Thursday, 30 January 2014

North Korea's 'peace offensive': How should South Korea respond?

Despite hostile suspicions, greater effort must be made to thaw relations between the two countries.

For the second year in a row, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un made mention of improving inter-Korean relations in his New Year's Address. Pyongyang followed by proposing a three-pronged approach to easing tense inter-Korean relations.

The document released by the North's National Defence Commission (NDC) called for both Koreas to halt all mutual criticism and slander starting from the Lunar New Year on January 30. Additionally, the proposal called for halting all provocative military acts between the two sides and suggested that authorities in Seoul scrap the scheduled US-South Korea joint military exercises that take place annually between February and April. Contrary to past rhetoric, the NDC highlighted how the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula is a common goal, and suggested that practical measures be taken to avert a nuclear military conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

Seoul responded coldly to the proposal, prompting the NDC to publish an open letter to the people of South Korea, containing the most conciliatory rhetoric to come out of the North in recent times. The letter reiterated earlier proposals, calling on concerted efforts by the two sides to cool relations, end military hostilities, and reenergise cooperation and economic exchange. As a sign of good will, Pyongyang also agreed to resume holding reunions of families and relatives separated by the Korean War, a move that was quickly welcomed by the South.

Read the full story at Al-Jazeera

Nile Bowie is an independent political analyst and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com

Friday, 24 January 2014

Sunn O))) & Ulver’s Terrestrials


There was a palpable sense of immensity in the announcement that avant-garde heavyweights Sunn O))) and Ulver would release a collaborative recording. These two musical forces have spent their careers rebelling against traditional song structure and pushing the barriers of genre and frequency, and their matrimony is earth shaking. The most striking aspect of the duo’s first formal joint release, Terrestrials, is how effectively the amplified low-end style of Sunn O))) and the dancing melodies of Ulver were unified without compromising one another. The end result is three long-form compositions that never waver from contemplation and a sense of poetic wandering through the expanding and contracting soundscapes.

Sunn O))) and Ulver have both explored acoustic and orchestrational compositions to a greater degree in their recent albums, and Terrestrials remains consistent with this theme while delving deeper into uncharted territory, seeped in hypnotic textures with augural foresight. The opening movement ‘Let There Be Light’ unfurls itself giving rise to flickering electronics and brass over droning bass progressions, commanded by ethereal horns and chants. Percussion heralds in a cinematic and wall-shaking climax, an auditory decree that powerfully envelopes the listener with its amplified ceremonial grandeur. “Immersive” would be an understatement. 

‘Western Horn’ opens with an ominous droning low-end that evokes visuals of a parched red earth pulsating under an ancient didgeridoo. The second composition builds over throbbing bass notes as feedback spills onto distant guitars and glimmering electronics, arriving at a spectral and menacing space. Imagine standing before the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001, and expect your hair to be blown back. The finale materializes in the poetic and palindromic ‘Eternal Return’ starting with a lush filmic progression of winding melodies and an arioso bass line. The composition builds toward the album’s most Ulver-esque segment, featuring vocalist Kristoffer Rygg’s poetry over a serene arrangement of violin and electronics, culminating in a wailing climax that elucidates the plight of endless wayfaring.

The album’s only lyrical passage brings esoteric antiquity to the fore, ostensibly rendering Terrestrials as a musical interpretation of the Book of Exodus, giving way for the album’s final composition to steadily etiolate and vanish. The union between Sunn O))) and Ulver is concurrently tranquil and tectonic, a vesica piscis stemming from the intersection of two giants. Terrestrials elucidates the grey area between these two mammoth artists and drags it toward the light, creating something highly imaginative and outstanding. Here’s to a fruitful marriage.


Terrestrials can be purchased on Southern Lord’s website.

Nile Bowie is an independent political analyst and photographer – and avant garde music enthusiast – based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com

The Geneva Peace Talks on Syria: Security Before Politics

The first face-to-face meeting between the representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) in Montreux, Switzerland began with scathing exchanges between the two delegations. Engineering a solution to the three-year conflict in Syria will be an uphill battle, but diplomats and international delegations in attendance will have a greater chance at deescalating fighting on the ground if political biases are put aside.

Syrian authorities have offered to put in place mechanisms for a ceasefire in Aleppo, in addition to prisoner exchanges and opportunities to make available humanitarian assistance to civilian areas under siege. Damascus has also said that a proposed ceasefire in Aleppo can serve as a blueprint for further ceasefire arrangements around the country. If a settlement can be reached on these matters, it is a step closer to the cessation of violence in Syria.

