Sunday, December 31, 2006

Saddam buried in Tikrit

In accordance with Muslim tradition, Saddam Hussein was buried within 24 hours of his death in the family plot near Tikrit. A local tribesman told journalists that the burial had taken place at 4am Sunday in a family plot in Awja, the village of Saddam's birth. He was buried next to his sons Uday and Qusay. The family overrode the wishes of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. His spokesman had earlier said the government wanted Saddam to be buried in a secret location to prevent the site becoming a place of pilgrimage.

The new Shia Prime Minister has strengthened his hand in his own community after pushing through the execution of Saddam over the protest of Saddam’s own Sunni constituency and the Kurds who wanted to see him tried for genocide against their peoples. Iraqi TV showed al-Maliki signing the death warrant in red ink on Friday night. Afterwards he said "Saddam's execution puts an end to all the pathetic gambles on a return to dictatorship.”

World opinion is sharply divided over the execution. President Bush said the former Iraqi dictator had received the kind of justice he denied his victims. Iran and Kuwait also welcomed the execution. Britain said Saddam had been "held to account" but reiterated its opposition to the death penalty. But Saudi Arabia, expressed “surprise and dismay” that the hanging was carried out on the day of the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha. Russia and the Vatican also expressed anger at the decision.

Some analysts in the West have also expressed suspicion that Saddam’s death was orchestrated by the Americans so that he would be unable to give testimony that might be embarrassing to the US in the ongoing Kurdish trial. Iraqi journalist Cirwan Mostafa warned that his death prior to that trial’s completion would be a “conspiracy woven by powerful parties and maybe the Americans so that Saddam is not sentenced for crimes he committed against the Kurds with the knowledge of the whole the world and the Americans who kept silent at that time."

The sudden execution on the eve of the Eid-al-Adha religious holiday did nothing to help stem the sectarian violence. On the day of his death car bombs killed almost 70 people in Baghdad and Najaf. The bombs exploded in Shia suburbs. In north-west Baghdad, two parked cars exploded in quick succession, killing 37 civilians and wounding 76. Another 31 people died and 58 were hurt when a bomb planted on a minibus exploded in a fish market in Kufa near Najaf. A mob cornered and killed the man who planted that bomb as he walked away from the explosion.

Meanwhile the US military announced the deaths of three Marines and three soldiers, making December the year’s deadliest month for US troops in Iraq with the toll reaching 109. Three marines died on Thursday from wounds suffered in combat in the western Anbar province. Yesterday, one soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in north-west Baghdad and another was killed in Anbar. A sixth was killed by a roadside bomb in south-west Baghdad.

The overall total of US dead since the start of the 2003 invasion is now 2,998. The total number of Iraqi dead in this time is a matter of intense debate. Iraqi Body Count put the figure as between 52,000 and 58,000 however the British medical journal Lancet published an article in October which suggested over 650,000 have died.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Saddam the Martyr?

After denying the possibility for the last three days, Iraq executed its former leader Saddam Hussein early this morning. The Iraqi deputy foreign minister confirmed the news to the BBC. Iraqi TV said the execution took place at 6am local time. The execution took place at the Iraqi-controlled compound known by the Americans as “Camp Justice” in the northern Baghdad suburb of Khadimeya. He died unhooded and carrying a copy of the Koran.

Saddam was sentenced to death in November for the killing of 148 people in the northern Iraqi city of Dujail in 1982. On Tuesday, an Iraqi appeals court upheld the sentence. The court said the former president should be hanged within 30 days. Rumours have since been rife that he would be executed by the weekend. The rumours intensified after a US military office said that Saddam would be hanged before the beginning of the Eid religious holiday which starts on Sunday.

On Thursday Saddam’s lawyers published a letter he wrote after he received the death sentence. In it he stated that his execution is a sacrifice to Iraq, and that his death will lead to martyrdom. "I offer my soul to God as a sacrifice, and if He wants, He will send it to heaven with the martyrs”. He signed the letter as “President and Commander in Chief of the Iraqi Mujahed Armed Forces”.

On Thursday, Saddam's defence lawyers in Jordan issued an unsuccessful last ditch call to Arab governments and the United Nations to intervene to stop the execution. Chief lawyer Khalil al-Dulaimi said Saddam was a prisoner of war and should not be handed to his enemies according to international law. On the same day, the Vatican condemned the sentence, saying it was wrong to answer crime with another crime.

Speculation increased yesterday after US officials handed Saddam over to Iraqi authorities. US officials stated then he could be hanged as early as Saturday. However the official Iraqi line was that would not happen. A swag of officials issued heated denials. These came from at least two cabinet ministers, the Justice Ministry responsible for executions, a court prosecutor as well as an aide to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. But an Iraqi television channel was closer to the truth when they quoted a judge saying he would die on Friday or Saturday.

Saddam was executed at dawn. An Iraqi official told Associated Press his execution was attended by a Muslim cleric, lawmakers, senior officials and relatives of victims. He was 69 years old and ruled Iraq for 24 years until the US-led invasion in 2003. He was captured in December that year.

As the news filtered through the streets of Baghdad, many people took to the streets in the pre-dawn hours to fire guns in the air in celebration. Many expressed disbelief it had happened and wanted to see proof. However not everyone is happy about his execution, including some of Saddam’s old enemies. Kurdish leaders denounced the timing of the execution as a miscarriage of justice. Saddam was still on trial for atrocities and genocide against the Kurds in northern Iraq between 1987 and 1988. That trial was adjourned until 8 January though the trial of his co-defendants will continue.

Saddam means “stubborn one” in Arabic and he lived up to his name by showing no remorse during his sometimes farcical trial last year. In November a five-judge Iraqi panel announced a unanimous sentence of death for Hussein and two of his seven co-defendants, including Hussein's half brother.

His Baath Party was officially disbanded after the 2003 invasion but some members escaped to Yemen where they issued a warning of retaliation on Wednesday. The Baath Party website issued statement, signed by "the Defence Committee for President Saddam Hussein.” It said "our party warns again of the consequences of executing Mr. President and his comrades," and continued, "the Baath and the resistance are determined to retaliate, with all means and everywhere, to harm America and its interests if it commits this crime.”

