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December 17, 2009
Burmese people suffer brunt of U.S. sanctions on Myanmar

Young Burmese men sitting on bikes in Yangon. Photos: Michael Lwin

In recent months, U.S. policy on the isolated Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar has been shifting towards greater engagement.

Worldfocus blogger Michael Lwin, who recently returned from Myanmar and is of Burmese descent, argues that U.S. sanctions have been ineffective and have caused undue suffering for the Burmese people.

During my trip to Myanmar, it was heartbreaking to listen to young Burmese people who, because of geographic accident of birth, have a tiny fraction of the opportunities and possibilities that I do.

“We go to college and get masters and are educated,” said one young Yangon resident. “We have degrees in science and medicine. But there are no jobs for us.”

Official statistics say that the unemployment rate is 5 percent, but many Burmese people told me that it was much higher.

A man sharing a Yangon taxi with me said: “We are so behind the rest of the world. Look at Thailand. They cooperated with the West, and look at them now. We used to be far superior, and now we are very behind. Our struggle is very sad.”

For decades, the Burmese people have struggled in isolation as their nation has faced sanctions from the U.S. and other Western nations aimed at punishing the ruling military junta.

A Burmese woman peels onions at a roadside restaurant.

The Obama administration has been pursuing a policy of cautious engagement with Myanmar. U.S. Senator Jim Webb, a Vietnam War veteran and Secretary of the Navy under Reagan, has been pushing for a policy of even greater engagement.

In an August 2009 New York Times op-ed, Webb criticized the “ever-tightening economic sanctions against Myanmar,” on the basis that China, Russia and India still make business deals with Myanmar.

Webb continued: “If Chinese commercial influence in Myanmar continues to grow, a military presence could easily follow. Russia is assisting the Myanmar government on a nuclear research project. None of these projects have improved the daily life of the average citizen of Myanmar, who has almost no contact with the outside world and whose per capita income is among the lowest in Asia.”

Sanctions also cripple Myanmar by encouraging educated Burmese to leave the country for the West. Myanmar continues to lag behind ASEAN counterparts in human capital. Sanctions also take away many jobs from the Burmese, forcing women into the sex industry and giving rise to black markets.

I believe there is another reason that engagement might work in Myanmar.

Unlike North Korea, which actively stamps out other religions besides the state’s propagandist Juche ideology, the Burmese have been a deeply spiritual and predominantly Buddhist people for over a millennium.

Senior-General Than Shwe, Myanmar’s ruler, is influenced by Buddhist principles, having built a massive pagoda in the new capital Naypyidaw.

The Naypyidaw pagoda is intentionally one foot shorter than the revered Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon, presumably because Than Shwe does not want to offend Buddhist sensibilities. It is also rumored that he enlisted astrologers to select the location of Naypyidaw.

It is possible that Than Shwe, at the ripe age of 76, wants to build up good karma for the next life by engaging the Obama administration.

Whether Webb’s theory will work remains to be seen. While initial attempts at engagement seemed fruitful, progress has stalled. But some are optimistic that relations are picking up again.

For the sake of the Burmese people, I hope change comes soon.

– Michael Lwin

December 16, 2009
Tribal women in India fight against malnutrition

Young girls from Madhya Pradesh’s tribal communities near in the town of Dhar. Photo: Overseas Development Institute

Worldfocus partner World Pulse is a media enterprise covering global issues through the eyes of women. This post is excerpted from their PulseWire project, an international online forum for women. In it, Subhadra Khaperde, an activist and researcher from Indore, India, argues that anti-poverty efforts won’t succeed without addressing the root causes of poverty.

There is an interesting hiatus between the perceptions of tribal women and the NGOs regarding the problem of child malnutrition in Madhya Pradesh state in India.

While Chato, a Sahariya tribal woman, emphatically states that the lack of land, means of livelihood, electricity and medical facilities are the main barriers to keeping her children alive the NGOs are more concerned about the improper functioning and lack of universalisation of supplementary child nutrition services.

