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Philippines

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Boiling Frogs and Tropical Storms

I’ve never really believed the story climate crusaders tell to explain why so many people don’t get the message. You know, the one where if you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water it will hop right out, whereas if you just turn the heat up slowly it won’t notice. It will stay there and boil to death.

I’ve never actually tried the experiment, but surely not even frogs are that stupid. And I’m pretty sure human beings aren’t.

So why didn’t the good people of Houston start campaigning against global heating after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 left a third of their city underwater?

Why didn’t the citizens of the Philippines demand that their country end its heavy reliance on burning coal for power after Typhoon Haiyan killed at least 6,300 of them in 2013?

Why weren’t the survivors in the state of Orissa up in arms about India’s greenhouse gas emissions after the most intense cyclone in history killed 15,000 of them in 1999?

Well, partly because there were no data proving that the warming was making the tropical storms worse. Pretty well everybody in the meteorological trade and a great many lay people assumed that to be the case, but the evidence just wasn’t there. Until now – and as if to celebrate its belated arrival, here comes another monster storm.

On Sunday and Monday Super-cyclone Amphan spun up quickly over the warm waters of the Bay of Bengal, going from nothing much to a Category 5 tropical storm and adding 175 kph (110mph) to its sustained wind speed in only 36 hours. India’s meteorologists are predicting that the surge of water when it hits the coast could be as high as 3-5 metres (10-16 ft).

Cyclones, typhoons and hurricanes (all the same phenomenon, just in different oceans) are capricious. Their winds drop rapidly over land, and they are most destructive if they move slowly and loiter just off the coast. But at best Amphan will be bad, and it could be very bad indeed.

People living around the Bay of Bengal know that the storms are getting worse: 140,000 people died when Cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawaddy Delta in Burma (Myanmar) in May 2008. So do people living around the Caribbean, on the US eastern seaboard, and at the western end of ‘typhoon alley’ (the Philippines, China, Korea and Japan).

But they needed hard evidence, and now they have it. A study by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, published on Monday in the Proceedings of the (US) National Academy of Sciences, confirms that there is a direct link between warmer oceans, more water vapour in the air, and bigger storms.

Not more storms, but MUCH bigger. In fact, the likelihood that any given tropical storm will grow into a Category 3 or higher hurricane (or the equivalent in terms of cyclones and typhoons) is rising by 8% per decade.

Could it just be natural variation? James Kossin, lead author of the new study, doesn’t think so: “We have high confidence that there is a human fingerprint on these changes.” The data extend over four decades, which means the number of Category 3+ hurricanes has grown by a third since 1980.

It can only get worse, as will almost every other climate impact. The average global temperature now is 1.1°C above the pre-industrial average, but there is already enough carbon dioxide in the air to give us another half degree C of warming when it delivers its final load.

Never mind all the extra carbon dioxide that will be dumped into the atmosphere next month, next year, next decade. What will just the amount that we have already put there do to the tropical storms? The point will come, as with most of the other climate changes, when the local environment is no longer compatible with a normal human lifestyle.

For the 500 million people who live around the Bay of Bengal, the world’s biggest bay, the breaking point may be massive cyclones and floods that are made worse by sea level rise. For others it may be intense heat and permanent drought. In some places, it will be famine. But at least a quarter of the world’s population is going to have to move in the next fifty years.

Where to? No idea. With almost eight billion people, the world is pretty full up already.

Interviewing a couple of climate scientists recently, I saw for the first time a graph, modelling the future of a runaway warming world, that explicitly included a ‘death’ term. Mass death, that is. It made me feel a bit frog-like.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8. (“Cyclones…indeed”)

World Election Week

They don’t hold world elections, but this is the week when around a third of the planet’s voters get the election results for their country or region. In no case are the results a cause for jubilation.

The headline vote, of course, has to be India’s election, a six-week process in which the country’s 900 million voters went to the polls one region at a time, but all the results were held back until this Thursday. The outcome was a landslide win and a second five-year term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s ‘Trump before Trump’.

India is a far more complicated country than the United States: 22 official languages, more than 2,000 ethnic groups, myriad divisions of caste and religion. But Modi powers through all that with a simple nationalist message, delivered mainly in the single most widely spoken language, Hindi, and focused on the promotion of the majority religion, Hinduism.

Like Trump, he is vociferously anti-Muslim. (200 million Indian citizens are Muslims.) Like Trump, he governs an ostensibly secular republic on which he is trying to impose a specific religious identity (although unlike Trump, his religiosity is genuine). Like Trump, he talks up foreign wars and threats all the time, although so far he has managed to evade a major war.

In other words, he is the very model of a modern populist, and the model works. It worked in the Philippines, too, where mid-term election results, declared this week, gave President Rodrigo Duterte an absolute majority in Congress and the ability to change the constitution at will.

Duterte’s first constitutional change will be to bring back the death penalty, but his death squads are already inflicting unofficial death penalties on hundreds of alleged drug-users each month. Then he will abolish term limits, so that he can stay in power indefinitely, and lower the age of criminal responsibility to 12. All of this is making him wildly popular with Filipino voters.

