In the latest issue of FP, I wrote (subscription required) about the efforts of ICANN, the group that gives out Internet domain names, to "internationalize" the Web. Starting this year, ICANN will allow users to use non-Roman characters in top level domain names. For example, Arabic-speaking users will no longer have to end Web addresses in ".com"—they can register the last part of their Web address in their own native language.
Tina Dam, the executive director at ICANN who is in charge of the change, said that part of the reason for the switch was fears that China could "split the root," or create a second Internet that only recognizes Chinese characters. This would allow the Chinese government to control what people see. If, for instance, a Chinese user tried to access an FP article on censorship in China, the government could direct them to a completely different site.
Dam said she was confident the change would appease the Chinese. But ICANN now has a problem with Russia. Despite ICANN's efforts to incorporate Russian alphabet characters into Web addresses (it is one of 11 sets of characters the group is incorporating), Moscow is pushing for the creation of an Internet that recognizes only Cyrillic characters. Expert warnings echo those voiced about a Chinese Internet: increased international isolation and more government censorship of the Web. Given the wide control the Kremlin already has over media in Russia and its unwillingness to play nice with pretty much anyone these days, a separate Russian Internet might be just as dangerous a prospect as a separate Chinese one.
An embryonic movement to promote civil liberties and freedoms may be brewing in China. But it has nothing to do with political prisoners, the Falun Gong, or the upcoming 2008 Olympics. Rather, the release of director Ang Lee's film “Lust, Caution” has spurred an unusual surge of Chinese visitors to Hong Kong. The reason? On the mainland, the movie is heavily censored. The combination of a nuanced portrayal of a World War II-era traitor and explicit sex scenes was apparently too much for Beijing officials to stomach, but not the libertarians in laissez-faire Hong Kong.
With many of China's wealthy elites reportedly shelling out big bucks for flights from the mainland to see the film in Hong Kong, could we be seeing a backlash against Chinese censorship? A revolution sparked by a newfound respect for freedom in the arts? Probably not, at least not in the near future.
The vast bulk of the Chinese public, by and large, is more concerned with pocketbook issues than being able to see racy scenes in a movie by a Taiwanese director. And for those who don't want or can't afford to travel to Hong Kong, pirated copies of the uncensored movie are available from street vendors (as is most every other film, album and book), making official censorship difficult and almost useless. No wonder the few calls by individuals for the movie's unedited release on the mainland have been dismissed by the Chinese government with little public reaction.
That said, if the theory of relative deprivation holds true, China's elite may get jealous of Hong Kong's freedoms and take the lead in pressuring Beijing into greater liberal reforms. Said one Chinese businessman who traveled to Hong Kong:
We could have bought a pirated copy of the movie here, but we were not happy with the control and wanted to support the legal edition of the film.
Sentiments like those from China's wealthy elite undoubtedly irks the Chinese leadership, but the Communist Party has skillfully avoided having to yield to greater democratic reforms. I doubt that a movie is going to be the catalyst that breaks that trend.
There will be 27 EU foreign ministers and, when they can agree, there will be one person expressing their point of view. The representative will have to represent what the views of the members states actually are, and it is sometimes difficult to squeeze out what those views actually are."
Yikes! That's Chris Patten, FP contributor and former EU commissioner for external affairs, explaining how policymaking will take place under Europe's new guidelines for a common foreign policy outlined in the Lisbon treaty, which is to be signed Thursday by the EU's 27 member states. The document is a watered-down version of what was once the EU's would-be constitution, now dead and buried thanks to a series of failed or indefinitely delayed national referendums.
Like everything in the EU, the details of the treaty tend to be complex and not altogether clear. A few practical changes, such as lengthening the term of the EU presidency from six months to two-and-a-half years, are straightforward enough. But most of what treaty means in the real world will be sketched out later, in true European fashion. It will also form, in Patten's words, an "Extremely High Rep, or whatever we are going to call him," who will be charged with running the common foreign and security policy.
Seriously, they don't know what the official will be called? I'd say deciding what to call the high officers would be a good start. At least then member states will know how to address the invitations for their Brussels cocktail parties. Instead, it's sip champagne first, and worry about the pesky details later. Ah, Europe.
(Hat Tip: James Forsyth)
Here's a disturbing story. Jewish groups in Venezuela are protesting what they claim is intimidation by government forces on the eve of the country's national referendum.
The JTA and the New York Times report that Venezuelan paramilitary officers conducted a raid for suspected illegal weapons shortly before 1 a.m. on Sunday at the Israeli Union of Caracas synagogue during a wedding party; no weapons were found. The Jewish community in Venezuela has come under assault before: once in 2003 when Iraq war protestors attempted to vandalize another Caracas synagogue and again in 2005 when Venezuelan police raided a Jewish school looking for—you guessed it—weapons.
The small, 200-year-old Jewish community in the country has been critical of president Hugo Chávez. And for understandable reasons: Chief among their concerns is his relationship with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar Assad, who have both made their thoughts about Israel well known.
But perhaps more curious than the details of this peculiar raid is that fact that very few non-Jewish news outlets in South America bothered to report the story. In Venezuela, the raid was mentioned in only a single major daily newspaper, El Nacional. In fact, searches for any stories related to the Jewish community in other major, Spanish-language Venezuelan papers proved empty. Perhaps the other news outlets were too busy covering Chávez's first electoral defeat but then again... perhaps not.
Has the YouTube Effect stuck again? Wael Abbas, a well-known online activist in Egypt, says his YouTube video account has been suspended and his Yahoo! e-mail accounts have been shut down. Abbas had this pesky habit, you see, of posting graphic videos showing police brutality, and his site had become one of the most popular blogs in Egypt.
