Burundi president pledges to expand teen death squads

2015 Burundian Constitutional Crisis

Agence France-Presse: “Groups threatening Burundi security must be destroyed: president”

Burundi’s president on Wednesday called for groups that threaten national security to be “destroyed”, setting a combative and hardline tone as he begins a controversial third term in office.

In a speech read out on state media, Pierre Nkurunziza said young people would be given “patriotic, theoretical and practical training” to work alongside the central African nation’s security forces.

“These mixed security committees will be asked to work day and night so that groups which seek to only kill and upset security, especially inside Bujumbura, will be destroyed and so that we won’t be talking about them two months from now,” he said.

He urged “all people to rise up as one, and to work with security forces so that this promise can be kept”.

Burundi has a very low median age — half the population is aged 17 or younger, according to the CIA World Factbook — although a number of other sub-Saharan African countries actually have even younger populations. Just shy of 1 in 10 people in Burundi is a young man or boy in the 15-24 age bracket.

Well before the violent election cycle the President had essentially created paramilitary teen death squads by arming teenage members of his political party’s “youth wing,” known as the Imbonerakure. This was particularly troubling to many in light of its similarities with the Interahamwe Hutu militias in neighboring Rwanda during its 1994 genocide. (Burundi’s ruling CNDD-FDD party is the political arm of a Hutu rebel force from its own civil war period.) The new announcement from President Nkurunziza can be interpreted as a call to expand these Burundian youth militias significantly.

In early July, UN Human Rights High Commissioner Zeid Raad al-Hussein specifically condemned the Imbonerakure’s role in the political violence surrounding the election:

He said his office has documented dozens of killings in the past two months, most of them shootings of demonstrators and human rights defenders by the youth wing and security forces. Zeid urged the government to disarm the Imbonerakure youth wing of the ruling CNDD-FDD party immediately.

Earlier, at the end of May, leaders of the other four East African Community member countries (that is, not including Burundi) met in Tanzania to discuss the crisis and issued a statement also spotlighting the Imbonerakure:

“The summit, concerned at the impasse in Burundi, strongly calls for a long postponement of the elections not less than a month and a half,” said the statement on Sunday.

The leaders also called for the “disarmament of all armed youth groups” and for the “creation of conditions for the return of refugees”.

The United States suspended one of its largest security training programs in Africa in response to widespread violence by Burundian security forces.

Flag of Burundi

Flag of Burundi

Are Trump’s bankruptcies worse than other business law manipulations?


The Washington Post earlier this month described Trump’s business bankruptcies:

The 69-year-old real estate tycoon has never filed for personal bankruptcy and has for years portrayed the Chapter 11 bankruptcies of his glittering hotels and casinos as calculated, even shrewd maneuvers, and facts of life in the high-stakes worlds of mega-development and commercial finance.

The Trump-tied bankruptcies have all been filed under Chapter 11, a provision allowing troubled companies to stay in business while restructuring their business model or reducing their debts. In the business world, those filings are far more common, and far less disastrous, than Chapter 7 bankruptcies, in which companies are liquidated to satisfy debts.
An estimated 5 percent of the 500 biggest U.S. companies have filed for bankruptcy in the past two decades, Georgetown law professor Adam Levitin said.

While I am not defending Donald Trump’s view of his activities, I do have to ask: Are Trump’s business bankruptcies really worse than other corporate legal manipulations?

True, Chapter 11 bankruptcy is uncommon by comparison to other maneuvers through American business and tax law, but is it worse? Major U.S. companies use and abuse legal provisions constantly to evade and avoid taxes to the government. Trump used the law to avoid creditors — at major investment banks and funds, so let’s not weep too hard (and most of them came out the other side of his restructurings with lucrative deals).

Some US companies do complicated maneuvers like “offshore reincorporation” and other tax-avoidance mergers. He used Chapter 11 for cashflow management purposes. If companies use the US legal code to boost their profits and cashflow via tax avoidance, how is that better than Chapter 11 bankruptcy?

Trump made business deals on the (correct) assumption that he could fall back on restructuring laws. Other firms make deals based on assumptions that they can fall back on tax loopholes.

