Monday, January 31, 2005

Galeano On Salgado: 2

From Eduardo Galeano's "Salgado, 17 Times":
2. Hunger looks like the man that hunger is killing. The man looks like the tree the man is killing. The trees have arms, the people, branches. Wizened bodies, gnarled: trees made of bones, the people of knots and roots that writhe under the sun. The trees and the people, ageless. All born thousands of years ago - who knows how many? - and still they are standing, inexplicably standing, beneath a heaven that forsakes them.

It Ain't Cricket

This story was buried away but it's pretty scary all the same. Apparently the two umpires for the last test between South Africa and England - Steve Bucknor and Aleem Dar - received death threats on the last day of the match. The reported threat is pretty chilling: "We are going to get rid of Aleem Dar and Steve Bucknor, we are going to shoot them". Bucknor dismissed the threat in his usual impertubable way though admitted to thinking about going home to the Caribbean. What gives here? I understand all about passion and commitment but there is something rotten in the state of South African sport.

Mass Expulsions In Malaysia

A week ago I posted this on the situation facing undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia. Today is the day that these workers - mostly from Indonesia or the Philippines - voluntarily leave the country or face arrest and punishment. According to reports in the local press there has not been a last-minute rush at the ports. Rather many migrant workers appear to be leaving their squatter homes and searching for "safe havens".

At issue is not simply that there is barely a humane and rational debate about the place of migrant workers in Malaysian society - workers who have done much to build the so-called developmental miracle. Even more indicative of official authoritarianism are the strongarmed tactics that the government is threatening. The BBC reports, accurately, that "
armed raiding parties will begin rounding up illicit foreign workers and their employers after a three-month amnesty. Those caught and found guilty of immigration offences risk being fined, whipped and imprisoned". It's estimated that there's anything between 800,000 and 1.5 million undocumented workers in Malaysia - so the operation will be on a vast scale. The scope for abuse is obvious. The crackdown is due to begin tomorrow.

Amnesty International Malaysia has already tabled its disquiet in a thorough report issued last month. Based on the experiences of earlier expulsions, Amnesty is "concerned that the government’s current mass deportation plans may result in serious human rights violations". The report also points to the "inhuman or degrading detention conditions prior to and during deportation" which violate all international norms. Amnesty concludes its findings with a list of eight policy recommendations to the Malaysian government. They are both modest and humane. They should be the starting-point for any serious debate on the future of migrant workers and the protection of their fundamental rights. And Malaysian civil society needs to be shaken out of its complacent torpor.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Galeano On Salgado: 1

I have already posted on Sebastião Salgado's last great photographic project which he calls Genesis. I have not long finished Salgado's An Uncertain Grace. This impressive book essentially covers his work from 1974-89. Every image is of a person or people. Many are suffering, many are grieving, many are displaced. Many are children. Many are working under impossibly harsh conditions. The images are global. All Salgado's work is a testimony to the lives and deaths of the wretched of the earth. The photographs accompanied by a prose-poetry essay, "Salgado, 17 Times", by the great Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano. Over the next seventeen days I will extract each of Galeano's lyrical commentaries on Salgado.
1. Are these photographs, these figures of tragic grandeur, carvings in stone or wood by a sculptor in despair? Was the sculptor the photographer? Or God? Or the Devil? Or earthly reality?

This much is certain: it would be difficult to look at these figures and remain unaffected. I cannot imagine anyone shrugging his shoulder, turning away unseeing, and sauntering off, whistling.

Asian Egos

It's quite pathetic really. Just over a month after the catastrophe - and with the chance of doing something important to avoid future disasters - the countries of the region have thrown away a golden opportunity to establish an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system. The meeting this weekend in Phuket has been divided by clashes over who should host a regional coordination centre. Thailand proposed that it should be in Bangkok, but this was opposed by Indonesia and India. This kind of policy inertia is nothing new in the region. In the aftermath of the Asian financial crises in 1997-98, for example, there was no coherent regional solution on the table and so the management of the crisis was ceded to the IMF and US Treasury. Not untypically, reporters are saying that "national egos appear to be getting in the way of international co-operation". The only firm agreement to date is that a UN agency, the International Oceanographic Commission, should coordinate a decentralised network. Just once, you'd have thought ...

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Political Islam

There's a very interesting essay here by Mahmood Mamdani on political Islam. He excoriates the view - held by Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis, among others - that international conflict can be reduced the clash between pre-modern and modern ideologies.
The terrorist tendency in political Islam is not a pre- modern carry-over but a very modern development. Radical political Islam is not a development of the ulama (legal scholars), not even of mullahs or imams (prayer leaders). It is mainly the work of non-religious political intellectuals .... It has developed through a set of debates, but these cannot be understood as a linear development inside political Islam. Waged inside and outside political Islam, they are both a critique of reformist political Islam and an engagement with competing political ideologies, particularly Marxism-Leninism.
Not surprisingly, for those who know his work, Mamdani also has some interesting parallels to draw with apartheid South Africa. Read the rest.

