Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The perils of the cause celeb or why Vivienne Westwood shouldn't speak about Burma

I'm back in the UK for a few weeks and last night attended the launch of the Burma VJ film, which was being screened simultaneously in 40 cinemas across the UK.

The well-meaning Co-op, which was sponsoring the screening, had roped in some celebs to talk about the film before and after, as well as organising a Q&A with the director and main protagonist by satellite link.

Unfortunately, the first to speak was fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, known more for her hideous clothes than her knowledge of Burmese politics.

The crass nature of her opening gambit took even cynics like myself by surprise.
"I don't know anything about Burma," she explained before rambling on for five minutes about the perils of torture and why monks are great because they sing and chant rather than digging things out of the ground.

It was embarrassing in the extreme. The only upside was that it made Richard Gere's closing address, when he spoke of his "Tibetan brothers and sisters", seem a lot less cringeworthy than it otherwise would have been.

Excellent film though about how technology can empower brave people to take incredible risks in the hope of improving the lives of their fellow citizens. I'd urge you to go and see it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Making a tit of yourself can be expensive in Singapore

A housewife has been fined S$1,000 for baring her breasts at a karaoke lounge in Singapore.

According to the Straits Times, 26-year-old Nguyen Manh Khuong was caught by police with her breasts "fully exposed" at the Hollywood Nite Club on Eu Tong Sen street in the heart of Singapore's Chinatown.

A S$1,000 fine might seem harsh but she could have been jailed for three months.

Coming after the infamous Holland Village streaking incident, when two students were fined S$2,000 each for stripping off and walking through the expat nightspot naked, it goes to show that however hot it gets here, it's best not to take off all your clothes.

Unless, that is, you want to feel the long arm of the law grabbing your naked flesh.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Is it time for the West to open up to Burma?

Years of international condemnation, economic sanctions and diplomatic machinations have done nothing to dilute the Burmese military's grip on power.

So is it time for Britain, the US, Australia and the EU to follow the rather more pragmatic lead of Russia, China, India and Singapore and deal with Burma as if it were any other country, albeit with a government that you don't much admire?

In a very interesting article, Nicholas Farrelly, an Australian academic and author of the New Mandala blog, argues that it is indeed time for the international community to face up to the reality of entrenched military government in Burma.

Given how strong the position of the Tatmadaw (armed forces) in Burma, there seems to be little point in continuing to pursue the illusory aim of regime change.

Rather, we need to come to terms with how the generals actually run the country. Once you have accepted that getting rid of the junta is not a particularly practicable foreign policy goal, the next logical step seems to be greater engagement with Burma.

The old narrative that pitted evil crazy-eyed generals against saint-like Aung San Suu Kyi and her army of democratic martyrs - beloved by journalists and celebrities without a cause in the West - needs to be thrown out once and for all.

As Mary P. Callahan explained in her seminal work on the subject, Burma is not like some African or Latin American Banana Republic where greedy, power-hungry generals seize control in a coup designed to help them line their pockets. The strength of the military government is the result of the way Burma was forged as a nation, through a succession of internal and external wars.

The West needs to accept the junta and deal with Burma as with any other country run by an objectionable government, such as Belarus or Fiji.

Downer EDI and Burma: credit where it's not due

I was interested to read that Janelle Saffin, an Australian Labor MP, had commended Downer EDI, the Australian engineering group, in a recent parliamentary debate for "voluntarily withdrawing their operations in Burma this year".

That's funny. I thought Downer EDI knew nothing about their Burma operations until a certain journalist contacted them and started asking awkward questions.

It was only then that they decided that helping the generals build their new airport at Naypyidaw didn't tally with their "zero-harm" policy.

Not exactly what most people would call commendable action.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Taxi Tales: I slept through the great Yogyakarta earthquake

Taxi Tales is a new series dedicated to the insightful anecdotes, witty repartee and occasional pearls of wisdom that emerge from my regular conversations with taxi drivers around the region.

At 5.54 am on Saturday 27 May 2006, a powerful earthquake struck the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta, killing nearly 6,000 people and damaging more than 100,000 homes.

But one man was totally unaware of the destruction that was being wrought on his home town. Andi, a driver working in the tourism industry, had been out partying with his friends and drinking heavily the night before.

"I only got home at about 5am and I was so drunk that I went straight to sleep," he told me as he drove me and some friends out to the ancient Buddhist temple at Borobodur. "I didn't feel the tremors and when I woke up, I wondered what had happened."

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Megawati goes under cover in rural Indonesia

Politicians love being all things to all men, particularly at election time.

With more than 170 million Indonesians set to go to the polls on Wednesday, it was interesting to see the different faces presented by Megawati, the main challenger to the incumbent president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY).

In the liberal, downtown areas of Yogyakarta, posters of Mega showed her without her head covered, a secular leader for all Indonesians, regardless of religion.

In the more Islamic Javanese countryside surrounding Yogya, the same posters showed her with her head covered like any good, devout Muslim.

But her spin doctors' best Photoshop efforts are unlikely to make much difference as most polls predict that SBY will be a shoo-in, taking 60% of the votes.

Having seen the man speak at the ADB annual conference in Bali back in May, it's easy to understand why he is so likely to win.

What's more interesting is the speed with which democracy seems to be maturing in Indonesia. Firstly, this election year is likely to draw to a close without any major violence. Secondly, as this article explains, all the candidates are moderates, advocating a similar mix of anti-corruption rhetoric and economically liberal policies with a dose of populism thrown in.

Consensus, it seems, is king in one of the world's most populous and most diverse countries. That's no bad thing.