31 March 2004

Christian Participation in Indonesian Elections: Two Strategies

Robert Go of the Straits Times reports on two different strategies for religious minorities to participate in the Indonesian elections:

By establishing their own political party:
JAKARTA - In Muslim-dominated Indonesia, one party stands out - the Prosperous Peace party (PDS), the only party representing the Protestant and Catholic minorities.

Established in 2001, it is a fairly new entrant to the political scene. It is also the only one - of seven - parties to pass the selection criteria of the General Election Commission (KPU).

PDS members are mostly professionals drawn from small prayer groups which united gradually over time.

They spell hope for the Christian minorities, accounting for about 10-11 per cent of the population, whose voices did not find representation during the Suharto era.

PDS hopes this will translate to votes.

Among those who are optimistic is Mr Toga Sianturi, who is contesting a seat in North Sumatra's parliament.

'God willing, I will be successful,' he said.

'There are many Christians in this province, and I think they will support the party.'

Mr Sianturi's reason for hope is that around 40 per cent of North Sumatrans are Christians.

But political observers believe the party faces an uphill struggle.

Church and community leaders here said Christians are loyal to Golkar and President Megawati Sukarnoputri's PDI-P.

Those two nationalist and secular parties together took nearly 70 per cent of the vote in the 1999 general election.

Analyst Henry Sitorus argued that even if Christian voters abandon the two big parties, they will likely go for smaller newcomers with nationalist ideologies.

Another analyst, Dr S.B. Simanjuntak, said Christians realise they belong to a minority, so they will be careful about stirring up trouble by voting along religious lines.
Or by supporting the major political parties:
SEMATANG SIANTAR (North Sumatra) - The candidate was Protestant, but the final prayer closing the political rally was Islamic.

Ethnic Chinese faces dotted the 500-strong crowd in Pematang Siantar, North Sumatra's second largest city.

A vocal group of women wearing party-sponsored tee shirts with the slogan "Fight injustice against women, we demand equality" were standing visibly up front.

Though the key fight in this year's elections is still between Golkar and President Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), a new game is being played in the background.

Analysts and its proponents describe it as the politics of inclusion - where political parties that at one time pitched solely for Muslim votes are now looking at non-traditional voters as well - to maintain their political grip.

Right now, the best practitioner of the new politics appears to be the party of former president Abdurrahman Wahid - the National Awakening Party (PKB).

Critics argue that in a country that is just waking up from more than three decades of one-party rule and a strict adherence to one political ideology, this new approach might well become critical, and very attractive, to voters in the future.

In 1999, PKB's main image was that of a Muslim-based party.

Its strongest association was to Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country's biggest Islamic organisation that the grandfather of Gus Dur, as Mr Abdurrahman is popularly known here, started, and which his family dominated.

But since then, the party has started to shed that image and PKB has made progress in forging links with the ethnic minorities.

Mr Bara Hasibuan, a Christian who is actively campaigning for the PKB and is an election candidate, is a poster boy for the new brand of politicking.

"It's about time we address the equality issue," he said.

"We can't move ahead as long as ethnic and religious fault lines separate the people."

He has received endorsements from church groups, Islamic boarding schools and ethnic-Chinese businessmen.

And such has been his appeal that some of those subjected to discrimination due to their links to the PKI, the communist party that was blamed for a failed coup d'etat in 1965, have also responded to the messages pitched by Mr Hasibuan and the PKB.

Mr Abdurrahman's party is not the only one to forge new alliances with minority groups.

Dr Amien Rais' National Mandate Party (PAN) has positioned itself the same way.

Golkar and PDI-P, too, are stressing their secular-nationalist credentials.

But PKB seems to have gone far to be the only party with concrete examples of inclusion to tout.

During his presidency from late 1999 to July 2001, Gus Dur laid the framework for this when he made the Chinese New Year a national holiday and legalised the use of Chinese writing.

The PKB has also argued staunchly against the inclusion of syariah Islamic principles in Indonesian laws.

Said ethnic Chinese businessman Bambang Sungkono, who is also a treasurer of PKB's national leadership board: "If you look at the different parties, the PKB is the only one that has done anything on these issues.

"If Christians, ethnic Chinese and other minority groups are looking for the real inclusive attitude, they don't have to go further than Gus Dur and PKB."
Democracy is an awfully messy way to run a country, but both Malaysia and Indonesia give grounds for hope of a continuing democratic transformation that could serve as models for other regions.

Taiwan Election and Its Aftermath

This is the most comprehensive coverage of Taiwan's 2004 election and its aftermath.

via Andrés Gentry

Prospects for Indonesia's Upcoming Election

Hugh White, director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, opines about the upcoming Indonesian elections in the Melbourne Age:
Next Monday, 147 million Indonesians go to the polls to elect Indonesia's Parliament. It is the first step in a months-long process that will lead to the elections for the president later in the year. So far the campaign has been peaceful.

The fact that this is all happening at all is a kind of miracle. Indonesia's experiment with democracy is about to pass a critical milestone. It has survived a full five-year electoral cycle since the first truly democratic election in 1999.

The five years since then have been mixed for Indonesia. The economy has staged at least a temporary recovery, and the constitution has survived the removal of the former president, Abdurrahman Wahid ("Gus Dur"), and his replacement by his deputy, Megawati Soekarnoputri.

The military has stayed on the sidelines, and important constitutional reforms were made to provide for the direct election of the president.

But at the same time, deeper reforms to Indonesia's institutions needed to foster long-term economic development have been shelved. Apathy and cynicism about the value of democracy has grown, and with it a certain nostalgia for the authoritarian but effective ways of president Soeharto.

The open market in political ideas provided by democracy has not thrown up any new or compelling ideas for Indonesia's future direction.

So on Monday, Indonesia's voters will face a familiar line-up. The two big parties between them are expected to win more than half the vote. Last time Megawati's party, PDI-P, won 34 per cent and Golkar, which was Soeharto's political machine, won 22 per cent. This time the pundits expect their positions to be reversed, as Megawati suffers the political consequences of an ineffectual and disappointing incumbency.

Perhaps most striking, Indonesia's smaller Islamic-based parties seem to have made little progress over the past five years. Islam appeared to have been making bigger inroads into Indonesia's political life during the 1990s and many had expected that the polarisation between Islam and the West since September 11 would have amplified that trend, pushing a more stridently Islamic strain politics to the fore.

Instead, the polling suggests the Islamic vote will stagnate - which, if true, will reinforce the result of Malaysia's recent elections in which the strongly Islamist party PAS was mauled.
For more on Malaysia's recent elections, see Head Heeb and below.

30 March 2004

Vignettes from a Rural Burmese Childhood

Above the fireplace in Grandma's kitchen, beneath the sooty shelf (our houses lacked chimneys, and the smoke had to find its own way out through holes cut in the gables) hung a huge amount of dried meat -- beef, wild boar, rats, fish, game birds, moles, snakes -- and above that were herbs of all kinds. In the corners of the store-room were huge bags of pounded rice, while big pots of rice-wine were being brewed, swamped with clouds of rice-wine gnats. We had no trouble from mosquitos there, for they hate the yeast that rises from the rice-wine as it brews. Beneath the roof, sheaves of maize and millet hung from the beams on bamboo poles. Grandma's cat always roamed above the beams protecting the grains from rodents. Geckos and wall-lizards were constant visitors to the walls -- propitious and sacred creatures that preyed on small insects. The floor of the house had to be swept every day with elephant-grass brushes. [p. 59]

On summer nights we watched the burning of the mountain slopes by the slash-and-burn farmers on the other side of the lake. The red trails of the fires seemed to devour the water of the lake and the stars of the sky like some mythical monster. The fires were reflected in the lake, so that the whole scene had a special quality of terror and mystery. It seemed to me as though half the world was burning. The fires burned for many nights in succession, and I often woke during the night to watch the changing pattern of the flames. The fragrance of blossoms from the orange tree often swept past the house on the evening breeze as we slept in the open on the balcony or in the tree-house. We also washed and ate in the open -- there were not many mosquitos in our town. Wild grouse, cuckoos and summer birds called their mates from bushes and treetops, while the sounds of the cicadas and bees were unbearably loud.

Why do I have such vivid memories of a burning world? As usual, these were not just my personal response, but were shot through with the beliefs I had inherited. The Padaung are haunted both by the Christian idea that the world might come to an end, and by their own ancient beliefs about fire: 'When the forest burns, the wild cats rejoice.' This is a vision of civil disorder and of those who would exploit it. Fire is one of the 'five enemies of man' in Buddhist tradition -- but it is also a power we revere, a power to cleanse and renew. [pp. 53-54]

The jungles to the west of the town and the lake to the east were our playgrounds. We used to pick seasonal wild fruits and play hide-and-seek. But our special pleasure was war games. Inspired by all the government warnings about the rebels lurking in the jungles around the town, we enacted guerrilla raids and attacks, abductions and killings.

The war games became reality later, when we witnessed real fights between government troops and rebels very near our town. We were intensely excited, because each fight seemed ridiculously like a game, except that real people got wounded and killed. Perched on tree branches on the tops of hills, we watched the clashes as if they were football matches. We cheered and shouted while people were slaughtering each other in earnest in the valley.