In one prominent incident, Abbas posted a video on his blog of a police officer binding and sodomizing an Egyptian bus driver who intervened in a dispute between police and another driver.
The video was one of the factors that led to the conviction of two police officers, who were sentenced to three years each in connection with the incident.
YouTube wouldn't comment on Abbas's specific case, but a company spokesman told CNN that in general, such graphic videos are a no-no:
There are plenty of other video-sharing sites and third-party tools out there for posting viral videos, but Abbas says he's lost his entire archive, the fruit of years of painstaking work. Also this month, Yahoo! accused Abbas of spamming and shut down two e-mail accounts of his.
It's too early to tell if the Egyptian government had a hand in this, in which case we may have another case of U.S. tech companies kowtowing to authoritarian regimes. YouTube has a shadowy history of eliminating objectionable content to preserve market access, and the company isn't fully transparent about how it makes such decisions. So, this is going to remain murky. But I think the lesson to online activists is nonetheless clear: Don't use YouTube, and save your work offline.
UPDATE, Nov. 30, 2007: According to CNN, Abbas's YouTube account has been reactivated. YouTube said in a statement that he is free to upload his videos as long as he does so with enough context to show that he is trying to get an important message across.
On Wednesday evening at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley spoke broadly about freedom and the Middle East. His prepared remarks (pdf) weren't too surprising—the key point was that the time is right to push for peace because Israel is becoming more receptive to the idea of a Palestinian state, the Palestinians are being more cooperative, and Arab states are engaging in the debate.
Hadley did go off script a bit during the Q&A session, though. A SAIS student asked a question about why some Arabic states would support democracy in Iraq when those states are not democracies themselves. Hadley's answer was pretty standard until he began taking about elections in Iran. But Hadley replaced the "l" in elections with an "r" and instead began to speak about Iranian erections (The audio is here. Right click and save as. It's around the 38:30 mark).
This has not been a good day for free speech in the Muslim world. In addition to the news that the British teacher who was arrested in Sudan for insulting Islam by naming a teddy bear "Mohammed" at her class's request has been charged, the Turkish publisher of Richard Dawkins's atheist manifesto, The God Delusion, has been called in for questioning by prosecutors and may face charges of inciting religious hatred. Turkey took heat in 2005 for prosecuting Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk on the dubious charge of "insulting Turkishness." Those charges were eventually dropped and the government promised to soften the law.
That the Turkish government would enforce secularism by banning head scarves in universities ... while a prosecutor considers indicting a publisher for propagating the works of one of the world's leading secularists seems to reveal something deeply schizophrenic about Mosque-state relations in Turkey. I can't wait to hear Dinesh D'Souza weigh in on this one.
With the anniversaries of both Ukraine and Georgia's "color revolutions" this month, Eurasianet's Salome Asatiani looks at the progress and disappointments that both countries have faced since casting out authoritarian governments and finds that they've followed very different paths. Here's how it breaks down:
"Rose Revolution": November, 2003
"Orange Revolution": November, 2004
Current President: Mikheil Saakashvili
Current President: Viktor Yuschenko
Progress: Georgia has been far more successful at pushing through much-needed economic reforms, thanks largely to the free hand enjoyed by Saakashvili in setting policy.
Progress: Despite inheriting a devastatingly corrupt political system and a linguistically and culturally divided population, Yuschenko's government has been able to establish a robust system of checks and balances in governance that has made political compromise possible.
Letdown: The same executive power that has allowed Saakashvili success in liberalizing the economy has also allowed him to demonstrate disturbing authoritarian tendencies, such as this month's crackdown on peaceful protesters in Tbilisi and the government's increasing control over the media.
Letdown: The rivalry between Yuschenko and onetime ally Yulia Tymoshenko has frayed the "orange coalition" and the continued influence of former president Viktor Yanukovych (he was briefly elected prime minister) has resulted in political stalemate. Few of the promised economic reforms have been accomplished.
The Russia factor: Saakashvili has been among the most vocal critics of Vladimir Putin's government, denouncing Russian involvement in the still-simmering regional conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He has also been a strong supporter of George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, hoping to pave the way for future NATO membership.
The Russia factor: Although the Orange government came into power promising a Ukraine free of Russian influence, its leaders have been far more muted in their criticism while in office for fear of angering voters in Ukraine's Russian-speaking eastern region.
One analyst quoted in the story sees the contrast as one between "In the case of Yushchenko -- passivity and weakness... In the case of Saakashvili -- strong-headedness and, I would say, an overtly great desire to see things done right away, and only his way."
It's certainly too early to say for sure, but this month's events seem to indicate that Ukraine's frustratingly slow progress may be more sustainable in the long run.
Oscar-winning director Ang Lee's latest offering, "Lust, Caution," is racking up international film awards and steaming up silver screens around the world. His spy thriller, set in WWII-era Shanghai, features a young woman who has been recruited to seduce and assassinate a Japanese collaborator. It also features sex scenes so explicit that it received an NC-17 rating in the United States. And in China, government censors threatened to yank the movie from theaters unless Lee trimmed some of the more graphic sex scenes. He complied, and now the movie has become one of China's top box office draws, bringing in 90 million yuan in only two weeks. It's tapped to become one of country's biggest hits this year.
The seven missing minutes from the Chinese version of the film has caused some moviegoers to cross the border into Hong Kong to see the uncensored version. It's also prompted many movie fans to flock, unsurprisingly, to the Internet, where they try to download uncensored versions. But pirate wannabes may instead find themselves downloading a virtual STD instead. Chinese anti-virus company Rising International Software is warning Web surfers that several hundred sites that are offering free downloads of "Lust, Caution" are embedded with viruses that can steal personal passwords of users.
