Lowy Institute

We're about to start our Easter holiday here in Australia, so the The Interpreter will be light-on over the next few days.

We'll post a few pieces over the break, as well as our usual weekend catch-up on Saturday. Regular posting will resume on Tuesday 22 April.

Image by Flickr user Jeni Rodger.


Each Thursday we bring you a selection of what our Pacific island experts have been reading from and about the region.

  • In Fiji, the police have confirmed that Rear Admiral Bainimarama is under investigation for allegedly breaching electoral rules.
  • Voters in Niue have returned the government of Toke Talagi after the last seat was decided by a straw poll.
  • There are heightened tensions on the border between Papua New Guinea and West Papua.
  • The IMF is concerned about levels of public debt in Samoa, but the prime minister maintains  there is no cause for alarm.
  • Vanuatu has launched its National Energy Road Map, a first in the region.
  • A 'cyber crime' policy before cabinet in Papua New Guinea has raised concerns about freedom of expression.
  • A new publication launched by the IMF captures economic data about Pacific countries: Asia & Pacific Small States Monitor.


In Myanmar's western Rakhine State, home to several camps of internally displaced people (IDPs), tensions are running hot.

Late last month, riots and attacks on the UN and NGOs led to the relocation of 170 aid workers. This is worrying for two reasons. Firstly, the IDP camps that hold 140,000 people (mainly Rakhine Muslims) are already suffering from shortages of medical care, food and drinking water, so the disruption of aid work could prove deadly. Secondly, it appears the Myanmar Government is unable to calm the repeated and increasing outbreaks of violence.

On 26 and 27 March, riots which involved over 400 people targeted the offices and residences of Medicins Sans Frontier, UNHCR, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Malteser International and others in the state capital Sittwe. Reports indicate that 71 aid workers were evacuated following the incident and 170 staff relocated. After some hours, local security forces arrived and aided their evacuation, firing multiple rounds into the air to disperse the rioters. An 11-year old girl was killed during these events, and the following day Naypyidaw set up an investigation committee to probe the incident and find the culprits. 

Rakhine Buddhists have protested against NGOs in the past. Protests earlier this year led to the end of Medicins Sans Frontier's operations in Rakhine State. Rakhine Buddhists see the organisations as supporting only the Muslim communities.

The riots underscore a worrying trend in Myanmar. According to government numbers, 167 people have been killed and 223 injured in the recent communal violence (as highlighted in earlier posts). Rakhine Muslims, known broadly outside the country as Rohingyas, have taken shelter in IDP camps and tens of thousands more have have fled over the border to Bangladesh or by boat.

These camps, which hold some 140,000 people, are under increasing pressure.

Read More

As Myanmar's mercury soars, much of the country is this week celebrating the Thingyan water festival. It is a cruel reality, then, that according to humanitarian organisations, the 140,000 people in Rakhine State's IDP camps don't have enough drinking water. The UN Special Rapporteur for Myanmar noted in a statement on 7 April that water availability could reach critical levels within a week in some camps. 

As a result, the UK last week summoned the Myanmar ambassador to discuss the deteriorating humanitarian situation and restriction of access of aid workers. The invitation led to a strong rebuke from Myanmar's presidential spokesperson, U Ye Htut, stating that the UK was interfering in Myanmar's internal affairs. 

While the Myanmar Government has since re-emphasised its commitment to protecting aid workers, the problem remains that Rakhine Buddhists want Rakhine Muslims to leave. Human rights groups have been murmuring about the threat of ethnic cleansing and a government policy of persecution against the Rakhine Muslims. While this is largely uncorroborated, what is worrying is the Government's unwillingness to engage on the issue. Daw Aung San Sui Kyi has been widely criticised for her silence, but other politicians have been equally mute.

A key reason for this lack of government engagement is that many people in the country support the Rakhine Buddhists. This sentiment is exacerbated by politicians positioning themselves for the 2015 election, and by a young, newly free and inflammatory media. There is also concern that any action against the Rakhine Buddhists could provoke countrywide protests and reprisal attacks against Muslims.

The national census, now underway, will likely return results that will suggest, incorrectly, that the Muslim population in the country has increased by up to three-fold. This will exacerbate tensions and could provoke further violence.