We organised dangerous games for ourselves. We built small carts with wooden wheels for downhill racing. The carts were like modern go-karts, but with no steering wheel or cover. Of course we wore no protective clothing. To make the carts run faster, we greased the axles with a slimy liquid chewed from the bark of a gum tree. The steeply descending track was strewn with tree-stumps, barbed wire, cacti and bamboo. Worst of all, the track skirted an electricity pylon mushroomed with landmines at its base. No one managed to finish the track without getting hurt. Two boys were killed. Another of our games was to use long poles to prod and explode the landmines around pylons. [pp. 48-49]
SOURCE: From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey, by Pascal Khoo Thwe (HarperCollins, 2002)

29 March 2004

Cronyism 101 Taught by the Master: Indonesia's Suharto

Brendan I. Koerner reports in the 26 March 2004 edition of Slate:
How Did Suharto Steal $35 Billion? - Cronyism 101

Mohamed Suharto has received a dubious honor from Transparency International, which named the former Indonesian president the most corrupt world leader of the past 20 years. With his family's takings estimated at between $15 billion and $35 billion, Suharto topped such notorious kleptocrats as Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines ($5 billion to $10 billion) and Nigeria's Sani Abacha ($2 billion to $5 billion). How did the longtime Indonesian strongman amass his wealth?
Sssh! I'm working with Madame Abacha (and the Bank of Equatorial Guinea) to recapture a big percentage of her husband's ill-gotten wealth. Unfortunately, Ibu Tien Suharto ("Madame Ten Percent") failed to outlive her husband.
Through a system that his political opponents called KKN, the Indonesian acronym for "corruption, collusion, nepotism" [korupsi, kolusi, nepotisme]. Suharto handed control of state-run monopolies to family members and friends, who in turn kicked back millions in tribute payments. Those payments were usually cloaked as charitable donations to the dozens of foundations overseen by Suharto. Known as yayasans, these organizations were supposed to assist with the constructions of rural schools and hospitals but instead functioned as Suharto's personal piggy banks. Doling out millions to one of the foundations was simply part of the cost of doing business in Indonesia during much of Suharto's 32-year reign. Financial institutions were ordered to contribute a portion of their annual profits to a yayasan, for example, and wealthy Indonesians were expected to "tithe" a certain percentage of their salaries.

Australians to Help Monitor Indonesian Elections

CANBERRA (AP): Australia will send a delegation of lawmakers to monitor next week's elections in Indonesia, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said on Tuesday....

"Australia has committed up to A$15 million ($US11 million) to support the Indonesian government in running this election," Downer said.

Indonesians go to the polls on April 5 to elect a 550-seat legislature....

With nearly 17,000 islands to cover, Indonesian election officials have had to transport ballot papers to remote areas by air force planes, boat, and in some cases, donkeys.

Morobe Field Diary, October 1976: Two Canoe Experiences

I paddled the kaunsil out to the [M.V.] Sago when we were loading ready to leave Kela and some people waiting for me to cross their path said, in reference to me, masta kanaka, i.e. a 'native' whiteman with all the paradox in Tok Pisin that it has in English--maybe more. That is the story I'll leave behind when I go, I suppose. A story about oneself is the means to immortality here--along with children--not publication. My singsinging at the church assembly gave another chapter of the story to many people there. Maybe it's the kind of story this country needs more of.

Today I decided to paddle out and dump some junk left over from a coconut tree that was cluttering up the beach in front of my house and attracting dog piss. First I loaded the heavy stuff, climbed in overloading one end and swamped the bugger. Then I redistributed along the length and climbed in again to discover the outrigger was overloaded and submerged so I could only go in circles. Shit, plenty room for pitfalls in these uncomplicated-looking canoes. Then I paddled my weaving, meandering way out past the reef. The uneven drag of an outrigger canoe still gets me. I can get where I want to go but not without a good deal of worry and no grace at all.

Morobe Field Diary, October 1976: Singsing Toktok

The comforts of the village are not to be decried when compared to what I have just been thru. The past week I've lived under the same inadequate roof with about 2 dozen men, women & children without adequate bathing facilities and a latrine in the bush that no one dared venture into at nite for fear of snakes. You had to save your shits for the day time and piss on the beach (10 feet away) at nite. We didn't have a floor so we had to shake out sand before laying out our mats at nite.

The compensation for all this was the sam (< Jabim) (= Nu. bada Eng. 'festival, market'). I performed in a war singsing (mock) when our guys singsinged our way down the beach before maybe 1000 people encamped in about the same style we were (but most with floors). During the day there were other singsings, people to meet, stores to spend money carefully reserved for the occasion, church meetings. But most of all, at least for the younger people it was singsing time. There was almost always one going on somewhere until the Saturday of the major meeting word went out that singsings were prohibited until the meetings were over. People who joined the Numbamis from town were disappointed but they managed to squeeze one in between the end of the meetings on Sunday and the time the [M.V.] Sago came to carry them to town.

After my initial frolic I had had enough of being stared at and sat out the rest of the singsings, especially after I burnt my foot, broke the blister singsinging and then tore off the skin & washed it in methylated spirits (for starting Coleman lamps) & had difficulty walking on it for several days. I began to suffer from lack of privacy and quiet after about 3 days and it got acute before we left the sam. All the time I was hearing Numbami spoken around me. It wasn't the language so much as the vast quantity of it. If the culture is aperture-oriented [referring to the fact that the names of body parts with holes all end in awa 'hole' (> -owa), as in tanganowa 'ear', nisinowa 'nose', etc.], it's mainly concentrated on the oral one. Everyone was in a festive mood and the time not actually spent singsinging was often spent singing the lyrics & beating the drums.

When I was informed we wouldn't go back directly but that we would stop at Kela (with whom we helped host part of the visiting delegates) for a post-celebration singsing and feast, I was in a foul, foul mood. Constant noise is something I don't endure well in any culture. It's odd how my feelings toward the people I was with changed. At first, and usually, I felt the greatest affection for them all and consider them a remarkable bunch in general. But, after being worn down a bit, I began to dwell on all their bad points: their compulsive talkativeness (with some notable & much appreciated exceptions), their demandingness, the persistence of some in addressing me as bumewe 'masta, whiteman, foreigner' rather than by name. [And here I was doing the same to "them"!]

When compared to the Kelas, who were unfamiliar with me, the Numbamis interact with me much more naturally--sometimes I'm even allowed to blend into the woodwork. One time, I was even forgotten when food was served out and didn't get the first plate as I almost invariably do. Believe me, for two or three days I was doing my best to blend into the woodwork. What happened at Kela (Kila, Keila) was that they said they wanted to buy the #1 favorite Nu. singsing--the baluga, a slow, somewhat stately, and very impressive singsing that the Numbamis perform very well. It's a favorite of mine too. The Numbamis bought it (for the price of a feast--and no ordinary meal either) from the Garainas (some of whom performed it at the Lae Show and of which I have photos). They, in turn, sold the rights to perform it to the Ya (also Kela speaking) people (who were said to perform it badly) and now the Kelas bought it for vast quantities of taro and two pigs--enough for all of us and the people left back in the village too. It's kind of like a royalties payment so that performances will be official and, supposedly, of better quality than just a singsing nating ['nothing singsing'].

Funny thing about the sam--a meeting of the Yabim district--where Yabim should be the lingua franca if any--is that all the program was in Tok Pisin. Yabim was only unofficially the lingua franca of the older set.

28 March 2004

Buruma's Pessimistic Assessment of China

Traveling in China, one easily picks up the rank smell of political decay. I left Beijing more convinced than ever that Communist Party rule would end, but without any better sense of how this might happen. The peaceful revolutions in Taiwan, South Korea, and Eastern Europe give no firm clues. Circumstances are not the same. I do not share the optimism of those who cling to the hope that the Chinese, in their infinite subtlety, will find a slow, gentle road to the Fifth Modernization [= Democracy], shepherded by the Communist Party. The KMT [Kuomintang = Nationalist Party] did it in Taiwan, but the Chinese Communist Party is not the KMT. Whatever it is that brings this rotting regime to an end, one can only hope it will be peaceful. But hope is not the same as expectation.
SOURCE: Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, by Ian Buruma (Vintage, 2001), p. 337

Wei Jingsheng's Epiphany

If the world of intellectuals can be divided, as Isaiah Berlin once argued, between foxes, who know many things, and hedgehogs, who know one big thing, Wei [Jingsheng] is clearly a hedgehog. The one conviction he guards like a precious jewel, and about which he is lucid, always serious, and willing to stake his life, he had already expressed clearly in his 1978 manifesto on the Democracy Wall in Beijing. It goes to the heart of the Chinese problem. "History," he wrote, "shows that there must be a limit to the amount of trust conferred upon any individual. Anyone seeking the unconditional trust of the people is a person of unbridled ambition. The important thing is to select the right sort of person to put one's trust in, and even more important is how such a person is to be supervised in carrying out the will of the majority. We can trust only those representatives who are supervised by us and responsible to us. Such representatives should be chosen by us and not thrust upon us."

Wei Jingsheng was twenty-nine when he wrote that. Memories of Mao worship and its millions upon millions of victims, humiliated, maimed, and tortured to death, were still raw. The statement is as simple as it is true. And Wei has stuck to it. He is often accused of being out of touch with developments in China, of not recognizing the changes that economic reforms, carried out while he was in prison, have brought. But if one believes, as Wei does, that only political change which guarantees the right to criticize and to vote will do, such reforms are beside the point, for they fail to address the main problem. He argues, simply, bluntly, doggedly, at times megalomaniacally, that without democracy--not "socialist" democracy or "people's" democracy--the Chinese cycle of violence, followed by tyranny, will never be broken.

The way a former Maoist fanatic arrived at this conclusion has been described by Wei himself, as well as by his perhaps too admiring biographer, the German journalist Jürgen Kremb. That he was once a fanatic is clear from his own account: He had wrecked "bourgeois" homes, dragged out "rightists" for public interrogations, and spouted devotional Maoist maxims ever since he was a child, when his father made him learn a new page of Mao's writings every day. Wei was among the first wave of middle school students to become a Red Guard but also, it seems, among the first to have doubts. Some of the stages of Wei's intellectual journey from total belief in communism to total disbelief have taken on an almost mythical status. Most poignant, perhaps, is Wei's glimpse of the naked girl.

