Focal Points Blog

An Open Letter to Aung San Suu Kyi

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Aung San Suu Kyi

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Aung San Suu Kyi

Respected Ms Aung San Suu Kyi,

Thanks to the internet, I have the luxury of putting together this open letter for you (though of course, a busy Nobel Laureate such as yourself must be having better things to do than reading this letter).

Last month, at the third Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), you met the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina. Both of you discussed various issues, such as the importance of providing micro-loans to rural women and the need to restrict the trafficking of meth pills in the region. It was good to hear that steps were being taken for the betterment of the entire region.

However, something was missing. Yes, the plight of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. Did you forget about them? Of course you did! You are a busy lady, after all!
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Tripping on the Czech Jewish Fantastic: From the Golem to Kafka to Daniel Kumermann

Daniel Kumermann

Daniel Kumermann

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com.

We met in 1990 at the oldest active Jewish synagogue in Europe, the Old-New Synagogue in Prague. Daniel Kumermann gave me a brief tour of the 13th-century structure, along with the adjacent cemetery. The synagogue is one of the few remaining structures of the old Jewish quarter, a place rich in tales of the fantastic, from the golem of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel to the stories of Franz Kafka, who was born and raised in the area.

Kumermann fit right into this tradition of fantastic stories. He had been a teenager when he learned that his father was Jewish, and later he himself converted to Orthodox Judaism. He had written his master’s thesis on American comic books. As a signatory of Charter 77, he’d been forced to work as a window-washer, the same occupation as the protagonist in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He collected gum wrappers. He was about to be the subject of a New Yorker profile.
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Is U.S. Nuclear Energy or Isn’t It Dependent on Russian Enriched Uranium? (Part 2)

Uranium Enrichment

Read Part 1 of the series, too.

There is little danger that U.S. energy security could be affected by a cut-off of Russian enriched uranium, and thus little reason to be concerned about a potential retaliatory action if the U.S. imposed sanctions against the Russian energy sector.

In recent years, the U.S. nuclear power fleet has indeed relied on an influx of Russian uranium, through a program called Megatons to Megawatts in which highly enriched uranium from dismantled Russian nuclear weapons has been downblended – - mostly in Tennessee — to low-enriched uranium suitable for use in nuclear reactors. In 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (August 28, 2013), this program accounted for 13% of the enriched uranium purchased by U.S. reactor operators. Because of contracts signed in prior years, the amount of Russian uranium actually used in U.S. reactors was higher.
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Is U.S. Nuclear Energy or Isn’t It Dependent on Russian Enriched Uranium? (Part 1)

Russian Nuclear Energy

On March 26, we ran a blog post by Sufyan bin Uzayr subtitled: “The U.S., hooked on Russian enriched uranium, is in no position to impose long-term sanctions on Russia.” In other words, collateral damage from sanctions might include an end to Russia supplying the United States with enriched uranium. Bin Uzayr had linked to an article on the U.S. Energy Administration Information website that begins:

Owners and operators of U.S. commercial nuclear power reactors buy uranium in various forms as well as enrichment services from other countries. U.S. nuclear plants purchased 58 million pounds of uranium in 2012 from both domestic and foreign suppliers; 83% of this total was of foreign origin.
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Why Did the Palestinian-Israeli Negotiations Collapse?

Diplomats extraordinaire Kim Jong Un and Dennis Rodman

Diplomats extraordinaire Kim Jong Un and Dennis Rodman

Rivers of commentary and analysis will flow on every conceivable media platform over the coming days, featuring experts, “Arabists,” politicians and other pundits. They will spend hours grinding their way around one essential question: Why did the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations collapse?

Well, there are several answers to this question:

The first reason, and the one directly responsible for the current crisis, is that the Israelis reneged on their obligation to release Arab prisoners from Israeli prisons on March 28. This was part of the agreement that launched the current process eight months ago. The Israelis were supposed to release Palestinian prisoners in four installments; they carried out three installments and reneged on the last installment.
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A Tortured Twist on Ethics

Guantanamo

Yosef Brody is a clinical psychologist and president-elect of Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

George Orwell wisely observed that our understanding of the past, and the meaning associated with it, directly influences the future. And as the unprecedented public feud between the CIA and Congress makes clear, there are still significant aspects of our recent history of state-sponsored torture that need examination before we put this national disgrace behind us.

Important questions remain unresolved about the U.S. torture program in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. And the four-year, $40 million Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture is unlikely to provide sufficient answers, even if it’s ever declassified and released.
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Funding Roma Autonomy

Anna Csongor

Anna Csongor

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com.

Between 1990 and 2010, according to the World Bank, the number of people living in extreme poverty worldwide was cut in half. This dramatic achievement, which was actually a major Millennium Development Goal, happened several years ahead of schedule. The reduction in extreme poverty varied from region to region, with great gains made in Asia and not much progress achieved in Africa. In East-Central Europe, the drop was roughly comparable to the global average.

There is, however, a statistical anomaly in the data for East-Central Europe. For the 10-12 million Roma living in the region, the overall economic situation has gotten worse over this period of time. Since 1990, Roma have experienced catastrophic increases in unemployment and discrimination. In Serbia, for instance, 60 percent of the Roma population lives in extreme poverty, in Albania 40 percent. In Romania and Hungary, the poverty rates for Roma are far higher than the majority population. There has been little if any improvement in the last decade.
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Rumsfeld’s Biggest Unknown: Himself

Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in 1975

Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in 1975

The New York Times recently ran a four-part post in its Opinionator section by filmmaker and blogger extraordinaire Errol Morris titled The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld. Complete with interviews with those present, including Rumsfeld himself, about which Morris has just made a documentary titled The Unknown Known, it’s a meditation on what George W. Bush’s infamous first secretary of defense expounded on at a 2002 press conference about the lack of evidence that Iraq had a nuclear-weapons program.

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Which, common sense would seem to dictate, is what 99.9% of the universe is composed of, in relation to us anyway.
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Netanyahu’s Defining Hour

Netanyahu

While the world watches Kiev, the Middle East peace process is once again on the verge of collapse. After almost nine months of feverish efforts by Secretary of State John Kerry, we’re now less than a month away from the deadline for an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. The prospects of reaching any form of agreement in late April are grim, and the current standoff over this weekend’s aborted prisoner release threatens to definitively end this round of talks.

Twenty-six Palestinians prisoners, all of whom had been convicted before the 1993 Oslo Accords, were slated to be released this past Saturday as part of the original agreement reached last July. Now, under increasing pressure from hardline members of the Likud and Jewish Home parties, Prime Minister Netanyahu is demanding that the Palestinians commit to extending the peace process beyond April before he will release this final group of prisoners. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has called these tactics “blackmail” and is unequivocal in his refusal to link the prisoner release to an extension of talks. So we’re back at impasse – an all-too-familiar state for Israeli-Arab peace talks. The indefatigable John Kerry has taken an emergency trip to the region to try to salvage the process; there’s now talk of a broader deal in which the Americans would incentivize Israeli cooperation by releasing Jonathan Pollard, a convicted spy whose actions and long US prison sentence have won him sympathy among Israelis.
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Now’s Not the Time to Go Soft on Robert Gates

Gates, Robert

Many breathed a huge sigh of relief when George Bush appointed Robert Gates secretary of defense. Compared to Donald Rumsfeld, who he replaced, he seemed like the voice of sanity. Then, he authored a much-praised memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Knopf, 2014), in which, for example, he wrote of the Afghanistan War that President Obama “doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

Thus did he become another voice, as well: that of frankness in politics. But lest his history become revisionist, we need to remind ourselves of just who Robert Gates was before his image was sanitized.
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