Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Trump, Rajapaksa, and the Many Faces of Madness

At times it feels the world is goes mad around me. In this calm and beautiful place I barely believe the headlines streaming in from the US, and sometimes I can barely believe what happens here before my eyes. I see the spiraling vestiges of madness whenever I walk down the street. It creeps in at the edges in posters and stickers, and back in the US the insanity has reached a roar which can be heard across oceans. Strange, when on facebook I see as many posts about American politics from my foreign friends as my American ones. When America begins to go mad the world trembles – from my students in Cambodia to my teachers in Egypt to my coworkers in Sri Lanka. We watch the thrashings of a behemoth with baited breath.

Here too, the air is laced with madness. The other night while walking with my friend Taryn to dinner I was shocked to see the ex-president Rajapaksa's face leering at me from the back of a bus. Rajapaksa was a 12 year dictator of a 'president', who ended Sri Lanka's civil war by obliterating the Tamil people in the North, and maintained his popularity by leveraging his people's lingering resentment and mistrust of the 'other'. He stole millions of dollars in state money, and guaranteed Billions to Chinese cronies in useless development projects which now litter the country: a half finished 'lotus flower tower' currently looms over the city like a giant penis. Rajapaksa's ousting was met with visible relief by the intellectual class I have mostly associated with – the kind of people who threatened Rajapaksa with their ability to think critically about his ludicrous statements and policies. But the spectere of his popularity has not faded. The bus, bedecked in Rajapaksa posters, was full of shouting men. The night was full of yelling, streets even more packed than usual. It was an opposition rally where the old president called for power to be handed back to him. As we ate, a stream of middle aged men filtered into the restaurant, wearing baseball caps with Rajapaksa's face that reminded me eerily of 'Make America Great Again' hats.

It is hard not to think of Trump when I see this. We in America are used to watching the antics of dictators and demagogs around the world and wondering 'how?'. Well, now we know. Money and fear. Rajapaksa and Trump gain their popularity from the same thing: telling the privileged majority that equality for minorities means oppression for the majority. It is an appeal to instinct, to 'us versus them', to our basest and most violent natures. It isn't inhuman. It is how humans are when they are afraid.

And now I, too, am afraid. Not for my own safety in either context, but of the madness, and who it will consume. Rajapaksa and Trump are the same kind of leader – men who have made their fortunes off the backs of the unfortunate, but still speak the language of the working class well enough to convince people they are populist. Leaders who create a strong loyalty by defining themselves in opposition to an 'other'. Leaders who grow with bloodshed. Rajapaksa ended a war by exterminating the opposition. And Trump, I fear, won't end violence, but start it. We see the stirrings of it, as he promises to subsidize violence at his rallies. As a student of mass violence, I can tell you confidently that his is the kind of rhetoric which starts it. Tells people they need to strike first. Creates a climate where they are lauded if they do. I am not predicting genocide if Trump is elected. But I urge you not to fall into the trap of believing that violence is something that happens to 'them', somewhere far away. Never say “he couldn't do that, he's such a nice person”. I have met murderers and rapists. They have offered me tea. They love their families. They are nice. Just like me. Just like your neighbor. Just like you. Violence is what happens not when you put bad people together, but when you create the expectation that good people will act terribly. And this is what Trump is slowly doing.

So no, I will not 'move to Canada' if Trump wins. I will not leave my Muslims friends and my trans friends and my friends of color to danger that is unlikely to touch me. How could I live with myself if I ran when so many don't have the resources to escape? I see my role in this world as a peacebuilder, a preventer of conflict where I can, and healer post-conflict where I cannot. When that conflict comes to my doorstep, who am I to disown it?  

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Reading around the world: Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan, for a country the size of the whole of western Europe, is remarkably invisible. It is telling of the level of invisibility that the only reference any Westerners have for it is Borat, a movie so reliant on racist stereotypes that if it had been made about virtually any other country or ethnic minority it would have been completely reviled. We don't even know enough about the Kazakhs to be offended on their behalf.

Our ignorance is, in part, because Kazakhstan as a country simply hasn't existed for long. The Kazakhs negotiated their independence from the USSR only in December of 1991, making it one year older than I am. Since that time it has slowly, and quietly, begun to shrug off a heavy burden of extractionary economic policies and social terror and oppression leftover from communist rule. Kazakhstan is a rich country full of poor people: the ground swells with oil, minerals, and natural gas which the Russians were quick to extract, but ensure that the finished products and the wealth they generated remained in Russia. Meanwhile, they used Kazakhstan as a dumping ground for human and chemical undesirables – poisoning the environment ad thousands of people with nuclear testing, and filled the country with scattered prisons for criminals and political exiles. The indigenous nomadic culture was crushed under soviet rule and impractical (and often impossible) agricultural projects imposed instead.

