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NightWatch 20110330


For the Night of 30 March 2011

South Korea: Forces on Yeonpyeong Island and on Baengnyeong Island held live-fire artillery practice on 30 March. The guns will be turned away from North Korea, an official stated, adding K-9 self-propelled howitzers, 81-millimeter mortar guns and Vulcan guns participated in the drills

Comment: South Korean authorities said the armed forces are on alert against any North Korean reaction, but none has been reported during this Watch. The exercises are acts of defiance against threats from a reckless, bullying North Korean regime and are tonight's good news.

North Korea-US: Ri Gun, director general of the North Korean Foreign Ministry's North American Affairs Bureau, said closed-door talks in Berlin with former U.S. officials were constructive and allowed both sides to voice their opinions.

Ri said both countries agreed to improve communication and work to solve problems through dialogue and negotiation. Ri would not elaborate further because the meeting was unofficial, and the meeting coordinator said both countries agreed that only North Korea would make a statement. The North Korean delegation was led by Ri and his deputy, Choe Son Hui, and the U.S. delegation was led by Tom Pickering, former undersecretary of state for political affairs at the State Department.

Comment: For those who believe process is substance, this was a successful meeting. As for dialogue and communication, North Korea can and does communicate frequently with the US at the United Nations.

The issues are not a failure of dialogue, but a failure of North Korea to stop proliferation, halt preparations for a third nuclear test, apologize for sinking a South Korean corvette and pay reparations for destroying an island village.

There is no do-over or reset because officials and ex-officials meet in Berlin. The North wants to resume talks as if nothing happened last year so as to avoid taking responsibility for its reckless actions. The Berlin talks are part of the strategy of talks without conditions, but the conditions exist nonetheless. The North's diplomats always agree to solve problems though dialogue and communications, but they do not control or speak for the Army which holds the guns that prop up the regime.

Burma: Former Army general Thein Sein was sworn in on 30 March as the elected President of Myanmar (Burma) today. With his investiture the State Peace and Development Council, aka the military junta, is dissolved under the terms of the new constitution.

Comment: This is a sham democracy that appears to be loosely patterned on the Indonesian precedent of  "guided democracy" under Suharto. The government party, the USDP, holds 388 of the 493 seats in the elected national assembly. The face of Burma -- a president in a business suit -- lapparently looks better than the uniforms of the military junta. The substance has not changed.

For good or ill, the international community has no choice but to deal with the new head of state and his government. That and a short memory are what the junta is counting on to restore Burma's international respectability. Nations need to remember that this regime reportedly is making Scud missiles with North Korean help, exploring nuclear energy applications and wages war against minorities and political activists. Nothing in the new constitutional arrangement changes that. 

Iran-Egypt: Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi welcomed remarks by his Egyptian counterpart Nabil Elaraby on promoting closer ties between Iran and Egypt, Press TV reported. IRNA quoted Salehi saying that despite ups and downs, historical ties between the two countries have been sustained and that he hopes to see an expansion of relations. He added that good relations between Iran and Egypt could help the region's development, security and stability.

Comment: The exchange of positive comments resembles a mating call. Iran will send a delegation to Cairo soon to take advantage of a policy windfall.

Bahrain-Pakistan: Foreign Minister Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa met with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar on 29 March to discuss expansion of bilateral ties and stronger defense cooperation, Dawn News reported.

Bahrain pledged security for Pakistani expatriates, who total about 65,000, and hopes Islamabad would continue its "principled stand" on the ongoing protests, al-Khalifa said. Pakistan had a proposal ready to offer Bahrain regarding recruitment of retired Pakistani military personnel into Bahraini defense forces, but the opportunity did not arise, a senior official stated.

Comment: For the Arabs, the Pakistan Army is a combination of strategic reserve and foreign legion. Pakistani armored and infantry units protected the Saudi monarchy during the Kaaba crisis in 1979.

Had the Peninsula Shield Force not rescued the house of al Khalifa, the Pakistan Army veterans foundations were prepared to send 1,000 ex soldiers to support the monarchy in Bahrain. Pakistan has been a vocal supporter of the Peninsula Shield Force intervention and remains a source of support if more troops are needed.

The Pakistan Army is closer to Saudi Arabia more than to any other nation, despite heavy reliance on China for most of its arms and missiles.