Where Monsoons Meet No. 5

Being a miscellany of recent stories from Southeast Asia.
  • Indonesia-Aceh. As I noted earlier in the week talks started on Friday between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in Helsinki. It was the first time the two sides had met for nearly two years. But reports are already indicating that the meeting has ended earlier than expected. No specific reason has been offered for this though Martti Ahtisaari, the convenor of the talks, said in a rather laconic way that after such a long conflict it was not realistic for the sides to "start loving each other" so soon. At this point, it's quite difficult to speculate on what may happen next. But the Indonesian government is unlikely to concede GAM's two major demands: a withdrawal of government troops and outright independence. The latter demand, especially, would also be opposed by many of Indonesia's neighbours. But Reuters is claiming that the two sides will meet soon and there is some hope at least for a formal ceasefire to allow for post-earthquake reconstruction. There is excellent commentary on the situation in Aceh over at Money Doesn't Talk, It Swears.
  • Mekong Delta. I'm a little late on this story but it has longer term implications anyway. It may be stating the obvious but everyone seems in thrall to China's breakneck industrial development - creating what is in effect the new workshop of the world. Mostly, analysts fall into one of two camps: they either welcome this development as the best means for locking in China to the structures of global capitalist governance, or else they project China as an alternative nexus of power to that of the West. In all this frothy speculation, little is said about the very real and negative impact that China's development is having on its Southeast Asian neighours. This report highlights just one very obvious downside - China's threat to the livelihoods and environment of the Mekong Delta: "throughout Southeast Asia, farmers and fishermen complain that China's thirst for hydroelectric power is choking the Mekong, a waterway that sustains some 70 million people". The Mekong is literally the lifeblood for a huge swathe of Southeast Asia. But China's network of upstream dams is gradually choking off life downstream. As one Cambodian minister puts it: "China, they will work for their own country .... We are downstream, so we suffer all the negative consequences. If there is no more water for us, no more fish, no more vegetation, this is a big disaster". Not all disasters in the region are caused by the forces of nature. Read the rest. (Hat tip: Ash)
  • Philippines. The big story in the Philippines has been the debate over tax policy, specifically the plan to widen the imposition of VAT. Now this doesn't sound like a very sexy topic. But it actually goes to the heart of what's wrong with the Philippine political economy. In a brilliant dissection in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Randy David spells out what everyone already knows: that the tax burden falls disproportionately on the poor and lower middle class while the rich and the corporations are serial tax-evaders. More than this, taxes are not used for meeting public needs such as health, education and infrastructure but for servicing the balooning debt and purusuing armed offensives against insurgents in the name of national security. As Randy's acerbic comment says: "In view of this, it may make very little sense to warn the Filipino public that they face the consequences of an impending economic collapse if the fiscal deficit is not immediately solved. Many think they have nothing further to lose in the event of an economic crisis. They don't see themselves as meaningful stakeholders in the present system. Not a few may even believe that a crisis is what the country probably needs to bring the national leadership to its senses". In the Philippines at least taxation is still a potentially revolutionary topic. "Only a thin line separates taxation from exploitation, and our government seems bent on doing everything to erase it". Read the rest.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Good Bye, Lenin!

Following on the post below, then, Good Bye, Lenin! is simply a marvellous film. At its heart is a family drama and the intensity of love of a son for his mother, a love which has to be sustained by a fabrication. The film is set in those turbulent weeks in 1989 as the citizens of East Berlin moved finally to tear down the Wall chunk-by-chunk. Only for the mother, Christiane, apparently a believer in the virtues of the communist state, none of this is happening. In a deeply symbolic scene she witnesses her son, Alex, being beaten by East German police during one of the frequent protests against the Wall and falls into a coma. When she comes to eight months later the Wall has been ripped open. Alex is desperate to prevent his mother from succumbing to a fatal heart attack and so contrives to keep her in the dark about the profound changes that seem to have overcome the old cleavages. In creating his make-believe world Alex is playing out the tensions between his affection for his mother and his own desire for political opening.

Wolfgang Becker manages to piece together these elements with wonderful deftness and a great deal of poignancy. The film captures the obvious surreal absurdity of the circumstances and is very funny. But it is never farcical or foolish. As the director notes: "A good comedy always has a very serious basis". Underlying it all are two tragicomic motifs.

One is the story of Christiane's absent husband who went West many years previously and wanted the family to join him. Chrstiane rationalises his disappearance by concealing the truth from her children in order to maintain some semblance of normality in her life, devoted to ameliorating the bureaucratic absurdities of the communist system. Her husband's letters to the family go unanswered and are hidden away. When Christiane finally confesses and Alex and his sister, Ariane, separately meet their father these are scenes of moving pathos.

The other motif is more obviously political. There is nothing triumphalistic here about about the defeat of the East. Far from it, Becker takes good aim at the monolithic absurdities of both Stalinism and capitalism, even while celebrating the freedoms of travel and civil rights that political change has brought. Becker has a particular skill at using props as narrative symbols for the two systems - the "beautiful" blue Trabant or the ubiquitous adverts for Coke, the fossilised leadership of Erich Honecker at the May Day parade or new consumer temples of the supermarkets, the infantile sentimentality of the communist state or soft porn as a prime cultural export of the West. For Alex and Ariane, this is both the shock of the old and the shock of the new. Christiane never does learn the truth of the political transformation though she does have one last meeting with her husband, in her hospital room, which suggests (no more than that) a moment of personal reconciliation.

Nearly 15 years have passed since those tumultuous days. The divisions between Ossies and Wessis are still palpable and there is even a kind of cultural backlash, a sad
Ostalgie for an ersatz East Germany or a more sinister resurgence of extreme right-wing parties with neo-Nazi ties. Becker is right. Beneath the delightful comic touches there lies a seriousness of purpose. For in the end, Good Bye, Lenin! is about the wasted lives of good people, the resentments that will take a long time to heal and the still unconsummated idea of the great German heimat.

Encounter at Friedrichstraße

On Wednesday evening we screened the wonderful Good Bye Lenin! as the latest in the international film series. In my introductory remarks I recalled a personal anecdote that seemed, somehow, to connect to the main themes of the film. In the mid-1980s I travelled by train to see a friend who was teaching in Wrocław, Poland, and to get a better understanding of the political upheaval initiated by Solidarnosc. Naturally, the train journey took me through the divided Berlin. At the notorious Friedrichstraße Station the East German border guards tapped wheels, searched under the train, clambered onboard and began their systematic passport check. Old Polish ladies muttered away at the peremptory rudeness of the German comrades as they rifled through belongings. Then it was my turn. After a few moments one of the guards decided the book I was reading was worth further inspection; he confiscated it and told me he had to consult a superior. Time passed. And without warning the train pulled out of the station and began its journey eastwards. I never did get the book back and, as a result, never finished reading it. The book? The second volume of Neil Harding's Lenin's Political Thought.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

In Memoriam: Auschwitz

There is much written, movingly, on the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. Here in tribute I reproduce a poem by Primo Levi, the outstanding voice of the survivors.

Primo Levi
You who live secure

In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.

Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.

Ignoble Prizes

I have had the chance of talking quite a bit with Erik Reinert who is one of our visiting professors. He's an engaging fellow. Erik is a pioneering economist who founded The Other Canon which, among other things, tries to reinvigorate the study of the economy as a real object and predicates its analysis on the obviously uneven development of capitalist economies. What this means is that economics should not be defined in terms of the adoption of mathematical assumptions and techniques. As other critical economists have long argued, mathematics is not a unique foundation of economic science. In fact it is not a foundation of economics-as-science at all.

My most recent conversation with Erik turned to the award of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Economics to one of his countrymen,
Finn Kydland (jointly awarded with Edward Prescott), for work on business cycles. Erik pulled a face and dismissed Kydland's work as being of the autistic variety and added a few personal anecdotes to embellish the arid character of the man's "personality". It prompted a little more digging by me about the nature of the Nobel Prize.

