Friday, 30 December 2005
That's when the trouble started.
At about midnight the first night I started throwing up and proceeded to do so about every 20 minutes for the next 12 hours. Not at all pleasant I can assure you.
I improved somewhat the next day and so didn't rush back to PP and proper medical care. C got a smaller bout of the same thing which led us to assume it was most likely either a random virus or a bacterial infection we'd picked up at dinner.
She, as usual, recovered much quicker than me, but we both spent the next few days, including christmas, lying on a day bed (switched to a night bed at night) on our balcony overlooking the ocean and a beautiful vista indeed it was.
We left the safety of the mattress a few days later and headed back to PP, rather than continuing on to the Thai border as we had planned. We decided we (but mostly I) were too delicate to make the trip and that we'd spend new years eve in PP and fly to Bangkok on new years day to resume our trip home to Vientiane.
The day after we arrived back in PP I took a turn for the worst and ended up in a private clinic on a drip for 4 hours. They took a battery of tests and discovered a particularly nasty bacterial infection (that C had somehow managed to fight off, tough bugger).
The infection is now being terminated with serious drugs and I'm feeling much better, though the USD350 bill made me want to be put on another drip for a while (thank the gods for travel insurance is all I can say).
So instead of lazing on a Thai island we're wandering the streets of PP and exploring. It's an interesting town and has a lot more going on than Vientiane.
It's been fun (apart from the copious vomiting and the getting stuck with many needles bit, of course).
Tomorrow is new years eve and we're planning on having a quiet one before flying out to Bangkok early on Sunday.
More will be forthcoming in the near future. The happiest of happy international new year's (as it's called in this part of the world) to you all and have a drink for me as I certainly won't be having on for myself.
Sunday, 18 December 2005
It's not cheap, compared to Vientiane, but made much more reasonable by a quick thought about internet access prices in most other parts of the globe. They even have an old iMac, which makes me very happy as I'm not much of a PC fan at all.
I wanted to get online to let anyone interested know that C is just fine. She wasn't caught up in the riots or trapped in the convention centre, though she was involved in the rescue of several dozen members of Oxfam's International Youth Parliament who were caught up in the mess.
She'll be sure to write a bunch of stuff about it all soon, but is on her way here from Bangkok now, so might not have the chance for a while.
I went and visited Wat Phou today, generally considered a poorer cousin of the temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but I thought it was quite sepcial.
The temple itself is not very well maintained or restored, but it was very quiet and I pretty much had the place to myself as most people, sensibly, steer clear of the stinking hot midday sun.
Climbing up the steep heuan rock steps to the sanctuary was really interesting. Dozens of incredibly beautiful and extremely old frangipani trees line both sides of the walkway, growing out of and around the steps and temple itself.
It was very quiet and contemplative, in a way that Angkor seldom is, and I was very much in the mood to benefit from that.
While I would never suggest coming here instead of Angkor, if you're in the area it's well worth the effort.
There was a poster listing all the UNESCO world heritage sites around the world in the small museum that accompanies the temple and I was surprised to learn that I have somehow managed to visit 30 of them. Not much of a dent in the 1,576 sites listed (and no I didn't count them all, there was a handy tally), but I was kind of impressed with myself.
I'm off to take it easy for a bit longer before dinner and bed. I'm in the middle of The River's Tale : A Year on the Mekong by Edward Gargan, a former NY Times correspondent. It was recommended to me by Jono, C's brother who is living in Phenom Phen and who we will be spending the holidays with. The book tells the story of Gargan's journey down the Mekong River from its source in Tibet to the point where it empties into the South China sea in Vietnam.
I've just gotten to northern Laos and am keen to read about some of the areas I've been seeing lately.
Will post more in the next 10 days or so.
*The picture isn't mine, as C has our camera, it's googled and pilfered from some travel site...
Saturday, 17 December 2005
The biggest news for the week is the proposed Annex C of GATS (the General Agreement on Trade in Services). Annex C was drafted during the last two months by countries and large corporations who stand to benefit the most from the liberalization of services (e.g. the EU, US, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Vivendi, Suez, etc.). Disappointed in the low number of bilateral request-offers under the current GATS agreement (ie the number of services sectors that countries have been willing to autonomously liberalise under GATS), these countries and corporations have written this text in an attempt to ensure that liberalization happens rapidly and across many sectors at once.
The main sections of this annex that are really scary are paragraphs 2 and 7. Together these paragraphs introduce plurilateral and sectorial negotiations on services (ie, a group of countries could approach a small country are ask them to open up negotiations on liberalizing their education or water system). The other thing that is included in paragraph 7(b) is a mandatory element to these requests. The paragraph states that when requested, parties “shall” negotiate – meaning that a country would not be allowed to refuse a request to negotiate over the liberalization of their services. This is significant, because whenever these negotiations have gone ahead, most countries have ended up being pressured into liberalization – and this would be compounded when the negotiations become plurilateral rather than bilateral.
Now, despite the fact that only a small group of countries had drafted this text, and the fact that the rest of the member states of the WTO had been very clear that they did not agree with the text, it was brought to the Ministerials as the ONLY text to be discussed during negotiations. The only concession that was made to this fact was that the text was placed in brackets, to indicate that there was no consensus on it as yet.
An alternative text was then written by the ASEAN countries and another by the ACP countries that both clearly rejected the text of Annex C. However, during the first few days of negotiations, these countries were placed under enormous pressure from the US and the EU (and others) not to table these alternative texts or they would not receive other “concessions” (including the so-called development package or the so-called aid for trade package – both of which are seriously problematic in themselves). For a while things looked very bad and there has been a lot of campaigning in the NGO rooms to support these countries to defend their own positions on Annex C.
