If a disaster the magnitude of the quake that hit China's Sichuan province last month had taken place in the United States, (think 50 Hurricane Katrinas) you can bet that the nation would still be reeling, many public services would not yet have resumed, and certainly some schools would still be closed. But nearly a month after the devastating earthquake hit, millions of Chinese students, many of whom have lost homes or loved ones, are returning to normalcy as they sit for the most important exam of their lives.
Today and tomorrow, an estimated 11 million secondary school students will vie for 6 million Chinese university spots: tough odds that put students and their families on edge. Slate.com's Manuela Zonensein puts the exams in perspective this way:
It is China's SAT—if the SAT lasted two days, covered everything learned since kindergarten, and had the power to determine one's entire professional trajectory."
The pressure is so great that many children study up to 12 hours a day, parents and children report adverse effects on their health due to anxiety, and large numbers of family members flock to temples, praying to Buddha and Confucius for their child's success. When prayer doesn't seem to cut it, some students even have resorted to high-tech cheating schemes.
Life, of course, isn't completely back to normal yet. Students in the hardest-hit areas will have an extra month before they, too, must take the test of their lives. And as a safety precaution, bays of tents have been constructed outside testing centers in case a large aftershock should disrupt the students' uneasy calm.
A new phenomenon has been taking Bolivia by storm in recent years: female wrestling. The women don traditional costumes, including a pleated, layered skirt, a bowler hat, shawl and pigtails, and put the WWE to shame:
Although legend has it that some indigenous women of the Aymara people, called Cholitas, have been wrestling for up to 20 years, the trend has only recently reached a critical mass. In 2007 a 20 min. documentary called "The Fighting Cholitas," was entered into several International Film Festivals, including the United Nations Association Film Festival. And in January the women, led by Carmen Rosa a.k.a. "The Champion" and Yolanda Amorosa a.k.a. "The Loving One," formed an association of women wrestlers, which organizes practices twice a week and matches every Sunday.
The Federation's founder, Carmen Rosa, explains the connection between women's equality and women's wrestling in a not-to-be-missed BBC news video:
Because we Cholitas have been humiliated and very discriminated [against] in the past. That is what mostly drove me to be a fighter. I also wanted to show people, not only in Bolivia, but around the world, that women can do what men do and still be an indigenous woman."
Last night, seven Palestinians received word that their Fulbright scholarships would not be given away to other students. On Thursday, the students, who call the Gaza Strip home, had been notified that their scholarships were being "redirected." The reason? Since the June 2007 blockade began, Gazans have not been able to secure travel visas from the Israeli government for any reason other than pressing humanitarian concern. And although the Fulbright program is now optimistic because the Israeli government has finally acknowledged the visa applications and agreed to an interview process to take place in Jerusalem, the Israelis still reserve the right to deny the visas.
The very day before the students had their scholarships taken away, the Israeli Knesset's Education Committee had petitioned the Israeli Defense Ministry to reconsider restrictions on visas for students. Michael Melchior, chair of the Committee had this to say:
We are a nation that for years was prevented from studying - how can we do the same thing to another people?"
News of the reversal is good for Palestinians who wish to study in the United States, but there are reportedly around 670 students with similar scholarships for study in Europe and elsewhere whose fate is yet unknown. Today, the Israeli Supreme Court heard the petitions of two such students hoping to travel to Germany and Great Britain, and some of the justices have already made their positions clear:
Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein expressed discomfort with the ban on allowing students from Gaza to study abroad, telling the State Attorney that the ban seems 'no less harmful to the Israeli interest, because we have to live with the Palestinians in the future, too.'
If the Fulbright program weren't one of the crown jewels of American public diplomacy, Israel might never have come under real pressure to reexamine its restrictions on travel in and out of the Gaza Strip. But now that it has, the intellectual potentials of nearly 700 Palestinians hang in the balance.
For over a week now, Johannesburg has been struck by a wave of violence directed at migrants from neighboring countries. Currently the death toll stands at 22, but as riots continue today in the Reiger Park area, that number will continue to rise. So will the number of people who have been forced from their homes, which has by now entered the thousands. South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki made a plea for an end to orchestrated violence in impoverished settlements, as the government debated whether to call in the army to combat the violent mobs. So far, control of the rioting has been left up to the police, who, although they have already arrested nearly 300 people, appear overwhelmed by the situation and have seen little abatement in the xenophobic crime wave.
Zimbabweans make up a large percentage of the immigrants in South Africa, and are estimated to number up to three million in that country. As the human rights situation in Zimbabwe deteriorates, and thousands more flee post-election violence, intimidation and disastrous economic hardship, that number is likely to increase. But according to an editorial yesterday in the Financial Times:
It would be wrong to think this explosion of xenophobia is simply the reaction to uncontrolled immigration. It is also the result of rising food prices, falling living standards, unemployment of 30 per cent and above, and a government perceived as deaf to the plight of the poor."
Indeed, there are deeper issues underlying the anger spilling over in Johannesburg. Not least of which are the growing food insecurity in the nation, a broken system for handling refugees and total failure of Mbeki's government to seek political solutions to the crisis in Zimbabwe. The South African Institute of Race Relations today released a statement outlining nine policy failures of Thabo Mbeki's government including failure to maintain the rule of law, lack of border control, slowing economic growth, poor service delivery and failures of foreign policy. It seems that although Mr. Mbeki's current problem is how to put a stop to maurading mobs, prevention of future flare-ups will require both vast policy reform and more than a little soul-searching.
