Article-Grid

The Marshall Islands and the U.S.

The Marshall Islands is a sovereign state in the Pacific Ocean, recognized as such by its fellow members of the United Nations. But the Marshall Islands forms an unusual country in several regards. Its population is small (62,000) and its land area meager (70 square miles), yet its tiny atolls spread across a vast swath of the Pacific; if one includes its Exclusive Economic Zone of sea-space, the Marshall Islands is a large country (see map). The sovereignty of the Marshall Islands, however, is less than complete. According to the “Compact of Free Association” signed in 1986 when independence was gained, this former U.S. “Trust Territory” allowed the United States to retain responsibility for its defense. In return, the islands were promised substantial subsidies and other benefits.

Technically speaking, the Marshall Islands is an “associated state,” defined by the Wikipedia as “a minor partner in a formal free relationship” with a larger sovereign country. The United States has two other sovereign associates in the Pacific: Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia. A similar compact of free association links New Zealand to the Cook Islands, but the latter is not considered sovereign and does not belong to the United Nations. It supposedly has the right, however, to declare independence if it so chooses.

One perk provided by the Compact of Free Association is the right to travel and work freely in the United States. The American center of Marshallese culture is Springdale Arkansas, home of Tyson Foods—the world’s largest chicken processor. Some 10,000 of Springdale’s 70,000 residents hail from the Marshall Islands. Originally, Marshallese living in the U.S. were eligible for immediate health care coverage under Medicaid, but that provision expired in 1996. The current House of Representatives health care bill would restore Medicaid coverage, but the Senate bill would not. The issue is important because most Marshall islanders in the States work for low wages in chicken abattoirs, an injury-prone environment, and the community has very high rates of diabetes. (The Marshall Islands also has the world’s highest rate of leprosy.)

The Marshall Islands faces long-term economic challenges as well. U.S. subsidies are declining, and in 2024 the major “compact grants” from the American government are set to expire. As a result, on January 4, 2010, Asian Development Bank officials urged the country to start generating surpluses that it could put into a trust fund.

The Marshall Islands play an important role in U.S. military affairs, however, which may lead to continuing subsidy streams. The islands are the primary home to the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, which covers no less than 750,000 square miles of sea-space. The Reagan Test Site’s main facilities are on the small islets of Kwajalein Atoll, which ring one of the world’s largest coralline lagoons. The lagoon forms, in essence, the world’s largest target, well suited for testing missile accuracy (see map). Understandably, Kwajalein residents are not very happy with the situation. Almost all of them have been forced onto one island, Ebeye. Refugees from nuclear testing in Bikini Atoll were resettled on the same island in the 1950s. Today some 13,000 to 15,000 residents are crowded onto a mere 80 acres of land. Not for nothing is Ebeye called “the Slum of the Pacific.”

Language and Voting In Romania

As the previous post indicated, many Hungarian-populated areas lie outside of Hungary’s national borders. More than half of Hungary’s territory was stripped away in the post-WWI settlement, although most of the areas lost had non-Hungarian majorities. Hard-core Magyar (or Hungarian) nationalists who dream of reclaiming these lands often advertise their views by displaying maps of pre-Trianon Hungary (the 1920 Treaty of Trianon having reduced Hungary to its current rump status). Extreme nationalist candidates, however, typically receive fewer than 10 percent of the vote in Hungarian national elections.

In neighboring countries, ethnic Hungarians usually support their own political parties that call for language and cultural rights as well as local autonomy for Magyar-populated areas. In the Romanian presidential election of 2009, the correlation between ethnicity and voting was exceptionally strong; the map on the upper left shows Magyar populated areas in green, while the map on the right shows districts that voted for the Magyar-based political party in green as well. Political integration in Romania obviously has some way to go.

The map on the right was taken from an invaluable website called Electoral Geography 2.0 (http://www.electoralgeography.com/new/en/). Visit it to find a treasure trove of electoral maps.

Vojvodina: Europe’s Newest Old Autonomous Region

In late 2009 Europe gained a new autonomous region when Serbia granted its northern area of Vojvodinia control over its own regional development, agriculture, tourism, transportation, health care, mining, and energy.Vojvodina, population two million, will even gain representation in the European Union (although it will be allowed to sign only regional agreements, not international ones). On December 24, Serbia’s main opposition party challenged the autonomy provision in the country’s constitutional court, arguing that it could lead to Vojvodinan independence — further dismantling Serbian national territory. Most observers think that this objection verges on paranoia. Vojvodina’s population is 65 percent Serbian, and a recent poll found that only 3 percent of local residents want independence. Vojvodinans evidently favor autonomy largely for economic reasons. But claims for heightened self-rule can lead to further claims; already a local ethnic Hungarian group wants its own autonomous zone within the larger autonomous area of Vojvodina (see map).