On the other hand, the Geneva talks are being used as a platform for the United States and its allies to move closer to their ostensible policy aim of removing President Bashar al-Assad from office. US Secretary of State John Kerry argues that the original Geneva communiqué established in June 2012 obligates President Assad to move aside, though the text itself makes no such specification, and calls for a transitional government that can include members of the present government and the opposition.

Major instability has threatened countries in the Middle East and North Africa due to political trajectories being dictated by outside forces, yielding volatile security conditions that threaten regional stability at high human cost. Participants at the Geneva dialogue have an opportunity to curb hostilities and establish a framework for meeting the humanitarian needs of the civilian population. This opportunity should not be squandered by adversarial politics and attempts by interested parties to shape a new political order for their own interests.

A major obstacle presents itself in that the SNC has little command over the wide array of various rebel militias fighting on the ground in Syria. Even if a favorable agreement is reached between the SNC and government representatives, the most powerful forces on the ground – Islamist militias who propagate radical Wahhabi thinking – will not honor any ceasefire.

Contrary to what popular wisdom espouses in the English-speaking world, the majority of Syrians living inside the country of all different faiths and persuasions see such radical Islamist organizations like Jabhat al-Nursa and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as a far greater threat than Bashar al-Assad.

In his opening address at the Geneva talks, John Kerry insinuated that Syria faced disintegration if Assad remained in power. The recent historical examples of Iraq and Libya suggest that states are no less prone to disintegration and instability in the power vacuum created by forceful changes of power assisted from abroad; human rights violations have also continued unabated and have grown worse in many circumstances.

The Syrian province of Raqqa is a microcosm showcasing the kind of social order that would most permeate in Syria if the regime was forcibly changed, or in the absence of state authority. Raqqa is completely under the control of ISIL (which actively opposes the fledging and divided SNC), and has imposed puritanical interpretations of sharia law on residents. Syria was among the most secular and socially liberal countries in the region, and now foreign-backed jihadists groups dictate Taliban-style social norms.

The international community may not condone groups such as ISIL, but the reality is that the ‘moderate’ groups represent a few drops in an ocean of militias dominated by radical Islamists who will dominate any post-regime change landscape. For these reasons, opposition groups that are interested in ending the Syrian conflict should put aside their political differences and align themselves with the legitimate Syrian government and armed forces to flush out radical elements.

It is no secret that most of the countries attending the Geneva talks want to see an end to Bashar al-Assad and his government. The timing of recent reports published in the run-up the Geneva talks is no coincidence. The Syrian government is being accused by anonymous sources of covertly supporting al-Qaeda to spoil the image of the rebellion. Another report financed by the government of Qatar purports to show images depicting tortured and emancipated bodies allegedly photographed in government prisons by a defector from the Syrian military.

These reports should not be denied outright, but objectivity is needed. Considering the timing of these ‘smoking gun’ publications, they appear to strengthen public discourse toward assertions that Assad must step down, preventing any deal at the Geneva conference that might leave him in place. The principal financier behind the report is Qatar, which has been energetically engaged in efforts to aid Islamist rebels fighting Assad’s government.

These claims and photographs on which the report is based have not been independently verified and the Syrian government’s side of the story must be fully taken into account before media outlets and foreign ministries play judge, jury, and executioner. One should remember the August 21st chemical weapons attack that the highest political representatives of the United States accused the Syrian government of being responsible for.

UN investigator Carla Del Ponte’s findings suggested that rebel militias had the capacity to produce sarin nerve gas, while a recent study by professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) concluded that the Syrian government could not possibly have been responsible for the chemical attack based on the intelligence made available by US representatives. With Syria, there is truly a danger that unfounded claims can lead to destructive policy choices that will deepen the crisis and civilian suffering.

The positions of the US State Department or the diplomatic representatives of any other country should not shape Syria’s political future; Syria’s own population must choose their leadership at the ballot box in free and fair elections. Future polls in Syria cannot be free and fair if the candidate most likely to win a mandate – Bashar al-Assad – is excluded from campaigning. International delegations attending the Geneva talks must refrain from attempting to influence the internal affairs of the Syrian state.

This article originally appeared on Counterpunch

An edited version of this article appeared in China's Global Times

Nile Bowie is an independent political analyst and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com

Monday, 20 January 2014

No basis for US spinning Geneva communiqué to demand Assad’s resignation

Preconditions placed on attending the Geneva 2 conference insisted on by the United States are detrimental to building a conducive environment for ending the fighting in Syria.