Perhaps you are both unswayed by moral arguments and unpersuaded by his argument that he was using the system to his advantage like everyone else. Perhaps you would prefer to judge his record solely on what these bankruptcies says about his ability to run businesses.

Well, what about comparing it to popular and trendy legal maneuvers that are questionable long-term business practices? Many companies have been borrowing heavily to shower money on their shareholders, instead of using it to invest in expansion:

This practice of borrowing to pay shareholders instead of borrowing to invest, as you might guess, basically means shareholders are profiting against the company’s future financial health, rather than from current (or future) returns on its previous (or current) investments. That means literally raiding the companies’ future earnings to generate payout cash now. The company will eventually have to pay back the borrowed money with interest, but it will not have gained anything from that borrowing because it was used to rain money down on shareholders instead of actually growing the company’s operations. This means companies are putting themselves deeper into a long-term hole, even as wealthy shareholders […] rake in money in the short-term.
Down the line, a lot of American companies could have very high debt burdens while also being very underdeveloped compared to foreign competitors who invested in keeping up with the times and growing their long-term potential earnings. That will make them vulnerable to bankruptcy and other problems.

Maybe it’s true that Trump flew closer to the sun (and did so sooner) than these other future Icaruses, but the effect will eventually be the same.

Once again, one finds that Trump is not the epitome of evil. He is merely reflecting back a refined and purified vision of what America has become in its re-expanding dark corners. Those corners of our society exercise financial and political power in a dangerous direction. He didn’t make it that way. This is our country. We allowed this to happen.

U.S. homeownership in 2015 (in a global context)


Statistics and analysis compiled for and by The Globalist Research Center.

In the second quarter of 2015, the homeownership rate among U.S. households reached a new recent low of 63.4%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This was the lowest reported rate since 1967!

Homeownership in the United States had reached an all-time high of 69.2% in 2005, two years before the housing bubble burst in late 2007. Following the recession, prospective buyers shifted instead into renting. Growth in the rental market — approaching record occupancy levels in many areas of the country — is one of the factors driving down the share of homeowners in the overall pool of households.

At the same time, U.S. home buying and home prices have actually increased recently. But that demand has largely come from institutional investors, speculators, and foreign buyers. This makes it harder for ordinary homebuyers, especially in the youngest generation of would-be first-time buyers, to break into the market.

For comparison to some other major economies’ homeownership rates, about 53% of German households own their homes, 73% of Italian households own their homes, and 90% of Chinese households own their homes. The global average, however, is slightly below the latest U.S. homeownership rate.

But not all homeowners are created equal. In Romania, 95.6% of households own their own homes as of 2013 — the highest ownership rate of any EU country. And eight of the ten EU member countries with the highest rates of homeownership are all former Warsaw Pact or Soviet states. (Another is ex-Yugoslavian.) The ownership level is similar in Russia itself, where 84% of housing was owner-occupied as of 2010. All of this is at least partially related to rapid housing privatizations in the early 1990s. However, there are concerns that many of the homes in those countries, constructed in the suburbs and countryside during the Communist era, might not hold up much longer. Little new construction occurred in the decade after 1991. This could potentially put much of the housing stock in jeopardy and add major stress to those already relatively poor European nations.

Homeownership promotion has long been a goal of U.S. public policy — maybe because of its cultural association with early American colonists, homesteading pioneers, and the American Dream. Today its promoters seek to encourage building up equity and to ensure a steady need for jobs in the construction industry. The George W. Bush Administration, for example, promoted what it called an “ownership society.”

The general idea (in theory, at least) is that when people living in a home-owning household reach retirement age, the equity they have in their residence can provide a major source of funds to finance their retirement.

Home-owning households are generally wealthier, as least on paper, because a residence is often their largest asset. However, that asset is usually not a readily accessible source of cash.

Moreover, more than two-thirds of American homeowners in 2014 had mortgages on their homes. Homeownership is far less associated with debt in China, for example, than it is in the United States. Taking out a mortgage to buy a property is very uncommon in that country, barely reaching double-digits as a percentage share of homeowners in 2010.