Saddam is survived by his wife Sajda in Qatar, and his daughter Raghad who supervised the defence team in Amman.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Hunt for New Earth

The search for life in the universe began a new phase on Wednesday in Kazakhstan with the launch of Corot, the French space telescope. Corot's role will be to seek and find small rocky planets which have a similar size and composition to that of our own Earth. The European Space Agency (ESA) says that's about as difficult as detecting a candle burning next to a lighthouse from a distance of 1000 kilometres.

Corot is an acronym of “COnvection ROtation and planetary Transits” but the name is also a passing nod to the great French 19th century landscape painter Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot. The spacecraft’s mission will be to look for rocky worlds about twice the size of Earth that lie in what space scientists call habitable zones. These are the regions of space in each solar system where heat from the nearest star is neither too hot nor too cold to sustain liquid water which scientists consider the holy grail for sustaining life. Any planets found by Corot will be studied intensely by future missions scheduled for the next decade. Scientists are hoping to gain a better understanding how planets form and how common other earth-like planets may be.

The study of planets outside our solar system began in 1995 when Swiss astronomer Michel Mayor discovered 51 Pegasi b, a gassy giant that orbits the star 51 Pegasi in the Pegasus constellation. Pegasi’s discovery opened the floodgates. In the last 12 years astronomers have found over 200 “exo-planets” which are all gas giants similar to Jupiter. However the problem with all of these planets is that they have no surface and are therefore incapable of supporting life. Small planets are too difficult to detect from Earth due to our atmosphere which blurs the picture. The Hubble Space Telescope was launched to gain clearer pictures of outer space. But Hubble’s mission is to search for stars in deep space not to look for tiny planets in our immediate neighbourhood. Hence Corot.

The Corot space telescope project is led by CNES (Centre National d'Études Spatiales - the French Space Agency) in conjunction with several European partners and Brazil. The spacecraft is equipped with a 27 cm diameter afocal telescope and a camera sensitive to tiny variations of the light intensity from stars. A Russian rocket lifted the satellite into a circular polar orbit with an altitude of 827 km where it will stay for the next two and half years. It will observe perpendicular to its orbital plane, meaning there will be no Earth eclipse (properly called an “occultation”), allowing 150 days of continuous observation. Beyond 150 days, the Sun's rays can interfere with the results.

Corot will focus on two parts of the universe which are relatively close to Earth. The first is the centre of our own galaxy, the Milky Way; the other is the constellation Orion. Like Hubble, it will measure how much light comes from a star. Corot will be hoping to spot a small eclipse that would indicate a planet crossing in front of the star. So Corot will only be able to indirectly detect the presence of a planet. But it is an important stepping stone in the effort to find habitable, Earth-like planets around other stars.

To verify light variation from a star found by Corot, we will have to wait until Project Darwin, the ESA most ambitious long-term adventure. Darwin is scheduled to launch in 2015 and will comprise of at least four separate components. There will be three, or possibly more, space telescopes, each at least 3 metres in diameter, and another spacecraft will serve as a communications hub. The multiple crafts will be placed in an orbit about 1.5 million kilometres from the Earth. Darwin will require telescope of roughly 30 metres in size and this is way beyond the current limits of technology. By comparison Hubble is barely 2.3 metres. Scientists are using a technique known as interferometry first developed in the 1950s. Inferometry uses a number of smaller telescopes and combines their individual signals to mimic a much larger telescope. The technique will be applied to the infrared telescope to be used by Darwin. It will have a second benefit in that it will cut out the blinding light from the nearby star.

NASA is also planning a mission similar to Darwin. Called the Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) it plans to study all aspects of planets outside the solar system. There is no planned launch date at this time and NASA may well decide to combine this project with Darwin. As the 2001 review which recommended the TPF said “"The discovery of life on another planet is potentially one of the most important scientific advances of this century, let alone this decade, and it would have enormous philosophical implications.”

Corot is the first small step to this discovery.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ford stops farting and chewing gum

The oldest ever US president is dead. Gerald Ford died aged 93 on 26 December and his longevity was one of many records Ford held. He is the only Michigan president, the only Eagle Scout and the only one never to be elected. He was truly an accident of history as he wasn’t even elected vice president.

Ford was born Leslie Lynch King Jr in 1913 in Omaha, Nebraska. His parents split up due to his father’s drinking problem when young Leslie was just two weeks old. His mother Dorothy Ayer Gardner returned to her home town of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Three years later, she married paint salesman Gerald Rudolff Ford. Afterwards, she began calling her son Gerald Rudolff Ford, Jr. When he was 12 or 13, Ford's parents told him he was adopted. He was not aware of the identity of his biological father until aged 15 and only met him twice thereafter. Ford attended Grand Rapids South High School and was a star athlete and captain of the gridiron team. Both the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers offered him a professional contract which he rejected in favour of law. He also earned money as a model and appeared in "Look" magazine and on the cover of "Cosmopolitan".

Ford graduated from Yale in 1941 with a law degree and was admitted to the Michigan bar. He enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbour and rose to lieutenant commander. He saw action in the recapture of the Gilbert Islands, New Guinea and Leyte before getting a assignment to coach army football in California. After the war he returned to Grand Rapids and practised law. He married department store fashion consultant Elizabeth Bloomer Warren in 1948 and became active in Republican Party politics. He took on and defeated the incumbent congressman that same year. He would hold the Grand Rapids congressional district seat from 1949 to 1973.

Ford’s war experiences made him an internationalist. He quickly became a prominent member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. He was appointed Minority Leader of the House in 1963 and one of seven appointees to the Warren Commission to investigate Kennedy’s death later that year. Despite helping doctor the eventual report to support the Single Gun Theory, Ford never got on with President Johnson. Ford criticised his big government spending and his handling of the Vietnam War. Johnson didn't think much of Ford either and famously said of him “he can't fart and chew gum at the same time.”

