Friday, April 08, 2005

ASEAN's Many Voices

ASEAN has never been a strong regional organisation. A child of the Cold War it has struggled to advance the idea of regional solutions to regional problems. This was the case with the financial crisis of 1997-98 and has been evident in its negligent record in dealing with a whole range of collective problems such as transborder environmental hazards, migration or terrorism. It's not difficult to identify the root causes: unfinished nation-building projects; highly dependent capitalist development; and an ideology of non-interference which often translates into a lowest common denominator reticence in dealing with pressing issues.

Nowhere is this more evident that in ASEAN's sorry dealings with the execrable military regime in Burma over many years. I have written recently about the possible turning-point in international relations toward Burma, prompted by a major falling-out over its planned assumption of the chairmanship of ASEAN next year. Ahead of this weekend's important foreign ministers' meeting in the Philippines it is quite instructive the read ASEAN's multiple voices on the Burma issue. Here's a sample:

Unless the Myanmar [Burmese] authorities handle the situation carefully, Asean’s credibility and cohesion will be jeopardized.

Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo

should not be a chairman under present circumstances.

—Zaid Ibrahim, a leading parliamentarian from Malaysia’s ruling United Malays National Organization, who also chairs the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar [Burma] Caucus

No country has the right to deprive Myanmar of its right, in its capacity as an equal member of Asean [to become the group’s chair in 2006]. Cambodia ... is against any attempts to split Asean.

—Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen

We will ask for Myanmar’s turn to be the chairman of Asean to be suspended and given to other countries until democratic reforms are carried out.
—Nazri Abdul Aziz, minister of Malaysian Prime Minister’s department

will not get involved in Malaysia’s campaign. We have to be very careful—we cannot jump to conclusions.

—Thai Foreign Minister Kantathi Suphamonghon

There is no shift in the government’s position at the moment. Anything that we [Asean] have to decide on Myanmar will be on the basis of a consensus decision.

—Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi

The Asean nations have to talk and come out with a common stance that reflects the Asean feeling and will make Myanmar realize they have to improve themselves. This is a matter for Asean, not only Thailand.
—Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra

We will be informing Asean parliamentarians of this resolution [to block Burma’s chairmanship of Asean], and maybe together with Malaysia, we can take a common stand among Asean.

—Philippine Senate President Franklin Drilon
Making sense of that little lot will be a diplomatic task in itself. There's an interesting interview here with Former Thai ambassador to the UN Asda Jayanama criticizes ASEAN’s failed policy of "constructive engagement" towards Burma.

Holloway On Revolutionary Change

The publication a couple of years ago of John Holloway's
Change The World Without Taking Power: The Meaning Of Revolution Today elicited a wide-ranging debate on the Left. In that book Holloway called for the creation of relations of "anti-power" – that is, the dissolving relations of power-over-others in our everyday struggles:
This project is far more radical than any notion of revolution based on the conquest of power and at the same time far more realistic.
To Holloway,
flies caught in a web of social relation beyond our control, we can only try to free ourselves by hacking at the strands that imprison ourselves.
This is achievable, he says, by focusing on a dialectics of negation, on a rejection of a world we feel to be wrong. The aim of his project is
to strengthen negativity ... to negate in whatever way we can the negativeness of our existence.
For those who haven't read the book but who would like to explore some of the implications of this important prospectus for change, John Holloway has published a short essay here entitled "Can We Change The World Without Taking Power?" and attempts some kind of answer in nine short theses. Characteristically, he begins with a palpable sense of uncertainty:
1. I don't know the answer. Perhaps we can change the world without taking power. Perhaps we can not. The starting-point – for all of us, I think – is uncertainty, not knowing, a common search for a way forward.
In his theses Holloway has some important things to so about state repression, alternative productive activity, self-organisation and democracy. As they say, read the rest.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Memories Of Murder

Last night we screened Memories Of Murder, the first of five films that we've dubbed "New Voices Of Asian Cinema". The intention is to showcase some of the younger generation of filmmakers from the region who are building on the work of past masters and taking cinema in new, and sometimes surprising, directions.

Korean cinema has been on something of a roll lately. Bong Joon-ho's Memories Of Murder adds significantly to that reputation. It tells the story of an unsolved serial murder case that wracked a provincial community from 1986-1991: ten women were raped and murdered but the killer was never caught. On the surface, the film has all the ingredients of a classic policier, unravelling the grotesquely incompetent efforts of the local cops to pin responsibility for the crimes on a succession of unlikely suspects.

But Bong's ambitions are much deeper than this. The dramatic and moral heart of the film centres on the often antagonist relationship between two combative detectives. Park is the epitome of the fat, complacent, lazy cop, who (together with his thuggish sidekick) is out of his depth and unwilling to acknowledge his own shortcomings. The floundering investigation is given a boost by the lean, intense and rigorous Seo who arrives from Seoul and seems to be making some progress with his deductive methods. Inevitably the two clash and Bong handles this standoff skillfully, blending antagonistic confrontations with incongruous comedy. As the story unfolds the tragi-farcical blundering of the detectives appear less amusing and to cast an interrogative eye on some bigger issues.

This is where Memories Of Murder breaks new ground, moving in directions that dislocate conventional expectations. For Bong wants to say something important about the broader dynamics of a failing society. The macho world of the police station is shot in bleached out colours so as better to highlight the commonplace corruption, negligence and violence, and the stark inadequacy of the investigators. At the same time, the sodden images of the murdered corpses become more graphic and the stories of the women most personal precisely as the chances of a prosecution fades. All of this is set against the last years of Korean military rule with citizens drilled or beaten into conformity and suspicion. This then is Bong's take on the paranoia of a society that is beginning to fracture and feels uncertain of its own future. The unsolved murders symbolise that fracturing.

The final scenes of the film are stunning. The cool and rational Seo has altered beyond recognition. He thinks he has a prime suspect, an inscrutable youth, and is unwilling to wait for forensic confirmation. In a frantic confrontation by the entrance of a railway tunnel Seo threatens the young man with a beating and then a gun – he no longer needs evidence; his only motive now is brute revenge. Only the intervention of Park, the anti-hero, saves the young man's life. Seo, literally, has blood on his hands; his principles have been shredded; his failure is final. And, as Bong's film suggests, it is a collective failure which still haunts a whole society.

