Systems of Ideas and Power:

I'm sure that there are several "threads" which have lead to a perhaps very complex "weaving" of the current socio-political and economic situation.

Lots of alternative traditions, western political screw-ups -and other such things.

However, one thing that political thinkers seem to be completely blind about is "cultural aesthetics"..... so perhaps we should rephrase it terms of simple, old fashioned, classical, "class warfare".......

I'm afraid that I can't help believing that the BBC, with its obsession with "global enterprise" in third world countries, Mosul Diaries and other suchlike is (consciously or unconsciously) promoting "universal" middle class values -which, bizarrely enough, maybe not all the people in the world subscribe to.

It does seem a recurring theme which underlies many conflicts -especially (but not exclusively) in South America.....

Perhaps it is time for the BBC to do a study on "revolt against the Bourgeoisie".

In an historic context, let us not forget the strong Puritan tradition within the US: Indeed, I have the feeling that in many ways the Taliban could have  been quite happy  with early New England moral standards.

In some cases it does seem that "secularism" has become the new religion -and that in a modern global consumerist society the secularists are just as dogmatic -and ready to kill, in the name of their religion  as any member of the inquisition -or other terrorist group.

So, just as a simple mental exercise -how about sitting down and asking oneself what exactly are the socio-political choices  facing a young person in various arenas of conflict around the world.  For example, what choice of world views is truly open to a Palestinian youth -or a student in Hongkong, Venezuela -or even London or Paris? Do they, for example, truly have the freedom to become nomadic Reindeer herders, sea gypsies, or live outside the global system in natural and unopposed circumstances? Does anybody have this freedom -including those who's traditional way of life it is?

What fundamental choices are available -beyond supporting the status quo (whatever that is) -or joining the resistance against it? How many shades of grey are there within this apparently binary choice?

More importantly -who, or what, frames the choices we do have? Are we really trapped in a system of historical (cultural, commercial and political) inevitability that causes the world to develop mas it does?

Or are powerful (visible or invisible) forces battling for control (to whose advantage)?

Perhaps, if we went back to basics -and asked what human nature is about -and what real chances it has to express itself (outside the dominant global system) -then maybe the "political" choices would become much clearer.

If I was suggesting a reading list for understanding our current conundrums -then I think "Between Tears and Laughter" and "Only Yesterday" would be top of the list.  For me, it is only within this context that political philosophy makes any sense (while geopolitics makes absolutely no sense at all )......  If politics is the power struggle to realize the "best possible" ideological deal -then what value can it have when all of the alternatives it offers are false and valueless?

Such a strategy is clever from a (bad) management perspective -but a disaster for human values and happiness -and for creative problem solving.

So, in my view, the problems can never be solved by the political (or intellectual) system(s) -because these systems have excluded the very forces that need to be understood in order to even contemplate solutions for our global, neo-fascist, consumerist socio-economic and mental prison.

However, I guess, in the meantime, there are fat salaries to be won by simply preserving the status quo....... while creating more problems for more people to earn money while failing to solve them  :)

Swine and Slop economics as Lin Yutang called it.......

A Point of View: The writer who foresaw the rise of the totalitarian state


The 19th Century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote about characters who justified murder in the name of their ideological beliefs. For this reason, John Gray argues, he's remained relevant ever since, through the rise of the totalitarian states of the 20th Century, to the "war against terror".

When Fyodor Dostoyevsky described in his novels how ideas have the power to change human lives, he knew something of what he was writing about.

Born in 1821, the Russian writer was in his 20s when he joined a circle of radical intellectuals in St Petersburg who were entranced by French utopian socialist theories. A police agent who had infiltrated the group reported its discussions to the authorities. On 22 April 1849, Dostoyevsky was arrested and imprisoned along with the other members, and after some months of investigation they were found guilty of planning to distribute subversive propaganda and condemned to death by firing squad.

The punishment was commuted to a sentence of exile and hard labour, but the tsar's authority to decree life or death was confirmed by forcing the prisoners to undergo the ordeal of a mock execution.

In a carefully stage-managed charade Dostoyevsky and the rest of the group were taken on the morning of 22 December 1849 to a regimental parade ground, where scaffolding had been erected and decorated with black crepe. Their crimes and sentence were read out and an Orthodox priest asked them to repent.

Three of the group were tied to stakes in readiness for execution. At the last moment there was a roll of drums, and the firing squad lowered its rifles. Reprieved, the prisoners were put in shackles and sent into Siberian exile - in Dostoyevsky's case for four years of hard labour, followed by compulsory service in the Russian army. In 1859 a new tsar allowed Dostoyevsky to end his Siberian exile. A year later he was back in the literary world of St Petersburg.

Dostoyevsky's experience had altered him profoundly. He did not abandon his view that Russian society needed to be radically changed. He continued to believe that the institution of serfdom was profoundly immoral, and to the end of his life he detested the landed aristocracy. But his experience of being on what he'd believed was the brink of death had given him a new perspective on time and history. Many years later he remarked: "I cannot recall when I was ever as happy as on that day."

From then onwards he realised that human life was not a movement from a backward past to a better future, as he had believed or half-believed when he shared the ideas of the radical intelligentsia. Instead, every human being stood at each moment on the edge of eternity. As a result of this revelation, Dostoyevsky became increasingly mistrustful of the progressive ideology to which he had been drawn as a young man.

He was particularly scornful of the ideas he found in St Petersburg when he returned from his decade of Siberian exile. The new generation of Russian intellectuals was gripped by European theories and philosophies. French materialism, German humanism and English utilitarianism were melded together into a peculiarly Russian combination that came to be called "nihilism".

We tend to think of a nihilist as someone who believes in nothing, but the Russian nihilists of the 1860s were very different. They were fervent believers in science, who wanted to destroy the religious and moral traditions that had guided humankind in the past in order that a new and better world could come into being. There are plenty of people who believe something similar today.

Dostoyevsky's indictment of nihilism is presented in his great novel Demons. Published in 1872, the book has been criticised for being didactic in tone, and there can be no doubt that he wanted to show that the dominant ideas of his generation were harmful. But the story Dostoyevsky tells is also a dark comedy, cruelly funny in its depiction of high-minded intellectuals toying with revolutionary notions without understanding anything of what revolution means in practice.

The plot is a version of actual events that unfolded as Dostoyevsky was writing the book. A former teacher of divinity turned terrorist, Sergei Nechaev, was arrested and convicted of complicity in the killing of a student. Nechaev had authored a pamphlet, The Catechism of a Revolutionary, which argued that any means (including blackmail and murder) could be used to advance the cause of revolution. The student had questioned Nechaev's policies, and so had to be eliminated.

Dostoyevsky suggests that the result of abandoning morality for the sake of an idea of freedom will be a type of tyranny more extreme than any in the past. As one of the characters in Demons confesses: "I got entangled in my own data, and my conclusion directly contradicts the original idea from which I start. From unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism."

As a description of what would occur in Russia as a result of the Bolshevik revolution nearly 50 years later, this can hardly be improved upon. Though he criticised him for relying too much on individual acts of terror, Lenin admired Nechaev for his readiness to commit any crime if it served the revolution. But as Dostoyevsky foresaw, the use of inhuman methods to achieve a new kind of freedom produced a type of repression that was much more far-reaching than the theatrical cruelties of tsarism.

Dostoyevsky's novel contains a lesson that reaches far beyond Russia. Early English translations bore the title The Possessed - a misreading of a Russian word more accurately rendered as Demons. But the earlier title may have been closer to Dostoyevsky's intentions. Though at times he is merciless in his portrayal of them, it isn't the revolutionaries who are demons. It's the ideas to which the revolutionaries are enslaved.

Dostoyevsky thought the flaw at the heart of Russian nihilism was atheism, but you needn't share his view on this point to see that when he writes of the demonic power of ideas he has fastened on a genuine human disorder. Nor do you need to approve of Dostoyevsky's political outlook, which was a mystical version of nationalism deeply stained with xenophobia.

What Dostoyevsky diagnosed - and at times suffered from himself - was the tendency to think of ideas as being somehow more real than actual human beings. It would be a mistake to imagine that we haven't also fallen into this sort of delusional thinking. The wars the West has fought in the Middle East over the past decade and more are often attacked as being little more than attempts to seize natural resources, but I'm sure this isn't the whole story. A type of moral fantasy has been just as important in explaining the West's repeated interventions and their recurring failure.

Dostoyevsky's other major novels
  • Crime and Punishment (1866): The story of Raskolnikov, a young student in 19th Century St Petersburg, who is consumed with guilt after he kills a moneylender
  • The Idiot (1868): The tale of Prince Myshkin - the "idiot" of the title - whose naive and trusting nature precipitates disaster for the people around him
  • The Brothers Karamazov (1880) - Philosophical novel about four brothers and their dissolute landowner father, whose murder raises questions about God, free will and morality

We've come to imagine that ideas like "democracy", "human rights and "freedom" have a power of their own, which can transform the lives of anyone who is exposed to them. We've launched projects of regime change, which aim to realise these ideas by toppling tyrants. But exporting revolution in this fashion can have the effect of fracturing the state, as has happened in Libya, Syria and Iraq, leading to civil war, anarchy and new types of tyranny.

The result is the position we find ourselves in at the present time. Western policy is now driven by fear of forces and ideas that have sprung from the chaos that earlier Western intervention created. Sadly, this fear isn't groundless. The risk of these conflicts rebounding on us as Western citizens who have fought in them return home is all too real.

We like to think that liberal societies are immune to the dangerous power of ideas. But it's an illusion to think we don't have demons of our own. Possessed by grandiose conceptions of freedom, we've tried to change the systems of government of countries we don't begin to understand. Like the deluded revolutionaries of Dostoyevsky's novel, we've turned abstract notions into idols and sacrificed others and ourselves in the attempt to serve them.

Jerusalem's 800-year-old Indian hospice


There is a little corner of Jerusalem that is forever India. At least, it has been for more than 800 years and its current custodian has plans for his family to keep the Indian flag flying for generations to come.

Around the year 1200, little more than a decade after the armies of Saladin had forced the Crusaders out of the city, an Indian dervish walked into Jerusalem.

Hazrat Farid ud-Din Ganj Shakar (or Baba Farid, as he is better known) belonged to the Chisti order of Sufis, a mystical brotherhood that still flourishes today across India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Later accounts of his life said that he spent his days sweeping the stone floors around al-Aqsa mosque, or fasting in the silence of a cave inside the city walls.

No-one knows how long Baba Farid stayed in the city. But long after he had returned to the Punjab, where he eventually became head of the Chisti order, Indian Muslims passing through Jerusalem on their way to Mecca wanted to pray where he had prayed, to sleep where he had slept. Slowly, a shrine and pilgrim lodge, the Indian Hospice, formed around the memory of Baba Farid.

More than eight centuries later, that lodge still exists. And although it stands inside Jerusalem's walls - perhaps the most fiercely contested stretch of ground anywhere in the world - it is still in Indian hands.

The current head of the lodge, 86-year-old Muhammad Munir Ansari, grew up there in the years before World War Two, when Palestine seemed to end just outside the gate.

"All the residents were Indian. I felt as if I was living in India. Whenever we entered the Hospice - Indian state!" he says. "At that time people came by ship. They used to bring food, rice, even their salt. Salt! All from India. As soon as you entered the gate, the smell of Indian food, they were washing their clothes, hanging them here in the courtyard."

The war cut off the flow of pilgrims and brought an end to the colourful scenes of Munir's childhood.

The lodge became a leave camp for the Indian Fourth Infantry division, whose soldiers had only just left when the first Arab-Israeli war broke out in 1948. By the time Munir succeeded his father as Sheikh - head of the lodge - in 1952, the building was scarred by shelling and overrun with Palestinian refugees.

But worse was to come.

In 1967, as the Israeli army fought its way into Jerusalem during the Six Day War, the lodge was hit by rockets.

"The '67 war started on Monday 5 June. On the second day we found them at our entrance. By night, 50 or 60 soldiers inside the gate - Jordanians. They were in terrible condition, asking for water," he says.

"That was on Tuesday. On Wednesday morning we went out to find not a single soldier. They ran away, leaving their uniforms and even their weapons. That day the Israelis began to prepare for entering the Old City. So these weapons that had been abandoned, some local people took these guns and started shooting. And we paid the price."

As the Israelis bombarded the hospice, Sheikh Munir herded his family from room to room. The shells found them near the shrine of Baba Farid. The roof collapsed. Sheikh Munir, his hands and face badly burned, pulled the survivors from the rubble. His mother, his sister, and his two-year-old nephew were dead.

From a hospital in the Old City, Sheikh Munir brought his family back to the ruins. "We came home. Very sadly, I can say. Imagine how the situation was. Most of the rooms were damaged. My hands were burned, my eyes were closed, my hair was burned. It was a miserable situation."

Miserable or not, there was no question of abandoning the lodge. Its history went back too far - to the days when Saladin was still consolidating his hold on Jerusalem.

Baba Farid arrived in a city that had just returned to Muslim hands after almost a century of Christian rule. The Crusaders, ensconced along the Mediterranean coast, had not gone away, and Saladin understood that if the Muslims were to keep Jerusalem, they would need to match the Crusaders not only on the battlefield but in their zeal for the city.

The Sufis therefore served a useful purpose.

More on Sufism
  • Sufis usually belong to Tariqas - or orders - each tracing its lineage back to the Prophet
  • Sufis attempt to balance the three dimensions of the religion - Islam (submission), Iman (faith) and Ihsan ("doing the beautiful")
  • Many Sufi orders practise zikr - the rhythmic repetition or chanting of the word "Allah", or of one of other 99 names of God, or of a phrase from the Quran - some also use music in their rituals, a practice that has often drawn criticism from more conservative Muslim theologians
  • In the early 13th Century, Baba Farid-ud-Din Ganj Shakar, a famous Sufi saint from the Punjab, performed a solitary 40-day fast in Jerusalem - this site became the Indian Hospice
  • In the 17th Century, there were more than 70 Sufi zawiyas - or spiritual retreat centres - in Jerusalem

Source: BBC Religion | The Islamic Texts Society | Daniel Silas Adamson

Since the early days of Islam, mystics had been drawn to Jerusalem from across the Muslim world. There were some strange characters among them. Barefoot drifters who wandered from town to town in search of enlightenment. Ascetics who wore rough woollen robes and slept in the desert. Ecstatics who wept and sang for the love of God.