Ford’s career took a new trajectory in 1973. When Vice-President Spiro Agnew was charged with tax evasion and forced to resign. Nixon used the 25th amendment to nominate Ford as his replacement. He was confirmed by a majority vote of both Houses. As VP, Ford kept out of the limelight while Watergate grew. In August 1974, the Supreme Court ordered a tape to be released that revealed Nixon’s involvement in the burglary and the game was up. Nixon resigned on 9 August and Ford was sworn in as president. Immediately after taking the oath of office, Ford addressed the nation saying “I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your President by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your President with your prayers”.

His first major act was an unconditional pardon for Nixon. Ford said it was "an American tragedy in which we all have played a part.” While the decision ended the spectacle of an ex-president going to trial, it effectively ended Ford’s re-election chances. Ford announced the pardon on a Sunday morning in a vain attempt to minimise the initial political fallout. Critics said it was part of a deal that brought Ford to the White House. The midterm elections that followed gave the Democrats handsome wins in the House and Senate.

Domestically Ford presided over an economic recession. To fight inflation, the new president proposed fiscal restraints and spending curbs and a 5 percent tax surcharge that was soundly rejected by congress. Meanwhile New York city almost went bankrupt and Ford refused to it bail. The Daily News printed the headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” Under pressure, Ford eventually signed a $2.3 billion emergency loan guarantee.

Despite his internationalism, his foreign policy was ordinary. On 25 April 1975, Ford watched the news to see helicopters evacuating the last personnel from the rooftop of the Saigon embassy. He gave the green light to Indonesian president Suharto to take over the old Portuguese colony of Timor. He was also culpable for the Mayagüez incident when the newly installed Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia seized a US merchant ship and 41 US marines were killed in a botched rescue mission. Ford’s one success was the creation of the Helsinki Accords with the Soviet Union which eventually led to the creation of the NGO that became Human Rights Watch.

President Ford survived two female assassination attempts in three weeks. In September 1975 Charles Manson acoylte Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, stepped out from a crowd and pointed a loaded gun at Ford’s back from almost point blank distance as the president walked towards the capitol. Fromme was foiled by a secret service agent who grabbed the gun before she could fire and she was sentenced to life imprisonment. Just 17 days later another revolutionary, Sarah Jane Moore shot at Ford in San Francisco. The bullet missed its target but struck a bystander. She too was sentenced to life.

By the 1976 election Ford was a lame duck president. He narrowly survived a Republican challenge from Ronald Reagan who criticised him for his Vietnam failures and his signature of the Helsinki Accords. Ford’s propensity for accidents made him the subject of media caricature. After Georgia governor Jimmy Carter won the Democrat nomination, Ford almost overturned a 34 percent deficit in the opinion polls, but narrowly lost the electoral college by 297 votes to 240.

Ford quickly disappeared into history. In 1977, he established the Gerald R. Ford Institute for Public Policy and Service at Albion College in Michigan. Reagan almost made him his vice-president candidate in 1980 but baulked at Ford’s condition of a “co-presidency”. Wife Betty eclipsed him in fame with her battles with alcoholism. Gerald Ford eventually died this week of heart failure at his home in California. Betty and their sons were at his bedside. She issued a brief statement on his death “My family joins me in sharing the difficult news that Gerald Ford, our beloved husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather has passed away at 93 years of age. His life was filled with love of God, his family and his country."

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Bundy days

Woolly Days is just back from spending Christmas in Bundaberg about 370km north of Brisbane. Bundaberg is most well known to the rest of Australia for its eponymous dark rum. Both the town and rum are affectionately known as “Bundy”. The 50,000 population city marks the southern boundary of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and of the Central Queensland region. The name Bundaberg is possibly the only placename in Australia which is a combination of Aboriginal and European words. “Bunda” is the name of a local Aboriginal tribe and Burg is the old Saxon word for town.

Bundaberg lays good claims to have the best climate in Australia. Its Winters are mild due to its subtropical latitude and the Summer heat is tempered by cool sea breezes. Bundaberg lies on the wide reach of the Burnett River. The river is the lifeblood of the city and fuels the sugar cane industry which is Bundaberg’s economic pulse. The first settlers to the area were timber-growers. The brothers John and Gavin Steuart camped on a site later occupied by North Bundaberg Railway Station in 1867. A year later Samuel Johnston erected a sawmill on the river downstream from the Steuart holding. Surveyor J C Thompson surveyed, laid out and named Bundaberg in 1870. Timber supply quickly ran short and a nascent corn industry was ravaged by disease. Finally experimental sugarcane growing followed and a sugar industry slowly emerged. The sugar plantations owners relied on Kanaka labour. And Bundy grew on its blackbirding profits. Bundaberg was gazetted a town during 1902 and a city in 1913.

Bundaberg’s most famous son is aviator Bert Hinkler. He was born in Bundaberg in 1892. He found his vocation by watching ibis flying in a local lagoon. He designed his first glider by watching the birds’ wings and tail. He practised flying his gliders at nearby Mon Repos Beach. When he was 18 he worked for a New Zealand aviator named 'Wizard' Stone for three years. Then he moved to England where he got a job as a mechanic. Within 12 months World War I broke out and he got a job as a pilot in the RAF. After the war he became a test pilot and started making his record breaking solo flights. He is most remembered the first solo flight from England to Australia in 1928. The journey took him a record 16 days in a single-engined Avro Avian. He broke the previous record by 12 days. He arrived in Darwin to a hero's welcome. 1,500 people were on to cheer him when he returned to his home town. Hinkler died 5 years later when he crashed crossing the Italian Alps.

Mon Repos beach is not just the home of Hinkler’s test gliders. The beach has the largest concentration of nesting marine turtles on the eastern Australian mainland. From November to March, the turtles nest and hatch on the beach each night. About eight weeks later young turtles emerge from the eggs and begin their journey to the sea. Appropriately, Mon Repos means “my rest” in French. The French government used the area between 1890 and 1925 as the launching pad for the telegraph cable from Australia to the French colony of New Caledonia.

