Sunday, February 27, 2005

Human Rights And Indifference

The delayed mass expulsion of undocumented migrant workers from Malaysia is due to begin next week. This time there seems little hope of an amnesty or a further extension. Both the Indonesian and Philippine governments are
urging the Malaysian authorities to ensure there are no human rights abuses when the massive operation starts. Their fears are well-founded. If official statements are to be believed then a hard line approach seems likely. The Immigration director, Ishak Mohamed, is reported as saying that no one would be spared and the authorities will even resort to raiding the homes of those involved. There is almost no debate in the mainstream media. The potential abuses are all too obvious – and hardly anyone seems to give a damn. Sometimes this is a very ugly society. It's the kind of campaign that Peter Benenson would have relished.

Peter Benenson, 1921-2005

The founder of Amnesty International, Peter Benenson, has died. There are two appreciations by Antony Barnett in today's Observer, the paper where Benenson first articulated the need for a human rights organisation:

Open your newspaper any day of the week and you will find a report from somewhere in the world of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government. The newspaper reader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if these feelings of disgust all over the world could be united into common action, something effective could be done.
Benenson was a principled and doughty fighter for justice. He had this to say about the symbolism of the candle which became Amnesty's signature:

I have lit this candle, in the words of Shakespeare, 'against oblivion' – so that the forgotten prisoners should always be remembered. We work in Amnesty against oblivion.
And this:

When I first lit the Amnesty candle, I had in mind the old Chinese proverb: 'Better light a candle than curse the darkness'.

Favourite Composers

It's about time to make the hard choices for Norm's latest poll
– "top classical composers of all time". I've already offered a long list of eleven here so now I have to get serious. In coming to a final decision I've been guided by my experiences and joys both of listening and playing (piano and violin in a previous life). Somehow there's no place for Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Debussy, Bartók and Stravinsky. So here goes, in ranking order and with some brief notes:
  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). The towering genius of classical music – an extraordinary visionary living through a revolutionary age that is reflected in the music. Must listen: Late String Quartets, Piano Sonata Op. 106 (Hammerklavier), Symphony No. 7.
  • Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). He bridged nineteenth-century romanticism and the new classicism with their austere and dark textures. The seven symphonies are simply astounding. Must listen: Symphonies No. 5 and No. 6.
  • Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). His output embraced almost every musical genre of his time and opened up new dimensions of technical and artistic complexity. Must listen: Goldberg Variations and Sonatas and Partitas for Violin.
  • Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). He tried to reconcile the musical revolutions of his time and give voice to revolutionary socialism. Must listen: Symphony no. 13 (Babi Yar) and String Quartets.
  • Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). He made the breakthrough in harmonic form and wrote in a multiplicity of styles from secular madrigals to opera. Must listen: Vespers of 1610 and Orfeo.

Observing The Blogosphere

Today The Observer
officially launches its own blog – the not very catchily titled The Observer Blog. Some posts have already been up for a while and the site looks promising. It's nicely designed and, as you'd expect, well written. The oldest British newspaper and the first to launch a blog – somehow appropriate. Welcome to the argument. (via: Norm)

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Before Sunset

It's taken me a while to catch up with the review of Before Sunset which we screened more than a week ago as part of our "Love Is In The Air" mini-season. Richard Linklater has crafted a beautifully observed, charming and intelligent film. But much credit must also go to its two stars – Ethan Hawke (Jesse) and Julie Delpy (Céline) – not only for their subtle acting but also for their contribution to the realisation of the script. The storyline is well known. In Linklater's earlier film, Before Sunrise, the two lovers met briefly and capriciously in Vienna nine years ago. They agreed to rendezvous in six months' time in a promise of undying celebration of what they had discovered of each other. In the new film, we learn that they never made it, that circumstances got in the way, and that a great love was perhaps forever abandoned. Or is it?

Before Sunset traces the rediscovery of love in a different key. Obviously both characters are older and have experienced life's vicissitudes. Jesse is a famous writer on a book promotion tour, locked into an unhappy marriage but with a deeply-loved son, and an attitude of weary cynicism toward the world. Céline has kept much of her youthful idealism and works as an environmental campaigner but also suffers a (pseudo)relationship with an often absent boyfriend. Both have much more of life's experiences under their belts but these have also been lives of pain and disappointment. Jesse admits that he has written his autobiographical novel of the earlier encounter precisely in the hope of seeing Céline and perhaps of un-breaking his heart. The new story – shot entirely in real time and carried only by the intense conversation, laughter, gestures and silences of the couple as they meander through the streets of Paris – is a journey toward a single realisation: that in their adult lives they have never experienced anything like that single night of passion long ago. It is hard to say whether this knowledge thrills or horrifies them. But the journey's the thing: a very human effort at transcending that moment from the past.

Hawke and Delpy play out their rediscovery beautifully. Before Sunset is a daring piece of filmmaking but there is no artifice, no recourse to the usual romantic tricks. It is a study in the art of intelligent conversation and the slow stripping away of aching truths. More than anything it is a dialogue about everything that matters: work, romantic love, sex, memory, commitment, compromise, anger, disappointment and, of course, the passage of time. By the end, they have learned to walk by each other's side; neither is leading or following. Jesse deliberately misses his plane home. We can only guess at what happens next. We'll have to wait for another sequel to find out ... perhaps in another ten years or so.

When my friend, Wan, recommended that we screen Before Sunset he said that its themes reminded him of me. I'll leave that to another to decide.

Footnote: I don't care much for either the razzmatazz or conservatism of the Oscars. But Julie Delpy should have been a contender .... In any case, as Richard Linklater has said, Before Sunset is a kind of "anti-Hollywood romance".

Aronson On Deutscher

There's a long, brilliant and contentious essay by Ronald Aronson here on Issac Deutscher's Trotksy triology, one of the seminal books of the twentieth century. Deutscher famously concluded his study with the hope that Marxism could shed itself of the "contradiction in terms" that was the one-party state. Here's Deutscher:

... a Marxism cleansed of barbarous accretions [would encourage] struggle against bureaucratic privilege, the inertia of Stalinism, and the dead-weight of monolithic dogma.
Aronson is much less sure. He points to the fundamental failings of all forms of vanguardism and his tone is rather too pessimistic for my taste. At the same time – and with a good deal of perspicacity – he bemoans the weakness of the socialist Left today and its evacuation from a principled, egalitarian politics:

The twenty-first-century world is still driven by the capitalist system's revolutionary dynamism; its main problem is the absence of any significant counterweight. While there is resistance to "globalization" and American hegemony today, it no longer comes principally from the socialist left but – violently, hellishly and uncomprehendingly – from radical Islamists and other fanatics fired by dreams of an imaginary past rather than visions of an egalitarian future.
Some of the so-called Left want to make common cause with these fanatics. Shedding illusions is surely the beginning of understanding. Read the rest.

