Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Modern-day Gandhis

It has been more than 100 years since Mohandas Gandhi proclaimed the principles of Satyagrahya, literally the path to truth, or what the rest of the world chooses to call non-violent resistance. It has been more than 60 years since Gandhi’s death by an assassin, but his principles of civil disobedience are still relevant, and pertinent.

This is nowhere truer than in Gandhi’s own country, which has been convulsed for weeks by a mild-mannered but steely-eyed modern-day Gandhi known as Anna Hazare, who last week began a fast at a public open space in the middle of New Delhi, his second this year, to force the Indian parliament to pass an anti-corruption bill with teeth in it.

But Hazare isn’t the only latter-day Gandhi causing headaches for entrenched leaders in Asia. In Malaysia a 54-year-old woman lawyer named Ambiga Sreenevason, is the leader of a popular movement to force the government to reform the electoral process. Called Bersih, meaning “clean” in Malay, it defied a government ban on holding a mass protest in Kuala Lumpur last month and faced down police using water cannon; more than a thousand were arrested.

With the deadly riots in London still fresh in everyone’s memory, it is worth remembering that non-violent resistance still has a place in the modern world, just as it did back on September 11, 1906, when a proper British barrister named Mohandas Gandhi chaired a meeting in the Empire Theater in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The 3,000 or so people gathered there were protesting against the Transvaal Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance, which required them to carry internal passports and live and work under segregated conditions. The people at the meeting resolved to refuse to observe the terms of the ordinance even to the extent of going to prison.

Gandhi later said: “I had to choose between allying myself to violence or finding out some other method of meeting the crisis and stopping the rot, and it came to me that we should refuse to obey the legislation that was degrading and let them put us in jail if they liked.

India’s current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, paid an official visit to South Africa in 2006 to observe the 100th anniversary of Satyagraha and visited many placed associated with Gandhi’s early life. But with the shoe on the other foot, Singh recently complained that Hazare’s hunger strike was “misconceived.” He maintains that the difference between what Hazare wants and what the government proposes are not so far apart and should not be decided through fasting.

Hazare looks a lot like the Mahatma. A short, bespectacled pensioner of 74, he appears in public wearing a white pointed cap and a simple, white cotton gown similar to the one Gandhi wore. Ambiga, a former chairman of the Malaysian Bar Council, looks more like the barrister of Gandhi’s South African days.

Some have likened the Hazare-inspired and the Bersih protests to the “Arab Spring” that swept through the Middle East this year toppling several dictators. However, neither of these two latter-day Gandhi’s is seeking regime change. Indeed, their demands are relatively modest.

Hazare and his followers are demanding that the government adopt their version of legislation to create a national anti-corruption ombudsman and do so by the end of August. To drive their point home, Hazare began to fast “to the death” last week. Bersih seeks what appear to be some fairly minor changes to the election laws.

Some have criticized Hazare as being essentially undemocratic and that his fasting is a kind of moral blackmailing of a popularly elected government. But then just because India is a democracy doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be deaf to popular feelings or beholden to special interests.

After all, an ombudsman bill such as the one Hazare wants to see passed was first introduced into parliament in 1968 and has been re-introduced and defeated nine times since then. The changes that Bersih demands for the Malaysian electoral system would weaken the political machine that has run Malaysia since independence in 1957.

Not everyone in India appreciates Hazare’s assuming the mantel of a saint. Aruna Roy, a famed social activist in her own right, heaps scorn on his anti-corruption legislative proposal, calling it naive and tending to concentrate too much power and oversight in one giant government bureaucracy

Gandhi, of course, is remembered or his non-violent resistance to British rule in India, but the principles of nonviolent opposition are not limited to overthrowing colonial regimes or dictatorships. Indeed the very first applications in South Africa were aimed at overcoming oppressive laws and local conditions. For that matter, so too was civil disobedience in the Civil rights movement in the United States.

Both movements got an enormous boost from ham-fisted reactions by leaders of both countries. When Hazare threatened a second fast in April, the government threw him in jail, which, of course, only turned hat had begun as a relatively modest protest movement into a national crusade.

Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, was hugely embarrassed both by the government’s over reaction to the July protests and later by a ham-fisted public relations campaign meant to discredit Bersih. He recently announced formation of a “non-partisan” commission to study electoral reforms

For many younger Indians, obsessed with making money and with India’s rise as an economic superpower, Gandhi has been a distant and dour figure, someone they probably read about only in dusty textbooks at school but not relevant to their life in the 21st century.

