first but, when it became apparent that he had lost the support of the army, he stepped aside, surrendering power to his own deputy, B.J. Habibie. A year later, in June 1999, the country held its freest elections in more than 40 years, ushering in a period of far-reaching constitutional reform that has made today’s Indonesia, if not a perfect democracy, then at least one of the Muslim world’s most promising exponents of Western-style liberal governance. So much so, in fact, that American officials often cite the country as an example of tolerance and moderation to be emulated by Arab governments across the Middle East.
It was not so many years ago that America was propping up the staunchly anti-communist Suharto in much the same way that it has backed Mubarak. It certainly found Suharto more palatable than his predecessor, Indonesia’s demagogic founding president Sukarno, who had treated Western commercial interests in his country with about as much respect as did Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president who nationalised the Suez canal.
In the late 1990s Indonesia’s transition from dictatorship to democracy was far from assured. Three decades of repressive authoritarian rule had crippled civil society. Golkar, the political party sponsored by Suharto, had a national reach not matched by either the United Development Party or the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), the two other parties tolerated by his regime as a figleaf for the rubber-stamp parliament. Discounting the discredited Golkar, only two other organisations could claim national support at that time: Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, both of them Muslim mass-membership organisations founded at around the same time as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and running similar social-welfare programmes.
When Indonesians went to the polls in 1999, around 56% of them voted for secular parties, with the PDI’s successor party, the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), emerging as the largest party in parliament, with 33.7% of the vote. The National Awakening Party (PKB), closely affiliated with NU, polled better than any other religious party, but it won only 12.6% of the vote. Eventually the PKB’s founder, Abdurahman Wahid, ended up becoming president—as a result of some messy coalition horse-trading—but then he shared power with the PDI-P and his government oversaw the democratisation of Indonesia.
The parallels between Indonesia in the 1990s and Egypt today could be overstated. And of course Indonesia’s transition to democracy was traumatic: the country’s very existence as a unified nation-state was called into question by the bloody separation of East Timor and by waves of ethnic, religious and separatist killings that swept across Aceh, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Maluku. But, at a time when we are told that Egypt’s protests are destined to be hijacked by fearsome, basiji-type religious extremists, it is worth remembering that there are more inspiring examples of what popular protest can achieve. Indonesia is one of them.
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