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August 21, 2009
From U.S. to Israel, racial injustice is not an exception

Jen Marlowe is a filmmaker, writer and human rights activist currently traveling throughout Israel and Palestine. She explores the lives of Troy Davis, an African American man on death row in the U.S., and Asel Asleh, a young Palestinian citizen of Israel killed by Israeli police.

Troy Davis

Troy Davis is a prisoner on death row in the state of Georgia, convicted purely on eye-witness testimony for the 1989 murder of an off-duty police officer that he has always maintained he did not commit. Seven out of the nine eyewitnesses have since recanted or contradicted their testimony, yet until early this week, Troy’s efforts to get this and other possibly exculpatory evidence a hearing were repeatedly dismissed on procedural grounds. Troy has faced execution three times in the last two years, once being granted a stay less than two hours before he was slated to die. On Monday, to the relief of Troy Davis supporters everywhere, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Georgia federal judge must give Troy an evidentiary hearing. Though the fight is far from over, this could be the difference between life and death for Troy Davis.

Asel Asleh was a seventeen-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel, shot at point blank range in the neck by Israeli security forces during a demonstration outside his village of Arabeh in the north of Israel on October 2, 2000. None of the eyewitnesses at the demonstration (including the policemen, one of whom pulled the trigger) tried to claim that Asel had been involved in any act of violence. The Israeli government set up a commission of inquiry to examine the killings of Asel and twelve other Palestinians inside Israel in the first days of the second intifada. The commission ended with a recommendation that the police conduct an internal investigation. The police closed their investigation before they ever opened it, blaming the families of the victims for not cooperating. On January 27, 2008, the Attorney General of Israel proclaimed the investigations closed.

What links Asel and Troy, one a Palestinian citizen of Israel executed by an Israeli police officer; the other an African American from Savannah, Georgia, imprisoned for killing a white police offer?

Troy’s nephew, a fifteen-year-old young man named Dejaun, spurred me to ask that question. Incredibly poised and articulate for his years, Dejaun recently spoke at the NAACP centennial conference about the racism that he has personally experienced growing up in Savannah, Georgia. “When people hear that I am in the honors program at my school, that I did a summer course at American University, that I plan to study robotics in order to develop medical technology, they tell me that I’m an exception. No, I tell them back. I’m not an exception!”

I’m not an exception. Shivers went down my spine as Troy’s nephew uttered those words. I flashed back to what Asel’s older sister Nardin once told me. She has spoken to me at length about Asel’s life, his murder and her experience growing up and living as a Palestinian inside Israel.

Asel Asleh. Photo courtesy of Jen Marlowe.

“We are here, they (Jewish Israelis) know we are here, but they try to minimize our place in their consciousness. When I fully get into someone’s consciousness, they are always surprised,” Nardin told me.

“They ask ‘How do you know such good Hebrew?’ and ‘How come you dress like any other Jewish girl? They might live ten minutes away from me, but they feel good with their ignorance, they don’t do anything to fight it. And then, whenever they meet me, they say ‘Oh, you’re an exception.’ They don’t realize how many of our young people go to university, study and get doctorates, become professors, speak perfect Hebrew. They don’t admit that we are at the same level of intelligence and knowledge and motivation as they are, that we are good people, have families, jobs, a normal life. They just dismiss us! And they say, ‘Oh, you’re an exception.’”

Nardin, now a doctor, spoke about her own process of transformation, how as a teenager being told she was an exception made her feel special. It wasn’t until she was in university that she stepped out of feeling special and into anger, and began to answer people with the same sentiment that Dejaun arrived at by the age of fifteen.

“No! I’m not an exception!”

To try and portray the situation and sentiments of African Americans in the U.S. and Palestinians inside Israel as parallel would not only be overly simplistic, but a denial of the communities’ very different origins, histories, experiences of injustice, and struggles.

But despite the differences, the words that I heard from Troy’s nephew and Asel’s sister contain the same cry of anger against the dismissal, invalidation and invisibility they have felt all their lives.

I had lunch yesterday with another friend of mine. Amal is also a Palestinian citizen of Israel. She has been studying in Seattle the last three years, and every time she goes home, she tries to take the political pulse. “People are in despair. It feels worse than I can ever remember, though I can’t put my finger on exactly why,” Amal confided in me. “On the one hand, if you go to the mall or to a Jewish Israeli place, you can see Arabs there more than ever. But there is less true integration between the societies. There is no merging. Shops in the mall are willing to take our money, but that’s it.” She struggled to find the words. “We are barely tolerated…we are definitely not wanted.”

When I visited Asel’s family in their home last week, Asel’s father Hassan similarly expressed his feeling that the Palestinian community inside Israel was preparing itself for a worsening situation. Something, he felt, would soon be coming to a head. I remember talking to Hassan soon after the Israeli Attorney General announced that Asel’s case and the cases of the other Palestinian victims inside Israel would be closed. He was upset, angry and disappointed…but not surprised. “There is justice,” he told me then. “And there is justice for Arabs.”

The justice system in the U.S. is fraught with racial overtones as well. The application of the death penalty is one egregious indicator. The Yale University Law School held a study of Connecticut death sentences in 2007. The study revealed that when victims are white, African-American defendants are three times as likely to receive the death penalty as white defendants. In Georgia specifically, 65 percent of the homicide victims are African American, yet white victims account for 90 percent of Georgia’s death row cases.