The good news is that yesterday, despite massive pressure from the EU and the US, the G90 tabled an alternative text to the GATS, while another group of countries (including Cuba, Indonesia, Philippines, South Africa and Venezuela) issued a letter stating that Annex C, having not been agreed by members, is not an appropriate basis for negotiations.
However, the really bad news is that the GATS facilitator, Korean Minister Kim has tried to sum up negotiations by saying that only 15 countries had concerns with the text of Annex C (apparently counting the G90 as only one country!), while 26 wanted Annex C maintained (as though it was a legitimate text in the first place, which is simply false). His suggested resolution was that if there was no consensus by today, he would simply remove the brackets from Annex C and that the text will remain as it is. This would mean that he would be indicated consensus on this text that has been written SOLELY in the interests of Northern countries to open up and exploit the public services of the rest of the world in the global south.
We are now waiting to see how this situation will be resolved. If Annex C is pushed through it will not only be a devastating result for the people of the global south in respect to maintaining their public services, but it will also indicate a new and even more anti-democratic process is being introduced into WTO negotiations.
I was going to go Christmas shopping this afternoon, but I think that I may have to stick around instead…
Friday, 16 December 2005
For your entertainment and my shame, here is a list of the films I’ve seen over the course of the last week.
Sahara: two ex-marine pseudo-sceintists and a “sexy” WHO doctor save the world – entertaining crap.
Patch Adams: I don’t really want to talk about it – complete and utter crap.
Kicking and Screaming: Will Ferrell turns into a psycho soccer coach – surprisingly unfunny crap.
The Chronicles of Riddick: I have no idea what this was about – incomprehensible fantasy crap.
Finding Forrester: Sean Connery plays and aging and reclusive but very famous author who mentors a black kid from the wrong side of the tracks – literary crap.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: another gem from Wes Anderson. Bill Murray shines as usual and the acoustic Bowie in Portuguese was a nice touch – not even remotely crap.
Once Upon A Time In Mexico: sequel to the Desperado/El Mariachi duo, but not as good as either, though Jonny Depp was excellent – semi-crap.
Rapid Fire: Brandon Lee made a few terrible early 90s action flicks before making one good one. This wasn’t the good one – martial arts crap.
Kung Fu Hustle: funny, sweet and full of great martial arts action. What more could you ask for? – not even close to crap.
The Transporter: It was written by Luc Besson you know. Still crap. Very slick, but crap nonetheless.
Melinda and Melinda: I must admit I quite like Woody Allen films and I’ve started to like them more in recent years as he has appeared in them less. This one was quite good, kind of a Sliding Doors but with a brain – once again, not crap at all.
Swordfish: double cross type film, but without the double cross. Actually tapped into the American “we must do all it takes to beat the terrorists” mindset, just not in a good way – techno thriller crap.
Team America: World Police: Occasionally funny, but missed the mark most of the time – a bit of a let down in fact.
I tried to watch the sequel to The Crimson Rivers last night - Angels of the Apocalypse, but the DVD I got hold of was only subtitled in Chinese and Japanese which made the French even harder to understand. When that plan failed I turned to an old favourite and hooked in to Back to the Future part II, which has my vote for best sequel of all time. In fact I’d almost dare to say the three of them are my vote for best trilogy of all time. Controversial I know.
So that’s how I spent my week while C was in Hong Kong working to change the global trading regime. I actually feel a little shallow now that I think about it.
I’m off south this afternoon, so you won’t be reading much here for the next couple of weeks. Sorry. We’re back in Vientiane on the 2nd of Jan.
Merry Christmas and a happy new years.
Thursday, 15 December 2005
I'll be away for a couple of weeks and will try to post here and there, but if not, here's wishing you all a happy christmas (or happy holidays, whichever you prefer) and a wonderful new years.
C and I will spend a couple of days relaxing on one of the 4,000 islands in the Mekong at the bottom of Laos before crossing the border into Cambodia to spend christmas with C's mother and brother. After christmas we're planning to head to a quiet Thai island to relax over new years before coming back to Vientiane to pack and get ready for the great southern migration back to Sydney (and then Canberra, but we're not thinking about that yet).
Wednesday, 14 December 2005
I can understand how disillusioned they must be feeling. They go in and destroy the vast majority of the country's infrastructure in order to depose a tyrant in possession of weapons of mass destruction (not that he actually had any) and then award pretty much all the reconstruction contracts to US mega corporations. And what have they gotten for their efforts? A large scale and ever increasing insurgency and lots of bad press, both inside and outside of Iraq.
If you are not willing to radically change your strategy, as the Bush government has repeatedly made clear, what can you do? One option is to continue doing what you are doing and ensure the press tell everyone that you are doing something else, something better.
The only problem with this strategy is that it always backfires and you generally tend to get caught out in the lie, which makes things worse than if you had simply kept on doing what you were going to do anyway and not bothered about what anyone else says or does, particularly when you are the most powerful military force in the world.
Apparently the Pentagon's joint psychological operations support element, without the knowledge of the White House (yeah right) launched the project "in which about 1,000 articles were placed in Iraqi newspapers".
The project was headed by Andrew Garfield, who has the spiffy title of senior director of insight and influence at the Washington-based Lincoln Group, said he was "contractually unable to comment on the company's work for the Pentagon",
But in an exchange of emails with the Guardian, he said: "I have long been an advocate of the use of hearts and minds campaigns ... in support of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations. In part my advocacy for this vital activity has been informed by my ... experience of the conflict in Northern Ireland ... I am currently offering my experience and expertise, such as it is, to Lincoln Group."