But for Australians it is Bundy Rum that the town is most famous. It is Australia's only well known, locally produced spirit. In 1888 a group of sugar millers started to produce the rum using the molasses that was a by-product of sugar refinement. They joined forces to form the Bundaberg Distilling Company. Its fame was guaranteed barely 12 year later by the Boer War when the army requested the entire production of Bundaberg rum be sent as rations for Australian troops. Production was halted for 7 years following a devastating fire in 1907 but was resumed in time to supply the troops again in World War I. Fire destroyed the business again in 1936 but Bundy Rum rose again from the ashes in time for another war: this time World War II. When American soldiers came to Australia, they started mixing the rum with Cola. The distillery saw an opportunity and came up with the first ‘ready to drink’ – Bundy and Cola. With the Aussie habit of shortening, it became Bundy and Coke.

Bundy rum brought in the Polar Bear mascot in 1961. Despite the oddness of a cold symbol for a sub-tropical drink, the warmth implied by the Bundy Bear helped sales soar in Australia's cooler but more lucrative southern states. Its popularity attracted international attention. Bundaberg Rum announced the 21st century by being bought out by multi-national Diageo who also market major brands such as Guinness, Johnnie Walker and Smirnoff.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

There is a sanity clause!

Last week USA Today placed Santa at number 4 in its list of 101 most influential people that never lived. Only the Marlboro Man (for services to cigarettes), Big Brother (for services to democracy) and King Arthur (for having Camelot?) lead the man in red in this list of mischievous mythical influence. Apart from having great doubts as to the order of selection, Woolly Days has to take issue with USA Today for putting Santa in this list at all. Santa is real.

Back in 1897, 8 year old Virginia O’Hanlon sent a letter to the New York Sun which asked the question “Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun it’s so. Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?” The letter demonstrates the touching faith of Virginia in the existence of Santa and the touching faith of her father in the non-existence of falsehoods in the Sun. Be that as it may, the editorial response is rightly the most famous defence of Santa on record. “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” said the Sun unambiguously. More importantly still perhaps was the prediction of the editorial’s final line “A thousand years from now, nay, 10 times 10 thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood”.

If what the Sun says is as true as Virginia’s Dad says, it would appear as if Santa’s future is guaranteed for some time to come. But what about his past? How far back does Santa go? Turns out he goes almost as far back as that other Christmas icon – Jesus. The first Santa was St Nicholas who lived in the 3rd century AD. He is now the patron saint of sailors, merchants, children, archers and pawnbrokers. In those days Nicholas was a Turkish bishop. He was an early supporter of Christianity, before it became fashionable and sanctioned by Rome. He lived in the town of Myra near the south coast of what is now modern Turkey.

Myra was at that time a Greek colony in the Roman province of Lycia. It was strongly Hellenistic in outlook and held Greek traditions in science, politics and the arts. But it was also steadfastly Roman in its worship of the traditions of law, the military and the economy. The area is now modern Antalya more beloved these days as a cheap Turkish holiday destination.

Nicholas was born to a wealthy family in the Myran town of Patara. Patara was an important town, the major naval and trading port of Lycia. Its wealth grew as Patara became a trade hub. Nicholas was born of one of Patara’s wealthiest families. But change was in the air. The Roman hegemony was being challenged on two fronts. Pirates and looters were wrecking the trade and Christianity was in the air. St Paul launched an early missionary journey to Patara. The new religion was proving popular in the heady atmosphere of an international trade capital.

Both Nicholas’s parents died when he was young. This fact shaped his life. He was now independently wealthy but St Paul’s descendents had sown the new religion in his mind. And so, Nicholas acquired the reputation as a “giver”. He proceeded to give all his money away. Modelling his behaviour on Jesus, Nicholas became the ultimate Christian. His most famous eelymosynary act involved giving gold to three girls to save them from a life of prostitution. The townspeople were so impressed by Nicholas’s altruism they made him Bishop of Myra.

This made him the local power. But Rome wasn’t ready yet to embrace Christianity. Diocletian was on the throne around the turn of the century. It was he who realised the Roman Empire was too large to be ruled by one person. His bureaucratic and economic reforms laid the framework for the next thousand years of the Eastern Roman Empire. The price of his success was fealty to the Roman religion. Although his wife and daughter were Christians, he issued increasingly harsh decrees against anyone who felt they had a higher power than Rome to deal with.

One of the victims of Diocletian’s decrees was Nicholas. Because Nicholas was a powerful man, he wasn’t thrown to lions. Instead he was imprisoned. There he languished until a new emperor, Constantine, ascended to the throne. Although he himself did not become a Christian until just before his death, Constantine always had a more conciliatory attitude to the new religion. He quickly ended the persecutions and Nicholas was released. Back in his role of bishop, he soon realised there was another urgent problem to deal with: Arianism. Arius was an Egyptian teacher and a contemporary of Nicholas. He was spreading a new mutation of Christianity: according to Arianism, Jesus was not eternal. This had some support from the Roman hierarchy but not within the council of bishops. Only 3 out of 300 voted against the Nicene Creed that effectively stamped it out.

Nicholas was at the forefront of that fight. Not only did he keep Arianism out of Myra, he travelled to the Council of Nicea and slapped Arius in the face. This bold action sealed his fame worldwide. However the bishops were stunned at his lack of decorum and stripped him of his bishopric. It didn't hurt his reputation, Nicholas returned home a hero.

Legends grew about him as soon as he died. Within a hundred years of his death he was the main man in what was left of Christendom. The emperor in Constantinople dedicated a church to him. But it was in the west, where his memory was especially revered. England dedicated nearly 400 churches in his honour during the late Middle Ages. People began giving presents in his name on his feast day of 6 December. The present-giving date eventually moved to 25 December to follow Jesus. Also following Jesus was the Protestant Reformation who tried to ban Christmas altogether.

They were not totally successful. In Holland, St Nicholas mutated to Sinterklass. The Dutch took Sinterklass and its euphonious name with them to America. And Nicholas never really went away in Germany either. There Martin Luther replaced this bearer of gifts with the Christ Child, or, in German, Christkindl. Over the years, that became repronounced “Kriss Kringle” which morphed back into Santa.