The struggle for justice in Asel’s case came to a dead end over a year ago. The struggle for justice in Troy’s case has a new hopeful opening. But the ever-present racism that has made both struggles necessary means that neither Troy nor Asel; Dejaun nor Nardin are exceptions. That Dejaun and Nardin are intelligent, hard-working, high achieving individuals is certainly no exception. That Troy Davis is a black man who has spent 18 years on death row for the murder of a white off-duty police officer though he has compelling evidence to prove his innocence, is no exception. And the fact that Asel Asleh, a seventeen-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel, was killed by police forces who carry the same passport as he, and there was no serious effort to hold the one who pulled the trigger accountable, is no exception.

When racism is combined with mechanisms of power, the result is not only an absence of justice but an absence of equal value for human life, sanctioned by the state. This is also, tragically, not an exception.

– Jen Marlowe

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

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August 20, 2009
Afghan women’s futures must not be overlooked

A woman at a polling centre in Kandahar City.

Afghanistan is heading to the polls for national elections — but out of 41 presidential candidates, only two are women. Progress has been slow since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.

Perhaps to appease conservatives ahead of the election, President Hamid Karzai recently enacted a law allowing men to deny their wives food if the women refuse to comply with sexual demands.

Masha Hamilton is a novelist who founded the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, aimed at allowing Afghan women to have a direct voice. She describes women’s concerns as Afghanistan’s future takes shape.

One autumn morning not long after dawn, Shaista Hakim stood outside on her Kabul balcony, her head bare, sleep still in her eyes as she hung laundry. She quietly hummed to herself. Her husband and two young children lay peacefully asleep inside. Suddenly, on the street below, a gray car shrieked to a halt. The driver, wearing a turban, glared up at her with an expression so venomous it frightened her back inside.

Poet: Roya

    World War

Who knows what will happen

I heard from sparrows

Talking on the tree of our neighbor’s yard

A secret

World War III will happen

If you look sad again.

    Afghan Woman

Who asks about my identity?

I am lost on the pages of history books.

Look at my tired face

And the dried tears in my eyes.

My first name is “Afghan woman”

My last name is “Suffer.”

Peeking through the window, she watched him push himself from his car. A moment later, she heard him pounding at her door. “I took off my glasses, put on a scarf and opened the door,” she recalled. “I was very scared.”

“Don’t ever go outside again without a burqa, or you will be arrested,” the man warned, his voice shaking with anger. He turned on heel and strode away.

The date: September 27, 1996, nearly thirteen years ago. Overnight, the Taliban had taken charge of Kabul, and the shift in the capital city was dramatic. To Mrs. Hakim, it felt as abrupt — and within a week, she and her young family abandoned their jobs and their apartment, fleeing the Taliban shadow and heading to Pakistan.

Mrs. Hakim returned to Kabul only after the post-9/11 fall of the Taliban, and I met her during a visit to Afghanistan last November. She now works as the director of a center that treats female drug addicts. Her job is not easy, nor is it often cheerful — she and her team brave Kabul’s most desperate and crime-ridden neighborhoods daily to reach out to women hooked on opium or heroin. Nevertheless, she considers it a gift that, for the moment at least, her government permits her to do the work she loves.

But Mrs. Hakim has become wary as Afghanistan goes again to the polls and calls have intensified in the last few months — from the U.S. to Europe to Afghanistan itself –- for the Afghan government to engage in dialogue with once-shunned moderate Taliban factions. She fears the change to a more conservative regime could happen overnight again –- that one morning on her balcony, she might look around to find her world unrecognizable.

President Hamid Karzai, long considered to hold geographically limited power (more like the “mayor of Kabul” than head of the country) has at times in recent months appeared to lose control even of Kabul. Observers, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have suggested his government’s survival may depend on opening talks with the Taliban.

Kathleen Rafiq, an American who began visiting Kabul after the fall of the Taliban and has lived there for the last four years doing humanitarian work, agrees. The Karzai government has repeatedly faced charges of ineffectiveness and corruption, and additionally, the Taliban has effectively taken control of much of the south of the country. “There is no way to solve the current political problems without bringing in the Taliban somehow,” Ms. Rafiq says, echoing a view widely held in Afghanistan itself.

Afghan women register to vote before an election in 2004.

But many Afghan women fear even the most moderate Taliban representatives will find it difficult to agree to a partnership with the Afghan government unless they win agreement for the country to follow a conservative interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law. This will by definition lead to renewed repression of women. Political expediency, these women say, may cost them their tenuous rights to walk outside without a burqa and male accompaniment, to attend school, to hold a job, even to hum as they hang laundry at dawn.

It is these fears that led me to develop an idea that had been percolating in the back of my mind for some time –- some kind of online link to Afghan women so that their voices would not be silenced, as they were during the previous Taliban rule. So that they would not again become invisible. So that we could hear directly from them, without having their words filtered through the voices of their men or the media.

From this sprang the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, an organization that has drawn generous volunteers from across the U.S. to reach out to women in Afghanistan. The project pairs Afghan women with authors and teachers here on a rotating basis and presents their work on a blog. And because it has become uncomfortable if not impossible for women to go into Internet cafes –- particularly in the south of the country but even in Kabul -– the AWWP is fundraising to open Afghanistan’s first-ever women’s-only Internet café.

Roya, one of the AWWP writers, wrote in a poem entitled Afghan Woman: “Who asks about my identity? I am lost on the pages of history books.” As the U.S. encourages the Afghan government to negotiate with the Taliban, we must make sure Afghan women do not become overlooked again.

– Masha Hamilton

For more on women in Afghanistan, view PBS Wide Angle’s “A Woman Among Warlords.”

Photo courtesy of Flickr users The Advocacy Project under a Creative Commons license.