The jurists and theologians who guarded the frontiers of Islamic orthodoxy had always thought that the Sufis, with their music, whirling and wild ideas, were a suspicious bunch.

But they had many followers and it's not hard to see why. Here was a tradition that spoke more of God's gentleness than of his severity, a dialect of Islam in which love sounded louder than prohibition or dogma.

Saladin had the rock beneath the golden dome washed with rosewater, re-consecrating Jerusalem for the Muslim faithful. He welcomed the Sufis with open arms and encouraged popular devotion to the city's shrines and sanctuaries.

This was the atmosphere in which the first Indian pilgrims gathered at Baba Farid's lodge, bringing with them instruments and melodies from the Punjab.

They may well have sung verses written by Baba Farid. He composed hundreds of poems, drawing on the playful, even erotic imagery that runs right through Sufi literature. Instead of using the scholarly languages of Arabic or Sanskrit, Baba Farid chose to write in his native Punjabi, which had never before been used for poetry. As well as laying the foundations of a Punjabi literature that has thrived ever since, these poems bind together the Sufi and Sikh traditions of India: dozens of Baba Farid's hymns found their way into the Guru Granth Sahib, a compilation of mystical verse that is the central scripture of Sikhism.

Over the next 300 or 400 years, Sufi groups from across the Islamic world joined the Indians in Jerusalem. Funds poured into the construction of schools and lodges that housed mystics from Morocco and the Crimea, Anatolia and Uzbekistan.

When the great Ottoman traveller Evliya Celebi arrived in the 17th Century, he counted at least 70 different Sufi lodges within the walls. Jerusalem, he wrote, was the Mecca of the dervishes.

Many of those lodges were still active on the eve of World War One. Sheltered by the Ottoman Empire, shrines built by Saladin and described by Celebi had survived into the 20th Century.

But war and modernity disrupted age-old patterns of pilgrimage. Caravan routes were cut off. Borders were drawn across the map of the Middle East. Sufism itself began to look to some like an anachronism, a relic from the medieval world. One by one, the Sufi lodges closed their gates and fell into dilapidation, so when the Ottoman Empire finally collapsed in 1922, no-one would have predicted that the Indian Hospice was about to flourish once more.

Its revival was rooted in desperation.

Resentful of British colonial rule and alarmed by the influx of Jews from Europe, Jerusalem's Islamic authorities were casting around for friends and allies. It was natural to look east - not to the emirates and kingdoms of the Arabian Gulf, still impoverished backwaters, but to British India, which was home to millions of Muslims, some of them fabulously rich.

In 1923, Jerusalem's Grand Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini (whose search for support would eventually lead him into a murderous collaboration with both Hitler and Mussolini), sent a delegation to India seeking funds for the restoration of al-Aqsa mosque. There, they met the leaders of the Khilafat movement - Indian Muslims who were agitating against British rule and struggling to promote the idea of a pan-Islamic Caliphate. The Palestinians told their Indian hosts about the decaying lodge. Could they send somebody - an Indian Muslim - to take charge?

The man who arrived in 1924 was called Nazir Hasan Ansari. He came from Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, and over the next 27 years he worked not just to restore the lodge but to revive the idea of Jerusalem as holy ground for Indian Muslims.

When the leader of the Khilafat movement, Muhammed Ali, died in 1931, his body was brought to Palestine and buried inside al-Aqsa mosque. As Saladin had done centuries earlier, the Islamic authorities were encouraging an old and deeply felt devotion to Jerusalem's sacred sites, using that devotion to forestall a rival claim on the city - this time, the claim made by Zionists rather than Christians. In the 20th Century as in the 12th, faith and politics met at the Dome of the Rock.

As Indian pilgrims returned to Jerusalem, the Hospice recovered much of its prestige and spirit.

In the 1920s and 30s Sheikh Nazir travelled back and forth to India, persuading its Muslim princes to pay for the rebuilding of the lodge. Among those who contributed was the Nizam of Hyderabad, who appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1937 as the richest man in the world.

Sheikh Nazir's main legacy, through, was not in bricks and mortar but in flesh and blood. Not long after his arrival in Jerusalem he married a Palestinian woman, Mussarra, and in 1928 she gave birth to Munir.

Almost 40 years later, in the wake of the Six Day War bombardment, Sheikh Munir buried his mother in the Muslim cemetery near Saladin Street, in a city now under Israeli control. Grief was softened by the squabbling and laughter of his own five children, who all survived the attack. Sheikh Munir raised them in the Indian Hospice, rebuilding the bombed out rooms and planting the lemon trees that now blossom in the quiet sunlit courtyard.

The lodge today has a library, as well as a mosque and guest rooms for the few Indians who still visit.

In 2011 Sheikh Munir received the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, an award given by India's President for exceptional service to the country.

From the roof he flies an Indian flag, its saffron and green visible over a city that remains as volatile as ever. Sheikh Munir, though, is not easily intimidated. "I am not afraid. I am satisfied for the future, that we, the Ansari family, are serving. After me, my elder son, Nazer, should replace me as Sheikh of the zawiyya [lodge]."

I ask if Nazer, who works overseas, is interested in taking over. Sheikh Munir hesitates. From a frame on the wall, his father looks down silently. The old man raises his hands, palms up.

"It's not a question of interested."

The parents refusing to vaccinate their children against polio


There have been more than 200 cases of polio in Pakistan since January - the first time infections have reached this level in nearly 15 years. Despite this, not everyone wants their children to be vaccinated.

Abrar Khan, who is 26, makes his way into a poor neighbourhood of Karachi called Baldia.

On his crutches, he carefully avoids potholes and dirty cesspools in the narrow alleyways lined, on both sides, with small houses.

He contracted polio when he was three. Now he's part of a team trying to change the minds of families who refuse to have their children vaccinated.

Many people here think the polio vaccination campaign is a western conspiracy to sterilise their children - it's an idea the Taliban have been putting about for 10 years now.

In 2012 the militants ordered a complete ban on vaccinations in the tribal areas in western Pakistan as a response to US drone attacks.

Since then there's been no immunisation in that area.

As a result, says the children's charity Unicef, nearly 300,000 children have missed out on vaccination in that area in the last two years.

Most of the residents of Baldia came originally from Pakistan's tribal areas and most are reluctant to immunise their children.

Yet this is considered a high risk area for polio and I can see why. There's no sanitation to speak of.

As I walk through the narrow streets, I pass an open sewer running through a residential area.

Even before you see this canal full of sewage and rotten rubbish, you can smell it.

It's just the sort of environment in which polio thrives yet around us are about a dozen children, who all look under the age of five, playing in these squalid conditions.

Khan and the other health workers are being escorted by armed policemen. Without their protection the polio team can't do their job.

Many health workers and security personnel have been killed during immunisation campaigns across the country - I'm told there was a shooting in this neighbourhood not long ago.

We stop at one of the houses and an elderly woman answers the door. Four curious little children pop out next to her.

"None of the neighbours' kids has had it," she says of the vaccine. "Why are you after my grandchildren? I don't want this, I don't trust it," she adds angrily as she waves us away.

Khan moves on to the next house. A man stands in front of the entrance and starts shouting at him: "My children don't need this. Leave them alone! Why are you after them? And why just polio? There are other diseases why are you focusing on this one?" he yells.

Khan calmly replies: "We're trying to eliminate polio. We're trying to show that we can do this."

But the man shouts back: "Show who? America? I don't care about them."

People start to gather round us as he shouts: "I don't trust this team."

Khan tries again, this time he takes out a small brochure from a folder he has with him. It's a fatwa, a religious decree from a well-known cleric, which condones polio vaccination.

"What's this?" the father says, now more agitated than ever. "I can't read," he says, "why are you giving me this?"

Finally he tells Khan to leave, goes back into the house and slams the door.

As we walk away from the house, Khan explains: "I try to tell them in any way I can, but they aren't willing to listen. I say 'look at me, I'm a victim of polio. Your children could be like me,'" he says, pointing at his legs.

I can hear the frustration in his voice: "This man is doing his children a big injustice. He's taking them down a path of lifelong disability. He's the children's worst enemy."

This refusal to vaccinate is one of many reasons why Pakistan is failing to eradicate polio. But it's not just the influence of the Taliban - experts now point the finger at government mismanagement as well.

  • Poliomyelitis mainly affects children under five
  • Invades the nervous system and can cause total paralysis within hours
  • One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis
  • Polio cases have decreased by more than 99% since 1988
  • Endemic in three countries - Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan
  • There is no cure but the virus can be prevented by immunisation

Source: World Health Organization

A recent report described Pakistan's polio programme as a disaster. Campaigns take a long time to organise and when they finally get under way, they're inefficient.

The polio workers themselves are overworked and underpaid and they risk their lives trying to do their job.

Some tell me they have to wait for days to get the proper security personnel to escort them.

And so there have been more than 200 cases this year - that's more than 200 families watching their loved ones suffer from something that could easily have been prevented.

At the end of a long day Khan invites me back to his family house. He got married recently and I meet his bride and about a half a dozen other women. his sisters and sisters-in-law.

Altogether there are seven families in the house and between them around 26 children.

"How many children do you want?" I ask him. "Three inshallah, God willing," he says, "and I will vaccinate them," he adds, with a hopeful smile.

The meaning of Mongol


Uuganaa Ramsay was raised in Mongolia but now lives in Scotland. She has recently been exploring why her ethnicity is linked to Down's syndrome, a condition diagnosed in her son.

"I don't like that word," says a woman sitting opposite me on the train, pointing at the title of the book I am holding. "Horrible word."

It's my memoir, but she doesn't know that. It was me who gave it the one-word title, Mongol.

I chose it because it has a deep meaning for me. It's the word I grew up using to describe who I am, reading it in poems, singing it in songs, writing stories with it and drawing pictures about it - it represents my identity and culture.

"Where are you originally from?' the lady asks. "Mongolia," I say. "Oh, of course. Of course you are," she says. I could see in her face that she had realised something that was now obvious but hadn't previously occurred to her.

The word Mongol is rarely used politely these days and is often unpleasantly shortened to "mong" but how on Earth did my ethnic identity end up becoming a slang word for stupid? Even worse, used by comedians to "push boundaries".

While working at the Royal Earlswood Asylum in the 1860s, John Langdon Down started to categorise the patients known then as "idiots", noting that one group all had a similar appearance. Mentioning a roundness of cheeks, the shape of eyes and other physical traits, he wrote: "A very large number of congenital idiots are typical Mongols."

Julie Coleman, Professor of English at Leicester University, thinks Down is saying "these people have regressed to an earlier state of humanity, which is the state of being Mongolian," noting also that this observation came some seven years after Darwin started to talk about evolution.

The name Mongol stuck even though some of Down's contemporaries doubted the racial theories he documented in the paper Observations on an Ethnic Classification of Idiots.

It wasn't until 1965 that the People's Republic of Mongolia complained to the World Health Organisation that the term was derogatory towards them, and it was replaced with Down's syndrome. The word was still commonly used in the UK in the 1980s.

But though my ethnicity is Mongol, the reason I get emotional is because we lost our three-month-old son, Billy, who was born in 2009 with the condition. Billy had a hole in the heart and died at three months old of a chest infection before being able to have surgery. The two meanings of Mongol collided for me then, causing pain, grief and anger.

When Billy was born it was suggested he may have Down's syndrome but before the tell tale extra chromosome was confirmed by a blood test, one doctor said that the original diagnosis may have been confused because of his ethnicity. So the link remains in people's minds.

For a BBC Radio 4 documentary, I returned to Mongolia after a gap of eight years. I love the country.

Mongolians have a nomadic tradition. I was raised in a yurt on the plains, have herded goat and sheep and journeyed by horse. We are good at adapting to different situations, have good survival skills and traditionally you can turn up at anyone's house and expect to be fed and get a bed.

John Langdon Down first stigmatised Mongols by linking them to the disability and 100 years later, after being widely acknowledged that the word Mongol shouldn't be used in the context of Down's syndrome, people frown on it or campaign against it because they know it's bad.

I started writing a list of countries where the term has been used in a derogatory way or to mean Down's Syndrome. I now have over 20 countries on my list.

I needed to speak up about it and I did by originally writing a book. Some people told me to be more resilient and follow what they did in their culture and just accept it. Some comforted me by saying languages change over time. But the question bugging me was who changes languages, because confusion over the term is still strong.

One half Mexican and half Mongolian person contacted me to say that in the Latino community, the words "Mongolito" and "Mongolita" still have very ugly meanings. "Introducing myself as a half Mongolian to my Hispanic acquaintances proved to be almost embarrassing throughout my teenage years," they said.

And another person from Morocco told me they have a son with Down's syndrome and that neighbours call her Mongolian and throw stones at them in the street. Again someone from South Africa wrote to tell me they were "shocked to find that Mongolians refer to themselves as Mongols when I arrived in Mongolia".

In the US, some Mongolian friends of mine were stopped on the street by a lady insisting they should take their child to a doctor because she suspected he had Down's syndrome. And while on a course in London, my Chinese and French classmates told me: "We didn't know someone from Mongolia could be normal and clever like you."

I want people to know you can use Mongol in the same way as you would refer to a Scot, Turk or Pole. It's fine. We can unlearn negative connotations because we learnt them. You can call me Mongol because I am one.

The day her family wasn't there


Months before President Barack Obama's decisive immigration reform move, actress Diane Guerrero was writing early drafts of an essay on how US deportation policy had changed her life.

Now her emotional story, published in the Los Angeles Times shortly before Thursday's White House announcement, has made her a recognisable face late in the game.

In an interview with the BBC, Guerrero, best known for her roles as Maritza Ramos in Orange is the New Black and Lina in Jane the Virgin, said early versions of her piece had almost no personal details.

"For the longest time, I know I avoided it," she said. "I think my whole life I've been avoiding the issue because it's so difficult to revisit."

The pain comes from the day a 14-year-old Guerrero came home from school to an empty house.

Neighbours later told her that both her parents and her older brother had been taken by immigration officers who eventually sent her family back to Colombia. The lights in her house were on and dinner had already been started, but from that day on Guerrero had only herself to rely on.

"Not a single person at any level of government took any note of me," she writes in the Times. "No one checked to see if I had a place to live or food to eat, and at 14, I found myself basically on my own."

She says that she was lucky because she was able to rely on the kindness of friends and has found so much success. But, she adds, there are many children separated from their families whose stories look nothing like hers - even within her own family.

