Friday, December 31, 2004

Artie Shaw, 1910-2004

Artie Shaw, the great jazz clarinnetist and band leader, has died. Obituaries can be found here and here. There is a nice appreciation by Gary Younge here. Besides his consummate musicianship - think of "Begin the Beguine" or "Any Old Time" - Shaw was notable for his willingness to hire African American musicians when this was a rarity. Younge recalls a famous interview Shaw gave in 1985 when he explained why he had stopped playing so young:
I am compulsive. I sought perfection. I was constantly miserable. I was seeking a constantly receding horizon. So I quit .... It was like cutting off an arm that had gangrene. I had to cut it off to live. I'd be dead if I didn't stop. The better I got, the higher I aimed. People loved what I did, but I had grown past it. I got to the point where I was walking in my own footsteps.

Early Warning System For Asia

There is a report here that a tsunami early-warning system for the Indian Ocean could be up and running within 12 months. It will top the agenda at the forthcoming World Conference on Disaster Reduction to be held under UN auspices in Kobe, Japan, in January. The Malaysian government, at least, appears to be committing itself to this scheme.

John Berger On Susan Sontag

Here is a short and quirky tribute to Susan Sontag from John Berger. He calls her Quicksilver:

Susan Sontag - quicksilver darting between past and future to shed light on the otherwise dark present -

and your conscience that travelled almost at the speed of light.

I recall playing ping-pong with you and your fast services, and your laughter, which was always about surprise.

One surprise prompting another. Twenty all. Your service.

And the flick of your wrist, which looked so young, and which long, long before had already been an example for your mind that later grasped the world.

Quicksilver, liquid metal, nickname for Mercury, keeper of eloquence and dexterity, protector of roads, deliverer of the messages we need.

Game and set to you, Quicksilver.

There are many remembrances of Susan Sontag's life and work here, here, here and here.

I have just re-read parts of Sontag's Regarding The Pain Of Others which seems to speak directly to the catastrophe that has unfolded in Asia and the visual reporting of it. Near the end she has a ferocious passage in which she excoriates those "citizens of modernity, consumers of violence as spectacle, adepts of proximity without risk'' who ''will do anything to keep themselves from being moved" by disaster or pain. Surely she speaks of a profound truth when she says that photographs - like those we have seen recently - "haunt us" and also help to form part of a narrative of understanding and, ultimately, of solidarity. And then she has this to say of the impudence of the postmodern obsession of pain as spectacle:

To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment .... It assumes that everyone is a spectator. It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world. But it is absurd to identify the world with those zones in the well-off countries where people have the dubious privilege of being spectators, or of declining to be spectators, of other people's pain ... consumers of news, who know nothing at first hand about war and massive injustice and terror. There are hundreds of millions of television watchers who are far from inured to what they see on television. They do not have the luxury of patronizing reality.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

What's Going On In Burma?

Of all the countries affected by the catastrophic earthquake and tidal waves we have the least information from Burma. This is not at all surprising. The thuggish military junta there has a long history of evasion and doublespeak. The Democratic Voice of Burma website notes: "The media and newspapers of Burma’s military junta, State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) are still refusing to acknowledge that [the] recent earthquake ever affected the people of Burma". Earlier in the week, the junta-owned newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, featured messages of sympathy from the SPDC leadership to neighbouring countries. But it remained resolutely silent about the scale of the tragedy in Burma itself and what is being done to help victims. There are even reports of another strong earthquake in Rangoon yesterday. But today's online version of the New Light of Myanmar contains absolutely no news of this or of the bigger disaster - just endless propaganda pieces on the "developmental successes" of the regime. It's all rounded off with this execrable piece of doggerel that would be funny if the regime were not so bad:
The nation free from harm
Peaceful and pleasant
For its development, beloved citizens
Do your best
Look around Myanmar nation
Beautiful scenery
Roads and bridges variegated
With budding flowers
When the dew uncovers the dawn
Our era’s seen
So what's really going on in Burma? It's difficult to say. Two days ago international rescuers said that 90 people are known to have been killed, mainly in the
coastal regions of Tenesserim and Irrawaddy Divisions. Descriptions of the damage, however, point to a much higher figure. What is known is that the junta has refused all international aid. Instead, the superstitious generals indulge in "evil warding-off" ceremonies because because an earthquake is an omen of a change of government.

For many years now no news has been bad news in Burma. Even in this bleakest of times the evil of silence speaks to us.

Newspaper Images

Over at Screenshots, Jeff Ooi has a striking display of newspaper front pages of the catastrophe. They serve as a kind of "anthology of images".

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Horror Mounts

Three days have now passed. The horror of the catastrophe in the Indian Ocean just gets worse. The latest reports on deaths - more than 60,000 - can be found here, here, here and here. Predictably, the figures from Indonesia are the worst. The Indonesian government puts the death toll in the country at more than 33,000, with many still unaccounted for.

Here I offer a few reflections on what has happened and what needs to be done.

Shelter, medicine, food and water - these are needed now. The obvious priority is
to prevent the spread of disease, especially malaria and cholera. According to some sources, disease could actually double the number of fatalities. The World Health Organisation highlights the health issue here:
Besides the need for mass management of casualties in hospitals, WHO foresees the urgent need for reactivation and boosting the capacities of local systems for health care delivery. At short term, in a few days, additional threats to human life can be expected to arise from contaminated water sources. Strong coordination will be needed to make the most of local and national efforts and international good will.
Surprisingly, some commentators have been sceptical about the efficacy of an early warning system for the Indian Ocean, similar to that operating in the Pacific. The argument simply does not make sense. The tidal wave that hit Penang, Malaysia, for example, occurred more than three hours after the earthquake struck. This was plenty of time for a warning to be issued and for the coastal areas to be cleared. There is also some evidence of complacency by the authorities. In Thailand, according to this Guardian report,
the meteorology department said it played down the impact of the earthquake because officials were wary about provoking panic. "A proper warning was not given .... If we had given the warning and then it hadn't happened, then it would have been the death of tourism in those areas". In Malaysia, the authorities said the usual alert was received after the quake but there was no mention of tidal waves. There surely has to be a real effort at regional cooperation in this area in the very near future.

