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Philippines Insurgency

A month ago, hardly anybody outside the Philippines had ever heard of Marawi. Now it’s the latest front in the war against Islamic State. More evidence, if you needed it, that the terrorism associated with Islamic State will go on long after Mosul and Raqqa have been liberated and “Caliph Ibrahim” (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) has been killed or captured.

“We have actually preempted the establishment of a wilayat (a province of Islamic State),” said Ernesto Abella, the spokesperson of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, which is definitely overstating the case. The response of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) was slow and clumsy, and government policy has been lax and inattentive.

It’s not even clear that the attempt by the Maute group of Islamist fighters to take over Marawi, an unimportant city of 200,000 people in the centre of Mindanao island in the southern Philippines, was actually a bid to create a “wilayat” of Islamic State. It is necessary to control some territory to declare a wilayat, so they had a motive, but this fight started almost accidentally.

The fighting broke out in the city after a failed attempt to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, a leading figure in another, bigger Islamist group called Abu Sayyaf that has also pledged allegiance to Islamic State. Fighters from that outfit and others joined the Maute group that predominates in the Marawi area in a general uprising on 23 May – and the AFP’s reaction was so hesitant that between 400 and 500 fighters were able to take over the city.

The insurgents weren’t numerous enough to hold the whole city once the army got its act together, but for the past month they have controlled between ten and twenty percent of it. The government claims to have killed 280 militants for the loss of 69 AFP soldiers and 29 civilians and promises that it will be over soon, but it has been a profoundly unimpressive performance.

Equally unimpressive has been the performance of the government led by “Rody” Duterte. Like every government before it, it has paid little attention to monitoring the seas around the Philippines, so it is easy for foreign militants to slip into the country.

It has been far worse than any previous government in its disregard for the law: Duterte’s “dirty war” against drugs has involved thousands of extra-judicial killings. It has been a major distraction (and a huge crime, of course), and it has effectively de-professionalised the police. Death squads do not do effective police work.

Above all, Duterte has failed to push for ratification of the 2014 peace agreement with the largest Muslim separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MILF is Islamic but not extreme Islamist, and the agreement granted it considerable autonomy in the area of central Mindanao under its control. However, the legislation to implement the deal stalled in Congress in 2015, and has never been put back on the agenda.

With nothing to show for its attempt to reach a peaceful compromise with the government, the MILF leadership has been unable to stop its more hard-line members from defecting to other, more radical groups that reject the agreement. Most of those groups are associated with Islamic State or at least share its ideology, so the situation in Mindanao is worse than it was when the peace deal was signed.

The siege of Marawi will be over in another week or so: the AFP claims there are only 100 fighters left in the city (although it isn’t very efficient at sealing off the city and stopping other from arriving). The larger problem of radicalisation among discontented and disadvantage Muslims in Mindanao will continue, and may well grow. The only thing that would stop it is good governance, and that is not on offer under Duterte.

It’s an accident of history that this problem even exists. Islam was being spread east across the islands of Indonesia and the Philippines by Malay traders, and there were already several Muslim rulers in the Philippines when the Spanish arrived in 1570. But few of the common people had converted to Islam yet except in Mindanao, and under Spanish rule the rest of the Philippines was converted to Catholicism instead.

No cause for complaint there: history is full of accidents like that. But it is true that successive Filipino governments encouraged the emigration of Christians to Mindanao, and that Muslims have now fallen to 20 percent of the population even in Mindanao. (Nationwide, only 5 percent of the population is Muslim.)

The demand for a “Muslim homeland” in the Muslim-majority parts of Mindanao has been strong for decades, and a sensible Filipino government would have made the necessary compromises long ago. That’s not going to happen under Duterte, but the worst that can happen is an ugly local problem that need not concern the rest of the world.

That is more than can be said for next-door Indonesia, which is 90 percent Muslim and has two-and-a-half times the population of the Philippines. As General Gatot Nurmantyo, Indonesia’s military chief, said last week, there are Islamic State-affiliated sleeper cells “in almost every (Indonesian) province.”
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“It’s an…Muslim”)

What’s Wrong with Southeast Asia?