Perhaps because I'm not an economist I hadn't realised that there is a raging debate going on. First of all, there is no real Nobel Prize in Economics at all. Its correct name is
The Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Science in Memory of Alfred Nobel and was only established in 1969 to legitimise economics-as-science. A recent interview with Peter Nobel, a descendant of Alfred, chafes at the Economics Prize's pretensions:
... there is no mention in the letters of Alfred Nobel that he would appreciate a prize for economics. The Swedish Riksbank, like a cuckoo, has placed its egg in another very decent bird's nest. What the Bank did was akin to trademark infringement - unacceptably robbing the real Nobel Prizes.
Even more to the point Peter Nobel goes on to highlight the narrow-minded bigotry of most of the recent prizewinners in this field:
Two thirds of these prizes in economics have gone to US economists, particularly of the Chicago School - to people speculating in stock markets and options. These have nothing to do with Alfred Nobel's goal of improving the human condition and our survival - indeed they are the exact opposite.
Kydland would be a prime specimen of the type of economist that Peter Nobel has in mind. Other scientists are also beginning to voice their resentment of economists' misuse of mathematical modelling. Mathematicians have been especially scathing about Kydland and Prescott's abuse of
a mathematical model which purports to be a blueprint for whole economies (and therefore, societies). The implications of this work are two-fold: that market-driven reforms are the only policy options; and policy guidance is best left to autistic economists rather than to elected and accountable politicians. The statement of Sweden's Royal Academy of Science, which selected Kydland and Prescott, makes this clear:
Already, in their 1977 article, the Laureates has had a far-reaching impact on reforms carried out in many places (such as New Zealand, Sweden, Great Britain and the Euro area) aimed at legislated delegation of monetary policy decisions to independent central bankers.
What all this points to is the extent to which orthodox economics has conquered not only its own established field of enquiry but is also colonising the whole range of social sciences while dominating public policy. Behind the smokescreen of fancy mathematics lie regressive social and political ideologies and practices. Perhaps the time has come to abolish this ignoble prize.


Perhaps I've been attending too many for my own good. Overheard recently: "In some workshops, some people work and some people shop". (Hat tip: Ash)

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

One Month On: Memory And Catastrophe

The earthquake-tsunami catastrophe struck exactly one month ago. I spent some quiet moments earlier today thinking about that day - when the building I live in started swaying menancingly and we were evacuated, and then the gradual realisation that something really terrible was unfolding. Those quiet moments were an interlude in drawing together memory and catastrophe.

Perhaps we will never be able to exhaust finally the meaning of the catastrophe but somehow we strive to understand what happened and we need some mode of accounting. There are many things that could be said - and have been said - about those events and their aftermath. The sheer scale of death and destruction simply beggars belief: over 300,000 likely to be dead and the absolute carnage in Aceh. The lingering fear of disease and psychological damage. The incredible generosity of people around the world in solidarity with the suffering. The mixed reports about the relief efforts that, in some places, have averted a "second wave of death" while elsewhere have been mired in incompetence and petty corruption. The belated recognition by regional leaders of the need for an effective
tsunami early warning system. The unprincipled and contradictory opportunism of some commentators to harness the catastrophe to their own political hobbyhorses. The political implications of the crisis especially for conflict-ridden societies like Indonesia and Sri Lanka. The deep philosophical, indeed sometimes theological, coming to terms with death on this scale. And, slowly, the return ... the return of the fisherfolk to the sea, the return of the children to school, the return of life.

This terrible catastrophe must never be normalised and forgotten, as so much of the daily living catastrophe of people's lives seems to be (especially in our region). Memory and catastrophe, together, issue a particular challenge to all of us. This is not about a vapid over-extension of the idea of "collective trauma" in which everyone, far or near, is seen to have suffered and survived together. This is too promiscous and ultimately meaningless. The suffering of some people has been real and material. There is a differentiated world of hurt and harm. And it is best we recognise that truth and act from it.

We are not yet in the afterlife of the catastrophe ... it's too soon and who knows how long the material and psychological wounds will take to heal. But one thing is safe to predict. The way we remember these grim and tragic events will have a major impact on the issue of living in an unjust world where death and destruction are endemic. Remembrance is important - we need ways of remembering - but it is not enough in itself. More than this, the ways we construct a new solidarity in the
actions of humankind - glimpsed occasionally in people's responses to the recent suffering - will weld together the possibility (if no more than that) of a world of greater justice and equality.


Today is the birthday of a friend, Azanin. For those who might not know her please allow me a word or two. Azanin is Malaysia's leading classical dancer and choreographer, and an innovative pioneer of new forms of dance drama that build on centuries-old traditions. As her superb website puts it:"Rhythm, music, song, dance, legends and history are her life-blood". Actually, the designation "Malaysian" doesn't really do her justice. Last weekend I had the very great pleasure of shooting the breeze with her for a few hours and in the process learned a great deal about the cultural fluidity of Southeast Asia and beyond. This is how Azanin puts it:
My world is dance which is carried by the Trade Winds and rides the crests of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. The islands of Southeast Asia are the world of the Malay-Polynesian peoples. I am one of them and Dance is the centre of my universe.
The seas of our region brought destruction and death recently but it is good to be reminded that they have also brought creation and vitality, and will do so again.

Over the last 25 years Azanin has danced all over the world. She has been a regular at the various incarnations of WOMAD, in Gran Canarias, in Reading and in Johannesburg. But if you want to catch her performances now you'll have to come to Malaysia. Most of our conversation focused on the realisation of her dream to open a new cultural centre that will be a focal point for the performing arts. And that dream is slowly becoming true as the foundations for beautiful wooden structures are laid in the thick forests of Selangor. In a few months time the centre will be ready. And then Azanin will dance again. Happy birthday, friend.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Migrant Workers In Malaysia

Britain is not the only country where the politics of immigration control is raising its ugly head. On Friday, the government here in Malaysia ordered thousands of migrant workers to leave the country by the end of the month. Last year the government offered an amnesty that allowed undocumented migrants to present themselves for deportation. The time period was extended twice but runs out next week.

Most of these workers come from neighbouring Indonesia (and a large proportion from disaster-struck Aceh) while there are also significant numbers from the Philippines, Thailand and elsewhere in the region. The immigration discourse in Malaysia is very little different from how it's played out in the rest of the world. Migrants - legal or otherwise - are welcomed at times of economic boom when they perform the dirty, degrading and dangerous jobs that Malaysians don't want to do. They are often treated appallingly by unscrupulous employers - including female domestic workers - with very little protective legislation in place. And then they become easy scapegoats for social ills. In the present context, migrants are being blamed for rising crime levels. Even refugees
from the conflict in Aceh or victims of human trafficking have been harrassed by the authorities. Sounds familiar doesn't it.