Billie's Birthday

Billie Holiday would have been 90 years-old today. She had one of the loveliest, heart-rending voices in all music. You can read the tributes in many places and this in next month's Jazz Times is one of the most illuminating. But best of all just sit quietly and listen to one of the great recordings; perhaps "God Bless The Child" or "Porgy", "The Man I Love" or "Strage Fruit". One of my own favourites – in which lyrics, music and voice come together wonderfully – is "All Of Me":
You took my kisses and all my love
You taught me how to care
Am I to be just remnant of a one side love affair

All you took
I gladly gave
There is nothing left for me to save

All of me
Why not take all of me
Can’t you see
I’m no good without you
Take my lips
I want to loose them
Take my arms
I’ll never use them
Your goodbye left me with eyes that cry
How can I go on dear without you
You took the part that once was my heart
So why not take all of me
Happy birthday, Billie.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Saul Bellow, 1915-2005

The great Saul Bellow has died. I read most of the earlier novels - from Dangling Man to Humboldt's Gift - a long time ago and still think that they represent his best work. Since most of my library is half a world away I just got myself a new copy of Henderson The Rain King which I remember enjoying while I was living, appropriately enough, in Africa. Beyond the comic touches, in the character of Henderson we find a tension: between the destructive symptoms of alienation and the potential for regeneration, between self-interrogation and expansive celebration. In this, Bellow was embodying both the fears and aspirations of his own generation, something that he dwelt on extensively in his famous Nobel prize lecture. As a mark of respect I decided to re-read the whole thing. There he reflects especially on the role of the writer and how the writer can reveal the same tensions in striving to be human. I was especially struck by this thoughtful passage.
Writers are greatly respected. The intelligent public is wonderfully patient with them, continues to read them and endures disappointment after disappointment, waiting to hear from art what it does not hear from theology, philosophy, social theory, and what it cannot hear from pure science. Out of the struggle at the center has come an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are, and what this life is for. At the center humankind struggles with collective powers for its freedom, the individual struggles with dehumanization for the possession of his soul. If writers do not come again into the center it will not be because the center is pre-empted. It is not. They are free to enter. If they so wish.
There are many obituary pieces and tributes but I especially like this piece by Xan Brooks. There's a collection of Bellow in his own words here, while the New York Times has collected together its reviews of his major novels here.

Telling Stories At The Theatrette

Last night Wan and I watched a private screening of the uncut version of Sepet. This is the latest film by Yasmin Ahmad who blogs here, appropriately enough under the moniker The Storyteller. Because she is a teller of tales - of the written word, in conversation and, of course, on the screen. It was a bit of a chore to find the venue, hidden on the fifth floor of a nondescript corporate tower block. But that's where Yasmin has her theatrette, an intimate space with perhaps fifteen comfy chairs where invited friends can watch films, eat nasi lemak and shoot the breeze.

I'll be posting a review later when I've had a chance to think through some of the important undercurrents that propel the narrative. But straightaway I have to say that I liked the film very much indeed. The dynamic between the two young protagonists is central to the film and brilliantly played, driven by a wonderful ear for dialogue. And the film raises throughtful questions about tolerance and acceptability, about cultural hybridity and romance across the ethnic divide. Above all this is a story that is worth telling and well told. Appropriate really from The Storyteller. Catch the film if you can.

Harrassing Bloggers

The Malaysian political class likes to promote itself as being moderate, tolerant and willing to open up "democratic space". The truth is not nearly so cosy. Authoritarian practices die hard. There is a report
here at Malaysia Today, one of the few independent online sources of information, about the clampdown on dissident bloggers. It's a sorry catalogue: Mack Zulkifli's blog at Brand New Malaysian has come in for particular attention. Here's the account of the slightly surreal, low-key harrassment:
the two police officers and two unidenified government officials had asked him to help them "understand the latest development of weblogs". The blogger then spent the next three hours answering questions from the team about blogs and how their contents can be controlled.... he was also asked about his motivation for maintaining his site when he appeared to derive no income from it.
Impeccable logic of the law enforcement boys. Ali Bukhari Amir has received similar treatment for his leftist blog as has the doyen of Malaysian bloggers, Jeff Ooi.

This does not yet amount to a full-scale assault by the state on the freedom of dissent. It's more insidious than that. But there is no doubt that the government is sending out a pre-emptive warning, paranoid about any criticism of its carefully-crafted self-image.

Monday, April 04, 2005

A Radical Returns

It seems appropriate to round off the serialisation of John Berger's essay "That Have Not been Asked" with this
profile of him in yesterday's Observer. It is written in anticipation of the celebration of his work - "Here Is Where We Meet" - which begins in London next week. I really hope to make the long journey to catch some of the events.

Sean O'Hagan's profile is warm and appreciative and does offer a real sense of the formative influence on John Berger. In it, Berger reflects on defining moments in his life: his schooling in the "monstrous institutions" of the British boarding school system; "the first time I wrote publicly" when penning letters for working-class soldiers in Northern Ireland; his famous tirade against Booker McConnell after winning their prize for G; and, of course, his decision to decamp to rural France. In sharing some of his experience of living between worlds, I understood fully his reasoning for the move and have tried, perhaps with only partial success, to learn from his example:
For me, it was a choice. I have never had any of the homesickness or suffering that goes with exile, not even an echo of that experience.... I went there to learn and to listen in order to write, not to speak on their behalf. I wanted to touch something that had a relevance way beyond the French Alps. I was homing in on a point that touched a nerve bud about a very important development in contamporary world history.
I like that phrase, "homing in". It is something that appeals to me - to allow experience and thought to immerse themselves somewhere deep inside. As Berger eloquently says, that journey is the beginning of the possibility of solidarity with others.

Constant Tremors

When I wrote about the second large earthquake I wondered whether more tremors and aftershocks were to become a regular part of my life, even though I live more than 500 kms from the epicentres of most of this seismic activity. The answer seems to be yes. In the last week there have been scores of earthquakes around Sumatra and at least three of them had a magnitude of more than 6.0 and were felt in Kuala Lumpur. The Earthquake Hazards Program of the US Geological Survey is an amazing source of up-to-date information. The map (reproduced above) graphically shows the earthquake activity just for the past week. It makes you think ...

Sunday, April 03, 2005

That Have Not Been Asked: 10

From John Berger's essay "That Have Not Been Asked" with photographs by Sebastião Salgado.

The multitudes have answers to questions which have not yet been asked, and the capacity to outlive the walls. Trace tonight her (his) hairline with your two fingers before you sleep.
This is the final instalment of the essay.