In response to the allegations and the impending investigation, the Lincoln Group has released a statement to the press. It's so good I want to quote it in full:
TRUTH IN REPORTINGHow good are the Lincoln Group. It seems they are single handedly defending the people of Iraq, and the world, from the "pure evil of terror". I'm not sure what the "pure evil of terror" is, but boy am I glad that I'm being defended from it.
Lincoln Group has consistently worked with the Iraqi media to promote truthful reporting across Iraq. Our priority has always been, and continues to be, accuracy and timeliness.
Our clients, our employees and the Iraqis who support this effort have maintained a commitment to battle terror with a powerful weapon - the truth.
We counter the lies, intimidation, and pure evil of terror with factual stories that highlight the heroism and sacrifice of the Iraqi people and their struggle for freedom and security. We are encouraged by their sacrifice and proud to help them tell their side of the story.
The Lincoln Group's website is a hotbed of fantastic quotes, like the above.
Here's one addressing the concerns of people who wonder how these good upstanding residents of the land of the free can stand to work in "foreign communities where crime, insurgency, terrorism, extreme poverty and instability make communications and operations an extreme challenge".
So, people often wonder "How Can You Work There?" It's not simple, but we rely on our experience, quality people, flexibility, and a low profile to get the job done. The bottom line to our success often comes down to the fact that we live and work inside these communities. Our staff members are experts on the communities they work in and are able to immerse themselves in them unobtrusively. This level of intimacy allows us greater insight and ensures that our teams always have their finger on the pulse of local perceptions and behaviors.
I love these guys. How great is their doublespeak. I say nominate them for the NCTE Doublespeak Award. They even have a section entitled "recent and upcoming news". Now that's telling it how it is, or will be...
Apparently some segments of the Iraqi media are happy with the arrangement and unconcerned about who knows it. Luay Baldawihe, the editor of Ahmed Chalabi's newspaper, Al Mutamar, was quoted in an LA Times article as saying:
We publish anything," he said. "The paper's policy is to publish everything, especially if it praises causes we believe in. We are pro-American. Everything that supports America we will publish."
There's a great post over at Whiskey Bar on the same topic, which quotes extensively from the LA Times article.
Apparently the big debate in the US media isn't about whether planting stories in Iraqi newspapers is morally right or wrong, but whether or not it will be effective. Again from the LA Times article:
Daniel Kuehl, an information operations expert at National Defense University at Ft. McNair in Washington, said that he did not believe that planting stories in Iraqi media was wrong. But he questioned whether the practice would help turn the Iraqi public against the insurgency.
"I don't think that there's anything evil or morally wrong with it," he said. "I just question whether it's effective."
I'd say that the questions being asked should be reversed, it's not really about how effective it might be, though these types of campaigns never really are very effective, but about the morality of manipulating the media.
I know that media manipulation happens everyday, but schemes like this one and other cash for comment scandals that have come to light are pretty disgraceful.
The Whiskey Bar post hits the mark:
But knowing what we already know about how the Cheney administration and the semi-official media (Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Judy Woodward, etc.) operate here at home, it's not exactly a surprise to learn the same techniques are being used to shape the information "battle space" in Iraq. After all, why should the Iraqis get more democracy than we do? (I suppose one could argue that since it's taken the USA almost 230 years to devolve into the corrupt and decadent republic we've become, the Iraqis should be required to wait in line just like everyone else.)
The Australian government has basically abandoned Hicks, leaving him to the mercy of the US military (not well known for their mercy), whereas the UK has secured the release of all 9 British citizens who were held in the prison, against all sense and international law.
Mr Hicks's lawyers argue that the Australian government has refused to plead for his release and has made no attempt to prevent his trial by a US military commission.
They say that, in contrast, the UK government has acted to remove all nine of its citizens imprisoned at Guantánamo, and would be compelled to call for the release of Mr Hicks.
The home secretary is considering an appeal, of course.
Tuesday, 13 December 2005
The debate was interesting, although both sides really pulled their punches and Jara was incredibly evasive in response to any questions that were critical of the WTO. At the end of the day, Bello’s main message was that the ‘Development Package’ being offered at this Ministerial was just a way of getting developing countries not to walk away from negotiations in order to try to maintain the legitimacy of the institution and that additionally they were a bad deal for developing countries anyway – the ‘Aid for Trade’ is money that has already been committed elsewhere and a lot of it is in the form of loans, which will only increase indebtedness.
Jara just kept repeating that he thought that the Ministerial would be successful, because they would be able to agree on a position from which to continue negotiations next year, and that they would be able to conclude the Doha round by the end of the year. (Funny how he is defining success as a postponement of any real outcomes.) I asked him if he thought that it was problematic that decisions were being postponed to be made in Geneva by the Secretariat and smaller groups of governments (as had been done in the July Framework in 2004) and whether this was essentially eroding the claim that the WTO is a consensus-based institution. He just said that the decision to do this would be made by everyone – i.e., he just totally evaded the question.
The next event that I attended was a briefing on the “Key Issues” by the Third World Network. Martin Khor spoke first and he was excellent (as promised). It was interesting to see that around a third of the people in the room (and it was quite a big room) were delegates from developing countries – clearly they were there to hear from someone who is very informed about what is really at stake in this round in order to form their own positions.