Friday, February 25, 2005

The Air We Breathe

Kuala Lumpur is completely shrouded in smoky haze. I can hardly see my neighbours. The brilliant tropical light and its primary colours have disappeared and everything now is an inpenetrable monochrome. The air is acrid and it's hard to breathe. It's unbearably hot.

The immediate cause is straightforward. There's been very little rain for more than a month, and forest and peat fires are burning across six states, including Selangor which surrounds the capital. Here, more that 2,000 hectares have been ablaze for more than ten days. It's all made worse by the levels of car exhaust emissions and increased use of air-conditioning. There are reports here, here, here and here. Singapore and Sumatra are also affected. The longer term causes are more deeply-rooted: partly the result of unsustainable levels of pollution that blight so many Southeast Asian cities and partly a consequence of the draining of the peatlands. If anyone doubts that human foolishness is to blame then you should be in Kuala Lumpur today. And it's not due to rain properly for another month ...

Frida Kahlo Portraits

Following up on my earlier review of the film
Frida, there is a small selection of Frida Kahlo's surrealist self-portraits in today's Guardian. They're taken from the Tate Modern's summer exhibition which will run from June. I'll have to get over and take a look.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Photographs Of Asia

There is a fascinating set of photographs here
of nineteenth century Asia. They're from an exhibition at the Museum of Asian Art in Florida. Like the famous photographs of Native Americans in the same period, these Asian images are very much a product of colonial expansion and the desire to record what was often in the process of being brutally destroyed. Nonetheless they are a singular historical record. Here I reproduce a photograph of Penang around 1890. Its shophouse frontages are still there today.

(Via wood s lot)

Reclaiming Asia For Global History

I've just been sent an interesting essay by Wang Hui, an historian of ideas and chief editor of Dushu (Beijing). It's based on a talk he gave at the LSE last year. In it he discusses nineteenth-century Orientalist conceptions of Asia as well as two competing projects of Asian modernity: the Japanese imperial notion of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity sphere and the socialist conception of Asia based on national liberation movements. He points, correctly in my view, to the ambiguities and contradictions in each of these competing projects. This opens up an interesting set of conclusions, especially about the potential to overcome narrow nationalism:
The keys to transcend or overcome such derivativeness, ambiguity and inconsistency can be discovered only in the specific historical relations that gave rise to them.

The criticism of Euro-centrism should not seek to confirm Asia-centrism but rather to eliminate the self-centred, exclusivist, expansionist logic of dominance. We will not be able to understand the significance of Asian modernity if we forget the historical conditions and movements .... In this sense, new Asian visions need to surpass the goals and projects of 20th-century national liberation and socialist movements. Under current historical circumstances, they must explore and reflect on the unaccomplished historical projects of these movements. The aim is not to create a new cold war but to end forever the old one and its derivative forms; it is not to reconstruct the colonial relationship but to eliminate its remnants and stop new colonising possibilities from emerging.
Read the rest.

Where Monsoons Meet No.8

Being a miscellany of recent stories from Southeast Asia (a little later than usual).
  • East Timor. The UN peace mission to East Timor is supposed to come to an end in May. But this is a turbulent time in the brief history of the fledgling country. The war crimes tribunal that was set up to try those suspected of killings when the Indonesian military and their militias went on the rampage is due to be concluded. Altogether some 75 people have been jailed for these terrible crimes. But none of the major military commanders has been brought to trial. This includes the notorious General Wiranto, despite being found "morally responsible" for the events of 1999 by a government-sponsored human rights inquiry. The decision to wind up the tribunal is a sad reflection of the realities of power politics. East Timor's foreign minister, Jose Ramos Horta, says that the political priority now is to build bridges with the new government in Jakarta. Ramos Horta compares East Timor with Jonathan Swift's Lilliput:
    East Timor is not going to be the Lilliputian judge, which is going to bring to justice very powerful Indonesian ministers. If we are seen by Indonesia as conniving with the international community to continue to embarrass Indonesia, it could have a backlash against East Timor.
    Instead a new judicial process has been agreed – a Truth and Friendship Commission – modelled on similar efforts as those in South Africa. There are numerous outstanding problems that need to be resolved during this crucial transition. For example, there are signs that the UN-sponsored criminal justice system is not working very effectively and is mired in corruption and incompetence. Some political parties oppose the new establishment of the new Commission and want a more confrontational stance which Ramos Horta fears will upset the still-delicate relationship with Jakarta. More seriously still, there is the real possibility that the new Commission will run into the same problems with truth-telling that have been experienced elsewhere. In this context, as Norm once forcefully argued, the truth disappears and there can therefore be no justice:
    The victims and protesters of any putative injustice are deprived of their last and often best weapon, that of telling what really happened. They can only tell their story, which is something else. Morally and politically, therefore, anything goes.
    Of course it is hoped that this is not what transpires. But the portents are not good. For all its problems the war crimes tribunal had a specificity of prosecution and a regard for admissable evidence that a generic Truth Commission cannot hope to possess. Meanwhile, Kofi Annan is said to be in favour of a scaled-down UN peacekeeping presence after May. If that's the case let's hope that the UN does a better job than it has hitherto. And let's hope, too, that good neighbourliness does not eclipse justice.
  • Burma. The hardening of the Burmese military junta continues apace - with barely a comment from the international media. In danger of stating the bleeding obvious, this week the UN representative to Burma, Razali Ismail (who is a Malaysian), said the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) is not taking the mediation efforts of the UN seriously. Razli does not even know when he will be allowed to return to the country. This is a blow to the long-held Malaysian position of so-called "constructive engagement" with the goons. Under Mahathir this was always a rather self-serving position. Today the junta shows what it really thinks of it. Sources in Kuala Lumpur's diplomatic missions have told me that, privately, Razli is absolutely livid with the junta and at the loss of his own dignity. Meanwhile, high level officials from the International Labour Organisation who went to Rangoon to discuss widespread forced labour practices left the country the next day. Forced labour is the accumulation regime favoured by military officers. The junta's top brass simply refused to meet with the ILO delegation. When will this wretched state of affairs end?
  • Indonesia-Aceh. There does seem to have been some progress in the Helsinki talks between the Indonesian government and the Free Ache Movement (GAM), reported here, here and here. Martti Ahtisaari, of the Crisis Management Initiative, which is sponsoring the talks, says that
    Discussions were carried out in a constructive manner. Both delegations engaged in a substantive dialogue in an attempt to identify common ground. It was agreed that this process should be continued.
    Among the key issues discussed were "special autonomy" versus self-government; amnesty (again); security arrangements; monitoring of the implementation of the commitments; and a timetable for action.
    President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is saying publicaly that he wants a peaceful solution to the separatist conflict. For its part, the GAM is offering a more cautious note: "we never close doors on a possible negotiated settlement". I just hope that the Indonesian military commanders on the ground are listening.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

New Directions In The Migration Debate

There is an important contribution to the ongoing debate - if it can be dignified as such - over the position of migrant workers in Malaysia. It's from Aliran (which means "flow" in Bahasa), one of the most important social movements for justice, freedom and solidarity in the country. I want to quote in full from its recently issued statement
on the exploitation of migrant workers and call for a radical rethink on migration policy. Its central message should resonate elsewhere.
Aliran is befuddled by the Malaysian government's policy on migrant workers. On the one hand, it wants to send back all undocumented migrant workers. On the other, it would like to open up even more sectors of the workforce to migrant workers.