The southeastern coast of Burma was hit by the tidal wave and there are reports of large-scale flooding in the Irrawaddy delta. But the military junta has seen fit neither to release information about the impact nor to request international aid. Every effort should be made to persuade them to do so.

Finally, Norm has a moving set of reflections on the catastrophe where he says this: "there is something enduring here about the human condition in the face of calamity". He's right. And he quotes from those caught up in these terrible events - the power of "ordinary human experience". Here I offer a few more from Malaysia:
"My wife, two daughters, three other relatives and I were taking a walk by the beach on Sunday morning when we saw a white foam line heading towards the shore. We started running away. Suddenly, a giant wave hit the shore and swept us away just as we were about to reach the roadside" - Ho For Nam on the deaths of his wife and daughter

"I will accept it as fate if my family is no longer alive. The least I can do is to find their bodies and give them a proper burial" - Made Jakfar Abdullah worrying about the whereabouts of his family in Aceh

"All I managed to grab were Boon Huey's pants. My baby's hand was so tiny, she just slipped away from me .... And I thought my end was near too as the waves kept hitting the shore" - Chin King Foong on the death of her 11 month-old daughter

"Although a fisherman saved my husband, my son was not so fortunate" -
Cik Tom Abdullah on the death of her 15-year-old son, Ayub Mohamed

Susan Sontag, 1933-2004

Susan Sontag, the essayist, novelist and activist, died yesterday at the age of 71. She had leukemia. There are early reports here, here, and here. The New York Times has a retropective on her writing and includes reviews of some of her most important books. The difficulties of summarising Sontag's eclectic output have been strikingly put in this essay by William Gass on the book that most influenced me, On Photography:
No simple summary of the views contained in Susan Sontag's brief but brilliant work on photography is possible, first because there are too many, and second because the book is a thoughtful meditation, not a treatise, and its ideas are grouped more nearly like a gang of keys upon a ring than a run of onions on a string. I can only try, here, to provide a kind of dissolute echo of her words. The hollow sounds are all my own.
So perhaps it's best to quote her directly. Here is the unforgettable opening of On Photography:
Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato's cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth. But being educated by photographs is not like being educated by older, more artisanal images. For one thing, there are a great many more images around, claiming our attention. The inventory started in 1839 and since then just about everything has been photographed, or so it seems. This very insatiability of the photographing eye changes the terms of confinement in the cave, our world. In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. Finally, the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads - as an anthology of images.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Hope In East Timor

In the terrible aftermath of Sunday's earthquake and tidal waves there is a more hopeful piece in today's Guardian. John Vidal follows up an earlier report on efforts to rebuild the economy of East Timor, the world's youngest country. This year's Human Development Report offers some indication of what needs to be done. However, much of the $3 billion in aid that has gone to East Timor has not really benefited the poor. According to La'o Hamutuk, a local reconstruction watchdog: "Billions have been spent but very little has gone to help people. The vast majority has gone on international peacekeeping forces and the UN police. Highly paid foreign consultants, wages for international staff, foreign contractors and supplies procured outside the country account for most of the rest. The local people and economy has hardly benefited". This situation has sparked an important debate about what kind of development model East Timor should pursue in order to avoid another kind of dependency. Despite the problems there are also many signs of hope, borne out of the courageous struggle for independence and the enduring ethos of self-reliance. People are succeeding in building livelihoods from scratch. And the strength of enthusiasm is palpable. East Timor certainly needs all the help it can get - but this has to be emphatically on its own terms.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Reporting The Catastrophe

On the whole, the international reporting of yesterday's devastation has been exemplary. The BBC kept up a steady stream of country reports from around the region as well as offering a sense of the overall picture as it unfolded; CNN also did a good job and has highlighted the relief efforts. According to CNN's latest dispatches the total death toll is now in excess of 23,000. Country details are as follows together with links to national press reports:
  • Sri Lanka: Sri Lankan military authorities report more than 10,000 people killed. Tamil Tiger rebels report 2,000 dead in the territory they hold in the northeast of the country - Reports from Daily News
  • India: At least 6,200 killed by waves which flooded the southern coast, official media report - Reports from The Hindu
  • Indonesia: News agencies report more than 4,350 killed, many of them in Aceh in northern Sumatra - Reports from The Jakarta Post
  • Thailand: Thai authorities report at least 866 people dead - Reports from Bangkok Post
  • Maldives: A46 people are dead and more than 70 missing, according to Hassan Sobir, the Maldives High Commissioner
  • Malaysia: At least 48 dead and 150 people reported missing - Reports from The Star and New Straits Times
  • Bangladesh: At least two people reported dead and several missing - Reports from The Daily Star

Death Came From The Sea

The day after any terrible catastrophe is always a day of sombre reckoning. Reuters is now reporting a death toll of 14,425 from yeserday's massive earthquake and its deadly tidal wave aftermath - and that figure is bound to rise. The photographic evidence here and here is heart-rending. Survivors try desperately to make sense of the senseless. "Death came from the sea", says Satya Kumari, a construction worker living on the outskirts of Pondicherry, India. "The waves just kept chasing us. It swept away all our huts. What did we do to deserve this?". Of course nobody did anything to deserve this though better preventative measures should have been in place.

Beyond the shock and numbing realisation of loss a number of tasks are urgent for the people who have survived. Most pressing, of course, is to mobilise
aid teams to find the thousands still missing and to bring help to the hurt and homeless. This will require money that is beyond the compass of some of the poorest countries that have been affected. But the immediate health risks for the survivors are also potentially deadly. As the leader in today's Guardian notes:
The health hazards [are] obvious: the unburied bodies which will quickly decompose in tropical temperatures; water supplies polluted from both huge quantities of salt water sloshing around and overflowing sewage; plus already over-stretched and under-funded health systems with acute shortages of medical supplies facing huge extra numbers of injured people.
If the disaster is not to become much worse then the international community has to honour its pledges to help.