To make it easier for the young to spread revolutionary terror all over China, Red Guards were allowed to travel by train free of charge. Wei hopped on a train sometime in 1966, bound for the northwest. When the train pulled into the city of Lanzhou, he was shocked to see children swarming outside the window begging for food. A middle-aged man, sharing his compartment, said they were probably children of landlords, "rightists," and other "bad elements," and deserved to starve.

The barren northwestern landscape became more desolate by the mile after the train left Lanzhou. It stopped at a windswept little station so insignificant that it did not even have a platform. Again, the crying and whimpering of beggars drew Wei's attention. He leaned out of the window. One girl, of about seventeen, her face covered in soot and her long hair caked with dirt, raised her arms, begging for something to eat. She appeared to be dressed in a filthy rag. The middle-aged man sniggered and said girls like that would do anything you fancied for a few crumbs of food. Suddenly Wei pulled back from the window in shock. What looked like a rag was nothing of the kind. The girl was covered in nothing but her own matted hair. Wei was overcome by a wave of disgust--with the obscene, sniggering man, the starving, naked girl, the stench of urine and excrement, the simmering violence among the Red Guards, and the bony arms outside clawing the ground for scraps of food. And he asked himself: Was this the "fruit" of socialism?

There were more shocks to challenge the official version of reality in China. On a trip to the far west, he saw families living in holes in the ground, sharing one warm garment against the freezing winds; he met "rightist" intellectuals there who had been banished in 1957 to do hard labor without a chance of ever going home. In the early 1970s, Wei met his first girlfriend, Ping Ni, the daughter of a high-ranking Tibetan Communist living in Beijing. Her family story was enough to drive away any illusions he might still have had.

Ping's father was a staunch Maoist, even during the bloody suppression of the Tibetan revolt in 1959. But someone had to be blamed for the escape to India in that year of the Dalai Lama and a hundred thousand followers. So one night in the spring of 1960, when Ping Ni was six years old, there was a knock on the door. Her father was taken away to spend the next twenty years in prison. Six years later, the Red Guards came for her mother, who, in full sight of her daughter, slit her veins with a razor. With blood spurting from her wrists, she was dragged downstairs by the teenage revolutionaries and bundled into a truck. Ping Ni's last sight of her mother was of her legs kicking before the door was slammed and the truck drove off into the dark.

Wei came to the dangerous, and for him almost fatal, conclusion that "a foremost characteristic of the Communist Party is lying, very effective lying, lying all the time and about everything. It is not easy for ordinary folks to see through this. As the youngest of the [Red Guard] leadership, I saw it clearly, all the cruelties, which totally destroyed my previously conceived impressions of the Communist Party."

This in itself did not make him an original thinker. Many intelligent Chinese had reached similar conclusions. More unusual was his view that communism was absolutely incompatible with democracy, and there was nothing to gain from making concessions to the Party. This is what drove him to the Democracy Wall.
SOURCE: Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, by Ian Buruma (Vintage, 2001), pp. 96-98

Sumo Results: Haru Basho, 2004

Mongolian Yokozuna Asashoryu ['morning green dragon'] clinched his second perfect 15-0 record in a row, while his countryman and Takasago stablemate Asasekiryu ['morning red dragon'] ended up in a 3-way tie for 2nd place with the two Ozeki, Kaio and Chiyotaikai. For further commentary, see Tom's post at That's News to Me. Here's a sample:
Finally, the yusho match. At the tachiai (start of the bout, or, perhaps better, "face-off"), Chiyotaikai started out with a furious tsuppari (slapping/arm thrusts to the upper body & face), driving Asashoryu back. Chiyo apparently thought he was on the verge of driving Asa back out of the dohyo (ring), or perhaps he merely thought tsuppari was his best/only chance of beating Asa, as he seemed to overcommit himself to that. Asa got in control of himself, side-stepped Chiyo's thrusts, and pushed him down to the dirt to claim his second consecutive zensho yusho [all-win tournament-win], the first time that's been down since Takanohana in 1994 (I think I already mentioned that, but it was in the preview, I think). Prior to Takanohana was Chiyonofuji (Chiyotaikai's stable head, FYI) in 1985. I believe the record for most consecutive bouts won is up in the 69 by Futabayama in 1936 and in the post-war era, 53 by Chiyonofuji (assuming this is accurate). Standing at 30 right now, Asa has a long way to go, but we shall see....

UPDATE: The champions list for all divisions is here. In addition to Asa the Mongolian winning the top division, Mongolian Hakuho wins juryo, the second-highest dvision, Bulgarian Kotooshu wins makushita, the third-highest division, and Minaminoshima (lit. "southern island) from Tonga wins sandanme, the fourth-highest division. Unsurprisingly, Asasekiryu took the Shukun-sho (Outstanding Performace Award) and the not-always-awarded Gino-sho (Technique Prize). All in all, not a bad basho for the gaikokujin [foreigners].
Hungarian szumo fans can check for detailed results at this page. And Japanese sports trivia fans can amuse themselves with this quiz, where we learn that the rank "yokozuna" did not appear on the banzuke until 1890, even though certain wrestlers were licensed to wear the yokozuna ('cross-rope') belt and perform the solo ring-entering ceremony now performed by those of yokozuna ('grand champion') rank for a hundred years before that. The "yokozuna" ceremony was invented by referee and promoter Yoshida Zenzaemon in order to make sumo worthy of performance before the Shogun Tokugawa Ienari in 1791, and the "yokozuna" rank was not recognized by the Sumo Association until 1909.

SOURCE: "The Invention of the Yokozuna and the Championship System, or, Futahaguro's Revenge," by Lee A. Thompson, in Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions of Modern Japan, ed. by Stephen Vlastos (U. of California Press, 1998), pp. 174-187

27 March 2004

'The English Are a Very Strange Tribe'

In 1936 another white man turned up in Phekhon, in the company of some Indians from Loikaw. He invited two of the grandmothers and some of their friends from the village who wore neck-rings, along with their husbands, to come to England. They had no idea what the purpose of the invitation was, and the Italian priest was vehemently against their going away. Nevertheless, they were all excited and eager for the journey. They were to be taken around Europe by a circus called Bertram Mills and exhibited as freaks. Since we did not have the concept of a 'freak', and since, anyway, we took our tradition of women wearing the rings for granted, they and their relatives were unlikely to be offended by the idea.

They were flown to Rangoon from Loikaw, and shipped to France to be shown to the French public as a test of their popularity before they eventually arrived in England. Not long before the Second World War broke out they returned to Phekhon, richer with English money. They showed us photographs of places they had visited, but could never remember the names....

The grandmothers told me that one of the photographs was taken in front of the English chief's house, in a big village called London. They said that in this big village they didn't have to climb the stairs, but the stairs carried them up and down. They liked the moving stairs, because they hated walking in the shoes that had been provided for them - since all their lives they had gone barefoot.

They suffered from the cold of England. Nor did they understand what spirits the English were appeasing in always having to drink tea at a certain time, although they loved the cakes that went with this ceremony. 'The English are a very strange tribe,' said Grandma Mu Tha. 'They paid money just to look at us - they paid us for not working. They are very rich, but they cannot afford to drink rice-wine. Their trees are unable to grow leaves during the rainy season. They say, "Hello," "How are you" and "Goodbye" all the time to one another. They never ask, "Have you eaten your meal?" or "When will you take your bath?" when they see you.' Grandma Mu Tha gave up trying to account for these strange habits, which afforded her great amusement. If we had had the notion of 'freaks', I suppose she would have put the whole English race into that category.
SOURCE: From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey, by Pascal Khoo Thwe (HarperCollins, 2002), pp. 28-29

How Padre Carlo Came to Phekhon, Burma

My tribe were mostly animists, although some were Buddhists, who worshipped the Nats. These nature spirits are not peculiar to the Burmans, who had received them into Burmese Buddhism, but are part of popular religion in most of South-East Asia.... But my grandfather, and later his wife, were converted to Catholicism.

It was an unusual conversion, brought about involuntarily by an Italian missionary, Padre Carlo, who was on his way to China. He had no intention of winning Phekhon for the Church, and was simply passing through. My grandfather was out on a hunting trip, and came upon this strange being, who he decided was either a wild beast or a khimakha (an ogre in the style of the Tibetan yeti, that looks like a cross between a bear and an ape and is tall as a tree). So he captured him and brought him home. Padre Carlo was chained in a pigsty for the night, where his wailings and lamentations could be heard throughout the village. He made signs that he wished to eat, and accepted some cooked rice. This made the villagers suspect that he might, after all, be a human being, and that therefore he had rights, including traditional hospitality. (Some doubts about his humanity lingered, due to the fact that he had no toes. The Padaung had never before seen shoes.) He was persuaded to stay in the village for the rest of his life, and in due course converted the whole village to Catholicism, except for my grandfather. He finally consented to join the new religion only after he lost a wrestling match with the priest, whom he had challenged about the power of his god. The Christian God was obviously potent, because my grandfather was taller and more powerfully built than the priest, who was anyway suffering from malaria at the time.
SOURCE: From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey, by Pascal Khoo Thwe (HarperCollins, 2002), p. 25

Seoul, Ville géante, cités radieuses

Korean Studies Review has posted a review by James E. Hoare of Seoul, Ville géante, cités radieuses, by Valérie Gelézeau (CNRS, 2003), which reminds us again how much Korea followed Japanese models of modernization long after the end of the colonial period.
Journalists who write about Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, often dwell on the supposedly "Stalinist" characteristics of its high-rise apartment blocks, and their reduction of human beings to ant-like creatures. To the writers, these blocks are clearly a bad thing. Yet some three hundred kilometers further down the Korean peninsula, in the South Korean capital of Seoul, tower blocks seem even more domineering. Clustered together in miniature cities within the greater conurbation, they have become the preferred dwelling place of the affluent and successful. South Koreans boast of their tower blocks and the urban infrastructure of elevated roadways, underpasses and bridges that go with them, comparing Seoul's Yoido Island to Manhattan. There is nothing negative about this assessment of such buildings....