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August 19, 2009
Reading the messages behind Afghan election posters

Scott Bohlinger is a political analyst and writer who has lived in Afghanistan since 2006. He works for a non-governmental organization in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan and has traveled extensively in the Middle East.

In the run-up to this Thursday’s elections in Afghanistan, I’ve noticed a menagerie of political artwork and iconography. Every surface is increasingly plastered with political advertisements of all possible sorts, with even the most sacred surfaces growing more profane by the day.

Posters began to crowd empty walls and open spaces about a month ago. Slowly, they colonized billboards for other products. Even the portrait of Afghanistan’s glorified national martyr, Ahmad Shah Massoud, has been concealed by the cascade of paper and glue.

Two styles have seemed to emerge — stuff produced by Afghans and stuff produced for Afghans.

Because the Afghan society is largely illiterate, the images seem to carry the messages. The posters coming from Afghan campaigns remain simple and effective in their message. But public information campaigns seek to bolster participation in the elections and thereby the state’s legitimacy; they seem fraught with too much information and angst.

Photo: Scott Bohlinger

Locally, President Karzai’s chief challenger, Abdullah, has the backing of the powerful governor of the northern province of Balkh, Muhammad Atta. This simple message that a vote for Abdullah is a vote for Atta is forcefully on view everywhere where numerous pictures can be seen of the two men together. The standard picture of them shows Abdullah looking ahead (and at you) sternly and resolutely with Atta looking on towards him. The power relationship is clearly demarcated by Atta’s not weak but admiring expression — for should Abdullah win, Atta would indeed be subservient to him. The message is clear for even the most illiterate person or casual passerby, but for the literate there is also a written slogan that loosely translates to “Going the path of clarity is success.”

The other poster is a public service advertisement explaining the election process to people. It shows a smiling man of average demeanor and income (though smartly and traditionally dressed) casting ballots for the election. That much is clear. In its attempt to explain the voting process encyclopediacally, however, it gets bogged down in details, at once too confusing for the casual observer and too complicated for someone who takes the time to read its full contents.

Photo: Scott Bohlinger

In order to show when the polling stations are open, the man casts a different ballot into a different box with each hand, and above each shoulder is a clock with an arrow connecting them intending to show opening and closing times. The two ballots are meant to be for the two separate simultaneous elections — for the provincial councils and presidency. But the local joke is that the man must be poor because he is only casting two ballots.

On either side of the man is a text in Persian and Pashto — which neither I nor anyone else I know has taken the time to read because they’re never in a position to stand still and examine it with a critical eye. The poster is cluttered with a number of other symbols meant to explain the different ballots taking place, color-coordinating them and providing the number of an assistance hotline. There’s a nifty slogan at the bottom too, “your vote, your future.” Altogether, the attempt to explain everything to everyone in every possible way collapses into a cacophony of colors and symbols.

These different approaches to persuasion are seen in advertising for all manner of other products, from products to services to concepts in Afghanistan. What’s the difference?

The ads produced by those with a direct stake in winning is made by people closer to the audience it is attending to address.

The public service ad was well-intentioned, but made largely by foreign artists trying to adapt to local aesthetics, and the desire to explain gets bogged down in confusion. It is the product of focus groups and field testing, in a way that probably fits good technical standards but still misses its mark.

This is the worrying bit.

In the larger context of war, infrastructure and stability, the government of Afghanistan — as the technocratic product of a massive aid infusion and technocratic bureaucracies — falls short on the emotional plane where Afghans would like to see a state. It loses the feeling it needs to reach the average guy. Relatively few Afghans agree with the Taliban, but those who do have something the others lack: Enthusiasm.

– Scott Bohlinger

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August 18, 2009
Securing the vote in volatile northeastern Afghanistan

A U.S. Marine embedded trainer with the Afghan National Army describes the atmosphere in northeastern Afghanistan ahead of national elections. The personal views expressed here do not reflect the views of the U.S. military.

Read more about his experience overseas in his blog, Embedded in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s election is coming up on Thursday. Here in the northeastern part of the country, conducting an orderly election will be a difficult task, to say the least. This region, due to the high mountains and its shared border with Pakistan, is a well-known insurgent haven. Our enemies inhabit the high ground and getting up there to deal with them is tough.

Nearly every engagement here involves the insurgents shooting down at us from above. When that hasn’t been the case, the enemy has been shooting at us from inside a village on the other side of a valley. Fighting an enemy while he’s inside a village presents its own set of concerns.

Conducting day-to-day operations here is difficult. Holding an election here against the wishes of our numerous enemies will certainly be interesting. Not only are we sure to see more attacks, but we’re also sure to have less support in the form of air since those air assets are likely to be needed everywhere else as well.

Coalition forces just don’t have the numbers to control much of the vast hinterland in this northeastern part of the country. Those air assets in the form of attack and reconnaissance helicopters and fighter aircraft are a vital part of how we get things turned in our favor once the shooting begins, but we’ll make do with or without them.

Generally speaking, if we don’t have a paved road leading to an area, we don’t control it. Geographically, the province sits in the middle of a mountain range. The mountains are interspersed with valleys carved by streams fed by melting snow runoff. The only flat areas you’ll see around here are the areas around the streams. Those flat areas vary in width from a kilometer to maybe 10 meters across. Given the challenging topography, road building is a difficult task. Where roads have been put in, bases and security have followed. Without a paved road, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are regular, which prevents a strong U.S. presence.