The flat, fertile expanse of Vojvodina is noted for its ethnic diversity. The region has no fewer than six official languages (Serbian, Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian, Croatian, and Pannonian Rusyn), and its actual linguistic diversity is greater than that. Romani (“Gypsy”), for example, has no official status, even though more Vojvodinans speak it than speak Croatian. Of the official languages, Pannonian Rusyn is the most intriguing. While Ukrainians regard it as a dialect of their own language, those who speak it insist that it is a language in its right. Pannonian Rusyn is a language of instruction in one of Vojvodina’s public schools, and regular television and radio broadcasts are made in the language. There is even a professorial chair in Rusyn Studies at Novi Sad University.

The struggle for the autonomy of Vojvodina is said to date from 1691, when local Serbs pushed the Austrian Empire for a separate “voivodeship” (the word “voivode” originally meant “one who leads warriors”). In 1849, the region was granted limited autonomy by the Habsburg emperor as a separate duchy, but that status was soon lost when the Austrian Empire became the Austro-Hungarian Empire and most of Vojvodina passed to Hungarian control. When that empire was dismantled after WWI, Vojvodina went to the new state of Yugoslavia.

The people of Vojvodina continued to push for autonomy. Limited self-rule was gained in 1945 when the new communist government of Yugoslavia began organizing the country on federal lines. In 1974, much greater autonomy was gained when a new Yugoslav constitution created the “Socialist Autonomous Province of Vojvodina.” But Vojvodina, like Kosovo (another “socialist autonomous province”), remained part of Serbia, and thus did have the full scope of self-rule granted to such constituent Yugoslav republics as Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia. In 1990, as Yugoslavia was breaking up, Vojvodina lost ground. Under the rule of the hard-core Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic, it was still called an autonomous region, but it no longer had autonomy.

Although Vojvodina did not experience the ethnic violence that visited Bosnia, and while it has continued to make accommodations for its minority groups, tensions persist. Hungarians, by far the largest minority, often feel threatened, and many have been moving to Hungary. In Hungary itself, far-right nationalists continue to insist that Vojvodina, like Slovakia and Transylvania, are by rights Hungarian territory. But that is a topic for another posting.

The Northern Areas Become Gilgit-Baltistan

Divided Kashmir

The former princely state of Kashmir is one of the world’s most contested territories (see map). During the British colonial period, Kashmir was ruled by a Hindu Maharaja (under British “advisement”) even though its population was (and is) mostly Muslim. The political partition of British India into the independent states of India and Pakistan in 1947 saw the partitioning of Kashmir as well, with India gaining control over the core areas and Pakistan gaining power over the north and far west. In 1962, China grabbed parts of the far north after defeating India in a short war.

Pakistan divided its portion of Kashmir into two zones: Azad Kashmir (“free Kashmir”) in the west, and the Northern Areas. The Northern Areas were originally a non-self-governing area under Pakistani control, and have generally not been regarded by the international community as a part of Pakistan proper. India, for its part, has maintained that all of the former princely state of Kashmir is rightfully Indian territory.

This situation changed somewhat in August 2009, when Pakistan renamed the Northern Areas Gilgit-Baltistan and allowed the election of a local legislative assembly. A month later, Pakistan signed an agreement with China for the building of a massive dam and hydro-electrical facility in the area.

Indian authorities were further angered in December 2009 when the region’s newly elected chief minister declared that Gilgit-Baltistan was now Pakistan’s fifth province, and that it had “no connection to Kashmir.” An Indian spokesman retorted that “The entire state of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India by virtue of its accession to India in 1947. Any action to alter the status of any part of the territory under the illegal occupation of Pakistan has no legal basis, and is completely unacceptable.” A Pakistani official then replied that Gilgit-Baltistan merely enjoys a “special status,” as its legislative assembly cannot pass laws. Gilgit-Baltistan is now best regarded as a de facto but not a de jure province of Pakistan.