When her brother was deported, he was forced to leave his daughter, a toddler, behind. Growing up in a single-parent family, she says, her niece made bad choices in the face of many challenges.

"Today she is serving time in jail, living the reality that I act out on screen," Guerrero writes.

Guerrero says she's seen a flood of responses, both negative and positive, in the wake of her article. Much of the praise has come from people in similar situations who have adapted to life without family members - and even from those who simply lost a parent at a young age.

Guerrero says one woman told her the article was the inspiration behind a decision to volunteer with the pro-immigration reform cause.

Not all of the responses have been positive, however. Guerrero says it's understandable - but still sometimes hurts to hear.

"I for one think that everyone is entitled to their opinion, but some of the comments are very one-sided and not very well balanced," she said. "But I feel like I'm doing this for that very reason, to try and change people's minds."

HotAir's Jazz Shaw writes that Guerrero's story is sad and she was definitely let down - but her parents, not government, is to blame.

Shaw tells the story of a high school friend whose mother died when he was very young and whose father was arrested for embezzling money. He writes that his friend, Eddie, lived with relatives until he graduated.

One of the things Guerrero and Eddie have in common is that their parents were both criminals, Shaw writes.

"If you come here illegally you are breaking the law and you run the risk of being caught and dealt with by the legal system," he writes. "Blaming it on some shysters who acted in bad faith is really no excuse."

A follow-up piece to Guerrero's op-ed in the Los Angeles Times says that there were many similar responses among their readership.

One letter to the editor written by Stephanie Caldera says that Guerrero could have been successful if she had followed her parents back to Colombia rather than staying in the US.

Another, by PJ Gendall, argues that allowing Guerrero's family to stay would be unfair to those working to enter the US legally.

Outside of acting, Guerrero works as an ambassador for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, an organisation that provides legal training and education, as well as works with advocacy organisations.

She says she first got involved after meeting Grisel Ruiz, a law fellow at the organisation, at a Cosmopolitan for Latinas award event earlier this year.

"When I first met Diane, the second I heard her story I felt instantly like it exemplified the community that we work with and the rights we're trying to see advanced," Ruiz told the BBC.

Ruiz said that the president's announcement is a good first step, but she is looking for a more permanent and expansive solution.

"Ultimately there needs to be a permanent fix," Ruiz says.

(By Kierran Petersen)

Philippines marks 2009 Maguindanao massacre anniversary


The Philippines is marking the fifth anniversary of the country's worst political massacre, which left 58 people dead.

The victims, including reporters, were killed after their convoy was attacked in southern Maguindanao province.

More than 100 suspects are standing trial for murder, some of them members of the powerful local Ampatuan clan. They deny the charges.

Amnesty International says the trials risk becoming "a mockery of justice".

"Justice delayed is justice denied," said Hazel Galang-Folli, Amnesty's Philippines researcher.

"Five years after the Maguindanao massacre, the cases are still inching through the Philippine court system and not a single person has been held to account."

Mass grave

The 23 November 2009 massacre is alleged to have been carried out by the Ampatuan clan to stop a political rival from running for the post of governor.

The clan's candidate, Andal Ampatuan Jnr, allegedly led his family's private army in stopping a convoy carrying his foe's wife, relatives, lawyers and a group of more than 30 journalists, and then gunning them down.

The victims' bodies were later found in a mass grave in a secluded mountainous area of the province.

Andal Ampatuan Jnr, his brother and their father are among 111 suspects on trial.

However, court officials say many suspects are still at large, and prosecutors do not expect the court to hand down verdicts until next year at the earliest.

Since the beginning of the trial in 2010, four witnesses have been killed.

China's growing demand for Turkmenistan's gas


China is a country facing huge environmental challenges as it pursues economic growth.

One of its aims is to reduce its dependence on coal and switch to alternative energy sources like gas.

So at an energy conference in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, China has been unveiling plans to pour billions into Turkmenistan's energy sector just so it can boost its own gas supplies.

Since December 2009, the total amount of gas from Central Asian countries "mainly from Turkmenistan, delivered to China has reached 100bn cubic metres," says Deng Minmin, general manager of China's National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).

But Beijing is planning to increase its gas imports from this region further, and by 2020 China plans to be importing 65bn cubic metres of gas from Turkmenistan every year.

In order to deliver such large volumes it is expanding the existing pipeline network, and by 2016 the fourth branch of the China-Central Asia pipeline will be completed - raising the export capacity level to 85bn cubic metres a year.

A new Silk Road

With the fourth-largest gas reserves in the world, Turkmenistan is a vital energy partner for China.

Crucially, China's CNPC is the only foreign company that has a direct access to Turkmenistan's on-shore gas fields - including the world's second-largest gas field, called Galkynysh.

This energy expansion fits China's recently announced "Silk Road economic belt" policy, which focuses on a single transport infrastructure to "break the connectivity bottleneck" in the region.

And this month president Xi Jinping announced that China would set up a $40bn (£25bn) Silk Road Fund. Part of that money will go to infrastructure projects in Central Asia.

The United States has been pursuing a similar policy to boost economic co-operation and connectivity in Central and South Asia with the same name - Silk Road.

Daniel Rosenblum, US State Department deputy assistant secretary for Central Asia, says that the infrastructure projects China has been implementing fit the goals of its own strategy - but there seem to be some differences, too.

"Our contribution in those projects will often be in the form of what I'd call a software rather than a hardware - that is, improving customs and border procedures, harmonising policies of the countries so that the trade can flow in a continuous way."

China has been investing billions of dollars into Turkmenistan's energy sector. Just on the first phase of the Galkynysh field's development it spent more than $8bn.

Pipeline plans

But some energy specialists warn that Turkmenistan is becoming too dependent on China.

"Development of these fields is very expensive and not only requires Chinese capital but has also required Turkmenistan to borrow money from China to meet its share of the development costs," says John Roberts, energy security specialist.

"So in effect you've already got Turkmenistan being a debtor nation to China - and that puts the Chinese in a very strong position."

This could seriously affect negotiations on the gas price.

At the moment the Turkmen government is trying to diversify its energy supply routes to decrease its dependency on China, and is pushing forward with two main projects.

One of them is the US-backed TAPI pipeline, which will deliver Turkmen gas to Pakistan and India via Afghanistan. Turkmenistan has recently announced that construction will start next year.

The other project is a more controversial one: the Trans-Caspian pipeline to deliver Turkmen gas to Europe. Until recently this had been considered unrealistic.

Caspian Sea questions

The main reason is Russia's position. Moscow is against construction of pipelines in the Caspian Sea until the sea's status is resolved - the Caspian is divided among five littoral states: Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Azerbaijan.

However, European Union (EU) officials say that they have made some serious advances in implementing the Trans-Caspian pipeline, and this year the EU finalised an environmental study of the project.

It has also designed a Caspian development co-operation concept to establish a body "that will be intermediary between TurkmenGaz and European companies....interested in purchasing Turkmen gas," says Denis Daniilidis, the EU's representative in Turkmenistan.

"We are close to the point where we will see the light at the [end] of the tunnel," he says.

Six unexpected WW1 battlegrounds


Not all crucial battles in World War One took place on the muddy fields of Europe. Some significant fights took place in little-known places much further afield, says the BBC's Deborah Basckin.

The Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele, all iconic battles of WW1. But what made it a truly global war are the lesser-known tales from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

New technology, broken promises and shifting alliances meant events which started in Europe had far-reaching consequences beyond the trenches of the Western Front, consequences that still affect millions of people around the world today.

Here are six of the lesser-known battles of WW1.

1. Togo

Pinpointing the exact moment a world event begins is not an exact science, but it could be said some of the very first shots of WW1 weren't fired in Europe. They were fired in West Africa, in the then-German colony of Togo.

In August 1914, troops were massing on the front lines of Europe. But thousands of miles away in the small Togolese town of Kamina, a cutting-edge piece of technology came under threat. With it, Germany's control of the region.

The Germans were using a local workforce to build a wireless station so advanced that its communications could reach as far afield as Asia. It was an incredible military advantage at the time, akin to having email in a time of smoke signals. At the outbreak of WW1, it wasn't fully completed but it was operational.

When war was declared the station immediately came under threat, its worth to any military force incalculable. It was soon surrounded by allied forces.

Without an army, the Germans first tried to marshal a local police force, led by its own soldiers and made up of mercenaries from nearby. But ultimately they were left with no option but to destroy the station and surrender.

The five hours it took for the station at Kamina to burn ended German colonial rule. It marked the first allied victory of WW1 and irrevocably changed Togo's future.

iWonder: Why was Germany's wireless station so important?

2. Lebanon

One third of the population died in the largely forgotten famine of Mount Lebanon. A devastating confluence of political and environmental factors lead to the deaths of 200,000 men, women and children in the region.

At the outbreak of war, the arid Mount Lebanon was a semi-autonomous area within the powerful Ottoman Empire. Its economy was based on the production of raw silk, which was woven by women in mills and exported to Europe.

But the Ottoman alliance with Germany caused the Allies to cut off international trade routes, damaging the silk trade and choking the economy. Food was scarce and prioritised for the soldiers of the Ottoman war effort. Families started to go hungry.

Then came the locusts. In biblical swathes, the insects swarmed through the region in 1915. They devoured the few remaining crops and delivered a fatal blow to the already starving people.

There were reports of bloated bodies dead in the street, even cannibalism. One account from a Jesuit priest tells of a father coming to confess he had eaten his own children.

Some tried to help and soup-kitchens started to open. Thousands were fed, but there was no way to mitigate the effects of the double blow.

A footnote in some history books, or left out of others altogether, the famine of Mount Lebanon is still painfully remembered by those who live there.

iWonder: How trade blockades became a weapon of war

3. Mexico

The length of one of the most aggressively monitored borders in the world runs for 3,145 km (1,954 miles). The iron pillars, concrete walls, security cameras and drones that make it virtually impermeable today were partly triggered by just a tiny bit of paper during WW1 - a telegram.

In 1917, Germany tried to capitalise on the uneasy peace between the US and Mexico - two countries at odds over their shared border.

German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann sent a coded telegram: "We make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together." Its meaning was clear - join the war on Germany's side and secure its help to invade America in return.

Zimmermann hoped by drawing the US into conflict with Mexico it would distract the US from the war in Europe.

The telegram was composed and sent from Berlin. Before it reached its intended destination it was intercepted and decoded, revealing Germany's plans to the world.

So Zimmermann's message to Mexico achieved the very opposite of its aim, helping draw America into WW1.

iWonder: How Germany's plans to recruit Mexico were exposed

4. Tanzania

Twice a month, the MV Liemba's prow slices the waters of Lake Tanganyika along its route from Kigoma, at the north, to Mpulungu at the southern tip. The ship's hull carries people, chickens, beer, pineapples - and 100 years of history.

Originally commissioned as the Goetzen, the boat was designed and built in a shipyard in Papenburg, Germany. In 1913 it was shipped in pieces across the Mediterranean Sea, through the Suez Canal and travelled by train over German East Africa - now Tanzania - to the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

In the lakeside town of Kigoma, the boat was assembled by a local workforce, watched over by three German engineers. At the outbreak of WW1, now armed with guns and soldiers, the Goetzen was set to dominate the lake as a German weapon against British and Belgian fleets.

But despite its enormous size and impressive speed, military setbacks on land meant the Germans were forced to scuttle their own "indestructible" boat, saving the guns and making more soldiers available for the fighting on shore.

The same engineers responsible for its construction were tasked with sending the Goetzen to the bottom of the lake. Six years later, she was raised, re-christened and re-purposed.

The boat still runs as a passenger ferry, a lifeline for the people living along the waters' edge and a connection to one of the defining periods in world history.

iWonder: The real story behind The African Queen

5. China

The Chinese port city of Tsingtao - modern day Qingdao - came under German rule in 1897. During WW1 it was to become the site of a fatal siege and the cause for continuing antagonism in the east for decades.

By the time the war came to Asia, Tsingtao had evolved from a fishing village into a modern city with German infrastructure, schools and a naval base.

It had also become a strategic outpost for Germany on the other side of the globe and therefore a target for Japanese and British forces, who invaded in 1914.

The Germans were braced for attack. Chinese labourers had been enlisted to build fortifications along the city's steep hills, dig trenches and position artillery.

The city came under siege. For two months it was pummelled from land and sea. Bombs rained down from the new weapons of war - aeroplanes. Overwhelmed by force and without sufficient reinforcements, Germany eventually capitulated. An estimated 450 men died in the siege, 40 of them were Chinese labourers.

Politically the siege had enormous ramifications. Tsingtao was not returned to Chinese rule, but instead the Japanese victors held on to their territory.

After the war the world powers met in Versailles to negotiate the terms of global peace. Japan refused to relinquish Qingdao and China refused to sign the treaty, setting off a chain of events which lead to war 20 years later.

iWonder: How did WW1 fan the flames of conflict in East Asia?

6. Malta

The tiny island of Malta earned the nickname the Nurse of the Mediterranean for its unique role in treating more than 100,000 casualties of WW1. It was a battleground in the sense that medics found themselves struggling to save vast numbers of soldiers suffering from wounds unlike those seen in previous wars.

Malta famously has a medical tradition that stretches back more than 500 years. The war brought that tradition right up to date as the island opened the doors of its 27 hospitals to injured allied soldiers pouring in from the front lines.

The very location of Malta, in the middle of the Mediterranean, was an ideal position to receive casualties from fighting in Turkey and Greece. The wounded, many Australian, were brought to the island by hospital ships and were hoisted up its steep cliffs to the doctors and nurses waiting for them.

What they saw arriving in their hospitals, however, was unprecedented. WW1 was the first industrialised war. It marked the first use of tanks, machine guns and aeroplanes. With new weaponry came horrific new injuries.

Some doctors were adventurous, attempting procedures to treat unfamiliar wounds. But in this time before antibiotics, sepsis was often the ultimate outcome and cause of death. Despite the limitations of medicine at the time, thousands of soldiers passed through the island's care.

iWonder: How Malta became WW1's 'sanctuary across the sea'

The Taliban's psychiatrist


In the late 1990s the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, but the fighting that brought them to power left many militants struggling with the psychological effects of war. One doctor recognised the problem and, although he disagreed with the Taliban's ideology, agreed to treat them.