Thanks to worthy contributions from Dickens and Coke, Christmas and Santa Claus are now significant parts of the Western cultural mythos. Sometimes parents, unwilling slaves to advertisers, quietly curse Kris Kringle and the expense caused by the patron saint of pawnbrokers. But Santa exemplifies Christianity 101. His spirit of giving is infectious and never fails to makes us feel happy. An early episode of South Park has a fight between Jesus and Santa for the right to control Christmas. The show skewers the conventions of both traditions. But both have proved resilient traditions. There’s probably room enough for both of them.

Happy Christmas.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Cultural learnings of America

"Kazakhstan, greatest country in the world
All other countries are run by little girls."

So runs the first two lines of the alternative Kazakhstan national anthem as imagined by the country's most well-known export, Borat Sagdiyev. Borat gives the ode a fine rendition to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner at a rodeo in Salem, Virginia. The anthem concludes with the fine line “Come grasp the mighty penis of our leader from junction with the testes to tip of its face!” This scene is one of the many funny moments of the film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Borat is a Kazakh television journalist who is dispatched to the US to record a documentary for the Kazakh Ministry of Information. He is openly racist, misogynistic, homophobic, anti-Semitic and totally un-housetrained.

Borat also skilfully skewers American intolerance in one of the funniest films of 2006. The movie is a cross between a mockumentary and gonzo journalism. The narrative, such that it exists, is about Borat's travels across America in search of his dream woman. That woman is Baywatch’s Pamela Anderson with whom he “would very much like to make a romantic liquid explosion on her stomach”. The actor Sacha Baron Cohen brilliantly channels the Kazakh reporter with mangled English and he deftly skewers his victims who are strung along by his naïve discourtesy.

Along the way, he has a serious of increasingly uproarious adventures involving such props as a bear in an ice cream van, a Washington gay parade, three drunken frat boys, a riotous TV interview, a Southern dinner party, nude wrestling at an Insurance convention and a conversion moment at a revivalist meeting. Eventually he meets the women of his dreams after expressing incredulity that she (Anderson) has attended a rally “against” animal cruelty. At a book signing, he tries to coerce her into joining him in a “real” Kazakh wedding. Pamela gets some undignified treatment in the film but is at least in on the joke unlike most of the other participants. This is not the first time Anderson and Cohen have worked together. Last year, Anderson held a "commitment ceremony" between her two dogs which was gatecrashed by Cohen in a Borat segment for "Da Ali G. Show."

Other victims of Cohen’s pranks are not so happy about being duped. The Kazakh government are furious about the way their country is treated. Kazakhstan has bought airtime on US and international satellite channels to show ads presenting a more positive image of the country. Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman, Yerzhan Ashykbayev, said "We understand that Borat is a kind of satire, but it is just a pity that Mr Cohen chose Kazakhstan as the origin of his hero”. Kazakhstan has also invested $53 million in making the historical epic called Nomad to counter what it sees as the damage inflicted upon the nation's reputation by Borat.

Some of his American victims are also attempting to sue Cohen and his film company. Two college students failed in their attempt to gain an injunction against the film. The University of South Carolina students sought to prevent distribution of the film until scenes showing them making racist comments were deleted or altered. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph Biderman denied the request, noting an injunction can be issued only in "extraordinary" circumstances. But these extraordinary circumstances are proving invaluable publicity for the movie.

Initially the studio scaled down the number of scheduled venues for the film after distributors feared that American audiences wouldn’t get the joke. When it opened in late October, it was cut from more than half the 2,000 scheduled US cinemas. Despite this, the film was in the top 20 in its opening weekend taking in $26.4 million. Meanwhile the film was banned in Russia where censors cited the film's potential to offend religious and ethnic feelings. Kazakhstan itself has not banned the film.

Despite the obvious anti-Semitism of such jokes as the “running of the Jew”, Borat is going down extremely well in Israel. Cohen himself is Jewish and the language that he and the language Borat and his squat sidekick Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian) speak on their odyssey across the States is Hebrew. Cohen’s mother was born in Israel and grandmother still lives in Haifa. In high school he belonged to a Zionist Jewish youth group and he also spent a year working and on a kibbutz in northern Israel. As a result, the film is scattered with slang and inside jokes that are proving very popular with Israeli audiences. Israeli Oded Volovitz said, "It was a message that basically said, 'Although the movie is very anti (Jewish), I am still with you, I am still the same Mr Cohen. I'm just trying to send a message here and I hope you guys understand it”.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Silent Nights in Bethlehem

Tourists have deserted Bethlehem. Jesus’ supposed birthplace is 10km south of Bethlehem in the Palestinian Authority West Bank. Bethlehem relies heavily on the tourism from a stream of Christian visitors who flock to the Church of the Nativity each Christmas. However, in 2005 less than 3,000 tourists visited at Christmas time, down from an average of 90,000 less than a decade ago. Fears of violence and the presence of the ugly Israeli security barrier is keeping them away.

The demographic of Bethlehem is also changing. The town's Christian population has dwindled from 85 % in 1948 to 12 % of its 60,000 inhabitants in 2006. Christians own most of the town's hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops and are feeling the pinch of the tourist downturn. Joseph Canawati owns the 77-room Hotel Alexander. His attitude is typical, "there is no hope for the future of the Christian community” he told England’s Daily Mail.

An ecumenical delegation has arrived from England to show its solidarity with the West Bank town. Church of England Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and Catholic Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor lead the multi-religious group. The group also includes the leader of the Armenian Church of Great Britain and the wonderfully titled Moderator of the Free Churches. Williams told the Guardian the purpose of the trip was to "be alongside people, Christians, Jews and Muslims, whose lives have been wrecked in different ways by terrorism and by the sense that they're hated and feared by each other”.

The atmosphere of the town has not been helped by the hugely controversial Israeli security barrier which runs along the northern edge of town physical separating it from Jerusalem. Israel contends that the barrier's route is based solely on security considerations. Other dispute that contention and say the primary reasons for choosing the route of many sections was to place certain areas intended for settlement expansion on the Israeli side of the fence. The currently approved route leaves fifty-five settlements (12 in East Jerusalem) separated from the rest of the West Bank on the Israeli side. These are mostly illegal settlements that breach international law.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an advisory judgement in July urging Israel to remove the fence from occupied land. The nonbinding opinion also obliged Israel to return confiscated land or make reparations for any damage to homes, businesses and farms due to the new barrier.