Wayning Moments

Sometimes compilation albums work and sometimes they don't. But this
is simply great - the distillation of a lifetime's work by one of the greatest composers and improvisers in jazz. It follows on from the biography of the same title from Michelle Mercer. This is what the album means to the man:
This compliation represents the DNA of my full life and work. Those who listen closely will hear a sample of the whole story here.
By coincidence (see below) one of the best tracks is "Aung San Suu Kyi".
John L. Walters has a full review here - "the great man at the top of his game".

It's Wayne Shorter, in case you're wondering.

Getting Tough On Thugs?

It seems to me that the international political debate over Burma is reaching some kind of critical juncture. And the terms of that debate are throwing up some unexpected dynamics in relations between Europe and Southeast Asia. This is true even as the military junta intensifies its crackdown on the democratic opposition while falling out like thieves among themselves.

The old debate about Burma – and how various international actors should respond to the crimes of the regime – was always presented in a crude, stereotyped way, a microcosm of the ill-considered posturing of the so-called "Asian values" arguments. It went something along these lines. The "West" was implacably hostile toward the military regime and had consistently sought to isolate it through tough sanctions and a consistent stance of moral condemnation. By contrast, so the argument went, "Asians" were more concerned with order and stability and believed in the efficacy of "constructive engagement" with the regime as a means for inducing gradual change but actually for maintaining the status quo. Asian leaders resented what they considered to be outside interference in domestic politics.

This dichotomy never really reflected the reality on the ground. To be sure, the European Union has long possessed a so-called "Common Position" on Burma. This has produced a whole string of sanctions including an arms embargo, suspension of defence cooperation, suspension of all bilateral aid other than strictly humanitarian assistance, visa bans of members of the military regime, and so on. And as the junta has consistently reneged on promises to release Aung San Suu Kyi and open up dialogue with the National League for Democracy so these sanctions have been ratcheted up over the last couple of years. On the surface, then, this looks like an exemplary sanctions regime. But scratch the surface of unanimity then cracks begin to appear. Indidvidual governments - like France - have always sought exemptions for their big corporations. In fact, in relation to business interests the EU's position has always been weak in terms of fully prohibiting multinational enterprises from having direct links to the junta.
In addition, there has always been a small, but vocal, group of anti-sanctions lobbyists who call on the EU to abandon Europe's support for the democracy movement and give financial support to the regime. Now there is news that the anti-sanctions lobbyists may be making serious headway with the European Commission.

As this report from the Burma Campaign UK makes clear, on Tuesday there is due to be an EU "Burma Day" which is
meant to be discussing prospects for democratic change in military run Burma. Instead the Commission has packed the conference with anti-sanctions lobbyists, and banned Burmese activists and democracy organisations from taking part?
What on earth is going on? There are dark mutterings among MEPs and campaigners that the Commission is promoting a hidden agenda. Just recently the Commission sponsored a report by two well-known anti-sanctions academics, Robert Taylor and Morten Pederson, who recommend a complete overhaul of the sanctions policy and much else besides. The full report is here and there is a summary here. In language typical of a neoliberal approach to political-economic change the authors speak of platitudinous "good governance" and "boosting the economy". Specific proposals include recognising Myanmar instead of Burma as the official name of the country; resuming regular high-level visits; revising the use of sanctions; and restoring some aid programmes. The military thugs must be rubbing their hands in glee.

So what then of those Southeast Asian governments who have long been champions of a softly-softly approach? Here's a nice irony. At the very moment that the European Commission seems to be seriously contemplating a change of policy some governments in the region are actually getting fed up with the foot-dragging in Rangoon and are prepared to say so. Burma is due to take up the chair of ASEAN next year - and some countries are talking about depriving the regime of this privilege because of the slow pace of democratic reform. Politics is a funny game: the two countries turning up the heat are Malaysia and Singapore who were staunch supporters of Burma's admission to ASEAN in the first place and not well-known for their own liberalism.

So let's get this clear. The European Commission - bastion of good governance, democracy and the rule of law - is playing footsie with powerful lobbyists who want to kow-tow to the military thugs. And two of Southeast Asia's illiberal governments, Malaysia and Singapore, have finally lost patience with their recalcitrant neighbour and are talking of stepping up sanctions. So who's getting tough with whom? John Jackson, Director of the Burma Campaign UK, sums it all up quite neatly:
The irony is that just when South East Asia is starting to realise that ‘constructive engagement’ has been tried, tested, and failed on every occasion for a decade, this small group of pro-engagement lobbyists, blind to the facts, are given a platform by the Commission. The EU's 'Burma Day' seems more like a meeting of the flat earth society.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

That Have Not Been Asked: 9

From John Berger's essay "That Have Not Been Asked" with photographs by Sebastião Salgado.

No development (the word has a capital D as an article of faith on the other side of the walls) no insurance. Neither an open future nor an assured future exist. The future is not awaited. Yet there is continuity; generation is linked to generation. Hence a respect for age since the old are a proof of this continuity – or even a demonstration that once, long ago, a future existed. Children are the future. The future is the ceaseless struggle to see that they have enough to eat and the sometimes-chance of their learning with education what the parents never learnt.

“When they finished talking, they threw their arms around each other. They wanted to be happy right away, now, sooner than their future and zealous work would bring results in personal and in general happiness. The heart brooks no delay, it sickens, as if believing in nothing.”
Here the future’s unique gift is desire. The future induces the spurt of desire towards itself. The young are more flagrantly young than on the other side of the wall. The gift appears as a gift of nature in all its urgency and supreme assurance. Religious and community laws still apply. Indeed amongst the chaos which is more apparent than real, these laws become real. Yet the silent desire for procreation is incontestable and overwhelming. It is the same desire that will forage for food for the children and then seek, sooner or later, (best sooner) the consolation of fucking again. This is the future’s gift.

New Filmmaking In Malaysia

This morning I found myself down at the
Finas (National Film Development Corporation) compound at an indecently early hour. My friend Wan had invited me for a special screening and discussion of a new film – Sanctuary – by the young director, Ho Yuhang. It was also a chance to promote our own new film series which begins next week, featuring "New Voices Of Asian Cinema", showcasing some of the vibrant younger filmmakers from the region. Wan and I are planning a book project which will involve conversations and interviews with the new generation of Malaysian directors and so the morning was also a chance to make contacts.

