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Cleared of graft charges, Malaysian PM Najib could now focus on economy

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Malaysia has managed to overcome a recent corruption crisis. As usual, the anti-Islamic media were celebrating, for quite some time, the news about corruption scandal involving Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. And they possibly wanted a quick regime change in Kuala Lumpur so that opposition they sponsor could finish off the stable nationalist government of Najib Razak and put in place a new regime to harass him and promote anti-Islamic agenda that indirectly speed up terrorist atmosphere.

PM Najib was buffeted last year by allegations of graft and mismanagement at the debt-laden state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and by a revelation that about $681 million was deposited into his personal bank account. On January 26, Malaysia’s attorney-general Mohamed Apandi Ali cleared Premier Najib Razak of any criminal offences or corruption, closing investigations into a murky multi-million-dollar funding scandal that his opponents had hoped would bring him down.

It is learnt that the money transferred to Najib’s account by the Saudis was a donation meant to help him combat the “rising threat” of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a part of the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition in the 2013 election. Even if the Brotherhood was defeated in 2013, this has not stopped similar organizations from crawling out of the woodwork. Most formidable of these is ISIS, which has recently issued threats against the Malaysian government and extended the call to jihad to the country’s Muslim populace.

Attorney general said the huge sum of $681m transferred into Najib Razak’s personal bank account was a gift from Saudi royal family and not linked to troubled state fund 1MDB and as such there were no criminal offences or corruption involved in relation to three investigations submitted by Malaysia’s anti-graft agency and that no further action would be taken.

The involvement of the Saudi royal family is an unexpected twist in a scandal over the mysterious funds transfer and the troubles of indebted state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), whose advisory board Najib chairs.

The Malaysian anti-corruption commission (MACC) had earlier said the funds were a political donation from an unidentified Middle Eastern benefactor. The attorney general said he would return to the MACC papers pertaining to the three separate investigations with instructions to close all three cases.

Najib, who has weathered months of calls from opposition leaders and establishment figures to resign, has denied any wrongdoing and says he did not take any money for personal gain.

Najib, who denied any wrongdoing and said he did not take any money for personal gain, welcomed the attorney general’s statement. “The findings followed a thorough investigation by the relevant institutions, and he has confirmed what I have maintained all along: that no crime was committed,” Najib said in a statement.

Although there still be a lot of people who may still be skeptical and critical of the government. Attorney general Apandi told a news conference no criminal offence had been committed by Najib in relation to three investigations submitted by Malaysia’s anti-graft agency. “I am satisfied with the findings that the funds were not a form of graft or bribery,” he said. There was no reason given as to why the donation was made to PM Najib that is between him and the Saudi family,” he said. The corruption issue has been an unnecessary distraction for the country. Now that the matter has been comprehensively put to rest, it is time for us to unite and move on.

Malaysian opposition parliamentarian Tony Pua told the Guardian the “basis to absolve the prime minister of any wrongdoing is utterly without merit because the ‘personal affair’ does not preclude corrupt motives or transactions”. He added: “The attorney general has provided no new or convincing information or arguments on whether the massive funds were bona fide, which leads to the question whether the newly appointed attorney general is merely covering up for the prime minister.”

However, opposition party leaders denounced the finding, saying the appointment of the attorney-general by the prime minister in the midst of the crisis suggested a conflict of interest. But analysts said it was a victory for Najib that would allow him to focus on winning the next election in 2018.

In July last year, Najib sacked the country’s previous attorney general, who had led the investigation into the scandal, for “health reasons” in a government reshuffle that also saw the dismissal of several officials critical of the premier.

The involvement of the Saudi royal family is an unexpected twist in the saga over the funds transfer and the troubles of 1MDB, whose advisory board Najib chairs. The scandal has shaken investors in south-east Asia’s third-biggest economy and rocked public confidence in the coalition led by Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party, which has held power since independence in 1957.

The Barisan Nasional coalition currently consists of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) and 11 other political parties. The opposition is made up of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), Democratic Action Party (DAP) and National Trust Party (AMANAH) and some smaller parties.

In the March 2004 general election, Dato’ Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi led Barisan Nasional to a landslide victory, in which Barisan Nasional recaptured the state of Terengganu. The coalition controlled 92% of the seats in Parliament. The current Prime Minister is Dato’ Seri Mohd. Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak. He took office following the retirement of Dato’ Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (colloquially known as “Pak Lah”) on April 2009.

Najib still enjoys the backing of most of UMNO’s powerful division chiefs. Even his fiercest internal critics, such as influential former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, accept that he cannot be unseated.