Unfortunately, Gilgit-Baltistan has recently witnessed an upsurge of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Sunni stalwarts, who wanted the area to merge with Azad Kashmir, were not happy when the Shia-majority region was awarded a province-like status. According to journalist B. Raman, Pakistan’s powerful “Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had over the past years encouraged and helped Sunni extremists organizations … to set up a presence in the Gilgit area.” (http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2009/12/sectarian-terrorism-in-pakistan-during.html).

Whatever its geopolitical status and religious tensions, Gilgit-Baltistan has made great educational strides in recent years. This extremely rugged, remote region had negligible levels of literacy thirty years ago. In 1998, adult literacy had reached 38 percent, and by 2006 it had risen to 53 percent. In many areas, most boys and girls now attend school, often learning their lessons in English. Most observers credit the gains largely to the Geneva-based Aga Khan Foundation. Many residents of Gilgit-Baltistan are Ismaili Muslims, members of a highly cosmopolitan and education-oriented sect of Shia Islam that is headed by the Aga Khan. Also significant are the philanthropic efforts of U.S. author and mountaineer Greg Mortenson, author of the acclaimed book Three Cups of Tea. The region also supports a high-quality English language news site, the Dardistan Times (http://dardistantimes.com/) (“Dardistan” is itself an interesting geographical appellation, but that is a topic for a later post.)

Selected Sources:

http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/in-paper-magazine/education/education-in-gilgit-and-baltistan-809

http://www.hindustantimes.com/News-Feed/newdelhi/Gilgit-Baltistan-is-part-of-Kashmir-asserts-India/Article1-492780.aspx

 

The Country of Greenland

Greenland’s Mineral Resources

There is no single, unambiguous term in the English language to denote the sovereign entities that form the bedrock of the global political system. We often call them “nations,” but strictly speaking a “nation” is a group of people who either have or aspire to have a sovereign entity of their own; thus the Kurds are often called the “world’s largest nation without a state.” We often call them “states,” but of course a state is also the highest order political subdivision of sovereign entities organized on federal lines, such as the United States or India. We often call them “nation-states,” but here we often engage in make believe, pretending, for example, that all the people of the state called Sudan believe themselves to be members of a Sudanese nation. And we often call them countries, but England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are all defined as countries, yet none are sovereign; all belong to the sovereign entity called the United Kingdom. Perhaps the hybrid term “sovereign state” is the best we can do.

One of the world’s largest countries, ranking thirteenth in area, almost never appears in country lists of any sort and is often simply forgotten. That place is Greenland, a constituent country of the Kingdom of Denmark. Greenland is left off the list largely because it is not a sovereign state, but it does come close. In June of 2009, Greenland became a self-determining political unit with full authority over judicial affairs, internal security, and natural resources. Greenlandic (an Inuit or Eskimo language) is now the country’s sole official language, and Greenlanders are recognized internationally as a separate people. Denmark retains control over defense, foreign affairs, and finances, and it provides annual subsidies that amount to some US $11,000 per Greenlander (of whom there are a mere 57,000).

Greenland may be moving toward full independence, but before it can do so it needs a more secure economic base. Several important lead and zinc mines have been shuttered in recent decades, and the all-important shrimp harvest may be imperiled. But Greenland does have vast mineral deposits, as well as potentially gargantuan hydroelectric resources. Oil drilling is scheduled to begin soon, and several aluminum companies have expressed interest in building smelters to take advantage of potentially cheap electricity.

Northeast Greenland National Park

All such resource initiatives, of course, come with environmental and cultural costs. The most controversial endeavor centers on ruby mining. Greenland apparently has substantial deposits of rubies and sapphires, which are in hot demand due in part to sanctions imposed on Burma (Myanmar), the world’s main source of gem-quality corundum (rubies and sapphires are both varieties of corundum). The Canadian company that is developing the ruby mines has worked with the Greenland government to exclude local residents from small-scale prospecting in the area. This action has infuriated local activists, who now refer to officially mined gemstones as “apartheid rubies” (see http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/content/view/15456/)

Greenland has, however, made some significant advances in environmental protection. Northeast Greenland National Park, the world’s largest (roughly a hundred times larger than Yellowstone), covers more area than do three-quarters of the world’s sovereign states. While most of the park is covered by the Greenland icecap, it also contains vast ice-free areas along the coast. Here one can find roughly 40 percent of the world’s musk ox, as well as abundant marine life. In an era of global warming, eco-tourism may offer Greenland’s best hope.