Like Bello, Martin Khor was very critical of this so-called ‘development package’ being offered; basically saying that it has nothing to do with development at all. In his view, only the large agricultural exporters have anything to gain in this round of talks, because although they feel cheated by the way that the US and EU simply shifted the way they give their farmers subsidies (from one ‘box’ to another), instead of actually reducing them as they committed to in the Uruguay round, they are still willing to give up something in order to increase their market access in agriculture. However, other than the big agricultural exporters, Martin Khor argued that small developing nations have absolutely nothing to gain in this round and that they have no reason to agree to any deal that is being offered – since their 150 demands for reforming the trading system (the so-called “implementation issues” that include things like by making TRIPS more flexible), which they tabled in 2000, have still not been met and have now even been taken off the agenda.
From the TWN briefing I caught the MRT to Victoria Park to attend the protest rally. It was just so cool to see people from all over the world assembling for the rally. Most of the people were from developing countries, particularly Asia, but also Latin America and Africa. In particular, there were heaps of farmers – all wearing matching hats and drumming together. There was also a big memorial to the Korean farmer who committed suicide at Cancun in protest again the impact of trade liberalization on farmers in Korea and around the world. Just looking at it made me cry.
We ended up marching with the people from Oxfam, because we were with the young people from the Oxfam youth exchange for trade justice. Behind us was a fantastic group of students from the Hong Kong Baptist University – the ‘Sociology Students WTO Concern Unit’ who danced along with their whistles. Behind them were people from Jubilee South who were drumming amazing rhythms. Along the way we realized that Gael García Bernal was marching with us (in the Oxfam group), and (this is perhaps the dorkiest thing I have ever done) I got my photo with him. He was very sweet and busy filming the protest with a massive video camera.
When we got to the protest end point, right near the Convention Centre, we all sat down. Some sex workers from Cambodia got up a danced with NO WTO attached to their rear-ends – they were tops. Then the Korean farmers came through the crowd singing and carrying a large funeral pier. A whole group of them jumped into the water (it must have been Freezing!) and started swimming towards the Convention Centre. They explained that they were trying to show the pain that the WTO caused them. As the funeral match moved forward, they matched towards the police line and suddenly used the pier as a ram with which to break their way through to the Convention Centre. That is when the tear gas was used and we decided it was time to leave.
After the rally I had arranged to interview Alberto Villarreal from FOE Uruguay about the struggle to protect public water in Uruguay. I was supposed to meet him in the NGO Centre in the Convention Centre, but had to postpone when I was met with a wall of riot police blocking my entrance. Once I weaved my way back in, I met Alberto and interviewed him for 25 minutes, ‘recording it’ (I thought) on my new MP3 player/recorder (my ‘Shuangsang’ – yes, I thought it was a Samsung until I turned it on…). The interview went great, until I tried to replay it and discovered that I had recorded nothing – I had instead just been replaying a recording that I made earlier in the day (the display for voice record and voice play is identical, of course!).
Anyway, I spend the last half hour trying to remember what Alberto said and typing up a “transcript” that I will email him for comment. I hate technology!
Now, I must get some dinner and recharge for tomorrow. There is a briefing by Tony Clarke on GATS from 8:00am-1:00pm and it should be good. I will ensure that I understand this bloody MP3 thing a bit better by then…
But my favourite revelation was:
|You Are 40% Boyish and 60% Girlish|
You are pretty evenly split down the middle - a total eunuch.
Okay, kidding about the eunuch part. But you do get along with both sexes.
You reject traditional gender roles. However, you don't actively fight them.
You're just you. You don't try to be what people expect you to be.
So now it official, Brooke, Sally - I'm one of the girls (well 60% of me is at least).
I think that, because I think that they should really list the "girlish" before the "boyish" since it scored higher and that they didn't is just one more example of gender inequality, means my girlish score should really be a little higher.
Monday, 12 December 2005
On Saturday a group of us went to pick up our accreditation passes so that we can get into the official venue, and we were presented with a WTO welcome pack in a brief case. Inside were information booklets on such relevant NGO topics as: "A Business Traveller's Guide to Hong Kong" and shopping guides. The best part, though, was the cover of the info folder: "Hong Kong - The Free-est Economy in the World". The WTO must be patting themselves on the back for their choice of venue. You could not have found a more supportive local climate.
I have been running around attending NGO events and strategy meetings, while trying to meet people to interview for my PhD. Its been hectic already, but I think that the real craziness is going to begin tomorrow. At some point, I'll try to post some actual information and photos. For now, I think I am going to get some sleep.
But he said attacking people on their basis of their race was totally unacceptable,
just doesn't make sense, and not just because SMH can't seem to figure out English grammar. Attacking people on the basis of their race is, by definition, racism and therefore racist behaviour. And those who engage in racist behaviour are, by definition, racist.
It really is that simple.
The white people who attacked non-white people and the non-whites who later attacked other whites, are both racists of the worst kind - the ones that actually act on their insane impulses and hurt people.
Not that our PM can talk. He is, after all, the man who refuses to apologise to Aboriginal Australians for the subjugation and oppression they have experienced since the European invasion, and steadfastly refuses to do anything about ending that oppression today.
What's going on? My heroes keep dying lately. Richard Pryor, possibly the funniest American political comedian ever, died on Saturday.
In The Observer's obituary, I learned that Pryor was raised in a brothel. No wonder he was so messed up. Brothels in the mid-west of the US, mostly due to the kinds of people they attract, are one of the last places I would think a good place to bring up a child, not that I imagine his mother had much choice, given the racist nature of the US.