We focus on the larger population centers, which are not surprisingly generally located in the larger valleys. Of the many small valleys branching off from the larger ones, we control the terrain at most a couple of kilometers in. Far down into some of these valleys, we haven’t had Americans go in years. This fact hasn’t stopped the unnamed, unseen planners on high from deciding to put election polling sites in some of these places. Exactly how we’re supposed to secure a place we don’t ever go, in addition to all the other sites in our normal area of operations, is a question which has occurred to many of us in recent weeks.

Thankfully, as the election creeps closer, reality is beginning to set in, and numerous planned polling stations are not going to be opened. We’ll consolidate some, and others will just not be available, necessitating the local people taking a longer trip to vote. It will be the courageous family that decides to take a trip down an unsecured road while bearing voter registration cards. The insurgents aren’t always in the mountains…they do come down to the roads to conduct checkpoints, often with an IED in the road between us and them to prevent our arrival in a timely manner to deal with them.

For an election you need ballots. It’s Afghanistan’s election, so U.S. forces aren’t supposed to escort or handle the ballots. As embedded trainers with the Afghan National Army (ANA), my unit is exempt from this guidance. And so, on our way to pick up the ballots yesterday, we got in a nice little enemy engagement, which resulted in one of our trucks getting a tire shot out, two antennas blasted off and a round of indeterminate caliber (we’re still debating what size it had to have been) cracking up our windshield. Armor is a good thing to have when the element of surprise is not on your side. The firefight was a nice way to welcome our recently-arrived replacements to the joys and adventures of life in Afghanistan.

We should have good security for most of the ballots and polling sites, but a few of those ballots are going to be headed a little further up the road into country we don’t venture…and are not going to venture for this election. The Afghan National Police (ANP) refuses to escort the ballots around here without our help, and in this case we’re not helping.

If not the Americans or the ANA or the ANP, who’s going to take the ballots up there and provide security for the election, you ask? Well, in Afghanistan, when the official government representatives aren’t doing the job, the responsibility falls to the traditional power brokers, i.e. the local elders. Turning over official election ballots to citizens who hold no official capacity may not be how things were drawn up by the 10-pound heads who wanted to hold an election in a war-torn country in the midst of raging insurgency, but as someone in the news stated recently, we shouldn’t let perfection be the enemy of progress.

If even the elders can’t guarantee the security of the ballots and the ballots end up getting burned in a bonfire in the square next to the village mosque — well, at least in that case, the insurgents have clearly shown themselves to be destructive agents and enemies of their peoples’ freedom of choice. In the past, just to make a point, we’ve dropped off humanitarian aid like schoolbooks in places where we thought it would get burned by the insurgents before the local people could get their hands on it. Something similar may end up happening with a small portion of the ballots.

However imperfect, Afghanistan will have an election on August 20 and new elected officials will take up their posts sometime shortly thereafter. Undoubtedly, some of our enemies will abuse the election process and the general lack of security in this region to get themselves elected. But I reckon we’re on the right track if they’re playing by our rules and participating in the process, whatever their ultimate motives may be.

I’m just thankful I get to be here to see how this thing turns out.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

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August 18, 2009
Scores still missing after dam disaster in Russia

The Sayano-Shushensk dam in Khakassia.

Twelve people have been confirmed dead and 64 remain missing after an accident at Russia’s largest hydroelectric power station on Monday.

Reports suggest that an oil-filled transformer exploded, causing a turbine room to flood at the Sayano-Shushenskaya station in Siberia.

The disaster is a haunting reminder of the structural insufficiency that plagues Russia. Worldfocus contributing blogger Paul Goble writes that the incident is symptomatic of serious infrastructure issues in the country.

The deadly disaster at the Sayano-Shushensk dam in Khakassia, the fifth largest hydro-electric facility in the world, occurred because officials sought to generate more electricity than the dam was designed to produce and because Moscow has ignored repeated warnings about such shortcomings or invest in the repair of such critical infrastructure.

As a result, Dmitry Verkhoturov, a Russian commentator who specializes on environmental questions, says that there is a very real danger that his country is entering into “a period of serious technogenic accidents as has been predicted” since the start of this decade and even earlier.

Both the impact of the accident in terms of lives and lost production as well as the accident’s proximate cause are still to be determined, Verkhoturov notes. The number of those killed is rising, with more than 60 people still missing, and “many major enterprises are without power,” including energy-intensive aluminum factors in Sayan, Khakassia, and Krasnoyarsk.

Sergey Shoygu, Russia’s emergency situation minister, says that it will take some time to determine exactly what happened and why and an even longer time, one measured “in months and most likely even in years” to repair the hydro-electric facility and bring its power production back on line.

But if the specifics remain to be determined, the general causes do not, Verkhoturov suggests. In June and July, RusHydro which operated the facility was using higher water levels in order to produce “record” amounts of electricity, some 105 million kilowatts every day, the highest output in “the entire 30 years” of the dam’s existence.

And in an eerie echo of the Chernobyl atomic power disaster, Russian officials at the dam took pride in the fact that they did not employ any local people, as if that provided a guarantee the dam would be safe. “We have no Tuvans and Khakass,” the deputy director of the hydro-station said in September 2008.

The pursuit of ever greater power output, regardless of what the station was designed for, and the arrogant self-confidence of the operators that the dam would operate regardless of what they did because they were keeping non-Russians away from the controls are the real causes of this disaster.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user SGES Press Service.

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August 14, 2009
Pakistan celebrates, reflects on independence day

Girls celebrate Independence Day in Pakistan.

On Friday, Pakistanis celebrated the country’s 62nd anniversary of independence from British rule, waving flags and singing songs. Security was on high alert in the conflict-torn nation.

Also on Friday, President Asif Zardari announced reforms that will allow political activities in Pakistan’s tribal areas, hoping to draw the lawless region closer to mainstream politics.