In this fascinating book, the French geographer Valérie Gelézeau examines how this came to be.... She traces the origins of the modern dwelling complexes to the industrial complexes established in the Japanese colonial period, but argues that the real take-off for high-rise buildings was only practical with improvements in water pressure and the reliability of electricity supplies, for central heating and elevators, that had to wait until the economic transformation of South Korea under President Park Chung-hee began to take effect. It was thus only in the late 1970s that the widespread use of buildings over four-six stories became possible. Before then, the typical Seoul "high-rise" was about five stories, with no elevator and with a water tank on the roof. In a society where few people owned their own cars, there was little or no need for parking places. Some of these low high-rises survive, now updated, with the water tank used only for emergencies, and where possible, with parking spaces for the explosion in car ownership since the mid-1980s. In general, however, the mighty blocks that now dominate so much of the city have replaced these early efforts....

Gelézeau also sees the development of the high-rises as an important part of Park's commitment to modernize South Korea. Perhaps drawing on his experience of Japan's Manchukuo experiment, Park equated the traditional with the countryside and the countryside with the backward. Not only should people move off the land, but they should also change the way that they lived. And the new blocks with their "Western"-style bathrooms and kitchens were a potent symbol of that modernity. But as so often happens when one probes into developments in Korea, the inspiration for the new blocks that began to appear from the mid-1970s came from Japan rather than from the West, despite the Western-sounding nyu t'aun (New Town) appellation that the Chamsil first mega-complex received. The chaebol [conglomerates called zaibatsu in Japanese] built their blocks following what had become the standard modern Japanese layout, "LDK" - that is, a set of bedrooms around a "living, dining, kitchen" area....

While her contacts praised the apartments for their comfort and safety, some at least look back positively on older styles of housing because there was more contact with neighbours. People clearly miss the friendly greetings of the old communities. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the world that Gelézeau describes is how isolated people seem from each other. Community, and even family, life hardly exists. The staff charged with looking after the buildings complain that the residents will not sort their rubbish or take responsibility for the communal areas. Yet these blocks are not the bleak social housing that has given high-rise buildings such a bad name in Europe, but the acme of middle-class living ...

Morobe Field Diary, October 1976: Stages of Language Learning

I believe I'm at a point now where things I had to concentrate on to hear several months ago I can hear 'at a glance' now. A lot of the language worked its way into my subconscious or spontaneous memory/capacity while I was in Mosbi [Port Moresby, the capital]. It is as if my subconscious is where my conscious was two or three months ago. Analysis is a language production device, I think, only or mostly for the conscious mind. Rote formula thinking handles a hell of a lot of the production at the level of daily transactions.

The local stages of language learning are:

A. 'Ulongoni wai/Yu harim pinis/You know the language', i.e. you can carry out basic exchanges of betel-nut, food, going and coming and the like. By these rules it's true that people learn Numbami in a month.

B. 'Unenela i/Yu winim mipela/You know it better than we do', i.e. you know some pretty esoteric vocabulary: the archaic/nonborrowed word for 'to buy', words like 'thump', 'saliva', 'spouse of one's cross-sibling' [= sibling of the opposite sex]; words people seldom use because the things they designate are seldom talked about or because the native vocabulary has been replaced by borrowings.

There is no evidence that ability to tell a good story (or tell a story well) is considered a language ability.

26 March 2004

Morobe Field Diary, October 1976: Fieldwork Progress

Oct. 13-16 I added about 50 words a day to my dictionary. That puts my major entries at over 1000. (I tend to have rather more minor/subentries than I will in the final product--all the parts & life cycle of a coconut under coconut etc.). People have been very cooperative. I'm going to have to collect some tapes before boredom sets in again.

Diseases seem to be partly seasonal here. August was fever time; people have depleted my cold tablet supply now and a lot of people seem to be plagued with carbuncles though they may be off and on the year throughout. The only thing that can be done for them is lancing to drain off the pus. Some get to be several inches in diameter and so painful that walking is difficult if they are on the leg (as they frequently are).

I've gained a bit more insight into the possible causes of the kaunsil's election. Not only does he have well-placed & educated children and a good (Yabim) education himself but he has an extensive network of relatives thruout the village and controls with his wife very large land holdings (from a coconut plantation all the way to the waterfall; all the mtnside his garden is on--about a hundred meter wide swath all the way up (& over?) the ridge; another garden just across the river and one off this end of the village). Phillip, his relative, was elected first, but relieved shortly & his opponent in the last election was S. (Daniel), his cross-cousin.

Today had every prospect of being a good workday (though it's Sunday--or maybe since it is Sunday & everyone is around): one guy volunteered to give me vocabulary, the kaunsil promised a tape. Then last nite the kaunsil's oldest sister came by and reported an illness that wasn't apparent but which blocks her wind passages so she can hardly breathe at times [asthma?]. Then this morning she had a bad attack of it and the whole village is waiting to see whether she'll pull thru or not.

Later in the day, people dispersed, I got to elicit some vocabulary and hear a good deal of conversation (half was in Tok P. because some ausländer Sepiks were involved) and, in the evening, the kaunsil gave me my first text--a really perfect specimen. It is about sago palm food [starch] producing and begins with the different kinds of sago palms--which are distinguished only by their thorns, or lack of them--then, separated by a heading, continues with the whole process, from tree-cutting to division of the food [starch]. It is vocabulary rich, discourse structure rich, clear, slow, intonation contours mostly unambiguous and thus well punctuated--which, in a language with more than one inflected verb to a [simple] sentence [or clause], is very important for defining [complete] sentences. I now have my hands full transcribing but the tape is so good that I'll be able to transcribe easily words I'm unfamiliar with. (It only goes from 1-70 on the cassette.)

Etymologically, Myanmar = Burma

In 1989, Burma's military government changed the name of the country to Myanmar. The reason, it said, was that the British colonial power had named it 'Burma' after the main ethnic group in the country, the Burmese, who inhabit the central plains. 'Myanmar', it was argued, included the Burmese and all other 'ethnic races', including the Shan, the Karen, the Mon, the Kachin and more than 100 other nationalities. This is, however, historically and linguistically highly dubious. The once-British colony has always been called Burma in English and bama or myanma in Burmese. [The Japanese designation biruma would thus appear to have come from the English spelling.]

The best explanation of the difference between bama and myanma is to be found in the Hobson-Jobson Dictionary, which remains a very useful source of information. 'The name [Burma] is taken from Mran-ma, the national name of the Burmese people, which they themselves generally pronounce Bam-ma, unless speaking formally and emphatically.'

Both names have been used interchangeably throughout history, with Burma being more colloquial and Myanmar more formal. Burma and Myanmar (and Burmese and Myanmar) mean exactly the same thing, and it is hard to argue that the term 'Myanmar' would include any more people within the present union than the name 'Burma'.

There is no term in the language that includes both the Burmans and the minority peoples, since no country with the borders of present-day Burma existed before the arrival of the British in the nineteenth century. Burma, with its present boundaries, is a colonial creation rife with internal contractions and divisions.
SOURCE: "Myanmar/Burma," by Bertil Lintner, in Ethnicity in Asia, ed. by Colin Mackerras (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), p. 174

25 March 2004

Burma: Broken Heaven, Broken Earth

Canadian essayist, novelist, and poet Karen Connelly wrote about Burma in the Asia Observer:
There is only one other person staying at the hotel above the river. She is an artist from Spain. On the evening before her departure, we dine together. She has a pressing need to explain herself.

"I'm an idealist like you. I really am. I grew up in Spain, you know. I remember what it was like, during Franco's time. My parents were always telling me not to get involved in the politics, it was very dangerous. Really, I am an idealist, and I think it's terrible that these people are so badly off."

"I don't think badly off really explains it. They are poverty-stricken, malnourished. And oppressed. Hungry for many things."

"Do you really think they are? Really? Is it really possible to be hungry in the tropics? There is so much fruit everywhere. When I was in the north, there were two children sitting outside my restaurant with empty bowls, so of course I gave them some of my food. But someone else would have fed them if I hadn't. They wouldn't have gone to bed hungry."

I swallow a sip of my water, bottled water.

She continues, "A doctor I met up there said that he has never seen the infant mortality rate so high. I agree, that is really awful. But in a way, it's a natural form of birth control."

I want to ask this elegant, beautiful woman if she is on the pill. She was educated at one of the most expensive art schools in London. Has she ever had a baby, and watched her baby die, slowly, of diarrhoea? Dysentery? Malaria? Food poisoning? Those are the common killers of babies born in Burma, ailments often complicated by malnutrition. I finish my glass of water. The food has come but my appetite has left me.

"And they are always smiling! I really don't believe they're so miserable. They're always so happy."

Surely she will hear the exasperation in my voice. "But that's part of being Buddhist. Many people, especially the poor, accept the conditions of their lives, and they revel in whatever life is around them. The Burmese are a deeply hospitable people, too: that's why smile at us."

"They look so happy. There seemed to be a lot of people with bad eye diseases in the north, and even they laughed a lot."

Awkward pause. What can I say?

"I really am idealist, but if democracy came all at once to Burma, this country would disintegrate! It can't come too quickly."