The possibility of contracting computer viruses isn't the only warning officials are issuing about the movie. Doctors in Guangdong province are advising viewers to be careful when copying some of the more adventurous sexual positions depicted in the film. Xinhuanet, the portal for the official news agency Xinhua, quoted a doctor saying,
Most of the sexual maneuvers in 'Lust, Caution' are in abnormal body positions... Only women with comparatively flexible bodies that have gymnastics or yoga experience are able to perform them. For average people to blindly copy them could lead to unnecessary physical harm."
Perhaps when editing the movie, Lee should have renamed it "Lust, Caution, but especially Caution."
Two weeks ago, when it was announced that Russia was only inviting 70 observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor the election, I suspected that Russia's arcane visa process would prevent even that number from attending. Turns out I underestimated the good folks in the Moscow bureaucracy who have not, as of yet, sent any visas to OSCE, prompting the organization to cancel its mission altogether. Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to answer questions about the visas, describing it as a "rather technical issue". It always is, isn't it?
While this is pretty grim news, it may actually be for the best that OSCE is sitting this one out. A mere 70 observers couldn't possibly be effective in a country the size of Russia. Pretending otherwise would simply lend this sham more dignity than it deserves. Russian opposition leader and FP contributor Garry Kasparov told the New York Times that "Putin's regime has no interest in revealing its dark side."
With all due respect to Kasparov, I'd say it already has.
Are Chinese authorities planning to ban the Bible at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing? According to the Catholic News Agency, they are. The report comes via an Italian newspaper, which referred to a Chinese government prohibition of "promotion material used for religious or political activity" at the Games.
When asked about the matter, however, China's head of security couldn't give a definitive answer as to whether that restriction would apply to the Bible. (Primarily Christian) news outlets ran with the story and eventually caused the Chinese Foreign Ministry to release a statement. The ministry vehemently denied that foreign visitors would be prohibited from bringing Bibles for their own personal use into the country.
China does restrict religious expression, but standard Christian Bibles themselves are available in China, according to an investigation by the Canadian government. However, the U.S. State Department indicates that religious materials may be subject to confiscation by Chinese authorities and recommends that travelers contact the U.S. Embassy or a Chinese consulate to determine what specific items may be restricted.
While in this case the issue was overblown, the Bible controversy highlights the larger problem that China will face during the Olympics. Beijing wants to put on a friendly face to the world and will have to tread lightly when dealing with foreign visitors who want to make political statements during the Games. This is the exact problem addressed by FP Editor in Chief Moisés Naím in our last issue. Pass the popcorn—this is going to be one heck of a show.
Are you a journalist who doesn't mind a dose of censorship with your morning coffee? When I say "junta" to you, do you think "stable employer"?
If so, there just may be a job for you in Rangoon. The government-affiliated Myanmar Times is looking for a subeditor, and the job advertisement has to be seen to be believed. You'll really be asking the tough questions.
Sub Editor, Timeout, The Myanmar Times, Myanmar Consolidated Media, Myanmar, Southeast Asia
The Myanmar Times (http://www.mmtimes.com) is published in both English and Myanmar (Burmese) and are leading publications with a readership in excess of 250,000 weekly, but operate under censorship in a challenging media environment. [...]
JOB DESCRIPTION: The subeditor will manage, edit and layout our ‘Timeout’ arts and entertainment section (8 pages), Page 2 (trivia and opinion), Science & Health page and two Travel pages every week.
(Hat tip: New Mandala)
While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies."
—Rep Tom Lantos (D-CA), Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, to Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang (the chagrined-looking fellow pictured above) and General Counsel Michael Callahan, at a congressional hearing Tuesday on the tech company's business dealings in China.
The source of Lantos's ire? Yahoo provided information about reporter Shi Tao's e-mail account to the Chinese government, leading to the journalist's imprisonment.
Sameer Lalwani argued back in September that "meaningful democracy will not emerge in Pakistan anytime soon, nor will the military abandon its grip on government." Accordingly, "Rather than embracing false harbingers of democracy, the United States should deepen its ties with the Pakistani military through further commitments in funding" and "do more to channel visible development aid and encourage the growth of real democratic institutions instead of feudal patronage networks like those of Bhutto and Sharif."
In the Financial Times, however, columnist Gideon Rachman offers a starkly different view of Musharraf:
Gen Musharraf would like the west to believe that the only alternatives to his continued rule are anarchy or Islamism. But the people he is locking up in this latest crackdown are not the proverbial “mad mullahs”. They are lawyers, journalists and human rights activists – the backbone of the civil society that is needed if Pakistan is ever to make the transition to a sustainable democracy.
Would these people eventually be swept aside by militant Islamists – making westerners and middle-class Pakistanis swiftly yearn for a return of military rule? Again, the evidence for this is quite weak. Islamist parties have never captured above 11 per cent of the vote in Pakistan. The polls suggest that popular sympathy for terrorism is actually falling, as Pakistanis experience suicide bombing on their own soil. In 2004, 41 per cent of Pakistanis told the Pew pollsters that suicide bombing was “sometimes” justified. This year that figure is down to 9 per cent.
Lalwani is probably on safe ground in pointing out that "meaningful democracy" will not emerge in Pakistan any time soon. But it is Musharraf and his military supporters who consistently prevent this from happening, either through what Human Rights Watch called "deeply flawed" elections or, most recently, by imposing martial law. How on Earth are real democratic institutions supposed to grow when the Pakistani military keeps locking up the democrats?