Thus while the poor women have hit upon the correct analysis that the lasting solution to the problem of malnutrition is in providing adequate and sustainable livelihood opportunities. The NGOs campaigning for an end to malnutrition on the other hand are more concerned with trying to improve the quality of the superficial bandage services being provided by the State. Plants need water at their roots and not on their leaves.

The crisis of malnutrition is there among all the poor and Madhya Pradesh is the state with the most number of hungry people in India. However, the children owing to their lower immunity are more prone to die than their elders are.

The truth is that devastation of livelihoods in Madhya Pradesh has taken place due to the adoption of wrong agricultural policies over the past 40 years or so.

The introduction of the cultivation of soyabean in the monsoon season has led to the gradual vanishing of such nutritious crops as jowar, bajra, makka, udad, tuar, moong and groundnut.

Simultaneously, in the winter season only wheat is sown and the area under gram has been going down. Thus while earlier the poor small farmers used to get nutritious food from their farms they now have to purchase food from the market at exorbitant prices.

Moreover, while agriculture was a profitable enterprise earlier because of subsidies provided for power and fertilizer now it has become a loss-making proposition due to the withdrawal of subsidies.

The problem has been aggravated over time by the fragmentation of land with the increase in population. This has meant that there are now more landless labourers like Chato who get less work and less remuneration and so are in even greater trouble than small landholders.

– Subhadra Khaperde

December 15, 2009
In India, growth-first advocates battle progressives, cynics


Climate change workshop at a school in Vilandai, India. Photo: Flickr user

Navroz K. Dubash is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, India. He writes about the climate change debate within India.

This article originally appeared in Eye on Earth, Worldwatch Institute‘s online news service. It was also posted at, a bilingual website on the environment.

U.S. climate politics loom large on the global stage. The twists and turns of senate deliberations are a favored topic among the world’s “climaterati” – the climate-change policy community. But with India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh recently making his inaugural visit to Washington to meet US president Barack Obama, it is worth recalling that India has complex climate-change politics, too. Moreover, India has been invoked frequently as an obstacle to US climate politics, second only to China, making it vital to explore these dynamics further if we are to get constructive movement on the global stage.

It may be surprising to discover that a variety of stances on climate change exist in India, which make consensus on domestic politics a challenge. For some, the climate negotiations are seen as no more than an economic containment strategy by the west. These “growth-first stonewallers” argue that even if climate change is real, the objective should be to maximize growth, so that India can better handle the impact. Until then, the country should not compromise.

For others, the effort to prioritize environmental sustainability and equity is stronger. These “progressive realists” are growth critics and, although keen to generate action on climate change, they are deeply cynical about the global negotiations. With the belief that these discussions sideline core concerns of equity, they call on India to take aggressive climate measures, but to do so domestically, delinking these from the global process.

Others believe that India should take on ambitious emission reduction measures and throw its weight fully behind a global climate deal. These “progressive internationalists” argue that doing so will help shift the global debate forward and spur matching action in other countries. Since climate impacts will disproportionately affect India’s poor, they suggest that a pro-poor approach is also a pro-climate regime approach.

For advocates of a global climate deal, the good news is that the influence of growth-first stonewallers has waned in India. The bad news, however, is that the center of gravity in India lies firmly with the progressive realists, who shy away from engagement in global climate politics, rather than with progressive internationalists, who seek to embrace it.

Unlocking progressive climate politics in India will build confidence in a far more progressive global, and particularly US, climate politics. Yet we are still far from this point, and three major issues get in the way.

To begin with, industrialized countries signal bad faith by making their commitments toward climate action conditional on similar commitments by developing countries. Americans, for example, should be reducing their emissions because they are responsible for 25% of carbon dioxide emissions released in the past 50 years.