Bethlehem is the birthplace of King David as well as Jesus. According to Matthew 2:5 King Herod asked his priests and legal eagles where the Christ was to be born and they told him “in Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written”. The city was destroyed during the revolt of Bar Kokhba around 133 AD. The first Christian site was constructed on the site during the reign of Constantine in 326.

Despite being conquered by Muslims in the 7th century, the church was allowed to stand. The town fell to the first Crusaders in 1099. King Baldwin I was crowned first king of Jerusalem in Bethlehem on Christmas Day 1100. The town passed between Muslim and Christian hands during the crusades that followed. In 1347 Franciscans monks gained possession of the basilica and the Grotto of the Nativity. They held control jointly with Greek Orthodox priests despite the long rule of the Ottoman Empire which lasted until the end of the First World War.

It then fell under the control of the British Mandate of Palestine until 1947 when the UN decreed it would be part of the international enclave of Jerusalem. Jordan captured the city during the war that followed in 1948 and the city became home to many Palestinians made refugees by the Arab-Israeli war. Jordan retained control of Bethlehem until 1967. Then the Six-Day War brought Bethlehem under Israeli rule. The 1994 Oslo Accords created the Palestinian Authority and the Bethlehem Governate was created under its auspices a year later.

The 1,500 year old Church of the Nativity was the scene of a five week siege in 2002. In March that year, the Israeli army raided the city and chased about 200 people into the church where they sought sanctuary. The siege ended with an agreement for 13 militants to be sent via Cyprus to Europe and another 26 to be sent to Gaza. The rest were set free. The Israeli army said they found 40 explosive devices in the church.

The basilica is now the site of a squabble whichs threatens to wash away Crusader-era murals and destroy Byzantine mosaics the three Christian communities who share its custodianship. Large holes in the 500-year-old roof have in leaks which threaten to wash away Crusader-era murals and destroy Byzantine mosaics. The Armenian Church and the Catholic Franciscans each claim ownership of a third of the church but the Orthodox Greeks claim majority rights as descendants of the Byzantine founders. The Ottomans decreed the three churches should all have a key to the lock of the front door. But in 2002, the Orthodox Greeks changed the locks without consultation. They argued that decree grants the others keys but not the right to use them. Relations remain frosty between the parties. Meanwhile the ecumenical rain pours through the roof.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Mulrunji complicated fallout

The family of the Palm Island Aboriginal man killed in custody refused to meet Queensland Premier Peter Beattie on his visit to the island yesterday. The family lawyer said the Mulrunji Doomadgee’s partner and his sisters did not want to meet with Beattie saying it would be a “waste of time”. Beattie’s emergency visit comes after the controversial ruling by the Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) not to press charges against the police officer named by the coroner as responsible for the death.

36 year old Mulrunji Doomadgee died in the Palm Island police cells on 19 November 2004. Mulrunji was drunk but had no prior history of criminal activity. The coroner described his arrest as heavy-handed and unnecessary. The death caused a major riot on the island which was answered by a strong show of force by police dressed in full battle armour and carrying semi-automatic weapons.

After a sixteen month investigation Acting State Coroner Christine Clements concluded her investigation in September this year. She found that the police officer in charge Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley caused Mulrunji’s death. The matter was then referred to the DPP while Hurley was moved to the Gold Coast where he continued his duties as a police officer. Then on 14 December the DPP Leanne Clare announced her decision that Hurley would not be prosecuted. She overturned the coronial inquest findings and decided Mulrunji’s death was a “terrible accident” as a result of a “complicated fall” Clare went on to say “I act on the evidence and not emotion and my decisions have to be based on evidence that would be admissible in a criminal trial.”

The DPP decision was greeted with shock and anger on Palm Island. "I feel like my heart has been torn from my chest," said Valmai Aplin, Mulrunji’s sister. "I wanted to hear he was guilty and being charged with murder. But today he (Hurley) is walking free and will probably get paid a heap of compensation for stress." Peter Beattie urged the Palm Island community to accept the decision. "Can I say to the Mulrunji family and to the wider Palm Island community, I know this is not the decision you were hoping for," he said. "But just as with the independent coronial inquiry, we all must accept the independent decision of the DPP." His call was rejected by Palm Island Council chief executive Barry Moyle who said community members felt they have been denied justice.

To add insult to indigenous injury, the decision came just days after three Aboriginals imprisoned for their part in the riot had their sentences increased following an appeal by the state attorney-general. All three pleaded guilty in July o one charge of rioting and one was sentenced to 18 months jail while the other two were sentenced to a 12-month correction order to be served in the community. But the Queensland Court of Appeal upheld an appeal by Attorney-General Kerry Shine against the leniency of the sentences handed out to the trio in a two-to-one decision on 8 December.

Yesterday, a national day of protest was organised against the DPP decision. Thousands took part in protests in Brisbane, Townsville, Melbourne, Cairns and Palm Island. More than 1000 people attended the Brisbane rally before marching to state parliament. The TV personality Ernie Dingo spoke to the crowd and said “If you have authority, you tread on those below you. You shouldn't do that, it's just like having children and raising them, and that's what the Government's doing with the Aborigine. They think we are children and try to treat us as such. They have to realise it's the oldest culture in the world”.

Yemeni editor jailed for printing Danish cartoons

A Yemeni newspaper editor has begun serving a year in prison for reprinting the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. The publication violated Article 103 of the 1990 Yemen Press and Publications Law. The court also ordered the Al-Ra'i al-Am independent weekly be closed for six months and forbade the editor Kamal al-Aalafi from writing for the same period. Al-Aalafi was sentenced on Friday. He declared he had published the cartoons in order to raise awareness and did not mean to insult the Muslim prophet. The editor told reporters the verdict "takes Yemen back to totalitarian rule, contradicts freedom of expression, and represents a real violation of democracy and freedom of the press."