It's safe to say that no one really expects this December's Russian elections to be a fair contest. All the same, the Kremlin's decision to cut the number of international observers invited by two thirds is a particularly brazen demonstration that Vladimir Putin has stopped trying to even appear remotely democratic. Europe's largest election watchdog, the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe, has grudgingly accepted Putin's conditions, having little other choice. Russia is planning to allow 300 to 400 observers to observe polling throughout a country that spans eleven time zones.
It will likely be fewer than that. Since Russia waited until a month before the election to issue its initiation, OSCE and other groups have had to scramble to obtain visas for their observers. Getting a travel visa for Russia is a trying experience under the best of circumstances, but the current regime has proven masterful at using the inefficiency of Russian bureaucracy as a political weapon. Just ask the head of any of the foreign NGOs that operate in Russia and spend about as much time fighting through red tape as they do on advocacy work. If the OSCE folks get anywhere near the 70 observers they want into Russia in time, they'll be extraordinarily lucky.
All the same, the tactics of intimidation and media blackout that essentially rig Russian elections in favor of the pro-Putin United Russia party are hardly a secret and the world hardly needs OSCE to tell us about them. Putin's more troubling suggestion may be his proposal that OSCE permanently limit observers in seven other post-Soviet states and ban them from issuing reports until official results are published. Again, it's not really news that Russia's leaders feel they have the right to control political outcomes in their "near-abroad," but they've rarely been so forthright about it before. Armenia's government has already heartily endorsed the proposal.
All the same, Putin thinks that Russia has a lot to teach the West about democracy. At this week's EU-Russia summit he announced plans to start a Russian-funded think tank to promote democracy and human rights in Europe and counter the influence of western NGOs in his country.
With the aid of grants, the EU helps develop such institutes in Russia. I think the time has come for Russia, given the growth in our financial capabilities, to make its contribution in this sphere as well."
With oil prices nearing $100 a barrel, Russia's "financial capabilities" seem to allow Putin to do pretty much whatever he wants.
Remember the case of Shi Tao? He's a Chinese journalist who was imprisoned back in 2004 for supposedly leaking state secrets by writing an e-mail to a New York-based pro-democracy group, describing how the Chinese government planned to crack down on local media covering the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Yahoo supplied information about Shi's e-mail address to the Chinese authorities, leading to his arrest and 10-year prison sentence.
Finally, Yahoo is issuing a mea culpa for its role in the case. More specifically, Yahoo's top lawyer is apologizing for failing to tell the U.S. Congress that Yahoo knew more about the case than it claimed in testimony given last year. U.S. lawmakers have been querying Yahoo about its business practices in China for the past couple years. Last year, Callahan said that Yahoo had no information about the Chinese government's wishes for customer information. Lo and behold, it turns out Yahoo was in possession of an order from Beijing seeking information about Shi. Callahan's apology comes in advance of another Congressional hearing next week about the challenges and moral quandaries that U.S. companies like Yahoo face in doing business in authoritarian places such as China. It's great that Yahoo is starting to come clean, but that's undoubtedly little comfort to Shi Tao, who still has at least another seven years to go in prison.
Many Passport readers have written in questioning an assertion made in my post from yesterday that Che Guevara "assisted in the persecution of homosexuals and AIDS victims."
Some of the comments I received were rude: "Either sloppy or lazy," one reader wrote. But, as you might expect from Passport readers, a good many more were constructive: "I have some trouble believing that a person who died in 1967 could have been persecuting victims of a disease whose existence was unknown before the early 1980s," one reader questioned. "In a future post, could you elaborate on this point?" another reader requested.
Sure thing. It's not my contention that Che magically came back from the dead to persecute the victims of a disease which proliferated a decade and a half after his death. I wrote, very carefully, that Che "assisted" in the persecution of AIDS victims. And here's what I mean: The labor camp system Che founded, most notably Guanahacabibes, was the predecessor to that which confined AIDS victims — and, incidentally, a whole host of other folks. Che's successors were "assisted" by his vision, if you can call it that, and the infrastructure he developed. Peruvian writer and FP contributor Alvaro Vargas Llosa explains:
This camp was the precursor to the eventual systematic confinement, starting in 1965 in the province of Camagüey, of dissidents, homosexuals, AIDS victims, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Afro-Cuban priests, and other such scum, under the banner of Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción, or Military Units to Help Production. Herded into buses and trucks, the 'unfit' would be transported at gunpoint into concentration camps organized on the Guanahacabibes mold. Some would never return; others would be raped, beaten, or mutilated; and most would be traumatized for life...."
Thanks to all those who offered thoughtful and constructive comments.
One of the oddest cultural trends of our time is the Cult of Che Guevara. I was just down in Peru, where street vendors proudly peddle Chinese-made tapestries and t-shirts bearing Che's image to U.S. college students. Hollywood—most notably Robert Redford—has glamorized Che on screen. And in more than one European hamlet will you find a "Che Guevara Bar," inevitably attracting hipsters with the same, sad tapestries, fake Cuban cigars, and cheap rum.
Today, the Cult of Che hit a new low, when a 3-inch lock of his beard and other items went up for sale at a Dallas auction house. The starting bid? $100,000. Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez is rumored to be among the potential interested bidders. The seller is Gustavo Villoldo, a retired CIA operative of Cuban heritage who was involved in Che's capture and was present when Che was buried. Villoldo says he cut the lock of hair because, "I wanted proof that I had completed my mission." His motive for selling it now appears to be profit. (This month marks the 40th anniversary of Che's death.)