Suggesting responsibility for past emissions carries politically unpalatable overtones of an ecological debt; however, arguing for no responsibility is effectively granting Americans squatter’s rights to the atmosphere. In addition, the 1992 Earth Summit bargain required rich nations to “take the lead” in reducing emissions, but the United States has not done so.

Now, economic competitiveness is being used as a basis to challenge the 1992 compromise itself. Doing so sends a dangerous signal that moral arguments have no role in shaping the climate regime and that national expedience will regularly trump global deals. These are both extremely dangerous signals to send, in climate as in other world affairs. To get more action from India, we need to see more unconditional action from the United States.

Second, Indians fear that there is insufficient understanding of their continued development burden at home. India is growing rapidly, yes, but starting from a very low base. Just under one-third of Indians live on less than US$1 a day, and 77% live on less than $2 a day. Most surprising, less than 1% of Indians (or 10 million people) are middle class by American standards – that is, they consume more than $13 a day. To be sure, within this top 1% there is an emergent and problematic class of oligarchic super-rich, and India has a moral obligation to spread the benefits of growth more equally. But by discounting India’s continued development burden when allocating climate responsibilities, the industrialized world is hiding behind India’s narrow rich class.

Third, India gets insufficient credit for what it already has done and is doing to shift to a low-carbon economy. The country uses less energy per unit of GDP than the United States and half as much as China. Electricity prices for industry and petrol prices in India, when adjusted for purchasing power, are four times US prices, creating incentives for further improvements. India has recently publicized a slew of new measures and is discussing legislation to give teeth to these efforts. Collectively, this amounts to a substantial down payment.

None of this is to suggest that India cannot and should not do more to contribute to a constructive global climate regime. Indeed, as the fourth-largest aggregate emitter of greenhouse gases worldwide, India must be far more creative and visionary about creating a low-carbon future. Because of the vulnerable poor in India and elsewhere, the country must better integrate its domestic actions into a strong global climate regime. Climate negotiators have to be as vigorous about championing emissions equity within India as they are about advocating equity across nations. And it would help its negotiation stance if India better managed the tensions of being simultaneously an aspiring power and a poor society.

But the three irritants described above enable stonewallers and realists to portray any further climate efforts by India as a futile strategy of appeasement. Far from leading, U.S. emissions in 2005 were 16% above their 1990 levels, and the United States continues to signal its intent to displace the climate burden onto societies far more disadvantaged. Progressive internationalists in India and elsewhere have gone as far as they can to move their own societies and polities in favor of progressive climate politics. To move any further, India needs a positive and adequate signal of intent from the United States.

– Navroz K. Dubash

December 14, 2009
Kashmiri dispute looms large in politics of South Asia

A de-miner near Srinagar, Kashmir. Photo: Flickr user Haumont

Ambassador S. Azmat Hassan is a former Ambassador of Pakistan to Malaysia, Syria and Morocco and Deputy Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations. He is currently an adjunct professor at Seton Hall University and is a contributing Worldfocus blogger.

Nonaligned India was perceived by most analysts to be largely in the Soviet camp during the Cold War. But the demise of the Soviet Union prompted India to recalibrate its relationship with the world’s only remaining superpower: the United States.

Another major factor assisting in this realignment was India’s embrace since the early 1990’s of free market reforms, trade liberalization and privatization measures. These changes opened up the vast Indian market to U.S. exporters and foreign investors. While millions of Indians are still desperately poor, around 300 million Indians have joined the middle class. Thus a new and expanding Indian market is opening up for a wide variety of U.S. exports, and U.S. investment in Indian industry and infrastructure has risen appreciably in the last few decades.

As a rising regional power, India is anxious to be recognized as a major player not only in South Asia but on the international stage. The importance of India to the U.S. was highlighted by the choice of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the first foreign dignitary to be accorded the honor of a state visit.

A major impediment retarding India’s quest towards great power status is its perennial dispute with neighboring Pakistan over Kashmir. The two oldest conflicts on the agenda of the UN Security Council from the late 1940’s are the Arab-Israeli and Kashmir conflicts.