Born in the Midwestern state of Illinois and brought up in a brothel, he began, like many black comedians at the time, by trying to appeal to respectable audiences. All that changed after what he later called a stage 'epiphany' in 1967, before a posh hotel audience in Las Vegas. He looked into the crowd, paused, suddenly said into the microphone 'What the fuck am I doing here?' - and walked off stage.Pryor relentlessly hounded white America, even while making many of them laugh, turning what he perceived as their racist injustices into comedy skits. Apparently even he wasn't sure why he got away with it.
The comedian once marvelled that 'I live in racist America and I'm uneducated, yet a lot of people love me and like what I do and I can make a living from it. You can't do much better than that.'I always loved Pryor's comedy, even when I was too young to understand what he was talking about. As I grew up and came to understand the issues behind his stand-up I came to appreciate him even more.
See No Evil, Hear No Evil, The Toy, Brewster's Millions, and Stir Crazy remain some of my favourite movies.
Thank you Richard Pryor.
Sunday, 11 December 2005
In case you're wondering, Watson was the person who coined the term vegan.
Apparently, after forming the vegan society in Britian in 1944, he asked for submissions to come up with a better name.
He asked for other suggestions, and “dairyban”, “vitan”, “benevore”, “sanivore” and “beaumangeur” were offered, but most of the 25 members were happiest with vegan.
"Vegan" comes from the start and end of the word vegetarian "expressing his belief that this new, absolutist diet was in fact the first impulse and the final destination of the vegetarian journey."
The best thing about him, other than the fact he gave the name to an important aspect of my belief system, is that he lived to 95. Take that those who question my dietary choices.
When interviewed at 92 he was pleased to report that he had lived thus far without resort to medication “either orthodox or fringe”, and with hardly a day’s illness.
Kristy from Kblog, was having one of those "why are you a vegan" days last week. And, knowing how she feels (aren't you all tired of badgering us yet?) I left a lengthy comment that I won't repeat, but if you're interested in my rant, click here.
*Photo from vegan.de
Saturday, 10 December 2005
The economics prize is to be presented to Robert Aumann of Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Thomas Schelling of Maryland University in recognition of their "having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis", a mathematical study of how individuals and governments react to other people's actions including in war.
Game theory is a pretty nasty tool, or at least is often used as one. It's one thing to study people's behaviour in situations where they can act "for the good of society" or "to maximise their utility", and to propose theories as to why this may be the case, but another entirely to use these theories to foster repression and hatred, as the petition accuses Aumann specifically of doing in the occupied territories.
The petition says that "neither of these individuals has contributed anything that improves the human condition; rather, they have contributed to the misery of millions."
The petition calls on the Swedish Academy to withdraw the prize. "You should reverse your decision to reward Professors Schelling and Aumann. We request that you find people who have truly advanced the health and welfare of humanity, as has always been the intention of the Nobel prize," it says.
Despite the fact that the Swedish academy's response that the theory was chosen because it "makes its decisions based on the quality of the scientific contribution" and not on political considerations, it's akin to Hitler making it into Time's 100 people of the century list.
Not taking into account the politics of a person or theory is willingly deciding to ignore the most important aspect of that person or theory - their/its impact on others.
I would highly recommend spending the next 20 minutes of your life reading it, but for those without 20 minutes to spare, here are a few of my favourite paragraphs:
In 1958 I wrote the following:
'There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.'
I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?
It's a strange moment, the moment of creating characters who up to that moment have had no existence. What follows is fitful, uncertain, even hallucinatory, although sometimes it can be an unstoppable avalanche. The author's position is an odd one. In a sense he is not welcomed by the characters. The characters resist him, they are not easy to live with, they are impossible to define. You certainly can't dictate to them. To a certain extent you play a never-ending game with them, cat and mouse, blind man's buff, hide and seek. But finally you find that you have people of flesh and blood on your hands, people with will and an individual sensibility of their own, made out of component parts you are unable to change, manipulate or distort.
So language in art remains a highly ambiguous transaction, a quicksand, a trampoline, a frozen pool which might give way under you, the author, at any time.
But as I have said, the search for the truth can never stop. It cannot be adjourned, it cannot be postponed. It has to be faced, right there, on the spot.
Political language, as used by politicians, does not venture into any of this territory since the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.
As every single person here knows, the justification for the invasion of Iraq was that Saddam Hussein possessed a highly dangerous body of weapons of mass destruction, some of which could be fired in 45 minutes, bringing about appalling devastation. We were assured that was true. It was not true. We were told that Iraq had a relationship with Al Quaeda and shared responsibility for the atrocity in New York of September 11th 2001. We were assured that this was true. It was not true. We were told that Iraq threatened the security of the world. We were assured it was true. It was not true.
The truth is something entirely different. The truth is to do with how the United States understands its role in the world and how it chooses to embody it.
Everyone knows what happened in the Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe during the post-war period: the systematic brutality, the widespread atrocities, the ruthless suppression of independent thought. All this has been fully documented and verified.
But my contention here is that the US crimes in the same period have only been superficially recorded, let alone documented, let alone acknowledged, let alone recognised as crimes at all. I believe this must be addressed and that the truth has considerable bearing on where the world stands now. Although constrained, to a certain extent, by the existence of the Soviet Union, the United States' actions throughout the world made it clear that it had concluded it had carte blanche to do what it liked.
The United States supported and in many cases engendered every right wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War. I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course, Chile. The horror the United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can never be purged and can never be forgiven.
Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries. Did they take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy? The answer is yes they did take place and they are attributable to American foreign policy. But you wouldn't know it.