"I remember the first group of Taliban who came to see me," says Afghan psychiatrist Nader Alemi. "They used to come in groups, not as individuals. When I treated one, he would spread the word.

"Fighters would turn up with my name on a piece of paper. They would say that I'd cured their friend, and now they wanted to be cured too. Most of them had never been to a doctor before."

A familiar figure in Afghanistan, Alemi is based in Mazar-e-Sharif in the north of the country. Taliban forces captured the city in August 1998 and won control of much of the surrounding area.

But while they were succeeding on the battlefield, Alemi saw the mental strain of years of fighting.

He was the only psychiatrist in northern Afghanistan to speak Pashto, the language of most Taliban.

"Language was very important - because I spoke their language, they felt comfortable opening up," he says.

One day the Taliban's provincial governor Akthar Osmani summoned Alemi to see him - Mullah Akhtar was second in command to Mullah Omar, the group's spiritual leader.

"He was hearing voices and he was delusional - his bodyguards told me they could hear him raving during the night," says Alemi. Mullah Akhtar's staff also said their boss often didn't recognise them.

"This man had been on the front line for goodness knows how long, and seen goodness knows how many people killed in front of him. All those explosions and screams may still have been echoing in his head, even sitting in the comfort of his office."

Alemi wanted to see Mullah Akhtar regularly to provide long-term treatment, but his patient would go off on missions every three months, and only kept a few appointments. Much later, in 2006, Mullah Akhtar was killed in an airstrike.

Alemi treated other high-ranking Taliban officials too. "We became sort of friends. [One] asked me to see him at his headquarters - he was suffering from depression and chronic pain, and I prescribed him drugs to alleviate his symptoms."

"I don't remember the exact numbers who came to me, but it must have been in the thousands. I treated them for almost three years, before Mazar was recaptured in November 2001.

Because most of these patients had never been to a doctor before, Alemi asked if their commanders forbade it but that wasn't the case. "To be honest, they were so into their mission and daily routine that they didn't have time for medication. Surprisingly, all of them believed in my treatments.

"The reason they gave me for the turmoil in their minds was the uncertainty in their lives. They had no control over what was happening to them. Everything was in the hands of their commanders. They got depressed because they never knew what would happen from one minute to the next.

"Most of them hadn't seen their families for months - they hadn't seen their children who had grown big."

Alemi found many of the soldiers wanted to die. "They told me they [wanted] to commit suicide, but couldn't because of Islamic values."

One said: "Every time I go to the frontline, I wish someone would shoot me and bring an end to my life. But I still survive and hate this sort of living."

"I used to treat the Taliban as human beings, same as I would treat my other patients… even though I knew they had caused all the problems in our society," says Alemi. "Sometimes, they would weep and I would comfort them."

Mental health in Afghanistan

  • In 2010 the health ministry said that two thirds of the population had a mental illness
  • Problems are mainly caused by continued violence, poverty, unemployment, domestic violence and drug addiction
  • A nationwide survey conducted by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2002 found high levels of depression, anxiety, and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) - women and people with disabilities were most affected
  • In 2006, the WHO reported that less than 1% of medical training was devoted to mental health
  • The few specialist hospitals that once existed have been replaced by a Mental Consultation Section in big state-run hospitals

One of the main problems was that Alemi's patients were often sent off on missions and could never commit to follow-up sessions.

Consultations cost the equivalent of $1 and the Taliban sometimes sent their wives and daughters to Alemi for treatment as well. "They too were suffering depression, because they wouldn't see their husbands, fathers for a long time and they didn't know what the future held for them."

Even the notorious religious police, the Amr Bil Ma'ruf, let him get on with his business. Alemi remembers how one day they were shouting on their loudspeakers, telling people to leave their jobs and get to mosque for prayers, but he was still seeing patients.

"One of my staff shouted from the building and said: 'The doctor is busy seeing patients'," says Alemi. The Amr Bil Ma'ruf shouted back and said: "It is alright, let him do his job."

Incredibly, at the same time that Alemi was treating the Taliban, his wife ran an underground school for about 100 girls - under the Taliban girls were not allowed to study.

Parvin Alemi taught them about literature, language, maths and Islamic books. "All I wanted was to educate girls," she says. "Now some are doctors, engineers and teachers. They all appreciate what I did for them. They say they would have remained illiterate if I didn't educate them."

The pupils included the Alemis' own daughters - one is now a doctor and two are teachers.

But weren't they running a terrible risk? "I asked them to come separately, not in groups, to avoid any problems," says Parvin Alemi. "We kept the school secret. We asked our students not to tell anyone either. It was a dangerous decision, but I am proud to have taken the risk."

The couple were worried that the Taliban might catch them, but Alemi says they seemed to look upon him kindly. "Since I didn't have any political ambitions or interest, I am sure even if they caught our underground school, they would be cool about it because they knew all we wanted was to help others."

More than 15 years later, Alemi is still treating Afghans traumatised by conflict. The queues in his hospital stretch down the corridors, men and women in separate groups. They complain of depression, mood swings and nightmares.

Alemi says the biggest underlying problem in their lives is still uncertainty - they face hardship and deprivation and have no idea what the future holds.

Ferguson: How a black teenager's death caused a town to explode


The shooting of black teenager Michael Brown led to widespread unrest and an upsurge of anger against the police - but many of the facts behind the case are disputed.

The BBC explains what we know, and where the Ferguson protests may lead.

What exactly happened in Ferguson?

The grand jury has now concluded that the evidence does not warrant charges against Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, the man who shot and killed Michael Brown.

Yet the exact details of what happened remain disputed by police, eyewitnesses and family members.

What is known for certain is that around midday on 9 August, Mr Wilson was driving a police car and encountered Mr Brown and a friend walking down a street.

Minutes later 18-year-old Mr Brown was dead, suffering at least seven gunshot wounds, according to county prosecutor Bob McCulloch.

Mr Wilson fired of total of 12 bullets, though investigators were unclear exactly how many of the 12 struck Mr Brown. One injury may have been a re-entry wound.

It is what happened in those key intervening moments that remains disputed.

Two separate post-mortem examinations were carried out - one conducted by a state pathologist, and one privately at the request of the Brown family.

The family pathologist said it was possible Mr Brown had been shot while he had his hand up in a "surrender" position. In addition, the absence of gunshot residue on the victim's skin meant he might well have been shot from some distance away - more than 2ft (0.6m).

But the official county post-mortem report contradicted this, saying gunshot residue had indeed been found on the victim's thumb.

Even the witness statements appear to be contradictory.

Most agree that after Mr Brown and Mr Wilson appeared to scuffle through the police car window, the policeman fired his weapon and the teenager then fled before being shot dead.

Some say Mr Brown was killed after surrendering to the policeman, with witnesses saying he had his arms in a raised or "hands up" position.

But others have supported the policeman's testimony. Mr Wilson said that after he left his car to pursue the fleeing young man, Mr Brown turned and charged straight at him, after which he fired the fatal shots.

How bad were the August protests?

Tensions in Ferguson began to mount almost immediately as word spread about the fatal shooting.

Riots erupted the following day involving hundreds of people. Dozens of shops were damaged, according to police, and at least one set on fire.

Although many protests were peaceful and despite Michael Brown's mother calling for calm, clashes continued over the coming days.

Riot police fired tear gas and pepper spray, while demonstrators responded by hurling bottles and stones.

Many were angered when, on 15 August, the police released CCTV footage from the day of the shooting which appeared to show Mr Brown robbing a shop and threatening the owner.

Darren Wilson later linked the footage to the shooting, though some protesters accused the police of orchestrating a smear campaign.

The violence began to dissipate after Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency on 16 August. Two days later the National Guard were dispatched to Ferguson.

A grand jury panel then began hearing evidence in the case.

What is a grand jury?

Unlike many countries, in the US the decision about whether to charge someone with a crime is often taken using a grand jury - a group of ordinary citizens from the community.

They decide whether there is enough evidence to pursue a prosecution.

While all states have provisions to allow for grand juries, only about half use them, with other states preferring to rely on a preliminary hearing to determine whether or not to indict a defendant.

Usually the only lawyer present in grand jury hearings is the prosecutor, who will present evidence. The jury has the power to request to see and hear any evidence it wants.

Grand jury proceedings are conducted behind closed doors to encourage witnesses to speak freely and to protect the defendant's reputation in case the jury does not indict.

Even though a grand jury may decide not to indict, a prosecutor could still bring the defendant to trial if they think they have a strong enough case.

In the case of the Ferguson shooting, the jury was comprised of 12 citizens, nine white and three black.

At least nine votes would have been needed in order to issue an indictment.

What did the jury decide?

The prosecuting attorney in the case, Robert McCulloch, said the grand jury met on 25 separate days over three months, hearing more than 70 hours of testimony from about 60 witnesses.

"They are the only people that have heard and examined every witness and every piece of evidence," he said, adding that the jurors "poured their hearts and soul into this process".

The statements included those from the police officer at the centre of the shooting, Darren Wilson, who said he had only fired his weapon in self-defence.

Charged with deciding whether to indict Mr Wilson with any crime, jury members decided not to.

Officials did not say whether the decision was unanimous.

What next?

The grand jury decision has already triggered widespread clashes in Ferguson, but it could also inflame racial tensions elsewhere across the country.

It comes after the controversy involving another black teenager, Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Florida schoolboy shot dead in February 2012 by a neighbourhood watch volunteer.

The volunteer, George Zimmerman, was later acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges.

Other lines of inquiry are still open for investigators in the Michael Brown case.

The Department of Justice is conducting a separate probe into possible civil rights violations that could lead to federal charges.

Officials from the department are also mounting a wider inquiry into the Ferguson Police Department, examining possible patterns of discrimination.

In addition, Mr Brown's family have the option of filing a wrongful death lawsuit against Darren Wilson.

A Point of View: Does anybody ever 'think the unthinkable'?


At the end of the 80s, free market thinkers declared "the end of history" and the triumph of capitalism. They were wrong on both counts, says John Gray.

I have a vivid memory of the moment when I realised it wouldn't be long before Margaret Thatcher's radical experiment hit the buffers.

It must have been sometime in the late 1980s. The venue was one of the free market think tanks that were so prominent in those far-off years. The topic of discussion was how we should be ready to transgress the boundaries of what was considered politically possible. Nearly all of those present were at one on the need to challenge existing assumptions. What we needed to do, they insisted, was "think the unthinkable" and extend the reach of market forces into public services and throughout society.

For me this earnest consensus was not without an element of comedy. Free market ideas had been in power in Britain since Thatcher became prime minister in 1979. They were the ruling ideas of the age, and from my point of view already becoming rather stale. In the early 70s, when I first became interested in Hayek and other free market thinkers, challenging the post-war political consensus may have required a certain contrariness.

By the late 70s, when Britain had come close to bankruptcy and been bailed out by the IMF, there were many signs that the country was heading for a shift of regime in which it would be transformed irreversibly. But an abrupt change of this kind seems unimaginable to most people until it actually happens, and in much of politics, the media and academia Thatcher's policies came as a bolt from the blue.

By the late 80s, what had been heresy had been enthroned as orthodoxy. In these circumstances, the suggestion that one could become a fearless free-thinker by repeating, in louder and more extreme tones, what those in power were constantly saying was entertainingly farcical. At the same time it illuminated how political ideas actually work in practice. As a general rule, "thinking the unthinkable" means accentuating and exaggerating, preferably to the point of absurdity, beliefs that are currently fashionable. Over the past three decades, this has meant, to my mind, applying the ruling free market ideology with little regard for history, circumstances or common sense.

One may agree or disagree with Thatcher's policies, but throughout most of her time in power she was more pragmatic than is often imagined, and rarely did anything just because it was required by an idea or theory.

It was only when the ideologues in the free market think tanks persuaded her of the virtues of the poll tax that she allowed doctrinaire thinking to guide her, and that was the beginning of her downfall. The irony is that the ideas that ended her career in government nearly a quarter of a century ago have shaped politics ever since. Capitalism has lurched into a crisis from which it still has not recovered. Yet the worn-out ideology of free markets sets the framework within which our current generation of leaders continues to think and act.

Today nothing is safe from the juggernaut of market forces. If British Telecom could be successfully privatised, why not the prison service, national forensic service and probation service? Why not hand over the provision of blood plasma, or the search and rescue operations that have long been provided by the RAF and the Royal Navy, to private companies? No sell-off has been so obviously ill-conceived that it couldn't be implemented. All of these privatisations have in fact occurred, under a variety of governments, or are currently in the works.

It wasn't just in domestic policies that a new orthodoxy held sway. Few people, even in the anti-communist 1980s, thought the fall of the Soviet Union was a realistic possibility, but as soon as the collapse had taken place, it was seen as inevitable.

Russia would join the West, we were assured, in adopting democracy and embracing the free market. Anyone with a smattering of the history of that country could know in advance that this wasn't going to happen. There were no traditions of democratic government, much of the economy was a military-industrial rustbelt and capitalism was identified with crime and immorality.

Western governments that promoted socially disruptive policies of economic "shock therapy" made the transition from communism more difficult than it need have been, but there was no way in which Russia could escape its singular and tragic history.

However, these were the days when history was deemed to be irrelevant. Not everyone swallowed the American pundit Francis Fukuyama's theory that history had ended. When Thatcher was told of it, she is supposed to have responded, "The beginning of nonsense!"

But the idea that humanity had entered a new era was widely influential. When I suggested in late 1989 that history was continuing, just as it had always done, a common response was, "You mean we're all doomed?" Amusingly, many people seemed to believe there could be no future for humanity if things simply carried on in their usual muddled fashion.

'The end of history'
  • Phrase coined by US academic Francis Fukuyama in 1989 essay and 1992 book - he argued that liberal democracy was in some sense an endpoint of social evolution
  • "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."
  • Fukuyama revisited his essay this year, saying that he might have been too idealistic in his original argument, but maintaining that no "higher, better model out there... will someday supersede liberal democracy".

The belief that we're living in a time that's different from any in the past is no less strong today. Right across the political spectrum, there are people who share a set of extremely far-fetched notions - tyranny is on the way out, war can be gradually eliminated by improved international cooperation, empires are relics of the past, while nation-states are also increasingly obsolete.

People who think like this feel daringly heretical when they condemn the jerry-built political structures of the past, and go on to suggest that the only viable future is in transnational institutions such as the European Union or some form of global governance. But like the free market ideologues in the 80s who prided themselves on thinking the unthinkable, these intrepid intellectual conformists are merely accepting the conventional wisdom of their time and projecting it into a vision of the future that bears no relation to past or present realities.