In the longer term, something must be done to install the kind of early warning system, similar to that which already operates in the Pacific. There is a rather unsettling report here:
An early warning system that could have saved thousands of lives lost in the devastating tsunamis that swept around the rim of the Indian Ocean yesterday was talked about but not acted on by governments in the region, it was revealed last night.
According to the US Geological Survey, "most of those people could have been saved if they had had a tsunami warning system in place or tide gauges". If this is the case then the governments of the region must now surely put into place such a system. It's the least that these devastated communities deserve so that something better comes out of the catastrophe.

Earthquake Horrors

It's been a very bad day. Reuters is now reporting that more than 9,000 have now died from the consequences of today's massive earthquake. We still have very little information from either Bangladesh or Burma. There are horrific photos here and a first-hand account from India here. The scale of deaths is almost beyond comprehension.

Compared with the horrors in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, Malaysia has not been so badly hit. But still there are reports of at least 53 deaths mainly on the lovely island of Penang. You can read more about the Malaysian situation here, here, here, here and here. It's been a very bad day.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Earthquake (Updated)

The news gets much, much worse.

This morning, at just before 9.00 am, Kuala Lumpur felt the prolonged tremors from a massive
earthquake centred on the northern part of Sumatra, sending tidal waves across the Straits of Malacca and Indian Ocean. The quake has now been measured at 8.9 magnitude which is huge, the strongest in the last 40 years. Sumatra is part of the "Ring of Fire" which encircles of the Pacific Ocean and where some 90 per cent of the world's seismic activity occurs. I live on the sixteenth floor of an apartment block, a fairly vulnerable location. For nearly five minutes - like an eternity - the whole building started swaying in slow motion. There was no real panic as all the residents evacuated the building but neighbours were a bit bewildered as to the cause of the tremors since peninsular Malaysia is not prone to seismic activity. But people remained calm and we were given the all-clear to return to our apartments after 30 minutes. We got off lightly.

Our thoughts go to the people of Aceh province in Indonesia - the epicentre - which has its own deep-seated problems. There are already reports of deaths and considerable destruction further afield: more than 1,300 are reported dead in coastal Sri Lanka; more than 1,000 in southern India; and an unknown number in southern Thailand. This is a terrible, terrible catastrophe. We can only hope that the rescue services can make the best of a very bad situation. Planet Earth has an awesome power and we ignore it at our peril.

Arms Trade Duplicity

Following my earlier post on the unethical practices of the British firm, Alvis, in offering inducements to Suharto's daughter comes the disturbing news that arms manufacturers are seeking to bypass the Freedom of Information Act. Originally, the terms of the act would have offered some much-needed transparency and oversight of arms deals. But as The Guardian report makes clear arms companies plan to write legally enforceable confidentiality agreements into their dealings with Whitehall and are preparing "injunction packages" with which to threaten officials. The duplicity of the British government is clear for all to see:
The Ministry of Defence wrote to arms firms this month, promising them a virtual veto and "the opportunity to seek a legal remedy" before files are disclosed. The government has also bowed to commercial pressures by deleting guidance to officials.
The arms manufacturers themselves, of course, are claiming that the exemption is necessary
to protect trade secrets from competitors. But there were already safeguards written into the original act. The scope for evasion and more dirty deals is all too obvious. The Campaign Against Arms Trade is working for "the reduction and ultimate abolition of the international arms trade, together with progressive demilitarisation within arms-producing countries". It deserves your support.

Boxing Day Cricket

Boxing Day has always been important in the cricketing calendar. Today four international matches begin - two test matches and two one day internationals. While the ODIs are mere blips in the international cricket merry-go-round - here today, gone tomorrow - the two tests promise a great deal more. And that is the enduring attraction of hard-fought test cricket. The Australians played wonderfully well last week and their team simply goes from strength to strength; but the Pakistanis surely cannot play as badly again. So it promises to be a lot closer at the MCG though I still expect Aussie class to shine through. South Africa versus England seems harder to call. I have no great love for either side but they seem to me to be well-matched so I think it'll be a draw, quite a rarity these days. My hope is that the team I support - the bedraggled West Indies - can get their act together for the one-day series in Australia next month. I know it sounds trite but cricket needs a strong and vibrant Windies - the wheel will surely turn one of these days.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Baaba Maal

There's a long profile here of the great Senegalese singer, Baaba Maal. "A musician in Africa", he says, "should be someone who educates. You can educate people and tell them their history and share information with people with your songs. When anything happens, people want to know your reaction, your advice, and what they should do. And not just to do with culture. It can be anything, from politics to religion." Read the rest.

Where Monsoons Meet No. 1

This is the first of a weekly compilation of posts that I'm calling "Where Monsoons Meet". The subject will be political developments in Southeast Asia where I live. It is a region whose historical destiny has been shaped by the meeting of the southwest and northwest monsoons - the "season of winds" - above all in determining the agricultural calendar and trading relations. It is also the title of an excellent little cartoon book that recounts Malayan history from the people's points of view.
  • Tensions continue to mount in Muslim Southern Thailand. Today there are reports of a deadly bomb explosion in Narathiwat province on the border with Malaysia. This follows yesterday's strike by thousands of teachers, urging the authorities to do more to protect them from attacks by Muslim militants. As violence continues, journalists are also suffering. The BBC's Nualnoi Thammasathien writes here of the intimidation she has met with from government authorities as a result of her reports. Meanwhile, the situation is threatening a major international fall-out as the Thai government claims that militants in the South are being trained in Malaysia. The Malaysian government, in turn, is vehemently denying the allegations.
  • Indonesia and East Timor have announced a joint Commission on Truth and Friendship to investigate the violence in East Timor four years ago, in which more than 1,400 people died in the bloody lead-up to the country's independence. So far Indonesia has failed to bring any of its soldiers to justice for their part in the killings. In the meantime, the Indonesian military says it wants more troops to "safeguard the country".
  • On Wednesday, huge numbers turned out for the funeral of Fernando Poe Jr in Manila. Many people believe that Poe was cheated of a win in this year's presidential race by the incumbent, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The mourning for Poe is heightening political tensions. Arroyo had to issue an extraordinary exhortation to the military just before the funeral: "I expect you the soldiers to be by my side, to man the flanks by keeping all threats to national security at bay". Politics as usual in the Philippines?