The Myanmar Government would be wise to act early and turn up the volume on its support for a peaceful solution to communal violence that includes greater dialogue with Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims. International support is also needed. Pressure should be applied by all international actors in Myanmar, investors included. If the Government fails to act, this issue could break the fabric of the country's transition, jettison its promised wealth and lead to a lot more bloodshed.

Photo by Flickr user European Commission.


Evgeny Morozov has cornered the market in passionate take-downs of techno-utopian futurism in recent years, but there's always room for more. Here's Bryan Appleyard in the New Statesman:

...futurologists seldom let the facts get in the way of a good prophecy. Or, if they must, they simply move on. The nightmarishly intractable problem of space travel has more or less killed that futurological category and the unexpected complexities of genetics have put that on the back burner for the moment, leaving neuroscientists to take on the prediction game. But futurology as a whole is in rude health despite all the setbacks.

Why? Because there’s money in it; money and faith. I don’t just mean the few millions to be made from book sales; nor do I mean the simple geek belief in gadgetry. And I certainly don’t mean the pallid, undefined, pop-song promises of politicians trying to turn our eyes from the present – Bill Clinton’s “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow” and Tony Blair’s “Things can only get better”. No, I mean the billions involved in corporate destinies and the yearning for salvation from our human condition.

Appleyard would probably wince at this breathless piece about what might be the world capital of techno-utopianism, Google's top secret innovation lab, known as Google X:

If there's a master plan behind X, it's that a frictional arrangement of ragtag intellects is the best hope for creating products that can solve the world's most intractable issues. Yet Google X, as Teller describes it, is an experiment in itself--an effort to reconfigure the process by which a corporate lab functions, in this case by taking incredible risks across a wide variety of technological domains, and by not hesitating to stray far from its parent company's business. We don't yet know if this will prove to be genius or folly. There's actually no historical model, no ­precedent, for what these people are doing.


By Matthew Linley, Designated Professor at Nagoya University. Matthew holds an LLM from Nagoya University and a PhD from the ANU.

On Tuesday the Japanese Government released its annual population estimate.

Unsurprisingly, the population declined for the third year in a row, by 0.17%. The figure grabbing the greatest attention, however, is 25.1%. That's the percentage of the population over 65 years old. Not unexpected, of course, but crossing that one-in-four threshold does resonate.

Let's take a brief look at some of the data and consider some implications. As Figure 1 shows, the number of Japanese aged 30 and over overshadows those under 30. Those born five or six years after the end of World War II (the 64 and 65 year olds) make up the single largest age group. Another large cohort of people born in the early 1970s is now in their late 30s and early 40s.

Figure 1: Number of people by age in Japan, 2014.

While Japan's aging population is a familiar problem, less is said about the differences between regions. Of Japan's 47 prefectures, only 8 experienced a rise in inhabitants over the past year. Figure 2 shows the top ten growth rates by prefecture.

Read More

Figure 2: Change in population by prefecture (top ten growth rates), 2014.

It is clear the demographic shift from rural to urban areas that began in the 19th century endures. Tokyo, despite its already enormous size, saw growth of over 0.5% while the adjoining prefectures of Saitama and Kanagawa, where many Tokyo workers live, were also boosted. The populations of Aichi (where Nagoya is located and home to Toyota) and Fukuoka expanded too. Chiba, just outside Tokyo, and Osaka made the top ten of growth rates but, showing just how dire things are, actually saw a reduction in residents.

What is salient about the current report is the pace of rural Japan's depopulation. Figure 3 shows the prefectures with the greatest rates of decline in the past year.

Figure 3: Change in population by prefecture (bottom ten growth rates), 2014.

Despite not being large to begin with, the populations of Akita and Aomori in northern Japan decreased by over 1%. These depopulation rates bring with them a host of problems for local governments that will be unlike those in urban areas. One cannot help but ponder the future of agriculture in Japan since Niigata, Fukushima, Aomori, Yamagata, and Akita are all top ten rice producers. Not only will young people subsidise their elders, but urban residents will need to provide greater support for sparsely populated rural areas as well.

Although the report notes that the number of foreigners living in Japan rose for the first time in five years, it is too bad that neither the government nor any major media outlets mentioned immigration. The government, businesses, and labour unions have deliberated over increasing the number of foreign workers required for the coming construction boom linked to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But nobody has advocated increasing long-term residents.

