Photo of the day: Mirth in Perth

From Australian prime minister Julia Gillard comes this wonderful photo of her with U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton and U.S. secretary of defense Leon Panetta, who seem to have been all mirth last night.  A pity that Kevin Rudd missed all the fun

The U.S. officials are in Perth this week for mutual defense talks with Australia, where the United States is looking to increase its military operations, including U.S. access to air bases in northern Australia and the use of Perth’s naval base for U.S. warships — giving the U.S. navy easier access to the Indian Ocean.

And Andrew Moravcsik still doesn’t believe in the pivot to Asia?

Obasanjo’s endorsement in Sierra Leone: will it help or hurt?

Nigeria is the regional anchor of West Africa, with a rapidly growing population of 164 million people and easily West Africa’s largest economy — an economy set to overtake South Africa’s economy by 2020. 

So when former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo made an endorsement in the contested presidential race in Sierra Leone, a country of just around five million people, people took notice.

Obasanjo endorsed Sierra Leone’s incumbent president, Ernest Bai Koroma (pictured above, right, with Obasanjo, left), last week.  So what does that mean for Sierra Leone’s elections to be held this Sunday, November 17?

Probably not much.

As Andrew Novak has recently written for Suffragio, Koroma, the candidate of the All People’s Congress (APC), remains a slight favorite against his chief opponent, Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP).  The SLPP was formed in 1951 and dominated Sierra Leonean politics immediately before, during and after Sierra Leone’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1961.  The APC, formed in 1960, dominated an increasingly autocratic and corrupt Sierra Leonean government through the early 1990s, when Sierra Leone descended into one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars.  The Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel group backed by Liberian strongman Charles Taylor plunged Sierra Leone into a chaotic war that featured the use of child soldiers and other horrific war crimes, mostly fought over control of Sierra Leone’s diamond mines in Kono.

The SLPP’s Ahmad Tejan Kabbah won power in 1996 during the height of the fighting and despite Kabbah’s inability to govern, he won reelection overwhelming in 2002, the same year that Sierra Leone’s civil war ended.  The SLPP lost power in 2007 — Kabbah’s vice president Solomon Berewa lost to Koroma, and despite some tensions, Kabbah peacefully transferred power to Koroma.  The SLPP’s current candidate, Bio, led a coup in 1996 and actually served as Sierra Leone’s president for a short while that year before his government called the elections that Kabbah ultimately won.

Historically, the Temne ethnic group, based in the north, has supported the APC and, indeed, Koroma is Sierra Leone’s first Tenme president.  In contrast, the Mende ethnic group in the south has traditionally supported the SLPP.

It seems more likely that Obasanjo is less interested in swaying Sierra Leonean voters than in ingratiating himself with the president of a country that has recently discovered new offshore petroleum deposits and remains one of the largest diamond-mining countries in the world, although proceeds from diamond mining were long used to fuel lavish personal spending from the 1960s and the 1990s and control of Sierra Leone’s diamond wealth fueled so much of the country’s civil war that Sierra Leone is often said to have suffered from a ‘diamond curse.’  So new discoveries of oil in Sierra Leone have been welcomed, but cautiously so.

Although Obasanjo has been out of office since 2007, he still plays an outsized role in African politics, both at home in Nigeria and abroad, including as a peacekeeping envoy for the United Nations to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Continue reading Obasanjo’s endorsement in Sierra Leone: will it help or hurt?

Amid the CCP handover of power to Xi Jinping, ethnic Tibetan issue remains a thorny problem

The first thing you notice about Qinghai province is that it’s rather desolate — more Utah than Alaska, and the first thing you notice about Rebkong is that it’s a dusty town far away from even the provincial capital.  A world away from the center of Qinghai, itself a world away from Beijing.

I visited Rebkong in April earlier this year with an American friend based at the time in Shanghai, along with Xining (Qinghai’s capital) and other spots in Qinghai province, which lies in the northwest of the People’s Republic of China.  Just a couple of hours away from Beijing by air, Qinghai is indeed a world away, lying as it does on the far east of the Tibetan plateau.  With just 5.6 million people, the province contains just a handful of China’s trillion-plus population — the only province with fewer people is Tibet proper, with around 3 million.

We went to Qinghai, frankly, because getting PRC approval for the permits and guides to visit Tibet province has become such an incredible hassle since the 2008 Tibetan protests.  A kind of ‘Tibet without Tibet.’ But that was probably too twee a slogan, because Qinghai — known historically to Tibetans as Amdo — is as much Tibetan as what lies within the PRC boundaries of the Tibetan ‘autonomous region.’

The region (Amdo or Qinghai, as you like) has been under Chinese control since it was secured by the Qing dynasty in 1724.  It’s home to several important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, including Kumbum monastery (སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང།, or ‘Ta’er si’ in Mandarin Chinese, 塔尔寺), founded in 1577 on the site of the birthplace of Tsongkhapa, an important figure in the development of Buddhism and the founder of the Gelug (‘yellow-hat’) school of Buddhism — its importance to Tibetan buddhism is second only to Lhasa, Tibet’s capital.  Indeed, what we know as ‘Tibet’ today is really just the western part of the historic Tibetan empire, which included not just Amdo, but Kham, which is now the western part of Sichuan province in the PRC. So we were delighted to see a corner of greater Tibet not already fawned over by Richard Gere and so many others.

Xining itself is a mix of Muslims (Hui Chinese), Tibetans and Han Chinese, but outside the capital, Qinghai is indisputably Tibetan, and it’s the birthplace of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.

After a night in Xining quaffing barley wine at the local Tibetan bar, we found a local guide who agreed to show us around for the next couple of days, beyond just a quick trip to Kumbum, but a true journey into the Tibetan hinterland.  We started our days with tsampa, a high-power concoction of yak butter and barley flour (it reminded me of a buttery version of the energy gels you eat during marathons), gorged ourselves on momo (yak-meat dumplings) and snacked on fresh yak-milk yogurt in between visiting monasteries, such as Rgolung (Youning si’ in Chinese), which nestles upon a handful of ledges in the cliffs of eastern Qinghai province.

As it so happens, our young, kind guide was from Rebkong, so we spent a night there, and we saw the monastery, Rongwo (pictured above, center and bottom), where he studied as a child and young adult, and we saw the square just outside, Dolma Square (pictured above, top).

That square has become a center of the latest Tibetan protest against the governing Chinese regime when 18-year-old Kalsang Jinpa lit himself on fire [graphic photos] there, one of six Tibetans in the past week to die in a wave of self-immolations in protest of Chinese rule.  The situation in Rebkong is becoming tense, according to reports [graphic photos], with 20-year old Nyingchag Bum self-immolating Monday:  Continue reading Amid the CCP handover of power to Xi Jinping, ethnic Tibetan issue remains a thorny problem