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Marooned In Iraq

Last night was the final screening of our short season of four films under the rubric of "Between War and Peace". Bahman Ghobadi’s Marooned In Iraq has received praise and criticism in almost equal measure since its premiere in 2002. The praise is, I think, well-deserved for Ghobadi has already established an international reputation for his A Time For Drunken Horses, a deeply moving tale of the pain and suffering endured by a family of Kurdish orphans stranded on the Iranian-Iraqi border. Marooned In Iraq embellishes that reputation and the range of Ghobadi's cinematic canvas.

The controversy is inevitably political. Ghobadi is an Iranian Kurd who has fought tooth-and-nail to represent the interests of his people on film and when he speaks. And the context of Marooned In Iraq is provided by Saddam Hussein’s brutal assault on the Kurds in northern Iraq in 1991, in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. Despite the widespread international solidarity with the Kurdish struggle for autonomy or independence - not only in Iraq, of course, but notably in Turkey - the fact that Ghobadi dared to attack Saddam's genocidal policy led the film to be banned in some countries – including Malaysia. Using the amoral logic of international relations - where one's enemy's enemy becomes one's friend - the official board, Censorship Film Malaysia, claimed last year that
the film was a weapon of US propaganda that could "dangerously jeopardize relations between Malaysia and Iraq". The board told the Malaysian film distributor Suraya Film Production: "This film is an attempt to prove that Saddam Hussein's government possesses the chemical weapons which contravene international law .... Our political situation at present supports peace in Iraq and not war and for that reason we have banned Marooned in Iraq". And in all of this, suddenly the Kurdish people found themselves friendless, portrayed as stooges of the American offensive in Iraq, as if their centuries-long struggle counted for nothing.

Happily, Marooned In Iraq was released for distribution in Malaysia in May 2003 and has received much wider worldwide exhibition in the past year, so that people can judge for themselves the cinematic qualities and political arguments that Ghobadi lays before us. Basically this is a kind of alternative road movie – telling the story of Mirza, an aging celebrated Kurdish singer, along with his musician sons, Barat and Audeh, who embark on a journey in search of Mirza’s ex-wife Hanareh. She left him 23 years ago to marry his brother, Seyed. Now, Mirza has received word that she is singing for the Kurdish refugees on the Iran-Iraq border and is in need of his help. To persuade his reluctant sons to accompany him on this perilous journey, he tells them he really did not divorce Hanareh but only claimed he did to save the family's honour. Barat, the older son, and Audeh, the younger son who says he needs to stay home to take care of his seven wives and thirteen daughters, grudgingly agree to go. And so their baroque journey begins.

Despite the context of the war, and unlike his earlier film, Ghobadi takes a wider view of life through humour, sadness, bitterness, satire and tragedy. In a recent interview Ghobadi explains that it wasn't so much an intellectual shift, as a visceral one:

The Kurds have undergone all this tyranny through the ages. It's as if they've been injected with frowns. To combat this, they seek refuge in humor and passionate music. This will get them through, this gives them hope for a destination that is other than bitter. As we speak, in the encampments, they're sitting with the saucepans, beating them, making music and dancing. This is how they live. Just as there is no way that you could find a single Kurd who has not lost someone - every single one has lost a relative, someone close to him, at least one - there is not a single Kurd who doesn't know how to make music. They’re almost intoxicated by the fate that has befallen them. They don’t how to transcend it other than in this way. This merging of humor and tragedy is the essence of Kurdish life.
Watch the film.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Between War And Peace: A Review

Over at Small Acts Carmen has posted her long review of the "Between War And Peace" season of four films I have been helping to organise. On Danis Tanović's No Man's Land Carmen writes this:
The absurdity of war knows no solution. Its victims are the thousands who are caught in the crossfire between peace and politics, between hope and senselessness. The future is a time bomb waiting to go off because war promises nothing but more death in store.
Read the rest.

Artists' Colony In Malacca

I have just returned from two days in Malacca. It's a venerable, historic city that has been fought over for the last six hundred years. The site of the famous Malacca sultanate founded at the end of the fourteenth century, the Portuguese, Dutch, British and Chinese have left their impress on the architecture and culture of the place. There is even a personal connection for me. My mother is from a Nyonya background - the community of Straits-born Chinese influenced by Malay culture and customs. And at any street corner you can gaze at life drifting by.

One of the most interesting developments in the last fifteen years has been the quiet burgeoning of an artists' colony in the old town.
A steady stream of painters, sculptors, potters and other artisans has been settling in the wonderfully restored nineteenth century shophouses. Two outstanding artists are worth highlighting.

One is Charles Cham who works out of the quirky Orangutan House. In 1992, he started to build up his range of T-shirts with popular slogans as well as his paintings. When he set up his studio, Cham painted a huge image of an orang utang outside his shop which calls out to you from the street. His work combines designing T-shirts that are his "bread and butter" and producing more ambitious paintings and other artworks.

The other artist - with whom I was able to spend some time shooting the breeze - is Tham Siew Inn. He's recently taken over and renovated a lovely shophouse which contains his studio, gallery and home.
He mainly paints watercolours of landscapes (urban and natural), figures and abstracts. In his abstract works he says his “artistic grandfather” is Russian expressionist painter Wassily Kandinsky while his “brother” is local abstract artist and poet Latiff Mohidin.

If you're ever in this neck of the woods, Malacca is really worth a visit. And support the artists' colony.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Cricketing Connections Then And Now

Cricket has never really taken off in a big way here in Malaysia. This is a bit of a surprise and a big disappointment for me. Historically, the possibilities for cricket would appear hopeful. Obviously the British - as elsewhere in the empire - brought the game and set up a rudimentary infrastructure of grounds and teams, including in some of the elite schools. The site of Malaysian independence in 1957 is the padang, a beautifully tended green space which doubles up as a cricket ground right in the middle of Kuala Lumpur. There has long been a sizeable population of Indian origin, one of the ingredients to embedding cricketing cultures elsewhere - in Trinidad, Guyana and Kenya among others as well as its impact on the English game over the last decade. And there is even some royal patronage of the game. But cricket stubbornly refuses to take off. This is a sad state of affairs.