The particular nastiness in Malaysia has to do with the inhuman threats that are being made. As the BBC reports it, illegal migrants are facing
"fines, whipping and jail sentences" if they do not leave. The government is also saying it will "the mobilise up to 500,000 armed reservists and community volunteers to detain them". It is a license for vigilantism. And previous experiences of mass expulsions had some tragic consequences. According to LaShawn R. Jefferson, executive director of the Women’s Rights division of Human Rights Watch:
When Malaysia conducted mass deportations two years ago, dozens of migrant workers died of dehydration and disease while stranded in transit areas for months .... These deportations will only drive refugees and trafficking victims deeper underground and put them at greater risk of exploitation.
Much of this is bad enough. Human rights groups like Suaram and migrant support organisations try to generate a rational debate and humane policy on migration. But the government isn't listening. It has not even promised to wait for the post-disaster situation in Aceh to get back to some semblance of normality before deporting workers from there.

But the plight of migrant workers also speaks of the unacknowledged contribution that these new helots have made to the economic "miracle" in Malaysia that so many development economists admire. Much of this miracle has been manufactured on the back on these workers. Now the government, peddling an unscrupulous populism, wants to see the back of these workers - at least until the next construction boom comes along or more of the middle class need domestic help. It is one of the great injustices of our age.

A Breakthrough In Aceh?

One of the unintended consequences of the earthquake-tsunami catastrophe has been the changing political dynamic in Aceh. Before the earthquake struck, Aceh was mired in bloody fighting between Indonesian government troops and fighters of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). The government's intensive counterinsurgency operations, launched in May 2003, had pushed GAM into the hills and had claimed more than 3,000 lives, including both fighters and civilians. The new Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, promised a non-military solution to the longstanding Acehnese claims for autonomy or secession. But nothing new was on the table except for another extension of the state of emergency.

Since the earthquake-tsunami the tensions between the government and GAM have been well-documented, with claims and counter-claims adding to the deep reservoir of resentment against Jakarta's heavy hand. Prospects for drawing the two sides together because of the relief effort and media attention have not looked very hopeful. As Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group says here:
It will not lead to negotiations with the rebels, because the military is dead set against the idea, convinced that talking is a sign of weakness, that it gives GAM legitimacy that it does not deserves, and that it will undo all its efforts to crush the insurgency by force.
But it does seem that a breakthrough may be in the offing. A press release yesterday from the Crisis Management Initiative (headed by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari) says that talks between Indonesian officials and representatives of GAM will start in Helsinki later in the week. The BBC is reporting that the Indonesian military leader, General Endriatono Sutarto, has said his troops have stopped attacking rebels to give the dialogue a chance. Perhaps a great good can come out of the terrible suffering that the people of Aceh have endured.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Sticky Feet

Geckos are an everyday part of life. They come in all sizes, scurrying across walls and ceilings. And now I know how they do it thanks to a cutting-edge scientific experiment: "Sticky gecko feet have a built-in self-cleaning mechanism to stop them getting clogged up with dirt .... The process enables geckos to maintain their ultra-adhesive feet so they can cling to walls and hang from ceilings by a single toe". That's pretty cool.

News From BIFF

In the end, I never did make it to the Bangkok International Film Festival - too much work. This year's event was scaled down because of the earthquake-tsunami catastrophe. Special screenings were held to honour the victims and much-needed cash was raised during Festival events.

The Festival prizewinners have just been announced. The best film in the international competition was won by the Spanish movie, The Sea Inside, directed by
Alejandro Amenábar. It also won the best foreign film at the recent Golden Globes. The winner of the best ASEAN film was James Lee's The Beautiful Washing Machine from Malaysia. I feel a bit ambiguous about this. James is a real force of nature in the small Malaysian independent film scene, tirelessly promoting not only his own work but that of other local filmmakers. I watched Washing Machine a couple of months ago and didn't think it was that strong. The storyline is simply not interesting enough to carry the film's slightly surreal style. Neverthless the award is bound to be a major boost to the beleagured local film scene which is swamped by the latest Hollywood, Bollywood and Hong Kong blockbusters. Congratulations, James!

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Olivier Pin-Fat: Photographs

The Irrawaddy - an independent newspaper reporting mainly on Burma - carries a photo essay by the award-winning photographer Olivier Pin-Fat. It documents the daily struggles of the rebel Shan State Army-South located on the Burma-Thailand border. Unfortunately there's no electronic link. But you can find extracts from his portfolio of work for the photo agency Vu here and here. Powerful images.

Where Monsoons Meet No. 4

Being a miscellany of recent stories from Southeast Asia.
  • Indonesia-Aceh. Of course the major stories from Aceh still concern the aftermath of the earthquake-tsunami. Earlier in the week the death toll was revised dramatically upwards to 160,000 with over half a million homeless. Indonesia's new president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, spoke yesterday on the festival of Eid al-Adha - the day of sacrifice - in Banda Aceh. His message: "I ask our brothers and sisters here to look ahead, to rebuild Aceh for a better future". But the Indonesian military doesn't seem to be listening too carefully. General Ryamizard Ryacudu, the hardline army chief of staff, says that his troops have killed 120 separatist rebels of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in the last two weeks. He claims that they were stealing aid. Both the GAM and foreign aid workers are denying this charge. An Amnesty International report published on Wednesday - worrying about the turn of events - emphasises that "[h]uman rights must be at the centre of relief and reconstruction efforts at all phases of disaster-response". Meanwhile the current issue of Inside Indonesia has a special section on the Aceh national liberation movement and a comparison with East Timor.
  • Thailand. This week the Thai prisons director announced that the notorious Bangkwang prison - the so-called "Bangkok Hilton" - was planning to broadcast inmates' daily lives, as well as their final moments before execution, live on the internet. Predictably, the reason given for this barbarism was to deter drug trafficking. Almost 1,000 Bangkwang prisoners are on death-row. Thankfully, the prison authorities have now withdrawn the plan after an international outcry led by Amnesty. So what can snuff movie aficionados link to in place of real time executions? "... we will now carry a live broadcast of the opening ceremony of an exhibition on prison products made by inmates at Klong Prem Prison".
  • Philippines. Supporters of Walden Bello and others who were recently condemned as counter-revolutionaries by the Communist Party of the Philippines have responded to the threats here. The statement from Focus On The Global South, where Walden is executive director, emphasises the nature of retribution politics that lies at the core of the Party's values: "You’re beyond the pale. You’re a 'class enemy' to be eliminated, the o­nly questions remaining being when and where the party will carry out the execution". In the skewed, but deadly, worldview of the Party initiatives such as the World Social Forum (with which Walden is closely associated) are condemned as an "imperialist plot" to derail people from "world revolution". The effects of such dogma on the Philippine social movements and democratic Left are disastrous. Once again I point you to Bonn's incisive analysis over at A Good Game.