Despite a number of diplomatic meetings spread over five decades, India and Pakistan have yet to overcome the hurdle of Kashmir, over which they have fought three wars. For Pakistan, Kashmir remains the unfinished agenda of the 1947 Partition. For secular multicultural India, Kashmir is a symbol of its heterogeneity.

President Obama has publicly stated that the U.S. would help India and Pakistan to normalize their relations,  including the dispute over Kashmir. The U.S. can help both countries. If the U.S. can persuade India to withdraw some of its forces on its border with Pakistan, this gesture would enable the latter to commit more of its troops now facing India to its lawless tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

While the Pakistan army has achieved encouraging gains against the Pakistani Taliban in Swat and South Waziristan, its counterinsurgency efforts need to achieve more success. Once the tribal areas are pacified, they will no longer afford a sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda elements that cross the mountainous and porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border at will, to attack U.S. and NATO troops fighting the Taliban insurgents.

So it is patently in the U.S. interest to invest more diplomatic capital in New Delhi and Islamabad. India and Pakistan have both suffered from violent extremism. They continue to be plagued by domestic insurgencies. Whether they admit it or not, they have a shared interest in combating the ravages of terrorism in their territories.

As the U.S. footprint in both Pakistan and India assumes greater depth, hopefully the U.S. will nudge both countries to consistently focus on a resolution of the Kashmir imbroglio. A mutually acceptable settlement of this issue should be placed on the same pedestal as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in U.S. calculations.

– S. Azmat Hassan

December 9, 2009
Chinese matchmakers send Santarinas to find college girls

Photo: Guangdong Daily.

Photo: Guangdong Daily

Hsin-Yin Lee, a former associate producer at Worldfocus, is a news editor at the “China Times” in Taipei.

In fairy tales, the young, rich, handsome prince sends out messengers across the kingdom to look for his girl of destiny. However, if he did so today in China, the crowds will definitely give him a hard time.

Earlier this month, a matchmaking company in China’s Guangdong province had some employees dress as Santarinas — in red Christmas outfits and go-go boots– and march to a college campus. Their mission: to find out “innocent and good-looking” college girls as companions for the company’s clients.

According to the leaflets distributed to the students, the clients not only look like “Korean soap opera stars” but also fit the criteria of China’s “rich second generation”– wealthy, young males born in the 80s.

The stunt, however, backfired. Government officials made statements to condemn such conduct, and college authorities said they will call security if similar campaigns take place again. Furious netizens also flooded into online forums to condemn the rich and young.

“Chairman Mao would burst into tears if he saw this,” an Internet user said, “the Western materialism we used to fight against is back now– with cheers!”

Even the target audience didn’t find the campaign appealing.

“Who do these fops think they are,”  a girl told the local Guangzhou Daily, “some emperor in Ching Dynasty?”

To many, the rising “rich second generation” epitomizes China’s social injustice. According to Forbes’ “China’s 400 Richest” list published last month, many of the wealthiest people in China are younger than 35 years old. These young billionaires are the children of China’s earliest entrepreneurs and inherited a lot of fortune through family-owned businesses.

But for their peers, it’s another story. According to research, most young people in China– who call themselves the “tribe of ants”–  earn an average of $150-$370 each month. Most of them are struggling to live alone instead of sharing with three other roommates, and only seven percent are married.

So did the Chinese public overreact? I don’t think so. I think this time, the prince really hit a nerve.

– Hsin-Yin Lee

December 8, 2009
Myanmar looks toward 2010 elections for political options

Burmese road workers. Photos: Michael Lwin

Michael Lwin, a research fellow at Georgetown University, recently traveled to Myanmar to research Burmese law, culture and religion. In this second post from his trip, he writes about next year’s elections.

I was sitting in a taxi with a middle-aged Burmese man, driving through central Yangon. We were discussing Burmese history from the Thirty Comrades to the protests of 1988. Then, when I mentioned the recent high-profile meetings between U.S. officials and the Burmese government, he summarized present-day issues for the Burmese people.