Although Malaysian politics has been relatively stable, critics allege that the government, ruling party, and government are intertwined with few countervailing forces. However, since the 8 March 2008 General Election, the media’s coverage on the country’s politics has noticeably increased with a little interference from the government. Judiciary is relatively free and independent.

The Malaysian government intensified efforts on 6 March 2008 to portray opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim as a political turncoat, days ahead of the Malaysian general election, because he posed a legitimate threat to the ruling coalition. Malaysians voted 8 March 2008 in parliamentary elections. Election results showed that the ruling government suffered a setback when it failed to obtain two-thirds majority in parliament.

Malaysia is a major Muslim nation and hence the enemies of Islam target this nation to get it destabilized, people killed as well. Unlike elsewhere in the world, the minorities in the country, especially Chinese and Indians have a major say in the government policies.

Malaysia has had a multi-party system since the first direct election of the Federal Legislative Council of the Malaya in 1955 on a first-past-the-post basis. The ruling party since then had always been the Alliance Party (Malay: Parti Perikatan) coalition and from 1973 onwards, its successor, the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition.

Human rights violations were reported but now the situation has improved considerably. In 2007 the Malaysian government briefly detained de facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and arrested a human rights lawyer and about a dozen opposition leaders, amid growing complaints that the government was cracking down on dissent. In fact as the government charged the opposition leader Ibrahim with corruption and other serious charges, these media outlets began searching for opinion makers to malign the government.

Najib’s acquittal has certainly brought a lot of relief in the PM office at Kuala Lumpur, finally.

Economy

Malaysia is a rapidly developing economy in Asia. Malaysia, a middle-income country, has transformed itself since the 1970s from a producer of raw materials into an emerging multi-sector economy. The Government of Malaysia is continuing efforts to boost domestic demand to wean the economy off of its dependence on exports. Nevertheless, exports – particularly of electronics – remain a significant driver of the economy.

Oil remains a crucial source of revenue in Malaysia, contributing almost 30 per cent of government revenue.

The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Malaysia expanded 0.70 percent in the third quarter of 2015 over the previous quarter. GDP Growth Rate in Malaysia averaged 1.29 percent from 2000 until 2015.

Economy has been the chief focus of Malaysian government. Security issues aside, Najib’s greatest concerns over the coming year most probably relate to the domestic economy.

On 2 May 2009, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak announced the government’s plan to develop a new economic model that will speed Malaysia’s transition to a high income country. The plan will emphasize ways to increase the income and productivity of workers by encouraging knowledge industries and increasing investment from overseas. At the time of the plan’s unveiling in 2010, per capita annual income in Malaysia stood at 23,100 Malaysian ringgit, approximately $7,000 in US currency; under the plan that figure would more than double to RM49,500 (US$15,000).

Malaysia has implemented measures to attract and maintain foreign investment, including a moderation of preferences designed to benefit ethnic Malays. Specifically, these reforms include allowing foreign investors to hold majority stakes in most enterprises excluding “strategic” industries such as banking, telecommunications, and energy, easing insurance regulation, curtailing powers of the Foreign Investment Committee and lowering the minimum quota for Malay ownership in publicly traded companies from 30 percent to 12.5 percent.

By being party to organizations such as ASEAN and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), that Najib’s government will be able to achieve its Vision 2020 aims. Although the Vision 2020 is in place to help Malaysia achieve increased incomes, the outlook for 2016 remains uncertain, chiefly due to slowing economic growth in China, affecting South East Asia where Malaysia being the second-largest oil and natural gas producer. The recent slump in global oil prices certainly has its impact on its economy.

The Malaysian economy is stable and among the contributing factors is the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Najib, who is also the Finance Minister, said the Customs Department had collected more than RM51bil in revenue since the implementation of the GST, compared with a collection of RM37.2bil in 2014 without the GST. He described the additional collection as extraordinary as and higher than the original projection, which enabled the government to face the economic uncertainty in the world economy currently. GST does not burden the people, on the contrary the GST is savior of the people. With the drop of crude oil to around US30 per barrel, Malaysia is still able to maintain all economic commitments.

The introduction of this tax could not have been better timed. It has helped raise revenues and has saved the government from an otherwise difficult position due to the massive decline in oil prices.

It has been a rather challenging year for the Malaysian economy. Political disruptions and economic shocks have rocked the nation. Prime Minister Najib Razak has been strenuously committed to undertaking fiscal reform. He has repeatedly stressed the importance of reducing fiscal deficits.