It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It's a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.
I put to you that the United States is without doubt the greatest show on the road. Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be but it is also very clever. As a salesman it is out on its own and its most saleable commodity is self love. It's a winner. Listen to all American presidents on television say the words, 'the American people', as in the sentence, 'I say to the American people it is time to pray and to defend the rights of the American people and I ask the American people to trust their president in the action he is about to take on behalf of the American people.'
It's a scintillating stratagem. Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay. The words 'the American people' provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance. You don't need to think. Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion may be suffocating your intelligence and your critical faculties but it's very comfortable. This does not apply of course to the 40 million people living below the poverty line and the 2 million men and women imprisoned in the vast gulag of prisons, which extends across the US.
When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror - for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.
I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.
If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us - the dignity of man.
Friday, 9 December 2005
Just in case you were wondering I received a text message (oh the wonders of modern technology) from her a little while ago and she's arrived and is settling in just fine.
All I can say is, watch out WTO.
*these weren't the dumplings I ate, by the way. Mine didn't come on a fancy mat.
Chavez - 1
Bush - 0
Oh, and speaking of Bushes. The fat one was called such by Castro.
Castro - 1
Fat Bush - 0
Yup, feeling a little better. Right off to bed, alone. Not feeling so good now.
Thursday, 8 December 2005
It's not like she's gone for long (10 days, 11 nights) but I can't help but feel we've spent more than enough time apart already this year and another week and a bit might just tip the balance into an unreasonable amount of time (about 4 months) to spend apart in your first year of marriage.
Still HK will be fantastic for her and it's exactly the place she should be right now and I'll keep myself busy watching all those terrible movies I never rent because I know she will hate them. I'll potter and read a lot. Get lots of exercise. Blog myself stupid. And before I know it she'll be back.
Actually, she won't really be back. We're meeting on an island in middle of the Mekong River in the south of Laos. We'll spend a couple of days there doing nothing much and then cross the border into Cambodia and make our way down to PP to spend xmas with Cristy's mum and brother.
After that we're off to another island (this time in Thailand) for a bit more r'n'r before coming back to Vientiane to pack up our lives and head on home.
It doesn't sound all that bad when I put it like that, but I'm still not looking forward to the next 10 days.
Why didn't I go to HK again?
Wednesday, 7 December 2005
It's certainly less off the cuff than the blurt I wrote on Laos' birthday.
Oh, and it might have slipped your notice, but dissident Chinese journalist Liu Binyan, died, unexpectedly of natural causes , a couple of days ago (unexpectedly because the Chinese government would have liked to have gotten rid of him for some time). Liu has the dubious distinction of being twice named by a senior Chinese leader for daring to speak out.
In 1957, he was condemned as a "rightist" by Mao Zedong, and was unable to work for the next 22 years. In 1987, he was singled out by Deng Xiaoping for "advocating bourgeois liberalism", and expelled from the Communist party. The ensuing campaign against Liu and other reformers by Deng and his fellow reactionary leaders paved the way for the tragedy of Tiananmen Square two years later.
The world needs more journalists like Liu willing to put their asses on the line and speak out about repression in all its forms.
An avian influenza virus isolated from an infected Vietnamese girl has been determined to be resistant to the drug Oseltamivir (Tamiflu).
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, working with colleagues in Vietnam and Japan, report in a brief communication in the journal Nature that a young girl, provided with a prophylactic dose of the drug after experiencing mild influenza symptoms, developed a strain of the virus that was highly resistant to the drug.
The finding suggests that health officials - now stockpiling millions of doses of the drug to forestall a global outbreak of influenza and buy time to develop and mass produce a vaccine - should also consider other options, according to Yoshihiro Kawaoka, the senior author of the Nature paper.
Still, like they say, no reason to panic...
I used to think that packing got easier the more times you were forced to do it, because you would learn which items of clothing were a waste of space, how few toiletries you really need, and how nice it was to have a light pack when traveling.
However, I appear to have gone backwards in my packing education.
Our recent trip to Northern Laos found me drastically under prepared. My clothing was simply not warm enough for the freezing weather. My shoes were inadequate for all the trekking we ended up doing. My bag was too small for all of the additional clothes that I had to purchase. And, despite being intent on relaxing, I barely touched my big heavy novel. Essentially, I totally misjudged the packing requirements of the trip.
Today, so soon back from such a packing debacle, I find myself packing again. This time my trip feels even more complex and difficult to judge. I will be in Hong Kong attending the WTO Ministerials as an NGO delegate, but I'm also planning to going along to other conferences, do a spot of shopping, and, perhaps, attend the odd protest. AND, the weather forecast predicts fairly cool weather - something that I have gained a renewed level of respect/concern for over the last few weeks.
As if this wasn't confusing enough, from Hong Kong I am heading to Southern Laos to travel, with P., overland to Cambodia to meet Jono and my Mum for Christmas, before heading to a Thai Island, Bangkok and then back to Vientiane. Essentially, I feel as though I need clothes for every possible occasion, but don't want to take anything larger than a schoolbag sized backpack (and don't really have a viable alternative in case you think that I am just being stubborn).
Yes, yes, I know. How dare I whinge about not knowing what to pack when I am so ridiculously privileged and lucky to be heading off on this kind of trip in the first place. You have a point; a very good point even. I am being an absolute brat.
However, your perfectly valid outrage does not solve my basic dilemma: What on earth am I going to pack?
Tuesday, 6 December 2005
I wouldn't ordinarily post something as inane as this, but I just noticed that C hadn't posted at all today and thought I should get something up.