Burma conservatives overthrow reform rivals in military party

Here at Arsenal For Democracy, beyond my general interest in government transitions, we’ve recently been keeping an eye on the rickety Burmese political transition to democracy ➚, on the not-so-off-chance ➚ that the Myanmar military would eventually decided to overthrow its own party and scrap the transition (or water it down ➚ to pointlessness). Some version of that appears to have begun this week. At the very least, an internal coup of some kind occurred, with coercive shakeups in the ruling party and cabinet.

It’s still unclear whether the active-duty military brass or rival ex-military politicians ordered the action by security forces, but the military-aligned USD Party found its top leaders removed from party positions at gunpoint on Wednesday:

Sources within the headquarters of the USDP – which is effectively a political extension of the military – said Shwe Mann, party chairman and speaker of the parliament, had been deposed and was under police guard.
“Police entered the party compound last night. Since then no one was allowed in or out,” Toe Naing Mann, Shwe Mann’s son, told Agence France-Presse. “So-called guards” were also outside his father’s residence in the capital, Naypyidaw, he said.

Several trucks of soldiers and police officers arrived at the compound at about 10pm on Wednesday, sources said. “We have not been allowed to move around since late yesterday,” said one party member.

The USDP general secretary, Maung Maung Thein, was also forced from his post. “They called me and told me I don’t need to come to the office anymore,” he told Reuters.
Christian Lewis, a political risk analyst for Eurasia Group, said a faction in the party loyal to [President] Thein Sein appeared to have finally moved decisively against Shwe Mann after a long-running power struggle.
“I think primarily that is the ruling party’s internal affair, but the internal struggle of the ruling party can threaten the democratisation process of [Burma],” [local political commentator Yan Myo Thein] said. “Because of the power struggle and incidents inside the ruling party, the upcoming general election can be postponed. If the election is postponed the process of democratisation in Myanmar will be delayed.”

The ruling party issued a statement saying that the removal was strictly limited to party postings (such as the chairmanship and general secretariat) and nobody had been deposed from governmental offices — which seems like a delicate way of splitting hairs to apply a veneer of legality to what is essentially a low-key coup by party conservatives. (One partisan claimed that 200 security people were on site when the party held a meeting on the firings.) The USDP did not clarify why its politicians had been fired from the party leadership.

Presidential spokesman Ye Htut did offer this veiled commentary to Voice of America:

“Any party will have to go about changes when its leadership deviates from the party’s policies, ignores the party members’ will, prioritizes personal profit over the country’s interests and creates factionalism within the party.”

One interesting angle is that Parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann (one of the people removed from his party post in this week’s purge by soldiers and police) had — in the eyes of conservative military brass and ex-military figures — reportedly become too politically close with Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the official parliamentary opposition since 2012 (and a longtime, globally-recognized pro-democracy activist). New York Times:

Mr. Shwe Mann, like many politicians in Myanmar today, is a complex and somewhat compromised figure. As a leading member of the former junta, he was complicit in the persecution and economic mismanagement that left millions in poverty and kept thousands in prison for their political beliefs.

But as speaker, he sought to bolster the power of Parliament and pushed legislation opposed by the military that would have decentralized the country’s hierarchical administration, a legacy of military rule. His partnership with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was tenuous, but some saw hope for a grand bargain between the military and democratic forces.

The candidacy filing deadline for the key November elections is today, and Speaker Shwe Mann may struggle to gain ballot access without his party role. The question I posed in January, when it made my list of 15 elections to watch in 2015, remains:

Burma: Is the country really transitioning to democracy or is the transition all a façade by the new military-derived leaders to end the country’s devastating isolation?


MA legislature blocks Gov. Baker’s painful education cuts


Last week the State Senate voted to restore much of the education funding to the Massachusetts State budget, including: $5.25 million to the University of Massachusetts, $217,000 for Quinsiggamond Community College, and, perhaps most importantly, $17.6 million in kindergarten grants. The House followed along the same lines.

By July 30, lawmakers had restored 60% of Governor Baker’s $162 million budget cuts (via line-item veto) to the $38.1 billion Massachusetts budget originally sent to his desk. As to be expected in Massachusetts, a state consistently ranked as having one of the country’s best public education systems, it was the cuts to education that drew the most attention and ire.

Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg (D) spoke strongly about the need to keep funding for education:

“If we’re serious about closing the income inequality gap, expanding educational opportunities for working families must be an important priority. By overriding the governor’s ill-advised education vetoes, we’re helping middle-class kids get the tools they will need to prosper in a demanding and competitive economy.”

Governor Baker, who ran and won his seat as Governor as a moderate Republican in a deeply blue state, has been evasive when it comes to his true opinion of early childhood education. While running for governor, he insisted:

“We need to make sure there’s a runway here between pre-k into strong elementary and middle school and high school education.”

However, as a candidate, he refused to pledge to shrink the waiting list of 17,000 low-income students hoping to get a spot in a subsidized pre-kindergarten program.

As governor, Baker has frequently pointed to the cost of pre-Kindergarten programs, but vetoed a program to establish best practices for cost-control in pre-K programs. Baker also frequently sites a Brookings Institute study, which notes the disappearance of benefits of a pre-K program by the third grade if students are in under-preforming schools. This seems like a thin defense for cutting pre-K programs, but an important reason to figure out how to improve pre-K programs.

Governor Baker points out that the $17.6 million of kindergarten grants he planned to cut was part of a program originally intended to help school districts establish full-day kindergartens and with 90% of MA towns now providing full-day kindergarten, the grants no longer fulfill their original purpose. Many school leaders say their kindergarten programs rely on this funding and if it is to disappear, it should do so gradually, not all at once, leaving school districts in the lurch.

The cut of these kindergarten grants was overridden unanimously in both the House by a vote of 155-0 and the Senate by a vote of 38-0.

The truth is that Baker governs a state where 73% of residents support early childhood education and 53% would support raising taxes to support it. With polls like this one, it is easy to see that Baker’s values may not match up with the state he is governing. It is hard to believe that short-sighted budget cuts like this one will not come back to haunt him.

U.S. agrees to clear a “safe zone” in northern Syria

The deal being reported so far does not involve a no-fly zone against Assad, just more targeted U.S. bombing against ISIS from the air, as well as Turkish shelling (and maybe bombing) from across the border — but no ground occupation. Instead, the U.S. will provide airstrikes on behalf of Arab rebel fighters who aren’t affiliated with ISIS. That revives an old plan I’ve criticized previously, except now those fighters we would be helping are even more likely to be aligned with al Qaeda. Kurdish fighters would also be definitively excluded from assistance west of the Euphrates, it seems, to assuage Turkish antipathies.

“Turkey and U.S. Plan to Create Syria ‘Safe Zone’ Free of ISIS” – New York Times:

“Details remain to be worked out, but what we are talking about with Turkey is cooperating to support partners on the ground in northern Syria who are countering ISIL,” a senior Obama administration official said, using another term for the Islamic State. “The goal is to establish an ISIL-free zone and ensure greater security and stability along Turkey’s border with Syria.”
American officials say […] that while a de facto safe zone could indeed be a byproduct of the plan, a formal no-fly zone is not part of the deal.
Instead, United States officials said Turks and Americans were working toward an agreement on the details of an operation to clear Islamic State militants from a heavily contested area roughly between the eastern outskirts of the city of Aleppo and the Euphrates River.

That is an ambitious military goal, because it appears to include areas of great strategic and symbolic importance to the Islamic State, and it could encompass areas that Syrian helicopters regularly bomb. If the zone goes 25 miles deep into Syria, as Turkish news outlets have reported, it could encompass the town of Dabiq, a significant place in the group’s apocalyptic theology, and Manbij, another stronghold. It could also include the Islamic State-held town of Al Bab, where barrel bombs dropped by Syrian aircraft have killed scores, including civilians, in recent weeks.

American officials emphasized that the depth of the buffer zone to be established was one of the important operational details that had yet to be decided. But one senior official said, “You can be assured many of the principal population centers will be covered.”

The plan does not envision Turkish ground troops entering Syria, although long-range artillery could be used across the border. Turkish ground forces would work on their side of the border to stem the Islamic State’s ability to infiltrate foreign fighters and supplies into Syria.