China, Malaysia’s top trade partner, is almost surely going to disappoint Malaysia with its slow growth figures. There are estimates that the Chinese economy may grow at about 6.2 per cent next year, much lower than recent trends. If the US economy does prove to be the one bright star globally, it will only bring darkness to the Malaysian economy as a US economic recovery is likely to be followed by interest rate hikes in the USA.

A country that once experienced consecutive years of high growth will have to be content with more moderate rates. In 2000, Malaysia’s growth rate was 8.9 per cent. In 2016 it is more likely to be around 4.5 per cent. Despite this, Prime Minister Najib is valiantly soldiering ahead.

A revised budget has just been released which aims to accommodate this short term change of fortunes due to low oil prices, attempting to optimize operational expenditure to maintain both long term strategy as well as the welfare of the nation’s populace. With the government being cash-strapped, the fiscal reform process is likely to pick up speed. This indeed is a big challenge.

In the face of depleting government revenues caused by sinking oil prices, there may be no choice but to raise taxes and reduce subsidies. The populace has little time to adjust to price increases and rising costs of living.

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Southeast Asia

A struggle for rule of law: Detained Bahraini footballer catapults Thailand to centre stage

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Mounting pressure on Thailand to release from detention soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi has not only refocussed international attention on alleged abuse of human rights and due course of law in Bahrain but also the apparent continued ability of autocratic and authoritarian regimes to enlist global police organization Interpol in efforts to silence critics.

The arrest by Thai authorities of Mr. Al-Araibi, acting on an Interpol red notice arrest warrant issued despite the fact that he had been granted political asylum in Australia, raises questions about the effectiveness of Interpol safeguards against exploitation of its powers.

It is also a reflection of a far broader global battle for continued rule of law that is being challenged by autocrats, authoritarians, populists and nationalists on multiple fronts.

“It’s really emblematic of this breakdown of multilateral institutions, particularly those premised on western liberal democratic values which in the wake of the cold war we saw come into ascendance. These institutions were not built with the internal safeguards and mechanisms to protect them against bad faith actors. Once you let them inside the gates, nothing prevents them from poisoning the well,” said Jonathan Reich, an attorney who has worked with Russian business people and anti-corruption dissidents targeted by Russia via Interpol.

Mr Al-Araibi’s case further highlights the incestuous and inextricable relationship between sports and politics that international sports associations strenuously deny.

Nowhere is that relationship increasingly more evident than in the Gulf with Mr. Al-Araibi’s arrest; the politicization of the Asian Cup as a result of the rift between Qatar and its boycotting detractors, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia; Saudi and UAE efforts to substantially increase their influence in global soccer governance, and the Saudi-Qatar dispute over broadcasting rights.

Qatar’s winning of the Asian Cup on Friday was as much a sports achievement as it was a political statement of the country’s resilience and ability to host the 2022 World Cup that had been called into question from day one and was targeted by its Gulf detractors since they declared a diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state 18 months ago.

Mr. Al-Araibi has been kept in prison to allow Bahrain to formally request his extradition even though Interpol withdrew the non-binding red notice a week after issuing it. He was on Friday remanded for another 60 days in prison as a Thai court held hearings on the request.

The focus on Interpol safeguards as a result of Mr. Al-Araibi’s continued detention and the organization’s inability to ensure that its mistakes can be corrected was bolstered this week by documents leaked by dissident Turkish journalists in Europe that allege abuse of Interpol procedures by Turkish law enforcement and intelligence.

The documents allege that Turkey has obtained through Interpol information about dissidents in Belgium, Germany and Poland on the basis of purported false charges that nonetheless failed to result in the issuance of a red notice warrant.

Mr. Al-Araibi’s detention since November when he arrived with his wife in Bangkok for their honeymoon and the Turkish leak are but the two latest incidents that point fingers at Interpol procedures.

Fair Trials, an international criminal justice watchdog, has documented numerous cases of abuse of Interpol procedures, applauded the organization for efforts to avoid abuse, and called on it to introduce further safeguards.

In one prominent case, Interpol was put in an embarrassing position in October when its then president, Meng Hongwei, was arrested on a visit to his native China after the police organization had accepted a resignation letter purportedly signed by Mr Meng and tendered by the Chinese government, which said he was being probed over suspected corruption. Interpol said it had no choice but to comply with the request.

Mr. Al-Araibi’s case bolsters the call for further safeguards and focuses attention on the need for mechanisms to counter the fallout of abuse.

A player for Bahrain’s national team, Mr. Al-Araibi was arrested in November 2012 while walking to a cafe in Bahrain to watch a Real Madrid-Barcelona game and beaten in detention. He was accused of vandalizing a police station at a time when he had been playing in a match that had been aired on live television.