After acknowledging Japan's aging problem in his Davos speech this year, Shinzo Abe asked rhetorically, 'in such a country, where will you find those innovative and creative human resources?' He mentioned briefly how foreigners could provide 'help with housework' and 'care for the elderly' but his main argument was that more women must participate in the labour force.

But as others have argued, and as is confirmed by this report, putting faith in a single approach will not be sufficient to deal with the magnitude of the problem (the report also indicated that the female population decreased by 0.15%). Nor will it address the imbalanced nature of Japan's population decline. While improving childcare and educational facilities may make working in cities more attractive to women (men too), policymakers outside urban areas must not only provide these basic facilities but also revive local economies with fewer workers and consumers.

So, along with economic reforms and dealing with a rising China, this report is a good reminder of perhaps the most daunting set of questions that Japanese policymakers face today: what will the country do to stop its precipitous population decline and how does the rest of the country compete with the bright lights of Tokyo?


The idea of cyberspace as a common global good has yet to find its place in Australia. 

Ensuring that sea lanes remain open for navigation throughout the Indo-Pacific was a prominent concern in the last Defence White Paper. Australia's condemnation of the Chinese ADIZ in November 2013 indicates that freedom of navigation in the air also remains a critical strategic interest for the Government. Cyberspace, however, is seen purely in security terms (cyberattack, cyberwar, cybercrime), not as a rules-based global good that is essential to the modern global economy and that demands its own strategic considerations. 

Australia lacks a comprehensive cyber or digital policy. The internet and digital connectivity are driving global trade, deepening cultural exchange and will be a central element of strategic stability in the future, within the Indo-Pacific and globally. 

The Australian Government needs to consider the critical role of global digital communication on the stability and growth of Australia's economy, and its future national security. 

Australia needs a cyber white paper.

Read More

Previous governments have attempted to publish a distinct cyber white paper, but the idea was shuffled between federal departments and watered down before ultimately being added to an existing domestic digital infrastructure policy.

The Government needs to recognise that a comprehensive cyber and digital white paper is the best way to ensure that Australia maximises the advantages that come with being in the region with the highest number of internet users in the world. Australia's geographic position will be an advantage as e-commerce grows and more goods and services in the region head online. 

China alone is estimated to have 590 million users and India a further 151 million. These numbers will continue to grow. A 2012 Boston Consultancy Group report estimated that by 2016 China will have 'nearly 800 million internet users' and that the internet economy itself will reach a value of US$4.2 trillion in the G20 nations. The internet economy will also account for a significant part of future economic growth. The same report states that emerging nations will be 'responsible for about 34% of the overall internet economy' and that same industry will be responsible for '48% of their (future) growth.'

This increase in internet users and digital connectivity is helping to drive growth in international trade. A recent report from Brookings argued that, as the internet becomes a more important 'platform for commerce', individual buyers and sellers are using it to interact across borders in ever more sophisticated ways. A study by PayPal tracked this digital commerce and its relation to trade flows, finding that in just six surveyed markets the value of cross-border commerce was estimated at US$105 billion, and by 2018 this will increase nearly '200% to $307 billion.' The internet is also allowing large amounts of data to cross borders nearly instantaneously, which is also 'underpinning global economic integration and international trade.' Trends in the diffusion of manufacturing and the growing importance of open source design will also increase the importance of digital communication in the global economy. 

As well as purely economic considerations, a cyber white paper could address the convergence of Australia's economic and strategic interests in the digital realm. 

It is undoubtedly in Australia's national interest to see economic interdependence, international trade and communication continue to grow throughout the Indo-Pacific region and between its major powers. Open lines of digital communication are essential for financial transactions and global communication.  An unhindered global commons, which includes the sea, air, space and now cyberspace, underpin a stable strategic system, something that needs to be nurtured in a region that is rife with territorial disputes and rising defence budgets

If open sea lines of communication are critical to Australia's economy and its national security, then we need to start thinking similarly about the internet and digital communications. 

Disruption to the internet and digital communication by cyber attack within the region is a real threat, but other strategic concerns such as faltering telecommunication infrastructure development and improper regulation and tariffs on data and online commerce are also growing. These issues are also interconnected, as the development of effective broadband infrastructure in other countries allows Australian commerce and business access to those markets. 

The need to consider how the internet and digital interconnection are intersecting with the economic, security and strategic interests of Australia from a policy perspective is clear. Australia needs to start thinking comprehensively and strategically when it comes to the future of digital communication.

Photo by Flickr user pfly.