The news is rather better in Indonesia, where election results announced on Tuesday gave incumbent President Joko Widodo 55% of the vote and a second term in office. But while he has been an honest and effective leader, there is a darker side to the story.

Growing Islamist extremism forced ‘Jokowi’ to prove his religious credentials by choosing an elderly Muslim cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his vice-presidential running mate this time. And when Widodo’s election victory was announced his main opponent, former general Prabowo Subianto, claimed that he had cheated, denounced the result, and unleashed protesters in the streets of Jakarta. Six died in the first day.

And how about the Europeans? 400 million citizens of the European Union are eligible to vote between Thursday and Sunday in elections to the European Parliament, and it looks like ultra-nationalist populist parties will win the most votes in three out of the four biggest EU countries: the Lega in Italy, the National Rally (formerly National Front) in France, and the Brexit Party in the United Kingdom.

Other racist, anti-immigrant nationalist parties will also do well, including Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland, Fidesz and Jobbik in Hungary, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, VOX in Spain, Golden Dawn in Greece, Vlaams Belang in Belgium and Alternative for Germany (AfD). If this is what democracy gets you, are you sure it’s a good idea?

Yes, it is. Democracy is not a tool for delivering good political decisions. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Living in a democracy doesn’t automatically free people from all the old divisions of ethnicity and religion and class and caste. It sometimes mutes those conflicts, but it’s not a magic cure. Democracy is about equal rights, and that’s all.

Democracy has spread all around the world in the past two centuries because it acknowledges and embodies the basic human value of equality. All human beings lived in tiny hunter-gatherer societies that were obsessively egalitarian for several hundred thousand years before the rise of civilisation, and that is who we still really are.

Equality disappeared with mass civilisation, because we couldn’t crack the problem of large numbers. Some self-nominated god-king or emperor had to make the decisions for a million people, because there was no way they could get together and do it for themselves in the old way.

But then, a couple of hundred years ago, we got technologies that enabled the millions to re-connect: printing and mass literacy. As soon as we got that, the demand for equality re-emerged, and it proved irresistible. You just had to invent some system for measuring the opinions of those millions (let’s call it elections), and lo! You have a democracy.

You don’t have paradise. Human beings are still made of the same old crooked timber, and their collective decisions can be ignorant and sometimes calamitous. Equal rights do not equate to universal love and brotherhood, but democracy does restore our ancient heritage of equality, and that does imply mutual tolerance.

The process of civilising ‘civilisation’ will not be completed in this century, but we have come a long way already.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3, 5 and 6. (“India…Hinduism”; and “In other…voters”)

Duterte and the ICC

Here’s the good news. Last February the International Criminal Court at The Hague opened an inquiry into alleged crimes against humanity committed by President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines as part of his ‘war on drugs’.

Now for the bad news. True to form, Duterte replied that the Treaty of Rome which created the ICC was “all bullshit” and that the court was only backed by “white idiots”. He then announced that the Philippines was withdrawing from the ICC “effective immediately”.

Actually, he may not be able to do that unilaterally, because the Rome Treaty was ratified by the Senate of the Philippines and probably has to be abrogated by the same body. (Legal opinions vary.) But Duterte does control the Senate and could do it eventually, if he cared about legality.

He’d still have legal problems, because the Philippines was subject to the treaty when he ordered many of his murders. Even if the Senate did cancel the treaty, the country would stay subject to it for another year. But nobody is going to arrest Duterte now, and he doesn’t seem worried about the future either.

Duterte later warned that any UN investigator arriving in the country would be arrested. Having settled the matter to his own entire satisfaction, he then went back to killing people. Death threats and death squads are his favourite political instruments, and his weird political charisma would evaporate if he wasn’t killing people.

He is not too picky about who does the work for him, either. Ten months ago he pulled the national police from his ‘war on drugs’ because they were “corrupt to the core”. (True.) But the number of killings dropped because the specialised anti-narcotics force, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, lacked the manpower to keep the killing rate up.

By May, therefore, Duterte was letting the national police take part in the drug raids again. His sole concession to reality was to gather a hundred police who were facing complaints of rape, kidnapping and robbery and tell them last week, on national television, that they too would face summary execution if they didn’t straighten up. “If you’ll stay like this, son of a bitch, I will really kill you,” he said.

So Duterte is undeterred by ICC’s interest in his case and the slaughter continues unabated. Official statistics say that 4,000 small-time drug dealers (and cases of mistaken identity) have been killed; the 77-page report submitted to the ICC by Filipino lawyer Jude Sabio says more than 8,000. Yet public approval of his actions is not far down from the landslide support he got in the 2016 election.

Everybody knows that in these circumstances, there is zero probability of Duterte having to answer for his actions before a court. Even later, when circumstances may have changed, the chances of bringing him to justice are slim. So what is the point of bringing an ICC case against him?

One reason is that this is the first major ICC investigation that targets a non-African regime. There were good reasons why all previous ones involved African regimes: the continent is home to one-third of the world’s countries, most of its dictatorships, and most of its wars. Nevertheless, even competent, law-abiding African governments were starting to feel victimised, and it helps to have an Asian country on the list.