Yemen: Update. On 30 March hundreds of thousands of Yemenis in Sanaa, Saada and Marib called for President Saleh to resign immediately.

President Saleh offered a new proposal to end the crisis that would allow him to remain in office, but transfer powers to a caretaker government until parliamentary elections can be held at the end of the year. The opposition supposedly could choose its own government. Saleh reportedly made the offer during a meeting on 29 March with opposition party leaders.

Comment: Saleh is inconsistent and appears unstable. After multiple decades in power, a strongman leader should have had more than enough time to develop an exit strategy. None appear to have done so. Saleh's regime has reached its end, but has no path to a graceful exit.

Egypt: The military rulers decreed an interim constitution on 30 March which empowers the transitional administration to run the country until elections return power to an elected government. The decree confirmed that the military will hold presidential powers until a new head of state is elected. The interim constitution's 62 articles include amended sections of the old constitution that were approved by referendum on 19 March.

Comment: Field Marshal Tantawi's regime looks bewildered more than revolutionary. It issues decrees that make little sense, lack credibility and contradict each other. An interim regime is supposed to be administrative, but this group is making policy changes that have profoundly negative effects on regional stability.

The military government looks like it does not know what it is doing and does not seem to care, provided there are no civil disorders.

Syria: In a major address on 30 March, President Bashar al Asad made no concessions to the opposition. He promised no new reforms. He blamed the protests on a vast foreign conspiracy and exempted Syria from the Arab spring reform movement, because Syria is a special country.

He restated Syrian foreign policy as

- respect for national rights;

- support for Pan Arab rights (i.e., Baathism);

- independence;

- support for Arab resistance movements when there is occupation.

He said that on 24 March the government initiated "unannounced reforms" that were under review and would be announced after the review was completed. They supposedly concern jobs, corruption, control of the media and promotion of national unity, but Asad gave away no details. As for the emergency law, he said it was under review as well and would be subject to public debate. No time given.

Comment: Bashar Asad's statement confirms he is a figurehead who dutifully repeats what he is told. His statement rejects any prospect of change in the government.

Thousands of Syrians demonstrated against Bashar's speech. In Latakia, some were shot by security forces.

There will be no reform and there will be more killings of protestors. Any nation that expects Bashar could be an agent of political reform misjudges the man and the power structure. Moreover, in times of stress, nations strengthen ties to reliable allies, in this case Iran.

Libya: For the second day, rebels ran away even farther, allowing Qadhafi forces to advance to positions they held just after air strikes began.

Comment: The Taliban use the same, and less powerful, weapons as the Libyan rebels possess against the Coalition forces in Afghanistan, the most powerful armed forces in the world. The Libyan rebels actually have the weapons to win, even against armor. The reason for their successive defeats is the men, not the weapons.

If there are CIA or UK operatives with the mob, some should advise the mob that what goes up comes down. The ammunition fired into the air for the benefit of news cameras is a threat to Libyan civilians and fellow fighters.

Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa arrived in London after having resigned from the Qadhafi government. It is not clear whether he is an emissary or a defector, but the British Foreign Office issued a statement encouraging those around Qadhafi to abandon him. Koussa issued no statement.

Libya-Indonesia: Indonesian President Yudhoyono said his country is ready to contribute peacekeeping troops to the military intervention in Libya, calling on the United Nations to lead efforts to enforce a cease-fire and deploy a peacekeeping mission to the country.

According to Yudhoyono, two elements of U.N. Resolution 1973 have yet to be satisfied: an immediate cease-fire and an immediate yet peaceful political settlement. Yudhoyono proposed that a peacekeeping mission be implemented, similar to the one proposed by Indonesia for the cease-fire between Lebanon and Israel.

Ivory Coast/Cote d'Ivoire: Update. Forces loyal to Ivorian presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara entered the national capital city, Yamoussoukro, from three different directions on 30 March. Yamoussoukro is in the center of the country. Ouattara's forces have begun moving south towards Abidjan, the commercial center and former capital on the coast.

Laurent Gbagbo said his forces are executing a strategy of tactical withdrawal. If Ouattara's men seize Abidjan there will be massacres, irrespective of UN peacekeeping forces there.

End of NightWatch for 30 March.

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