Let us be clear that this opening up is not a sign of "liberalisation", indicating a more enlightened attitude towards migrant workers. Neither is it motivated by a desire to help poorer countries in the region by providing employment to their citizens.

Instead, this new policy appears to be motivated solely by a desire to serve Malaysian corporate and business interests. By opening up even more sectors to migrant workers, the government is allowing corporate and business interests to make even more profits on the back of cheap, easily exploited and vulnerable migrant labour. Many of these migrant workers are denied the basic rights due to them as workers. They even have to surrender their passports to their employers and are not encouraged to join trade unions. At the first sign of discontent among the migrant workers due to exploitative working conditions and lower-than-promised wages, they are quickly packed off home.

Apart from the exploited migrant workers, the ones who will be hurt the most are Malaysian workers, especially the Malaysian poor. This new policy will encourage more migrant workers - whether they are legal or undocumented migrant workers - and further depress the wages of semi-skilled and unskilled Malaysian workers. Many Malaysian factory operators, restaurant waiters, cleaners and garbage collectors will suffer. They could even be laid off as employers resort to contract labour - usually made up of lowly paid and exploitable migrant workers - to save costs.

A thorough revamp is needed in our policy towards migrant workers. There is nothing wrong in hiring migrant workers, but they must be paid the same wages as their Malaysian counterparts and should enjoy all the basic rights due to a worker - including the right to join trade unions and to engage in collective bargaining. Let us not be regarded as a nation that exploits cheap migrant labour at the expense of low-income Malaysian workers to fuel our economic growth.

Eclipse At Patravadi Theatre

On Saturday, my friend Chatchie took me to the wonderful Patravadi Theatre in the centre of Bangkok. Just getting there was a journey in itself: crossing the majestic Chao Phraya River by ferry while the pilot dodged the oncoming river traffic; and a stroll through the mazy tumult, smell and colour of a market in one of Bangkok's oldest neighbourhoods. And then suddenly another world altogether: a quiet, narrow lane; a low wall decorated with murals of dancers; the distant sound of a pianist playing jazz standards; and the shady embrace of an urban garden. Welcome to the Patravadi Theatre, one of Bangkok's hidden jewels. It's a modest complex of workshops, studios, galleries, a cafe, a shop and a magnificent open-air playhouse.

In Thailand, the name Patravadi is synonymous with the performing arts. Named for its founder - the incomparable stage performer, scriptwriter and theatre director, Patravadi Mejudhon - the theatre has been perhaps the most important centre for both classical and innovative, contemporary performing arts for more than a dozen years. It is the hybrid of traditional and modernist styles that is Patravadi's hallmark.

We were there to watch Eclipse, a unique piece of music-dance theatre. The story explores the deep meaning of Buddhist teachings on the causes of suffering by showing people's reactions to an eclipse of the sun. In traditional Thai thought the prevailing view was that during an eclipse an evil spirit was eating the sun. So as soon as an eclipse appeared everyone would rush out into the open to beat dreams, bang on pots, shoot off guns and make as much noise as possible to drive away the evil spirit. In this production, the players use the sound of drums to signify the awakening of courage and strength, as a symbol of the fight against fear, ignorance and prejudice. The story is about the path to enlightenment - a Buddhist version of the struggle to overcome suffering by understanding its causes. By transposing its themes, or reading them through secular lenses,
the play was remarkably powerful even for a non-believer like me. If you're ever in this part of the world you should pay your respects to the creative work being done at the Patravadi Theatre.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

In Praise of Joesoef Isak

Yesterday Norm posted on this on the Indonesian publishing house Hasta Mitra which has just issued a new translation of Karl Marx's Das Kapital. It's a small indication of the political opening that has occurred in the days since the fall of Suharto and even, I think, of a modest revival of the Indonesian Left. Lest it be forgotten Indonesia has one of the longest traditions of radical politics in Southeast Asia and in 1965, when Suharto seized power with the help of his friends in the CIA, the third largest Communist party in the world.

Norm's post prompted me to say something more about the remarkable Joesoef Isak who directs Hasta Mitra.
Before he was jailed in 1965 Joesoef was chief editor of the daily newspaper Merdeka (Independence) and secretary-general of the Asia-Africa Journalists Association, a direct product of the seminal Bandung Conference that heralded the eventual birth of the Non-Aligned Movement. Joesoef was never brought to trial or charged and was only released after ten years. One of his fellow prisoner was Pramoedya Ananta Toer, one of the great novelists of the twentieth century. The two have been close friends for the last five decades.

In April 1980, Joesoef launched Hasta Mitra along with Pramoedya and the newspaper publisher Hasjim Rahman. In classical Javanese Hasta Mitra means "Friendly Hand". Their first titles were Pramoedya's masterpiece of Indonesian nationalism, the Buru Quartet – This Earth Of Mankind, Child Of All Nations, Footsteps and House Of Glass – all of which were banned by Suharto.

For the next seventeen years, Hasta Mitra was widely recognised as
emblem of alternative Indonesian opinion to the New Order regime and the focal point of potential socio-political re-grouping. Since the fall of Suharto's regime in 1998, Hasta Mitra has made a huge effort to reclaim modern Indonesian history from the lies and evasions of the New Order. And behind all of this was the remarkable figure of Joesoef.

Happily, last year his efforts received due internatonal recognition with the award of the
Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award presented by the Association of American Publishers to a publisher "who has demonstrated courage and fortitude in the face of political persecution and restrictions on freedom of expression". There is no more deserving recipient.

Rites Of Passage

Hunting a seal – training as a geisha – enduring circumcision – reading the Torah – learning military obedience – plucking eyebrows – reciting the Qu'ran – learning the fascist salute. What's the connection? You can find out here.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Agony Of Toil In Indonesia

Smoky Mountain-Manila
A couple of months ago I posted on the fact that the high death tolls from typhoons in the Philippines were in great measure attributable to man-made causes - in that case, the irresponsible antics of logging companies. Now two stories from Indonesia reinforce the point.