On 5 April, the Solomon Islands was hit by extreme flooding, killing 23 people and leaving an estimated 50,000–60,000 people homeless.

Lowy Institute Melanesia experts Jenny Hayward Jones and Tess Newton-Cain got together earlier this week to discuss the impact of Australia's $3 million assistance package and the relief response of the Solomon Islands government. Jenny and Tess examine the opportunities for Solomon Islands to rebuild key infrastructure (2.08), Solomon Islands preparedness to face future disasters (3.00) and the worrying signs of political interference in aid assistance (3.26).


By David Schaefer, an intern in the Lowy Institute's International Security program. The Indo-Pacific is a strategic system encompassing the Indian and Pacific oceans, reflecting the expanding interests and reach of China and India as well as the enduring role of the US. The Lowy Institute's International Security program presents a weekly selection of links illuminating the changing security picture in this increasingly connected super-region.

The Lowy Institute International Security Program's work on Indo-Pacific security is supported by two grants from the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation.


Chinese President Xi Jinping addressing members of the Indonesian parliament, October 2013 (Photo: Reuters/Supri)

A Jakarta think-tank intellectual was once asked whether Beijing listens when Jakarta speaks. He responded emphatically: 'Oh yes! The problem is we don't say enough'.

In the post-authoritarian era, Indonesian officials, like many of their Southeast Asian counterparts, have tended to self-censor when it comes to China, avoiding public criticism while benefiting from considerable Chinese largesse. This is what makes recent public comments by senior Indonesian military officers about the vulnerability of Indonesia's South China Sea-located Natuna Islands so interesting. 

Following a February 2014 trip to Beijing, for example, Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) commander General Moeldoko signaled enhanced defence measures for the Natuna Islands. 'Since Natuna is strategically located, the increase of its forces at sea, on the ground, and in the air is necessary to anticipate any instability in the South China Sea and serve as an early warning system for Indonesia and the TNI', he explained.

Then in March, Air Commodore Fahru Zaini, based at Indonesia's Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, publicly stated that 'China has claimed Natuna waters as their territorial waters. This dispute will have a large impact on the security of Natuna waters'. 

In June 2013, Commodore Amarullah Octavian was even more frank. In announcing that Indonesia would host 'Exercise Komodo' he explained that 'the exercise will focus on naval capabilities in disaster relief, but we will also pay attention to the aggressive stance of the Chinese government by entering the Natuna area'.

Unsurprisingly, such candid public comments by senior Indonesian military officers did not go unnoticed in the Indonesian press and scholarly community.

Read More

There was a particularly interesting exchange on this issue between Indonesian security analyst Evan Laksmana and American academic Anne Marie Murphy. Murphy had interpreted the TNI comments as evidence of a significant policy shift by Indonesia and described the 'public declaration' of a maritime conflict with China as a 'potential game changer'. 'The strategic ambiguity that has allowed Indonesia to position itself as a mediator between China and its ASEAN neighbours has been lost', she concluded.

Laksmana was quick to counter, citing statements by Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa and foreign ministry spokesman Michael Tene, who clarified there was no territorial dispute between Indonesia and China. According to Laksmana, Air Commodore Zaini was speaking neither for the Indonesian government nor TNI. Laksmana said there was no policy shift and that 'the status quo between China and Indonesia over the Natunas will remain until the day Beijing challenges Indonesia's rights to explore the natural resources within our EEZ'.

Ultimately, Laksmana is correct. There is no formal policy shift by Indonesia on the South China Sea. But Murphy's analysis is not erroneous. There may be no formal shift, but the recent unguarded comments by senior TNI officers, and the subsequent 'clarification' from senior diplomats, can be understood as the public manifestation of civil-military differences over China. 

TNI, like all militaries, is essentially realist in orientation. Its builds forces and plans strategy based on a range of threat scenarios. Indonesia's defence planners have factored in a potential Chinese threat to the Natuna Islands since the mid-1990s. Former armed forces commander General Wiranto reflected the military's contrived ambivalence about a China threat in 1996: he denied that Indonesia's then-largest joint exercise around the Natuna Islands was in response to a China threat, but added that he 'could not help it if there were observers who chose to see it that way'.

