Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Saudi Arabia is shooting itself in the foot by executing Shiite cleric

The House of Saud’s plans to execute a revered Shiite cleric and protest leader reveal the extent to which the regime is vulnerable and desperate to perpetuate itself. Going ahead with the execution would be strategic miscalculation.

Significant political developments have unfolded in Saudi Arabia in recent weeks following a court decision to execute Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a polarizing Shiite cleric and political activist who has campaigned for civil equality, an inclusive socio-political system, women’s rights, minority rights, and the release of political prisoners. Prosecutors condemned the cleric to death by beheading as punishment for charges of sedition, though the execution date has not yet been set.

Sheikh Nimr has been the fiercest critic of the Kingdom’s absolute Sunni monarchy for the last decade, but gained a considerable public following after leading a series of protests in 2011 in opposition to the Saudi military’s violent intervention and suppression of the pro-democracy movement in neighboring Bahrain, a satellite state with a Shiite majority ruled by a heavy-handed Sunni dynasty. His sermons and political activism continually emphasized non-violent resistance.

The Kingdom’s decision to sentence Nimr to death has complex implications that will push sectarian tensions to fever pitch inside Saudi Arabia and throughout the region, dangerously sharpening tension with Iran. Prominent clerics in Iran and Bahrain, as well as Shiite militant groups such as Hezbollah of Lebanon and the Houthi movement of Yemen, have all condemned the verdict and warned the Kingdom not to proceed with the execution.

Read the full story on RT.com

Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

As Malaysia Airlines bleeds out, twin tragedies are still a question mark

Malaysia Airlines has had a profoundly difficult year. Between two harrowing air disasters and the company’s precarious financial woes, the national carrier faces daunting challenges as it attempts to restructure and recover its reputation as a leading regional airline. Despite poor commercial performance in recent years, it maintained a stellar record for decades as one of the Asia-Pacific's safest and most reliable airlines.

Malaysia Airlines has suffered the two worst disasters in modern aviation less than five months apart. Both incidents involved Boeing 777-200ERs, widely considered being one of the safest aircrafts. Over six months have past since flight MH370 disappeared on route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. A multinational search team has scoured remote southern stretches of the Indian Ocean, unable to find even a trace of debris from the aircraft.

A preliminary report on the demise of flight MH17 released by Dutch investigators has failed to provide a wider understanding of the incident, leaving critical questions of culpability unanswered. The crippling impact of the two air disasters has forced Malaysia Airlines into accelerating a major restructuring effort to rescue the brand and return it to profitably by 2017, with plans to relist the company by 2019.

Nationalize or privatize?

As the flagship carrier, Malaysia Airlines is viewed as a symbol of national prestige and development. The state has played a vital role in using public funds to restructure the airline over the years. The key challenges confronting the carrier are competition from low-cost national and regional rivals, high operating costs, unprofitable long haul routes, and a bloated payroll.

The main question going forward is whether further nationalization or drastic privatization will more effectively resuscitate the airline. Khazanah Nasional, a state investment fund that owns about 70% of Malaysia Airlines, proposed a strategy to recover the national carrier, involving plans to take full ownership of the airline and the most stringent job cuts in the company's history.

Unlike the four previous attempts to restructure the airline, which reneged on plans to scale back the workforce under pressure from politically influential airline unions, the company intends to cut staffing by 6,000 jobs or 30% of the carrier's 20,000 employees. Malaysia Airlines has about 30 percent more staff than comparable airlines, and while the cuts will be painful, the status quo can clearly not be maintained under the prevailing circumstances.

Khazanah Nasional will channel around RM6bn ($2 billion) into reviving the carrier, buying out remaining stock from shareholders, layoffs and other restructuring costs, debt settlement and capital injections. Putrajaya claims these funds are an investment, rather than a bailout, expressing its intention to regain the funds when the airline returns to profitability. One can be forgiven for being skeptical of the carrier’s strategy, taking into account the shortcomings of previous restructuring attempts.

An accumulative sum of RM17.4bn ($5.3 billion) was injected into the airline between 2001 and 2014, and losses of RM8.4bn ($2.6 billion) were incurred nonetheless during that period. Malaysia Airlines reported a net loss of RM443mn ($140.8 million) for the first quarter of 2014. Second-quarter earnings following the unexplained disappearance of MH370 in March saw losses of RM307mn ($97.6 million). The second-half earnings are expected to be even grimmer in the wake of MH17, following reports from the airline that average weekly bookings had declined by 33 percent. The company has lost more than 40 percent of its market value this year and has not made an annual profit since 2010.

Shareholders will be meeting in early November to consider Khazanah’s selective capital reduction proposal plan before the recovery plan can go into effect. Although shareholders will be losing money by selling off their assets for lower prices than they purchased them for, the independent adviser AmInvestment Bank advised that they accept the offer, because without the proposed capital injection from Khazanah, the airline will go under and the share price will collapse. It’s better to lose a finger than to lose an arm.