Worldfocus contributing blogger Bilal Qureshi describes the changes Pakistan has gone through since gaining independence in 1947.

People in Pakistan are celebrating Independence Day on 14 August. Pakistani flags are flying all over the country, national anthem is playing in every car, every shop, and on every television channel. The overall atmosphere in Pakistan is very patriotic and celebratory.

Good, this is what independence should be all about!

But, there is one question worth asking and exploring at this moment in Pakistan’s history. Why are Pakistanis celebrating this day with so much enthusiasm?

Anyone familiar with Pakistan’s history will definitely agree with me when I suggest that 47’s Pakistan was much better then 2009’s Pakistan. Back in 47, despite awful circumstances, people believed in the country, people believed that the worst was over and now the new country will be a land of opportunities, justice, peace and progress, not only for Muslims, but for everyone living within the boundaries of this brand new country, Pakistan. However, events proved to be totally different and we now know that hoping for the best doesn’t necessarily mean anything, unless people responsible for steering the nation towards stability are serious and honest and Pakistan is a textbook case of classical leadership failure. In fact, not only Pakistan’s leaders failed the country, but the masses too failed to understand what was going in Pakistan. So, what we have today is a country that is on the verge of economic, social and political collapse because of our collective negligence.

Today, when people in Pakistan celebrate Independence, they don’t really understand that the country was supposed to build on what the Brits left behind. Listening to a journalist who has covered Afghanistan for years, I was amazed by his observation and it is worth repeating here. The journalist said (and I am paraphrasing) that industrial revolution (modernity in other words) completely bypassed Afghanistan because Afghanistan was never occupied by the British, and Afghanistan is stuck in 18th century. There is no reliable road network, there is no railway system, and there is nothing modern in Afghanistan even though the Western countries have been pumping billions of dollars in aid since 9/11. One reason for this backwardness is that the country never really progressed with the world when the world was changing in the last two centuries. Obviously, I am not suggesting that occupation by a colonial power is the only way to become modern, of course not. However, I am suggesting that if anyone looks at Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and other countries that went through the experience of British presence, and compare their infrastructure to Afghanistan, one cannot escape the inevitable conclusion that Afghanistan really was at least two centuries behind when it is compared to rest of the world. So, going back to what I stated earlier, Pakistanis had everything when the British left — a superior and comprehensive road and railway network, an effective administrative set up to govern, a unique and modern postal service that helped people communicate with other and many other services that are still in use today. So, the country had almost everything that was required to start fresh and it was up to the subsequent leaders of the country to make Pakistan a country of hope and opportunities. Regretfully, Pakistan’s journey from 1947 to 2009 is a journey betrayal, failure, denial, greed and division. In all honesty, there is hardly anything in Pakistan that can be a source of pride for any serious Pakistani.

Yes, despite all the bad things that have happened, people of Pakistan deserve to celebrate independence, sure. However, it is also equally important to be realistic and we must look at Pakistan’s balance sheet for the last 6 decades. More importantly, the country should ask: what have we gained after independence? Are we really free? Are we really independent from foreign influence? Are we really self sufficient in any area? Do we have control over our destiny? Do we make our own decisions? Are all Pakistanis equal or is there a different standard for Muslim Pakistanis and another standard for non-Muslim Pakistanis?  (By the way, the recent violence against non-Muslims in Gojara, Punjab is hardly a sign of peace or progress in Pakistan. )

Despite terrible odds, the optimist in me believes that the country still has a chance to come out of this mess, if only the people in the country get united, demand equality, justice and honesty from their leaders, stop pointing fingers towards other countries for our own failure, stop looking for a ‘invisible foreign hand’ behind every failure, and realistically look for solutions to Pakistan’s problems. There is always a way out when it comes to problems and challenges. There is always an answer for every question. All we need is a sincere effort! And I believe that Pakistanis are, at the very least, fully capable of making a sincere effort!

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user kash_if under a Creative Commons license.

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August 13, 2009
Ethnic Karen from Myanmar take refuge in makeshift villages

Karen children in Thailand.

Myanmar has been in the headlines of late, with pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s conviction and sentencing to 18 months of house confinement.

But as a Worldfocus contributing blogger writes, a humanitarian disaster that has been brewing inside Myanmar for years has received relatively scant attention.

In the wake of Myanmar army attacks on ethnic Karen rebels, roughly 100,000 mostly Karen refugees have fled to Thailand and some half a million others are displaced within Myanmar.

Caroline Stauffer is in Bangkok and writes at World Policy about the plight of Karen refugees.

In a field cut off from the rest of Thailand by a muddy mountain pass, 1,000 people have been living under thin tarps for the past six weeks, having fled landmines and shelling in their native Myanmar.  The tarps and wood platforms do not protect them from monsoon rains or the mosquitoes that spread malaria around their makeshift villages.

Factions of the Karen people have fought for greater autonomy from the country formerly known as Burma for 60 years, but the Karen villagers I spoke with just seem to be caught in the crossfire.

In the last few months, the world has turned its focus to the secretive, military-ruled state.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced concern over Myanmar-North Korea military links at the July Asean Regional Forum.  The state show trial of pro-democracy leader Aung Sun Suu Kyi attracted international media coverage, brought UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to Burma and garnered a new release of the U2 song dedicated to the world’s best known prisoner of conscience. In an apparent gesture to this global clamor, the Nobel Prize-winning leader of the Burmese opposition was given what for the junta was a slap on the wristanother 18 months of detention where she has already spent half of her adult life under house arrest.