To tell you the truth, Sanctuary was no great shakes as a film. To be sure, the themes that Ho's drama touches on are sociologically important: the alienation and despair of many young, working class Chinese who are relatively marginalised in the trope of Malaysian modernity. The film makes a decent job of representing both the loneliness and disorientation of its protagonists. But ultimately I found it all rather unengaging. Ho hasn't yet found a compelling narrative device which makes you sufficiently care for the lives and losses of his rather one-dimensional characters. Still, the panel discussion was lively enough, not least the rather more enthusiastic assessment of the wonderful Yasmin Ahmad whose own film, Sepet, has caused such a stir here. Yasmin's own account of the morning – and a funny anecdote about the loss of the film's poster from the walls of Finas can be found here.

Beyond the specific merits or otherwise of Sanctuary there is a great deal of hope for the future of Malaysian filmmaking. There are problems, of course. Afterwards there was a lot of talk about the underdeveloped state of scriptwriting and storyboard development; independent filmmakers find distribution problematic; and treatments of so-called taboo subjects are still subject to Malaysia's hypocritical censorship culture. But good films are being made; a new audience is being nurtured; and independent cinema spaces are being created. There is a new dynamism at play. And that can only bode well for the future.

Robert Creeley, 1926-2005

I took American Studies as a subsidiary subject at undergraduate level (something that seems to surprise my friends). There I was especially taken by the American literature subjects because of the inspiration of a great teacher – Clive Meachen – who looked like a wild-haired beat poet in those days but now appears a little more conventional. He introduced me to the Black Mountain poets who helped define a counter-tradition to the literary establishment – Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Ed Dorn – framed by Olson's famous essay on "Projective Verse".

Robert Creeley, the doyen of the Black Mountain poets – and my personal favourite – has just died. I can still remember being mesmerised by his spare, abbreviated use of words and a marvellous ability to distil an emotion into a lyrical image or a short-breathed line. It was no surprise to hear him speak of the profound influence of jazz on his work:
line-wise, the most complementary sense I have found is that of musicians like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. I am interested in how this is done, how "time" there is held to a measure particularly an evidence (a hand) of the emotion which prompts (drives) the poem in the first place.
I can remember reading Creeley's seminal first collection, For Love, and have revisited some of the poems in the last day or so. Here I reproduce one of the best-known. "I Know A Man" is a brief reflection on the gap between human subjectivity and the world with which it must come to terms, and the way that speech drives to fill the void, to put off silences.
I Know A Man
By Robert Creeley

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking, – John, I

sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for
christ's sake, look
out where yr going.
There's an informative website of Creeley's work here. And there is a a series of blog reflections at the excellent wood s lot.

Friday, April 01, 2005

That Have Not Been Asked: 8

From John Berger's essay "That Have Not Been Asked" with photographs by Sebastião Salgado.
“ was as if she were alone in the world, free from happiness and sorrow, and she wanted to dance a little, right away, to listen to music, to hold hands with other people....”

They are accustomed to living in close proximity with one another, and this creates its own spatial sense; space is not so much an emptiness as an exchange. When people are living on top of one another, any action taken by one has repercussions on the others. Immediate physical repercussions. Every child learns this.

There is a ceaseless spatial negotiation which may be considerate or cruel, conciliating or dominating, unthinking or calculated, but which recognises that an exchange is not something abstract but a physical accommodation. Their elaborate sign languages of gestures and hands are an expression of such physical sharing. Outside the walls collaboration is as natural as fighting; scams are current, and intrigue, which depends upon taking a distance, is rare. The word private has a totally different ring on the two sides of the wall. On one side it denotes property; on the other an acknowledgement of the temporary need of someone to be left, as if alone, for a while. Every site inside the walls is rentable – every square metre counted; every site outside risks to become a ruin – every sheltering corner counted.

The space of choices is also limited. They choose as much as the rich, perhaps more, for each choice is starker. There are no colour charts which offer a choice between one hundred and seventy different shades. The choice is close-up – between this or that. Often it is made vehemently, for it entails the refusal of what has not been chosen. Each choice is quite close to a sacrifice. And the sum of the choices is a person’s destiny.

Blogs: Spaces For Capital?

For years now there has been overheated talk about the revolutionary impact of information and communications technology - including the internet - on every facet of society. To read some commentators (I'm thinking of people like Castells here) you would think that the very future of humankind is harnessed to the promises of ICT. We are told endlessly - by policymakers, business leaders, scholars, activists, bloggers - that we have already entered a new age, driven by the transformative power of information. The possibilities on offer in this brave new world are seemingly without restriction, presaging a new way of living and a qualitatively different social world.

Most academic and policy commentary on the informational age turns, naturally, on its significance for the so-called "new economy" and the magic bullets of innovation, technology, knowledge accumulation and networked enterprises. But the ICT exuberance goes much further than this. All is flux: from democracy and identity to power and social space, from personal freedom and individual lifestyles to collective security and the public sphere. In the more utopian readings of these processes, a global civil society has been spawned that spins new webs of connectivity and contestation. It seems that we can all reap the rewards of burgeoning information and, at the same time, reshape the concepts, political imagination and agendas of the new age.

I think the time is ripe for a much more sceptical reappraisal of these claims - raising some hard and critical queries about what is really happening, and that is what I propose to do over a series of posts in the coming weeks. To me, at least, there is a great deal of tendentious nonsense in circulation. Most of it is intellectually slight and analytically inept on nearly every count.

Let's consider for a moment the claims of a new "informational democracy" appropriate to the networked age. Some of these claims are relatively modest and plausible. The relative ease of access to new information for some is a reality. Internet connectivity is an important tool for campaigning on issues that may not otherwise possess their contemporary prominence. Blogs offer spaces for a real exchange of ideas and have expanded, marginally, the public sphere of debate. I would accept all of this without demur.

But when we come to some of the more grandiloquent claims of the "internet galaxy" then I think that we should pause for thought. Castells has argued that "the power of flows takes precedence of the flows of power". According to information society utopians like him, the logic of being networked, being connected, being switched on, trumps the specific social interests and structural power expressed through the networks. This then underpins what Castells sees as a powerful surge of new "resistance identities" which provide the basis for networked political contestation, of which blogs are an exemplar. Empirically, at the very least, this is premature. Even beyond the self-evident digital divide - billions of people are obviously switched off - what actually characterises much of the public sphere of debate is what Herbert Schiller long ago called "manipulative garbage information". At the same time I think we should be cautious about attributing even modest politicial or policy change to the spirit of informationalism or the technology of connectivity.