The Plight of the Rohingyas

The standard linguistic map of Burma/Myanmar (below) reveals a significant number of ethnic groups. Unfortunately, it also conceals much of the country’s diversity, as a number of separate peoples are joined together into composite ethnic categories, while others are simply ignored. The most important group in the latter category are the Rohingyas, a distinct people some 700,000 strong who appear on few maps of Burma. In the map on the left, the Rohingyas are marked, but in a manner that effectively erases their identity: the two triangles in far western Burma indicate Rohingya areas, but label them as “Indians and Pakistanis.” This erasure of Rohingya identity is in keeping with official Burmese policy, which has denied almost all of them Burmese citizenship.

The Rohingyas speak an Indo-European language closely related to Bengali. Like most eastern Bengali speakers, they follow Islam – the main reason for their persecution by the resolutely Buddhist Burmese state. According to Rohingya history, their ancestors began moving to their current homeland as early as the 7th century; Burmese historians contend that they did not arrive until after Burma was conquered by the British, and that they came largely through British connivance. As a result, hard-core Burmese nationalists insist that the Rohingyas be regarded as citizens of Bangladesh, not Burma. Bangladesh, not surprisingly, rejects this interpretation.

The persecution of the Rohingya has been going on for some time. In 1942, after Japanese forces expelled the British from Burma, mob violence took an estimated 100,000 Rohingya lives. In the late 1970s, renewed harassment sent another 250,000 to Bangladesh, where many have continued to languish in wretched refugee camps. Rohingyas continue to flee Burma, even though they have no place to go. In early 2009, the Thai military reportedly towed a number of boats crammed with Rohingya refugees into the open sea, where large numbers perished in storms.

Bangladeshi authorities reject Rohingya migration, arguing that all Rohingyas who entered their country after 1991 are simply illegal immigrants. Tensions between Burma and Bangladesh mounted in the fall of 2009, focused both on the Rohingya issue and on the maritime border between the two countries. The offshore area contains significant energy resources that both countries wish to exploit.

In late December 2009, the two countries reached a provisional agreement that involved the “repatriation” of Rohingya refugees. Burma agreed to accept 9,000 out of the estimated 28,000 residing in refugee camps (an additional 300,000 to 400,000 Rohingyas currently live in Bangladesh outside of the camps). But few of the refugees are eager to return. The journalist Nurul Islam, reporting in Media Matters, quotes one Rohingya man as saying, “we don’t have any rights in Myanmar. … If we go back, the armed forces will use us as bonded labour. Many will be sent to jail. There are still curbs on practising our religion or movement from one place to another without the army’s permission” (see http://usa.mediamonitors.net/content/view/full/70036).

All in all, few of the world’s peoples have suffered discrimination as severe as that experienced by the Rohingyas. Yet their plight rarely gains attention in the U.S. media.

Australian Camel Invasion

Feral Camel Range

The remote Aboriginal village of Kaltukatjara (“Docker River”) in Australia’s Northern Territory is currently under siege – from camels. Severe drought has driven some 6,000 dromedaries into the community, where they wreak havoc by knocking over fire hydrants and busting into houses – right through the walls in some cases – in search of water. The community’s 350 residents have been reportedly living in fear of the feral animals for the past two months. The situation recently became critical after the animals blocked the town’s airstrip, effectively preventing medical evacuations.

Wild dromedary camels are extinct in their native homeland of Arabia, but they have thrived as an introduced species in the arid Australian outback. Up to a million wild camels now inhabit Australia, their population reportedly expanding at a rate of 18 percent a year. They are so numerous in many areas that they are degrading the vegetation, threatening indigenous animal species, and contributing to dust storms that span much of the continent. The Australian government has recently dedicated A $19 million to a culling program. In the Kaltukatjara area, the Central Land Council has brought in helicopters to herd the animals out of town. According to current plans, 3,000 will then be shot. Animal rights activists in urban Australia and abroad are incensed at the proposed cull; locals are more upset by the fact that the carcasses will simply be allowed to rot rather than being processed for meat.

Much of Australia has been in the grips of an extreme drought for the past decade. This year, however, prolonged rains fell in many areas. Rainfall was so heavy in parts of Queensland and New South Wales that normally dry basins were flooded, including the massive saltpan known as Lake Eyre. But in central Australia – prime camel habitat – drought conditions unfortunately persist.