Mr Al-Araibi spent three months in detention and was sentenced to ten years in prison but managed to flee to Australia before the verdict was issued by a judge, who like Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president and world soccer body FIFA vice president, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, is a member of Bahrain’s ruling family.

Mr. Al-Araibi’s case erupted as Sheikh Salman is running for another term in AFC elections scheduled for April.

Mr. Al-Araibi asserted that Sheikh Salman, who at the time of his arrest in the Gulf state was head of the Bahrain Football Association (BFA) and has long been accused of involvement in the arrest and abuse during mass anti-government protests in 2011 of some 150 Bahraini athletes and sports executives, had failed to respond to requests for help from the player’s family and lawyers.

Sheikh Salman has said he had not received a request for assistance. Sheikh Salman has consistently denied any association with the 2011 events despite the fact that Bahrain’s state-run news agency linked him to the arrests in several reports at the time.

Conspicuously, Sheikh Salman has remained silent about Mr. Al-Araibi’s case while the AFC only this week called for the first time for his return to Australia in a statement by its vice president, Praful Patel.

The AFC this week said Mr. Patel rather than Sheikh Salman was responsible for Middle Eastern affairs. It said Sheikh Salman had been recused from overseeing the region because of potential conflicts of interest. It was the first time that the AFC disclosed the recusal.

FIFA secretary general Fatma Samoura and International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach have been calling for Mr. Al-Araibi’s release for several weeks.

For Bahraini exiles like S. Yousif Almuhafdah, a Berlin-based human rights activist, Mr. Al-Araibi’s case is one way of focusing attention on Bahrain and trying to ensure that others are spared the soccer player’s fate in a world in which the cards are stacked against them.

Says Mr. Almuhafdah, who was detained in the same cell as Mr. Al-Araibi before both men left Bahrain: “Nothing will change any time soon. But we have a responsibility to those who stayed behind and remain behind bars.”

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Southeast Asia

France returns to Laos

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The geographical location of Laos, a small landlocked state surrounded by China, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia, has made it imperative for this country to pursue a well-balanced multi-faceted foreign policy that hinges on the development of a mobile system of economic and political counterbalances.

Regional integration is key to the economic development of Laos. A major integration mechanism is ASEAN, of which Laos has been a member since 1997. 99% of Laos’ residents believe that their country’s membership in this organization yields tangible economic benefits; 92.5% say it has improved their personal financial standing.

As a member of ASEAN, Laos is committed to developing relations with China, Thailand and Vietnam but pursues a preferential policy as regards each of them.

China remains number one investor in the Laotian economy ($ 8.5 billion) with the bulk of the finances channeled into the mining, transport infrastructure and energy sectors. In 2016, trade turnover between the two countries reached $ 2 billion , a significant amount for Laos with its less than 7 million population. The largest Chinese-Lao project is the railway from Kunming Province (PRC) to Laotian capital, Vientiane. China is ready to inject more than $ 6 billion in the project

Meanwhile, Laos has been stepping up cooperation with Vietnam, which maintains a wait and see position in relation to China. Laos views Vietnam as a political and ideological counterweight to China. Cultural ties with Vietnam serve as an additional means of preventing the transformation of Beijing’s economic influence into the ideological one. Members of the ruling People’s Revolutionary Party of Laos receive training in Vietnam.

With a view to diversify foreign economic and foreign policy relations, Laos is developing contacts with France, whose colony it used to be in the past. Paris is seen as a remote neighbor of Laos, a partner in the economic and cultural spheres. Since 1991 Laos has been a member of the international organization for the cooperation of the francophone states “Francophone”. According to the French Embassy in Vientiane, the number of Laotians who speak French amounts to 3% and has been increasing over the past 12 years.

Laos is home to two branches of the Institut Francais du Laos (IFL) – an organization that promotes the French language and culture abroad; the French language is on the curriculum of three of the country’s five universities. In March 2018, Laos was visited by leaders of “Francophone”, and in May 2018 – by representatives of the Francophone University Agency. The official mission of the latter is to create a new French-language communication and educational space. The visits resulted in the signing of agreements on further cooperation with both organizations.

The period that saw a catastrophic fall in the demand for the French language in Laos since the mid-1970s is coming to an end. Nevertheless, the Lao Ministry of Education has designated English as a compulsory subject in schools for the 2019 academic year. The decision was prompted by the currently prevailing position of English worldwide and Vientiane’s intention to develop economic ties not only with the Francophone, but also with the Anglosphere.