But there are more substantive objections to this kind of utopianism. The partially networked, informational society is not a new form of transcendant capitalism without an identifiable capitalist class, as Castells would have it. Nearly twenty-five years ago Herbert Schiller had this to say about the political economy of information:
Long prevailing imperatives of a market economy remain as determining as ever in the transformations occurring in the technological and informational sphere.
What was true then is even more the case today. The primacy of business imperatives constitute the overwhelming logic of information and its attendant technologies. Capitalist businesses themselves recognise this logic and adapt accordingly. A lot has been written recently of so-called corporate blogs. And the headline of an FT article ealier this week says it all: "Advertisers can no longer resist blogs". This doesn't seem to me much like a new politics of resistance. Rather it is about finding a space in the interstices of the system. Now many may argue that this is better than nothing or that such a self-limiting political project is all that is possible. Fine, and then that's all internet utopians should claim.

Under the deluge of technocratic commentary it is seems important to me to "bring capitalism back into the equation" - as a necessary starting-point for thinking seriously about what kinds of politics is emerging and what this portends for progressive struggles. At the moment I remain deeply sceptical that very much at all has changed. The use of the new information technologies, and the proliferation of blogs of which they are a part, do not in themselves mean that citizens are actually deciding about the shape and course of their social existence. I doubt, too, that anything like a real, rooted community exists via the internet. It is far more likely that the new information networks are also, and at the same time, structures of capitalist control that channel and coerce people's lives into delimited forms of market dependence. But, as I said earlier, this kind of criticism of technological fixes should not be the end point of debate but the start of new thinking about possible political alternatives. If much of what passes for the so-called information society today has emerged from deliberate policy choices in the interests of capital, then just as surely they can also be challenged.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

That Have Not Been Asked: 7

From John Berger's essay "That Have Not Been Asked" with photographs by Sebastião Salgado.
“Whilst the rich drank tea and ate mutton, the poor were waiting for the warmth and for the plants to grow.”

The difference between seasons, as also the difference between night and day, shine and rain, is vital. The flow of time is turbulent. The turbulence makes life-times shorter – both in fact and subjectively. Duration is brief. Nothing lasts. This is as much a prayer as a lament.

(The mother) was grieving that she had died and forced her children to mourn for her; if she could have, she would have gone on living forever so that nobody should suffer on her account, or waste, on her account, the heart and the body to which she had given birth....but the mother had not been able to stand living for very long.”
Death occurs when life has no scrap left to defend.

Not Playing The Game

gary+sobers viv+richards michael+holding
For as long as I can remember the West Indies has been my cricket team. This affinity had more to do with accident than design. When we moved to England we lived not far from The Oval and it was there, sitting in front of the gasholders, that I first saw Gary Sobers and Rohan Kanhai, Wes Hall and Lance Gibbs: names to conjure with. To be part of that South London crowd – at least half of whom must have been first- and second-generation Caribbean settlers – was a wonderful education. Kanhai hooking into the crowd off bended knee, and then blocking the next ball with due care and attention: "Tell him no, man!" The days of Clive Lloyd's ruthless winning machine were still years off but I knew what I liked and the WIndies rarely disappointed. And then a succession of greats and their never-to-be forgotten performances – Viv Richards's stamp of genius in 1976 or Michael Holding's deadly beauty at a parched Oval that same year, Gordon Greenidge's swaggering authority at Lord's in 1984 or Malcolm Marshall's heroics four years later.

All great teams rise and fall (though I'm not sure the current Aussie team is quite ready to call it a day). But the fall of West Indies cricket from its elevated state of grace has been evident since the mid-1990s and shows no sign of reversing any time soon. For a while the real depth of the decline was masked by the efforts of three wonderful players – Brian Lara, Curtley Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. The two fast bowlers have gone now and Lara remains a troubled and troubling presence.

All kinds of reasons have been put forward for the decline. Some blame the influx of satellite dishes and cable companies, leading to the saturation of American sports on television. Others point to the changing economies in the Caribbean making cricket too time consuming and expensive to play. The West Indies Cricket Board has also been castigated for not planning sufficiently for the future. Or maybe it is just the cyclical nature of sport. Perhaps the most brutal assessment comes from Hilary Beckles, the doyen of Caribbean cricket historians. He blames the players:

You cannot get a more miserable, self-dividing people anywhere in the Caribbean like West Indian cricketers. It's a miserable community that cannot rise and take responsibility for their own craft.
If this seems harsh then the latest crisis to envelop the West Indies seems to bear him out. On the eve of an important home series against South Africa, half a dozen of the best players – including Lara – were not available for selection because of an unseemly dispute over sponsorship deals and money. The details are not important and it looks like a settlement might soon be reached. But the longer term omens are not at all good. Something is rotten in the state of West Indies cricket.

In today's Guardian, the Trinidadian writer B.C. Pires offers a sobering tale of "self-inflicted pride and prejudice". He is clear about the way in which today's impasse between the players, the Board and the sponsors is symptomatic of much deeper problems:
The root causes of the crisis are the same as they have always been in Caribbean cricket: the last three weeks of brinksmanship are only a reflection and inevitable consequence of years of decline, mismanagement, greed and insularity.
In particular, Pires says,
the accusation of greed is difficult to avoid... [all] have been plainly seeking to feather their own nests.
And his conclusion is especially bleak:
Against this barrage of negativity the West Indian population has been able to bring only hope. Up to yesterday Caribbeans were praying for a last-minute, miraculous resolution that would give them a team they could love as well as support. This morning many of them could be forgiven for thinking that, in the Caribbean in cricket at least, there is no future, just the past happening over and over again
Beyond the very obvious problems that have long beset Caribbean cricket I had always held on to the cyclical view of sporting decline and eventual revival – the West Indies' time would come again sooner or later. Now I am not so sure. What if there really is no future?

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

That Have Not Been Asked: 6

From John Berger's essay "That Have Not Been Asked" with photographs by Sebastião Salgado.

The worst cruelties of life are its killing injustices. Almost all promises are broken. The poor’s acceptance of adversity is neither passive nor resigned. It’s an acceptance which peers behind the adversity and discovers there something nameless. Not a promise, for (almost) all promises are broken; rather something like a bracket, a parenthesis in the otherwise remorseless flow of history. And the sum total of these parentheses is eternity.