And yet a deeper look suggests that all may not be lost. Last week the New Straits Times reported on the International Malays cricket championship which begins in Malaysia today. This brings together teams from the Malay diaspora from South Africa and Sri Lanka to compete against local opposition at different age groups. Apparently the star of the South African Malays is the wonderfully-named Rieyaan Goliath who, you've guessed it, is a hard-hitting batsman.

There is another connection between the Malay diapora and cricket that focuses on the St George's Park in Port Elizabeth, venue for the ongoing South Africa versus England test match. According to the ground's official history,
during the 1891/2 season, the Malays had the distinction of being the first ever Black South African side to play against an overseas touring side, W.W. Read’s English team. In echoes of the Basil D'Oliveira affair more than sixty years later, the star player from the Malay side, the fast bowler J. "Krom" Hendricks, was selected to go on the first South African touring team to England in 1894, but because of his colour, he was subsequently left out.

As the mighty C.L.R James told us long ago:
"What does he know of cricket who only cricket knows... ".

Eight For The Great

Obviously Norm got here first - as you'd expect. But yesterday's performance by the extraordinary Australian bowler, Glenn McGrath, was something else. The various match reports have been extolling the great man's man's seemingly imperishable virtues and the second-best test match bowling figures ever by an Australian. And he didn't even get the man-of-the-match award. To think that some were writing him off only recently. Roll on the Ashes next year ...

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Killings In Southern Thailand

After the "origami peace bombs" comes the official enquiry. The government-appointed panel into the Tak Bai tragedy in Muslim Southern Thailand, in which seven protesters were shot dead and 78 others died while in military custody, has just reported. The findings are ambiguous. According to this BBC report, the head of the investigation, Pichet Soontornpipit, has said that the protesters were not killed deliberately, adding that there was no evidence the deaths were intended. However, both The Nation and the Bangkok Post (registration required) note that at least three senior security officials have been found responsible for the tragedy and named. But the enquiry has stopped short of holding them accountable. In all of this the prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, remains in the clear. So long as there is no satisfactory public accounting for the kllings at Tak Bai then the panel's findings are unlikely to quell the growing discontent in Southern Thailand.

Suu Kyi: Turning The Screw

Following my earlier post it seems clear that the increasingly hardline Burmese junta is intent on intensifying its pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi. Reports here and here tell of the removal of her personal security; in addition the regime is refusing to let her doctor visit more than once a week despite her serious health problems. Meanwhile, Rangoon's thugs simply ignore international opinion. The situation for Suu Kyi looks bleak. In the words of John Jackson, Director of the Burma Campaign UK: "There is a real threat to her safety. Unless the international community starts taking this situation seriously, we fear the regime may be emboldened to make an attempt on her life".

Friday, December 17, 2004

Arms And The Woman

There are a number of important political developments emerging in Southeast Asia. Perhaps the most disturbing comes from Indonesia.

A week ago The Guardian reported here that
Indonesia's independent anti-corruption commission (KPK) is investigating claims that a British company, Alvis, paid $16.5 million to the eldest daughter of the former dictator Suharto - Siti "Tutut" Hardiyanti Rukmana - to secure an arms deal. The Observer followed up with a piece by Oliver Morgan that asks simply: "Should British taxpayers support companies that bribe their way to foreign contracts?". The answer to that question surely offers us a sense of the actual - as opposed to the rhetorical - conduct of British foreign policy in this era. And it has been more than a year since the Labour government promise to stop arms brokers dealing "wherever they are located" was dropped.

It is worth recalling how the entrenchment of the highly centralised, ruthless and predatory regime of Suharto was aided and abetted by successive British governments. The old dictator may have gone - and never to be prosecuted because of his alleged ill health - but the shadow of his party, Golkar, and his criminal children still lies like a nightmare on the brain of the living. As reported here, Golkar
is still the largest party in parliament and as such wields significant influence over the fractured Indonesian polity. Earlier in the year it nominated an alleged war criminal, General Wiranto, as its presidential candidate. And as the arms dealing case makes clear the system of predatory power relations and the ascendacy of politico-business families remains firmly in place. Those responsible for British foreign policy have to ask themselves honestly whether this is the kind of agenda they want to support.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

At Five In The Afternoon

Last night's screening in our "Between War and Peace" season was Samira Makhmalbaf's At Five In The Afternoon. The film's title is taken from a refrain in a famous poem by Lorca, "Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias" which begins
At five in the afternoon.
It was exactly five in the afternoon.
A boy brought the white sheet
at five in the afternoon.
A frail of lime ready prepared
at five in the afternoon.
The rest was death, and death alone
at five in the afternoon.
This the third film from the young Iranian director who, it should be remembered, is still only 24 years-old though she is a veteran of the filmmaking world as a long-time assistant of her celebrated father Mohsen. Indeed the Makhmalbaf family (including the 14 year-old Hana) have long been at the centre of the flowering of Iranian cinema, a development that has been as illuminating as it has been unlikely. Samira made her name with the docudrama The Apple and followed this up with a humanist masterpiece Blackboards which depicted itinerant Kurdish teachers who scour the borderlands in search of pupils. She also contributed a segment of the magnificent collaborative film 11'09"01, one of eleven reflections on the events of September 11.