The Yemeni decision was announced on the same day as Time Magazine announcements of its top ten cartoons of 2006. As well as obvious entries about the Plame enquiry, Mark Foley and a strange one about Zidane and Superman, one of the chosen ten is a cartoon about Danish cartoons which attempts to describe what happens when you mix cartoonists ink with Islamic religious beliefs.

Also this week, Scandinavian dairy group Arla Foods said the boycott of its products in the Middle East sparked by the Mohammed cartoons had cost the company about €53.6m this year. The boycott started in Saudi Arabia in January and spread through the Middle East and North Africa before a partial recovery in recent months. Arla is Europe’s second-largest dairy company and owned by about 10,000 Danish and Swedish co-operative members. Arla now believes most supermarkets in Muslim countries have ended the boycott after the company distanced itself from the cartoons.

The cartoons were first published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten (Jutlands Post) on 30 September 2005. It is an influential publication. Selling 150,000 copies, Jyllands-Posten is the largest-selling daily newspaper in Denmark The editor announced the item as part of a deliberate campaign to encourage debate on censorship and criticism of Islam. The newspaper invited 40 cartoonists to draw Mohammed as they saw fit. 12 responded with their drawings. However these cartoons encouraged more debate than the editor bargained for. The Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was burnt in effigy in dozens of cities across the world after the crisis escalated. He described the situation as Denmark’s worst international relations incident since the Second World War.

Muslim countries were immediately doubly outraged by the drawings. As well as not respecting the tradition of drawing Mohammed faceless or with a face veiled, they were angered by the sentiments of the cartoons that linked their faith’s holiest prophet with terrorism. Eleven ambassadors from Muslim counties asked for a meeting with Rasmussen in October to discuss the cartoons and other smears it felt Denmark was responsible for. The government refused to intervene. A Muslim organisation tried to take Jyllands-Posten to court but they were found to have committed no criminal offence. The court’s decision encouraged a group of Danish imams to issue a document decrying the cartoons. They followed this up with a tour of the Middle East outlining their position. Reaction was swift. The 57 nation-strong Organisation of the Islamic Conference, issued an official communiqué demanding that the United Nations impose international sanctions upon Denmark.

The situation escalated as several other European nations reprinted the cartoons. Islamic countries organised protests, burned Danish flags and boycotted Danish produce. At least 139 people were killed in demonstrations, mainly in Nigeria, Libya, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Several of the cartoonists received death threats forcing them to go into hiding. An unintended side effect was the increase of Danish exports to the US with many Americans buying Danish products in response to the boycott. Sales of Bang & Olufsen stereos and Lego have helped Denmark’s exports to the US improve by 17% in early 2006.

The cartoons redrew the line of free speech and ripped open the fault line between Western and Muslim values. The issue of press freedom versus the responsibility to treat a religion with respect came sharply into focus. Most newspapers sat on the fence, deploring constraints on free speech a la Voltaire, but refusing to publish the cartoons for fear of creating a storm of opposition a la Allah.

Jyllands-Posten itself posted an apology on its website in January, saying it regretted offending Muslims, but stood by its decision to carry the cartoons. Danish Muslims demand a clearer apology, saying the one posted was "ambiguous." Finally in October this year a Danish court dismissed a defamation lawsuit brought by a group of Muslim organisations. But Danish law doesn’t apply to Yemeni publications. There, the show isn’t over until the fatwa loses its sting.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Gates to mend fences

The new US defense secretary Robert Gates took office yesterday with a private swearing-in ceremony at the White House followed by a formal public one at the Pentagon. Prompted by Vice-President Cheney, Gates swore that he would support and defend the constitution of the US against all enemies foreign and domestic. Gates, the new boss of 2.5 million members of the US military, said that Iraq was his biggest priority. "Failure in Iraq at this juncture would be a calamity that would haunt our nation, impair our credibility and endanger Americans for decades to come,” he said. Gates said he intends to travel to Iraq “quite soon”.

Gates made the comments in an address to the president on completion of the ceremony. In another statement that could be interpreted as a judgement on the style of his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld, he said “the key to successful leadership, in my view, is to involve in the decision-making process early and often those who ultimately must carry out the decisions”. Gates also acknowledged that Afghanistan was a “pressing concern”.

The 63 year old Gates is a former CIA director and long-time associate of the Bush family. He was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas. A gifted student, he won a scholarship to attend the College of William and Mary public university in Williamsburg, Virginia. He graduated in 1965 with a degree in European history. While still at university, he was recruited to join the CIA. Despite his nascent intelligence career, he was drafted into the air force during the Vietnam war. He was posted to Strategic Air Command for two years before returning full-time to the CIA in 1969. He took a five year sabbatical during the 1970s to serve on the White House national security staff during the Ford and Carter administrations. He returned to the agency in 1979 and rose through the ranks until finally taking the helm in the latter days of Bush 41’s presidency.

Gates was acting director of the CIA during deputy director for intelligence (DDI) from 1982 to 1986. This was during the height of the Iran-Contra scandal. Because of his senior status, Gates was close to many figures who played significant roles in the Iran/contra affair and was in a position to have known of their activities. He was investigated by the office of the independent counsel in 1991. The investigation became public knowledge around the same time as his appointment as head of the CIA. Gates consistently maintained he was unaware of Oliver North’s operational role in supporting the contras though the two had met as early as 1982. But despite inconsistencies in his testimony, the council decided not to press charges. The report stated that “in the end, although Gates's actions suggested an officer who was more interested in shielding his institution from criticism and in shifting the blame to the NSC than in finding out the truth, there was insufficient evidence to charge Gates with a criminal endeavour”.

Bush’s defeat to Clinton in the 1992 election spelt the end of Gates reign at the top of the CIA. He retired in 1993 and worked as an academic and lecturer. In 1996 he wrote his autobiography “From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War”. The book revealed how 1983 was the most dangerous year in U.S.-U.S.S.R. relations and that both the CIA and KGB sponsored countless "black operations" designed to embarrass and discredit the other side. The book also revealed that the CIA predicted the 1991 coup attempt against Gorbachev but he ignored their warnings.