Hazare seems to have awakened an important though dormant part of India’s heritage while at the same time tapping into a seething anger over endemic corruption in India and a growing gap between the rising middle class and the millions who are left behind.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Lessons of Minamata

Before Fukushima the greatest environmental disaster in Japan, indeed, one of the greatest in the entire world, was Minamata disease, a neurological affliction caused by severe mercury poisoning which can cause limb paralysis, difficulties in walking, mental confusion and death.

It is named after Minamata Bay on the southern island of Kyushu. The Chisso chemical company, had been dumping mercury-contaminated waste water in the bay for decades. In the 1950s and 160s, many people living in the vicinity came down with strange illnesses tied to eating the mercury-contaminated fish caught in the bay.

Minamata disease was first suspected in 1956 and was officially pronounced a pollution-linked disease in 1968. That makes it all sound like ancient history. Yet Minamata disease is extremely current, both on its own terms and because it provides lessons, often discouraging lessons, to the most current environmental disaster stemming from the multiple nuclear meltdowns.

In March, about a week after the Great East Japan Earthquake, a group of previously unrecognized victims settled a long-standing damage suit, paving the way to finally end the lengthy struggle to bail out victims. Under the terms, the chemical company will pay each of more than 2,000 plaintiffs (94 have died) about $25,000 while the prefectural government will cover monthly medical expenses.

The settlement made Toshiyuki Kawakami 86, and his wife, 84, finally eligible to collect damages – 38 years after they originally filed their complaint. ‘I am relieved that we were recognized while I am still alive,” he said after the settlement was pronounced.

The settlement was especially sweet for Kawakami in that he was one of the leaders in a group, who had on 2004 won a landmark ruling from Japan’s Supreme Court, holding the national and prefectural governments liable for the spread of the disease. Throughout most of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the government had denied any culpability and left it to Chisso to handle any compensation payments alone.

The executives at Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), owner of the four disabled nuclear power plants at Fukushima, must look on the Chisso Company and see themselves 50 years from now. Yet Tepco faces much greater demands for compensation, although it does have larger resources, now including government backing, to pay them down,

Chisso is a private company in a competitive field of liquid chrystal displays and other modern chemicals. Tepco is in a different league in that it enjoys a major regional monopoly in selling electricity. Still, like Chisso, it will be obligated to pay out compensation for the next 50 to 60 years or more.

Tepco’s share price plunged after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami as investors were understandably spooked about the prospects of the company paying out large sums in compensation to those impacted, by the radiation leaks.

Shares did rebound when, a couple weeks ago, the Japanese parliament passed a law to help the electric power company shoulder some of its damage demands, which are likely to run into the trillions of yen. It sets up a mechanism to provide Tepco with some assistance if the utility cannot meet the payment demands. But Tepco still bears the main burden for making payments.

The government chose not to place any cap on damages, which leaves them open-ended, and the liabilities are likely to be a drag on the company for years if not decades to come, much like Chisso, which over the years has booked about $3 billion in cumulative losses from the mercury poisoning debacle.

The government is navigating a fine line, not wanting to shift the entire burden on to the taxpayer, but also mindful that Tepco is the sole supplier of electricity to the world’s largest city. Moreover, it would not be too hard for future law suits to find the government culpable or inadequate oversight of the afflicted nuclear power plants.

Chisso chose not to file for bankruptcy or seek to nationalize its liabilities (two options that have been bruited for Tepco but discarded for now). Instead, Chisso creditors waived some of their loans or accepted delayed payments. The price Chisso paid for not going bankrupt was a negative net worth that has lingered for the past 50 years.

Even so, Chisso is still in business. It even issues shares of stock, although on the unlisted Green Sheet Market rather than the regular Tokyo Stock Exchange. Latest figures valued the company at 13 yen (about one US cent) a share with a market capitalization of about $80 million.

Earlier this year, Chisso split itself into two main companies. One, a holding company, inherits all of the liabilities stemming from the mercury poisoning. Another company, called the JNC Corp, will handle the business end of things. Eventually, it will go public, and the profits the holding company earns from stocks sales or dividends will be used to pay damages.

It is likely that Tepco will share with Chisso the difficulty of identifying legitimate future claims. Of course, it may be relatively easy to tote up the economic losses stemming from the nuclear disaster, but the cumulative effects of mercury poisoning and long term effects of radiation are similarly difficult to define, especially as symptoms tend to develop more in advanced age..

Something like an additional 40,000 uncertified victims have applied for damages under a 2010 law that gives suffers three years to come forward and establish their claims. Some of them are in their 40s and 50s which means they were born after Minamata disease was recognized yet will claims that they were actually injured while in the womb.

Said one doctor involved in the Minamata disease claims, it may be necessary to make a list now of those who have been affected with radiation at Fukushima, so that the authorities can keep track of their health conditions over a long period of time. That is one lesson of Minamata for Fukushima.