It's disappointing to see Che glorified in this way. The man was a Marxist-Leninist of the worst kind: He presided over the Cuban Revolution's first firing squads; he assisted in the persecution of homosexuals [see note below]; he imprisoned dissidents. Che preached a dangerous breed of martyrdom and hatred reminiscent of the most radical jihadists of today's Middle East. You may see some familiar themes in this, one of Che's choicest lines:
Hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective and cold-blooded killing machine. This is what our soldiers must become...."
Today, we seem intent on remembering Che as a liberator in the Bolivarian vein, a freedom fighter. He was not. As Paul Berman has elegantly documented, Che inspired many middle-class Latin Americans to take up arms in insurgent campaigns that did nothing more than set the cause of Latin American democracy back decades. That a tiny lock of his hair can sell in Texas (of all places) for six figures is a sad comment indeed on just how severely his legacy has been distorted.
Editor's Note: This post was changed by the editor to avoid any confusion. It originally said that Che "assisted in the persecution of homosexuals and AIDS victims." Many readers asked about the original language. Mike explains here.
This week, Reporters Without Borders (RSF, from "reporters sans frontières")—an international nonprofit organization working toward press freedom—released its annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index. Iceland and Norway topped the list this year as the most "free" countries for the press, while Eritrea earned the dubious distinction of replacing North Korea as the worst country in terms of press freedom. The United States only made it to number 48 on the list. Although improving on last year's ranking, a number of incidents, including the detention of a cameraman at Guantánamo Bay and the murder of a reporter in Oakland, precluded the United States from entering the lead group.
The rankings are based on a Reporters Without Borders questionnaire that is sent to RSF's partner organizations, its network of correspondents, journalists, researchers, jurists, and human rights activists. RSF then scales the responses to create the country rankings. Since responses are somewhat based on subjective assessments, the index itself must at least to some degree reflect certain biases—which may help explain why Slovenia outranked Australia and why Namibia fared better than Spain. Nonetheless, the index provides a useful window into journalists' perceptions of press freedoms around the world.
Perhaps what's most striking is the extent to which the RSF index is consistent with both Transparency International's recently-released Corruption Perceptions Index and also the FP/Fund for Peace Failed States Index. It seems that, for the most part, countries that perform poorly on one count tend to perform poorly across the board.
RSF's press freedom map:
Transparency International's corruption perceptions map:
FP/Fund for Peace's failed states map:
This is the best news I've heard all week:
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Taxicabs in the nation's capital will switch to meters from the current confusing zone system of calculating fares, the mayor announced Wednesday. [...]
Visitors and residents have grumbled for years about the lack of meters in district taxis, saying the zone system is confusing and vulnerable to cheating.
Before [Mayor] Fenty's announcement, the District was the only major U.S. city without taxi meters.
The decision to switch to meters or keep the current system was required by a provision inserted in legislation last year by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a longtime critic of zones.
The map used for calculating fares consists of 22 zones radiating outward from the U.S. Capitol. Each time a zone boundary is crossed, the fare goes up a few dollars. Surcharges are added for stops, rush hour travel and extra riders. The base price for a ride within one zone -- whether it's a few blocks or a few miles -- is $6.50.
When I moved to Washington last December and got in my first taxi, I thought I was back in Cairo, where having to haggle over the fare is a daily source of frustration for foreigners and locals alike. Very few people in D.C. have figured out the arcane zone system, which makes it easy for taxi drivers to charge nearly any price they want. Now, they won't be able to get away with it anymore.
Late yesterday news broke that President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush will attend the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony for the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, at the U.S. Capitol next Wednesday. Now, ABC News is reporting that not only will Bush be attending the ceremony, he will be delivering remarks. It will be the first time Bush has made a public appearance with the Dalai Lama. Normally, the White House is careful to arrange "unofficial" meetings with His Holiness in the White House residence. No more. Bush will reportedly use his remarks to refer to His Holiness as, "a great spiritual leader who is seeking rights for the people of Tibet ... and to protect their land."
Beijing, as you might imagine, is furious. Even before news broke that Bush would be making remarks, China was denouncing the "so-called award," using state-controlled media to take pot shots at the Dalai Lama, and secretly accusing Tibetan Communist Party members of disloyalty. The Burmese junta can't be thrilled with this, either, given that the Dalai Lama is the spiritual shepherd of global Buddhism. Some folks, including the New York Sun's Nicholas Wapshott, are arguing that Bush is using the award as an opportunity to crank up the pressure on the junta. That may be so, although as Asia scholar Phillip Cunningham over at Informed Comment: Global Affairs points out today, interest in Burma is all but fizzled out. No doubt the first lady, who appears to be genuinely passionate about Burma, played a role in the decision to attend the event. Perhaps President Bush will take the opportunity to yet again condemn the junta's crackdown on Buddhist monks.
Judging from the brief excerpts of Bush's remarks released today, though, this looks mostly like a clever attempt by the White House to press the Chinese on human rights at a time when they have little choice but to sit back and take it. First, Beijing wants a quiet Communist Party Congress this year. In fact, Beijing is already cracking down on democracy advocates in advance of next week's sessions in order to ensure they go smoothly. And second, as was widely noted during the Burma protests, the bigwigs in Beijing don't want attention drawn to China's stance on human rights in advance of the Olympics.
So kudos to the White House for spotting a small window within which to deliver the message that booming exports and imports don't translate to democratic reform. Maybe the vaunted "freedom agenda" isn't dead after all.
In case you missed it, Barack Obama is taking heat over a comment he made this week to an Iowa television station:
I decided I won't wear that pin on my chest. Instead, I'm going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testament to my patriotism.''