It is reported here and here that a massive case of timber smuggling has been uncovered in the eastern province of Papua. The smuggling is organised by criminal syndicates and the destination of the timber is China, the largest buyer of illegal timber in the world. The discovery is due to the investigations and campaigning of two non-governmental organisations - the Indonesian environmental group Telapak (Bahasa only) and the London-based Environment Investigation Agency who have just published a joint report called "The Final Frontier". To nobody's surprise the report implicates high-ranking Indonesian military officers, government officials and law enforcers in the illegal operations. As always, it is the poor who are getting ripped off. The solution is simple. Here is M. Yayat Afianto of Telapak
Papua has become the main illegal logging hotspot in Indonesia. The communities of Papua are paid a pittance for trees taken from their land, while timber dealers in Jakarta, Singapore and Hong Komg are banking huge profits. This massive timber theft of Indonesia's last pristine forests has got to be stopped.
At least the new president seems to be willing to look into the matter.

And then there is news of the latest tragedy reported here, here, here and here. Heavy rain in western Java has triggered landslides and it is feared that over 150 people have been killed. They were nearly all living near a massive rubbish dump which collapsed, dislodging tons of earth and rubble. These communities are the human scavengers who literally eke out a living from the discarded waste of the better-off.

Last year Mike Davis wrote a powerful piece in the New Left Review on the rise and rise of the Third World's post-industrial mega-cities, home for a billion-strong global proletariat ejected from the formal economy. The opening sentence of Mike's essay has an eerie prescience:
Sometime in the next year, a woman will give birth in the Lagos slum of Ajegunle, a young man will flee his village in west Java for the bright lights of Jakarta, or a farmer will move his impoverished family into one of Lima's innumerable pueblos jovenes.
Well, the latest tragedy didn't take place in Jakarta itself but just a few kilometres away. But you get the point. Today I wonder too about the young Nigerian woman and the Peruvian farmer and his family.

Of course the two stories of maldevelopment are linked - as the stories of the poor always are - by the infernal logic of greed and immiseration. How did Marx put it?
Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, moral degradation, at the opposite pole.
For all the peans to "development" in China or the road to "recovery" in post-Suharto Indonesia, the reality is that this is attained only by the agony of toil of the wretched of the earth. How long will it be before the rural communities of Papua, denuded of their ecological patrimony, became the new scavengers in the "planet of slums"?

Malcolm X

Forty years ago today Malcolm X was murdered - gunned down at a political rally in Harlem. His life was remarkable and is well told
here and here. The most important aspect was not his transformation from an impoverished and victimised childhood through self-education nor his struggles with more mainstream, middle class civil rights leaders or increasingly deadly disputes with the Nation of Islam demagogue
Elijah Muhammad. Those were necessary stages in his evolution from marginalised anger to inchoate rebellion. The real legacy, it seems to me, lies in Malcolm's political conversion near the end of his life and how it speaks of an informed radicalism. Basically the shift was from self-help and racial autonomy to a wider understanding of the connectedness of the struggles against the ruling class, both in America and beyond. This is the mature Malcolm speaking a year before his death:
We are living in an era of revolution, and the revolt of the American Negro is part of the rebellion against oppression and colonialism which has characterized this era .... It is incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of Black against white, or as a purely American problem. Rather, we are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter.
Malcolm X has been greatly misunderstood - reviled by many and turned into an icon by others. But his life, his experiences and his politics tell us something of what John Simon calls "human possibility" in bleak times.

"There Is No Happiness Without A Longing For Justice"

Over at Charlotte Street, Mark points us to a recent essay by John Berger at OpenDemocracy's debate on "Visions and Reflections". As nearly always with Berger's writing he pens a meditation of terrible beauty. Ostensibly it's an essay on the poor and their lives hidden from view by the walls of the rich. He intersperses his own words with quotations from the
Russian writer, Andrei Platonov. This is how Berger begins:
The poor have no residence. They have homes because they remember mothers or grandfathers or an aunt who brought them up. A residence is a fortress, not a story; it keeps the wild at bay. A residence needs walls. Nearly everyone among the poor dreams of a small residence, like dreaming of rest. However great the congestion, the poor live in the open, where they improvise, not residences, but places for themselves. These places are as much protagonists as their occupants; the places have their own lives to live and do not, like residences, wait on others. The poor live with the wind, with dampness, flying dust, silence, unbearable noise (sometimes with both; yes, that’s possible!) with ants, with large animals, with smells coming from the earth, rats, smoke, rain, vibrations from elsewhere, rumours, nightfall, and with each other. Between the inhabitants and these presences there are no clear marking lines. Inextricably confounded, they together make up the place’s life.
But more than merely a catalogue of the deprivations suffered by poor people, Berger offers a deeply moral warning against the nihilism of "human cowardice" in the face of poverty. And as a form of everyday resistance he celebrates the worth of storytelling amongst the poor:

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

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

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

Read the rest.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Missing But Not Forgotten

Khao San Road is the heart of Bangkok's backpacker district. I've always thought of it as a pretty hedonistic kind of place populated by "trustafarians" (among Urban Dictionary's definitions: "one who lives with poorer people in an attempt to gain credibility, or street-cred, while disguising the trust fund they actually live off"). But Khao San Road is also the site of a moving tribute to those lost to the earthquake-tsunami catastrophe that hit Thailand's islands so badly. Taped to metal railings are hundreds of simple A4 leaflets with photographs and bare details of some of those who are still missing nearly two months on. The photographs are of Thais and non-Thais alike. Mostly they are unaffected holiday snaps; occasionally there is a candid shot of a dead person; and sometimes photographs of whole families who have disappeared.
A horrible fate - a force of nature - is suddenly embodied in these images of specific people, places, and an indelible event. Together they are a memorial collage for the dead.

All photographs are an expression of absence and the absence of the missing is final.

According to the official Thai agency seeking information about the victims of the tsunami the whereabouts of
4,234 persons remains unresolved.