Thirty years ago most of Southeast Asia was run by thuggish dictatorships. Then the Philippines showed the rest of the world how to get rid of the dictators without violence, and its non-violent example was watched and copied around the world. But now the thugs are coming back where it all started.

The democratic revolution in the Philippines in 1986 was quickly followed by the non-violent overthrow of the generals in Thailand in 1988(though they continued to intervene every few years), and then by the fall of Suharto’s 30-year dictatorship in Indonesia in 1998. By then the example had also spread through the rest of Asia (democratic revolutions in Taiwan and South Korea and even an attempt at one in China).

The democratic wave swept across the rest of the world too: Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in 1989-91, South Africa in 1994, a large number of Latin American and African countries in the past quarter-century, and even a brave (but failed) attempt at democratisation in several Arab countries. More people now live in democratic countries than in dictatorships.

But in the cradle of the non-violent revolutions, things are going backwards. Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, is a self-proclaimed murderer who boasts about how many people his death squads kill. “If you are corrupt, I will fetch you using a helicopter to Manila and I will throw you out,” he declared in December. “I have done this before, why would I not do it again?”

“Duterte Harry” (as he is called in homage to Clint Eastwood’s film portrayal of lawless cop “Dirty Harry”) was elected to the presidency with a massive majority last year, and he is still hugely popular with ordinary Filipinos. But this is not democracy; it is populist demagoguery of the most extreme kind.

About 8,000 suspected drug dealers and users have been killed by police and vigilantes, with Duterte’s warm approval and encouragement, since he was elected last June. And the fate of Thai democracy is equally disheartening, although the strongmen there wear military uniforms.

Thai democracy, deeply polarised by a long-running political battle between the urban middle class and the rural poor, fell to a military coup in 2014. Two years later, the Thais ratified a constitution that grants the army permanent power over the political system, including the right to appoint all 250 members of the Senate. And even so the military have now postponed the promised election from this year to 2018.

Indonesian democracy still survives, and the latest president, Joko Widodo, is a genuinely popular figure of unimpeachable honesty. In the 2014 election he saw off his opponent, a former general and ex-son-in-law of the old dictator Suharto, with ease. But there are signs of rising extremism in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country.

The hard-line Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), which demands a sharia state in a country where 15 percent of the population are not Muslim, has been leading violent demonstrations against Basuki Purnama, the ethnic-Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta. He is facing spurious charges of “insulting Islam”, but the FPI’s real objection is that non-Muslims should not hold positions of authority over Muslims.

There is clearly support for this view among some of the capital’s Muslims – and to make matters worse many senior military and police officer have had close links with the extremist organisation. Indonesian democracy is certainly the healthiest in the region, but it faces serious threats.

And then there is Burma, the latest convert to democracy in Southeast Asia. After half a century of almost continuous military rule Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning leader of the democratic opposition, is finally the effective leader of an elected civilian government.

But she still operates under a military veto, and she has to close her eyes to the brutal attacks on the Rohingya, a Muslim minority that the army and other Burmese ultra-nationalists insist is not really Burmese at all. The army is using this conflict to burnish its own nationalist credentials and undermine the fledgling democratic government, and “The Lady”, as she is universally called, dares not defy it.

There is no country in Southeast Asia where democracy is really secure, and in most cases the main reason is the overweening power of self-serving military and police forces. Power struggles between the old political and economic elite and “new” politicians like Widodo in Indonesia and the brother and sister Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra in Thailand, both overthrown by military coups, play a large role too.

But there are many other new democracies with over-mighty militaries and privileged elites that do not want to let go, and yet the failure rate is significantly lower everywhere else except the Middle East. There may be some common cultural factor that unites the Southeast Asian countries, but it’s unlikely: they are variously Buddhist-, Christian-, or Muslim-majority.