One of few eagle hunters whose traditions survived the Soviet purge

So, like so many countries on reaching Independence, Kazakhstan found itself penniless, with gutted government institutions, a broken economy, and a defeated spirit. But despite this, this may be one of the few blogs in this series which ends optimistically. Since independence the country has been dominated by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, whom the author of my book seemed a bit star-struck by. He has allowed for little dissent or political opposition, but he has maintained peace in a religiously and ethnically diverse population, and rapid economic growth. Privatization has slowly begun to leak natural resource wealth and a functioning economy to the ordinary person, and the new found wealth built a shining new capitol city, Astana, in just a matter of years. Most impressively, the Kazakhs have embraced their vast array of religious and ethnic diversity. The Kazakh population of 16 million is divided among over 25 ethnic groups, and between two majors religions of Islam and Christianity. But there has been little tension. The new capitol city contains a huge glass pyramid designed to host interfaith dialog and promote religious understanding and equality.

The capitol city Astana, completely rebuilt since 1997

A Kazakh Mosque - the strangest of many beautiful Mosques in the country. 

My past three blogs focused on majority Muslim countries, and critiqued the hypocritical use of faith and extremism by the elite to control and manipulate the masses. Kazakhstan is 70% Muslim, but shows an alternative – an Islam which accepts diversity and encourages peace. An economically successful, peaceful and diverse majority Muslim country hardly fits into the Western dominant narrative around Islam, and I have to wonder if this is part of why Kazakhstan is so invisible to us. We cannot see what we don't expect to find.

While snooping around the internet about Kazakhstan I was enchanted by the pictures I found of natural beauty and strange wildlife, and couldn't resist including a few. 

Kazakhstan is famous for its tulips every spring 

It also has the strange and wonderful Saiga antelope, in the running for my favorite animal. You can learn more about this creature, including why their noses look like that, here 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Reading around the world: Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Capitol, Riyadh

I chose Saudi Arabia not because I know nothing about it, but because what I did know invoked a very unusual reaction from me: one of intense dislike and growing prejudice. Between scraps of knowledge about the place Saudi Arabia has within Islam, most of what I knew came from anguished news articles about yet another Sri Lankan maid being sent home after her Saudi employers forced her to eat glass, cut off her hand, or attempted to stone her to death. Foreign domestic labor can be a quick rout out of poverty – at any one time about 10% of the adult population of Sri Lanka persues higher wages and opportunity outside the country. But the chance comes a huge risk to body and soul, especially in opressive societies which have no legal protections for foreign laborers. This kind of abuse isn't limited to Saudi boarders – a couple months ago the Saudi ambassador to India fled under diplomatic immunity after raping his maid. So my image of Saudi Arabia was that of an exceptionally brutal Qatar or Emirates – a country where citizens live off oil royalties and concentrate frustrated energy on oppressing women and brutalizing the household help.

A Saudi Royal Palace

So when I read 'On Saudi Arabia' I was surprised to learn that 40% of Saudis live in poverty, and 60% cannot afford to buy homes.  Religion may be the opium of the masses, but foreign labor is the opium of labor is the opium of the Saudi economy, keeping it breathing but sedated and stagnant. Social stigmas prevent Saudis from taking the jobs which are plentiful in their country – service sector and manual labor are bountiful, but filled with cheaper and more compliant Philippinos, Ethiopians and Bangladeshis. Meanwhile a decrepit, memorization based education system fails to prepare Saudis for skilled jobs, so even doctors are imported. Coveted government jobs are choked by the leviathan royal family, as each of the 7,000 Princes need an adequately ostentatious official tittle. Women meanwhile, are gradually overtaking their male peers on every level of education, but are prohibited from working almost any job by the risk of interacting with an unrelated male, a possibility made dangerous by the vigilance of religious police to seek out and punish such forbidden fraternization.