While it is unclear yet exactly how big the area will be, and supposedly there won’t be Turkish ground presence, I previously made a projected estimate in the following two maps (see details and analysis at “Mapping the projected Turkish occupation zone in Syria”):

Regional View: July 24, 2015 projection of the perimeter of a potential Turkish occupation zone and U.S. no-fly zone in northern Syria. Click to enlarge.

Regional View: July 24, 2015 projection of the perimeter of a potential Turkish occupation zone and U.S. no-fly zone in northern Syria. Click to enlarge.

July 24, 2015 projection of the perimeter of a potential Turkish occupation zone and no-fly zone in northern Syria. Click to enlarge.

July 24, 2015 projection of the perimeter of a potential Turkish occupation zone and no-fly zone in northern Syria. Click to enlarge.

I seem to have guessed the zone’s width correctly (outskirts of Aleppo to the Euphrates) and the depth may supposedly still be under discussion, but if it includes Manbij and Al-Bab, then I also pretty much will have nailed the depth estimate, because it is likely the whole M4 highway from corner to corner would be the southern perimeter of the zone. However, the Times is merely quoting the same Turkish media reports I was working off of, so we don’t actually know yet. A much narrower “strip” encompassing many fewer “principal population centers” (and outlying villages) could terminate at the highway shown above in the middle of the zone, nearer Marea than Aleppo.

Mapping the projected Turkish occupation zone in Syria

Arsenal For Democracy estimates and maps the perimeter dimensions of Turkey’s potential occupation zone / U.S. no-fly zone in northern Syria. (The detail map is near the middle, after the evidence used to prepare it. A regional map showing the area in context is attached at the end.)

As I’ve explored previously, for the past month, the Turkish military and the Turkish government have been disagreeing quasi-publicly as to whether to invade and occupy northern Syria to establish a “humanitarian zone” (supposedly for refugees).

The military brass is trying to delay at least until a new government is formed and the newly-elected parliament can take a vote on it, while the ruling AK Party is pushing for an intervention sooner. It seems to have been an AK Party aspiration, off and on, since at least September 2014, whereas the military isn’t entirely sure it’s a good idea in a general.

On February 22, 2015, Turkey’s military staged a lightning incursion in and out Syria, moving more than 600 troops and 100 tanks along the Euphrates River for some 22 miles (35 km) and then returning to the Turkish border a few hours later. The objective then was ostensibly to secure and re-locate a historic tomb of national significance (which was being guarded by Turkish Special Forces in a vulnerable position). But it may have also served to test Turkey’s ability to invade that far into Syria’s warzones without major resistance, although it was on the other side of the river, south of Kobani.

Of course, a speedy raid and departure would be quite different from a full-scale intervention to hold territory indefinitely. So how big of an area are we actually talking about for this possible massive military operation?

Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute, indicated in The Globalist in early July (based on “media reports”) that the zone would be as follows:

Specifically, Turkish forces may be aiming to seize a [88-km] 55-mile-long stretch of territory from Azaz in the west to Jarabulus in the east, thus establishing a [32-km] 20-mile-deep cordon sanitaire against the violence next door and creating a staging ground for pro-Turkey Syrian rebels.

Following meetings between U.S. and Turkish government officials this week, Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News reported the latest rumors, which were far more expansive:

A recent joint action consensus between Turkey and the United States, which includes the use of the İncirlik Airbase in southern Turkey in fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) jihadists, also covers a partial no-fly zone over the Turkey-Syria border, according to sources.

The 90-kilometer line between Syria’s Mare [Marea] and Cerablus [Jarabulus] will be 40 to 50 kilometers deep, sources told daily Hürriyet, while elaborating on the consensus outlined by Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, following a cabinet meeting on July 22.

However, sources avoided saying whether such a zone would be broadened in the future.

In addition to that representing a larger area, this news also suggests Turkey’s longstanding demand of getting U.S. air support and a no-fly zone for such an operation may have been met.