Still, though the world has mobilized for the cause of Aung Sun Suu Kyi, the decades old humanitarian disaster occurring in rural Burma remains under the international radar, and the situation is deteriorating.

The Karen villagers I spoke with on the Thai-Burma border said they face forced recruitment by the regime’s army and its ally, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army.  Villagers are made to serve as porters or told to walk in front of army patrols, literally serving as human shields. Their stories confirm accounts from exiled media and aid groups that the regime is forcibly recruiting civilians to build up a border guard force.

The Karen are not the only people in multi-ethnic Burma suffering abuse. Ten established camps in Thailand house Karenni, Shan, Mon, Kachin and Rohingya people.

The junta has said all ethnic resistance groups must put down their arms and become political parties before elections can occur. Some groups have tentatively aligned with the regime and are now called cease fire groups. Others fear that without arms they will lose any negotiating power they have left and will not be able to protect their people from the regime’s army.

The regime has been militarizing the Thai-Burma border for years. China and Thailand have signed on to invest in dams in Karen State, and demand that the area be secure before construction can begin. In the unruly, heavily mined jungles of Myanmar, enhanced militarization inevitably means more violence.

[…] One 50-year-old Karen woman I spoke with knew nothing about refugee camps or elections. She did say she was tired.  After traveling across the Thai-Myanmar border three times in her life, she just wanted somewhere to stay put.

More abuses will occur in the coming months as the rains stop, elections approach and the critical gaze of the international community focuses on the aftermath of the trial in Yangon — or yet again abandons the country entirely.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Yan Pritzker Photo | SF under a Creative Commons license.

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August 10, 2009
Clinton must call for an end to Congo’s media censorship

Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo — including mass rapes — has received relatively scant international media coverage. Photo: Taylor Krauss

Tom Rhodes is the Africa Program Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to visit the Democratic Republic of Congo’s volatile eastern city of Goma during her historic seven nation tour of Africa. Press briefings from the state department highlighted her intentions to address a chronic problem particularly acute in this region: violence against women. The home of the deadliest war since World War II; Congolese women have, to this day, been the main victims and targets of marauding militias and government soldiers.

“In just one province alone there was recorded 40 women being raped every day — 13 percent were under the age of 14 and 10-12 percent contracted HIV,” remarked photojournalist Marcus Beasdale in a Mediastorm interview last year. The award-winning journalist had spent a grueling eight years in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and saw firsthand the systematic use of rape as a tool of war.

Watch the Worldfocus signature story: Rape as a weapon of war in DR Congo.

But there are more local voices that live in this war-torn area that continue to cry out against this plight. Franchou Namegabe Nabintu, or ‘Chouchou’ as her friends call her, is a founding member of the South Kivu’s Association of Women Journalists (AFEM) and plans to meet Clinton tomorrow. Since 2003, Nabintu and her female colleagues have trained female journalists and produced programs concerning women’s issues. No stranger to American politics, Nabintu testified before the U.S. Senate in May to call for more international support to end the ongoing gender-based violence. Her efforts to mobilize women have not come easy. Nabintu told the New York-based media watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists, of the numerous threats she receives for her work and the exorbitant fees AFEM must pay local radio stations to get their programs broadcasted.

But despite the staggering crisis in the DRC and courageous advocacy efforts by journalists such as Nabintu, the DRC catastrophe has received relatively scant international media coverage. The Congolese crisis represents a dangerous, costly operation for most foreign media bureaus with a complex story not easily digested by western audiences. But there is also a more straightforward reason for the lack of western media coverage: censorship.

Since the beginning of this year, Radio France International (RFI) has been cut off the air by the government three times, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. One of two major foreign broadcasters in the region, Congolese citizens heard static since late July after authorities shuttered the station. At a press conference in the capital, Kinshasa, government spokesman Lambert Mende accused the station of “a systematic campaign of demoralization of the armed forced of the DRC,” AFP reported.

According to freelance journalist Charles Mushivizi, RFI has been unpopular with the government since 2006, after the station produced a series of stories critical of the army. The stories reported on rising criminality among the Congolese army ranks — including rapes, looting and the embezzlement of soldiers’ pay by superior officers. One journalist, Ghislaine Dupont, was expelled for her coverage but continues to report on the country, Mushivizi says.

In all three RFI bans this year, Congolese authorities never disputed the accuracy of the French broadcaster’s reports. According to Mushivizi, Mende warned that the authorities would not tolerate any information the government deems prejudicial to troop morale, “no matter the accuracy of the information.”

The only other major international station, Radio Okapi — a joint project of the Hirondelle Foundation and the United Nations — has had two reporters murdered in mysterious circumstances since June 2007. Botched investigations into the murders of Radio Okapi journalists Didace Namujimbo and Serge Maheshe have allowed their murderers total impunity.

Few locals in South Kivu listen to national broadcasts since they are generally controlled by political forces, Mushivizi said, while the press is hampered by fiscal and political pressures. With RFI banned and local media compromised — there are few voices left to report one of the world’s greatest tragedies.

As Hillary meets President Joseph Kabila to call for an end to the mass rapes that plague eastern Congo, she must also call for an end to media censorship. The free flow of independent information within and outside the country is pivotal to solving the rape crisis.

– Tom Rhodes

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

View Worldfocus’ complete coverage of the crisis in Congo and an interactive map exploring Clinton’s African tour.

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August 10, 2009
KIA — a brand new name for Asia’s middle powers

South Korean President Lee inspects troops.

Jonas Parello-Plesner works as senior advisor with the Danish government on Asian affairs and is currently meeting with think tanks, experts and commentators in East Asia’s major cities researching political integration.