A slum in Riyadh 

Clearly, with a economy resting on a limited natural resource and capped by the largess of the vast royal family, the current state of the Saudi economy is unsustainable. Saudi Arabia is a welfare state choked by a serpentine bureaucracy and a royal family of around 30,000 members, who dispense favors, scholarships, even placement at good hospitals on a case by case basis. Saudis watch the growing divide between the royal and the common family with resentment. Karen House presents the country as wavering on the edge of a deep divide in Saudi society: reformers who demand a more equitable, modernized society which allows space for dissent, discussion, and maybe even hints of democracy. The other side seeks to solve Saudi's problems with an even further retreat into Islam, though current Saudi society is ironically far more conservative than it was 1,400 years ago during the Prophet's time. Fundamentalists conveniently ignore that Mohammed readily interacted with unrelated women, invited them into the mosques from which they are currently banned, and respected and consulted his wives.

Change in either direction is likely to throw the country into full social unrest, as it would enrage the other side of the political spectrum. The family so far has chosen to vacillate – making modernizing reforms when confident and falling back on fundamentalist Wahhabism when spooked. The play to radical Islam by the royal family is a cynical one, as wealthy Saudis frequently break the rules they publicly espouse. It has thus far maintained social cohesion and kept the devout more concerned with the afterlife than the injustices of this world. But the facade begins to crack under widening inequality and flagrant flouting of the religious commandment to live a simple life. Islam has escaped the control of the Royals – even people on government business can be harassed by the government employed religious police.

Saudi's future remains uncertain. But one thing for sure – I have significantly more empathy for the people trapped in the stagnant milieu of Saudi Arabia. The look into the country was not a pretty one, but it revealed a very human quest for agency in an oppressive and unjust society. 

For more on Saudi Arabia:

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Where the wild things are

At the end of another trip, and again Sri Lanka has left me lost for words. Our last week was inspiring in a way that cannot be captured – by words or by my camera. We traveled with John and John to the most stunning natural places I have been to – Yala National park, and Ella, home of mountains, tea plantations, and waterfalls. Even without the company it would have been an incredible trip, but being able to share my beloved Sri Lanka and it's wonderful and strange idiosyncrasies with family made it perfect. We talked and drank and ATE our way across the country and gathered memories for a lifetime. Rather than try to account everything that happened day by day this blog will again be mostly photos – a tiny fraction of what I took but hopefully enough to give a taste of what we saw. 

Miracle of miracles - we were told going into the park we had a 50% chance of seeing one of the illusive leopards, and less than that of seeing elephants. Somehow, on both days we went in, we saw both creatures. Caught sight of this leopard sunning herself on a rock for just a few seconds, but it was breathtaking. 

We stumbled on a family of elephants as well - several mothers with their calves. Having got very close to domestic elephants here I didn't think it would be too exciting, but something about the animals in the wild was awe inspiring. 

Despite the majesty of these rare animals, my favorite part of the park was the rich diversity it contained. We identified over 30 species of birds, and around 20 species of reptiles and mammals. This lake held dozens of different water birds, a squadron of crocodiles in the center, and a ring of eagles and kites around the edges. 

 Peacocks were everywhere. 

I loved these little Bee-eaters -- they darted across the road like flying jewels every few minutes. 

We saw this eagle eating breakfast - if you look closely you can see the snake in her claws. 

One of my favorite sightings were these mongooses, who liked to run along the edges of the road. 

Wild pigs didn't just live in the park - they snuffled around our cabins at the resort,  and their smell was ever present. 

This large crocodile lived in a lake in the resort. Ready for leftovers! 

My favorite moment of wild-life meets hotel-life.... these black faced Langiers enjoyed drinking from the relatively safe crocodile-free pool, much to the amazement of the child behind him. 

From Yala we moved on to Ella, and stayed on a wonderful organic, local empowerment focused, tea plantation and farm. The view from our 100 year old house was amazing - we got to watch the clouds roll across the mountains every morning. 

We also hiked up Ella rock for another glimpse of the vast panorama of the valleys.

Finally, the four of us at our lovely house in Galle,where we started our trip in a house surrounded by birds and monkeys and fruit trees with a view of the sea. 

Saturday, April 2, 2016

To the End of the World

A couple of weeks ago was my favorite of my trip so far. I had the great fortune to go on an adventure with one of my best friends from University: Mari, who is now teaching English in Japan. Mari's arrival gave us an excuse to explore the mountain regions of Sri Lanka. In a life full of beautiful adventures, this was definitely one of the most beautiful. I could try to describe the awe inspiring beauty of these places, but I wouldn't do it justice. My photos can only hint at it, but they are the best rendition I can give.

This place is called World's End, because of the breath taking drop off view from the cliff

Looking out over the clouds at the end of the world 

Looking out over the valley feels like being swallowed up by the Earth 

Gorgeous, endless tea plantations in Nuwara Eliya. 