Friday, January 21, 2005

"Race" And South African Cricket

Weather permitting, the final test match between South Africa and England gets under way at Centurion today. As I've said before, I have no great love for either team but it's been a compelling series - the two sides are quite closely matched and fortunes have swayed to and fro. The last game could go either way.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the little-known Malay cricketing diaspora and its South African connections. Of course the marginalisation of Malay (and all non-white) cricket was predicated on the racist policies of the South African state. All this is well known. It's the reason why so many South African friends supported other teams during the apartheid years - most black South Africans simply loved the swagger and style of the rampant WIndies team of the 1970s and 1980s.

I've now come across a fascinating new book that not only fills in some important gaps in cricket history but reflects intelligently on the politics of "race" and sport in South Africa today. The book is Andre Odendaal's The Story of an African Game: Black Cricketers and the Unmasking of One of Cricket’s Greatest Myths, South Africa, 1850–2003. Odendaal has already written well-received studies on the origins of black protest and the place of rugby in South African society. The new book discloses a simple yet compelling point: non-racial cricket has been around for more than 150 years and Africans have always played the game beyond the white boundaries.

Odendaal's narrative is a living thing. It combines a sure grasp of the history of colonial and apartheid violence with individual and family testimonies. He convincingly shows us how the struggle over cricket's racial boundaries was a part, albeit a small one, of the wider struggle against injustice. New cricketing heroes emerge from this story - players like Wilson Ximiya and Eric Majola. Odendaal has a lovely account of Gerald Majola (Eric's son and today the head of the United Cricket Board of South Africa) watching a one-day international in Barbados in 2001 and seated next to the legends of the WIndies game - Gary Sobers, Clyde Walcott, Everton Weekes, Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Lance Gibbs and Desmond Haynes. Majola remembers his emotions thus:
I recalled the image of two cricket-playing fathers watching their children play street games in New Brighton 40 years ago. Could Wilson, who named his first born Walcott Weekes and another one Sobers, and Eric have dreamed in those deep Apartheid days that one of their own boys would go to the West Indies one day as the head of South African cricket?
Despite Gerald Majola's leadership of the UCBSA and its Transformation Charter, designed to ensure "equal representivity" for black players at all levels of cricket there is still a good deal of official and unofficial prejudice in the South African game. The sport - at least at national and provincial levels - remains largely white. Suddenly former supporters of "separate" sporting development - unapologetic racists - splutter about the need to select only on the basis of merit and talent. Let the cricket development programme in the townships work away at the grassroots for a while (another decade perhaps) and then we'll have another look - this seems to be their meretricious argument.

Odendaal is having nothing to do with this. Beyond its historical scholarship, the inestimable value of the book is to make the point that the Transformation Charter's aim is not to take cricket into the black communities. Rather, it is to enable South Africa's majority peoples to officially represent their nation, provinces and clubs in a game through which they have expressed themselves
for a century and-a-half.

Her Own Skin

By coincidence, at Beyond The Sunrise Maita has a lovely meditation on how "poets, artists, musicians all try to dance around and beyond form". She prefaces it with a quote from John Berger's essay on Frida Kahlo from his collection The Shape Of A Pocket. Berger reflects on Frida's method as one that brings pain to the surface. She liked to paint on metal, for its skin-like smoothness. And in the passage Maita refers to he shows how Frida's art literally emerged from the excruiciating experience of pain:
In a comparable way, when she painted her pictures, it was as ifshe was drawing, painting or writing words on her own skin. If this were to happen there would be a double sensitivity, because the surface would also feel what the hand was tracing - the nerves of both leading to the same cerebral cortex... With her small brushes, fine as eyelashes, and with her meticulous strokes, every image she made, as soon as she fully became the painter Frida Kahlo, aspired to the sensibility of her own skin. A sensibility sharpened by her desire and exacerbated by her pain.
Read the rest.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

John Berger On Race & Class

Following on from the post below celebrating the thirtieth birthday of Race & Class, the current issue carries a "little text" by John Berger, one of the journal's finest contributors and a member of its editorial working committee. He calls the piece "A mouth speaks out alone"; it's a birthday offering. Here's an extract:
Yes it's my mouth. Alone on the white page. Outside it's snowing. My two lips and, in the night between, a tongue. You can see it? You lip-read? You are so young. But you do lip-read.

The snow is falling everywhere. On lies and on what is true. The flakes make no distinction, they land gently on both. Did you notice I said 'on what is true', not 'on the truth'. The single truth is also a lie. This is something I have learnt since it began to snow.

The blizzards were forecast, but, like any winter, they took us by surprise. The President of the Republic addressed the nation. Don't ask me which nation, for, if I tell you, the paper on which I am drawn may be torn up. Here I only have the status of an emigrant. Perhaps you can see that by my lower lip. You can see a little home-sickness? The President told the people they were living through a period of transition and that in his heart he was with every one of them. A transition towards what? one might ask. Perhaps a period of eternal snow? He didn't say. He himself was lost in a drift. He smiled and went on and on; the one thing which became clearer and clearer was that he was lying. At the end he was even able to turn words which mean nothing at all - words like development and modernisation - at the end, he was even able to transform these into lies. He was on the telly, immediately following the latest reports about the snow.

Whilst he was speaking, I watched his mouth. I don't claim to be an expert but a mouth is all I am, albeit a foreign mouth, so I watched with a certain interest. His is like a bladder-wrack blister. I refer to his mouth. This is the effect of thirty years of using words, speaking them, to distract attention from what is happening behind his listeners' backs. Most stooges, decoys and stool pigeons get bladder-wrack. It comes from the indifference of the lips to what they're pronouncing. Also called Pop-weed, belonging to the kelp family, in the class of Phaephyceae! Did you see the tongue touching the back of the top teeth to make the c? Examine mouths carefully. Bladder-wrack comes from a contempt for words.