As budget carriers like AirAsia, which was formally state-owned before being taken private, lead the Southeast Asian market, there are those who will view any further capital injection into Malaysia Airlines as an imprudent use of public funds. Khazanah itself has noted that the RM17.4bn used to restructure the national carrier could have helped improve education or provide water and power to remote villages. It also doesn’t make sense to refer to Khazanah’s move to take full ownership of the airline as a privatization since it is a government investment fund; it’s more like a de-facto nationalization.

At this stage, whether Malaysia Airlines is nationalized or privatized is a periphery concern: the real question is how can it be restructured to viably compete with discount airlines that make up some 58 percent of the air traffic in Southeast Asia? There are concerns going forward that Khazanah lacks the expertise needed to micromanage the airline and implement the kind of solutions needed to shift the balance back toward profitability. Additionally, there will be no minority shareholders to scrutinize the management and provide helpful input under Khazanah’s full ownership of the carrier.

Structural adjustments are needed to make the airline leaner and more efficient if it has any chance of surviving. Long unprofitable routes that require heavy subsidies should be cut with renewed focus on competitively priced medium-haul services within Asia. The fleet of Boeing 777s and Airbus A380s can be sold off and replaced with more fuel-efficient A330s and the A350s designed for shorter distances.

If employees and unions were better informed about the dire ill health of the airline, perhaps they would agree to voluntary pay cuts for a limited period if it meant retaining job security. Under the current circumstances, bonuses should be suspended and the balance sheet should be carefully scrutinized. In addition to rolling out a public relations blitz to repair the image of the company, Malaysia Airlines should emulate some qualities of their rivals’ business models, but differentiate themselves by offering greater value for money to the extent that a full-service airline can provide.

No answers, no closure

As the enquiry continues into the demise of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over the skies of eastern Ukraine in July, the preliminary findings of the international investigation have done little to develop a clearer understanding of the incident. The parties responsible for bringing down the aircraft, and exactly what means were utilized to do so, have yet to be firmly established.

The Dutch Safety Board (DSB), which is leading the investigation into the MH17 crash, released a preliminary report in September, which sought to analyze air traffic control and radio communication data, assess the inflight break-up sequences, and conduct a forensic examination of the wreckage. Assigning culpability to any party was not in the report’s mandate; the authors of the text use highly guarded and ambiguous language to explain their findings.

Due to the continued obstruction and contamination of the crash site as a result of military hostilities, it is highly questionable whether further forensic examinations can be carried out under such protracted circumstances. Another barrier is a lack of political will to consider certain findings, due to the politically charged nature of the Ukrainian conflict, which has resuscitated Cold War-era hostilities, bringing US-Russia relations to new lows.

Though Ukraine, the United States, and other countries have accused Russia of supplying the rebels with surface-to-air missiles and orchestrating the shoot-down of MH17, those governments have yet to declassify their intelligence on MH17, refusing even to discuss the sources and methodology behind their findings. Comments by Russian officials at the UN and elsewhere indicate that Moscow feels its side of the story has been neglected and overlooked.

The satellite images and military data made public by Moscow, which suggest a completely different series of events, have been entirely absent from the media’s narrative. The Dutch findings conclude that the aircraft abruptly ended its flight after a large number of “high energy objects” penetrated the aircraft from the outside, but does not identify the nature of those objects.

Dutch investigators have wholly omitted findings from radar data submitted by Moscow that purportedly showed a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jet flying in close proximity to MH17 prior to it disappearing from radar.  BBC’s Russian language service broadcasted a report shortly after the disaster where several local eyewitnesses claimed to see a military aircraft in the sky flying in the vicinity of MH17 as it exploded and broke apart. The investigation has a responsibility to address the question of the Ukrainian fighter jet and its possible role in the incident.

The case of MH370 has proven to be the most baffling incident in commercial aviation history and one of the world's greatest aviation mysteries. Despite the largest multinational search and rescue effort ever conducted, not a trace of debris from the aircraft has been found, nor has the cause of the aircraft’s erratic change of trajectory and disappearance been established.

After a fruitless search in the southern Indian Ocean where the plane is believed to have crashed after running out of fuel, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau leading the investigation has admitted that investigators are not entirely sure if the current underwater search is being conducted in the right spot, although Malaysian officials have been more optimistic.

Tim Clark, the CEO and president of Emirates, questioned the methodology used by investigation team to pinpoint the crash site, claiming it was downright “suspicious” that a Boeing 777 could disappear without a trace with its communications being disabled. Clark also raised concerns that the public was not being told the whole truth about the cargo manifest.