Camels are not the only problematic feral species in Australia. Wild goats, cattle, horses, hogs, and even water buffalo are numerous in many areas. Ranchers in Western Australia have for some time rounded up wild goats from helicopters so that they can be exported live to the Persian Gulf states, where they are especially valued for the feasts that mark the end of Ramadan. Some people would like to do something similar with camels, as the Camels Australia Export website (http://www.camelsaust.com.au/) shows. According to the website, camel oil is a particularly valuable commodity, “lower in cholesterol than other animal cooking fats, [and] also suitable for manufacture of soaps and cosmetics. Camel oil based products have unique properties with baby dermatology creams being one specialist product.”

Linguistic Geography and the Nuba Mountains

The Ethnologue (http://www.ethnologue.com/) is one of the best sites on the web for information about languages and linguistic geography. In the Ethnologue map shown above, a red dot is placed at the geographical center of each of the 6,906 languages listed in the organization’s database. One of the more interesting patterns visible in the map is the cluster of languages in the Nuba Mountains of central Sudan, one of the world’s most linguistically diverse locations. The region is noted in Sudan for its religious diversity as well. Many Nuba people follow traditional animist faiths, but others have converted to either Islam or Christianity

Unfortunately, very little information about the Nuba region reaches the world media. The area has virtually no roads, and access is further limited by the pervasive lack of security. What is known about the Nuba Mountains is not encouraging. During Sudan’s north-south civil war, many Nuba groups sided with the southern rebels; as a result, the region suffered bombing runs and other harsh reprisals by the central government. In the peace accord that ended (temporarily?) the war, no provisions were made for Nuba independence, much less autonomy. As a result, some experts think that the Nuba Mountains could become “the next Darfur.”

In the 1970s, the Nuba people came briefly to the attention of the wider world through Leni Riefenstahl’s bestselling work of photojournalism, The Last of the Nuba (original German title, Die Nuba). Riefenstahl, best known as Hitler’s cinematographer, was fascinated by the beauty of naked Nuba bodies at public ceremonies. According to Susan Sontag, The Last of the Nubawas “certainly the most ravishing book of photographs published anywhere in recent years” (from the Wikipedia article on The Last of the Nuba).

Ethnic Rioting in Suriname

Suriname, Population Density

In late December 2009, anti-Brazilian rioting broke out in the town of Albina in northeastern Suriname after a Brazilian man allegedly stabbed and killed a local resident. The ethnic violence grew so intensive that the Brazilian Foreign Ministry was forced to send in two aircraft to airlift its citizens from the riot-scarred town.

The recent ethnic violence in Suriname stems in part from the country’s low population density and abundant natural resources, which have attracted numerous migrants from neighboring Brazil.Over the past decade or so, as many as 40,000 Brazilians have moved to Suriname, a country with fewer than half a million citizens. Many if not most Brazilians in Suriname work as small-scale gold miners. Gold mining in the region is typically environmentally destructive and it often results in clashes between miners and indigenous peoples. Mining areas in northern Brazil are also noted for their generally lawless conditions. At the national level, political leaders in both Suriname and neighboring Guyana have long feared that their countries risk becoming economic adjuncts of their vastly larger southern neighbor.

Albina sits near the border of the even more sparsely populated territory of French Guiana, which holds only some 221,000 people in its 32,000 square miles (an area roughly the size of Ireland). French Guiana has also attracted Brazilian immigrants in recent years, but it does not have the same concerns about losing its national identity – largely because it does not have one. French Guiana is not, as its common name might imply, a mere “territory” of France. It is rather a French department, as much a part of France as Hawaii is part of the United States (as such, it is more properly referred to not as “French Guiana” but rather as Guyane, its official name). France is thus, in small part, a South American country, just as the European Union extends well beyond Europe’s boundaries to include this sizable chunk of the Western Hemisphere.France is also a Caribbean country and an Indian Ocean country, but that is a matter for a later posting.

(Wikipedia Map below)

South Ossetia Gains Recognition

Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia

South Ossetia is a self-declared independent country located in what the United States and most of the international community regards as Georgian territory. It has functioned as an autonomous client state of Russia ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. When Georgia made moves to reclaim South Ossetia in the summer of 2008, Russia invaded and defeated Georgia, and then officially recognized South Ossetia as an independent state. Russia’s diplomatic recognition of the breakaway region was in part done in protest against the recognition of the independence of Kosovo (formerly part of Serbia) by the United States and most European countries.