Since last week's deadly cyclone in Burma, the nation's ruling military junta has been reluctant to allow aid to enter the country. Since then, trickles of food, water and medicines have been allowed to enter the country, but international aid workers have not. Citing a government that failed to even warn its citizens of the impending disaster, international observers believe that the regime in Burma has neither the will nor the capacity to distribute aid fairly, that corrupt officials are profiting from aid packages, and that the situation created by these conditions threatens to outpace the humanitarian devastation of the 2004 tsunami.
Last week, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner--the founder of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders)--suggested that the international community and the UN are obligated to intervene in Burma, regardless of the wishes of the military junta, in accordance with the "Responsibility to Protect", or R2P, as outlined by the UN at the General Assembly in 2005. The concept asserts that the international community is obligated to intervene in cases where states fail to protect their populations from "genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity."
There are widely varying opinions (pdf) on the legality of the Responibility to Protect. Some argue that it violates the basic concept of sovereignty, while others like the Washington Post's Fred Hiatt, believe as Kouchner does, that the UN is abdicating its responsibility in Burma. Garreth Evans, of the International Crisis Group, offers a more nuanced interpretation in an editorial for The Guardian:
If it comes to be thought that R2P, and in particular the sharp military end of the doctrine, is capable of being invoked in anything other than a context of mass atrocity crimes, then such consensus as there is in favour of the new norm will simply evaporate in the global south. And that means that when the next case of genocide or ethnic cleansing comes along we will be back to the same old depressing arguments about the primacy of sovereignty that led us into the horrors of inaction in Rwanda and Srebrenica in the 1990s."
He admits that if the inaction and neglect of the Burmese government is widely interpreted as a crime against humanity, then there might be room for the principle's application.
But there is no disagreement that the people of Burma can't wait for these issues to be bandied about at the Security Council or across editorial pages. Frustrated nations have a choice to make: either they must defy the wishes of the Burmese junta and send aid workers or airlifts to the Irrawaddy Delta, or they must submit to the regime and send whatever they have in the hopes that it will reach those in need. Regardless, it is clear that moralizing and posturing on the issue is not going to influence many, either in Rangoon or at the UN.
Forbes reported recently that the world's first billion-dollar home is currently under construction in India. Mukesh Ambani, the CEO of the petrochemical company Reliance Industries Limited and India's wealthiest man (5th richest in the world) is building a 27-story skyscraper on 4,500 sqare meters of land his company purchased 6 years ago. Apparently, the 22-story tower where the family currently lives was beginnning to feel a little cramped. The new digs will soon house the Ambani family and nearly 600 staff members in a space the size of nearly seven football fields.
The Ambanis' dream home, which they are calling "Antilla," has sparked some controversy in Mumbai. Reliance Industries purchased the land -- the site of a former orphanage -- at an auction in 2002 for just over 5 percent of its market value. That sale is now in dispute because the land was donated as a Waqf, an Islamic religious endowment (much like a trust) set aside to house Muslim orphans in perpetuity. The Waqf's board has petitoned to stay the construction of the building, but the courts have ruled that construction can go on.
Antilla, which is expected to be completed in September, boasts some of the most luxurious accomodations in the world, including a movie theater, six floors dedicated to parking, a replica of the gardens at Babylon, an 'entourage room' where security staff can relax, and an ice room with man-made snow for seeking relief from the Mumbai heat. I wonder what the orphans did without an ice room?
Recently, a colleague turned me on to Vice Magazine, a Brooklyn-based project that writes about the underground music scene, extreme sports, and all things counterculture. Increasingly though, as Vice's notoriety grows, it's venturing into territory that is decidedly less fluffy. Incorporating international reporting on areas most people only hear about in wonkier publications like The Economist or The Washington Post, Vice manages to open up new worlds to its urban hipster clientele by maintaining a cynical and subversive edge.
Through print features such as "Moldova: Mental Asylums and Psychadelic Gravestones," their recent interview with the Iraqi Minister of Tourism (um, Iraqi tourism?) and now their new online venture VBS.tv, Vice founders Suroosh Alvi, Eddy Moretti, and Shane Smith have moved into territory previously uncharted, something they themselves have summed up best as "60 Minutes meets Jackass."
VBS.tv's slogan is "Rescuing you from television's deathlike grip," and features mini-documentaries by staff members exploring news-y topics such as the lost boys of Sudan, or Palestinian media campaigns aimed at luring women and children into committing acts of terror. A documentary of their trip to North Korea features comical mash-ups of North Korean propaganda with creepily orchestrated Pyongyang tour stops and drunken noribong with government chaperones. It is at once inane and fascinating -- the Vice trademark. Check it out.
In a speaking engagement today at my alma mater Skidmore College, former Attorney General John Ashcroft confused Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden while talking about the importance of the Patriot Act. The former attorney general then waited patiently as students booed and jeered:
Beware folks, Skidmarks--as the locals in mostly conservative Saratoga County call Skidmore students--are a tough crowd.
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