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NightWatch 20110620


For the Night of 20 June 2011

North Korea-South Korea: North Korea on Monday, 20 June, vowed to retaliate "mercilessly" and "sternly" if the South Korean National Assembly passes a bill on human rights conditions in North Korea.

"If the puppet group enacts the criminal act, the army and the people of the DPRK (i.e., North Korea) will make a merciless and stern response, considering it as an official declaration of war against them and the second 'target case,'" the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland threatened.

"Target case" refers to the South Korean military's use of head-shot photos of the North's top leaders, the late Kim Il-sung, Kim Chong-il and his son Kim Jong-un, as targets for shooting practice.

Comment: The stated purpose of the bill is help North Koreans, but it appears to be more a cover for provocative actions against the North, such as anti-government leaflet drops over the North by balloon.

The complaining North Korean group is a semi-official agency of the North Korean government, thus the Pyongyang government is not directly involved. Thus, the statement is a low level warning. Nevertheless, it highlights the North's sensitivity to real and perceived affronts at this time and could be the first step in another round of increased tension.

Singapore: On 20 June Singapore's Foreign Ministry called on China to clarify its claims in the South China Sea because its current "ambiguity" has caused serious concerns in the international maritime community. The statement indicated that Singapore takes no position with respect to the various disputes in the South China Sea, but as a major trading nation, Singapore has a critical interest in anything affecting the free navigation of all international sea lanes.

Comment: Singapore is one of the only countries in Southeast Asia with a sea border that has no claim to any islands or seabeds of the South China Sea. Singaporean experts have long known that China claims as its territory the entire South China Sea and all its islands. Singapore's interest is that China state whether it recognizes the application to the South China Sea of the principle of freedom of navigation of sea lanes used in international commerce.

Saudi Arabia: For the record. A coalition of Saudi activists is urging the top women diplomats in western nations to support publicly a campaign by women in Saudi Arabia to acquire the right to drive automobiles. The group, Saudi Women for Driving, says it sent letters Monday to US Secretary of State Clinton and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, appealing for statements backing the effort to end the male-only driving rules in the kingdom.

Comment: The women are no longer practicing on private parking lots, but are taking to the streets. Some Saudi clerics have denounced the women's driving movement as un-Islamic, in hysterical terms. This is a cultural test and challenge for Saudi political leaders, all males.

Yemen: A Saudi news outlet reported the Saudis buried the first victim of the 3 June bombing attack on the Yemeni presidential palace. Yemeni Deputy Minister for Endowments and Guidance Mohammad al-Fusaiyel died in a Saudi hospital on 18 June 18 from serious injuries sustained in the attack.

Comment: Yemeni officials continue to issue contradictory and confusing press releases about the health status of President Saleh and other members of the government injured in the 3 June bombing. Today, an official told the press that Saleh is 80 per cent healed and will return to Sana'a on the 23rd. Last week Saleh supposedly was to have made a speech by the 20th.

Over the weekend, however, a Saudi press outlet reported, allegedly from knowledgeable medical staff, that Saleh will never be able to return to Yemen because of the severity of his wounds.

The lack of movement towards political normality by Vice President Hadi suggests that the government itself is uncertain about Saleh's status and return. Hadi is taking no chances, particularly as long as Saleh's son remains in charge of the Republican Guard, the regime's protection force.

Thus far, the news sources that reported Saleh would not return have proven more accurate than the government statements. As long as Saleh's sons, Ahmed and Khaled Saleh, and nephews remain in Yemen and in charge of powerful military forces, the inevitable political transition to a new government will remain delayed.

Syria: President Bashar al-Asad delivered his third public statement to the nation since civil disturbances began three months ago. The speech echoed the themes of his 30 March address in which he blamed outside influences and saboteurs for the unrest and promised a national dialogue. He promised nothing else.

Al Assad said three kinds of constituents are protesting, those with legitimate needs who must not be neglected; those who protested without any real motive and those who used need to vandalize.

Asad said a conspiracy against Syria can be found as foreign "stances" (sic) are exerting pressure on the country. He said fear prevents people from approaching state institutions, adding he will ask the Justice Ministry to possibly expand the recent comprehensive amnesty to future decrees. He warned against extremism, calling it killing in the name of religion and vandalizing under the pretext of reform.

Public reaction. Protests and denunciations of the speech were held in 19 towns, including a few Damascus suburbs.

Comment: Those observers who expected Bashar to make concessions to the opposition were disappointed. His speech conceded nothing despite 98 days of protests.

A mistake that some US news outlets make is to ascribe Asad's intransigence to protection of his family's rule or of the Ba'ath Party, which controls the parliament. Asad is the public political leader of the Alawite sect, which has governed Syria for 33 years but represents about 11 percent of the population. If the Alawites are ousted, they are likely to be massacred by the Sunnis.

The largest mysteries about the Syrian activists are their identity, their political positions and allegiances and whom they represent. Most Syrians appear to be waiting on the sidelines to see who prevails. By Egyptian standards earlier this year, the Syrian demonstrations are small.

Thus far, the Alawite regime is doing better than US media report, mainly because it has more guns. At some point, Alawite leaders might sacrifice Bashar, as a liability and a sop - as occurred in Tunisia with Ben Ali. Bashar's replacement would not necessarily signify that the Alawite regime was failing.

Tunisia: Update. Former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his wife were sentenced in absentia by a Tunisian court to 35 years in prison for embezzlement of public funds.

Comment: Ben Ali and his wife and family are in Saudi Arabia which has rejected requests for their extradition to Tunisia. The trial is political theater for the benefit of the activists. No political revolution has taken place. The Army is the power behind the government. No democratic improvements have occurred, and most importantly, the economic grievances that sparked the Tunisian uprising remain unaddressed.

Corruption is being exposed, but the benefits of the uprising for the public and what happens to the spoils are not yet apparent.

End of NightWatch for 20 June.

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