Russia is now attempting to bolster its diplomatic position by encouraging other countries to recognize South Ossetia. Nicaragua was the first to sign on, followed by Venezuela. In mid-December, 2009, South Ossetia gained another political partner: the tiny Pacific country of Nauru. Informed sources claim that Russia essentially purchased such recognition with a $50 million economic aid package. Nauru, once one of the world’s richest counties on a per capita basis, certainly needs the money, as it has exhausted the phosphate deposits that once gave it wealth, generating an environmental disaster in the process.

North Ossetia and South Ossetia

Such diplomatic maneuverings are not unique to South Ossetia and Kosovo. Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, for example, have long dangled out aid packages in exchange for recognition, a game that Beijing is slowly winning. Thus far, Russia has fared poorly in its quest for international support for its client state. While only four internationally legitimate countries recognize South Ossetia, sixty-four currently recognize Kosovo. (South Ossetia is, however, recognized by several other generally unrecognized countries, such as Abkhazia).

How many countries are there in the world today? As the South Ossetia example shows, no precise answer can be given, as it all depends on what one counts as a country.

South Ossetia is plenty interesting in its own right, regardless of such diplomatic games. The Ossetians are the descendents of the ancient Alans, who were themselves an offshoot of the ancient Scythians. According to C. Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor’s fascinating book From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail, most of the Arthurian legends stem directly from the folklore of the Alans, many of whom were among the invaders of the dying Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. For a film interpretation of the Littleton and Malcor thesis, see Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 King Arthur.

Also to note is the fact that South Ossetia is a small part of the larger Ossetian “nation.” Only some 70,000 people reside in South Ossetia, while over 700,000 live in neighboring North Ossetia-Alania, which is an internal republic of the Russian Federation (it is part of Russia, in other words). Roughly two thirds of the people of both North and South Ossetia are ethnically Ossetian.

Troubled Eritrea

Ethiopia/Eritrea Border Dispute

On December 23, 2009, the United Nations voted to impose sanctions on Eritrea for supporting Islamist militants in Somalia. The next day, Eritrea denied the accusations, labeling the UN actions as “shameful.”

Regardless of whether Eritrea arms Somali rebels, it is clear that the country has one of the most repressive regimes in the world. In fact, Reporters Without Borders ranks Eritrea dead last in the world in regard to freedom of the press. As the organization’s website puts it, “Life may appear sweet in the floral streets of the capital Asmara, but is in fact nightmarish, particularly in the dark corridors of the all-powerful ministry of information” (http://www.rsf.org/en-rapport15-Eritrea.html).

Language map of Ethiopia and Eritrea from Muturzkin, border enhanced

Eritrea’s relations with its neighbors are not friendly. Its border with Sudan is not fully demarcated, it fought with Yemen over the Hanish islands in the Red Sea in the 1990s, and it remains locked in a bitter struggle with its main opponent, Ethiopia. The 1998-2000 border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia may have resulted in as many as 200,000 casualties.

Proponents of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis have a difficult time dealing with the Ethiopian/Eritrean conflict. Religion does not play a role, as both countries are roughly half Christian and half Muslim. As can be seen in the map above, linguistic lines as well cut across the political boundary. If anything, Eritrea and Ethiopia together form a single “civilizational” unit. Animosity instead is rooted largely in the two countries’ divergent political histories. In the colonial era, Eritrea was under the rule of Italy, while Ethiopia remained independent through most of the period. A post-colonial union failed as Eritrea resisted Ethiopian rule. As proved true elsewhere in Africa, colonially imposed political boundaries may have been violently and arbitrarily drawn, but they nonetheless remain firmly inscribed.

Yemen: A Failing State?

Concerns that Yemen could become a failed state have recently mounted. The country has a weak central government, faces separate rebellions in the north and south, and contains a considerable al Qaeda contingent. The northern rebellion attracts most international attention, as it has spilled across the border into Saudi Arabia, provoking harsh Saudi reprisals. On December 25, 2009, Yemeni lawmaker Yahya al-Houthi claimed that Saudi Arabian warplanes were employing internationally banned weapons in attacks on villages in northern Yemen, resulting in massive civilian casualties.