Indonesia's foreign ministry, by contrast, is more liberal-institutionalist in inclination. It pursues Indonesia's national interests through diplomacy and a strong predilection for multilateral solutions to regional security problems, mainly through ASEAN-centred mechanisms. Unlike their TNI colleagues, who prepare for the worst, the civilian diplomats are keen to preserve Indonesia's official impartiality on South China Sea disputes, which provides Jakarta with added influence and leverage with Beijing. 

Beneath Laksmana and Murphy's 'policy continuity' versus 'policy shift' debate, one can see the internal dimensions of rising strategic uncertainty playing out in differences between the foreign ministry and TNI. Expect such differences to become more commonplace as Beijing further infringes on Indonesia's territorial sovereignty. Such infringements will both test Jakarta's formal impartiality on South China Sea territorial disputes and challenge Indonesia's domestic consensus on the need to subordinate strategic concerns about China to higher economic and foreign policy objectives. 


The Australian reported on its front page this morning that two Australian citizens were killed in a drone strike in Yemen in November last year. The Australian reports that, according to a 'senior counter-terrorism source', the two men were 'foot soldiers for al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula', known as AQAP, but that they were not the target of the US attack.

This will open a debate in Australia about US policy, a debate that has been going on for quite some time elsewhere. Drone strikes have killed British, German, and other nationals in the past so it's not an entirely new issue for Western countries. 

Unsurprisingly, commentary is split between people who chafe about the illegality of what they consider to be 'extrajudicial killings' and those who argue that we are at war and that enemy combatants can be legitimately targeted in time of war. Then there is the argument that the number of civilians killed in such strikes actually creates more future enemies than the current enemies it removes. These are substantial issues and beyond the scope of this post. 

The Australian Government would not allow the deliberate targeting of one of its citizens by another power. That is one of the benefits of citizenship. In the court of public opinion, however, which is what most politicians are concerned about, most Australians will feel that if you are an Australian citizen and a member of a group which the Australian Government has proscribed as a terrorist organisation, then you have made a choice that brings with it certain risks. One of those risks is being killed in a drone strike targeting other members of the organisation to which you belong.

Read More

Would the people now condemning the lack of Australian official protest to the Americans be similarly outraged if it transpired that an Australian passport holder who was also a member of Hizbullah had been killed in an Israeli air strike targeting a weapons transhipment from Syria to Lebanon? That person may not have been engaged in direct combat, but he or she was facilitating potential future attacks by a non-state actor against another state.

Australian citizens are being killed in Syria fighting for opposition groups of various hues. An Australian citizen is also a prime suspect in a bus bombing in Bulgaria that killed six people.

The nature of the threat from Islamist terrorism means that foreign nationals will turn up in places they shouldn't, doing things that pose a risk to other people. Citizenship confers certain rights on a person, and imposes responsibilities on a government. It also imposes certain responsibilities on an individual. Regardless of the debate about the legality or policy sense of US drone strikes, if it is confirmed that these Australian citizens were members of AQAP and were not deliberately targeted, then I don't think either the Australian Government or public will lose much sleep over their passing.  

Photo by Flickr user US Department of Defense.


Imam mosque, on the southern edge of Naqsh-e-Jahan Square, Esfahan. Photo by the author.

On the edge of Iran's Dasht e Kavir desert, a young Iranian guy sits by the edge of an old reservoir-turned dirty swimming pool, drinking warm beer and gesticulating wildly as he tells jokes to his friends. As the sun shifts out from behind a clump of palm trees, Esse peels of his cotton jumper, revealing a tattoo running the length of his inside left arm.

It's a slice of lyrics, he says, tracing the dark ink. 'Who are you to tell me how to live my life?' it reads, in delicate copperplate.

Esse nods when told that these are lyrics from hip hop group Bliss N Eso, oblivious to how strange it seems that an Australian band has found popularity in the strict Islamic country, culturally and geographically on the other side of the world.

The song has become something of an anthem for Iran's younger generation, played on car stereos and iPhones, and linked on Facebook pages despite the common assumption that the secret police monitor the site for any sign of anti-government sentiment.

At another nearby desert party, a towering northern Italian man unfolds himself from the front seat of a dust streaked 4WD, shaking sand from the creases in his pants and shirt.

'I was expecting techno parties,' he says grinning as he strides into the remote guesthouse in the desert about three hours south of Tehran.

If it's raging parties the Italian wants, he's about two weeks, or four decades, too late. In the sixties and seventies, before the revolution, youngsters would travel from the big cities to the desert to dance under the stars, to take time out from the bureaucracy of Tehran and their parents.