So what’s the matter with them? Maybe it’s just bad luck. After all, they aren’t actually a statistical sample.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“About…uniforms”; and “There…threats”)

The Global Economy: A Perfect Storm?

You know how it is with buses? You wait ages for one, far longer than seems reasonable – and then three arrive all at once. Financial crises are a bit like that too.

The financial crisis everybody in the business has really been waiting for is a “hard landing” of the Chinese economy, now one of the two motors of the global economy. (The other is still the United States.) Everybody thought it was bound to come eventually – well, everybody who was not too heavily invested in the Chinese market – and it now appears to be here, although the Chinese government is still denying it.

The second crisis, less widely anticipated, is a credit crunch that is sabotaging economic growth in almost all the developing countries except India. In many cases their currencies have fallen to historic lows against the dollar, making it harder for them to repay the dollars they borrowed. Moreover, it’s getting harder for them to earn dollars from their exports because commodity prices have collapsed.

And a third crisis is looming in the developed economies of Europe, North America and Japan, which can see another recession looming on the horizon before they have even fully recovered from the effects of the banking crash of 2007-08. And it’s hard to pull out of a new recession when your interest rates are still down near zero because of the last one.

These crises are all arriving at once because they are all connected. When the huge misdeeds and mistakes of American and European banks caused the Great Recession of 2008, China avoided the low growth and high unemployment that hurt Western countries by flooding its economy with cheap credit. But that only postponed the pain, and between 2007 and 2014 total debt in China increased fourfold.

The Chinese government is more terrified of mass unemployment than anything else. It believes, probably correctly, that the Communist regime’s survival depends on delivering continuously rising living standards. So the Chinese economy went on booming for another six years, but the “solution” was fraudulent and now it’s over.

The huge amount of cheap credit sloshing around the Chinese economy mostly went into building unnecessary infrastructure, and above all into housing. That did preserve employment, but property values soared and and a huge “housing bubble” was created. There was nobody to buy all those houses and apartments, and there are now brand-new “ghost towns” all over China, so property values are falling fast.

Since the crash on the Chinese stock markets began last month, the government has done everything it could to stop it. It has dropped interest rates repeatedly, it has devalued the currency, it has ordered state institutions to invest more – and nothing has worked.

Chinese exports have fallen 8 percent in the past year, and even the regime admits that the economy is growing at the lowest rate in three decades. Nobody outside the regime knows for certain, but it may scarcely be growing at all. The “hard landing” is now close to inevitable.

Now for the second crisis. While China’s artificial boom was rolling along, its appetite for commodities of every sort, from iron to soya beans, was insatiable, so commodity prices went up. The other “emerging market economies” grew fast by selling China the commodities it needed, they attracted large amounts of Western investment because of their rapid growth, and they borrowed freely because Western interest rates were at rock-bottom.

The collapse of Chinese demand ends this party too. From Brazil to Turkey to South Africa to Indonesia, exports are falling, the value of the local currencies is tumbling, and foreign investors are fleeing. Capital flight from the 19 largest emerging market economies has reached almost one trillion dollars in the past 13 months, and the outflow is still accelerating.

And the third crisis, in the West? The problems that caused the crash of 2007-08 have not really been addressed, just papered over. What limited growth there has been in Western economies is due almost entirely to absurdly low interest rates and“quantitative easing” (governments printing money).

The average time between recessions in the West is seven to ten years, so one is due around now anyway. The likeliest trigger for that is a collapse of demand in China and in the other emerging economies, which is now practically certain. And when it hits the West, neither of the traditional tools for pulling out of a recession will be available. Interest rates are already near zero, and the money supply has already been expanded massively.