The families of the passengers and crewmembers onboard the missing aircraft recently renewed calls for Putrajaya to release the full cargo manifest, which they say was only partially released some two months after the incident, claiming that there were missing gaps in the document. The manifesto claimed that the cargo contained 2.4 tons of lithium ion batteries and radio accessories and chargers consigned for Motorola, and 4.5 tons of mangosteen.

IGP Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar promised the media that authorities would investigate the mangosteen supplier after the Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority claimed that the fruit was not in season, nor were there any orchards in Johor where the mangosteen supplier, Poh Seng Kian, is based. The way in which certain information has allegedly been withheld from the public domain has worked to stoke skepticism that investigators must address. 

Inmarsat, the British satellite telecommunications company responsible for analyzing MH370 satellite data, has also come under scrutiny from independent satellite experts and engineers that found glaring inconsistencies in their analysis. The Atlantic magazine published a report in May based on the analysis of Michael Exner, founder of the American Mobile Satellite Corporation, Duncan Steel, a physicist and visiting scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, and satellite technology consultant Tim Farrar.

The team of analysts used flight and navigation software to deconstruct Inmarsat’s analysis, and determined that Inmarsat’s data contained irregular frequency shifts, and even when the values were corrected, Inmarsat’s example flight paths failed to match and proved to be erroneous. In other words, these analysts believe there may be grounds to believe that the search is being conducted on the basis of a false mathematical conclusion.

The authors of the report attempted to reach Inmarsat and other relevant bodies, but they claim that the company did not reply to requests for comments on basic technical questions about their analysis, leading them to determine that “Inmarsat officials and search authorities seem to want it both ways: They release charts, graphics, and statements that give the appearance of being backed by math and science, while refusing to fully explain their methodologies.”

While the investigation teams are doing their level best to establish accounts of the two Malaysia Airlines disasters, there is undoubtedly a dimension of political pressure involved that can create various barriers to understanding. The astonishing nature of these two incidents demand that uncomfortable scenarios and questions be addressed and examined. The media still has an important role to play.

This article was appeared in the October 28 and 29, 2014 print edition of The Malaysian Reserve newspaper.

Nile Bowie is an independent journalist and political analyst based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His articles have appeared in numerous international publications, including regular columns with Russia Today (RT) and newspapers such as the Global Times, the Malaysian Reserve and the New Straits Times. He is a research assistant with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), a Malaysian NGO promoting social justice and anti-hegemony politics. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.


Thursday, 16 October 2014

Occupy Central is undermining stability

Hong Kong has been brought to a standstill over the past several weeks as the territory’s pro-democracy movement clogged major roads and transport arteries, blocking traffic in a sustained campaign of civil disobedience. Clashes between demonstrators and local business owners, taxi drivers, and other residents have become commonplace due to the strain placed on the economy by the protest movement.

Irrespective of whether one supports the movement or not, it is self-evident that the sustained protest strategy has long ceased to be constructive. The number of participants has dwindled to the low hundreds in most cases. As evidenced by reports and video footage of chaotic altercations, the persistence of the movement is undermining the city’s social fabric and stability. Support for the Occupy camp is also eroding as business and transport disruptions persist.

Occupy Central is the latest manifestation of an increasingly common kind of movement, whereby a consolidated group of frustrated young demonstrators occupy public areas and refuse to disperse until their demands are met. Elder protest leaders and opportunistic opposition politicians set the agenda, while hordes of students enforce their demands on the street. In the push to achieve the goal of the campaign, the negative impact on local businesses and people’s lives are of little concern.

While movements like these tend to crop up in highly polarized societies, protestors will shrewdly accept nothing less than their demands, even if they represent a contentious minority position. That these groups sing the praises of ‘democracy’ makes for good satire. However, to dismiss these movements altogether as an annoyance or threat to public disorder obfuscates important political signals which need to be listened to.

As it pertains to Hong Kong, an extremely complex set of social and economic factors motivates and fuels the protest movement. The rising eminence of mainland cities as shipping and financial hubs casts a shadow over Hong Kong, which has long ceased to serve as an exclusive gateway into China for foreign investors and banks.

Beijing has taken a hands-off approach to Hong Kong, allowing the territory to operate with a high degree of political autonomy. While there is little evidence of the central government trying to assert its authority and systems onto the territory, the large volume of mainlanders who come to Hong Kong as tourists and property-buyers have instilled in many the notion that Hong Kong risks being absorbed into the mainland’s social and cultural milieu.

The idea of protecting the territory’s unique identity from absorption into the larger polity propounds demonstrators with an ardent sense of urgency and justice. It is undeniable that Hong Kong is rife with chauvinist attitudes toward mainlanders. The demonstrations, in turn, have become an avenue for protestors to assert their status and identity, veiled under a homogenizing pro-democracy banner. Mainland reactions to the protests have been lukewarm because these sentiments can be widely inferred.