"But the people of Burma already voted in a democratic government. There were elections in 1990. The NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, won by a landslide. The military refused to hand over power." Surely she must know these little details from her guidebook.

"Well, voting for freedom is one thing, but living with it is another. If it comes too quickly, Myanmar will disintegrate!"

How can she not see? She is a painter; her vocation is in her eyes. "But the country already is disintegrating. Nothing works here. The currency is a farce, corruption is rife, the military makes deals with druglords, and the overwhelming majority of people cannot afford to live on what they make because inflation is so high. Even the electricity doesn’t work. People die after operations because the hospitals cannot afford proper sterilization equipment!"

She looks at me squarely, condescendingly. "Journalists exaggerate the situation."

"I haven’t been talking to journalists. I’ve been talking to Burmese people. Students, doctors, artists, market women."

But the doubt remains plain on her face, tightening her lips. "I know how bad it is. But if democracy comes too quickly ..." Her voice trails off. She begins to eat. I move my food around with a fork.

Strange, the fork. Lately I’ve been eating Burmese-style, with my hands. There is something intensely pleasurable about touching the food one puts in one’s mouth. Messy, but fun.

The Spanish artist looks up from her curried chicken with an alarming intensity and asks, "What are you trying to do for the Burmese people?"

This question takes me by surprise. I think for a moment, but can’t decide how to reply. I feel acute embarrassment. Flustered, I say, "Nothing."

"But you must be trying to do something."

I raise my eyebrows, searching. "Um. No. I'm not."

"Why did you come here then? You said you would never come here only as a tourist, so what are you doing here then, if not trying to accomplish something?"

"I'm just talking and listening."

"But aren't you trying to accomplish the freedom of these people?"

I laugh out loud; her statement is so lofty. I am embarrassed and uncomfortable that we are sitting at this table in Burma, talking about the Burmese, while the waiters stand at the dining room doors like sleepy sentinels. They might understand everything we’re saying. Or nothing, which is worse. I want to apologize to them. I want to flee. "I don't pretend anything like that. It's too presumptuous. It sounds silly. Only they can accomplish their own freedom. I am … hanging around."

"But you've been going on about how terrible the government is here, and how much all these people you've met have suffered, and how powerful this place is for you. Don't you want to do anything? You must be trying to do something. Why don't you just say it?"

"I just want to write about what I see here. That's all. That will do whatever it can do. All things considered, that will be very little."

Now it is her turn to sip water. Oh, let the meal be done, let this be over. In other circumstances--in a gallery in Madrid, for example, drinking sangria in a bar in Segovia, I know I would like her. It is foolish as well as fraudulent for me to stand on the moral high ground, though the natural birth control comment was appalling. But we all say appalling things sometimes. It’s the nature of being white, or powerful, or simply human. I have Gorky to temper me: By then I could see that all people are more or less guilty before the god of absolute truth, and that no one is as guilty before mankind as the self-righteous. The sharpening edge of defensiveness in her voice comes from a guilt which has nothing to do with me. I want to say, "It's unnecessary, please don't feel that way," but I just listen to what she says next with a small, pained smile on my face.

"I really feel that I have done a lot for them. I have tried to talk and smile as much as possible. You know, I’ve tried to let them know that foreigners are not threatening, not awful people. And it's absolute hell up in the north where there are no other tourists. The locals won't leave you alone for a second. It's hard work, to be up there, wandering around, trying to get to places they won't let you get to, and all the people are mobbed around you, and there's no other white people. I kept calm the whole time, never lost my temper, always just smiled as much as possible."

I smile myself. The news is coming on. Out of respect, or perhaps out of curiosity to catch more fragments of our conversation, one of the dining room attendants turns down the volume. Conversation wanes in the presence of the silent news; we turn, along with the young Burmese waiters, to watch images of a fine mango crop on screen, box after box of the small, sweet spheres lined up and glowing like orange gems. Surely it is impossible to be hungry in the land of a million mangoes. Now come the obligatory scenes of a military leader inspecting a new factory. Then a whole troop of soldiers marching on some road somewhere in the jungle. Shot after shot of automatic weapons, belts heavy with ammunition. They are very serious, very thin young men, every jaw bone a study in angles, clenched muscle. The Spanish woman turns away from the television and talks more about the difficulties of being a tourist. I nod slowly, suddenly tired. White-shirted waiters come, take away our plates. With great concern, the younger one asks, in Burmese, why I have eaten so little. "I am not hungry." He is aghast, despite my attempts to reassure him. When the table is cleared and the poor waiter becalmed, the Spanish artist and the Canadian writer stand up. "Perhaps we will meet again some day in Madrid." Perhaps. We exchange Buenas noches.

Oddly enough, as I get ready for bed, I think about the Basque country, Euskadi: northern Spain, but not Spain exactly. And so very far from Burma, another world, another lifetime. But every country shares history, just as every human being does. If I know one thing, it is the ultimate meaninglessness of borders. A decade ago, I lived with a woman, also a painter, who was still a child when the tyrant Franco was pronounced dead. As soon as this news came, the children of Euskadi were turned loose from school. The most vivid memory of Maru’s childhood was made that day, when she ran through the village streets with her classmates, crying joy.

24 March 2004

Four share lead at Spring Basho

OSAKA (AP) Grand champion Asashoryu defeated Kakizoe on Wednesday to remain unbeaten and tied for the lead with familiar company at the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament....

Asashoryu, who won the New Year tourney with a perfect 15-0 record, is tied for the lead with Chiyotaikai, Kaio and compatriot Asasekiryu.
UPDATE: After Day 12, "Asashoryu, who won the New Year tourney with a perfect 15-0 record, is tied for the lead with Chiyotaikai and Asasekiryu. On Wednesday, Asasekiryu, Kaio, Chiyotaikai and Asashoryu all won marking the first time in sumo history that four wrestlers were chasing the title with perfect records on the 11th day." The blog That's News to Me has more.

Lingering Guilt from the Mao Era

A common cliché about the difference between East and West is that Oriental cultures are driven by shame whereas the Judeo-Christian West is driven by guilt. In the West, God sees our sins even if no one else does, so we feel guilty. By contrast in the East, which has no God, it is only when the neighbors notice that one needs to worry, and then one feels shame. This has always seemed to me a rickety distinction. What troubles [exiled dissidents] Su [Xiaokang], Xie [Xuanjun], Wang Chaohua, who once tormented her father [during the Cultural Revolution], and many other refugees from China's dictatorship sounds more like guilt than shame--with or without the all-seeing eye of God. And the guilt goes deeper and back further in time than the events of 1989 [at Tiananmen]. Su said: "All of us who went through the Cultural Revolution feel guilty--of beating our teachers, denouncing our parents, that sort of thing. At least we intellectuals can talk about it. Ordinary Chinese have it all bottled up.

So why was it, I asked, that Su [unlike some of his cohorts] ended up rejecting Christianity after all? His response was a melancholy echo of a distress I would come across often among the survivors of the Maoist era. He said that since people of his generation lost their faith in Maoism, they felt like plants cut off at the roots. It had become impossible to believe in any religion or any ideology, he added: "I tried hard, but I can't believe in anything at all."
SOURCE: Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, by Ian Buruma (Vintage, 2001), p. 58

Religious Blogospheres

If the Jewish blogosphere is jBlog, and the Catholic blogosphere is St. Blog's Parish, what does the Mormon blogosphere call itself? Over at the Mormon blog Times and Seasons, the Bloggernacle Choir seems to be carrying the day.

23 March 2004

Korea Between Empires, 1895-1919

Korean Studies Review recently posted a review by Michael Finch of Korea Between Empires, 1895-1919, by Andre Schmid (Columbia U. Press, 2002), which reminds us how much Korea followed Japanese models of modernization before, during, and after it was colonized by Japan.
In his introduction Schmid discusses the major themes to be covered in the book: namely, the role of newspapers in defining the nation, Korea's disengagement from its traditional orientation toward China, the centrality of 'capitalist modernity' to both Korean nationalism and Japanese colonialist thought, the importance of Sin Ch'aeho's "ethnic definition of the nation" as minjok, (p. 16) and the way in which the parameters and frameworks of nationalist discourse in Korean newspapers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries continue to influence the debate on Korean nationalism today.

The opening chapter, "The Universal Winds of Civilization," examines the concept of munmyông kaehwa ("civilization and enlightenment"). Schmid's choice of the year 1895 as a starting point for his study is significant in that this year saw the defeat of China in the Sino-Japanese War and China's official renunciation of its suzerain status over Korea in the Treaty of Shimonoseki (17 April 1895)....

Along with the rise of Korean nationalism came a rising sense of East Asian racial solidarity as defined by the term Pan-Asianism, which saw East Asia as united by the common threat of Western imperialist intrusion into the region. In this world view, held by many of the reformists including the Protestant reformer Yun Ch'iho, Japan was cast in the role of defender of the East and was even supported by the Hwangsông sinmun during the Russo-Japanese War--although as the Korean capital was effectively under the control of Japan during this period, it may to some extent have been coerced into adopting this pro-Japanese line. With the signing of the Japanese-Korean Treaty of Protection in 1905, however, all illusion evaporated. As Schmid makes clear in this chapter, a naivety toward Japanese intentions appears to have been a major weakness of the proponents of munmyông kaehwa, many of whom owed an intellectual debt to Japanese reformist thinkers such as Fukuzawa Yukichi. The ambivalent attitude of the Hwangsông sinmun toward Japan made it a target for the pro-Japanese organization, the Ilchinhoe on the one hand, and anti-Japanese nationalists on the other. The Taehan maeil sinbo, on the other hand, under the ownership of Ernest Bethell, a British citizen protected by extraterritoriality, was exempt from Japanese censorship and was consequently able to adopt a more consistent anti-Japanese stance in its editorials.