The Cold War was a historical anomaly - a global stand-off that someday would come to a conclusion. In contrast, ours is a world riddled with complex and deep-seated conflicts, many of which show no sign of being resolved. Nationalism and religion have revived as powerful forces, geopolitical tensions are intensifying and empire is being reinvented.

While Russia is attempting to revive an old type of imperial power in some of the countries on its borders, China is experimenting with a new version in Africa. The US is retreating, but remains an immensely formidable power. Despite being seen by some as a 19th Century phenomenon, geopolitics - the struggle to secure control of natural resources - continues to fuel wars. The upshot of these conflicting trends and forces can't be known.

More from the Magazine

Privatisation, finance boom, manufacturing decline, home ownership, union laws. The UK changed hugely in the 1980s. But how much of that would have happened if Margaret Thatcher had never taken office, asks historian Dominic Sandbrook.

What if Margaret Thatcher had never been? (April 2013)

In this regard our situation is entirely normal. History isn't a story that comes to any kind of conclusion. Human conflict changes its shape along with new technologies and shifts in power, but it doesn't go away. At bottom, this is what so many people find unthinkable - the fact that intractable conflict will continue to shape our lives in future as it has done in the past.

I wasn't surprised when Thatcher's policies hardened into a closed system of ideas. That's what happens when a party or a leader has been in power for too long. Oddly enough, Thatcher and the ideologues who were by then guiding her seem in some unconscious way to have recognised that their time was up. By pushing ahead with the deeply unpopular poll tax, they showed they cared more about clinging on to their view of the world than staying in power. Not for the first time or the last, those who rule us found they couldn't bear too much reality.

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Here is a selection of your comments.

As a lifelong University academic, I have come to believe that experts can't afford to accept too many of the old ideas. They have to promote some new idea to get noticed - surely this applies to economists as well? Some general comments: I believe that any western country (including the US) should provide social support for the most vulnerable members of its society including the sick, the elderly, the disabled etc. Any economic system must allow for this. Taxing those responsible for contamination of the environment including those who drive cars etc should be in place everywhere, including the US, as a deterrent to unthinking excess. Banks and other major companies should be required to pay for their errors on financial planning and not be bailed out by everyone else. Outsourcing work to the third world in good for businesses but results in a loss of work in the countries where the companies are located that does the outsourcing. The wealthiest in any society should pay their fair share of taxes and not be protected by a variety of legal loopholes (that only the wealthy can afford to use - or think of!) Any worthwhile shake up in the economic order needs to take these and related issues into account.

David Paton, Nanaimo BC Canada

Baroness Thatcher was a face put onto an inevitable modernisation of Britain. The fact that rivalry, despotism, nationalism, the military-industrial complex etc are roadblocks doesn't mean the desired road for the vast majority of people isn't one that ends in liberal democracy.

Steve Christie, Edinburgh, UK

Gray´s approach is liberal realist - he is a is a person who believes that states and power create historical reality, and that the conflicts between powers deliver change, but not progress. Most foreign policies from Hitler to Kissinger to Blair are based on the same principles. That is why we followed the superpower USA into the Iraq wars. The problem with this view is that it is self fulfilling and always leads to war. Other leaders have believed in a different philosophy of cooperation, equality and avoidance of conflict - Ghandi, Mandela and Gorbachev should be our role models of political leaders, not the warmongers.

Graham Thompson, Svendborg, Denmark

Being a person who enjoys both politics and travel, I often make effort to try and observe cultural or political changes when I visit a place of particular interest. I am a regular visitor to Russia and my better half (more accurately my other 33%, as I am significantly bigger than her), I observe the place with keen interest. I have come to a partial conclusion that Russia is ultimately destined for full democracy and a form of socialist capitalist society not too dissimilar to my own. Although at present there doesn't seem to be much of an effort on the democracy front, I think it's only because everybody is too busy with the capitalist vision. However, the economy continues to grow and with a widening middle class, I think it inevitable that once Russia has become fully familiar with 'the market' the people will inevitably look to enrich their lives in other ways. Extended freedom and the right to truly have a say in their own futures will, I think, be the natural next step.

Keith Bailey, Haywards Heath, England

Numeric growth completing itself at natural limit soon - this century. End of that phase of natural history. End of malthusian scarcity and end of genetic Darwinism. Intelligence finds way forward. Barbarian planet on verge of civilization - Galactic headline news! "Humans Mature". Singular moment of truth. This century.

Joe Mortillaro, Binghamton, USA

Were Margaret Thatcher's policies wrong. No not in principle but in the long run they had unwelcome effects. Take her Right to Buy policy for council house purchase. The effect has been that there is now a shortage of property for those who need to rent from the local council. People who need it can't get it. Housing associations don't have enough money and can't build fast enough anyway. Housing has become an investment for many private landlords. To me a roof over your head is a right. House purchase for many is now just a pipe dream.

David Fenwick, Albrighton, United Kingdom

In reality at least in uk has always been a "least worst" political fudge between free market thinking and the need for some areas to be treated as a "public good (or service). Best example is the NHS. Although it has its operational inefficiencies, taken as a whole it is incredibly efficient, effective and above all fair. This is due to the pooling of risk (across 60m) the avoidance of transactional costs (insurance and care access eligibility), and the lack of a need to "sell" services with questionable efficacy. Point is we must innovate but be pragmatic and not throw any babies out with the bath water...

Geoff Broome, Epsom, UK

On reflection a lot of the themes and players seem quite dated. Two variables which have shifted like tectonic plates in the UK and globally that are not considered are around changes in technology (the Internet, communication, capability if not the implementation and access to treat disease) and demographic shifts (global population increase, changing distribution of race, religion and age groups across countries). These two are divorced in the article from where power and capital is held but they are changing the world we live in dramatically. Taking technology, the pace of change and disruption may end up being more profound than any of the changes from the 70s/80s - changing the way we organise and govern ourselves. There are patterns from earlier industrial revolutions, but now changes are accessible to more people and in far greater numbers. History might not have ended but it has accelerated.

Prith Babra, Chertsey, UK

I am always amazed at how decisive political figures are. When one looks at the social, economical and political context, it would seem that many of their decisions were inevitable. Sad that the narrative of modern politics continues to be one of personalities, persuasions and pomp, rather than reflection, policy and action.

Viewpoint: Can China bring peace to Afghanistan?


China is emerging from the shadows to pledge to play a major role in peacemaking in Afghanistan as foreign troops prepare to withdraw at the end of the month, writes guest columnist Ahmed Rashid.

Beijing's efforts include an invitation for the Taliban to visit China.

Yet sceptics may well ask whether China, which has never played such a mediating role outside its borders before, can succeed where the US, Nato and Afghanistan's neighbours have so far failed.

''For the past 13 years the US and Nato have been playing a major role in Afghanistan and we made a contribution and gave them support - but now with the US leaving, Afghanistan is facing a critical period,'' Ambassador Sun Yuxi, China's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told the BBC.

In his first interview to Western media, Ambassador Sun said: ''We are ready to do more, we want to play a bigger role.

"We would welcome the Taliban in any neutral venue such as in China. We will make negotiations happen but the process must be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led - the agenda must be proposed by President Ashraf Ghani,'' he added.

Facilitating talks

President Ghani has already visited Beijing to ask the Chinese to play just such a mediating role and to put pressure on Pakistan, which is a close ally of China, to let the Afghan government meet with Taliban leaders living in Pakistan.

Islamabad's powerful military, which takes all major foreign policy decisions, has indicated it is willing to consider a peace process once the Afghans come up with one.

Ambassador Sun said that China had already established several forums for discussion on how to bring in neighbouring states and others to support reconciliation in Afghanistan.

''One tripod involves talks between China, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the second is a group of regional countries called 'six plus one', which involves US, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Iran and the one being Afghanistan. This group has already met twice,'' said Mr Sun.

Another 'tripod' group that Western diplomats say has held several meetings, but which the Chinese are reluctant to talk about, is China, US and Afghanistan.

This grouping is seen to be especially vital as the US withdraws from Afghanistan. The Chinese have said they will never deploy troops in Afghanistan, but they are certain to become the major power in the region.

The US, which is undergoing a strategic shift away from the Pakistan-Afghanistan region, is not averse to a larger Chinese role if it involves keeping the peace and keeping out the militants.

'Terrorism' threat

The international forums being sponsored by the Chinese are trying to achieve multiple aims - to support reconciliation in Afghanistan, but to bring countries like India and Pakistan and Iran and Pakistan to the table to iron out their mutual rivalries which have stymied every peace process in Afghanistan since the 1980s.

The appointment of Sun Yuxi, 63, who has specialised in Afghanistan since 1981 when as a young diplomat he helped provide Chinese arms to the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviets, is a strong signal that China is serious.

Fluent in English, articulate and friendly Mr Sun is clearly equipped with extraordinary powers from his leaders to make things happen.

The reasons for this diplomatic outing by China, when it has never helped mediate an international conflict before, is the risks it faces from the south.

Cheap Afghan opium is flooding China while Uighur Islamic extremists from Xinjiang have been accused of carrying out acts of terrorism. Hundreds of them are based in the badlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan and are supported by the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

In fact China faces an increasing national security threat if militant groups continue to find sanctuary in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

''We support a peace process because we are also victims of terrorism,'' says Mr Sun.

Rebuilding north-south corridor

''Our larger strategy is also economic development - the construction of the Silk Road which includes Pakistan and Afghanistan,'' said Ambassador Sun.

China is investing billions of dollars in a road and rail transportation network that will stretch from western China to Germany crossing dozens of countries.

Afghanistan, rich in minerals and oil that China is keen to exploit, is a critical part of that network.

China wants to build a north-south economic corridor through Pakistan that would carry energy from the Gulf to the Chinese border nearly 2,000 miles in the north.

China's funding of such mammoth projects could become a huge lure for Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Taliban to come to the peace table.

Diplomats describe it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to kick-start the two redundant economies of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

More than $100bn (£64bn) will be involved in building the Afghan and Pakistani spurs of the Silk Route.

China wants to exploit the mineral deposits of Afghanistan and is prepared to build a railway from Kabul to Xinjiang in China, while similar mammoth schemes are being prepared for Pakistan.

But nothing will happen until the numerous wars in the region come to an end. That includes the insurgency in Balochistan, the violence in Karachi and the Taliban insurrections in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Much will depend on whether the Pakistan army is prepared to seize the moment and push the Afghan Taliban to the peace table.

Diplomatic sources say the Chinese have already established their own contacts with the Taliban.

However, China is unlikely to get itself involved in the nitty-gritty gritty of peace talks between President Ghani and the Taliban.

It wants to make the introductions, provide a neutral venue and let the two sides get on with it, which is why China is now anxiously waiting for a peace plan from Ashraf Ghani and support from Pakistan's military.

Ahmed Rashid
  • Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist and author based in Lahore
  • His latest book is Pakistan on the Brink - The Future of America, Pakistan and Afghanistan
  • Earlier works include Descent into Chaos and Taliban, first published in 2000, which became a bestseller

Le Pen's French National Front eyes route to power


It was a result the leaders of France's other political parties could only dream of.

Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right National Front (FN) party, was re-elected on Sunday with 100% of her party's vote.

After leading the Front to a string of electoral gains over the past three years, she stood for re-election uncontested by any other candidate.

But what does her leadership mean for the party, and for the country, as it heads towards a presidential race in 2017?

Sometimes in politics it is the medium that counts.

'Devil's cloak'

The core message from the National Front - for greater nationalism and an end to immigration - has not really changed for decades, but the messenger has.

And she has one overriding goal: to make the National Front electable as a party of government in France.

For a party widely seen as a political pariah a few years ago, and which has struggled to top 20% of the popular vote in previous presidential elections, it is an ambitious goal.

But Marine Le Pen, who succeeded her father as party leader three years ago, has already propelled her party to power in 11 French towns (12 if you include the FN-backed independent mayor in Beziers), two seats in the Senate, and top position in the European Parliament elections this year.

The number of seats controlled by the National Front here in France may still be small, but the sudden burst of new support for the party signals a deep shift in French politics - partly down to a shift in the party's own strategy.

In the past three years, Marine Le Pen has put a lot of effort into "detoxifying" her party - ridding it of the racist stigma and neo-Nazi links it attracted under her father's leadership.

"The devil's cloak that we were forced to wear has been removed," she told me last week as she prepared for the party congress.

"The French are beginning to see us as we really are. Our party was never racist. None of our proposals are based on race or religion. We are patriots: we welcome and work with all who are French."

So worried is party headquarters about personal remarks undermining their electoral gains, it has issued a handbook to every newly elected official, with helpful reminders to "remain polite" during debates - along with warnings not to subsidise "political" anti-racism groups, or events such as Muslim celebrations.

The southern coastal town of Frejus, an hour's drive from Nice, is something of a showcase for this new, more tolerant face of the National Front.

Its mayor, 26-year-old David Rachline, was elected here six months ago - the son of a Jewish man and one of the party's rising stars.

At the town's small weekly market, piles of rich saucisson lie with bright vegetables and cheaply-made clothes under the palm trees at the edge of town.

Many locals milling around the stalls are positive about Mr Rachline's strong policing, free parking, and support for local shopkeepers.

Others point to his cuts to social welfare programmes and the removal of the European Union flag from the town hall as signs that the party does not intend to protect the interests of everyone.

'Traditional beliefs'

A short distance away, Driss Maaroufi is preparing for prayers at the local mosque.

Or rather, the local prayer tent.

As the temperature dips towards freezing, Muslims in Frejus gather each week under the greying canvas, while a brand new mosque stands empty and unpainted, on the plot next door.

Mayor Rachline has promised voters here a referendum on whether the new mosque can go ahead.

"The National Front isn't for everyone," Imam Marroufi tells me.

"It's not for the Muslims. We're citizens in this town too, but it doesn't represent us. That party hasn't changed at all - not one bit. It's got worse."

Islam has become something of a focus for the National Front, which labels it as one of the biggest challenges to France, alongside the European Union, and globalisation.

Ms Le Pen is opposed to providing pork-free school meals for students, and to the wearing of any Muslim headscarf in public.

But she says her objections are based solely on the need to protect France's national identity.