Now, the girls come so they can take off their headscarves and party to Western music in skin-tight jeans and singlet tops. Boys sit around drinking moonshine, and smoking hash, something that was legal until 1986.

In the great sandy expanse of the Iranian desert, police turn a blind eye. But the silent threat at every party is the stringent and sometimes horrific punishment (including execution) meted out by religious police in the cities for such incursions.

Read More

As with Egypt and Turkey, more than half of Iran's 75 million population is under 35. Despite rigid censorship laws, Western culture – everything from Google and Facebook to Hollywood movies and music videos flaunting semi-naked women – is easily accessed on the internet using ISP routing programs such as Psiphon.

For many of the younger, educated Iranians, it feels like their government's ability to control Iran's propaganda is slipping as people see first hand what they are missing out on under the Islamic regime. Yet contrary to Western assumptions, it's not access to the 'excesses' of US culture that young Iranians want most. Almost universally, they hold fast to their religion. But they want the option to take a more moderate approach to its practice and implementation.

Crucially, they want an end to the power of the shadow government, run by the mullahs answerable to the Supreme Leader. But few are under any illusion about the prospects of that, particularly after the disastrous and bloody 2009 Green Revolution and the problems arising from the Arab Spring.

Esse is a carpet salesman and works in the popular tourist hub of Esfahan. He trained as an engineer but can't find work. It's a common problem for university graduates. Professional positions are scarce and usually require a friendly word in the ear of a government contact to seal the deal. Esse says most people are hoping that eventually, international sanctions will be lifted so the economy can be given breathing room. As it is, few expect a functioning relationship with the US (laughingly referred to as 'Big Boss'), despite moves by Iran Air to recommence direct flights from Tehran to Los Angeles, and the relative success of nuclear talks in Geneva late last year.

Street signs and walls around Esfahan and Tehran are plastered with graffiti railing against America. For much of it, the paint still looks fresh.

Farid knows first hand the dangers of speaking out publicly against the Iranian regime. He is also an engineer by trade but introduces himself as a writer. He was in Turkey when he got the call from a government official confirming he was on a traitor watch list and demanding his blog be dismantled. He seriously considered not returning to Iran because of concerns for his personal security.

Both Esse and Farid want to leave Iran, but there are only a handful of countries to which Iranians can freely travel. Turkey and Somalia are among them. Even if they want to leave, it's almost impossible to navigate the bureaucracy to obtain a passport.

But their opinion only represents one side of the spectrum. For foreigners traveling in Iran it is notoriously difficult to interact with strict Islamists, which means any commentary on the state of the country is weighed in favour of globalisation.

In Esfahan, away from the tourist areas, hustles of women wrapped in black chador (translated literally as 'black sheet') give Westerners a glaring once-over as they pass. Some of the younger generation have nicknamed these women the 'triangle ladies', a disparaging reference to the triangle-shaped window of skin left exposed around their eyes.

For those who will talk, the desire to be allowed to practice a more moderate version of Islam, and to modernise the country's approach to foreign policy and the America, is omnipresent.

Under the shadow of Esfahan's famous mosques, by the side of the water feature in Naqsh e Jahan Square, a man in his fifties lays out a newspaper to protect his pants from the damp concrete. It's the second largest square in the world, he declares, after Tiananmen Square in China. What is it with repressive regimes and enormous squares? He laughs.

He is a watch maker but comes to the square to practice his English and press foreigners for information about the outside world. He recalls the day he stood watching the family's black and white television in 1979, triumphant as news footage showed distressed and tearful Pahlavi supporters and Western sympathisers fleeing the violence in Tehran.

His mother walked in from the kitchen and saw him celebrating the victory.

'She told me I would be the one with tears.' He is quite for a moment, staring past the hundreds of tiny fountains spurting across the rectangular pond.

'She died a year later,' he says. 'And she was right.'


In the US movie Groundhog Day, protagonist Bill Murray finds himself condemned to relive the same day over and over again, until finally managing to break the time loop. 

 For Japan whaling watchers, it has been a familiar feeling. In recent years, the nation's 'research' whaling expedition has conducted an annual, ritualistic battle in the Antarctic against environmentalists led by Sea Shepherd, with seemingly little scope for a breakthrough.