Chapter 3 "Engaging a Civilizing Japan" examines the extensive intellectual interaction between Korea and Japan that underlay the developing confrontation of Japanese colonial expansion and rising Korean nationalism. Although munmyông kaehwa had its roots in the West, Japan was its mediator in East Asia. As Schmid points out, "'The West and Japan' emerged as standard expressions for the top rungs of the civilizing hierarchy." (p. 107) It was from Japan that the early reformers who had initiated the Kapsin Coup (1884) drew inspiration and support, and it was to Japan that increasing numbers of Korean students went for a 'modern' education. As evidence of the strong link between the reformist movement in Japan and Korea, Schmid brings our attention to the similarities between Yu Kilchun's Sôyu kyônmun and Fukuzawa Yukichi's Seiyô jiji (Conditions of the West) and the fact that Yu's seminal work was also subsidized and published by Fukuzawa. (pp. 110-111)

The wholesale acceptance of the values of munmyông kaehwa in Korea during this period also gave rise to the anomaly of Korean reformers espousing colonial expansion as evidence of superior civilization and enlightenment. Although these reformers were not unaware that Korea might itself fall prey to the colonial expansion of another power, in general they exhorted their fellow countrymen to participate in the reform project so that Korea would escape this fate and be counted amongst the civilized nations of the world. It was only after the signing of the Treaty of Protection that solidarity with other colonized countries such as India began to be expressed.

Piracy on the Rise

This week's Regions of Mind blog cites, among many other stimulating posts, a Progressive Policy Institute study on rising rates of piracy.
A quarter of all world pirate attacks last year took place in Indonesian waters. This region is naturally hospitable to pirates and difficult to patrol since (1) it features shallow waters dotted by lots of little islands and narrow channels, and (2) it is the hinge of the shipping lanes bringing Asian consumer goods to Europe, and Persian Gulf oil to Japan and China. Budget stresses since the financial crisis, meanwhile, have cut Indonesia's navy budget by about two-thirds. Last fall, an Indonesian navy spokesman noted that the country needs about 400 boats to patrol national waters, but has only 117 at the moment; and only 40 of these are seaworthy.

In second place was Bangladesh, with 58 pirate attacks; Nigeria was third with 39. Somalia had 18 attacks, but despite the lower number of attacks, Somali waters may be the world's least-policed and most dangerous. The IMO [International Maritime Organization] has a permanent warning to shipmasters to avoid the area altogether if possible, and especially not to anchor within 50 miles of the coast.

Former South Korean President's Daughter Heads Political Party

The Marmot blogs the election of Park Keun-hye as head of South Korea's opposition ("progressive conservative"!) Grand National Party.
Park, as you know, is the daughter of later dictator Park Chung-hee, father of modern South Korea. Park also served as First Lady after her mother, Yuk Yeong-su, was shot and killed during an assassination attempt on Park in 1974. She has been the recipient of much popular sympathy, first after the death of her very popular mother, and then following the successful assassination of her dad in 1979. Her base of support can be found in her home region of Daegu, where many still have fond feelings toward late President Park, and like her dad, she possesses a squeaky clean image as far as corruption is concerned, although like her dad, I'm not quite sure if that's deserved.
Fellow SK blogger Oranckay adds:
Anyway, the good news/bad news about Park is that as the daughter of the president of the developmental dictatorship she does not generally (fingers crossed!) have to work very hard to please conservatives with red-labeling and petty attacks. Her credentials are in order and she she'll never have her ideological inclinations questioned. On the other hand, she is not known for mental stability and much of an attention span.
Fortunately, the chance of a military coup is far smaller than it was in 1961--at least in the South.

Exiles Become Nobodies

Ian Buruma's chapter, "China in Cyberspace," begins thus:
The problem of exile is that it becomes increasingly hard to go home. You might eventually be able to return physically, but not to the country you left. Too much will have happened in the meantime. Those who stayed behind will have changed, but the exile, because of his peculiar experience, will have changed even more, marked by exposure to an alien world. There are cases, it is true, where exiles have gone back to be leaders. At the beginning of the the twentieth century, Sun Yat-sen plotted the Chinese revolution in Tokyo, London, and Honolulu, and he returned in 1911 to lead the Chinese republic [though not very effectively]. But this is rare. Former exiles are not usually welcomed back into the fold. [How about Khomeini?] Like Brahmans who leave India, political rebels tend to lose their aura once they step away from their native soil. I once asked an academic in Hunan, who was critical of the Communist regime, what he thought of overseas dissidents such as Wei Jingsheng and Fang Lizhi. He replied that once a dissident leaves China, "he has no right to speak out anymore." This was not an isolated opinion, which, by the way, is never expressed about overseas Chinese who get rich.

"All the nobodies who cannot return are going home." This line is from a poem by Yang Lian, a writer from Beijing now living in London. He carries a New Zealand passport and lived in four different countries before arriving in England in 1993. His flat is on the third floor of a redbrick early-twentieth-century apartment block. All his neighbors are Chasidic Jews, who speak Yiddish and wear clothes reminiscent of eighteenth-century Poland. Exiles of a different kind, they regard Yang Lian and his wife You You as exotics. Yang wrote that poem in London. Those who live abroad become nobodies. Home is a land of their own invention.
SOURCE: Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, by Ian Buruma (Vintage, 2001), pp. 108-109

22 March 2004

Morobe Field Diary, October 1976: Lae Show and Return to the Village

Well, I'm glad I stuck around for the Lae Show. It was mostly like any big state fair with games of chance and exhibits of various groups. But it only had one or two mechanical rides and no strip shows. And, on Sunday, it had a huge singsing performance in the middle of the big arena with about 2 dozen groups of various sizes performing simultaneously. I can see how the 'throb of the jungle drums' could strike terror into the hearts of even the likes of Jungle Jim. In the show it all seemed somewhat more pedestrian but still very impressive. When the performance for the crowd and judges was over, the singsingers continued in a huge empty field outside of the showgrounds. They were much more accessible to photographers there but also capable of demanding payment for photos taken. I shot up two rolls (2 x 20 exp) before they finished (in someone else's camera so I don't know how they'll come out but I didn't want to risk mine not coming out again).

After a quick tour around the show Saturday I set out for the boat dock where the [M.V.] Sago comes in to help the guy that looks after my mail drink up a case of beer I had deposited with him. I was late and he and some other wantoks had already started. He scolded me, which I was glad he felt free to do, bought another case, and we all set ourselves to the task at hand on good terms, especially after J. came by and joined us for longer than he planned.

In many ways my return to the village after nearly two months away paralleled my original trip. I got to the dock at about 9:30 only to find out the boat wouldn't leave before about 1:00. When it finally took off about 3:30 it was crowded like all the other boats after the Lae Show weekend. It was dark by the time we got to Salamaua, pitch dark by the time we made our first stop at Lababia. It looked like rain ahead for a while but then the stars appeared and the moon rose out of the sea like a huge egg yolk and made the rest of the trip more visible. After a stop at Kuwi we got to Siboma in the middle of the nite--after the cocks had crowed the first time.

The big difference was that I was much more at ease with the people on the boat or in the village and they with me and I could speak the language. And I didn't have to take a wicked piss for the last 3 hours of the trip like the first time I came when I was unsure about whether I could just hang it over the side & do my business or not. [The men could just stand at the back of the boat facing into the dark.]

My reception in the village was easier too. When I got up I made the rounds visiting--at least at my end of the village--and found out all were waiting for the kiap (government officer) to come hear their complaint against two Paiawas who beat up a Numbami man. When the kiap finally got here he came on a bit too strong trying the time honored tradition here of shouting orders at loudmouths and talking before listening. Intimidation used to work here and still does many places but not here in Siboma now. I sat on the sidelines and listened to the various stories & arguments. The kiap finally changed his tactics and said he would take depositions and arrange a court case. It is a coup for the kaunsol that the thing is going to court rather than being resolved (or just aggravated really) by a Numbami-Paiawa brawl which a lot of men in the village seemed to want. The kiap's initial approach really antagonized a lot of men who were ready to go at him and then take on the Paiawas. The arguments & tactics of the older men though showed a great deal of sophistication in the handling of gov't officials who see the world thru quite different eyes, whether or not they are blue. Their arguments appealed, for instance, to gov't and church law and they either shouted down or quietly allowed the kiap to hear the disgrunts of the more impassioned men whenever either suited the point they were making. A lot of the antagonism is not really at the Paiawa but at the timber company whose camp the beating occurred in and whose rotten deal for Siboma timber is constantly ready to be added to the flame of any other grievance at all connected to the timber co.

After the kiap left the young men of the village invited me to join them for a singsing practice. They're going to perform at the upcoming church meeting of the whole district near Salamaua. I got a good glimpse at what goes into their bilas (adornment, make-up, decoration) and they helped me bilas as well. Then we snuck around to the other side of the village (we got ready near the washing hole) and made our entrance after heralding it with drum beats. We danced the same sequence of movements (to different drumbeats sometimes and different lyrics/chants) for probably 2 hours so by the end I had it down pretty well. I may have gotten myself into performing with them (before a large crowd I'm afraid). I'm oddly unconcerned about whether I join them or not. They think it would be quite a spectacle and, though flattery may enter into it, I am assured that I perform quite adequately. We performed until food was brought for us (though we weren't sure it was coming for a while). I worked up quite an appetite and an even greater thirst.

I couldn't have asked for a better first day back in the village. There was even a warm beer or two to be had that evening.

U.S. Marines Rely on Translation Devices

Gregg K. Kakesako reports in Sunday's Honolulu Star-Bulletin:
Breaking the language barrier: Two tools help Marines communicate instantly in dozens of languages

The Marines have two types of universal voice translator devices to communicate with Iraqis about anything from searching vehicles to giving medical aid.