For example, the President of the Republic argued that if we all consumed more, there would be fewer unemployed. When I heard this I thought of my old friend, the Arse, and I made one of his noises. The snow flakes now are as large as goose feathers. You can't see across the road. In Europe there are 30 million unemployed. I, too, taste their bitterness. Each of them speaks and not one is heard. They speak to their fear in the night. To each I'd like to whisper in the dark: may I kiss you? And then do it.

30 Years Of Race & Class

The London-based, radical journal Race & Class recently celebrated its thirtieth birthday. That is an achievement in itself. I can't think of any other publication that more influenced my thinking and political activism over a sustained period. The journal was born at a time when the mealy-mouthed pieties of race relations liberals had little of substance to say about the spell cast by Enoch Powell's rancid agenda over British politics. Since then its pages have been an important place for rigorous scholarly activism, as it has withstood the superficial attractions of intellectual fashion and fads like postmodernism, sectarian polemics and culturalism.

The current issue offers some reflections on the unfolding political agenda of Race & Class by its founding editor, A. Sivanandan, one of the great insurgents of our age. As always, Siva is worth quoting at some length. He opens thus:
We live in such a vortex of change that it is impossible to predict the next thirty days, never mind the next thirty years. But that is precisely why we must try to catch history on the wing if we are to influence its direction. To do that, we need the courage to abandon old orthodoxies which bear us down, the honesty to turn our faces against intellectual fads and fetishes which turn us away from engagement, and the commitment to fight injustice wherever we find it – for that is what brings us all together here today in fellowship, not ideology but a common visceral hatred of injustice. We need, too, the type of political analysis that Owen and Godwin, Saint-Simon and Fourier, Marx and Engels did for their time in the maelstrom of the industrial revolution – an analysis immanent in which were the strategies that would inform the working-class struggles against capital – and out of that conflict elicit, if not socialism, at least the democratic rights and freedoms that have come down to us.
Siva goes on to outline some of the ways in which those democratic rights and freedoms have been lost, how they have been "disaggregated" and "dispersed", and what may be done about their reclamation. In particular, he attacks the kind of ungrounded multiculturalism and ethnicism that was always the bête noire of Race & Class. Once again he makes the case for understanding and confronting racism as it stands in relation to the circuits of imperialism and capitalism. Looking ahead, Siva prompts the readers and contributors to Race & Class to fulfil its original pledge: "the function of knowledge is to liberate". Happy birthday!

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Behind The Sun

Last week we screened Walter Salles's Behind The Sun. The film transposes a novel about a vendetta by the Albanian writer Ismail Kadaré to the badlands of northeast Brazil in 1910. It is a forceful and compelling film. The story examines the harsh world of family honour and retribution through a generations-old blood feud between two families. The origins of the dispute lie in very material circumstances, the struggle for land between a rich and a poor family. And the brute weight of economic compulsion in the sugar industry provides the backcloth to the struggle for survival of the poor Breves family. Their arid piece of earth is somewhere that lies "behind the sun".

The opening scenes offer a beautifully-shot tableau of the work cycles of their old sugarcane mill - work that was done by slaves only a generation before. Here the bitter effort to produce the sweet stuff is laid before us:
sweating bodies, creaking mills turned by numbed oxen, the toll of hard physical labour etched onto silent faces, the avarice of the merchant who controls the market - work driven by unremitting brutality and with little hope of breaking free. It is the embodiment of what Sidney Mintz once called the tyranny of "sweetness and power".

The origins of the feud are almost forgotten. But Salles still manages to make the connections between land and honour. For the cycles of work are mirrored in the lethal cycles of violence and vengeance that have taken on their own infernal logic. The time for killing is marked by the waxing and waning of the moon and the changing colour of blood. The nightmares of previous generations lie like a weight on the hearts of the living.

When the eldest of the Breves's sons in killed by one of the Ferreira clan, the father sends the next in line, Tonho, to avenge the death. Tonho fulfils his destiny and then tries to break it. These actions are the moral centre of the film and here Salles (and his cinematographer
Walter Carvalho) offer us two amazing cinematic sequences. The first is a brilliantly-directed chase sequence as Tonho and his prey literally run for their lives through stands of brush and cane and trees. Tonho then attends his victim's funeral and Salles gives us a second wonderful sequence. The prayers and incantations of the dead man's family - the sound of swarming insects attracted to the flickering candles - are juxtaposed to Tonho's unsuccessful plea to arrange a truce with the mourning blind patriarch, to end the ritual of murder and retribution. "An eye for an eye, until everybody ends up blind", he observes, but to no avail. It will be Tonho's turn next to face inevitable death.

Tonho's story is told through the eyes of his younger brother, Pacu. He is haunted by dreams of his brother's death but he also possesses the imagination to dream of the possibilities of freedom from the cycle of violence. It is Pacu who first encounters the two circus performers that pass through town and he watches Tonho fall for the beautiful acrobat. And it is through Pacu's redemptive death - an act of unconditional brotherly love - that Tonho finally discovers the possibility of joy and fulfilment beyond his world. This is a beautiful and sometimes harrowing film. Salles is a master storyteller and he unravels the unforgiving tension between amoral familism and personal responsibility. See the film some time.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Kobe and Murakami

Today is the tenth anniversary of another earthquake - the one that struck the Japanese city of Kobe in 1995 - and is widely reported in the Japanese press here, here and here. Though obviously not on the scale of the recent catastrophe the casualities in Kobe were bad enough: more than 6,000 people were killed and 300,000 made homeless by the quake. As the BBC reports some survivors "said the horrific scenes following last month's tsunami in the Indian Ocean had brought back painful memories of their own loss and trauma". The psychological scars from the recent catastrophe will take a long, long time to heal.

One of the most moving testimonials to the shock of the Kobe earthquake is the collection of six short stories written by Haruki Murakami, one of the truly great novelists of our age. Murakami's parents' house was destroyed in the earthquake but he wasn't in the city at the time. Each of the protagonists of the stories in After The Quake is someone who was absent but whose life has been deeply disturbed by the event. Murakami is not so much interested in what causes earthquakes but with the emotional effects they have on people - the metaphorical rather than the literal underground connections.

My favourite story is the last in the collection - "Honey Pie". In less than thirty pages it tells the tale of a short-story writer who has spent years as the weakest link in a love triangle and now finds himself in the position to claim the woman (and child) he loves. The story concludes with this lovely paragraph:
I want to write stories that are different from the ones I've written so far [the writer thinks]. I want to write about people who dream and wait for the night to end, who long for the light so they can hold the ones they love. But right now I have to stay here and keep watch over this woman and this girl. I will never let anyone - not anyone - try to put them into that crazy box - not even if the sky should fall or the earth crack open with a roar.
Once I used to read that story to a friend. I hope she remembers sometimes.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Songs, Songs, Songs ...