If it comes to pass with those enlarged specifications, as depicted in the map below, the U.S.-patrolled no-fly zone and Turkish-occupied “humanitarian zone” on the ground in Syria is going to run to the edge of the city of Aleppo at minimum — and could theoretically even include the entire city (not depicted). That variance represents the aforementioned range of a 40-50 km depth from the border, which falls either on the north side of the city (leaving it out) or the south side (including it).

However, it seems unlikely to me that an initial zone would include Aleppo itself, simply because it has been the site of a protracted siege for several years and Turkey would have to break into it to take it over, while the U.S. would have to fight for air supremacy over the city. Of course, some hardline nationalists in Turkey have never gotten over the loss of Aleppo to the French and Syrians in the border-setting wars that followed the Ottoman Empire’s destruction in World War I.

Regardless of motivations, even stopping just short of Aleppo would put the Turkish military into position to provide direct military support to its allied opposition forces trapped in Aleppo. The Syrian Army would likely have to withdraw, and the Syrian Air Force might not be able to continue aerial attacks.

Below is my approximated projection of the minimum Turkish Occupation Zone based on various recent Turkish media descriptions, as well as (loosely upon) local highways and land features. In terms of west-east width, this is using the wider “Azaz in the west to Jarabulus in the east” parameter than the one reported in Hurriyet (Marea to Jarabulus). In terms of depth, it is using the much larger 40-50 km measurement from Hurriyet, at least on the southwest corner, where it seems most applicable.

July 24, 2015 projection of the perimeter of a potential Turkish occupation zone and no-fly zone in northern Syria. Click to enlarge.

July 24, 2015 projection of the perimeter of a potential Turkish occupation zone and no-fly zone in northern Syria. Click to enlarge.

First, a key observation: Manbij is located on the M4 highway. If Manbij is indeed the big southeast anchor point of the occupation zone, as even the conservative estimate would suggest, that highway not only forms a convenient southern perimeter line but also restricts ISIS movements westward from Raqqa. Moreover, it is the same road that extends to the Euphrates, to the precise spot where the Tomb of Suleyman Shah was located until it was moved in the February operation. So that might be another sign that the incursion was a test.

Second: That’s a pretty huge area, currently controlled (to my knowledge) almost entirely by ISIS and the Syrian Army, except for some of the western locations, which are held by Saudi-backed rebel groups that are theoretically also aligned with Turkey. They might, however, not be overly receptive to a Turkish military occupation in a predominantly Arab territory (though ethnic facts on the ground didn’t deter Turkey’s “peacekeeping” occupation of northern Cyprus in 1974, which hasn’t ended 41 years later). On either side of the Syrian zone are Syrian Kurdish forces and communities (including Kobani, across the Euphrates on the eastern side).

Third: The U.S. no-fly zone would reportedly be based out of Incirlik Air Base in Turkey (see our map) if that deal doesn’t fall apart again.

Fourth, a qualification, as I was taught to make at the University of Delaware Geography Department: keep in mind that I am looking at satellite and road maps with a somewhat limited familiarity with the area in question. Military conditions and physical features on the ground that I can’t see might make some of the lines way off.

[Added at 4:45 AM EDT: While I was writing this report, the wires broke the news that Turkish fighter jets began airstrikes across the border from the Turkish town of Kilis on ISIS targets inside Syria. You can see Kilis is directly north of the northwest corner of the zone mapped above, which means the targets are probably inside the zone. Turkey says the jets fired from within Turkish airspace.]

[Added at 6:25 PM EDT: The Turkish Foreign Ministry has confirmed that U.S. Air Force planes and other coalition partners will be permitted to fly armed and manned missions from Incirlik Air Base and bases at Diyarbakir and elsewhere. The Ministry did not confirm whether a no-fly zone was part of the deal.]

[Added at 3:30 AM EDT on July 25, 2015: And below is a zoomed-out map showing the same area drawn above, this time in red, but within the regional context.]

Regional View: July 24, 2015 projection of the perimeter of a potential Turkish occupation zone and U.S. no-fly zone in northern Syria. Click to enlarge.

Regional View: July 24, 2015 projection of the perimeter of a potential Turkish occupation zone and U.S. no-fly zone in northern Syria. Click to enlarge.