All that apparently changed on 31 March, when after nearly four years of deliberations, an International Court of Justice (ICJ) panel voted 12 votes to four in favour of Australia's argument that Japan's JARPA II research whaling program was illegal, as it failed to constitute scientific research. Has Japanese whaling finally broken the 'groundhog day' cycle?

The answer appears to be in the affirmative, despite claims to the contrary from Sea Shepherd and apparent bravado from the whalers.

According to a Fairfax report, Japan's whalers plan on returning to the Antarctic for a renewed 'research program' in 2015-16, and in compliance with the ICJ decision. Sea Shepherd's Paul Watson said the alleged plan by Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), which contradicted Japan's official statements after the decision, showed the nation's 'history of duplicity with regard to whaling'.

Yet the evidence suggests Japan's whalers have been politically harpooned, at least for the time being.

Read More

On Monday, news agency AFP-Jiji reported that Tokyo had yet to make a decision on resuming whaling in the Southern Ocean next year, despite the environmentalists' claim. As the Japan Times reported:

The ICR refused Monday to comment on the report, while an official at the (Japanese) Fisheries Agency said "there has been no decision yet" on what to do in the 2015-16 season and beyond.

According to Japan watchers Justin McCurry and David McNeill, Tokyo based correspondents for the Guardian and the Economist respectively, the ICJ ruling has left little way out for the embattled Japanese whalers. Here's what McCurry had to say:

I don't think Japan is going to be ready to go back to the Southern Ocean in the winter of 2015-16, which is what they seem to be suggesting. I think it's a clear case of wishful thinking which you hear quite a lot of in Japan — they set these ridiculously ambitious targets which no one thinks they're going to meet and it's probably just a bit of bravado.

McNeill agreed, saying that despite the Fisheries Agency's wishes, the future appeared bleak for 'research' whaling. 'It's very difficult to see how Japan can restart scientific whaling in the Antarctica after this,' he said, adding: 

Because of this legal ruling by one of the most authoritative courts in the world, everyone now will be on Sea Shepherd's side and that makes it much harder for Japan to engage in scientific whaling.

McNeill cited whaling analyst Atsushi Ishii of Japan's Tohoku University, who has said a genuine research whaling program could involve catching as few as 10 whales, a prohibitively small number for the money-losing expeditions. 

According to AP, the recent Antarctic hunt could cost the cash strapped Japanese Government up to US$50 million, and with an estimated 5000 tonnes of whale meat stockpiled in freezers, the Japanese public appears to have little appetite to eat its way through the losses.

Despite attempts by the Japanese whaling industry to boost consumption, including putting whale meat back in school lunches, demand remains small in a nation renowned for its love of seafood. 

A 2006 survey by the Nippon Research Centre found that 95% of Japanese had never or rarely eaten whale meat. Only a few coastal towns maintain a genuine attachment to the 'cultural' cuisine that saw its heyday in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when protein was in short supply. Ishii said in a previous interview that:

The reported stockpile of whale meat is a record, and there's probably even more stored elsewhere which isn't subject to data collection. If the whaling industry loses the subsidies and loans, it would face bankruptcy as there's no demand.

Rising fuel costs and the added security needed to combat Sea Shepherd has raised the annual cost of the Antarctic expeditions, while the mother ship, the Nisshin Maru, is reportedly in need of a major refit, costing potentially millions of dollars to taxpayers.

While the ICJ decision does not prevent Japan from continuing its 'scientific' program in the North Pacific, the cull there yields fewer whales and is now at risk of legal challenge, McNeill said. Japan's whalers may also seek an increased quota for coastal whaling as a quid pro quo.

Both McNeill and McCurry said the other option of withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission was not viable for Japan either. 'Japan is involved in a dispute with China over the Senkaku islands, and it's always pointing out how China is wrong to attempt to change the status quo in the region and that it must obey international law,' McCurry said:

This dispute is just going to get more complicated as the years pass, and Japan is going to need the support of the international community to take the high legal and moral ground. So it can't say that in one instance and in the next say because it hasn't got its way on whaling it's going to pull out of the IWC.

'It may not have been the ICJ and the environmental campaigns that did for Japanese whaling, but Japan's relations with its neighbours,' McCurry said. Perhaps not coincidentally, Australia and Japan announced a free trade deal just days after the whaling ruling, with both nations committing to a broader relationship across the economic and defence spheres. 