Shujie Chang, director of experimental projects at Marine Forces Pacific, said the devices are meant to help Marines who are now being sent to all corners of the world.

"You can take these devices," Chang said, "into any country and they are a means to communicate with the local population."

However, both voice translation devices are only one-way, where the commands or questions are made in English and then translated. Both rely on a pre-programmed lists of phrases.

The Phraselator P2 is the size of hefty personnel digital assistant, with a three-by-four-inch LCD display screen. It is manufactured by VoxTec, a subsidiary of Marine Acoustics Inc. in Newport, R.I.

The Voice Response Translator was developed 10 years ago for law enforcement officials and is basically a portable computer that attaches to a police officer's belt. It was designed, said Timothy McCune, president of Integrated Wave Technologies, to keep the hands of the police officer free.
Aaargh. Better than nothing, I suppose. But not by much.

21 March 2004

The Revenge of the Ridiculed

It is hard to say how many Christians there are in China, since most of them do not belong to officially registered "patriotic" churches. People all over the country gather in private homes, or "house churches," to pray and preach and generally share in various hybrid forms of folk Christianity. Like Falun Gong, these are often classified as "evil cults" by the government, and believers are regularly arrested. A friend from Beijing once told me that clandestine Christians were the toughest dissidents, because of their willingness to die for their faith. I wanted to meet some of them, but this was not simple to arrange.
Nevertheless, Ian Buruma finally managed, through a network of relatives, to arrange a trip into the farther reaches of Sichuan Province to interview a "house church" leader in a tiny rural village.
After we had gotten back from the village, Cindy and Aunt entertained Uncle with stories of Cindy's mother and her beliefs. The three of them were shrieking with laughter. Cindy mimicked her mother's voice and imitated her Christian pieties. Tears of mirth moistened Uncle's small, red eyes. I asked him why his sister-in-law shouldn't believe in Jesus if it made her feel happy. Still chortling at the stupidity of his rural relations, he slapped a damp hand on my leg and explained that "Marxism is based on a materialist philosophy and all religion is mere superstition."

I was aware of the danger of feeling superior to the half-educated ways of Uncle and Aunt, and yet could not help detesting them. There was so much anxiety and shame in their ridicule of the village life they had barely left behind. Hearing their laughter, I could understand the powerful attraction of egalitarian beliefs to people who felt the contempt of the educated classes, and it hardly mattered whether the peasant messiah was called Jesus Christ or Mao Zedong.

Uncle's faith in political dogma made him feel superior to his village relatives, not only because mastering some of the Marxist jargon marked him as an educated man, just as reciting Confucian texts had for previous generations. but because it sounded scientific and modern, like his giant karaoke machine; and to be "scientific" was to be out of the village, with its age-old superstitions. Perhaps the increasing popularity of many faiths in China is a kind of revenge, against the oppressive dogmas of a morally and politically bankrupt state, but also against the little mandarins who are paid to impose them. It is a case of village China hitting back.
SOURCE: Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, by Ian Buruma (Vintage, 2001), pp. 285, 298

Malaysia's Islamic Party Loses Ground in Elections

Jane Perlez reports in the New York Times:
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, March 21 -- The major Islamic party in Malaysia lost significant ground in parliamentary and state elections here today as the governing coalition of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi coasted to victory.

The Islamic party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia, lost the state legislatures in the oil rich northern state of Terengganu and in the neighboring state of Kalantan. In a humiliating loss, the leader of the party, Ulama Hadi Awang, lost his federal parliamentary seat.

The fortunes of the Islamic party, which won control of the Terengganu state legislature four years ago, were being closely watched as a barometer of militant Islam in Southeast Asia. Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, holds parliamentary elections early next month.

Since taking control in Terengganu, the Islamic party, popularly known as PAS, has imposed religious laws, including bans on alcohol and gambling.

"If this election says one thing it says that Malaysia is rejecting the Islamization policies of PAS," said Bridget Welsh, assistant professor of Southeast Asia studies at John Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, who is visiting here. "PAS has been decimated."

Mr. Abdullah, 64, who inherited the prime minister's job in November from the longstanding incumbent, Mahathir Mohamad, ran on an anti-corruption platform. He presented a more benign tone than his brittle predecessor, and as a descendant of Muslim scholars, the new prime minister appealed to voters who support a moderate version of Islam.

That approach stymied the efforts of the Parti Islam SeMalaysia to build on its gains in the Malay heartland, in the northern part of the country.
Among the lessons to be drawn here, it seems to me, is that the best way to keep any one religious faction from dominating government is to clean up government while also allowing all religious groups to participate in the political process. Targeting particular (nonviolent) religious groups--whether the Islamic Party in Turkey, the Falun Gong in China, or the Christian Coalition in the U.S.-- as in some sense "enemies of the state" seems only to backfire when the governing party itself loses credibility.

UPDATE: Head Heeb has more.

20 March 2004

Does China Need More Taiwans?

I left Taiwan [in 1999] feeling elated--not so much because of the election results, which were mixed. [Democratic Progressive Party candidate] Chen Shui-bian lost in Taipei; [DPP candidate] Frank Hsie won in Kaohsiung.... It would be a bit more than a year later that Taiwan passed the real test of democracy: a peaceful transition from one party to another. In March 2000, Chen Shui-bian was elected as the first DPP president of Taiwan, breaking the KMT [Kuomintang] monopoly on power....

Until the 1980s, Taiwanese dissidents abroad were as impotent and as easily dismissed as irrelevant and quixotic as the mainland dissidents are today. But when Taiwan politics began to turn after the Kaohsiung Incident in 1979 [in which police clashed with pro-democracy demonstrators], the overseas activists had the international contacts, the expertise, and the financial resources to play a vital role. They knew how Washington worked. Above all, despite their feuding and the occasionally wild and desperate actions, they had kept the flame alive during the dark years, rather like governments in exile, offering hope that one day change would come.

And yet the case of Taiwan sits oddly within the history of China, for Taiwanese freedom was built in defiance, not only of the People's Republic of China but of the idea of One China. I was often struck by the Japanophilia among the older dissidents [many of whom have Japanese nicknames] and their contempt for "those Chinese" on the mainland, and I assumed it was a necessary defense against official propaganda of reuniting the motherland. As a gut feeling or prejudice, anti-mainlander feeling can be disturbing. But the belief that the ancient Chinese drive toward central power over a vast land has been inimical to political freedom is surely right. For democracy to succeed, "China" probably needs more Taiwans.
SOURCE: Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, by Ian Buruma (Vintage, 2001), pp. 205-207

19 March 2004

The Legacy of the 2-28 Incident in Taiwan

Ian Buruma's chapter on Taiwan describes his trip to the 2-28 Museum.
As told in the museum, the story of Taiwan, including the 2-28 Incident [see below], is as formulaic in its way as the old KMT [Kuomintang] myth of Nationalist martyrdom. A short historical overview explains how the Taiwanese--that is to say the Chinese who arrived in Taiwan three centuries ago--were always oppressed by foreign conquerors: first the Dutch, then the Portuguese, the Japanese, and finally the KMT mainlanders. This, one is told, fostered a unique love of freedom and a rebellious spirit. But the story had a typically Taiwanese post-colonial twist. Hindsight has given Taiwanese a rosier view of Japanese rule, which, though harsh, also brought many benefits, such as universities, science, railways, and electrification. The KMT, on the other hand, brought only violence, poverty, and corruption. The loathing of aliens that once bound Han Chinese together against the Manchu invaders is replicated in the Taiwanese hatred of mainland Chinese.

The story of 2-28 itself, as described in books, comics, videotapes, photographs, prints, posters, and textbooks, invariably goes like this: On February 27 agents of the Monopoly Bureau, who were little more than mobsters on the government payroll, assaulted an old lady who was peddling cigarettes in Taipei. One of the agents beat her over the head with his pistol. Crowds gathered to protest. The agents, panicking perhaps, began to shoot and killed one of the demonstrators. More people were gunned down the next day, with internationally outlawed dumdum bullets, which rip the body open. The rebellion spread all over the island. Radio stations and government offices were taken over. People suspected of being mainlanders, in or out of uniform, were attacked and sometimes clubbed to death with sticks.

In 1947, Taiwan was a province of China, which was still ruled by the KMT. A meeting was convened between Chen Yi, the KMT provincial governor, a brute with Shanghai gangster connections, and members of the Taiwanese elite. Civil liberties were promised in exchange for a return to law and order. But as soon as more KMT troops arrived from China, the "white terror" began: Martial law was declared and mass arrests, torture, rapes, disappearances, and executions followed. Within about two months, much of the native Taiwanese intelligentsia was wiped out. Many people were so badly tortured that they had to be carried to the execution grounds. Eventually, after he had lost the civil war in China and retreated to Taiwan, Chiang Kai-shek made a gesture to appease outraged Taiwanese feelings: In 1950, after a splendid fireworks display, Chiang's old friend Chen Yi was executed for being a "traitor."
SOURCE: Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, by Ian Buruma (Vintage, 2001), pp. 178-179

Kim Jong Il: Comic Book Hero

The March 19 edition of Digital Chosunilbo (English Edition) carried a story from VOA News that begins thus:
Comic Books on N. Korean Leader a Big Hit in Japan

A series of comic books that portray North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as an evil despot are selling briskly in Japan. The books' author says he hopes to educate the Japanese public about Mr. Kim and his reclusive Stalinist state, but critics say the books are deeply biased.

North Korea is frequently in the Japanese headlines because of the dispute over its nuclear-weapons program. But many Japanese are getting their information about the isolated North and its leader, Kim Jong Il from a novel source - a pair of comic books.