“The people…we just want to be free. Young boys, young girls, they have to work two or three jobs just to have enough to eat. They work jobs they don’t want to work…the girls have to work at karaoke bars [where they have to feign interest in male customers] just to get some spending money.”

To say that Myanmar is a troubled country is to make a gross understatement. Myanmar ranked third to last in Transparency International’s most recent annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), just ahead of Afghanistan and Somalia but behind Sudan and Iraq. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) estimates that at least 451,000 people are internally displaced in Myanmar.

The State Department’s 2008 Human Rights Report on Myanmar listed multiple violations by the government, including indefinite detention without charges, attacks on ethnic minorities and infringements on civil liberties.

Last year, the ruling junta published a new constitution which creates a bicameral national legislative body along with state and local legislatures. Elections will be held for these seats next year. Many dismiss this as mere window-dressing to further legitimize the junta. Still, some of the provisions of the new constitution appear to provide, at least on paper, significant opportunities for civilian participation in government.

The new national legislature has the potential to allow popularly elected civilians to have unprecedented control over policy. For example, according to Section 96 of the new constitution, the legislature has the power to regulate commerce, labor organizations, taxation, and civil and criminal laws. The President has the ability to make comments and suggest amendments to the bill, though the constitution appears to be silent on whether the President has veto power.

Even though at least 25 percent of the total seats in the legislature must be occupied by military personnel, this still opens up legislative participation significantly.

Yet the Commander-in-Chief of the military retains significant powers, including the ability to declare a state of emergency and with it attain full executive, legislative, and judicial powers and the ability to suspend fundamental rights. The constitution does not mention the possibility of removal of the Commander-in-Chief.

According to the 2008 constitution, there can only be three presidential candidates in a given election; each house of the bicameral legislature selects one candidate, and the military (Tatmadaw) selects a third. But there are several limitations on who can run for president. Persons who are serving time in prison cannot be candidates, which disqualifies many political dissidents.

Also, Buddhist monks are not allowed to run for legislative office. Some commentators have argued that this is malicious disenfranchisement stemming from the monks’ participation in the Saffron Revolution of 2007 — although many Buddhist intellectuals believe that monks should not be political.

Notably, persons cannot run for president or vice-president if they have a parent, spouse or child who owes allegiance to a foreign power, are subject to a foreign power or have citizenship with a foreign country. This impacts Burma’s most famous dissident, Aung Sun Suu Kyi. While some commentators assert that Nobel laureate Suu Kyi’s marriage to British academic Michael Aris excludes her from the elections, this is probably inaccurate.

The road leading to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house.

Michael Aris died in 1999, meaning that currently Suu Kyi has no spouse. However, if Myanmar adheres to the 2008 constitution, she would be disqualified for another reason. Suu Kyi has two sons (Kim and Alexander) who reside in the United Kingdom and are British citizens.

Suu Kyi, who has been in detention for most of the last two decades, will still be under house arrest at the time of the elections, although the Burmese Supreme Court has agreed to her an appeal.

In support of Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), — which scored a runaway victory in the 1990 general election but was not allowed to take office — the U.S. government has isolated the military junta for two decades with little result.

The Obama administration now is trying out a different tack: engagement with the junta — spearheaded by U.S. Senator Jim Webb. Recently Suu Kyi changed her position on sanctions as well, in a sign she too may be modifying her strategy.

Meanwhile in the newly-built capital of Naypyidaw the Parliament building looks like it will be completed in time for the 2010 elections. Last month, I saw workers scrambling to lay down asphalt from the public street to the Parliament, on long roads that are now only adumbrated dirt paths.

Only time will tell what – if anything — Parliament’s new civilian representatives will be able to accomplish after next year’s elections – and whether the citizens of Burma will be any better off.