At Five In The Afternoon is the first film set in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. The ruins of Kabul provides an unsettling quality of its own, in a way reminiscent of the Italian neo-realist masterpieces such as Rome, Open City. The narrative is driven by the apparently forlorn quest of its lead character - Nogreh - to pursue her dream of knowledge and education in the face of opposition from her ultra-conservative father. Nogreh's great hope is to one day become president of Afghanistan. The tensions between the residues of the old regime and its values and the painful birth of a new beginning - and above all a new beginning for Afghan women - are constant and never fully resolved. Samira uses a number of devices to depict these tensions. Most obviously it is symbolised by Nogreh's switch of shoes to a pair of forbidden white high heels as she leaves home, though she seems most liberated when she plays hopscotch in her bare feet. And then there is the contrast between the unbending old man, railing at the blasphemy that he believes now engulfs Kabul, and the idealistic young poet, a returning refugee, who recites the Lorca poem while gently teasing Nogreh's political ambitions.

film does not offer any easy solution to the grave problems faced by Afghanistan at this time and by Afghan women in particular. The last twenty minutes or so are implacably sad like a huge sombre weight. Indeed some have criticised the film for only offering us a sense of death and extinction. Samira herself has said the country is like “a home burning in the fire of tribalism, bigotry, ignorance and poverty”. Elsewhere, she accepts that moving toward democracy is a process that will take a long time. And there is certainly a brutal harshness about the unfolding of the film’s narrative. There is no easy optimism here.

And yet Samira has also spoken of a more hopeful world in the making. She illustrates this in two ways. The first is to do with the hard time she had in convincing the actress who plays Nogreh to take the role and also her growing confidence that by doing so she was helping Afghan women to overcome their fear of the cinema. And the second is her forceful reminder of the power of collective solidarity in the face of hostility and indifference. “The survival of any from this inferno of a house”, she says, “is impossible without rescuing others". Watch the film.

Sebastião Salgado's Genesis

Many of you will know that Sebastião Salgado is embarking on the last of his great photographic projects. He calls it Genesis. It attempts to explore the world's purest and most protected areas - places, he says, that provide hope; places before humans conquered them. Working in conjunction with the UN, Unesco, Unep (United Nations Environment Project) and the Guardian over the next eight years, Salgado is attempting to remind us of what we still have and what we are in danger of losing.

Salgado has always been a political and engaged photographer working on an epic scale.
As Simon Hattenstone's profile notes, he
has given his life to long-term projects - workers, landless peasants, children, migrants. He took his camera where few photographers bothered or dared to go. His most famous photographs are of the garimpeiros, the mud-soaked prospectors who climbed up and down open-cast Brazilian gold mines, hoping against hope to find a nugget of gold in their buckets of dirt.
Genesis is being undertaken in the same spirit of engagement. In his own introduction to the project Salgado begins by noting how "
our relationship with nature - with ourselves - has broken down". He goes on to point out that "we live today on a planet that can die". The political bite comes in this passage that condemns a global political economy that has fostered this rapaciousness:
This is tragically mirrored in the current state of humanity. Immense wealth has been created through the labour of the entire world's population, but it is concentrated in the hands of all too few people, spawning tensions both within affluent societies and between a handful of rich countries and the rest of the world. We produce more food than ever and yet millions die of hunger. And in recent decades we have witnessed the worst acts of genocide of our history.
The Guardian is placing some of Salgado's photographs and his fieldnotes on the web. Those from Stage One:
The Galapagos are here. While those from Stage Two: Under the volcanoes, his moving rerturn to Rwanda, are here. Look at these images and feel awe.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Filipino Artists in Malaysia

Picking up on John Berger's evocation of art as representing "the enduring, guts and honour" there is a long illustrated essay over at Small Acts by Carmen, one of Malaysia's best cultural critics. The essay focuses on the work of the Filipino artists' collective Anting Anting who are currently painting a public mural at the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur. For one of the artists, Manny, here is the power of the mural as a form: "It challenges you to not just display your craft but to come up with images that interact and hopefully stimulate people into some kind of critical engagement—facing and confronting their own situation. I haven’t been around here long enough to grasp the Malaysian condition and situation but we start from where we come from; the issues we raise are just as valid in the Philippines as here: the environment, politics, religion, ethnicity, particular issues pertaining to greed and big business and the victimization of the poor". Read the rest.

John Berger

Over at Charlotte Street there is a long reflection by Mark Kaplan on John Berger, one of the most gifted and humane of essayists and thinkers of the last forty years. I can still remember the impact his Ways Of Seeing had on me: "It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it". That was it - Berger's way of getting us to understand how words and our experiences of the world interact.

Mark has also excerpted this from one of John Berger's essays (and there's a brooding photo of him as well):
I can't tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that art has often judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past has suffered, so that it has never been forgotten. I know too that the powerful fear art, whatever its form, when it does this, and that amongst the people such art sometimes runs like a rumour and a legend because it makes sense of what life's brutalities cannot, a sense that unites us, for it is inseparable from a justice at last. Art, when it functions like this, becomes a meeting-place of the invisible, the irreducible, the enduring, guts and honour.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Byzantine Politics In Burma

Today comes the news, reported here and here, that Burma's ruling junta has announced it is releasing 5,070 prisoners who were arrested "inappropriately". On the surface this looks like a promising development, perhaps even signalling a slight relaxation in the iron-fisted pursuit of power by the egregiously-named State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). But the reality is rather more bleak. Of those released only about 40 are actually political detainees, including U Thu Wai, the Chairman and U Htwe Myint, the vice-chairman of Democracy Party. The main opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, of course remains under house arrest - recently extended under the terms of the sinister "Law Safeguarding the State from the Danger of Subversive Elements" - and there are no signs she will be released any time soon. She has now spent more than nine years in detention. Amnesty International estimates that there were 1,350 political detainees in 2004, many associated with Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.

So what is being done about this shameful poison on the region's politics? Well, to judge from some recent developments not very much at all.
For example, the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), who were meeting for a summit in neighbouring Laos recently, basically avoided any discussion of Burma. The junta, due to take over Asean's rotating chair in 2006, is a source of growing embarrassment for the regional organisation since its policy of so-called "constructive engagement" has manifestly failed to elicit any changes. But the Asean member states seem not to be prepared to bring any meaningful pressure to bear on the regime, though there are some voices calling to Suu Kyi's release. It is simply pathetic. For, if any reminder were needed, here is the nature of the beast:
Burma is ruled by one of the most brutal military dictatorships in the world; a dictatorship charged by the United Nations with a "crime against humanity" for its systematic abuses of human rights, and condemned internationally for refusing to transfer power to the legally elected Government of the country.
At the very least the time is right to step up real pressure on the junta. As a recent Guardian editorial put it:
It is now time for the UN security council to face Chinese pressure and hold a fully fledged debate on an appropriate response by the international community. If that happens, it must look at punitive action, a ban on new investment and the exports that provide this brutal regime with most of its income.
The people of Burma have waited too long already.