This can be put the other way round: on this earth there is no happiness without a longing for justice.

Happiness is not something to be pursued, it is something met, an encounter. Most encounters, however, have a sequel; this is their promise. The encounter with happiness has no sequel. All is there instantly. Happiness is what pierces grief.

We thought there was nothing left in the world, that everything had disappeared long ago. And if we were the only ones left, what was the point of living?

“We went to check”, said Allah. “‘Were there any other people anywhere? We wanted to know.”

Chagataev understood them and asked if this meant they were now convinced about life and wouldn’t be dying any more.

“Dying’s no use”, said Cherkezov. “To die once – now you might think that’s something necessary and useful. But dying once doesn’t help you to understand your own happiness – and no one gets the chance to die twice. So dying gets you nowhere.”

Ten Of The Best

One of the best things about passing on the stick of the recent book survey is the chance to follow up on other bloggers' choices. From this partial spider's web I have selected just one of the deserted island titles from each of the respondents. I will pursue them over the coming weeks. It's also a nice way of highlighting some of blogs I read regularly.

From Saheli: W.G. Sebald's The Rings Of Saturn
From Michael: Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang
From Norm: George Eliot's
Middlemarch (Proust is just too daunting)
From Anne: Milton's Paradise Lost
From Hak Mao: Victor Serge's The Case Of Comrade Tulayev
From Darren: Edward Gaitens's The Dance Of The Apprentices
From Douglas: Stendhal's Le Rouge et Le Noir
From Stuart: Upton Sinclair's The Jungle
From Richard: Isaac Bashevis Singer's Collected Stories
From Joseph: Iain M Banks's Against A Dark Background
Well that lot should keep me busy.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

That Have Not Been Asked: 5

From John Berger's essay "That Have Not Been Asked" with photographs by Sebastião Salgado.

The secret of storytelling amongst the poor is the conviction that stories are told so that they may be listened to elsewhere, where somebody, or perhaps a legion of people, know better than the storyteller or the story’s protagonists, what life means. The powerful can’t tell stories: boasts are the opposite of stories, and any story however mild has to be fearless and the powerful today live nervously.

A story refers life to an alternative and more final judge who is far away. Maybe the judge is located in the future, or in the past that is still attentive, or maybe somewhere over the hill, where the day’s luck has changed (the poor have to refer often to bad or good luck) so that the last have become first.

Story-time (the time within a story) is not linear. The living and the dead meet as listeners and judges within this time, and the greater the number of listeners felt to be there, the more intimate the story becomes to each listener. Stories are one way of sharing the belief that justice is imminent. And for such a belief, children, women and men will fight at a given moment with astounding ferocity. This is why tyrants fear storytelling: all stories somehow refer to the story of their fall.

Wherever he went, he only had to promise to tell a story and people would take him in for the night: a story’s stronger than a Tsar. There was just one thing: if he began telling stories before the evening meal, no-one ever felt hungry and he didn’t get anything to eat. So the old soldier always asked for a bowl of soup first.

Jimmy Smith And An Aomori Winter

winter+aomori+2 winter+aomori+1
Hisashi has a jazz programme on a local radio station in Hokkaido, northern Japan, and we've been writing to each other about Jimmy Smith
. He featured the great album The Sermon last Sunday. And, in passing, Hisashi sent me these two photographs: "I am sure they will remind you of what chilly days are like". I don't need reminding but they're nice shots.

The Morning After

Obviously most people were talking about last night's earthquake though some friends, remarkably, managed to sleep through the whole thing. We are over 500km from the epicentre but the tremors were strong and prolonged, and there was a real sense of fear and bewilderment. The memories of 26 December are still fresh. Firsthand accounts of people's experiences of the earthquake can be found here while there are reports here, here, here and here. There are fears that 2,000 may have died with the small island of Nias taking the brunt. I am still waiting news of Mai Lin and her daughter, Sophie, in Kerinci, Sumatra. I simply hope they're safe.

Earthquake 'Round Midnight

It was around midnight. The city was quiet, bedding down for the night. And then came the now familiar feeling. Our tall apartment block started swaying – strong, deliberate trembling. The wooden wind chimes clashed discordantly; glasses on the draining board tinkled; the panicked voices of our neighbours betrayed rising alarm. 90 seconds is a very long time in an earthquake. You think about many things in that time. We hid for some seconds, perhaps half a minute, under the big wooden divan but, to me at least, that seemed to make us more vulnerable. "Let's get out of here". So we grabbed keys, shoes, and ran down the stairs – turning, turning on ourselves down sixteen stories. Halfway down I caught up with my friend Seth who was struggling to carry his son. He handed him over and I carried the small, sleeping boy – innocently unaware of the panic around him – deadweight in my arms. We reached the ground level where hundreds and hundreds had gathered on the street. Everyone knew it was another earthquake, another huge tremor, which must have come from Sumatra again. "Again" – it was the word on everyone's lips. Was it just three months ago? There's been a lot of seismic activity recently but nobody was expecting anything on this scale. We waited. Neighbours began to call friends elsewhere – there had been damage all over the country. Slowly the panic died as people murmured quietly to each other, consoling and grateful. Is this now to be a regular part of our lives? Will there be another tsunami? After an age we returned to the flat, switched on the television as the story broke across the world's media, telephoned friends. I suddenly think fiercely of my friend Mai Lin who is on an archaeological dig near Kerinci in the middle of Sumatra – I can only hope that she and Sophie, her little daughter, are safe tonight. I can only hope that everyone finds sanctuary in this dark tropical night.

Monday, March 28, 2005

That Have Not Been Asked: 4

From John Berger's essay "That Have Not Been Asked" with photographs by Sebastião Salgado.

From time to time despair enters into the lives which are mostly grief. Despair is the emotion which follows a sense of betrayal. A hope against hope (which is still far from a promise) collapses or is collapsed; despair fills the space in the soul which was occupied by that hope. Despair has nothing to do with nihilism.

Nihilism, in its contemporary sense, is the refusal to believe in any scale of priorities beyond the pursuit of profit, considered as the end-all of social activity, so that, precisely: everything has its price. Nihilism is resignation before the contention that Price is all. It is the most current form of human cowardice. But not one to which the poor often succumb.

He began to pity his body and his bones; his mother had once gathered them together for him from the poverty of her flesh – not because of love and passion, not for pleasure, but out of the most everyday necessity. He felt as if he belonged to others, as if he were the last possession of those who have no possessions, about to be squandered to no purpose, and he was seized by the greatest, most vital fury of his life.