The choice is made. Here is my final list of ten favourite songs for Norm's poll. It was really hard, I can tell you - but I can live with this lot. In roughly chronological order and with brief notes by me:
'God Bless The Child' - Billie Holiday
- As much for the immortal Billie as the song itself, and the fact that it was my "signature" tune at our jazz club in Silungan, Manila

'Mack The Knife' - Ella Fitzgerald
- Is it a "pop" song at all? Probably not - but it's witty and ironic and I love Ella's live recording (Berlin) as well as Sonny Rollins's instrumental version

'A Change Is Gonna Come' - Sam Cooke
- Sam Cooke's own response to the death of his son and the racial schisms and political ferment of America in the early 1960s

'Four Women' - Nina Simone
- Wonderful modulations between her four characters and sung in that inimitable voice

'Respect' - Aretha Franklin
- There could have been any number from the "Queen of Soul" but this lays the foundations of what would come later

'(Sittin On) The Dock Of The Bay' - Otis Redding
- It's been called a "post-industrial blues" - the quintessential song of the generational shift from the Deep South to the North

'The Partisan' - Leonard Cohen
- A powerful song about people laying down their lives in the cause of the anti-Nazi resistance: "An old woman gave us shelter,/kept us hidden in the garret,/then the soldiers came;/she died without a whisper"

'The Boxer' - Simon & Garfunkel
- They performed some great songs but this still has the power to move - strong lyrics and great harmonies

'What's Going On' - Marvin Gaye
- Of course it might have been "I heard it through the grapevine" - but the deeply political lyrics and jazz inflections did it for me

'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' - Gil Scott-Heron
- Beat poet and jazz funkster originally with "The Last Poets": "They was nappin’ when we was rappin'" - original, witty and serious
Norm says that this one - the seventh - is comfortably the biggest poll to date. Somehow I'm not expecting many of my choices to make the final top ten. Ah, well.

Pynchon's Vineland

"The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer" - Henry Kissinger
I have not long finished reading Thomas Pynchon's Vineland - usually not considered to be one of his "big" novels. It is sprawling, and sometimes chaotic, fragmented and anarchic. But it seems to me to be an always compelling account of America's anxieties during the Reagan imperium of the 1980s and thus has something important to say to us today. While the novel ranges over a broad sweep of American history and touches on a number of Pynchon's familiar themes (the failure of 60s radicalism, the pervasiveness of television ("tube") culture, the fear of American "decline" and much more), it is fundamentally about a critical political moment whose consequences are now deeply embedded in much of what passes for liberal political culture.

The novel's leitmotif is the aggrandisement of executive power. This shift is embodied in the character of Brock Vond, a right-wing pathological egotist from the Department of Justice, charged with investigating the "subversive" actvities of the "Peoples' Republic of Rock 'n' Roll". Vond represents the sinister,
secret and potentially arbitrary exercise of power by the executive over its citizens. Pitted against Vond's malevolence is the ambiguous character of Frenesi Gates, a radical filmmaker who falls for Vond, betrays her friends and her ideals by turning informer, and is forced to go on the run to escape retribution. Pynchon is interested in exploring this double movement: the steady encroachment of emergency powers without accountability by the US government especially at times of declared and undeclared wars (both Vietnam and Nicaragua are pervasive references here); and the political apathy and cooptation of that 1960s generation whose "sloth" permitted America to slouch to tyranny.

As in all his writing, Pynchon has his finger on the pulse of the historical struggle between reactionary and progressive forces that have marked modern American society. This political moment of the mid-1980s is only the latest reversal in a series of conflicts reaching back to the clashes between US government forces and the
Industrial Workers of the World (the "Wobblies") in the 1930s, or hostilities between McCarthyites and left-wing liberals in the 1940s and 1950s. Elsewhere Pynchon has said this about the consequences of the dangers of political somnambulism:
In this century we have come to think of Sloth as primarily political, a failure of public will allowing the introduction of evil policies and the rise of evil regimes, the worldwide fascist ascendancy of the 1920's and 30's being perhaps Sloth's finest hour, though the Vietnam era and the Reagan-Bush years are not far behind.
In Pynchon's view, though, there is nothing inevitable about this demise of the American radical tradition. For radicalism's compromises and defeats, Vineland is also a celebration of an alternative America, in which no government, however reactionary or tyrannical, has ever managed to suppress for long.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

"I Was, I Am, I Shall Be!"

A number of blogs mark the memory of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht who were murdered exactly 86 years ago. Socialism In An Age Of Waiting reproduces the last article Rosa Luxemburg ever wrote which includes this on the setbacks confronting the German revolution in 1919:
The masses are the crucial factor. They are the rock on which the ultimate victory of the revolution will be built.
And in a different tone, Norm quotes these lines
she wrote from prison less than two years earlier:
I feel so much more at home even in a scrap of garden like the one here, and still more in the meadows when the grass is humming with bees than - at one of our party congresses. I can say that to you, for you will not promptly suspect me of treason to socialism! You know that I really hope to die at my post, in a street fight or in prison.

Hobsbawm On History

Today's Guardian carries an essay by Eric Hobsbawm, the grand old man of British Marxist historiography. He's on good form. He rightly highlights Marxism's double contribution to asking the "big why questions": challenging positivism's narrow preoccupation with "scientism" (i.e., the inappropriate transfer of methods from the natural to the social sciences); and drawing history into a fruitful dialogue with the social sciences. But Hobsbawm reserves his most critical comments for those who have retreated into a dangerous, if nebulous, analysis of the world where all is contingent, fragmented and relative. In the face of fatuous postmodern fads he reasserts that
the need to insist on what Marxism can bring to historiography is greater than for a long time. History needs to be defended against those who deny its capacity to help us understand the world, and because new developments in the sciences have transformed the historiographical agenda.
With regard to the postmodern obsession with language games Hobsbawm sets himself against those who
den[y] that there is any reality that is objectively there and not constructed by the observer for different and changing purposes.
And he has this to say about the willful wrongheadedness of the moral relativists:
The major immediate political danger to historiography today is "anti-universalism" or "my truth is as valid as yours, whatever the evidence". This appeals to various forms of identity group history, for which the central issue of history is not what happened, but how it concerns the members of a particular group. What is important to this kind of history is not rational explanation but "meaning", not what happened but what members of a collective group defining itself against outsiders - religious, ethnic, national, by gender, or lifestyle - feel about it.
In the final analysis, Hobsbawm makes a clarion call for a return to the ambition of "total history" - "
not a 'history of everything', but history as an indivisible web in which all human activities are interconnected". Many will scoff and consider this as an unrealisable conceit. But as another great defender of Marxist historiography, Ellen Meiksins Wood, has reminded us, in a world determined by the totalising logic of capital accumulation and market imperatives progressive forces do need an analytical sense of the interconnectedness of life more than ever. Read the rest.