He's talking about the American flag lapel pins that are now ubiquitous among American politicians. In an editorial this morning, the Chicago Sun-Times throws Obama a low punch, declaring that the comment "undermines his whole campaign." And Real Clear Politics is already calling it "Pin Gate" (though they qualify it with a question mark). Both reactions seem like a bit much.
But there does seem to be either a lapse in judgment here, or a touch of hypocrisy. Sen. Obama has a problem with wearing one tiny little flag on his chest. But he has no problem using seven gigantic American flags as a podium backdrop during his stump speeches. Notice Obama's backdrop here:
So Obama objects to wearing the flag, but not speaking in front of it? Care to explain, Sen. Obama? When do you believe it's appropriate to use the flag for political purposes and when do you believe it is not?
Researchers at the American Association for the Advancement of Science say they have used satellite images provided by the U.S. Government to confirm massive human rights abuses in eastern Burma:
A new analysis of high-resolution satellite images -- completed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) -- pinpoints evidence consistent with village destruction, forced relocations, and a growing military presence at 25 sites across eastern Burma where eye-witnesses have reported human rights violations.
The research by AAAS, offers clear physical evidence to corroborate on-the-ground accounts of specific instances of destruction. It is believed to be the first demonstration of satellite image analysis to document human rights violations in Burma, also known as Myanmar.
"Eighteen of the locations showed evidence consistent with destroyed or damaged villages," [project director Lars] Bromley reported. "We found evidence of expanded military camps in four other locations as well as multiple possibly relocated villages, and we documented growth in one refugee camp on the Thai border. All of this was very consistent with reporting by multiple human rights groups on the ground in Burma."
But forget the dry science talk, Hollywood's Sylvester Stallone, who has just returned from filming the latest Rambo sequel along the Thailand-Burma border, has hinted that his crew may have captured some of the atrocities on film. Stallone called Burma "a hellhole beyond your wildest dreams" and says he is now struggling with the question of whether he ought to be "making a documentary or a Rambo movie."
I witnessed the aftermath - survivors with legs cut off and all kinds of land mine injuries, maggot-infested wounds and ears cut off. We saw many elephants with blown off legs. We hear about Vietnam and Cambodia and this was more horrific.... This is full scale genocide. It would be a whitewashing not to show what's over there. I think there is a story that needs to be told."
Maybe Burma just found its Brangelina.
With more than a hint of smugness, folks in the West are rushing to declare Burma's Saffron Revolution a failure. But now comes a report, via Hla Win, the defecting chief of the military junta's intelligence operations, that thousands of monks have been executed in recent days and their bodies dumped in the jungle. Thousands more were reportedly taken to a stadium on the outskirts of Rangoon and beaten. Win, who is attempting to defect to Norway via Thailand, says:
Many more people have been killed in recent days than you've heard about. The bodies can be counted in several thousand. I decided to desert when I was ordered to raid two monasteries and force several hundred monks onto trucks. They were to be killed and their bodies dumped deep inside the jungle. I refused to participate in this."
Will this be enough to shake the Bush administration, and the foreign-policy community's chattering classes, from their complacency? Talking with one foreign-policy type last Friday, he summed up for me what is a sad conventional wisdom emerging in Washington: "What can we do?"
What can we do? For one thing, let's stop the pretending that the U.S. response so far has been anything but pathetic. The Wall Street Journal this morning refers to the "aggressive American response to the Myanmar crisis." Hmm, they must be talking about First Lady Laura Bush's interview with the Voice of America, which is about the sum total of the American response thus far. After that, Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt has a few other ideas:
Tell China that, as far as the United States is concerned, it can have its Olympic Games or it can have its regime in Burma. It can't have both.... If a threat to those Games -- delivered privately, if that would be most effective, with no loss of face -- could help tip the balance, then let the Games not begin. Some things matter more."
I argued last week that China is unlikely to be shamed, by use of the Olympic card, into taking meaningful action on Burma. But Hiatt is right. If there's even a remote possibility that such pressure could help, then a U.S. threat to withdraw from the games should be made. The Bush Administration is reportedly looking into other, unnamed, options. Let's hope so. Because if 100,000 people were marching the streets of Baghdad or Riyadh, or if thousands of Catholic priests were lying dead in Vatican City, you can bet there would have been a little bit more action by now.
A study recently featured in FP showed that rural Indian women who watched satellite TV came to have more liberal attitudes and behaviors. For example, they became less accepting of spousal abuse, their bias in favor of having boys declined, school enrollment among girls increased, and the women were more likely to be able to spend money without a husband's permission.
Now, a similar "TV effect" could be occurring in Saudi Arabia, the only country where women aren't allowed to drive cars. Women's right to drive has now become a growing topic of debate, and Saudi women are saying that this debate stems in part from what women see on satellite TV and read on the Internet.
Not only do they learn about the freedom that women abroad have, but they see depictions of Saudi women themselves living lives of freedom. The country's most popular show, Tash Ma Tash (No Big Deal), a comedy that airs during Ramadan, addresses controversial social issues and shows episodes with Saudi women driving and going to the movies (there are presently no cinemas in Saudi Arabia). Another popular show, Amsha Bint Amash (Amsha, Daughter of Amash), is about a Saudi woman who disguises herself as a man to drive a cab.
On Sept. 23, Saudi Arabia's national day, the League of Demanders of Women's Right to Drive Cars in Saudi Arabia delivered to the king a petition signed by 1,100 women demanding the right to drive cars. The king hasn't yet replied, though.