[A word of explanation about these quotations. They are from the stories of the great Russian writer, Andrei Platonov (1899-1951). He wrote about the poverty which occurred during the civil war and later during the forced collectivisation of Soviet agriculture in the early 1930s. What made this poverty unlike more ancient poverties was the fact that its desolation contained shattered hopes. It fell to the ground exhausted, it got to its feet, it staggered, it marched on amongst shards of betrayed promises and smashed words. Platonov often used the term dushevny bednyak, which means literally poor souls. It referred to those from whom everything had been taken so that the emptiness within them was immense and in that immensity only their soul was left – that’s to say their ability to feel and suffer. His stories do not add to the grief being lived, they save something. “Out of our ugliness will grow the world’s heart”, he wrote in the early 1920s.

The world today is suffering another form of modern poverty. No need to quote the figures; they are widely known and repeating them again only makes another wall of statistics. Perhaps as much as a third of the world’s population live with less than $2 a day. Local cultures with their partial remedies – both physical and spiritual – for some of life’s afflictions are being systematically destroyed or attacked. The new technology and means of communication, the free market economy, productive abundance, parliamentary democracy, are failing, so far as the poor are concerned, to keep any of their promises beyond that of the supply of certain cheap consumerist goods, which the poor can buy when they steal.

Platonov understood living modern poverty more deeply than any other storyteller I have come across.]

Where Monsoons Meet No. 11

Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide
Being a miscellany of recent stories from Southeast Asia.

  • Burma. A recent meeting of the International Labour Organisation stated categorically that "that no adequate moves have been taken by the Burmese military regime (the "Government" of Myanmar) to reduce forced labour in Burma/Myanmar". This follows last month's visit to the country by a very high-level team to reassess the labour situation. For an international organisation, the ILO's language is unusually forthright. Its Governing Body has "expressed grave doubts" about the junta's credibility in dealing with the forced labour issue and argued that the "wait-and-see" attitude that has been the norm for the last three years is no longer tenable. The responses of various ILO constituents to the situation in Burma has been mixed. Some governments - the US, Japan, the UK and Canada - have all adopted (relatively modest) sanctions. Many international and national workers' organisations have targeted the withdrawal of multinational corporations from Burma and called for an extension of sanctions. As far as business interests are concerned it's not surprising that the ILO says that "no specific information is available" though it does cite some disinvestment by individual companies. The ILO has given the Burmese junta a new deadline of June before taking any further steps. It shouldn't hold its breath.
  • Cambodia. There are real fears that the long-delayed quest for justice for the Cambodian genocide may founder because of a lack of funds. There have already been years of delay in setting up a tribunal and plenty of compromises along the way. Two years ago the United Nations has signed off on a formula to conduct the trials in Cambodian courts with international assistance; a draft tribunal law made its way through the Cambodian legislative process; and many of the prime suspects, with the exception of Pol Pot himself, who died in 1998, are within the reach of the courts. But there may not be enough money to get the tribunal process moving. The agreed budget is $56 million, mostly from the UN. But donors have been slow to come forward – to date only five countries have made pledges – and the Cambodian government says it can only meet one-tenth of its share. Youk Chang, of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, offers this eloquent statement as to why the tribunal is vital: "It's important to understand that if we continue to delay the process, many survivors will die without seeing justice being done, and many prime suspects and perpetrators will die without being punished, which will be very difficult for many Cambodian people trying to move on with their lives". In international aid terms the amount needed is a pittance. And the reasons for the tribunal are compelling. Let's hope that the impasse can be broken. Some articles on the struggle for justice in Cambodia are available here from the excellent Cambodia Genocide Program at Yale.
  • Thailand. More than one month after the prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, imposed his hardline policy, the violence in southern Thailand shows no signs of abating. Yesterday, 22 people were injured in a train ambush at Sungai Padi near the Malaysian border. There are reports here, here and here. As things stand at the government simply has no policy to deal with the causes of the rebel movement still less its horrible consequences.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

That Have Not Been Asked: 3

From John Berger's essay "That Have Not Been Asked" with photographs by Sebastião Salgado.

The lives of the poor are mostly grief, interrupted by moments of illumination. Each life has its own propensity for illumination and no two are the same. (Conformism is a habit cultivated by the well-off.) Illuminated moments arrive by way of tenderness and love – the consolation of being recognised and needed and embraced for being what one suddenly is! Other moments are illuminated by an intuition, despite everything, that the human species serves for something.

“Nazar tell me something or other – something more important than anything.”

Aidym turned down the wick in the lamp in order to use less paraffin. She understood that, since there was something or other in life that was more important than anything, it was essential to take care of every good that there was.

“I don’t know the thing that really matters, Aidym,” said Chagataev. “ I haven’t thought about it, I’ve never had time. But if we’ve both of us been born, then there must be something in us that really matters.”

Aidym agreed: “A little that does matter... and a lot that doesn’t.”

Aidym prepared supper. She took a flat bread out of a sack, spread it with sheep’s fat and broke it in half. She gave Chagataev the big half, and took the small half herself. They silently chewed their food by the weak light of the lamp. In the Ust-Yurt and the desert it was quiet, uncertain and dark.”

Tens Of Thousands Of Stories

Yesterday I wrote about the
tsunami and remembrance. I ended the piece like this:
But the individual stories still matter: they are the personal and existential realities of death and loss, of survival and hope, of frailty and strength.
The Guardian has a long essay by the novelist Louise Doughty who has visited Sri Lanka and asked the island's writers and artists whether thay can play a part in the process of recovery. She gathers some very perceptive reflections from her interviewees. Here is the playwright and filmmaker Delon Weerasinghe:
The tsunami wasn't a story. It was tens of thousands of stories. No novel or play could possibly do justice to that. No single fiction could represent the multiplicity of experiences which this country went through, never mind elsewhere.
And here is Romesh Gunesekera on the writer's need to write even in the face of appalling events:
Most writers are dealing with the world they live in ... a world in which terrible things have happened and are still happening. Writing is not a matter of duty, it is more a kind of negotiation with different realities. We each do it in our own way and perhaps don't have much choice in how or what we end up writing.
There are lots of other insights into Sri Lanka's rich literary life and the rest is worth reading.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Passion Of The Cricket Crowd

Mike Marqusee has a short essay here on watching cricket in India at the recent India–Pakistan test match at Mohali. Actually it's a celebration of the crowd:
A cricket crowd is a complex organism, a throbbing mass with a life of its own. It’s rarely static. In the course of a day’s play it undergoes paroxysms of joy and despair, intervals of humour, bouts of nastiness and periods of boredom. Sometimes it’s fractious, bickering with itself. Sometimes it’s unanimous - astonishingly, if briefly, it really does seem to feel like 'one soul', filled with a single emotion.
Not quite Lord's, but this is South Asia where cricket is still the people's game despite the penetration of the media and celebrity culture. Mike also sees some signs of hope that India versus Pakistan may be transforming into a normal sporting contest and not simply an excuse for hatred. He spots this on a banner:
Bat and ball is a lot better than assault rifle and grenade.
The photo (above) tells the same story. Read the rest.