Thaksin's Strong-arm Tactics

It was useful to be in Thailand and get a first-hand sense of just what the prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, is up to in the south of the country. On Wednesday he announced the drastic step of denying funds to villages whose administrations are believed to be sympathetic to Muslim separatists. More than 300 villages and areas deemed to be in the category have been labelled "red zones". Meanwhile villages in the so-called "green zone" - obedient to the military authorities - will be rewarded with money. The measures are reminiscent of the anti-communist offensive pursued by military in the 1970s and 1980s and consistent with Thaksin's own brand of authoritarianism. His strategic thinking is chilling:
If the money sanctions do not work, I will send soldiers to lay siege to the red zone villages and put more pressure on them. I will never allow anyone to separate even one square inch from this country, even though this land will have to be soaked with blood.
For someone who has just won a landslide election Thaksin has had to face a surprising barrage of criticism which may point to the robustness of Thai democracy. The Nation's editorial on Friday said that his ideas were "half-baked" and "simplistic". It didn't mince its words:
The prime minister's crude approach is tantamount to treating Thai Muslims of Malay descent like circus animals, rewarding the obedient ones with food while cracking the whip at the wayward ones as punishment. But Thaksin needs to be told by his advisers or handlers that such silly, childish games will not only never work out as planned, but will also create a stumbling block that could exacerbate the already worsening situation in the deep South.
Today's press is suggesting that there is a strong possibility of a legal challenge to the zoning policy. The National Human Commissioner, Pradit Charoenthaithawee, is saying that
[t]he policy is discrimination. It violates human rights and is unconstitutional.
Meanwhile, academic critics are highlighting some of the likely consequences if Thaksin goes ahead:
The policy is cruel and will indirectly kill people. Not only it does not solve the problem, it will escalate violence in the South.
And one of the country's leading commentators, Sopon Onkgara, is likening Thaksin's measures to those of a CEO (the prime minister's preferred moniker) who is set on "liquidating" those villages he considers to be serious "liabilities". Even former military leaders have labelled the strong-arm tactics as imprudent.
The weight and cogency of opposition to Thaksin is significant and calls on arguments both of principle and prudence. But he is unlikely to listen. Sopon's conclusion is a bleak one:
As of now, nobody is in a position to put an end to the crisis in the South, just as no one is in a position to prevent Thaksin from floating more bad policies, decisions and actions.
The chances of even contemplating a cessation to the vicious cycle of terrorist and military violence has taken a big step backwards.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Away In Thailand

I'll be in Bangkok for a couple of days so they will be no posting. Back in business on Monday. Expect some updates on the worsening situation in Thailand's southern provinces where both Thaksin and the bombers are turning up the heat.

Thursday, February 17, 2005


The movie biography is a tricky genre. When the subject of the film is an artist then the difficulties are multiplied. All too often, the life of creative endeavour and its psychological inspiration seem to elude the conventions of filmmaking. Even well-made and well-acted biopics tend toward the dutiful and dull. The film critic, A.O. Scott, once put it this way: "we are usually treated to the superficial pageantry of the artist's career - sex and politics, drinking and fighting, celebrity and ruin". But the inner magic of the life too often evaporates. I think that
Frida, which was the latest in our international film screenings, largely overcomes these limits. Having watched it many times my affection for the film has actually grown; I like the film enormously. In time it will come to have a greater reputation than some of the initial desultory reviews suggested.

Part of the problem Frida faced on release was the overwhelming baggage of expectation. Obviously, this has much to do with the life and work of film's subject, the great Mexican surrealist painter Frida Kahlo. By the 1980s Kahlo had become more, much more, than simply a wonderful artist who lived through the most turbulent decades of Mexico's history. She had transmogrified - literally - into an icon for every imaginable heterodoxy: a poster girl for bohemianism, a bearer of proto-feminist consciousness, a martyr of suffering, a pop culture legend. These are all valid, if partial, readings of the life and the art. But somehow with Kahlo the reverential iconography came to overwhelm the life and this does not make for a promising biography.

The second burden lay in the making of the film itself. It is now well-known that Frida's star and producer, Salma Hayek, had to fight tooth-and-nail during her seven-year quest to keep hold of a project that was passionately close to her heart. There was a fearful moment when it seemed likely that Madonna (cashing in her dubious credentials for having played the execrable Evita) would get the role. Hayek has said this about her own tenacity:
This was a story that was important for me to tell. It was not just making the movie, it was about making the right movie.
No little part of this desire was driven by a powerful sense of Mexican pride:
I think it's a story that shows Mexico in a light that it has never been seen in before. At this particular period of time that Frida lived and was there, Mexico was the nucleus for a lot of sophisticated minds. And I really wanted to show this part of my country and this extraordinary woman who inspired me because of her courage to be unique always in everything she did.
And then there was a barely-hidden condescension towards Hayek's own acting capabilities. I think this is a badly misplaced view: while it's true that she has been in some pretty mediocre Holywood fare her earlier work in independent Mexican cinema demonstrated a considerable presence and charisma. More than most, she's been a victim of some lousy material.

Hayek's - and director Julie Taymor's - film generally works well in a difficult genre. It is not an unalloyed triumph or even a great film. But it consistently offers us a sensitive rendition of the core motifs of Kahlo's tempestuous and anarchic life and a transcendent insight into the agony of suffering that produced the art. The story of Kahlo's life is so well-known that it barely needs repeating. In the film her youthful and headstrong obsessions - intoxicated by art, sex and left-wing politics - are nicely captured in small vignettes that establish the heartbeat of the mature woman. But her life was forever changed by two accidents. The first was the streetcar accident in which her back and pelvis were horribly injured and, as Kahlo wryly observes, she "lost her virginity". That central scene is shot with a very powerful, almost hallucinatory intensity. From that defining moment, Kahlo's journey becomes one of self-discovery and self-realisation as an artist. It is a journey dominated (but never overshadowed) by her entanglement with the muralist, Diego Rivera, the second great "accident" of her life.

Through the charismatic characterisation of both Hayek and the bear-like Alfred Molina (who plays Rivera) the film captures the underlying magnetism that brought them together and, somehow, kept them together even through betrayal: the passion for unorthodox left-wing politics, professional artistic respect, and unrdiled sexual attraction. It's a relationship built on abiding loyalty if not fidelity. And it's a heady combination that never falls into triteness or predictability. It's as well that Hayek and Molina are so compelling because some of the other characters (Trotsky, Breton, Rockefeller) are only thinly realised.

Though the raw materials of Kahlo and Rivera's lives would be sufficient to raise the bio-pic way beyond the dutiful, the most interesting aspect of the film is the innovative way that Taymor deals with the art. Kahlo was no realist and neither is Taymor. The narrative is interpolated with wonderful animated sequences - including a Dadaist King Kong scene - that not only (literally) give life to some of the most important paintings but make subtle links to the abiding influences of Mexican folk traditions - fearful dancing skeletons, broken body parts - that so obsessed Kahlo. It is precisely when the film takes these kinds of creative risks - when it moves away from dutiful storytelling to capturing the moods and sensations that marked the life - that it works best: the vital bursts of colour, the glorious music and the over-the-top theatricality mark out
Frida from the run-of-the mill. Hayek and Taymor have made the "right film". See it if you can.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Living With Fear

My friend Meds, over at Blinking Senses, has this short piece on living with fear in Manila in the days after the latest terrorist bombings.
When I got off the bus and started walking down the pavement, I saw people walking fast as usual, hurrying their way to work, but I know deep inside, they're like me, scared as hell but just have to move on, just have to earn a little more courage to face whatever it takes to live.
And there are those who actually defend these murderers .... Keep your courage, Meds.

Weird Wired World

There are some seriously weird stories out there, some of them masquerading as news.