– Michael Lwin

December 7, 2009
Afghanistan troop surge enlarges U.S. military footprint

A U.S. soldier in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Photo: Flickr user USArmy

Ambassador S. Azmat Hassan is a former Ambassador of Pakistan to Malaysia, Syria and Morocco and Deputy Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations. He is currently an adjunct professor at Seton Hall University and is a contributing Worldfocus blogger.

After an unusually lengthy and public deliberative process, President Obama has decided to induct a further 30,000 troops in war torn Afghanistan. He further stated that the U.S. would start withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan in July 2011. But he left open the timeline for total withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Domestic politics dictate that U.S. presidents cannot appear to be weak. His Republican opponents had started accusing him of dithering on Afghanistan. This consideration was probably an important factor in tilting Obama toward the military surge.

In reinforcing the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan, Obama is aware that its repercussions are likely to define his presidency. His political future could depend on the outcome of this gamble.

Could Afghanistan become Obama’s Vietnam? Despite his statements suggesting what happened in Vietnam is not analogous to how the U.S. is pursuing its objectives in Afghanistan, observers keep drawing parallels between the two situations. The ensuing months will provide an answer.

Just like the corrupt and inefficient South Vietnamese government that could not withstand the North Vietnamese military onslaught, Hamid Karzai’s government has proved equally inept in countering the Taliban. Even after 8 years of huge military and financial support by the West, Karzai’s writ does not extend much beyond Kabul.

His situation seems further compromised by the recent presidential election which was seen by Afghans — as well as outsiders — as deeply flawed. Karzai today wields neither much legitimacy nor authority in the eyes of an increasing number of his disillusioned countrymen. The stock of the Taliban has naturally risen as that of the Afghan government has dwindled.

To expect Karzai and his government to change enough in the next 18 months to defeat a rejuvenated Taliban is virtually asking for the impossible. Most of Karzai’s army consists of the majority ethnic group, the Pashtuns. Afghanistan’s tribal dynamic suggests that it is unrealistic to expect a Pashtun to fight a fellow Pashtun at the behest of an Afghan government which is considered illegitimate, corrupt and inefficient by many Afghans.

Ordinary Afghans are angry at the riches accumulated by Karzai’s cronies through the burgeoning drug trade, bribery and endemic corruption. A large number of Afghans have suffered under this Western-supported dispensation.

Since a military victory by the Afghan army supported by the U.S. and NATO troops seems improbable, it may be useful for the U.S. to encourage Karzai to initiate a political process with the Taliban. The additional U.S. troops will remind the “moderate” Taliban that a Taliban victory is not around the corner. They could be weaned away from the hardcore Taliban.

Political reconciliation will allow the U.S. and NATO troops to withdraw from Afghanistan with some semblance of honor. The government of national reconciliation that hopefully emerges in Afghanistan will have to guarantee that al-Qaeda will not be permitted to operate from Afghan soil. We should realize that al-Qaeda is a much diminished force in Afghanistan. The al-Qaeda leaders are not Afghans. They are Arabs.

The Afghan government, of which the Taliban will be a constituent, may thus not see any advantage in allowing this foreign group the latitude to operate in Afghanistan, which they did 8 years ago. This development will be in consonance with American national security interests.

Only a political process can end Afghanistan’s unending misery. It is well known that it is not possible for nation building to occur while a war is going on — in any country. Reconstruction and development occur when the guns become silent.

– S. Azmat Hassan

December 2, 2009
New EU leader inspired by traditional Japanese haiku

A ceramic frog dedicated to the Haiku poet Basho, at Basho Inari Shrine in Tokyo. Photo: Flickr user Maynard

Hsin-Yin Lee, a former associate producer at Worldfocus, is a news editor at the “China Times” in Taipei.

With all eyes on the Wall Street crisis and China’s rise, it’s rather refreshing to see the first EU president being elected — not to mention that he is also a haiku poet.

Herman Van Rompuy, the future head of the EU, is probably best known for his low profile. However, his passion for haiku has helped him build up a reputation in Japan.