"It's not for us to say whether Islam is compatible with the French Republic," she told me, "it's for the Muslims. Those who say it's contrary to their religion can leave. It's not the Republic that has to adapt to their demands. Our traditions come from Christianity; why should we have to change?"

Russian money

Jean-Yves Camus, an expert in far-right politics at the Institute of International Relations in Paris, says the party's preoccupations now mark a shift with its past.

"The previous (party) president, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was very much focused on the old traditional beliefs of the extreme right like the Second World War and the Jewish community," he says.

"And this made it impossible for the conservative right to reach any kind of agreement with the National Front. So when Marine Le Pen came, she decided that the party was going to change and do whatever was necessary to be a partner in a coalition with the mainstream conservative right."

Getting elected, though, takes money and French banks have been unwilling to lend to the National Front.

Instead, according to an investigation by current affairs website Mediapart, the party has reportedly secured €9m (£7m; $11m) in loans from a Russian bank.

At a time when the French president has suspended the delivery of a high-tech warship to the Russian navy because of Russia's involvement in the conflict in Ukraine, the National Front's pro-Putin stance - and the presence of the deputy-head of the Russian parliament at its Congress this weekend - have refocused attention on how different its policies are to France's main political parties.

But part of Ms Le Pen's success is down to the very fact that her party is perceived as different.

French voters are increasingly disillusioned with France's two main parties.

Socialist President Francois Hollande is now the most unpopular president of the Fifth Republic, and the opposition UMP is riven by scandal and internal conflict.

The man who hopes to unite the centre-right and beat back the rise of the National Front is former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who won his own party election at the weekend, with a mere 65% of his party's support.

Polls suggest that he would still win a run-off vote against Marine Le Pen (though the current president would not), but Ms Le Pen says she is ready to play a longer game.

"Nationwide electoral success is like building a house," she told me.

"You don't start with the roof, with the presidential election. You start with the foundations - the local networks, the regional polls."

"You ask if the National Front has changed," she said. "Of course we have: we used to be an opposition party, a party of protest. Now, we're on the threshold of power."

Why is Saudi Arabia using oil as a weapon?


A recent meeting in Vienna, between the member states of Opec finally uncovered what the world had expected for months.

Saudi Arabia is playing politics with oil, forcing Opec to maintain its current production levels at 30m barrels per day, to force down the price.

Consequently oil prices have fallen 35% in 2014, tipping under the $70 mark for the first time since May 2010.

The question is why the Saudis would risk the goodwill of other Opec members, simultaneously emasculating the organisation and undercutting their ability to use it in the future to serve their interests.

It is a game of high-stakes poker and in the long run will cause the Saudis some harm, but that is not where their immediate thoughts lie.

Since the first oil shocks following the 1973 Middle East War, the Saudis have understood the role they can play in regional and world affairs by turning the taps on and off.

But recently, as the US upped its production, it would have been reasonable to assume that Saudi would have correspondingly cut surplus supply to maintain a healthy balance sheet.

But instead Riyadh has done the opposite.

From Riyadh the world looks a grim place, and the Saudis have a host of concerns that they feel are not being addressed adequately, either by their allies in the West or by their partners in the region.

Saudi-Iran tension

Many experts talk of a Cold War between Saudi and Iran, where on every major issue of regional concern an Iranian gain is viewed by the Saudis as a loss, and for the House of Al Saud alarm bells are ringing.

In their view the US has effectively caved in, and allowed Iran off the hook.

The Iranians were not supposed to be allowed any domestic uranium enrichment capacity, let alone get paid $7bn for the privilege.

Yet the US and Europeans have spent months looking at ways to creatively offer Iran's "moderate" President Hassan Rouhani economic crumbs to appease the hardliners back in Tehran.

For the Saudis the mild mannered Rouhani is friendly manifestation of a regime that seeks to dominate the Middle East, and which is trying desperately to be accepted by the world.

Iran's reach across the Middle East region worries Saudi even more than its nuclear programme.

In Iraq, the Iranians have as good as sewn up the state security apparatuses, and were it not for the intervention of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to assist northern areas of Iraq, including Kurdish border regions, IS would be rampant in all but the most distinctly Shia regions of the country.

In Syria, as the US-led coalition strikes the Islamic State (IS), the pressure on Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad appears to have lifted.

Where once there was a determination to remove him from power, rumours grow that the West will have to consider dealing with him to help fight the bigger threat of the Islamic State.

Propped up by Iranian money and proxies such as Hezbollah, and cushioned with Security Council support by Russia, Assad looks to be safe.

To make matters worse on the Kingdom's southern and eastern borders, Shia rebels in Yemen, and protestors in Bahrain, only contribute to the sense that the Kingdom is being strangled by Iranian power from all sides.

Hitting back

In the midst of the chaos from which Iran seems to be profiting so well, Saudi Arabia has taken the decision that it has to hit back.

And given that Riyadh would prefer not to be drawn into a military confrontation with the Iranians, it has had to seek other ways to confront Iran.

The easy way it can do this is by picking Tehran's back pocket.

Iran's economy is heavily reliant on hydrocarbons, which make up some 60% of its export revenue and provided 25% of total GDP in 2013.

Deeply committed to the fight in Syria, and Iraq, the Iranians are spending untold millions of dollars a month to maintain their operations in the two countries, all the while attempting to placate potential domestic unrest.

Interestingly, the Iranians proposed cutting Opec output ahead of the November conference only for the Saudis to rebuff them.

Additionally, the Saudis get a chance to deal Russia, Bashar al-Assad's stalwart ally, a bloody nose, by driving down the cost of oil and hurting Moscow's hydrocarbon revenue streams, which prop up a shaky domestic economy.

As oil prices have fallen so has the value of Russia's Rouble, plummeting 35% since June.

Killing two birds with one stone would seem a smart policy, especially since it is highly unlikely to result in the sort of military escalation the Saudis wish to avoid.

Big reserves

How long can the Saudis keep this game up? Realistically a few months, but if the price of oil keeps falling the Saudis may have to rethink their strategy.

Nevertheless the Kingdom sits on $741bn of currency reserves and posted a $15bn surplus at the end of last fiscal year, and the Saudis can absorb the cost of budget deficits for a few years if needs be.

This is helped by the fact that recent mega-arms purchases have been completed and the Kingdom's future defence expenditure is projected to fall in the coming two or three years, freeing up cash for other endeavours.

Although Riyadh has tried to stamp its authority on the region, which will undoubtedly cause headaches in Tehran and Moscow, the oil weapon cannot reverse some of the more critical issues facing the region.

IS runs an entity roughly the size of Britain across Iraq and Syria, its hostility to the "Al Salool" (a derogatory term for the Al Saud family) recently made clear in a 17 minute speech by its Caliph AAbu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Cheap oil from IS territory will continue to flow, earning the organisation millions a day in revenue, and although the Saudis have had notable success in striking IS targets, it is not enough to ensure their defeat unless the US and Iran openly cooperate to solve the issue, which may result in grudging acquiescence from the Riyadh.

Likewise, the Saudis will have to grudgingly accept that some form of deal between Iran and the P5+1 (US, Russia, China, UK, France and Germany) will have to be struck, if regional war is to be avoided.

It is the best of a bad series of options, and recent attempts by the Saudis to diplomatically engage their Iranian counterparts, particularly on regional security issues like Islamic State appear positive.

But the mistrust is still deep, and the threat of IS appears not to have stopped the Kingdom in its drive to blunt Iran.

Was Russia's South Stream too big a 'burden' to bear?


Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement that he is cancelling the planned $50bn (£32bn; €40bn) South Stream gas pipeline has caused a mixture of surprise, relief and dismay in countries dependent on Russian gas across central and eastern Europe.

Russia's critics have long argued that, parallel to nuclear expansion, gas pipelines constitute "the long fingers of the Kremlin", opening the way for political as well as economic influence. So this decision is a dramatic change of direction.

"It may be a bluff," said Martin Vladimirov, an energy specialist at the Centre for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, "to pressurise the Bulgarian, Serbian, Hungarian and Austrian governments to unite behind accelerating the project, and make a better case for it to the European Commission".

However, he favours a second explanation, that South Stream is "simply too big a burden" amid the difficult financial situation facing Russia's state-owned giant Gazprom.

Europe has a falling demand for gas, and does not need the potential 63bn cubic metres (cu m) a year that South Stream would provide. The North Stream pipeline is only filled to a fraction of its similar capacity, and runs at a loss.

Instead, Mr Vladimirov believes, Gazprom is looking to new markets, turning its gas strategy eastwards. "It would need $100bn in the next four to five years to develop the Eastern Siberian fields and construct a pipeline to China," he says.

Scrapping South Stream comes as a setback to the governments in Hungary and Serbia, among the strongest backers of the project, alongside the Austrian company OMV and the Italian ENI.

Much of the gas would have reached the massive Central European Gas Hub at Baumgarten in Austria, which is partly Russian owned. Around a third of Russia's gas exports to Western Europe pass through Baumgarten.

But when Bulgaria suspended work at Varna on the Black Sea coast where the pipeline came ashore, the project became untenable.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said that his country would have to find alternative gas supplies, as a result of the Russian decision.

But in Ukraine the response to President Putin's announcement was one of relief.

"The cancellation of South Stream was made for economic reasons, disguised behind a political explanation," said Andrii Tiurin of Ukrainian nuclear company Energoatom.

"Why spend so much money creating alternative routes to supply the same gas? At a time of low and falling oil prices, why spend so much on a project which is unnecessary for Europe?"

Ukrainians also point to the extra financial cost to Russia of annexing Crimea, as well as the impact of EU and US sanctions because of Russian support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

At the end of October, Ukraine finally signed a new gas deal with Russia, valid until March, to guarantee gas supplies this winter. Ukraine's demand for Russian gas has fallen as it has sought supplies elsewhere.

New pipelines

Champions of a more diversified gas supply, weaning Europe off its dependence on Russian gas, hope that the scrapping of South Stream will speed progress towards a common European Union energy policy.

Most pipelines were constructed in Soviet times from East to West. Energy experts in eastern and central Europe have long argued for better North-South connections.

A new pipeline connecting Hungary and Slovakia is due to open in January, and work continues on a similar project between Hungary and Romania.

The construction of liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals at Swinoujscie in Poland, Klaipeda in Lithuania and Omisalj in Croatia will also add to the diversity of supply, with liquefied gas set to arrive from Qatar and North Africa, and possibly the US in the future.

From 2019, gas from Azerbaijan is due to enter Europe through the Trans Adriatic pipeline (TAP).

While Europe will remain dependent on Russian gas for a long time, however cool political relations become, a diversity of supply allows countries to negotiate lower prices with Gazprom.

Pinning the blame for the demise of South Stream on Brussels in general and Bulgaria in particular, President Putin's message was blunt.

"The EU will not benefit from Russian gas any more. That is their choice."'

Grace Mugabe profile: The rise of Zimbabwe's first lady


Zimbabwe's first lady Grace Mugabe has taken centre stage as the ruling Zanu-PF party holds an important meeting on the future leadership of the country. BBC Africa's Zimbabwe correspondent Brian Hungwe charts her rise.

President Robert Mugabe began wooing Grace Marfuru over tea and scones while the young typist was working in state house.

"He came to me and started asking about my family," she said in a rare interview about their first encounter in the late 1980s.

"I looked at him as a father figure. I did not think he would at all look at me and say: 'I like that girl.' I least expected that."

A divorcee with a son, she says she was initially hesitant about such a relationship. Mr Mugabe is more than 40 years her senior and his first wife Sally, a Ghanaian who was much loved in Zimbabwe, was terminally ill at the time.

But insiders say that during office tea breaks Mr Mugabe continued to work his charm.

Mr Mugabe has said Sally did give her consent to the union before she died in 1992 - though they did not marry until four years later.

Together the first couple have three children, the last born in 1997.

Grace Mugabe has since grown into a powerful businesswoman and sees herself as a philanthropist, founding an orphanage on a farm just outside the capital, Harare, with the help of Chinese funding.

But a new road sign reading "Dr Grace Mugabe Way" - put up near the dusty piece of land near the Zanu-PF headquarters as delegates gathered for the party congress - shows how her ambitions have broadened in the last year.

The 49-year-old is believed to have earned her sociology PhD in two months from the University of Zimbabwe. Her thesis is reportedly about orphanages but has not been filed in the university library.

However, the doctorate gives the first lady gravitas - and within weeks of being capped, campaign material with her new title appeared at rallies around the country as she prepared to take over the leadership of the Zanu-PF women's wing after being nominated for the role in August.

Sharp tongue

It is fair to say Mrs Mugabe evokes strong emotions - her fans applaud her style and forthright nature, her detractors have nicknamed her "Gucci Grace" and "DisGrace" because of her alleged appetite for extravagant shopping.

Her entry into the president's life did seem to change his ideological outlook - he had always been a Marxist with a Pan-Africanist inclination.

Fay Chung, Mr Mugabe's former education minister, says he was not materialistic and lacked a proper understanding of budgeting.

Grace Mugabe:
    • Began affair with Robert Mugabe, 41 years her senior, whilst working as a typist in state house
    • Mr Mugabe later said his first wife Sally, who was terminally ill at the time, knew and approved of the relationship
    • Married Mr Mugabe, her second husband, in 1996 in an extravagant ceremony. They have three children
    • Nicknamed "Gucci Grace" by her critics who accuse her of lavish spending
    • Along with her husband, is subject to EU and US sanctions, including travel bans
    • Praised by supporters for her charitable work and founding of an orphanage
    • Received a PhD in September 2014, a month after being nominated to takeover the leadership of the Zanu-PF women's league

In the mid-1980s, Zanu-PF gave Mr Mugabe a big piece of land in the upmarket Harare suburb of Borrowdale to build a home on.

But it lay undeveloped for a decade-and-a-half until Grace Mugabe became involved.

Now the first family have vast properties, businesses and farms dotted around the country, mainly in the rich western and northern Mashonaland provinces.

She is known to be tough - at one time kicking some farm workers and their families off land - but she is usually modest and reserved in interviews.

Her political rallies during her "meet the nation" tour have shown a new surprising side to the first lady - her sharp tongue.

As she took to the podium in each of the country's 10 provinces, she was unrelenting, using chilling words, in Shona and English, to pick on her opponents.

"'Stop it. Ndakakumaka rough (I don't like you and I'm watching you)," she warned.

She also lashed out at the late Heidi Holland, the Zimbabwean-born author of Dinner with Mugabe, saying she had died because she had been cursed for writing lies about her husband.