Combined the two comics: Introduction to Kim Jong Il: The Truth about the North Korean General and The Shogun's Nightmare - have sold more than 700,000 copies.

Through cartoons, the books relate the history of Mr. Kim, including his relationship with his late father, Kim Il Sung, who was North Korea's first leader.

The second book also looks at the situation of North Koreans who flee to northern China to escape oppression and poverty at home. In addition, it looks more deeply at the Stalinist North's drive to build nuclear weapons and predicts the downfall of Kim Jong Il.
via NKZone

Medieval al-Maghreb and al-Murabitun and al-Muwahhidun in al-Andalus

Lee Smith's backgrounder on Spain in Slate elaborates on al-Andalus mentioned in an earlier post.
The Arabic name for Morocco is al-Maghreb, the place where the sun set on the westernmost limit of the 8th-century Arab empire.

The Arabs conquered the Berbers, a general term encompassing numerous tribes throughout western North Africa, whose warrior ethos they put to good use. It was a largely Berber army, led by a Berber general, that conquered Spain in 711. The Berbers were, by and large, enthusiastic converts to Islam, perhaps a little too fervent for some of the ruling Arab elite. Unlike the Arabs, who fought just for plunder, the Berbers believed that they waged war to glorify Islam.

... when al-Qaida lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri referred to "the tragedy of al-Andalus," he wasn't pining for what the Spanish call the "convivencia," when Muslims, Christians, and Jews all lived together in relative harmony. That picture of Muslim Spain is undoubtedly a little over-gilded, but it's good that the myth of al-Andalus continues to fund the world's imagination. Without the legend of peaceful co-existence, a city like New York--where Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others get along handsomely--would've been much more difficult to conceive.

At any rate, there was trouble in al-Andalus long before Ferdinand and Isabella banished the Muslims and the Jews in 1492. Two of the more serious challenges came from Morocco in the late 11th and then 12th century, first the Almoravids and then the Almohads, both of them Berber dynasties and Muslim fundamentalists.

Almoravid is a Hispanicized version of the Arabic word "al-Murabitun," or "those of the military encampment." As Richard Fletcher writes in Moorish Spain, the Almoravids "saw their role as one of purifying religious observance by the re-imposition where necessary of the strictest canons of Islamic orthodoxy." They came to redeem a weakened Muslim state against the Christians. Once the Almoravids got soft, the Almohads, still more theologically austere, came north to replace them. Almohad is a corruption of "al-Muwahhidun," or "those who profess the oneness of God." It is an Arabic word still in usage; in fact it is the other polite way [like Salafi] to say Wahabbi.
via Michael J. Totten

18 March 2004

Asashoryu Improves to 5-0

OSAKA (AP) Grand champion Asashoryu posted a hard-fought win over Kyokutenho on Thursday to improve to 5-0, while the ozeki duo of Kaio and Chiyotaikai kept pace with solid wins at the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament.

In his toughest bout so far, Asashoryu took on fellow Mongolian Kyokutenho in the final bout at Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium. After a prolonged standoff, Asashoryu eventually prevailed when he twisted his opponent down at the center of the ring.

The burly Mongolian remains tied for the lead with Kaio, Chiyotaikai and lower-ranked wrestlers [Georgian] Kokkai ['Black Sea'] and [Mongolian] Asasekiryu.

Morobe Field Diary, August 1976: A Visit to Gitua

Dear Residents,

I have a mind to visit you and compare villages, notes, and diseases before heading for Mosbi. G. wrote and said you were thinking of a panel discussion for us three [fieldworkers] on our language work. I'm a little uncertain how it would work....

The visit might be around the end of the month, after which I'll head back thru Lae, pick up my materials and get set for Mosbi by the 16th.

The doldrums have hit my fieldwork and a fever has laid me low the past couple of days. Everyone in the village is getting it. It doesn't seem bad enough to be malaria but it's no fun.

The [M.V.] Sago goes to town tomorrow. Fishing has been terrible lately. [The 48-hour vivax malaria hit hard shortly after the boat left the next day, so I took a treatment dose of chloroquine but had to wait a week before getting into town.]

Let me know if your plans make mine possible. Did J. pay you a visit?

Tako ['okay, enough' = Tok Pisin em tasol]


Just got back from a trip to P.'s village. It's a bloody resort. In fact, only 10 miles down the coast there is a resort (at Sialum) where Europeans come for a weekend from time to time. The beaches are sandy, there's no jungle, not too much rain, beautiful coral reefs offshore, wide, clear, cold rivers nearby, an airstrip--everything great for a resort but detrimental to easy livelihood for the village dwellers. The flat stony ground can't be near as fertile as the bushy slopes of Siboma; the reefs hinder access to the ocean by canoe (and there are indeed few canoes in Gitua); coconuts are the only likely cash crop; and the place is so windy (from lack of forest or ground contour windbreaks) that small gardens are frequently protected by [manmade] windbreaks. But there is plenty of room to walk about so you don't get the feeling of 'living at the bottom of a well' (P.'s phrase) as you do in Siboma.

The geology is spectacular. The village is on the north coast and the coastline is terraced from the collision of the Australian plate with the one to its north. It makes the ground very rocky and full of limestone (which may make the rivers so blue) instead of volcanic soil as most of the coastline is (when it is not swamp). This collision is what causes the numerous minor tremors that occur all along the north coast and the periodic large ones as a recent one in West Irian near Djayapura.

P.'s language is unbelievable. Its lexicon is practically Proto-Oceanic itself with very few sound changes. A. picked Siboma for its conservativeness but Gitua outdoes it. P. wants to surprise A. with it when he goes through Auckland on the way back.

J.S. & I flew out there in a 9-passenger, twin-engine plane as far as Sialum and then transferred to a 4-seat, single-engine for the 10 mi hop to Gitua. We flew along the marshy coast on the southern side of the Huon Peninsula at about 2-3000 ft, turned inland and climbed to 7000 to go over the mountain-tops (10,000 ft on the way back to get over clouds as well), then descended fairly quickly when we came out on the north coast.

We brought taste treats to the [fieldworker family] like salami, steaks, fresh vegetables, bread & cheese & butter and beer. They were overjoyed. We also took betel nut, pepper catkins & lime. I was made much of when I chewed and complimented on my Tok Pisin by people in the village.

17 March 2004

"It often takes a lack of education to be able to express things clearly"

Ian Buruma was visiting the island of Hainan in China in May 1998 when news arrived that General Suharto had been forced to step down as leader of Indonesia, partly as a result of massive student demonstrations.
"This is very important news for all Asian people," said the keen young reporter for a local paper in Hainan. He was greatly excited, unusual in China when it comes to foreign news. We were sitting at the editorial office of a literary magazine. Most of the editors were there, as were some of the main writers. A young secretary passed around paper plates containing bananas and grapes. I was asked for my "foreign" view.

I could only repeat what I had read in the papers in Hong Kong. I said the Indonesian students had been inspired by the example of Tiananmen. This was received with nervous looks and polite laughter. One or two people scraped the floor with their feet. What did I think of the possibility of democratic change in China? It was not a question I relished, for I did not like to hold forth, in my imperfect Chinese, to people who knew the problems of their country better than I ever would. Still, I had to say something. So I said I saw no reason why Chinese could not handle a democracy if the Koreans, the Filipinos, the Taiwanese, the Japanese, and now, one hoped, the Indonesians could.

The usual discussion--usual among Chinese intellectuals, that is--about the peculiarities of Chinese culture ensued. It would take a long time for democracy to develop in China. China was too big. China was too poor. China was too complicated. Chinese history was too long. Chinese people needed to be more educated. They had little idea of democratic rights. If democracy came too suddenly, there might be chaos. And so on. The keen young reporter then asked me whether I could comment on a particularly "sensitive topic." What about June 4, 1989, the Beijing Massacre? But one of the editors, the most senior person in the room, swiftly intervened, pointing out that I was a "distinguished foreign guest," who had traveled far, so perhaps I could offer them some insights into the wider world outside China.

Later that same day, I went out on my own for a snack. Opposite my hotel was a half-finished concrete shell of a building. Much of Haikou, the main city of Hainan, was like that. The building boom of the early 1990s had come to a sudden halt, victim of the Asian financial crisis. Parts of Haikou looked as though they had been bombed. A kitchen had been improvised in one of the rooms of the half-finished building. Next door a jerry-built "beauty parlor" was a front for a brothel. A young man, his shirtless back shiny with sweat, was tossing noodles about in a large pot. After some diffidence, he wiped his hands on his trousers and came over for a chat. We were joined by two of his friends and a girl in a filmy evening gown, who worked at another "beauty parlor." They stared at me and said nothing.

The cook had come down from a village in Sichuan with his sister, who was helping him run the food stall. But he was in debt to the businessman who paid his wages. That was the trouble with the economic reforms, he said. The rich bosses now controlled everything. I nodded, and slowly ate my noodles with garlic and squid. The chef then shifted in his seat and emptied his nose, by first blocking one nostril and snorting in a short, sharp burst, then repeating the procedure with the other nostril. His manners were far from elegant. But he was no fool. "You know," he suddenly said, "in your country the individual has the right to control his own life. Not here in China. Everything is controlled from above. The Communist Party has complete power. That is why we have no rights here."

The intellectuals at the literary magazine might well have shared the cook's view. In fact, some almost certainly did. But one of the oddities in contemporary China is that it often takes a lack of education to be able to express things clearly. Or, to put it differently, it is those who live near the bottom of society who feel the lack of individual rights most keenly. That is why they generally get to the point more quickly.
SOURCE: Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, by Ian Buruma (Vintage, 2001), pp. 232-233