Finally, the international court has helped break the loop on Japan's Groundhog Day for whaling, and not before time.

Photo by Flickr user Dirk Kitchner.


So you thought Buzzfeed was all listicles? Shame on you. They've published a wonderful profile of the great American political satirist Tom Lehrer, 'a sensation in the late 1950s, the era's musical nerd god: a wryly confident Harvard-educated math prodigy who turned his bone-dry wit to satirical musical comedy'.

Lehrer was a man of the left, but...:

...his left was the square, suit-wearing, high-culture left. His circle at Harvard included Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the renowned historian, JFK biographer, and then-nominal chairman of the Cambridge chapter of Americans for Democratic Action. His political hero was Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, the man whom Richard Nixon damagingly dismissed as an “egghead.”

Stevenson’s losing battle marked the end of a political tradition, and also the beginning of the end of a kind of Ivy League liberal intellectualism’s place atop the Democratic Party. What was coming was the New Left and the counterculture, something whose aesthetics Lehrer couldn’t stand, even if their politics weren’t necessarily at odds.


Barring a miraculous turnaround, the latest round of US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, scheduled to end on 29 April, look set to fail. Few thought they had much chance of succeeding in the first place. Their collapse will add another suffocating layer of cynicism and further erode what little trust remained between the two sides. And the hopelessness of life under endless occupation will offer fertile recruiting ground for militants on the prowl.

Palestinians are desperately worn down, weary from decades of fruitless talks. They want jobs and the right to determine their own future, free of military occupation. Yet their prospects remain grim. Under the status quo, Palestinians have limited autonomy over a small part of the West Bank and no right to vote for the Israeli government that exercises ultimate control. The private sector is almost non-existent and youth unemployment sits at around 35%.

These bleak conditions are felt most acutely in the densely populated refugee camps scattered across the West Bank and Gaza. The camp in Jenin is one of the front lines of the decades-old conflict. Renowned as the hotbed of Palestinian militancy during the second intifada, it remains a regular target of Israeli raids. Last month, a joint IDF, Shin Bet and Border Police raid killed a wanted Hamas operative along with two others, bringing the Palestinian death toll to 56 since the resumption of talks last July.

On a recent visit to Jenin Refugee Camp, I met one young man who still had shrapnel lodged in his stomach from the raid. He told me he's frustrated by the corruption within the Palestinian Authority (PA), and their coordination with the Israeli army. He wants peace, but doesn't have confidence in the PA to deliver it. That's not an uncommon sentiment in the West Bank.

Read More

As we talked, a younger, more sprightly local boy approached me. Probably aged 12, he eagerly declared, 'we throw stones and molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers, they are not our partners in peace'. I asked if he wanted peace. He responded quickly and firmly, 'yes'. I then asked if he was afraid of the soldiers? 'No'. Like his friend, he couldn't see past the occupation. Few people I spoken to can. For the young boy, peace talks are an abstract concept that has failed to deliver any meaningful change in his lifetime.

Exasperated by Israel's continued settlement enterprise, President Abbas has activated his plan B. By signing onto a slew of international conventions that seem to signal a new effort to secure statehood recognition at the UN, he's laying the early groundwork for a formal complaint against Israel at the International Criminal Court. But as the Palestinian president looks to the international community, he may struggle with legitimacy back home. A mix of exhaustion and defeat now plague the Palestinians. If, in the next couple of weeks, Abbas succumbs to Israeli pressure and pauses his move at the UN, his leadership will be further doubted.

In Jenin, even days of celebration include a touch of the macabre. On the day of my visit, the streets were adorned with posters of local 'martyrs', otherwise known as suicide bombers. Photos of young, steely eyed fighters armed with Kalashnikovs were plastered on every wall. Music was blaring and the streets were being cleaned in preparation for the release of Wael al Naroussi, a member of the notorious Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade. Returning home from prison after serving his twelve-year sentence, Naroussi would receive a hero's welcome.

When jobs are scarce and the outlook on life is grim, resistance to the occupation is what gives many young Palestinians purpose. Keeping that energy within the non-violent realm will be a challenge if, or when, the talking stops.

Leaving the camp, I was struck by the contradiction in the war-like imagery and the strong views of those who I'd spoken with. Despite the intense idolisation of those who have taken up arms, everyone wanted peace and most wanted to pursue it through non-violent resistance. But, without more incentives, that may change.

Photos by the author.