China and India (Chindia) is on everybody’s lips when talking about rising Asia.

Then what is KIA? A car, most people would reply. Yet it could also be the new brand-name for Asia’s middle powers; (K)orea, (I)ndonesia, and (A)ustralia. They are Asia’s 4th, 5th, and 6th largest economies. All three are often dwarfed by the big power play between China, India and Japan and the region’s –and the world’s – superpower, the US.

Yet look at Indonesia’s population as the world’s third largest democracy, Korea’s economy, and Australia’s size – a continent in itself. They are solid middle powers. Relocate them to Europe and they would be large countries on most accounts. In Asia, they are too small to be big, but too large to be small.

Korea, Indonesia, Australia are all members of G20 – a forum which has gained preeminence in the on-going economic crisis. In G20, they are sitting at the table with an equal say alongside China and India.

All three have individual ambitions to leave their own print on Asian multilateral institutions and regional integration in the making, ranging from APC to G20 Caucus and E8.

South Korea, which used to describe itself as a shrimp encircled by whales, has new-found ambitions to play an independent role in Asian multilateralism. Lee Myung-bak has launched a New Asia Initiative that focuses both on strengthening Korea in Asia and Asia’s global voice.

Korea sees itself as in a position to mediate between the large powers –notably with China and Japan through its seat in ASEAN+3, which held its first independent meeting last year. It is expected to continue doing that. ASEAN+3 also produced Asia’s only joint and multilateral response to the economic crisis with the multilateralisation of the Chiang Mai Initiative (currency swaps), largely at the instigation of Korea. At the same time, Korea also sees itself as a voice for small countries and a bridge to the West with its democratic system and alliance with the USA.

All in all, Korea perceives itself as the right middle power to mediate in a global shift towards Asia. And South Korea will hold the chair of the G20 and will work towards an East Asian grouping to ensure that Asia’s united voice – if possible – is heard. Korea sees itself as able to secure the interests of smaller countries in Asia in that context. Korea’s commemorative summit with ASEAN the 1st and 2nd of June showed a determination to gain individual relevance towards the grouping. In Korea’s terminology, it’s the meeting of the equal size ‘shrimps’ that don’t feel threatened by each other.

The election of a South Korean, Ban ki-moon, as UN secretary-general – among other things – also showed that Koreans are generally liked in Asia with little political and historical animosity associated with the country and the people.

Indonesia is full of new confidence following a continued affirmation of democratic principles in the recent parliamentary and presidential elections combined with continued growth notwithstanding the economic crisis.

That new confidence is displayed in fresh foreign policy thinking. Executive Director Rizal Sukma of the influential Jakarta-based think tank, CSIS, has been arguing for an E-8 (China, Japan, India, Russia, Korea, Australia, USA, and Indonesia) as an informal forum to meet in connecting with Asian multilateral meetings and the G-20.

Sukma has also argued for a more independent Indonesian foreign policy less held back by ASEAN membership and geographical proximity1. The genuine lack of progress on human rights/democracy inside ASEAN – even with Charter and HR-Commission in place – combined with Thailand’s internal instability has reduced ASEAN’s role in the driving seat of regional integration. That is one of motivations for reducing reliance on ASEAN in Indonesia’s foreign policy. For Indonesia as a middle power, it is high time to secure an independent place at the high table of the Asian power concert.

How much of these ideas and proposals from CSIS will enter into government thinking remains to be seen when president Yudhoyono begins his new term in October. What is certain is that democratic, rising Indonesia also will be looking for increased leverage to assert its independent status as middle power in Asia and globally.

Australia is on the multilateral stage with PM Kevin Rudd’s proposal for an Asia Pacific Community (APC) as a forum for the better governance of great power relations, a proposal widely discussed in Asia and on this site. Where APEC 20 years ago, also partly an Australian initiative, was about securing the economically rising Japan in an appropriate multilateral framework, APC (with one letter fewer) has a larger ambition of managing great power relations in Asia-Pacific including in both the economic and security fields.

APC is also about continuing to make Australia relevant in Asia. As a primarily Pacific power its credentials can be questioned, like has been done in the inclusion process of Australia in the East Asia Summit, where Malaysia’s former PM Mahathir was very vocal in saying that they were neither ‘East (n)or Asians’. The next step in Australia’s initiative will be when PM Rudd is expected to brief Asian leaders at the East Asia Summit in October on APC.

The middle powers – a concerted approach?

KIA is not yet a united force. But they might want to be. All three want to brand themselves individually with their proposals and initiatives. Yet on their own, as middle powers, they might not be relevant enough with their individual proposals to secure the acceptance and interest of Asia’s great powers.

And all three still have their individual particularities and handicaps. Australia as a Pacific power continuously has to show its relevance in an Asian context. Indonesia even with new-found independent ambitions will continue to be anchored in ASEAN. Korea still gets bogged down in its immediate surroundings in the complicated relationship with its difficult twin brother, North Korea.

So they should coordinate their efforts. Two areas where KIA could take a common stance and make a difference are G20 and free trade agreements.

The April G20 meeting was in many headlines interpreted as China’s coming out as world power. That headline could have been captured by Asia’s united entry into the world stage. It wasn’t. Asia did not come out united or coordinated to the on-going economic crisis. ASEAN was out of play because of the chairman, Thailand’s incapacity to hold the summit meetings for ASEAN+ and EAS. So no early discussion of the G20 agenda took place or any debriefing on the meetings afterwards. It is time to make up for that.