And the women shouldn't expect an affirmative reply anytime soon. Advocates for women's rights concede that much preparation and public education would be required to ready both women and men for this relatively profound social change. Similarly, the producer of Tash Ma Tash says regarding women driving, "There will be a time [when] we will accept it, so now is the time to get prepared for that."
Too much social change too quickly in any society can backfire and produce a backlash and other destabilizing effects; Saudis must be slowly eased into this new world of liberated women. When it comes to women's rights in Saudi Arabia, slow and steady wins the race.
It was January 20, 2005, a heady time. U.S. President George W. Bush had just won reelection and believed the Bush Doctrine had handed him a powerful mandate. And he intended to run with it:
Today America speaks anew to the peoples of the world: All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."
Oh, how times have changed. This was White House Press Secretary Dana Perino speaking to reporters yesterday:
I have a statement by the President on Burma that I will read out for him," she said, "and then a statement about the FAA.... I call on all nations that have influence with the regime to join us in supporting the aspirations of the Burmese people and to tell the Burmese Junta to cease using force on its own people who are peacefully expressing their desire for change."
In case you missed it, that was the vaunted "freedom agenda" lumped in with airport delays. To the tens of thousands of Burmese risking life and limb to demand freedom from their oppressors, Perino essentially said: We aren't really going to stand with you, but we'll definitely put a call in to China and Russia to see what they can do.
The hope of the Bush administration is apparently that increased sanctions—or the threat of them—and travel restrictions on a half dozen or so top junta leaders will bring the regime in Yangon crumbling down.
But just ask a Cuban how effective these kinds of sanctions are at toppling dictatorial regimes. The increased sanctions Bush announced at the United Nations on Wednesday are little more than symbolic. They will likely have almost no impact on the political situation, and the same goes for Europe's existing sanctions. As one European observer put it, "Stopping European companies from investing in a pineapple juice factory is laughable."
As for the now apparently universal belief that China can somehow be shamed into pressing the junta for democratic reforms, that's a joke—as Bill Overholt pointed out here on Wednesday. But let's step back for a second here: Is the United States really prepared to stake the hopes of freedom on the Chinese Communist Party? Is this what the Bush Doctrine has come to?
The danger of the Bush Doctrine was always that people in places like Burma, Sudan, or Zimbabwe might take it seriously. That they would literally stand up for their freedom, expecting Team Bush to stand with them. "We either go to democracy or back to military dictatorship," one Burmese citizen wrote to the BBC this week. The Bush administration, apparently believing it has done enough, is prepared to sit back and watch the latter happen. More than 100,000 Burmese citizens a day are standing, and the Bush administration is sitting down.
That may be the saddest comment yet on the Bush Doctrine.
If you're getting tired of that "Don't tase me, bro" guy, you might find new inspiration for humor in the story of a group of "inappropriately dressed" Saudi women who had had enough meddling from the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, Saudi Arabia's notorious religious police.
From the Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily, Asharq Alawsat:
According to Dr. Al-Marshood, the two commission members approached the girls in order to "politely" advise and guide them regarding their inappropriate clothing.
Consequently, the two girls started verbally abusing the commission members, which then lead to one of the girls pepper-spraying them in the face as the other girl filmed the incident on her mobile phone, while continuing to hurl insults at them.
Joking aside, the Commission has been involved in a number of despicable incidents of brutality against women in the past. The perpetrators were lucky if they were only "cautioned and then released," as the article claims. We can only hope that they were allowed to keep the mobile phone, and that the clip will be circulating on YouTube soon. (Hat tip: Boing Boing)
Joking aside, the Commission has been involved in a number of despicable incidents of brutality against women in the past. The perpetrators were lucky if they were only "cautioned and then released," as the article claims.
We can only hope that they were allowed to keep the mobile phone, and that the clip will be circulating on YouTube soon.
(Hat tip: Boing Boing)
Recent press coverage and commentary on Burma's "Saffron Revolution" got me thinking: Is it really as simple as China flipping a switch and Burma will be democratic overnight? Judging by many reports, you'd think so. "If China won't change its policies toward Burma on its own," writes Nobel laureate Jody Williams in today's Wall Street Journal, "it must be pressured to do so."
But aren't we forgetting that the West spent much of the second half of the 20th Century trying to get China out of the business of regime change in Asia? Is it wise to reverse course now? To get some insight on the situation, I got a hold of RAND's Bill Overholt, who has spent decades working on Burma and helped set up the Provisional Revolutionary Government in the country's mountain jungles in 1989. Here's what he had to say.
On China's ability to encourage change in Burma:
China has interests and involvements in Burma, but limited leverage. Burma is not some kind of client state of China. It is a xenophobic, divided, tribalized country with a nationalistic government; it bears more resemblance to one of the less coherent sub-Saharan African states than to most other East Asian countries. It’s not an easy place to influence. Through most of the 1980s there was a Burmese Communist Party, which consisted primarily of the Wa tribe plus Chinese leadership. When the Wa decided to turn anti-communist in the late 1980s and chased the Chinese leadership into China, China’s influence in the country was drastically reduced but there was little China could do without military intervention. So Beijing basically sat by passively when it happened.
There's a crucial lesson in that episode. The fact that China has economic involvements in this neighboring country and sells weapons to it doesn't mean anymore than when big U.S. companies are involved in some third world country and the U.S. government also sells weapons to it. Those things imply neither political commitment to a certain regime nor any ability to change the regime. The Chinese have been pressing Rangoon diplomatically for some time to liberalize the political system. Going beyond that to some kind of active Chinese attempt to impose a new kind of politics would be like the U.S. invading Mexico to clean up Mexican politics, but much messier because Burmese nationalism and tribalism make Mexico's nationalism and Iraq's tribalism seem modest by comparison.