From Australia come this - high quality paper is being made from kangaroo manure. Of course there's the perennial problem of supply chains: "
We are hoping the community will help by collecting poo for us and dropping it off in plastic bags. New or old, we'll take it all", said the manager of Creative Paper Tasmania (sic). The inspiration? Paper made from elephant dunk and elk poo ... of course.

from the BBC (good to see the license fee being put to good use) under this immortal link: "Nigerian is fined for dressing as a woman to sell love potion". Abubakar Hamza, aka Fatima Kawaji, used his female identity to sell herbal aphrodisiacs to women in the conservative Islamic city of Kano. He "appeared in court dressed in a pink kaftan and matching cap, said he was now 'a reformed man'". So what on earth did his pre-reformation get-up look like?

Finally, this one tickled me because my new MA programme (ASEAN Studies since you ask) is coming up for consideration by Senate next week.
You can boldly go where no other philosophy student has gone before in Georgetown University's "Philosophy and Star Trek" course, where students discuss the nature of time travel, the ability of computers to think and feel, and other philosophical dilemmas facing the crew of the Starship Enterprise. I love this earnest defence of the course in The Georgetown Independent:
Philosophy and Star Trek is a very misunderstood course. There is no better way to convey this than to describe the predictable, ignorant, annoying, and inevitably lame responses I get from some of my fellow students when I tell them I am enrolled in it. After they finish laughing in my face and sharing their horribly unoriginal Star Trek pun with me, I have to explain to them that the course is NOT the same as a Star Trek convention.
(Hat tip: Belyn)

Another Final Deadline (updated)

Following the high-level meeting (reported here and here) between the Malaysian prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, and the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, it has now been decided to extend the deadline for the mass expulsion of undocumented migrant workers. The new date is now set for the beginning of next month. Abdullah's delay reflects the iron fist in the velvet glove that is the hallmark of his administration. On the one hand he claims that the delay is a "soft operation to advise illegals to return home". But he is equally clear about their fate thereafter: "From 1 March we will crack down on the illegals". Remember, "crack down" means vigilantes, jail, whippings and fines. We are still waiting for that rational and humane debate about the future of migrant workers in the country. We may have to wait a long time.

Amnesty International (Asia-Pacific) has sent this letter to Malaysia's Home Affairs Minister. Its position could not be clearer:
... we appeal to you to halt any deportations until it can be guaranteed that the fundamental human rights of all refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants, including undocumented migrants, will be respected in this process.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Galeano On Salgado: 17

The last of the series from Eduardo Galeano's "Salgado, 17 Times":
17. Caravans of pilgrims wander the African desert, dying, searching futilely for a blade of grass, an insect to eat. Are they people or mummies that move? Are they walking statues, disfigured by the wind, in the last throes or asleep, perhaps alive, perhaps dead, perhaps at once dead and alive?

A man carries his son or bones that were his son in his arms and that man is a tree, rigid and tall, rooted in the solitude. Rooted in the solitude, an amazing tree caresses the air, swaying its long branches, the foliage a head leaning over a shoulder or a breast. A dying child manages to move its hand in a final gesture, the gesture of a caress, and caressing, dies. Is that woman who walks, or drags herself, against the wind a bird with broken wings? Is that scarecrow with arms thrown open in the solitude a woman?

Viva Village Vanguard

Jazz clubs are great places. I've been in a few in my time. Ronnie Scott's in central London was where I cut my teeth, while the wonderful Band On The Wall remains my favourite. I remember sitting a few feet away while Cecil Taylor climbed in, on and all over the house grand. I was devastated to hear that, on New Year's Day, the old place had closed down after thirty years of continuous music-making. Happily, there are plans afoot to renovate the building and open up again as a "Space for Music" in 2007. I'll be making the pigrimage. And for a completely different experience - spacious, chic and sophisticated but still with that certain jazz club feel - there's Tokyo's Blue Note.

That's all by the by. It's time to tip the hat and raise a glass to the grandaddy of all jazz clubs. The estimable Village Vanguard at 178 Seventh Avenue South, New York City, is 70 years-old this week. To celebrate the Vanguard has this roster for the week, starting tonight: Roy Hargrove; Wynton Marsalis; The Bad Plus; Jim Hall; The Heath Brothers and The Bill Charlap Trio. Not bad at all. To get a sense of the history of the place just think of all those great "Live at the Village Vanguard" albums: Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Art Pepper, Earl Hines ... the list goes on and there's a great collage of album covers here.

There is also a very warm tribute by Tad Hendrickson here. This is how he describes first impressions:
This former speakeasy is not much to look at from the outside, but as you descend the perilously steep stairs you enter a place of legendary - if not mythic - proportions. A place that every serious jazz fan knows, the intimate 123-capacity room is pie-shaped, with the stage at the point. The walls are filled with pictures of the past legends and present stars that have played there. What adds to the New York City ambience is that guests can hear the 1, 2, 3 and 9 trains that run just feet from the street-side wall.
The Vanguard has been run by the formidable Lorraine Gordon since 1989. She has an old-fashioned philosophy you wouldn't want to mess with:
The people who come here truly love jazz. They know there's no food. No credit cards are accepted. And there has been no smoking for 10 years.
More than this, as Tad Hendrickson puts it, she
can generally be found near the door policing the audience, keeping an eye out for such contraband items as mobile phones, tape recorders and cameras. She will also tell guests dithering about where to sit to find a seat and sit in it.
Some lady.

But it's still the music that counts. It's where today's musicians not only pay homage to the legacy of the Vanguard, but try to create their own niche in that wondrous history. Here's the sax player, Chris Potter, recalling his debut:
The first time I played there was with Red Rodney when I was 20 or so. I was scared to death when I saw Dizzy Gillespie and James Moody sitting in the front row, but the vibe was so positive that soon I felt like I was playing in my own living room.
Long live the Vanguard. One day I'll make my own pilgrimage ...

Next Steps For Dodong

Last week I posted on the retirement of my friend Dodong Nemenzo as President of the University of the Philippines. Despite what must have been an extremely busy schedule he found the time to send me a thank you note. After all the speculation he has now revealed what he plans to do - besides teaching as Professor Emeritus - and that is "to bring together the best brains in UP and in the progressive movement to craft a Blueprint for a Feasible Alternative". Dodong offers this line of impeccable reasoning for someone who has never lost his radical fervour to make a better society:
As a young man filled with revolutionary fervor, I used to enjoy heckling the rich, the high and the mighty. This is all right when the country is doing well and it is necessary to shake people out of complacency. But when the country is in crisis, habitual faultfinding is counterproductive. It promotes cynicism, and there is no greater obstacle to change than cynicism among the people. Cynics do not fight for change, they look for an escape, they emigrate. If we as a people lose faith in our own capacity to create a better future, we can never transcend the current mess. It is time to think of an alternative program, but a feasible one around which the people can rally.
And what about rumours that he might run for public office? The answer is a categorical "no".
I don't have the charm, the money, nor the stomach for electoral politics. Besides, and more importantly, I do not see traditional politics as the path to national salvation.
So the die is cast. The Philippines needs people of Dodong's integrity now more than ever.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Galeano On Salgado: 16

From Eduardo Galeano's "Salgado, 17 Times":
16. Hunger lies. It simulates being an insoluble mystery or a vengeance of the gods. Hunger is masked, reality is masked.