More On Children's Rights

There is an interesting piece over at Normblog that follows up my earlier post on Unicef's "The State of the World's Children 2005". While I focused on the consequences of market dependence for the baleful condition of half the world's children Norm concentrates on the more philosophical dimensions of children's rights. He comments on some of the criticism (registration required) of Unicef's executive director, Carol Bellamy, and her supposed unwillingness to engage with the core issue of child survival. Norm then makes the simple, yet profound, argument that "survival must be focused on as, precisely, the most important of all rights" and goes on to say that
Rights, as it has been said, are trumps. We shouldn't treat the preservation and nurturing of children's lives merely as a desirable ideal. It is one of the most fundamental tests there is of the level of moral development of the global human community. The lives of children must be morally paramount.
Read the rest.

Human Rights In Malaysia

When Abdullah Badawi replaced the long-serving Mahathir Mohamad as Malaysia's prime minister last year there were high hopes for an opening up of the country's politics. After all Abdullah had promised to re-establish an independent judiciary, open a dialogue with civil society groups and accept criticism of his government. But as the annual report of the leading human rights group, Suaram, makes clear the situation in Malaysia has hardly improved. While Suaram welcomed the release from jail of the former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, it sees few other signs of hope.

Among the report's key findings are evidence of widespread irregularities, bans on opposition gatherings and tight control of the media by the government during this year's general election. But the darkest stain on Malaysia's human rights records continues to be the notorious Internal Security Act (ISA). This legacy of British colonial rule has long been the lynchpin of the state's coercive apparatus. It allows for detention without trial or charge. And it has been used unsparingly against a succession of "enemies of the state" for the last four decades. Some 97 people are believed to be detained at this moment under the ISA. And on Wednesday, it was reported that
a dozen of the detainees were injured during a search of their quarters at the high security Kamunting detention centre in northern Malaysia.

Malaysia is not often portrayed as a politically repressive society in the so-called international community - beyond the occasional condemnation of Anwar's detention or criticism of Mahathir's bilious outbursts. Indeed, Malaysia is more usually represented as an exemplar of a multicultural society that combines a successful project of Islamic modernisation with racial harmony. The truth is much less sanguine. And there is a growing movement of Malaysians (and of international solidarity) that is prepared not only to say so but to campaign actively to break the silence.

At the moment Suaram is spearheading four major campaigns:
  • Abolish ISA Movement: which seeks to free all detainess, stop torture, and eventually abolish the ISA itself
  • Campaign on Rights of Refugees in Malaysia: which advocates for greater protection for refugees in Malaysia, intervenes in crisis situations and provides support and advice
  • Campaign Against Police Brutality: which seeks the accountability and reform of the police force
  • Freedom of Speech and Expression Campaign: which advocate for greater freedom of speech and expression, and freedom of information laws
Malaysian citizens are not quiescent bystanders in the struggle against injustice and oppression. They are organising. And they deserve your support.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Torture: Then And Now

Following from last week's post of The Battle Of Algiers, there is an important article in the current issue of Race & Class. Entitled "Torture: from Algiers to Abu Ghraib", Neil Macmaster explicitly links the treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq to the counter-insurgency techniques used by the French in Algeria. As Macmaster notes: "Yet while the lessons of the torturer have been assiduously learnt, what has been ignored is the recent open debate in France on the profound damage done by such institutionalised barbarity both to the victims and to the individuals and regimes that deploy it". And today there are reports of more allegations of the torture regime at Guantánamo Bay. Read the rest.

Friday, December 10, 2004

The Devastations of Neoliberalism

Two damning indictments in one week. On Tuesday the International Labour Organisation released its World Employment Report 2004-2005 which headlines the fact that half the world's 2.8 billion workers are living below the $2 a day poverty line - the price of a cup of coffee. The Report goes on to show that there is a large and persistent decent work deficit in the world - "one that poses a great challenge in the fight against poverty". And then today, Unicef has published its The State of the World's Children 2005, with the sub-title "Childhood Under Threat", and reported on here and here. Again the issue of poverty is much to the fore:
Millions of children around the world miss out on their childhood as a result of poverty. Poverty deprives them of the capabilities needed to survive, develop and thrive. It prevents them from enjoying equal opportunities. It makes children more vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, violence, discrimination and stigmatization.
Or in the more graphic language of the Independent:
They are a billion strong. Diseased, malnourished, uneducated, they are a people on the run from wars that take the lives of their brothers and sisters. And they are all children - half the children on earth today.
There are two especially chilling facts highlighted by the Report. One is the portrayal of the HIV/Aids pandemic as the worst catastrophe in history, one that is blighting childhood across the developing world, especially sub-Saharan Africa. The other is this: since 1990, 3.6 million people have been killed on the front line in wars around the word - almost half of them were children..

The facts alone are simply shocking. Put simply, life for most people in our age is intolerable and dehumanising. But they are more, much more, than merely the discontents of globalisation. The state of the world's workers, the state of the world's children are the logical consequences of a class project - for that is what neoliebral globalisation actually is - that compels market dependence on everyone. It is a project whose end product is more poverty and immiseration. This is how Ellen Wood put it a while back:
In conditions where the market has this historically unprecedented role in organizing human life and social reproduction, where people must go through the market to gain access to the most basic means of self-reproduction, the provision of all goods and services is governed by certain imperatives: the imperatives of competition, accumulation, profit-maximization, and increasing labor productivity.... Human needs and wants are always subordinate to capital accumulation and subject to all the crises and contradictions associated with an anarchic competitive market.
We live in a pitiless era. The devastations of neoliberal globalisation will require much more radical thinking of what is possible and much more imagination of what is desirable. In the short term, this means as much as possible detaching social life from the kind of market dependence to which we are all subjugated.