Monday, August 01, 2011

South Korea's Blue Water Ambitions

A southern island with long-standing issues with the mainland; local residents up in arms over the construction of a new, large military base; environmentalists concerned that these plans will disrupt sensitive under sea coral formations. Another chapter in the unending Okinawa Marine base saga?

No. In this instance the island is Jeju-do off the southern coast of South Korea. The issue is Seoul’s desire to build a major naval base in Gangjeong village on the southern part of the island to serve as a home port for South Korea’s growing fleet of large and sophisticated warships.

Much is made about China’s rapidly expanding navy and ambition to create a fleet capable of projecting power globally. Not so well known is South Korea’s decade-long project to build its own “blue water navy.” There is nothing particularly secret about South Korea’s naval build up, it just doesn’t get the kind of attention that China gets.

This ocean-going force is built around an arsenal of sophisticated guided missile destroyers, including most recently, two 7,600-ton Aegis-equipped monster destroyers with one more building, half a dozen 4,500-ton destroyers, submarines and amphibious assault ships.

The flagship of this new strategic fleet is an 18,000 ton, flat-topped amphibious assault ship with the pregnant name of Dokdo, after the tiny island in the Sea of Japan that is claimed by Korea and Japan and which is a frequent source of tensions between the two countries.

The Dokdo is currently larger than anything in the Japanese navy or even the rapidly expanding Chinese navy – or at least until Beijing finally launches its much-talked about aircraft carrier. Indeed, it is the largest warship belonging to any Asian navy east of India.

Although its main armament would be helicopters and marines, it would also be capable of supporting unmanned aircraft in some future conflict. The South Koreans are planning to build several more of this type of vessels, although probably not as large.

The official purpose of this naval buildup by South Korea is, much as China, to project power beyond its coastline plus being able to participate in international peacekeeping operations and disaster recovery and relief efforts. Several South Korean destroyers participate in the anti-piracy patrols off Somalia’s coast, along with warships from China and Japan.

A more logical explanation would be that, as in China, the expansion and modernization of the fleet is a natural and inevitable growing process of a nation’s armed forces proportional to the rapidly growing size of its economy. Rationales for the expansion are found later.

A naval base on the south side of Jeju is an obvious step in South Korea’s blue water ambitions, as it allows direct access to the open sea. But it is also located about as far away from the sensitive border with North Korea, supposedly South Korea’s true enemy, as one can be and still be in the country.

When completed in 2014, the base will accommodate about 20 of the country’s most modern surface warships and submarines. There is also proposed space to dock two large cruise ships, an apparent sop to locals as it could be argued the new port boosts tourism.

Growing numbers of Chinese are visiting Jeju and would likely formed the bulk of the passengers on the tourist vessels. Seoul probably is not unhappy that thousands of ordinary Chinese will get a good look at Korea’s growing naval might while enjoying beaches and sampling kimchi.

South Korea’s blue water naval strategy developed in the late 1990s, during a period of relatively relaxed relations with North Korea. This was the time of the Sunshine policy of President Kim Dae-jung and his successor.

But unlike China, which has few if any threats along its coastline, North Korea does pose a real menace. That was driven home last year when a North Korean submarine put a torpedo into the South Korean Corvette Choenan, sending her to the bottom along with more than 40 of her crew.

While Seoul was dreaming of grandiose deep sea ambitions, it had taken its eye off the ball and become somewhat lackadaisical about protecting its sensitive northern coastline. And if the events of last year proved anything, it is that one cannot be lackadaisical about the dangerous provocations from the North.

This sobering experience has not immediately altered Seoul’s naval procurement plans, which of course, were longstanding. But one hears less and less about blue water power projection. Last May the government withdrew “Ocean Navy Strategy” as an official rationale for the Jeju naval base (though work proceeds).

Unlike Okinawa, which is mainly a three-cornered dispute between Tokyo, Washington and the people of Okinawa, the Jeju base dispute has attracted more attention from international peace groups, Catholic organizations and other NGOs. Unlike Okinawa, which bristles with military bases there are no major installations on Jeju. Indeed, it likes to bill itself as an “island of peace.”

But like Okinawa, which still harbors resentments toward the mainland, Jeju has its own issues. For Okinawans it was the way they were used as cannon fodder during the last battle of World War II. For Jeju people it is the “4.3 Incident”.

The date refers to a rebellion, probably stoked by the communist Workers’ Party (now the rulers of North Korea but banned in the South, that broke out in April 3, 1948. The army put the rebellion down but it is estimated that 14,000 to 60,000 were killed. Since then South Korea’s military has not been particularly welcome on Jeju.