'Refreshing departure'

For Zimbabweans, it was like a soap opera - she washed the ruling party's dirty linen in public, calling on those she picked on to resign or apologise.

Her main target was Vice-President Joyce Mujuru, and politicians linked to the independence fighter suddenly woke up to allegations of assassination plots. She said some of them had spent time plotting to oust her husband.

A week later, state-owned media made sensational claims of senior government officials going abroad scouting for a hit man to finish off Mr Mugabe.

When Mrs Mugabe returned home from a trip to the Vatican in October, walking behind her husband, she openly refused to shake Mrs Mujuru's hand.

At rallies she explained her behaviour, saying the vice-president should be sacked from government because she was "corrupt, an extortionist, incompetent, a gossiper, a liar and ungrateful".

Her tirade continued. Mrs Mujuru was "power-hungry, daft, foolish, divisive and a disgrace", she said, accusing her of collaborating with opposition forces and white people to undermine the country's post-independence gains.

Party youths have warned that they do not want to see Mrs Mujuru at the Zanu-PF congress - she has already been barred from serving on its powerful central committee because of the allegations, which she denies.

Charity Manyeruke, a pro-Zanu PF political analyst, says Mrs Mugabe's approach is a "refreshing departure from the culture of not being very open about issues of serious concern".

Kudzanai Chipanga, Zanu-PF youth chairperson, agrees: "She hates corruption - she will be a good leader."

But for senior party leaders, like veteran Cephas Msipa, the attacks on Mrs Mujuru and others are "unAfrican" and they fear they could "split the party".


The first lady has had praise for some, saying Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, who like Mrs Mujuru has been seen as a successor to Mr Mugabe, is "loyal and disciplined".

And she has not denied the speculation that she may one day wish to replace her 90-year-old husband herself.

"They say I want to be president. Why not? Am I not a Zimbabwean?" she remarked at one rally.

Marcellina Chikasha, leader of the small new African Democratic Party (ADP), says Mrs Mugabe's "phenomenal rise to power" has astounded many who consider themselves her "intellectual and political superior".

"Call her shrewd, power hungry or plain old 'being in the right place at the right time' - this typist has become a kingmaker in Zimbabwe's succession politics," she says.

"She is tenacious and determined; she is naive and unpolished; she is feared and has been known always to get what she wants."

Are Democrats cooling on Hillary Clinton?


It seems impossible for anyone to talk about the 2016 US presidential election without bringing up Hillary Clinton. With more than 700 days to go, there are no official contenders, but many see her candidacy as a foregone conclusion.

And almost everyone appears to have an opinion on how the non-candidate candidate is doing so far.

In just the past week, commentators have been quick to analyse the political ramifications of the University of California Los Angeles' disclosure of the former secretary of state's $300,000 speaking fee and curious backstage rider requests, which include lemon wedges, hummus and chairs with rectangular pillows. They have dug into her chances of winning back white working-class voters. They have made predictions about her campaigning abilities based on turnout at her book-tour events.

"Anyone who thinks she can come close to inspiring the same amount of enthusiasm among people as Barack Obama is kidding themselves," Andrew Stiles of the conservative Washington Free Beacon writes with barely concealed glee.

One thing that most can agree on is that Clinton is distancing herself from President Barack Obama, just as any other Democratic contender in 2016 will have to do.

Even the president understands the political efficacy of the strategy.

The American people want "that new car smell," he said in an interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC's This Week. "They want to drive something off the lot that doesn't have as much mileage as me."

But it seems that Democrats may be distancing themselves from Ms Clinton as well.

In a television interview with Meet the Press's Chuck Todd, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick said that Ms Clinton is acting like she's already the party's sure-fire nominee - an attitude that is off-putting to voters.

"I don't mean that as a criticism of her, I just think that people read inevitability as entitlement," he said. "And the American people want, and ought to want, their candidates to sweat for the job, to actually make a case for why they're the right person at the right time."

Ms Clinton likely will not run unopposed, if she chooses to run at all. Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb already announced last month that he has launched an exploratory committee for a possible 2016 run.

While Mr Webb would be a long-shot given his lack of resources and name recognition, he could provide a contrasting point of view - and that's just what the editors of the Nation want to see.

They argue that today's political landscape is steered by deep-pocketed donors and powerful media outlets, rather than by a genuine clash of ideas. Today the best-case scenario is a watered-down candidate who is acceptable to the rich and the loud, they say. The only way to break away from the norm is to challenge the front-runners and question the basic assumptions about what politics can accomplish.

"Even the most ardent Hillary supporters should acknowledge that the Democratic Party, and the country, will be better served if she has real competition in the primaries," they write. "This is not an anti-Hillary message; it's a pro-democracy one."

Mr Webb could be just the type of competition they're looking for. Unburdened by ties to Washington or Wall Street and with a powerful military background, he could turn into "Hillary Clinton's worst nightmare", as Al Hunt, writing for Bloomberg View, describes him.

Ms Clinton's standing is such that some are wondering if she's even going to run at all. Political forecaster Charlie Cook puts those odds at 60-70%.

FiveThirtyEight's Harry Enten takes note and writes that Ms Clinton may be dissuaded from joining the race because she isn't perceived to be invincible anymore, and it looks more and more like the 2016 electorate will be Republican-leaning. He points to Ms Clinton's recent favourability ratings, which have been faltering since she left her Obama administration post. Still, he says, a lot of things could happen between now and Election Day.

"Clinton, however, no longer looks like such a juggernaut," he writes. "Not only are her numbers dropping, but she is running on par with a Democratic brand in its weakest shape in a decade."

More than that, an online survey conducted by FiveThirtyEight finds numerous Star Wars characters - including villains Darth Vader - have higher approval ratings than the former first lady.

Of course they - and Ms Clinton - poll better than any of the prospective Republican candidates, including Republicans Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio.

The shine may be coming of Ms Clinton's star, but she doesn't have to be universally loved. She just has to be the preferred option to whoever else is on the ballot with her.

As the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza observes, every Democratic front-runner for the past five decades has had a moment where they've faltered. The party's primary voters are a notoriously fickle bunch, who often latch onto the unknown dark horse - at least for a while.

"Democratic voters often like to flirt with other candidates in the primary, before the arranged marriage is made," he writes.

Despite her apparent struggles, Ms Clinton is still decidedly the front-runner - at least until Darth Vader's 2016 intentions are revealed,

(By Kierran Petersen)

Nelson Mandela's death – South Africa one year on


It does not seem that it was a year ago that South Africans danced and sang in the streets all night to remember the life of Nelson Mandela, the man who liberated them from the scourge of racial oppression.

They did not mourn the 95-year-old's death - instead they rejoiced that Madiba (Mandela's clan name) had saved them from a potential racial bloodbath.

Yet despite this sense of unity, there were many, especially white South Africans, who were visibly worried that the man they regarded as the insurer of a peaceful future had gone too soon and had left them exposed.

They feared his departure opened up a door for the angry poor black masses to destroy their comfortable lives.

However, 12 months have passed since he died and life continues as normal.

In an attempt to try and understand how the Mandela dynasty is feeling one year on, I spoke to Madiba's first grandchild from his eldest son Thembekile.

We met Ndileka Mandela in Soweto at her grandfather's old home now turned a museum.

Apartheid a crime?

As we walked around she told me that South Africa is at peace with itself.

When I said many people had thought that when Mandela went South Africa would go up in flames, she replied with a smile: "Even a year after he's gone peace still prevails.

"People are still upholding his legacy and what he stood for because he stood for peace and reconciliation."

Nelson Mandela: 1918-2013

  • 1943: Joined African National Congress
  • 1956: Charged with high treason, but charges dropped after a four-year trial
  • 1962: Arrested, convicted of incitement and illegally leaving country, sentenced to five years in prison
  • 1964: Charged with sabotage, sentenced to life
  • 1990: Freed from prison
  • 1993: Wins Nobel Peace Prize
  • 1994: Elected first black president
  • 1999: Steps down as leader

This, of course, does not mean that all is well in the land of Nelson Mandela.

This week, a survey, appropriately named South African Reconciliation Barometer, showed that fewer than 24% of those questioned felt apartheid was not a crime - with nearly half of the white people surveyed agreeing with the statement.

When the survey was first conducted in 2003, 86% of South Africans agreed that apartheid was a crime.

Family spats

Kim Wale, the barometer's project leader, says this is an indication of how history is taught.

"The danger of forgetting is that it encourages denial. The implication is that we are doomed to repeat the past," she told local media.

I also asked Ms Mandela about some of the family squabbles that have played out in public.

"Once we are around the table we celebrate more what brings us together than our differences," she said.

"In any family you disagree with your brother, with your own siblings from the same mother and the same father, we are no different from anybody."

As the nation enters its second year without Mandela, South Africa is coming of age.

It is going to learn to face the joy and pain of being without a father figure.

The rainbow nation, still celebrating 20 years of democracy, will have to rise to the occasion and follow his ideals of building rather than destroying - as we see the cancer of corruption eating away at the fabric of society.

If it doesn't, then South Africans must face the consequences of not walking in his footsteps.

Who, what, why: Why was Psy nearly too much for YouTube?


Psy's Gangnam Style video has been watched so many times that YouTube's counter could not cope and the company had to upgrade its system. Why did this happen?

The catchy Korean pop video catapulted the artist Psy and his signature dance moves to fame in 2012 and two years later, Gangnam Style is still the video most watched on YouTube.

At the time of writing, it has had 2,155,653,764 views - which is actually a bit of a problem, as YouTube's view counter could not count beyond 2,147,483,647.

"We never thought a video would be watched in numbers greater than a 32-bit integer (=2,147,483,647 views) but that was before we met Psy," says YouTube in a statement.

The phrase "32-bit integer" is significant because it refers to how big a number a computer's memory can store.

Computers work in binary code - a system of zeros and ones. Every number we use has to be turned into a series of binary digits or "bits" so that a computer can understand it.

It can help to think of 32 bits as a row of 32 boxes. The boxes can have either a one or a zero in it and every box corresponds to a different number, each of which is double the number for the previous box.

For example, the first box corresponds to the number one, the second to the number two, the third to the number four, the fourth to the number eight and so on.

The computer adds up boxes with ones and ignores those with zeroes. The longer the row of boxes, the bigger the number the computer can record.

Most computers use 32 binary digits because this is easy to process and covers most common numbers.

"It's the same as though you had four spaces to write down your number in and you need a fifth space to put the next one in," says Steven Bagley, a computer scientist from the University of Nottingham.

"It is the same as far as a computer is concerned. It needed that extra bit to store that number."

YouTube had not thought it was possible for a video to get more hits than could be stored in a 32-bit number. But the Gangnam Style video crept closer and closer to the limit.

If it had crossed it then, like an odometer clocking the miles on a car, the counter would simply have gone back to the beginning.

This would not necessarily have even been zero as some 32-bit integers are used to count negative numbers. The next number it showed could have been several million below zero.

YouTube averted this by upgrading to a 64-bit integer and because computers are programmed to count up by the power of two, the new limit is 9,223,372,036,854,775,808, or more than nine quintillion.

They don't think even Gangnam style could break that one.

Somalia invites energy companies to explore for oil


The price of oil may have fallen off a cliff recently, but that has not deterred energy giants like Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, BP and Chevron from reactivating plans to drill in Somalia.

The Horn of Africa country could be the next focus for the energy industry, as the government claims the nation will be producing oil within six years.

London-based Soma Oil and Gas, which is backed by Russian billionaire Alexander Djaparidze, has completed an onshore and offshore seismic survey and it is encouraged by the results. Details are expected to be published by the end of the year.

Security remains a concern for foreign investors, but Somalia says with the help of troops from the African Union, it is making progress against the Islamist insurgents al-Shabab.

Nevertheless attacks continue in the region, with ones in the capital, Mogadishu, the south-central town of Baidoa and north-eastern Kenya, near the Somali border, in the last week alone.

Soma Oil and Gas chief executive Bob Sheppard, told the BBC the company's seismic survey covered thousands of kilometres without any security worries.

"We're able to do that with zero security incidents. What we've been able to demonstrate is that you can conduct offshore operations safely and securely," he said.

A seismic survey involves firing an audio signal underground and analysing the sound waves that bounce back, which can indicate if there are deposits of oil or gas.

Territorial dispute

The government in Mogadishu will reward Soma for carrying out the seismic survey with licences to explore for oil.

"The government have recognised they need to stimulate exploration. They need to stimulate the creation of a hydrocarbon regime because they are in a prospective area," says Mr Sheppard.

He notes that the region's geology looks positive. "The analogous area would be the north-west coast of Madagascar, which has oil, because back in Triassic time (205 to 248 million years ago) they were joined. So we think the same hydrocarbon environment may exist," he said.

"We're hopeful about oil."

Another thing that could disrupt development of Somalia's oil and gas is a territorial dispute with Kenya over the offshore border between the two nations.

Talks between Nairobi and Mogadishu have failed to resolve the dispute and tensions increased after Kenya issued exploration licences to drill in the region.

Somalia has filed a case with the UN's International Court of Arbitration.

Petroleum and Mineral Resources Minister Daud Mohamed Omar is confident Somalia will win its case.

"We do not believe that it is a disputed area. We believe it's the property of the Somali nation," he said.

"As we have hired maritime lawyers, we have hopes that the outcome would be a mutual understanding between the two countries or we will have to wait for the ruling of the court," he said.

Another complication for the government in Mogadishu lies in the fact that the autonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland have also issued exploration licences.

'Hottest opportunity'

East Africa is the new frontier for the world's energy industry, as reserves of gas are being developed off the coast of Mozambique, Tanzania is exploring offshore and oil has been discovered in Kenya and Uganda.

"East Africa is regarded within the oil and gas industry as having huge untapped potential," says Steve Robertson, a director with the energy analysis group Douglas Westwood.

"It has been regarded in recent years as one of the hottest opportunities available to both independent and larger international oil companies," he told the BBC.

Abdulkadir Abiikar Hussein, the director of oil and gas exploration at the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources in Mogadishu, is confident Somalia can attract the world's big oil companies to start drilling.

"Comparing to what we have seen in the region. From Mozambique through Tanzania, Kenya, that has proved there are gas resources." And the bulk of the Indian Ocean is with Somalia so that's why there is a rush to Somalia these days," he said.