Despite months of effort by diplomats and the international community, the long-awaited Geneva 2 peace conference is in disarray. The opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) – an exiled umbrella organization supported by Western and Gulf states that represents a negligible segment of rebel groups on the ground – has agreed to attend the talks under heavy pressure from their backers. Division runs deep for many within the group who oppose the decision to attend Geneva 2, and the SNC’s presence at the talks are still in question.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s decision to extend an invitation to Iran prompted the SNC to threaten pulling out of the talks if the UN’s invitation to Tehran is not rescinded. Even if the peace talks proceed, the unpleasant prospect that nothing tangible will emerge from them due to irreconcilable differences between the two sides looks like the most plausible outcome.

One of the key obstacles facing the negotiations is the SNC’s lack of legitimacy and its capriciousness, and that its members are mostly exiled Syrian dissidents who are not seen as credible by the fighters on the ground, primarily among Islamist groups that dominate the battlefield. The belief that the SNC can accomplish something meaningful at the negotiating table is cast deeper into doubt by critical assessments from dissenting former members of the group.

Read the full story on RT.com

Nile Bowie is a Malaysia-based political analyst and a columnist with Russia Today. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

World leaders shouldn’t let Rodman monopolize N. Korea engagement

As tension mounts on the Korean Peninsula ahead of annual joint US-South Korea military exercises that routinely generate condemnation from Pyongyang, it’s clear that high-level engagement from someone other than Dennis Rodman is sorely needed.

The bizarre friendship between former the NBA star and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been the subject of intense ridicule and debate following Rodman’s latest visit to Pyongyang. To mark the birthday of Kim Jong-un, Rodman organized a basketball match between retired NBA veterans and North Korean players, with the home side emerging as victors. The famously flamboyant Rodman was ridiculed for singing, “Happy Birthday” to Kim, but more so for his disastrous live interview with CNN, where the former slam-dunker struggled for coherency in a drunken stupor. Rodman issued an explanation for the interview shortly after claiming that he had too much to drink, and apologized for making insensitive statements about Kenneth Bae, the American evangelical activist arrested by North Korean authorities while on a trip as a tourist in 2012 over accusations that he incited citizens to overthrow the government in Pyongyang.

Rodman was deeply criticized for not doing enough to promote the plight of Bae, and for traveling to the country so shortly after the high-profile purge of Kim Jong-un’s uncle-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, who handled much of Pyongyang’s economic affairs and its trade relations with China.

Rodman has always been frank toward the media about how his trips to Pyongyang have no political objectives, but the less-apparent benefits of his “basketball diplomacy” tour are often lost on Western commentators.

Read the full story on RT.com

Nile Bowie is a Malaysia-based political analyst and a columnist with Russia Today. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Unholy row: Malaysia’s ‘moderate’ religious agenda in ‘Allah’ use wrangle

Religious authorities have boldly confiscated hundreds of Malay language bibles over their use of the word 'Allah’, a signal that the Malaysian government is backpedaling on its highly flaunted program of moderation and inclusivity.

Malaysia has garnered much international attention in recent years for being the only country in the world to regulate the use of the word ‘Allah and other terms deemed to be exclusive to Islam among its non-Muslim citizens.

The term ‘Allah’ is borrowed from Arabic and is used to describe ‘God’ in the language used by the nation’s dominant Malay ethnic group, who practice a brand of Islam that is deeply interwoven with Malay nationalism. Malaysia’s Christian minority has used the term ‘Allah’ in Malay language bibles and daily prayers in churches to refer to the Christian god for centuries, but a controversial court ruling in 2013 prohibited a Catholic newspaper, The Herald, from using the word. Despite the prohibition of the term applying only to The Herald and not to other publications, religious authorities recently took the unprecedented step of raiding a Bible Society and confiscating over 300 Malay language bibles on the basis that public disorder would ensue unless the term ‘Allah’ remains exclusive to Islam.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has put much emphasis on his ‘1Malaysia’ slogan in an attempt to showcase Malaysia’s brand of political Islam as being moderate, inclusive, and capable of sustaining harmony among the country’s complex multi-ethnic and multi-religious landscape. However, the inherent contradictions of the leadership’s official message of moderation and co-existence have become increasingly more apparent as many Islamic jurists, who have adopted exclusivist positions on sensitive inter-faith issues, have been handed sizeable authority by the ruling establishment to influence policy.

The issue may appear to outside observers as a trivial row over religious semantics, but this controversy has proven capable of enflaming tensions between the Malay, Chinese, and Indian ethnic groups, and has even provoked communal violence in the past.

Read the full story on RT.com

Nile Bowie is a Malaysia-based political analyst and a columnist with Russia Today. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.