Along with the cultural influence, France is trying to build up its economic presence in Laos. In May 2018, a French delegation led by French Ambassador Claudine Ledo visited a special economic zone in the province of Savannakhet to examine the prospects for French investment. For Laos, France is the ninth largest trading partner accounting for only 0.2% of the Lao market but it holds top position among non-Asian countries in the volume of investment.

Trade turnover between Laos and France has been fluctuating in recent years between $ 34 and $73 billion. France is prepared to invest in the Lao economy but the volume of investment is determined by the extent of Vientiane’s openness to foreign investment flows and the ability of the Lao economy to ‘digest’ them.

The year 2019 will mark greater cooperation within ASEAN for Laos. Last year, economic issues within ASEAN prevailed over political ones in connection with trade conflicts between the United States, the European Union and the People’s Republic of China. ASEAN countries are planning to launch the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership program (RCEP).

If the program is fulfilled, it will become the largest trade agreement in the world. The cumulative GDP of the countries participating in it makes up 25% of the global GDP, the population accounts for 45%, and the trade turnover amounts to 30% (5). Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea may all be attracted to the program. This will provide Vientiane with more opportunities to diversify foreign economic relations amid China’s growing financial presence in Southeast Asia.

France was the first European country to sign a partnership agreement with ASEAN. Paris regards this organization as key to its policy in the Indo-Pacific region and a major economic partner. The volume of French investments in the ASEAN economy in 2017 reached € 16 billion. France’s share in the ASEAN market is 1.6%. This figure has not changed for ten years.

Paris aims to give cooperation with ASEAN a new impetus, which will impart more momentum to French-Lao relations.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Southeast Asia

On Refugees… And Myanmar: It’s Not Just The Rohingya

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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… And my life’s cold winter that knew no spring; Of my mind so weary and sick and wild,  Of my heart too sad to sing.  — Paul Laurence Dunbar

The world now has more refugees than at any time since after WW2, more than the population of Britain.  They are often the consequence of wars usually instigated by great powers directly or through proxies.  Civil strife accompanied by the demonization of minorities, killing and expulsion is another reason.  Such is the story of the Rohingya in Burma, or Myanmar as it now likes to be known.

It is a country with the river Irrawaddy as a central artery.  Bordering it is the heartland, peopled by the Bamar who make up 68 percent of the population and are Buddhist.  The Rohingya are Muslim, look different and have lived in Rakhine state for at least five centuries.  During WW2 they supported the British while the Buddhist Burmese supported the Japanese, their coreligionists.  It brought lasting enmity.  After years of propaganda and vilification, the Rohingya were stripped of citizenship.  Not unlike Nazi Germany targeting Jewish people, new restrictive laws curtailed liberties, marriage rights, even children — limited to two.  The vilification turned most neighboring Buddhist villages against the Rohingya, and those attacking and burning their villages were often these neighbors when not the military.

In this latest violence, 90 percent of the Rohingyas were driven out and about three-quarters of a million sought refuge across the border in Bangladesh.  The story does not end with the Rohingya for there are other threatened minorities in Burma occupying the periphery in the north and south:

In northern Shan state, a simmering conflict with the Taang National Liberation Army dating back to 1963 has displaced 300,000.  The army emboldened by the relatively meek response to the assault on the Rohingyas have intensified their efforts also against the ethnic Kokang’s  Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army.  The consequence is an addition to the tens of thousands that had streamed from earlier conflicts over the border into China.  Also in the north the largely Christian Kachin minority formed the Kachin Independence Army to defend their villages.   The ongoing conflict has displaced more than 135,000 internally.  And in the south the conflict with the Karen (Buddhist, Animist and 15 percent Christian) resulted in over 100,000 refugees … this time in Thailand, plus a 100,000 diaspora to the rest of the world including some 65,000 in the US.  Myanmar’s perverse antipathy towards all its minorities makes a mockery of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Aung San Suu Kyi, its leader.  Is meaningful censure an answer, or is innate tribalism an unconquerable primitive amygdala response?

The top five refugee hosting countries might also come as a surprise.  Amid all the news of Angela Merkel’s generous offer to accept everyone entering her country, Germany is not one of them.  Shortly thereafter her party lost by-elections and she is departing.  The actual figures are Turkey (3.5 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Uganda (1.4 million), Lebanon (1 million) and Iran (0.98 million).  The chaos in countries adjoining them (think of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia) explains why, and the great power with a finger in each pie, when not actually baking it, is also not difficult to discern.

Imagine being forced to flee with just the clothes on your back or just a bag.  A word here also for the people who had to do just that to escape wildfires.  They all have our heartfelt sympathy, often taking a concrete form through donations to help.  A happy new year to everyone and a better one for the unfortunate among us.  We can try to make it so.

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