One would hope that our experience with regime change in Iraq would temper somewhat the occasional neocon fantasy that China could simply install a new regime in North Korea or the apparent new fantasy of some liberals that China could just install a different kind of government in Burma."
On whether next year's Olympic Games factor into China's calculus on Burma, as many news outlets are suggesting:
China's motives in relations with Burma have nothing to do with the Olympics. I doubt that even the idea of some connection has ever crossed the minds of Chinese leaders. Only someone distant from the region could even imagine that."
On how events in Burma impact Sino-U.S. relations:
Washington basically has the same attitude toward Burma that China does. It doesn't like what’s happening there, but isn't willing or able to do much about it. We have largely symbolic sanctions, and we have not done as much as we could have. We have not, for instance, gone after the oil companies that provide the big money to the junta and that have benefited so much from infrastructure built by tribal people who were kidnapped by the Burmese government and often forced to work without food until they died. Our drug policy has off and on fed the fox to guard the chicken coop.... We have occasionally given economic and military aid to the same government for the purpose of suppressing the drug trade, but the aid was of course used instead against the democracy movement.
Burma is one of the world's most serious human rights problems. We need to focus on getting our own policy right and on staying in sync with Burma’s neighbors, including China, as we do so. We're pushing in the same general direction as the Chinese, for somewhat different reasons, with equally little success. Hopefully the monks are going to change the structure of the game."
With reports that the junta is stockpiling insecticides to use against demonstrators and is clearing space in jails and hospitals in anticipation of a harsher crackdown, the stakes have never been higher.
PS: For those following the "Burma" vs. "Myanmar" debate—and here at Passport, we've used both—James Fallows convincingly puts the issue to rest.
A disturbing report from Bangladesh, from an anonymous, but well-placed source:
FARJANA KHAN GODHULY/AFP/Getty Images
Prothom Alo, the largest circulation daily newspaper in Bangladesh, is under attack from the right-wing fundamentalist groups. The immediate trigger was a joke published in a humor and satire supplement on September 17.
A man: What is your name?
Man: You should say "Mohammed Babu". What's is your father's name?
Man: You should say "Mohammed X". What is that in your lap?
Boy: Mohammed cat.
Although the joke was published strictly as humor and without incendiary intent, it raised a firestorm of protest from Islamic fundamentalists, who demanded that the paper be banned and its publisher and editor be arrested.
The cartoonist, a 20-year old freelancer, was arrested, and the government banned all the copies of that edition of the supplement.
Prothon Alo's management recognized that publishing the joke was a mistake. The next day, the editor apologized on the front page of the paper and asked readers to pardon the error. On September 19, the apology was repeated. In addition, the sub-editor of that humor section was terminated for carelessness. However, these steps have not satisfied the fundamentalists, who have continued to aggressively press their demands. On the 19th reports began circulating that the government was yielding to the demands and intended to arrest the paper's editor Matiur Rahman, a winner of the Magsaysay Award winner and an icon of the free press in Bangladesh, on September 20.
Ironically, Rahman has been a strong supporter of the current government and its reform efforts. Advocates of press freedom and individual rights in Bangladesh are concerned that if Matiur Rahman can be arrested, anyone in the country is vulnerable to attack by the fundamentalists.
(More background on this story here from Bangladeshi expat blogger Rezwan at Global Voices Online.) So far, it doesn't appear that Rahman has been arrested, and the state clerisy is coming to his aid, if not quite his defense.
But make no mistake: This story isn't about hurt feelings; it's about raw political power. While, like FP contributor Jalal Alamgir and the U.S. State Department, I have my misgivings about military rule in Bangladesh, the fundamentalists are showing their true colors here. It's a familiar pattern in Muslim countries ruled by authoritarian governments: Religious conservatives use religion cynically to embarrass the regime and whip up populist sentiment. Over time, they can force the government to make accommodating moves and concede elements of governance to the clerics. And the state can't exactly stand up for the principle of freedom of speech, because it's usually no great shakes on that score, either. This is bad news for Bangladesh. The way to break this cycle? Patient and deep democratic reforms and economic liberalization—not precipitous free and fair elections, which is what gave us Hamas in Palestine and Iranian-backed Shiite militias running Iraq.
Something is seriously wrong with this picture: An American student enrolled at the University of Florida is denied his constitutionally-protected right to question an elected leader in a nonviolent way. He's tackled by a half dozen police officers, tasered, and thrown in jail. Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be given free reign to hold court before a group of students and faculty — and hordes of television cameras — at Columbia University next week.
So let me get this straight. Ahmadinejad, who is rumored to have taken Americans hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 and whose country is a leading state sponsor of terrorism, has more rights than an American college student. Friends, all is not well in American academia.
Some pundits are lamely attacking Columbia for allowing Ahmadinejad to speak. But of all people, these neocon types ought to understand that freedom means giving the microphone to someone who makes your blood boil. More convincing are folks like Matt Cooper, who is pointing out the hypocrisy in Columbia's eagerness to welcome Ahmadinejad even as they ban the U.S. military's Reserve Officers Training Corps from campus. Cooper asks, "If discrimination [is] the standard for banishment from campus why not Catholic groups? After all, the church bans women from becoming priests."
What's more worrisome, however, is the realization that, while Ahmadinejad will enjoy and test the very limits of the freedoms Americans are supposed to enjoy, a U.S. citizen was denied this priviledge earlier this week. American universities, one is left to assume, value the insights of a man like Ahmadinejad more than they do those of their own students.
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