It would be rash to talk about a long-lasting global depression in the style of the 1930s, because a lot has changed since then. But it is certainly safe to say that the global economy is heading into a perfect storm.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“The huge…fast”)

Geo-Engineering in Trouble

15 January 2014

Geo-Engineering in Trouble

By Gwynne Dyer

Bad news on the climate front. It was already clear that we are very likely to break through all the “do not exceed” limits and go into runaway warming later this century, because greenhouse emissions have not dropped, are not dropping, and probably will not drop. We did have a fall-back position, which was to counter the warming by geo-engineering – but now the leading technique for geo-engineering also looks like it will not work.

In a paper published this month in “Environmental Research Letters”, three researchers at Reading University in England have shown that trying to cool the planet by putting large amounts of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere would lead to a 30 percent decline in rainfall in most of the tropics. That would mean permanent drought conditions in countries like Indonesia, and millions would starve.

Starvation is the main impact that higher average global temperatures will have on human beings, as they will cause a big loss in food production, particularly in the tropics and sub-tropics. But the standard assumption was that there would still be as much rain in the tropics as before. Maybe even too much rain, as the heat would mean higher rates of evaporation and more powerful tropical storms.

What Drs. Angus Ferraro, Ellie Highwood and Andrew Charlton-Perez have done is to use several climate model simulations to examine the effect of geo-engineering on the tropical overturning circulation. This circulation is largely responsible for lifting water vapour that has evaporated at the surface high enough up into the atmosphere that it turns back into water droplets and falls as rain. If the circulation gets weaker, so does the rainfall.

Putting sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere to cut the amount of incoming sunlight and reduce heating at the surface was first suggested by Paul Crutzen, a Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist, in 2006. At that time, talking about geo-engineering was taboo among scientists, because they feared that if the general public knew that the heating could be held down that way, they’d stop trying to curb their greenhouse gas emissions.

Crutzen violated the taboo because countries and people were NOT cutting their emissions, and there was no reasonable prospect that they would. (This is still largely the case, by the way.) So the world definitely needed a Plan B if we did not want to see a planet that is 4 degrees C hotter (7 degrees F) by the end of the century.

Crutzen pointed out that large volcanoes, when they explode, put substantial amounts of sulphur dioxide gas into the stratosphere. That causes significant cooling at the surface for one or two years, until it all comes down again – and it does no apparent harm in the process. The last big volcano to explode, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, reduced the average global temperature at peak by half a degree C (one degree F).

Human beings could also put sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere (on a rather larger scale), to hold the temperature down, said Crutzen. The ice caps wouldn’t melt, our agriculture would continue to get the familiar weather it needs, and we would win ourselves more time to get our emissions down. We still have to get our emissions down in the end, he stressed, but it would be better not to have a global calamity on the way from here to there.

There was so much outrage at Crutzen’s suggestion that he had a nervous breakdown, but then lots of other scientists came out of hiding to admit that they also thought the human race needed a fall-back position. Various other proposals for holding the temperature down were put on the table, and by now there are dozens of them, but the idea of putting sulphur dioxide in the stratosphere still led the field. Until now.

But the Reading University scientists have discovered a hitherto unsuspected side-effect of this kind of geo-engineering. The sulphur dioxide particles don’t just reflect back a portion of the incoming sunlight from above. They also reflect a portion of the long-wave radiation (heat) coming back up from the surface, and that heats the top of the troposphere.

The troposphere is the lower part of the atmosphere, where all the weather happens. If you heat the top of the troposphere, you reduce the temperature difference between there and the surface, so the tropical overturning circulation weakens. That means less water vapour is carried up, and less rain falls back down. Result: drought and famine.

This is exactly the kind of scientific investigation that Crutzen wanted. He understood clearly that we were venturing into dangerous territory when we start intervening in a system as complex as the climate, and he stressed that what was needed was lots more research before we have to gamble on geo-engineering to halt an imminent disaster. But it’s a very discouraging conclusion.

The sulphur dioxide option was the cheapest and seemingly the best understood option for holding the temperature down. A great many people were glad that it was there, as a kind of safety net if we really don’t get our act together in time to halt the warming by less intrusive means. Now there’s no safety net.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 12. (“There…now”; and “This…conclusion”)

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.