May 16, 2016

NEED TO KNOW

Duterte’s Balancing Act

The United States could be out of an ally when Rodrigo Duterte takes over as president of the Philippines next month.

While his predecessor, Benigno Aquino, took a strong stance against Chinese aggression in the region and cozied up to the United States, Duterte has suggested his allegiance is up for grabs.

Duterte clashed recently with the US ambassador, telling him to “shut his mouth” after the diplomat spoke out against the then-Davao City mayor and presidential candidate after he said he should have been first in line to rape an Australian missionary murdered in the Philippines.

At the same time, Duterte has hinted that China could mend its relationship with Manila by constructing railways in the Philippines like those it has built in Africa.

Despite Duterte’s embrace of questionably tough police tactics, like summary death sentences for criminals and other potential infringements of human rights, the US is still hoping to build a relationship with him.

After the election, the US State Department congratulated the man who earned the nickname “The Punisher” when he was mayor: “We look forward to working with and congratulating the winner. Washington respects the choice of the Philippine people,” the department said. “We gladly work with the leader they’ve selected.”

Duterte’s election came after President Barack Obama toured Asia in order to help rebalance the continent, both economically and militarily, in the face of an increasingly powerful China.

But experts say Duterte lacks confidence that the US would come to his aid should the Philippines come under attack from China, despite their mutual defense pact and American help in fighting Islamic extremists in the country.

China, meanwhile, is confident that the new Filipino leader will become a regional ally, with Chinese media outlets describing Duterte as having a “China-friendly” policy because he is willing to look past territorial disputes between the two countries to reach agreements.

Should Duterte aid Beijing in the South China Sea, it could tip the balance in favor of the Asian giant’s bid to dominate the waterways through which $5 trillion in shipping passes each year.

The soon-to-be president of the Philippines has expressed mixed signals about which side appeals to his sympathies, sometimes saying he wants to cooperate with Chinese oil and gas exploration in the disputed waters of the South China Sea and other times calling out the US for its failure to intervene in China’s expansion in the region.

Of course, say some, there’s always the possibility that The Punisher is playing both sides.

WANT TO KNOW

Iraq: A Grim Anniversary

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, took responsibility for an attack on a gas plant in Baghdad on Sunday.

The early morning attacks killed 10 people. The terrorists blew up a car bomb at the plant’s entrance. Then a suicide bomber triggered a second explosion inside the facility. More Islamic State fighters attempted to gain entrance into the plant, but soldiers stopped them with the help of two Iraqi military helicopters deployed from a nearby base.

The attacks on the northern outskirts of the capital were the latest in a string of incidents that have claimed more than 100 lives in the past week as Iraqi leaders struggle to defeat ISIS, which controls swaths of the country, and improve the country’s dismal economy.

The attacks appear to be leading up to a grim anniversary: ISIS took Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, two years ago in early June.


EU-Turkey Deal in Jeopardy

Turkey is threatening to unravel a deal to reduce the flow of migrants to the European Union by refusing to change its national terrorism policy.

While the EU says that Turkey needs to narrow its definition of terrorism – to leave room for dissent in the country – Ankara insists the laws are necessary to battle Kurdish militants domestically and threats from the Islamic State in neighboring countries.

The law reform is one of the five criteria that President Tayyip Erdogan still has to meet in order for Turkish citizens to gain visa-free travel to Europe.

If the EU and Turkey cannot agree on terms, the stream of refugees will resume its flow to Europe, further alienating Ankara from the West and overwhelming the southern European countries where they first land.

Last year, more than 1.3 million refugees passed through Turkey to Greece and Italy, fleeing from conflict areas such as Syria and Iraq. Many are still held in detention centers that are already overcrowded.


No Place to Call Home

Imagine a country that wants to close its refugee camps due to fears that Islamic terrorists have infiltrated them.

You may be thinking the country is Germany or Greece. Actually, it’s Kenya.

Kenya recently announced it would close the Dadaab refugee camp in the country’s remote northeast near the Somali border. The camp is the largest in the world, housing 350,000 of the 600,000 refugees in the East African country.

But following attacks by Al Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab at the Westgate Mall in 2013 and at Garissa University College in 2015 that saw hundreds murdered, the Kenyan government claimed militants were recruiting from inside the camp.

The proposed shutdown and the mass repatriation of refugees that Kenyan has proposed following the closure raises big questions: Is it ethical? Is it logistically possible?

But, given how many of the refugees fled countries like Somalia that are still dangerous, the most important question might be whether the refugees have anywhere to go.

DISCOVERIES

Scrumming For Equality

Thirty years ago, there was a strong case to be made that Apartheid made South Africa one of the least liberal countries in the world.

But these days, attitudes are changing, albeit slowly: A Johannesburg-based rugby club called The Jozi Cats is the country’s first gay-inclusive rugby team.

The team’s campaign to stamp out homophobia in sports recently went viral. It plays, of course, on the image of rugby players as red-meat eating, strapping tough guys whom homophobes might think twice before insulting.

Despite being launched with no budget, the campaign’s organizers said they have been “floored” by the response, most of it positive.

But while some say it’s nice to know that attitudes are changing, all is not rosy and sunny: Last year, national player Jacques Potgieter was fined for using homophobic slurs against two other players.

Still, even the small steps by the likes of The Jozi Cats are steps in the right direction.