Described as the “EU’s gentle leader” by the Japanese media, Van Rompuy’s charisma seems to lie in both his discreet political philosophy and his pleasant personality. In his personal blog, Van Rompuy played a little joke with himself by writing about his baldness:

Hair blows in the wind / After years there is still wind / Sadly no more hair.”

Not as welcoming as the Japanese media, the Europeans are more critical about Van Rompuy’s leadership. The Independent, ridiculed him in an article “Meet Haiku Herman, Will Europe make him a very famous Belgian?

The newspaper also held a friendly competition on Brussels-themed haiku. Although the satire is truly funny, somehow I felt that people have a misconception of haiku and take it as doggerel or merely as a practice of broken grammar. Look at the works by the Independent staff and you might agree with me:

He writes poems! / That should cheer dull hours / Of talks on iron ore tariffs.”

Vintage wine at lunch: / Expensed. At least it’s not / American, you claim.”

To better understand Van Rompuy, I’d suggest that we begin with haiku — the traditional wisdom of Japan. Consisting of 5/7/5 syllables respectively in three metrical phrases, each haiku attempts to reveal a moment of insight.

Such a moment was best illustrated in a famous haiku written by the 17th-century poet Matsuo Basho:

Old pond / A frog leaps in / Water’s sound.”

(Original: 古池 や furuike ya / 蛙 飛込む kawazu tobikomu / 水 の 音 mizu no oto)

This haiku was carefully created so as to lead to a splash that sets off ripples of thought for the reader. In addition, you can probably feel the late-summer nostalgia here–which is why each haiku contains a kigo, or seasonal reference, to touch off the seasonal miracle of mother nature. In the case of Basho’s haiku, the kigo is “frog”.

What haiku shares with people, in my opinion, is appreciation of the present. Unlike the Christian tradition of questioning our lives “out there,” haiku focuses on “just this” — just this moment, no more nor less. In times of turmoil, it might help people slow down, take a deep breath and start out once again.

While some haiku followers try to engage the material life as little as possible, others argue that a true haiku mind is oriented to the world and people must learn how to work in harmony. Now, does it sound more like an idea the world leaders can apply in the Copenhagen Summit?

Whether Van Rompuy can borrow haiku’s wisdom in political affairs remains unclear. Perhaps not surprisingly, he had already made a first step. At a press conference in October, Van Rompuy read one of his haiku works that explained how Belgium, Spain and Hungary will cooperate on EU policy issues in 2010:

Three waves, / Roll into port together, / The trio is home.”

December 1, 2009
Calling the world’s attention to the caste issue in India

Activists say that India’s PM has been reluctant to address casteism head-on. Photo: Flickr user LondonSummit

For more on the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Washington D.C. last week, Worldfocus spoke with Ramaiah Avatthi, a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.

Currently a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, Ramaiah contends that Manmohan Singh has largely ignored the issue of caste-based discrimination and atrocities.

The caste system is the traditional South Asian hierarchy that consigns people, based on their birth, to ranked social classes.

Worldfocus: Do you think Prime Minister Singh avoided certain issues during his U.S. visit?

Ramaiah Avatthi: Before Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International urged Obama to persuade Singh to address the human rights concerns, particularly caste violence against Dalits (formerly known as Untouchables). This group, also known as Scheduled Castes, constitutes 166 million in India — and up to 250 million in South Asia.

The two leaders focused on Afghanistan/Pakistan, the fight against terrorism, global warming, economic development and nuclear proliferation. Thus the scope for discussion of caste was very limited.

Worldfocus: How would you assess casteism in India today?

Ramaiah Avatthi: The Dalits are subjected to inhuman torture and humiliation when they try to live with dignity like other citizens of India. Their assertiveness is often met with dire consequences.

There have been incidents in the recent past in which some Dalits were forced to consume human excreta and urine. Some were blinded by pushing needle into their eyes. Dalits have been raped and murdered and sometimes paraded naked.