Mr Hussein also insisted stability is returning to the once war-torn country.

"The Indian Ocean is safe enough these days. There was the problem of piracy and piracy has dwindled. In terms of al-Shabab and other problems, that is a continental problem, but not in the Indian Ocean, so as a priority the Indian Ocean has to be explored first," he said.

"There is a tremendous improvement in security in Somalia at the moment," he added.

New port

Companies like Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil are being encouraged to reactivate dormant contracts to explore for oil and gas. They withdrew from Somalia two decades ago after civil war broke out in 1991.

They may be encouraged by Somalia's plans to develop the country's infrastructure.

According to Mr Hussein, "there is an expansion going on to Mogadishu port and initially that will be adequate enough to receive the movements of rigs and things like that into Somalia.

"But there will be another project that will include building a new port to handle the massive equipment imported in by international oil companies," he added.

Somalia is confident it will be producing oil within a few years, but given the planned development of oil and gas resources elsewhere in the region, notably Uganda and Kenya, the government in Mogadishu would do well to remember an old Somali proverb: "One cannot count on riches."

Updated 3:15 PM, Dec 10, 2014

APEC PH agenda fully supported by other countries


The agenda will focus on investing in human capital development, building sustainable and resilient communities, enhancing regional economic integrations and fostering SMEs' participation in the regional and global economy

AGENDA AGREEMENT. Attendees of the Informal Senior Officials' Meeting agree on the agenda for the 2015 APEC Summit. Photo from

MANILA, Philippines – Senior officials from the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation have agreed on the priorities to be pursued by APEC in 2015.

On the final day of the APEC Informal Senior Officials' Meeting (ISOM) on Tuesday, December 9, Philippine organizers said that APEC member countries backed the Philippines' proposed agenda for the 2015 APEC Summit in Manila.

“Our theme of inclusive growth resonated with them. It's an objective that they themselves saw as necessary to their own economies,” Foreign Undersecretary Laura del Rosario said on Tuesday.

Del Rosario, chair of the APEC Senior Officials’ Meeting (SOM), said the attendees of the inaugural meeting in Manila agreed on the 4 points to achieve their goal of inclusive growth: investing in human capital development, building sustainable and resilient communities, enhancing regional economic integrations, and fostering the participation of small and medium enterprises in the regional and global economy.

She also mentioned key points APEC hopes to achieve together in the future which she described as the “nuts and bolts” of what they are working on, among them:

  • 1 million APEC citizens for cross-border education by 2020
  • 10% reduction in the cost of supply chain connectivity
  • 25% improvement on ease of doing business by 2015 by focusing on starting businesses, getting credit, trading across borders, enforcing contracts, and dealing in permits
  • Convergence or uniformity in regulatory approval procedures for medical projects by 2020
  • Conservation of 10% of coastal and marine areas
  • Double the share of renewable energy in the region by 2030, from 2010 levels

The ISOM was the first of a series of meetings the Philippines will be hosting in the lead up to the APEC 2015 summit.

Steps towards goals

In a statement released Wednesday, December 10, APEC Philippines talked about the ways in which APEC economies have agreed to fulfill their goals.

To enhance regional integration, APEC economies agreed to do the following:

  • Organize and lead a task force to undertake a two-year collective strategic study on issues related to the realization of a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP)
  • Open a new technical capacity building initiative in pursuit of the FTAAP
  • Reduce customs bottlenecks for goods at borders
  • Easing service trade barriers and strengthening financial institutions

On developing SMES, APEC plans to address hurdles to “starting a business, getting credit, dealing with permits, enforcing contracts and trading across borders,” and by facilitating “deeper cooperation in areas like structural reform and fighting corruption.”

“Actions will moreover center on promoting SME sector modernization, standards conformance, commercial innovation, global production chain integration and increased value-added trade,” the statement said.

In terms of human capital development, aside from promoting educational exchanges through APEC scholarship and internship initiatives, APEC's focus will also be on “cultivating an APEC-wide women’s entrepreneurship network to drive women-led business growth; training in areas like financial services and internet use; and finalizing Information Technology Agreement expansion to widen access to products that support academic and professional development.”

To build sustainable and resilient communities, “APEC will endeavor to reduce tariffs on 54 environmental goods to 5% or less by the end of 2015 and pursue further steps to double renewable energy in the region by 2030, from 2010 levels, cut carbon emissions and raise energy efficiency.”

The statement said initiatives will also “center on improving natural disaster risk reduction, food security and the management of health threats, as well as implementing APEC’s Connectivity Blueprint and Multi-Year Plan on Infrastructure Investment and Development.”

In her briefing, Del Rosario said more concrete actions on how these will be achieved have yet to be fleshed out.

“They (the APEC economies) themselves will introduce initiatives to make them more concrete...on how they will be done,” she said.

The next meeting will be in Clark Freeport in Pampanga from January 26 to February 7, 2015. –

Updated 11:23 PM, Dec 11, 2014

Osmeña: Aquino misled about emergency powers


Angela Casauay

Despite the passage of the House version, the Senate remains unconvinced about the need and value of granting emergency powers to President Aquino to solve the looming energy shortfall

'UNNECESSARY.' Senator Sergio Osmeña III remains firm on his stand that granting emergency powers to President Benigno Aquino III is unnecessary. File photo by Senate PRIB

MANILA, Philippines – The Senate does not feel the need to grant special powers to President Benigno Aquino III to avert the projected energy crunch in summer 2015, despite the passage of a joint resolution in the House of Representatives.

Senator Sergio Osmeña III remains unconvinced the joint resolution is necessary.

"Because the President is being misled. He does not really know power, so he relies on people who don’t know power either. But believe me, we will have 1,600 megawatts. If we do not have 1,600 megawatts, that’s beyond already the control of the Senate, it’s up to God," Osmeña said.

The Department of Energy (DOE) projects a power shortfall of 782 megawatts in the summer months of 2015 due to the combined effects of the weather, the El Niño phenomenon, and the scheduled shutdown of the Malampaya plant.

But Osmeña is confident that the government can get the cooperation of the private sector to get additional power worth up to 1,600 megawatts – much more than what the DOE is asking for.

Osmeña's computation is based on pledges from the Interruptible Load Program (1,000 megawatts), another 300 megawatts from hydro power plants and another 300 megawatts from commissioned power plants that are set to be in operation.

On December 9, Osmeña also got the commitment of Korean Electric Power Corporation Philippines (Kepco) to run its natural gas plant in Ilijan, Batangas to run at least 500 megawatts from March 15 to April 18.

"So, I really have to study what the House has passed in order to be able to explain to them why certain things that they may have inadvertently placed in the resolution are not really necessary for the Interruptible Load Program to be a success," he added.

Senate proposal

The Senate will pass its own resolution but it will contain more specific powers than what the House passed.

Osmeña said the Senate wants to exempt the Kepco-Ilijan plant from the Biofuels Act to allow them to use pure diesel during summer.

"It will be a very small price to pay," the senator said.

The resolution will also authorize the President to use up to P500 million from the Malampaya Fund to pay for the storage of diesel that will be delivered to Kepco-Ilijan.

It will also direct the government to dredge the Pasig River to allow for the more efficient delivery of fuel to the Malaya Thermal Power Plant in Rizal.

Osmeña said he believes the Interruptible Load Program (ILP), which encourages private entities to use their own generator sets during peak hours, does not need legislation to be implemented.

Proof of this is the fact that the ILP has been in place in Cebu and Davao since 2010 even without concessions, Osmeña said.

The House joint resolution awards reimbursements and VAT exemptions to companies that will participate in the ILP.

"Like I said, even taxes are not a problem in Cebu or in Davao. But they seem to think that it would be a problem here," Osmeña said.

House joint resolution

House Joint Resolution No. 21 authoritizes the President to generate additional energy capacity through the ILP and the fast-tracking of new committed power plants.

Unlike Osmeña's proposal that is limited in scope, the House version allows national agencies and local government units to suspend the operability of environmental laws such as the Biofuels Act and the Clean Air Act should they affect the operation and transmission of the contracted generation capacities – a provision that has met opposition from critics.

While the House passed the joint resolution on final reading two weeks before the Christmas break, Osmeña said the Senate will pass their version in 2015 since it is "completely unnecessary anyway."

"The joint resolution is being treated by media as such an important thing. It is not important. The media has been making it such an important thing. If the Senate did not pass the joint resolution, we will still have the ILP in place. We will still be able to exempt the hydros from the ILP, we will be able to get the cooperation of Ilijan," he said.

The DOE originally asked Congress to give the President powers to purchase or rent additional generating capacity of up to P12 billion, but it withdrew the proposal after the department's own data showed the power crisis was not as bad as earlier projected. –

Myanmar turns to pop-up power stations


Nestled on a bed of gravel, an hour's drive from Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar, also known as Burma, is the country's newest power station.

There are no cooling towers or huge turbine halls, just neat lines of white shipping containers.

In all there are 67, each housing a gas generator producing 1.5 megawatts (MW) of electricity.

Together - some are always being maintained or rested - they deliver a steady 83 MW. We're told it's enough for the modest demands of about six million people.

But what makes this power plant a bit different is not just the way it looks, but the speed with which it was assembled.

Commissioning, financing and building a conventional power station takes a long time - at best four or five years.

In December 2013 a rental agreement was signed between the US firm APR Energy and the Burmese government, and just three months later Kyaukse was up and running.

This is what APR Energy has become famous for. It is called "fast track" power, and in the last decade its business has expanded rapidly, and it now runs plants in more than 25 countries around the world.

They are in a mixture of locations. Some are in places recovering from disasters, others where there is simply a need of some quick power to boost a power grid.

Packed on trucks

"Simply put, we import all the equipment, we set it up, we commission it, we get it running, and then our staff operate the power plant through the life of the contract," says Clive Turton, Asia-Pacific managing director of APR Energy.

At the moment the deal with Myanmar is for two years. If and when it comes to an end, the generators will leave the way they came.

They will be packed onto the back of trucks, loaded onto container ships in Yangon, and then returned to one of APR's four depots around the world, ready to be despatched when the next deal is signed.

The gain made in time is offset by some losses in efficiency and economies of scale. Joining together 67 generators cannot be as economical as one modern large gas turbine.

Yet compared to Myanmar's antiquated gas power plants, Kyaukse is still competitive.

"If you wanted to have a 1,000 MW plant then you wouldn't use this equipment," Mr Turton says. "Though these are actually very efficient units, and could stay for longer if needed."

Some 40 staff from APR live on site at Kyaukse, a town best known in Myanmar as the birthplace of the former leader General Than Shwe.

That official connection led to the development of an industrial zone, and APR was given land alongside a glass and cement factory.

Kyaukse is also conveniently close to the Shwe pipeline, a controversial Chinese project that since the end of 2013 has been delivering natural gas from the western Burmese coast to consumers in southern China.

Almost all of the gas has been pre-sold to the Chinese, but a small amount comes off at Kyaukse and powers the plant through a network of yellow pipes.

Renting power stations like the one at Kyaukse has helped give the Burmese government a little breathing space - but it is a sticking plaster not a permanent solution.

Power problems

Myanmar's power infrastructure is in a dire state. Only a third of the population, overwhelmingly in urban areas, are connected to the grid and most of them have to put up with intermittent electricity supplies.

At best the national output is 4,000 MW, and that is heavily dependent on hydropower so it is vulnerable to seasonal variations.

With Myanmar's political reforms have come ambitious plans to catch up with its neighbours economically. But that won't happen until there is a cheap and reliable source of electricity.

The government has plans to dramatically scale things up and supply everyone with electricity by 2030. It is an ambitious goal and many would say it is unrealistic - but neighbours Laos and Vietnam have shown that it can be done.

In both countries only about 15% of the population had access to electricity in the mid-1990s, but now more than 80% of Laotians and Vietnamese have their homes or workplaces connected to the grid.

Notes on Global Politics

Why Do So Many...... ?

It's the Stupid Economy
Fighting for Rights?
King Client
Truth Or Dare?
The Right to Dissent
Guns Or Roses?

Introduction to Cross Media Mapping
Manifesto on Aesthetics

Between Tears and Laughter
Only Yesterday

News Reports
Project Machiavelli

Intelligent Systems
The New Industrial State
The Age of Automation

Project Land

Project HomeFarm
Garden Diary

Trevor Batten

 <trevor at tebatt dot net>
 Baclayon 2014

ant then you wouldn't use this equipment," Mr Turton says. "Though these are actually very efficient units, and could stay for longer if needed."

Some 40 staff from APR live on site at Kyaukse, a town best known in Myanmar as the birthplace of the former leader General Than Shwe.

That official connection led to the development of an industrial zone, and APR was given land alongside a glass and cement factory.

Kyaukse is also conveniently close to the Shwe pipeline, a controversial Chinese project that since the end of 2013 has been delivering natural gas from the western Burmese coast to consumers in southern China.

Almost all of the gas has been pre-sold to the Chinese, but a small amount comes off at Kyaukse and powers the plant through a network of yellow pipes.

Renting power stations like the one at Kyaukse has helped give the Burmese government a little breathing space - but it is a sticking plaster not a permanent solution.

Power problems

Myanmar's power infrastructure is in a dire state. Only a third of the population, overwhelmingly in urban areas, are connected to the grid and most of them have to put up with intermittent electricity supplies.

At best the national output is 4,000 MW, and that is heavily dependent on hydropower so it is vulnerable to seasonal variations.

With Myanmar's political reforms have come ambitious plans to catch up with its neighbours economically. But that won't happen until there is a cheap and reliable source of electricity.

The government has plans to dramatically scale things up and supply everyone with electricity by 2030. It is an ambitious goal and many would say it is unrealistic - but neighbours Laos and Vietnam have shown that it can be done.

In both countries only about 15% of the population had access to electricity in the mid-1990s, but now more than 80% of Laotians and Vietnamese have their homes or workplaces connected to the grid.

Notes on Global Politics

Why Do So Many...... ?

It's the Stupid Economy
Fighting for Rights?
King Client
Truth Or Dare?
The Right to Dissent
Guns Or Roses?

Introduction to Cross Media Mapping
Manifesto on Aesthetics

Between Tears and Laughter
Only Yesterday

News Reports
Project Machiavelli

Intelligent Systems
The New Industrial State
The Age of Automation

Project Land

Project HomeFarm
Garden Diary

Trevor Batten

 <trevor at tebatt dot net>
 Baclayon 2014