The suggestion for a G20 Caucus should be enacted in order to endure that Asia’s big powers are obliged to meet and coordinate before the G20 meetings and to report to a broader Asian setting afterwards (EAS, ASEAN+). Korea as coming host of G20 could ensure this. Indonesia could work along and work to ensure that ASEAN does not feel left behind and is fully participating through the chairman’s continued inclusion in G20. In that sense, the last A in KIA could also be representing ASEAN. Australia should be pragmatic and see a G20 Caucus as a good stepping-stone for its intentions behind APC – namely to manage great power relations in Asia.

Another area where KIA could show a united front is the evolution of FTAs. In Asia, free-trade agreements are mired by a patchwork of individual agreements. Both Korea and Australia are active participants in this. Indonesia is not on the FTA-train yet, apart from the slow process inside ASEAN towards a free trade area. The middle powers would have an interest in coordinating and pushing for a region-wide agreement probably in ASEAN+6 format – which would include all three middle powers. That would remove the FTA-process from the current power play structure where FTA offers are part of a political charm offensive from Asia’s big powers.

Can middle powers really drive Asia forward?

The remaining question is if the middle powers will really get a seat at the table of the real negotiations. Rudd’s APC proposal to manage great power relations reflects a common characteristic of the KIA grouping. Alongside the nice sounding initiatives there is a growing powerlessness faced with the real power play in Asia, where KIA is aware that even as emerging middle powers it will be difficult to get a seat at the negotiation table – and once seated – a real say.

It is appropriate to quote in full Hugh White’s excellent remarks in another article at this site which highlights this difficulty in a realistic and pessimistic tone: ‘The plain fact – unpalatable though it may be – is that Asia’s new order will be negotiated between its most powerful states, and the painful process of compromise and concession will be best done away from the glare of big meetings. In its most important aspects it will not be negotiated in any literal sense at all, but will emerge as each major power remodel their policy to meet emerging realities’.

KIA is still a small car by all measurements. There will be limited space for KIA to influence the direction of Asian multilateral integration and great power relations. It should be coordinated to be effective and in order to influence China, Japan, India and the USA. Only in that case can KIA hope to also push the accelerator for rising Asia’s power structure.

– Jonas Parello-Plesner

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

To read the original post, visit KIA – Asia’s middle powers on the rise?

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August 10, 2009
Q&A: The challenges of entering and exiting Gaza

Nizar al-Wazir came to the United States on a Fulbright grant from Gaza in 2007. He currently works in Washington D.C. at Chemonics, a development consulting firm. He joined Worldfocus to discuss the hardship of coming and going from the Gaza Strip.

Worldfocus: You’re from Gaza, but you weren’t born there?

Gaza City in 2007, the year that Hamas ascended to power.

Nizar al-Wazir: My family has lived in Gaza City for generations, but I was born in Dubai 27 years ago. My parents were unable to return to Gaza after leaving the coastal strip to study abroad in the late 1970s. After the UAE, we lived in Jordan for three years — until the Oslo Accords allowed us to return to Gaza in 1994.

I did high school in Gaza before attending Birzeit University from 1999 to 2003. But I couldn’t visit my parents 60 miles away in Gaza, due to the 2nd Intifada.

Worldfocus: Is your family involved in politics?

Nizar al-Wazir: My uncle, Khalil “Abu Jihad” al-Wazir, was a co-founder of Fatah. He was Yasser Arafat’s right hand man and the commander of Fatah’s al-Assifa military wing. He was exiled from Israel to Gaza in 1948, and then from Jordan to Lebanon to Tunisia. He was assassinated there by Israel in 1988 — at the beginning of the first Intifada.

My family has always been Fatah, but my parents stay out of politics. They still live in Gaza City, where my father is a consultant for the Fatah-controlled Ministry of Finance. My mother is a deputy assistant at the Ministry of Education.

Worldfocus: When do you think Palestine will achieve statehood?

Nizar al-Wazir: We were optimistic after Oslo, when I attended the Seeds of Peace Camp in the U.S. After the beginning of the second Intifada, F-16 bombardments were regular. Electric generators were knocked out, so we had power for five or six hours each day.

After Shalit was captured, we had sonic booms over Gaza five times per day — for over a month.

Anyway, I don’t see the Palestinian state coming any time soon. The West Bank is too divided into small cantons, and Gazans are too extreme.

Worldfocus: In 2008, the U.S. State Department cancelled seven Fulbright grants because the recipients could not get visas. After a diplomatic outcry, the grants were reinstated two days later. Could you explain the political issues at stake?

Nizar al-Wazir: With a Palestinian Authority passport, one can travel everywhere. But getting a visa is the difficult part. Israel has imposed strict movement restrictions since Hamas took over Gaza. I can’t even have friends from other countries visit me in Gaza.

The Department of State even sends different forms to Fulbrighters in Gaza and the West Bank. We are not viewed as being from the same Palestinian entity.

I was nominated for a Fulbright scholarship for the first time in 2005. But I couldn’t get a placement at an American university because I couldn’t travel to either Egypt or Jordan for the GMAT.

Of the seven Fulbrighters chosen from Gaza in 2007, only three made it to the U.S. — mostly via personal connections. But there was no media attention that year.

In 2008, seven Gazan Fulbrighters were very close to losing their scholarships, until the media alerted Condoleezza Rice and the international community.

Worldfocus: After your work in Washington D.C. is finished, will re-entry to Gaza be difficult ?

I plan on returning to Gaza at the end of this summer. Some of my friends think I should go back to the West Bank and not Gaza. But since I’m in the U.S. on a State Department grant, the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem might organize a group re-entry for a group of us to re-enter Gaza.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user OneArmedMan under a Creative Commons license.

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