Salgado was an economist before he found out he was a photographer. He first came to the Sahel as an economist. There, for the first time, he tried to use the camera's eye to penetrate the skins reality uses to hide itself.

The science of economics had already taught him a great deal about the subject of masks. In economics, what appears to be, never is. Good fortune through numbers has little or nothing to do with the greater good. Let us postulate a country with two inhabitants. That country's per capita income, let us suppose, is $4,000. At first glance, that country would seem to be doing not at all badly. Actually, however, it turns out that one of the inhabitants gets $8,000 and the other zero. Well might the other ask those adept in the occult science of economics: "Where do I collect my per capita income? At which window do they pay?"

Salgado is a Brazilian. How many does the development of Brazil develop? The statistics show spectacular economic growth over the last three decades, particularly through the long years of military dictatorship. In 1960, however, one out of every three Brazilians was malnourished. Today, two out of every three are. There are 16 million abandoned children. Out of every ten children who die, seven are killed by hunger. Brazil is fourth in the world in food exports, fifth in area, and sixth in hunger.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Galeano On Salgado: 15

From Eduardo Galeano's "Salgado, 17 Times":
15. A Way of the Cross with statues of stone. A Way of the Cross with people of flesh and blood. Is that scruffy child wandering the dunes of the desert gentle as Jesus? Does he possess Jesus' anguished beauty? Or is he Jesus on the way to the place where he was born?

Where Monsoons Meet No. 7

Being a miscellany of recent stories from Southeast Asia.

  • Malaysia. The story of Malaysia's threat to expel hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrant workers has taken a new twist. There is a report here about police arresting a number of government officials suspected of selling residency permits to criminals involved in people trafficking. This comes on top of a major worry that unscrupulous employers will further exploit foreign workers by withholding pay during the temporary suspension of the mass deportation order that was due to come into effect at the beginning of the month. The treatment of migrant workers is simply appalling and inhumane. The government threatens them with jail and whipping for overstaying; employers regularly abuse the terms and conditions of work; and the police and immigration officers routinely extort money from them. There should be plenty for the Malaysian prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, and the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to talk about tomorrow.
  • Philippines. The fighting that erupted on Monday in the southern island of Jolo continues and is the heaviest in conflict-ridden Mindanao for years. The battle pitches the Philippine military against separatists from the Abu Sayyaf and a splinter group of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) who follow the jailed leader Nur Misuari. Already, the BBC is reporting more than 90 deaths from both sides while the Philippine press is estimating that there are more than 16,000 refugees. Local politicians say that there have been many civilian casualities. The rhetoric of both sides is couched in fairly apocalyptic tones. The military is claiming that the separatists "are taking a last stand in the mountains". For their part, a Misuari ally counters that the separatists "do not like to surrender, they will fight to the death". Unfortunately, the latter scenario is the more likely. But when the smoke of the battlefield has cleared and the body bags have been filled the political destiny of the Moro people in Mindanao will be as unresolved as ever. And the immediate fear? An excuse for martial law.
  • Indonesia-Aceh. The Jakarta Post is carrying testimonies of survivors of December's earthquake-tsunami catastrophe. They point to the long-term psychological trauma that many people are suffering as a result of deeply-felt loss. Here is the voice of Ratnawati, who lost her husband and two children in the tsunami and no longer has hopes or dreams of the future: "I do not know what to do any more. I want to join my husband and children. I do not know what I should live the rest of my life for because I have nobody". The pain is stark. We can only hope that Ratnawati, and hundreds of thousands like her, rediscover the reason to live. And I can only hope that we - you and I - can remember the value of solidarity.

Arthur Miller, 1915-2005

arthur miller
There has been so much written about Arthur Miller over the last couple of days that it seems a little superfluous to add anything else. I have seen his three greatest plays -
Death Of A Salesman, The Crucible and A View From The Bridge - in various productions over the years. They are some of the finest dramatic writing of the contemporary theatre. In his mature plays, Miller was able to combine a devastating scalpel - able to dissect the psychological complexities of his protagonists - with a broad brush sensitivity to the wider dilemmas of social responsibility and community. He was also a great figure of moral conscience, having been politicised into the Left as a result of his family's experiences of the Depression and later by his principled opposition to the McCarthyite witchhunts of the 1950s that became the inspiration for The Crucible. "Most human enterprise disappoints", Miller once said. But his life and his work were wonderful triumphs.

There are tributes and obituaries all over the place but I was especially struck by those offered by Philip French and Michael Ratcliffe, while The Guardian did this profile eighteen months ago.

Bernard Stone, 1924-2005

I've just heard of the recent death of Bernard Stone, the bookseller and publisher. During the 1980s I often used to drop into his bookshop on Floral Street in Covent Garden and I remember him as a kindly man, full of funny anecdotes. There is a warm obituary of him here.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Galeano On Salgado: 14

From Eduardo Galeano's "Salgado, 17 Times":
14. The Third World the "other" world worthy only of contempt or pity. In the interest of good taste, not often mentioned.

Had AIDS not spread beyond Africa, the new plague would have gone unnoticed. It hardly would have mattered if thousands or millions of Africans had died of AIDS. That isn't news. In what is known as the Third World, death from plague is a "natural" death.

If Salman Rushdie had stayed in India and written his novels in Hindustani, Tamil, or Bengali, his death sentence would have attracted no attention. In the countries of Latin America, for example, several writers have been condemned to death and executed by recent military dictatorships. The European countries recalled their ambassadors from Iran in a gesture of indignation and protest against Rushdie's death sentence, but when the Latin American writers were sentenced and executed the European countries did not recall their ambassadors. And the reason they were not recalled was because their ambassadors were busy selling arms to the murderers. In the Third World, death by bullets is a "natural" death.

From the standpoint of the great communications media that uncommunicate humanity, the Third World is peopled by third class inhabitants distinguishable from animals only by their ability to walk on two legs. Theirs are problems of nature not of history: hunger, pestilence, violence are in the natural order of things.