Some non-Dalit families, particularly in states like Haryana, choose to kill their daughters for their “crime” of falling in love with Dalit boys. They are denied the minimum wage and forced work for generations as bonded labor. Most child labor also belongs to Dalit communities. This is not a thing of the past but is very much a part of day-to-day reality in most parts of rural India.

Worldfocus: What concrete policy changes should PM Singh implement?

Ramaiah Avatthi: There are a number of Constitutional safeguards to protect Dalits from injustice and exploitation. But we need more welfare measures to improve their educational and economic condition and to ensure representation in decision-making bodies.

Worldfocus: Has the international community taken note of the Dalit situation?

Ramaiah Avatthi: With the relentless efforts of Dalit activists and civil society organizations in the last 50 years, the issue of caste has come to center stage at the UN. Yet, violence against Dalits continues.

According to our National Crime Records Bureau, the number of crimes against Dalits increased from 26,887 in 2004 to 27,070 in 2006. Even brutal crimes such as rape and murder are on the increase. For instance, the number of Dalits reported to have been murdered by non-Dalits was 654 in 2004 and 674 in 2007.

Similarly, the number of reported cases of Dalit women being raped by the non-Dalit men was 1157 in 2004 and 1349 in 2007. Why do crimes against Dalits continue unabated, despite powerful laws against atrocities? Is the law ineffective — or the government?

It is interesting to note what Martin Luther King said in 1955: “You have never had real peace in Montgomery. You have had a sort of negative peace in which the Negro too often accepted his state of subordination. But this is not true peace. True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice. The tension we see in Montgomery today is the necessary tension that comes when the oppressed rise up and start to move forward toward a permanent, positive peace.”

It is also interesting to note what the Indian Prime Minister said in his speech at the White House on November 23: “India and the U.S. are bound by democracy, rule of law and respect for fundamental human freedoms.” This was a response to President Obama’s declaration that the relationship “between the U.S. and India is one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.”

The crux of the matter is whether such statements will remain merely rhetoric — or will actually promote justice for oppressed communities in both countries.

– Ben Piven

December 1, 2009
Gender politics drives high HIV rates for African women

Gloria, who is HIV positive, in Khayelitsha township outside Cape Town where the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) is holding an AIDS awareness campaign. South Africa. Photo: Trevor Samson / World Bank

Ayo Johnson is a contributing blogger for Worldfocus. His full post on HIV in Africa can be found here at his blog Africa Speak International.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations programme on AIDS (UNAIDS) estimate that there are currently 33 million people in the world living with HIV. There are an estimated 24 million people living with the disease in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 61% of those infected are women. In South Africa and Zimbabwe 75% of young people infected are girls between the ages 15-24.

Factors that have contributed to HIV increase are cultural taboos and gender inequality. It is difficult for women to choose their sexual partners, how often they are intimate, or to demand the use of condoms. Women are also more vulnerable than men due to the prevalence of underage sex, early marriage, polygamous relationships and female circumcisions.

In South Africa, rape and drug dependency make women vulnerable to sexual exploitation and infection. In Sierra Leone, it is common practice for so-called “sugar daddies” to offer schoolgirls material goods and cash in return for sexual favours, often exposing them to the disease. This can happen with the consent of older family members who are powerless to act due to poverty and ignorance.

UNAIDS urges governments to get the right laws and policies in place to ensure women are educated and empowered — for example the ability to keep land, homes and assets when their husband dies.
Governments need to reverse policies on gender inequality, forge closer relationship with NGO’s and private entities, and encourage community-based support groups, clean drinking water and good nutritional food. Failure to provide these basic human requirements risk women becoming an endangered species and endangering the fate of human race.

Perspectives highlights the best of the blogosphere by cross-posting columns culled from a network of contributors. We cut through the noise of tens of millions of bloggers worldwide and bring you commentary from experts and voices on the ground.

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