It's going to be pretty much all me as of Thursday when C leaves for Hong Kong, so I'll be sure to think of some more interesting topics to keep you reading.
But for now, just so you know, today I've so far edited 13 news stories, two features, an editorial, and some sports and business news.
Square eyes or what.
More surprisingly, the only interesting thing in all of that was the fact that Laos won it's first Southeast Asian gold medal in traditional boxing yesterday. (Actually it might have been the day before - we're not big on current news here. It doesn't really matter when it happened if we say it's news it's news. Period.)
Monday, 5 December 2005
The first photo was taken at a school, located in the first village that we walked through. It was a Lao Village (ie, the villagers were all ethnic Lao people) located on the Mekong and the children looked well fed and pretty healthy.
The next photo is of the Hmong village itself. The village was incredibly poor. They had no rice paddies, and could only grow their rice in temporary slash and burn (swidden) fields on the hills. Their houses were very basic and there was only one source of water in the village - a tap which they left running night and day (possibly because they were concerned that it would not turn back on if they turned it off).
The next three photos are of some of the children in the village (one with its mother) Distressingly, many of the children showed clear signs of malnutrition - their tummy's were seriously distended and several children had very streaked hair. Since there was also no school in the village, these children also had little hope of a more prosperous future. Our meager contribution to the village economy (accomodation fees and the purchase of handicrafts) was probably not going to change a lot.
Our guide did tell us that his trekking business had agree to pay the wage of a teacher for the village if they could build a basic school. The problem was that they had not been able to find a teacher willing to work in the village (it was a half day's walk from the Mekong near Luang Prabang, and they would have to speak the Hmong language), even after looking seriously for over a year.
Sadly, the situation of these children in not unique. Worldwide, over 100 million children do not have access to education, despite repeated commitments from the international community to change this reality. Another 852 million people suffer from hunger, many of these also children, again despite repeated commitments from the international community to halve this number. These are statistics that I have known for a while, but witnessing first hand a village of people who really live with this reality gave new meaning to these figures.
Sunday, 4 December 2005
Four members of Christian Peacemaker Teams were taken this past Saturday, November 26, in Baghdad, Iraq. They are not spies, nor do they work in the service of any government. They are people who have dedicated their lives to fighting against war and have clearly and publicly opposed the invasion and occupation of Iraq. They are people of faith, but they are not missionaries. They have deep respect for the Islamic faith and for the right of Iraqis to self-determination.
C.P.T. first came to Iraq in October 2002 to oppose the US invasion, and it has remained in the country throughout the occupation in solidarity with the Iraqi people. The group has been invaluable in alerting the world to many of the horrors facing Iraqis detained in US-run prisons and detention centers. C.P.T. was among the first to document the torture occurring at the Abu Ghraib prison, long before the story broke in the mainstream press. Its members have spent countless hours interviewing Iraqis about abuse and torture suffered at the hands of US forces and have disseminated this information internationally.
Each of the four C.P.T. members being held in Iraq has dedicated his life to resisting the darkness and misery of war and occupation. Convinced that it is not enough to oppose the war from the safety of their homes, they made the difficult decision to go to Iraq, knowing that the climate of mistrust created by foreign occupation meant that they could be mistaken for spies or missionaries. They went there with a simple purpose: to bear witness to injustice and to embody a different kind of relationship between cultures and faiths. Members of C.P.T. willingly undertook the risks of living among Iraqis, in a common neighborhood outside of the infamous Green Zone. They sought no protection from weapons or armed guards, trusting in, and benefiting from, the goodwill of the Iraqi people. Acts of kindness and hospitality from Iraqis were innumerable and ensured the C.P.T. members' safety and wellbeing. We believe that spirit will prevail in the current situation.
We appeal to those holding these activists to release them unharmed so that they may continue their vital work as witnesses and peacemakers.
Add your name at: http://www.freethecpt.org
Saturday, 3 December 2005
There was a woman on stage singing Lao folk songs and somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 people standing around listening, but not dancing (people here dance at weddings and other celebrations, but don't seem to dance in large crowds. Not that Lao folk music inspires one to boogy, but the other week on a similar stage for another festival there was a local hip hop outfit going off and the whole crowd of, if anything, more people than last night, stood stock still. It was eerie).
After a few minutes of staring and being stared at we decided to bail back to our place to subject Grant to a slide show from our northern adventure. As we were leaving the fireworks started up and we paused to watch. After about 10 minutes the thrill wore off and we kept walking home. Along the way the fireworks stopped and we thought "that was nice". Then they started again. Went on for a while and stopped again. "surely that's it" we commented among ourselves, and after a few minutes we figured we were right. Nope.
This went on for a good forty-five minutes, during which time our conversation was continually interrupted by the sonic booms (if that's what they're actually called).
Again, I was quite surprised at Laos' ability to put on a massive fireworks display while seemingly having the inability to pay government staff on time (sometimes for months at a time). It's not like paying someone US$ 10-40 a month is a huge stretch anyway.
*about the title - in Lao "ban fai" means fire works and "ban fi lai lai" means a lot of fireworks.
** That Luang, means something like "the stupa" in Lao. It's the giant (painted) gold pointy thing on the far side of the crowd in the picture. It's way more impressive in the distance.
Friday, 2 December 2005
On the one hand I kind secretly like the fact the the mighty US military, the most highly funded militia in the world, got kicked out of Indochina by a bunch of farmers. On the other hand the repression that this regime and it's cousin in Vietnam (let's not even go near the mess that happened in Cambodia) have instituted and continue to carry out despite much vaulted reforms makes this victory problematic.