The Malaysian Way Of Death

The character of Malaysian politics has been the subject of a rather moribund debate for some time now. Some analysts, mostly liberal economists, simply turn a blind eye to the deep flaws in the country's political system, preferring instead to concentrate on the superficial indicators of developmental "success". In doing so, they present the virtues of "order" and "stability" (and the concomitant curtailment of political rights) as the price worth paying for the so-called economic miracle. Others, mostly liberal political scientists, offer mild criticisms of a system that is usually described as "semi-authoritarian", "semi-democratic" or "quasi-democratic" lacking, as they see it, a mature system of government and democratic institutions, an independent judiciary, and an unfettered role for the media. The obvious prescription here is that political elites should do more to craft these institutional forms and thus embed the requirements for liberal democracy.

What both these approaches fail to see are the coercions - the very real brutality - that lie at the heart of the Malaysian state apparatus. It is true that the electoral system is strongly skewed in favour of the ruling parties; it is true that independent media outlets hardly exist; it is true that there is no real separation of political powers. But it is equally true that there is an unremitting harshness in the state apparatus that gets only passing commentary in mainstream analysis. I have already posted a great deal on the treatment of migrant workers which seems to exemplify some of this harshness.

Last week two official parliamentary answers offered a new insight into just how bad things are. They are reported by Malaysiakini (one of the few independent political voices) here and here (subscription required). In a written reply to the parliamentary opposition leader, the prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, admitted that there had been more the 1,700 deaths in prison and police custody in the past 15 years. The figures for the past three years have been the worst on record. Among the major causes of death have been a range of preventible illnesses; in addition, a large number of detainees have died from "unspecified" illnesses and suicides. The figures reflect a callous disregard for the well-being of detainees - "shocking" in the words of the opposition - and say a great deal about the lack of accountability and integrity in the prison and police services.

The second official parliamentary answer focused on the vexed question of judicial executions. The government has executed 358 people by hanging in the past 24 years. Such figures have rarely been published and media attempts to establish the number in recent years have been consistently rebuffed. But now we know the scale of the issue. Most disturbing of all are the twelve executions under the provisions of the notorious Internal Security Act (ISA) - a hangover of British anti-communist policy - all in the period between 1984 and 1993 when the former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, was establishing his iron grip over the political system.

Compared to neighbouring countries the figures for deaths in detention and state executions might appear "not too bad". But they demonstrate the reality of a hegemonic political system that relies equally on consent and coercion. There are camapigns under way to repeal the ISA and the beginnings of a debate about ending the death penalty. They deserve your support.

Getting Everything Wrong

My friend Erik Reinert of The Other Canon has just sent me a draft of his latest paper which examines, to use his own words, "the curse of standard textbook economics in the Third World". He has a neat and telling way of summarising the surreal world of orthodox development economists. Their project, he says, is the constant search for the panacea which in addition to neoclassical economics would set free the magic of the market. And here is how their litany has evolved over the last decade or so:
  • "get the prices right"
  • "get the property rights right"
  • "get the institutions right"
  • "get the governance right"
  • "get the competitiveness right"
  • "get the national innovation systems right"
  • "get the entrepreneurship right"
Of course we could always ask the simple first order question: get what right for whom? As Erik notes, all this policy tinkering is based merely on a theoretical fantasy. "None of the sequential focuses on single issues will unleash a magic of factor-price equalization under instant free trade, this never existed in history nor will it ever exist". When are these developmental charlatans going to realise just how much they have got wrong?

Friday, February 11, 2005

Galeano On Salgado: 13

From Eduardo Galeano's "Salgado, 17 Times":
13. Houses like the empty skins of dead animals. The blankets are shrouds and the shrouds dry shells that encase shriveled fruits or deformed beings.

People bearing bundles, bundles bearing people. Bearers scarcely able to walk the mountains, bowed under timbers large as coffins that they carry on their shoulders, becoming part of their shoulders. But they walk on the clouds.

Neo-Nazis In Suits

There are two disturbing reports in today's Guardian here and here about the rise and rise of neo-Nazism in Germany. As I have been reading Philip Roth's The Plot Against America I was especially struck by similarities in the insidious normalisation of far right poison in both the novel and today's Germany.

Luke Harding files a long report on the electoral rise of the
neo-Nazi National Party of Germany (NPD) in Saxony. There are even well-founded fears that the party will have MPs sitting in the Bundestag in 2006. What do these new fascists look like? "The NPD's new MPs don't look like skinheads .... They wear suits; they are in their 30s; and they are impeccably polite". This may be true but the NDP's tactics look frighteningly familiar: intimidatory demonstrations (such as the one planned for Dresden on Sunday) and other forms of violence, notably assaults by individuals and small groups on racially identified scapegoats like Jews or foreign workers, are part of the strategic repertoire of fascism.

As Harding notes, the success of the NPD has caught most mainstream politicians by surprise though why this should be I'm not quite sure. After all, the far right - in Germany and the rest of Europe - has been organising for quite some time now, at least since the early 1980s. For example, racist violence in east Germany reached a highpoint in 1991 in a sustained assault on a refugee and guestworker accommodation block in the Saxon town of Hoyerswerda and, in the following year, over 1,000 rightwing thugs attacked asylum seekers in Rostock over five days of mayhem. Some conservative politicians and commentators are even likening today's situation with the collapsing Weimar Republic in the early 1930s - rising unemployment and a remote, unpopular government in Berlin though I don't think the historical parallels really hold. The frustrations with reunification or economic problems are simply not of the same order as the preconditions that allowed for what Robert Paxton calls the "epoch of fascism" in the 1930s.

Nonetheless, the electoral success of the neo-Nazis is deeply disturbing in its own right. Some political opponents, like the Greens, have decided simply to ignore them.
This is hopeless. Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrat-Green government is considering a ban on the NPD and its far-right sister party, the Deutsche Volksunion (DVU). Some will consider this an illiberal and inappropriate response. I think that this is a necessary but insufficient countermeasure to neo-Nazism at this juncture. It is no time to play softball with the fascists in suits. But relying on the state - even a liberal democratic one run by the centre-left - cannot hide the fact that the state is not a neutral institution. The police in Hoyerswerda and Rostock took action against anti-fascist demonstrators with much greater alacrity than when their task was to stop assaults on foreigners which lasted days. This is not difficult to understand given the racist sympathies of sections of police forces in Germany. The fight against fascism in Germany, as elsewhere, will only be successful if mass anti-fascist movements can be mobilised. In a fascinating review of fascism in Germany - written more than ten years ago - Rick Kuhn says this about the power of confrontation:
Challenged by big counter-demonstrations when they try to march or rally fascists loose several of their most important means of attracting support. The acceptability of their ideas is challenged when large numbers of people publicly demonstrate their hostility. The cultivated image of power, ability to intimidate political opponents and hence the credence for their racist programs fascists seek is deflated when they are unable to dominate the streets.
If the neo-Nazi march on Sunday is not banned then the hope must be for a mass demonstration of outrage. And then the next stage of the struggle against this poison must begin in earnest.