But more importantly, this is part of a much broader initiative to bring the rule of law to a domain where legal justice was previously unavailable. Where can individual citizens turn to get protection of their own rights (including the right to life) against the government of a sovereign state that does not obey its own laws? Like that of Rodrigo Duterte.

Obviously, this enterprise is not doing very well at the moment. The governments of the great powers refuse to let any higher court have jurisdiction over their treatment of their own citizens, and even lesser powers cannot be forced to accept the jurisdiction of the ICC, which has neither an army nor a police force. Duterte will probably never have to answer for his crimes.

No surprise here. Most crimes go unpunished everywhere, and there will never be universal justice. Nevertheless, the effort to create an international legal order is worthwhile, and not foredoomed.

The ICC was not created to overthrow people like Rodrigo Duterte, who was, after all, elected by the Filipino voting public. Its real function is provide a legal pathway for punishing the members of a criminal regime AFTER it has collapsed – and if possible to make that eventual legal reckoning so certain that it is even deters those criminals who are still in power.

So it is doing what it should, and it’s far too early to say that its actions are futile.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“He is…he said”)

South-East Asian Fall?

A quarter-century before the Arab Spring of 2011, there was a democratic spring in South-East Asia: the Philippines in 1986, Burma in 1988, Thailand in 1992 and Indonesia in 1998. The Arab Spring was largely drowned in blood (Syria, Egypt, Libya), but democracy really seemed to be taking root in South-east Asia – for a while.

But look at it now. The army is back in power in Thailand, and it never really left in Burma. The Philippines still has the forms of democracy, but President Rodrigo Duterte is a homicidal clown. And last week saw the demolition of the facade of democracy in Cambodia. What went wrong?

In Cambodia’s case democracy never was much more than a facade. Hun Sen, who was just ‘re-elected’ president with 80% of the vote, has been in power for 33 years, first as the leader of a Communist puppet government put in place after the Vietnamese invasion of 1971, later as the ruler of an independent country where opponents sometimes disappeared and his party unaccountably always won the elections.

But there was a relatively free press and a real opposition party, so Cambodia was loosely counted as a democracy – until the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party did surprisingly well in the 2013 election. After that the free media were shut down one after another, and in late 2016 the CNRP was dissolved by the supreme court. No wonder Hun Sen won again.

So nothing much lost there, you might say – but actually the facade of democracy, shabby though it was, did provide some protection for civil and human rights in Cambodia. Now it’s gone. “Whatever Mr Hun Sen wants, he gets. People are so fearful,” said deputy CNRP leader Mu Sochua, who fled to Germany last month. (The CNRP leader, Kem Sokha, is in jail on treason charges.)

Thailand went a lot further into the business of building a real democracy. A populist party that attracted peasants and the urban poor actually got power and started moving resources their way. But the reaction was ferocious: military-backed conservatives, including much of the urban middle class, fought that party in the courts and in the street.

The populist party was forced to change its name and its leader several times, but it was still in business until the military coup of 2014 shut all political activity down. Each year the generals promise a free election for the following year, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Next door in Burma the army never lost power at all. The attempted non-violent revolution of 1988 was thwarted by a massacre of students worse than the one carried out by the Chinese Communist Party on Tienanmen Square the following year.

It’s only in the past few years that the military were forced to hand some power over to civilians through free elections. But the generals then struck back with a pogrom against the Muslim minority in Rakhine state, the Rohingya, whom they falsely accused of being illegal immigrants.

700,000 Rohingyas were driven across the border into Bangladesh, Buddhist Burmese nationalists cheered the army on – and Aung San Suu Kyi, the long-standing leader and hero of the democratic movement, did not dare to condemn the crime. The army is basically back in the saddle.

And then there’s the Philippines, where the elections really are free. The trouble is that in 2016 the Filipinos elected Rodrigo Duterte, a self-proclaimed murderer, by a landslide. At least 3,000 death-squad killings of alleged drug-dealers later, he still has the highest popularity rating of any Filipino president since the ‘people power’ revolution of 1986.

Vietnam and Laos, of course, are still Communist-ruled autocracies. Only two of the eight countries in the region, Indonesia and Malaysia, are real democracies. It falls far short of the high hopes of the late 20th century, but it’s a good deal more than nothing.

Despite local scandals like the jailing of a non-Muslim mayor of Jakarta on spurious blasphemy charges, Indonesian democracy works, and is less corrupt than the regional norm. Malaysia has just voted out the most corrupt prime minister of its history, who is now in jail. And these two countries alone account for almost half the region’s population.

As for the rest, it’s the old game of glass-half-full vs. glass-half-empty. The setbacks are clustering at the moment, creating the impression that the democratic experiment has failed in South-East Asia, but every retrograde regime still faces far stronger democratic resistance than existed in any of these countries a generation ago.

In the century after the French revolution there were two emperors, one ‘directorate’, two monarchies and three republics, and most of the transitions were violent. The general direction of travel, in South-East Asia and elsewhere, is still towards democracy, but it’s a longer journey than it looks.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“So…charges”)