This conflict, usually called the Houthi rebellion or the Sa’ada Emergency, is related to the distinctive form of Shia (or Shi’ite) Islam, Zaidi (or Zaidiyya), practiced in the region. Zaidis (sometimes called Fiver Shia Muslims) constitute over 40 percent of the population of Yemen, and until 1962 the Zaidi Imams actually held political power in northern Yemen. Sunni Islam, however, now holds political sway in the country at large – to the extent that Yemen functions as a unified state.

Zaidi Islam, general area outlined in blue

Saudi hostility stems in part from the fact that the border separating it from Yemen does not correspond with cultural divisions. Up to one million Zaidis reside in the mountainous reaches of the ‘Asir province of southwestern Saudi Arabia, where they face discrimination from the resolutely Sunni government. In ‘Asir, Yemeni Arabic dialects are widely spoken, and farming and other day-to-day practices are much more similar to those found in northern Yemen than to those elsewhere in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government only fully gained control of ‘Asir from the Zaidi Imam in 1934, and some evidence suggests that separatist sentiments remain entrenched.

Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of supporting the Houthi rebels, which may be true, even though the Zaidi version of Shia Islam is markedly different from the Twelver sect of Shia Islam found in Iran. More problematic for Saudi Arabia in the long run is the fact that most of its people living in its Gulf coastal area – the site of its major oil reserves – are Twelver Shias. But that is a topic for another post.

Giant Killer Mice of Gough Island

Remote oceanic islands often form interesting laboratories for biological process, as well as arresting geopolitical anomalies. Few are as remarkable as Gough Island, a 35 square mile landmass in the temperate reaches of the South Atlantic. Although without a self-sustaining permanent population, Gough is one of the world’s most isolated places with a continuing human presence, which usually consists of six people running a weather station. Gough itself is a dependency of Tristan da Cunha, which is a dependency of Saint Helena, which is a British overseas territory.

In regard to biology, Gough is best known for its “giant killer mice.” Inadvertently introduced house mice have evolved into a new form roughly three times the size of their progenitors. Unfortunately, these super-rodents have learned to prey on seabird nestlings. In 2005, researchers announced that mice predation risked driving several endemic bird species to extinction, including the Tristan albatross and the Atlantic petrel. In response, the British government brought in experts from New Zealand, who have considerable experience dealing with biologically threatened islands. Officials in Britain are currently considering their proposals for eliminating the killer mice.

Southern Sudan

In its December 19, 2009 issue, The Economist magazine reported a rare bit of “good news” from Sudan: the country’s ruling party and the former rebels of the south had agreed upon provisions for the scheduled 2011 referendum that will supposedly allow the south to secede. According to the agreement, Southern Sudan will indeed become an independent country if a majority of its people so vote, providing that the turnout is at least 60 percent. Although the 2011 independence referendum has been planned ever since a 2005 autonomy accord ended the rebellion of the south, informed observers remain skeptical. Southern Sudan, after all, has huge oil reserves that the Khartoum government covets; independence for the south, moreover, could set a dangerous precedent for other restive Sudanese regions, such as Darfur and potentially even the Nuba Hills and the Red Sea coast.

Oil Concessions

Sure enough, several weeks later the mid-December accord began to fray as the government unilaterally declared that southern Sudanese living in the north (and hence generally assumed to be less supportive of independence) would be able to vote. Southern Sudan has also witnessed a recent surge of ethnic violence that has displaced some 250,000 in 2009 alone, as well as incursions by Uganda’s infamously destructive Lord’s Resistance Army. Some Southern Sudanese think that much of this violence has been instigated by the government in order to undermine the south’s bid for independence.

But regardless of the current troubles, the insistence on a 60 percent turnout in the referendum is problematic by itself, as no one knows how many people, let alone eligible voters, reside in Southern Sudan. A 2008 census pegged the region’s population at 8.26 million, a figure that was rejected as absurdly low by the Southern Sudanese parliament. Some sources place the region’s population as high as 15 million. All that is certain is how little is known about Southern Sudan; in 2007, for example, conservationists were staggered when aerial surveys revealed the existence of vast herds of antelopes and other animals (including some 8,000 elephants) in an area widely thought to be lacking in wildlife.

Regardless of any “good news” coming out of Southern Sudan, the referendum scheduled for 2011 is not likely to be a peaceful affair. Watch for continuing strife in Southern Sudan and elsewhere in the country.