Thursday, December 09, 2004


I've been listening to the wonderful music produced by the 'Standards' trio first formed by Keith Jarrett back in 1983. Their latest - The Out Of Towners - is as good as anything that Jarrett and his partners, Gary Peacock and Jack Dejohnette, have produced in that time. Unlike some work in the trio format, there is a palpable sense of conversational give-and-take in the heat of creativity and the release of joy in the improvisation. There's little doubt that we are living through a new golden age of the jazz trio with artists like Brad Mehldau and Ahmad Jamal mining a rich repertoire. But Jarrett-Peacock-Dejohnette are still setting the standards.

No Man's Land

Last night's screening at the Between War and Peace season I'm organising was Danis Tanović's No Man's Land, a powerful evocation of the futility and cruelty of the wars in the former Yugoslavia. It is a timely reminder of the bloody, ultra-nationalist prejudices which set into motion that barbarism in the heart of Europe and the spurious morality of the international political class. Set in a trench in the no man's land between Bosnian and Serbian lines it uses the well-known device of throwing together protagonists who are ultimately dependent on each other for their very survival. Tanović takes a considerable risk in using a dark, acerbic humour as well as the cat-and-mouse antics of the two soldiers - Ciki and Nino - to drive home his central moral point: that this was a crazy war in which many sides were culpable. At the same time there is a sense in which Tanović is also saying that the region has implacable oppositions which are not easy for outsiders to understand still less to resolve. In the final analysis, although Tanović has made a film that is about his people - the Bosnians - he has also made a story about the world. Watch it if you haven't already done so.

Sunday, December 05, 2004


That's the headline of a long piece in today's Observer in which Andrew Anthony examines the consequences for Dutch society of Theo van Gogh's murder. The portents don't look at all good:
Like all acts of terror, van Gogh's murder was meant to polarise society, and to an extent it has succeeded. For all its differences, Holland is a country that values consensus as the ultimate virtue, and the initial response was one of unity. As news of van Gogh's death spread, tens of thousands of protesters, including a great many Muslims, poured into Dam Square to voice their support for free speech. But soon afterwards, other more disturbing and divisive reactions were reported. Several mosques and Islamic schools were damaged by firebombs, and in turn there were a number of reprisals against churches.
Read the rest.

Joe Louis Theater, Bangkok

On quite a different theme from the post below, if you're ever in Bangkok you must drop by the wonderful Joe Louis Theater next to the Suanlum Night Bazaar, the home of Thai puppetry. The website offers a nice story of how Sakorn Yangkeawsot (the theatre's founder) became "Joe Louis". Go and see it.

Peace Bombs In Southern Thailand

A very odd piece of political theatre is taking place in Thailand's troubled southern provinces of Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani. The prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, has ordered an estimated one hundred million paper origami birds - complete with peace messages - to be dropped over the country's Muslim south following the escalation of violence there. While some have hailed the gesture as signalling a new willingness by the government to attempt some kind of rapprochement after months of bloody conflict, it is more likely to be seen as yet another crass example of Thaksin's increasingly perverse and brutal leadership.

In case any one needs reminding, some 540 people have been killed in bloody conflict this year. As a letter from Human Rights Watch, Asian Division, to Thaksin put it recently: "
... at least 78 protesters were suffocated or crushed to death as they were being transferred to detention facilities. Some 1,200 people are still held by military authorities, without access to legal representation and with questionable medical attention". As the same letter goes on to state, during Thaksin's period in office,
Thailand has witnessed a growing disregard for the rule of law and human rights. Your government’s inadequate responses to previous human rights abuses have created an environment in which security forces trample the rule of law and violate human rights without fear of accountability. The predictable rise of a climate of impunity, and the resulting increase in violence, helped set the stage for the tragic deaths in southern Thailand this week. In order to counter this trend, you must move immediately to provide full accountability and respect for human rights throughout Thailand.
While the bombardment by paper birds may help the Thaksin "feel good" factor in the run up to the general election it does little to address the simmering discontents in the south and still less to solve the complex problems that have led to so much violence.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Tragedy In The Philippines

I have been greatly affected this week by the heart-rending events in the Philippines where many close friends live. The scale of the human loss is simply numbing: more than 1,000 are dead or unaccounted for; a further 170,000 are stricken by the severe flooding following the two fierce typhoons that ravaged the Pacific coast. People are running out of food and medicines. Of course, the Philippines and other countries in the region are not unused to such "natural" catastrophes. If there is anything hopeful to come out of this latest one it is the growing realisation that human agency is also greatly to blame: the rapacious activities of the logging companies and the idiocies of a government locked into unsustainable development policies. We've been here before, of course. Mike Davis's brilliant Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino, Famines, and the Making of the Third World reminds us of today's events as the tragic reiteration of an historical era. The link is the cruel and ongoing folly of local and international ruling elites.

The Battle Of Algiers

On Wednesay I watched a restored print of The Battle of Algiers, the first of a mini-season of films on the theme of War and Peace that I'm organising. Since the release of Gillo Pontecorvo's masterpiece in 1965 a great deal has been said about its contribution to cinematic language - the hand-held camerawork, the choreography of the crowd scenes, Ennio Morricone's dramatic and driven score, the amazing use of space. There is so much here and films such as Bloody Sunday owe a great debt of honour. But I think the greatness of the film also lies in Pontecorvo's claim to have captured the "smell of truth". This is not just of the specificites of the Algerian struggle for independence against a brutalised French occupation. It is also a testimony to both the outrages and the moral ambiguities that permeate all conflicts. And the film neither glorifies the former nor succumbs to the latter. In its intensity and commitment the potency of The Battle of Algiers remains with us today. Go and see it.

Showing during the remainder of the War and Peace season are: Danis Tanovic's No Man's Land; Samira Makhmalbaf's At Five In The Afternoon; and, Bahman Ghobadi's Marooned In Iraq.