Deadly Media Harrassment

Following up on the post below on the media crackdown in Vietnam, Reporters Without Borders provides an indication of the sometimes deadly business of having a free press. 2004 was a bad year. Its press freedom barometer reports the following appalling figures:
  • 53 journalists killed
  • 15 media assistants killed
  • 104 journalists imprisoned
  • 3 media assistants imprisoned
  • 71 cyberdissidents imprisoned
In the Philippines - whose press is often praised for being the most "open" in Southeast Asia - six journalists were killed last year.

Reporters Without Borders also offers its annual worldwide press freedom index. Like all such attempts to quantify notions of political freedom I am sure that RWB's methodology can be critcised though it does offer an account of it here. But I think it gives a fairly accurate reflection of the situation facing critical media workers. As the accompanying report notes East Asia comes out it very badly indeed. Altogether some 167 countries are ranked (1 = best press freedom). Here are the figures for Southeast Asia:
  • 57 - East Timor
  • 59 - Thailand
  • 109 - Cambodia
  • 111 - The Philippines
  • 117 - Indonesia
  • 122 - Malaysia
  • 147 - Singapore
  • 153 - Laos
  • 161 - Vietnam
  • 165 - Burma
Unsurprisngly, there are no figures for Brunei.

Incidentally, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia and Switzerland came equal first. The US managed equal 22nd; while Britain was equal 28th (alongside El Salvador and Hungary). The ignominious last place was taken by China.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Where Monsoons Meet No. 3

Being a miscellany of recent stories from Southeast Asia.
  • Cambodia. There is a very heartening story here. It tells of the Peace Art Project Cambodia that was launched in July 2003 by small arms specialist Neil Wilford and artist Sasha Constable. PAPC has secured thousands of weapons from across Cambodia, along with destroyed ammunition, tripods, large calibre weapons and mine/ordnance casings as the raw materials for students to create works of art. The project has developed an interesting range of engineering, artisanal and artistic skills among its participants, melding traditional Khmer expression with stark modernity. As the website notes of the work produced by the students: "The message of peace is unmistakable. Many of the pieces portray the anguish of living in a country steeped in violence to both body and soul while simultaneously expressing hope for a non-violent society". (Hat tip: Belyn)
  • Thailand. The outpouring of assistance for the survivors of the earthquake-tsunami seems to have bypassed one small group of survivors. There are disturbing reports here and here of the treatment of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand. There are all the familiar signs of an anti-foreigner witchhunt. The Thai government has chosen this moment to crack down on illegal migrants; there's been a local media campaign spreading unfounded rumours about Burmese looters; and migrant workers have simply been deprived of aid. Thousands of Burmese are now hiding in the hills above the coastal resorts where many used to work in the tourism and fishing industries. Meanwhile, the hard sell is already on to lure back the foreign tourists to the luxury hotels.
  • Vietnam. Since its embrace of the market economy nearly twenty years ago the government of Vietnam has followed the cold logic of authoritarian liberalism. The unravelling of planned socio-economic policies is now almost complete as the authorities have rushed into a market economy red in tooth and claw. At the same time, the government is cracking down of any form of political dissent. Reporters Without Frontiers here and the BBC here carry stories on a well-known journalist, Nguyen Thi Lan Anh, who wrote a series of articles on Zuellig Pharma last year. At the time she was praised for brilliant investigative reporting. As the BBC report notes: "Zuellig Pharma, via its Singapore office, had been monopolising the Vietnamese pharmaceutical market for almost three years and had bumped up the prices of some popular medicines to 'unacceptable levels'". But now Lan Anh is facing legal action from the government for "appropriating state secrets" - exposing the complicity of government officials more like it. There are other examples of the renewed intolerance of critical thinking: the government has shut down the country's most popular news and entertainment website,, as well as sacked the editor-in-chief of the leading online newspaper, Vnexpress. Their crime? To report on the extravagance of the recent ASEM summit that Hanoi hosted. Along with Burma and Laos, Vietnam's media are described by Reporters Without Frontiers as facing a "very serious situation".

Thursday, January 13, 2005


Here's my longlist of 20 favourite song for Norm's poll, not ranked but in chronological order. I've followed the rule originally established by Drew, who was Norm's inspiration for this exercise in the first place: one song per singer (group etc). I'll select my top 10 at the last moment before polling closes. Two observations: it's a bloody difficult choice; how come my musical taste almost ground to a halt two decades ago?

'God Bless The Child' - Billie Holiday
'Rollin' Stone' - Muddy Waters
'Mack The Knife' - Ella Firtzgerald
'What'd I Say' - Ray Charles
'Stand By Me' - Ben E. King
'A Change Is Gonna Come' - Sam Cooke

'Four Women' - Nina Simone
'In The Midnight Hour' - Wilson Pickett
'The Tracks Od My Tears' - Smokey Robisnon
'Respect' - Aretha Franklin
'(Sittin on) The Dock Of The Bay' - Otis Redding

'All Along The Watchtower' - Jimi Hendrix

'The Partisan' - Leonard Cohen
'The Boxer' - Simon & Garfunkel
'Let's Stay Together' - Al Green
'What's Going On' - Marvin Gaye
'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' - Gil Scott-Heron
'Redemption Song' - Bob Marley
'Unfinished Sympathy' - Massive Attack
'Time After Time' - Cassandra Wilson

Wednesday, January 12, 2005


In my review of last year I said that my favourite exhibition of 2004 was "Picasso: War And Peace" at the Museu Picasso in Barcelona. Gijs van Hensbergen has now published his Guernica: The Biography of a 20th Century Icon which is reviewed here. Van Hensbergen notes that Guernica's viewers have been "dumbstruck and mesmerised by the power and scale of the image as they stare wide-eyed at the painful drama acted out before them". I certainly was. The painting still speaks to us lucidly today.