Sunset from the most beautiful train ride in my life 

At Ella Rock in Ella 

Jonathan and I in Ravana falls in Ella 

The peace of the place was quickly and adorably interrupted by the appearance of troop of young monks

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Maldives: Paradise and the Democracy that Wasn't

This week I read “The Maldives:Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy”, probably one of my favorite books I've read as a part of this project. Robinson's book is a beautiful reminder that no matter how small a country is (The Maldives has just 350,000 citizens), or how simplistically we imagine it, there is deep complexity and contradiction everywhere you go. 

The Maldives is so close to Sri Lanka, and so tiny, that most embassies here serve both countries. 

The Maldives is a paradox: a global gathering point for debauchery and luxury, while across a tiny strip of blue water from the resorts women are flogged, even stoned to death for pre-marital sex. Tourists drown themselves in cocktails while liquor on inhabited Islands is sold more secretively than hard drugs. Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of this, is that it almost wasn't this way. The Maldives had three years of functioning democracy, thanks to the outrage and grief of one bereaved mother. In 2008, after her son died under interrogation in a prison cell, one woman refused to follow Maldivian tradition and bury him quietly. Instead, she dragged his broken body into the central square in Male and demanded justice. After the resulting protests that erupted around the country, a 30 year dictatorship was miraculously and peacefully overthrown. Elected in his stead was Mohamed Nasheed, himself a survivor of torture under the old regime, and an enthusiastic idealistic reformer who wanted human rights, education, and a future for his country, which stares down the barrel of climate change in a way few of us can imagine. The Islands of the Maldives are barely a meter above sea level. He brilliantly leveraged Western climate change guilt into aid for his country, even conducted a cabinet meeting underwater to raise awareness of the Maldive's fate. He planned to make the Maldives a carbon neutral country, and courted investment to switch the islands to entirely solar power.

President Nasheed signing an underwater declaration  

But it was not to last. The family of the 30 year dictator was unaccustomed to living life as ordinary civilians, and Nasheed's plan to increase taxes on resorts to bring revenue from the tourist industry to actually benefit the people of the Maldives made powerful enemies. So on February 7th 2013 the Island's police force "mysteriously" rose up against him. After the forced stormed government buildings, Nasheed disappeared for several hours. When he returned, it was to announce his resignation on live television. His Vice President was sworn in within 24 hours, and an immediate turnover of government official began. The old dictator's family once again saturated government.

The capitol Island of Male 

Somehow, the international community accepted this 'power transfer' complacently. Within a few days of the coup India, Britain and America all recognized the new 'government', and failed to insist on snap elections. As human rights abuses began to spiral out of control and elections were pushed  back for months at a time for increasingly ridiculous reasons, the international community, far too late, began to sanction and speak out against the regime. The Maldives is dependent on its reputation: a few targeted travel warnings can cripple the only industry it has: tourism. But these warnings came too few and too late. The old regime's cronies bought enough support to carry them through elections, once they finally happened, emptying the country's bank accounts to do so. They now maintain popularity through a cynical manipulation of nationalism and Islamic radicalism: whipping up common Maldivians into Islamic fervor while they sneak to Colombo for drinks on the weekends. The Maldives has become the highest contributor of troops to ISIL of any country not directly involved in the conflict. A woman was recently sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery, a crime her lawmakers gladly and repeatedly commit.

Robinson's book was shot through with bewildered disgust at tourism in the Maldives. He couldn't understand how people gladly give up their savings to get sunburned on beaches where the locals neither want or respect them, and their capacity to be completely blind to the horror which takes place on the other side of paradise. I had wanted to visit the Maldives before I leave: flights from Colombo are just $70. But after this book I have no desire to go. Tourism is intentionally structured to stay in the hands of a small elite which is largely responsible for the economic and social collapse of their society, motivated only by their own greed. I will not, I will never, allow a dollar of my money to fuel their lust for power. 

For more on the Maldives I hope you will check out the Maldives Independent, the newspaper the author worked for during his four years in the Maldives. They worked hard to report fairly despite intimidation and sabotage: one of their reporters even disappeared, probably murdered. Bravery like this surely deserves a few webpage clicks. Besides, a few minutes of digging turned up this gem of an article where a Member of Parliament called women 'screaming cows', and claimed that women are the leading cause of heart attacks and strokes. Ooops. Sorry, yes, causing deadly disease is a rather embarrassing habit of mine. Called out.