Another more obvious factor is economic in nature, pertaining to the territory’s soaring income inequality and the increasing difficulty to make ends meet. The ‘Hong Kong dream’ is fast evaporating, as young people increasingly view barriers to home-ownership and greater material affluence as becoming ever more pronounced. Most poignantly, there is a major trust deficit toward the current administration that could continue to widen and polarize society. 

International media coverage, which has echoed the sympathetic statements made in favor of the protestors by Western governments, has oversimplified the Occupy Central movement by overlooking questions of identity and dislocation. The movement has been framed through a familiar cookie-cutter narrative that is averse to criticizing the student movement whilst often exaggerating the extent of police misconduct.

Teargas was used to disperse the protestors, which had the unintended effect of galvanizing support for the movement, only when students attempted to storm government buildings. In contrast to the heavy-handed conduct and police brutality that has been repeatedly demonstrated in Europe and the United States, the actions of the Hong Kong police were highly restrained throughout. These demonstrations have proved beyond doubt that the Hong Kong authorities have respected their citizens’ rights to assemble.

Western media has also mischaracterized the historical treaty between Britain and China that set conditions for the handover, while obfuscating a critical point: that implementing the universal suffrage system was Beijing’s idea. Nowhere in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration is universal suffrage mentioned. As it pertains to the territory’s Basic Law, the chief executive will be elected by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee.

There is no substance to the allegation that China ‘reneged on its commitment’ to offer universal suffrage, because the law always stipulated that a nominating committee would approve candidates for chief executive. By selectively reporting from pro-Occupy perspectives, the Western media has created an impression that Beijing is suppressing democracy, when in fact the population will be directly electing the chief executive through one-person-one-vote for the first time in history in 2017.

The one-person-one-vote system was never a feature of life under British colonial rule. By 2020, both the chief executive and legislative council be will elected through universal suffrage, representing a move toward popular ballot-box politics. A 1,200-member electoral college currently elects the chief executive; therefore, the accommodation of direct elections will be undeniably more representative than the current arrangement.

It is hardly surprising that the figures associated with the Occupy Central movement, be they student leaders or opposition politicians, have a relationship with the US government, through its foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The organization channeled hundreds of thousands into programs to mobilize university students to demand universal suffrage, while the media has campaigned on their behalf, romanticizing the so-called ‘Umbrella Revolution’ on 24-hour news cycles in the West.

In keeping with other campaigns that have been bolstered by NED’s largesse, the protest movement brands itself with a symbol or color – the umbrella in this case – which is peddled as a fashion statement. The fact that these movements speak with emotions rather than facts make ‘revolution’ a very easy product to sell. Washington’s statements in support of Occupy Central are staggeringly hypocritical given the heavy-handed suppression of the US Occupy movement over the years, in addition to the regular accounts of police brutality that have enflamed race-relations in places such as Ferguson.

US support for the demonstrations in Hong Kong should be seen as part and parcel of a wider strategy by Washington to encourage agitation in China’s periphery regions and territorial disputes. It is only a matter of time before the protest movement loses steam, but the complex attitudes driving the discontent will not be easy to placate. Dialogue between the government and opposing forces will need to take place eventually, but the movement needs to know when to compromise.

A version of this commentary appeared in the Global Times.

Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Hong Kong’s ‘Semi-Autonomous Democracy’ is still a leap forward

As the Occupy Central movement cries foul over electoral regulations imposed by Beijing, few acknowledge that the proposed reforms are far more representative than any previous electoral mechanism in Hong Kong’s history.

Tens of thousands of protestors have taken to the streets of Hong Kong in recent days, defying calls to disperse demanding the Chinese government agrees to allow residents to freely elect the city’s next leader. The student-led demonstrations have sparked the worst unrest seen in the Asian financial hub since the 1997 handover which saw China regain sovereignty over the former British colony.

Demonstrations have expanded throughout the city calling for the resignation of chief executive Leung Chun-ying, bringing shopping and business districts to a standstill. Members of the protest movement, known as Occupy Central with Love and Peace, attempted to invade the city's main government compound, prompting riot police to disperse crowds with tear gas and pepper spray.

The conduct of security forces galvanized sympathy for the movement, causing its ranks to swell over the weekend as the value of the Hong Kong dollar tumbled to a six-month low. Student leaders have vowed not to attend classes indefinitely until the city’s top leader steps down, while activists set up barricades and vow to continue their civil disobedience campaign.

Hong Kong operates with a high degree of autonomy under the framework of the “one country, two systems” model, which grants residents of the semi-autonomous island a higher degree of civil liberties, press freedom and political expression than citizens in mainland China. Activists believe the government in Beijing is intent on tightening control over the area to undermine existing freedoms.

Read the full story on RT.com

Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.