"I Can Sing The Top Of A Song"

Just the other day I posted about Billie Holiday's version of "Gloomy Sunday" and then I come across this in today's Guardian. In advance of her book, With Billie, Julia Blackburn offers a taster on Lady Day's life by those who knew her. What comes through, she says, is not Billie the victim but a woman of remarkable strength in the face of adversity.
Initially, I thought I was going to write a biography, but what I have ended up with is something more like a documentary. Instead of trying to produce a unified account of Holiday's life, I have let some of the most interesting or eloquent speakers tell their own story of who she was and what she meant to them. As I worked with these interviews I began to see a very different person to the drug-riddled victim of her own vices so often and so flippantly described on CD covers and elsewhere.
Here are some extracts from Blackburn's essay that give a sense of Billie Holiday's personalities and priorities:

Pianist Bobby Tucker:
He remembered the occasion when she was being presented with an award and the house lights were suddenly turned on and "she literally froze, her voice was shaking, she was trembling". This fear was always visible to the people who knew her well, but it was part of her strength, part of the energy of concentration. She said: "The time when you go out there on stage and you're not nervous, that's when you're gonna stink."
Stump Daddy:
Lady Day was a tremendous mental musical being. She knew about the creative value of music. She'd come out of the sky with something and she could crack your skull with a riff.
Pianist and composer Irene Kitchings:
Once Billie got big, it didn't matter to her. All she wanted was to have some decent music to accompany her and the people to be quiet and listen to her sing... Singing was all she knew how to do. That's all that made her real happy.
And finally Billie herself:
I've got stories about music and that means I can sing the top of a song.
Read the rest.

That Have Not Been Asked: 2

From John Berger's essay "That Have Not Been Asked" with photographs by Sebastião Salgado.

The poor have no residence. They have homes because they remember mothers or grandfathers or an aunt who brought them up. A residence is a fortress, not a story; it keeps the wild at bay. A residence needs walls. Nearly everyone among the poor dreams of a small residence, like dreaming of rest. However great the congestion, the poor live in the open, where they improvise, not residences, but places for themselves. These places are as much protagonists as their occupants; the places have their own lives to live and do not, like residences, wait on others. The poor live with the wind, with dampness, flying dust, silence, unbearable noise (sometimes with both; yes, that’s possible!) with ants, with large animals, with smells coming from the earth, rats, smoke, rain, vibrations from elsewhere, rumours, nightfall, and with each other. Between the inhabitants and these presences there are no clear marking lines. Inextricably confounded, they together make up the place’s life.

Twilight was setting in; the sky wrapped in cool grey fog, was already being closed off by darkness; and the wind, after spending the day rustling stubble and bare bushes that had gone dead in preparation for winter, now lay itself down in still low places on the earth...
The poor are collectively unseizable. They are not only the majority on the planet, they are everywhere and the smallest event speaks of them. This is why the essential activity of the rich today is the building of walls – walls of concrete, of electronic surveillance, of missile barrages, minefields, frontier controls, and opaque media screens.

Tsunami Stories And Remembrance

It's exactly three months since the earthquake-tsunami catastrophe struck the Indian Ocean. There has been, during that time, a huge amount of reflection and commentary on almost every conceivable aspect of the disaster. Not unnaturally, perhaps, the focus of most media outlets have moved on – it's the unremitting logic of presentism in the news agenda.

But some websites have done an excellent job in reminding us of the lives of the survivors and of the ongoing struggle for recovery and reconstruction. In the fickle world of news manufacture this is a necessary effort of remembrance.

To its credit the BBC has consistently updated its coverage of post-tsunami stories and I highlight some of the recent ones here. As you'd expect they are a mixture of the hopeful and the disturbing:
  • Everyone was, I think, moved by the generosity of ordinary people in raising huge amounts of money for the tsunami victims. Doubts were aired, however, over the pledges made by rich countries and with good reason. This report says that there is a $4 billion shortfall in promised donations. It's based on a recent Asian Development Bank report on reconstruction which, among other things, highlights the need for coordination mechanisms and means for combating corruption.
  • There is a moving photo essay here on the efforts of Alana McGowan – who lost her sister and nieces when the tsunami hit the Thai island of Phi Phi – to set up a nursery for surviving children, who now live in camps in the mainland town of Krabi.
  • This report links the plans for reconstructing Aceh to the hopeful negotiations between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) though, as it points out, there are signs that the informal truce on the ground is fraying.
  • Less hopefully, the United Nations' refugee agency has announced its withdrawal from Aceh ahead of new restrictions on foreign aid agencies undertaking emergency relief in the region. The Indonesian government is uncomfortable with UNHCR's highlighting of human rights abuses by the military.
  • Most attention has been paid to the physical and material aspects of reconstruction but there are enduring psychological problems affecting mental health. Trauma, stress and guilt are just some of the more obvious signs. Children, in particular, will need long-term counselling and support.
  • A couple of reports here and here highlight the gender impact of the tsunami. There is staggering evidence from an Oxfam report that four times as many women than men may have been killed in some regions. As the report argues: "disasters are disciminatory" and renewed efforts will have to be made to integrate this horrible reality into relief efforts. The fishermen widows of Sri Lanka are simply not coping with the loss of women in their communities.

Remembrance is a social process, while memory, both individual and collective, is its product. Collective remembrance, the process of public recollection of the kind contained in these stories and thousands of others, is the act of those people who gather bits and pieces of the past and join them together for a public – for you and me – who will express, reflect upon and consume that memory. As in all catastrophes, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. But the individual stories still matter: they are the personal and existential realities of death and loss, of survival and hope, of frailty and strength.