At the paper we're printing a whole bunch of accolades and not a whole lot anything else.
International organisations and governments are sending in their congratulations (including, ironically, the US) and everyone is pretending like all is well in Laos.
Things aren't so well. Travelling in the north of the country was a very sobering experience. The extreme poverty is in-your-face evident as soon as you step out of touristed areas and get into the mountains. Young children with distended stomachs and hair streaked light by malnourishment are the norm, not the exception.
So while the top brass in the party congratulate themselves on their "historic victory" I sit here and wonder how many of them would give up their Mercedes to put food in the stomachs of "the proud and patriotic multi-ethnic peoples of Laos".
Sadly, the only answer I can come up with is zero.
Happy birthday Laos, hopefully one day you will actually grow up a little.
With horribly ironic timing, the US marked its own special anniversary today by carrying out its 1000th execution since the death penalty was re-introduced in 1977. Kenneth Boyd was certainly no angel. He murdered his estranged wife and her father. However, his execution only serves to diminish the humanity of everyone, because it sends the message that human life has little value and turns as all into killers when the state acts on our behalf. As Mr Boyd's attorney, Thomas Maher put it:
The execution of Kenneth Boyd has not made this a better or safer world. If this 1,000th execution is a milestone, it's a milestone we should all be ashamed of.Despite the fact that it was the Singapore and US governments, and not the government of Australia that ordered these executions, I still feel that they diminish the humanity of people everywhere and that we all bare the responsibility for acting to stop this practice. One way of doing this would be to support Amnesty International, something that I should be a little more active in doing myself.
Finally, on a less grisly note, but one that is also sad, the Senate passed the Coalition’s new Industrial Relations Bill today. Another win for neoliberalism in Australia and another blow to our remnant worker's rights.
You know what I said about being ready to go home? Well, maybe I spoke a little too soon...
Because of this, and because we also like having such instant feedback, P. and I currently have our hearts set on a digital SLR. Only slight problem is lack of funds and slight difficulty in justifying the expense. However, since I am headed for HK where cameras are cheaper, I will at least be browsing in the camera shops...
In the meantime, here are a couple film SLR shots of kids looking at photos of themselves on our little digital camera. They are all munchkins!
Last time I travelled in northern Laos I was in the midst of a four-month pre-corporate-law backpacking trip around SE Asia and I loved every second of it. The long windy bus ride to Luang Prabang was exciting, the crap roads adventurous, and the uncomfortable beds were just all part of the journey. Only four years later, I have to admit that I am getting soft. I almost threw up on the bus to Luang Prabang, I'm going to need several massages to recover from crap road to Vieng Pouka, and I actually carried my own pillow to assist me in sleeping in the beds. If I were to mix with a backpacker crowd right now, I would have absolutely no street cred.
I should just add for the record that our trip north was amazing. Despite the increase in tourists, Luang Prabang remains a truly magical place. The treks that we did into the hills to stay in Hmong and Akha villages enabled us to see some incredible scenery and remote villages with amazingly varied traditions and cultures. And it was great to catch up with Dad, Jono and Mic. I think that the real issue is that I am feeling ready to go home.
Its not that we have been here all that long, or that I wouldn't want to stay longer. It is just that now that I know that we are leaving so soon, my mind has raced ahead and I am already partly in Canberra, settling down, unpacking my books and kitchenware. Suddenly Laos seems so temporary, so inconsequential that I just want to move on and come to a comfortable halt in Canberra.
Instead, I am doing quite the opposite. Next week I am heading off to Hong Kong to attend the WTO Ministerials and, hopefully, get some good interviews for my thesis. From there I head to Southern Laos to meet P. and travel overland to Cambodia to meet Mum and Jono for Christmas. After Christmas P. and I will again travel overland into Thailand and have a few days rest on beautiful Koh Chang, before returning to Vientiane via Bangkok. Only 3 days later, Sally will arrive and we will have two weeks to pack up and clear out.
I guess by the time I come up for air I will have my wish - I will already be in Canberra. The question is: will I just want to be back here? Only time will tell...
Thursday, 1 December 2005
But for the moment we're tired and going to bed.
I'm not sure, but I think that this might be one of my all time favourite photos (of the ones I've taken anyway).
We were in Luang Prabang (proudly the first UNESCO World Heritage listed site in Laos - as everyone, everywhere constantly reminds me) and were having a wander around the grounds of the old royal palace, now a second rate museum. We weren't going to go inside, since C and her dad have both been before and Christopher Kremmer's description in Bamboo Palace took away any desire I had to see it, and it wouldn't have mattered anyway since it was closed for lunch when we went anyway.
C and her dad were looking at something and I came across these three kids playing on the marble entrance way. they were running and seeing who could slide the furthest on the slippery surface before crashing. Upon seeing my very not inconspicuous SLR at the ready they put on a show.
I don't think the size does it justice.
About the temporarily. Sally, who's coming to take over our lives here, reminded me today (well I read the post today) that she'll be here in a month, which means that we'll be leaving soon after. Actually we're leaving much earlier than that. C is off to see what she can see in HK next week and I'll be meeting her in southern Laos on her return. From there we'll wander on down to Cambodia to meet her brother and mother for a little xmas cheer before spending a few relaxing nights on a Thai island.
By the time we get back Sally will be hot on our heels and we'll be trying to figure out just how we managed to acquire so much stuff in the 9 months we've been here. Then it's off to the wonderful world of Canberra and a career (gasp).