In 1999 he was appointed dean of the government school at Texas A&M University, one of the largest universities in the United States and home of the George Bush presidential library. After three years, he was appointed president of the university. During his tenure, Gates added almost 500 new faculty positions and oversaw dramatic increases in enrolment of blacks and Hispanics. President Bush wanted Gates to be his new intelligence czar in 2005 but Gates turned down the role which went to John Negroponte instead.

But this year another door opened. With the US increasingly bogged down in Iraq and the body count rising daily (2,800 deaths by November 2006), time was running out on Donald Rumsfeld. Although he surrounded himself with fellow ideologues at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld’s abrasive style alienated decision-makers in Congress and in the military. Many called for his head in the months leading up to the midterm elections. The election result which saw the Republicans lose control of congress and the senate was the final straw. On the day after the election, Rumsfeld resigned. Bush immediately nominated Gates to fill the role.

The Bush administration is looking for Gates to provide new momentum for its Iraq strategy. Gates will have to make the decision whether to cut back on US military involvement or else vastly increase the numbers in order to force an outcome. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell doubts the latter strategy will work. He said the US had already surged its troop numbers in June without success. Gates will also face pressure to implement some of the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Iraqi Study Group which released its report earlier this month. The report recommended a phased withdrawal of American troops and commencing dialogue with Iran and Syria. Bush said he would not accept every recommendation but promised that he would take the report seriously. Just how seriously will become apparent when Gates gets down to work.

Monday, December 18, 2006

UAE's first election

The United Arab Emirates goes to the polls this week in a historic first ever election. Democracy is being drip fed to the emirates. The rulers of the seven emirates have handpicked about 7,000 male voters (1.5% of the total population) to elect half of the 40-seat Federal National Council (FNC). The largest emirate, Abu Dhabi, and Fujairah voted yesterday and the other five emirates including Dubai go to the polls on Wednesday.

The poll is computerised and results for Abu Dhabi and Fujairah were announced within an hour of the polls closing. In Abu Dhabi, a woman was among the four winners out of 99 candidates while Fujairah elected two men from a field of 35. The victorious woman was Dr Amal Abdullah Juma Karam Al Qubaisi, an architecture teacher at UAE University. She said "I owe my success to my deep belief in Allah the Almighty, to the support I received from members of the electoral colleges in Abu Dhabi and to the sincere and realistic promises I gave during my campaign.”

The UAE is the last gulf state to embrace some limited form of democracy. The oil rich nation was founded in 1971. Before then the emirates were known as Trucial Oman. That name goes back to a treaty the sheiks signed with Britain in 1853. Britain was anxious to protect the Indian trade route from pirates based in the gulf. The treaty exhorted the emirates to adhere to a "perpetual maritime truce.” The British Navy enforced the treaty and arbitrated disputes between the sheikdoms. The seven rulers of the sheikdoms formed the Trucial Council in 1952 with the aim of adopting common policies in administrative matters. Then in 1958, oil deposits were discovered located beneath the coastal waters of Abu Dhabi. Onshore petroleum was found two years later. Britain finally gave up its interests in the area in 1971 and the emirates looked to form a union with Bahrain and Qatar which were also under British protection. But their interests proved to be incompatible with those of the smaller sheikhdoms, and both seceded from the Federation in August 1971 to become independent. The remaining states - Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Sharjah, Dubai, and Umm al-Qaiwain - merged to form the United Arab Emirates. They were joined in 1972 by Ras Al Khaimah.

With its considerable oil wealth, the Emirates quickly became a power in the region. They joined the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981 alongside Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The council was formed in response to the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war and its aim is to coordinate resistance to outside intervention in the Gulf. The council members share similar political systems with limited democracy and a common social and cultural outlook. It remains a loose political and economic alliance although it has plans to create a common market by 2007 and to adopt a single currency in 2010. It remains an important force; the council holds 45 % of the world's oil reserves and supplies 20 % of the world’s global crude production.

Thanks to its large oil and gas reserves, the UAE is now ranked the 4th wealthiest country in the world. The country has undergone enormous growth in the 35 years since independence. In 1971, the country’s population was a mere 180,000. In 2005 that had exploded to 4.5 million. The chief policy-making body is the Supreme Council made up of members of each of the seven emirates. The emir of Abu Dhabi is president and his Dubai counterpart is Vice President and Prime Minister. Below the Supreme Council is the Federal National Council (FNC). The FNC has 40 members drawn from the emirates on the basis of their population. That works out as eight each for Abu Dhabi and Dubai, six each for Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah, and four each for Fujairah, Umm al-Qaiwain and Ajman. The FNC is the day-to-day advisory administration. It looks after the annual budget but has no legislative powers. It is this forum which has now been opened up for democracy.

Election officials say that the FNC’s role will be expanded from that of a consultative body with no legislative powers to an assembly with more oversight powers after the polls. They also envisage allowing universal suffrage within four years. But politics is not high on the agenda of Emirates nationals. With its vast oil revenues, the government compensates its citizens handsomely meaning that there is little dissent and no Islamist violence. Abu Dhabi proved this with only 70% of its handpicked elite bothering to turn up to the polls on Sunday.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Mugabe to stay on until 2010

Zimbabwe’s ruling party has backed a proposal to extend Robert Mugabe’s leadership by another two years. Delegates at PF-Zanu’s annual conference have approved a plan to postpone the next presidential election from 2008 until 2010. The news is unlikely to be well received by Mugabe’s many critics who say he has ruined what was one of Africa's most developed economies. The long-term president had said he would retire at the next election. However delegates said there should be no debate on succeeding the president, because there were no vacancies.

The move has yet to be endorsed by the party's central committee and parliament. But these are seen as formalities given PF-Zanu’s parliamentary majority. A party committee chairman, Elliot Manyika, told the annual conference: "The committee reaffirms the leadership of President Robert Mugabe as the leader of the party.” His call was backed up by the youth and women’s’ wing of the party. Oppah Muchinguri, the women's league chairwoman, said Mugabe's continued reign was the only way they would be safe. However opposition politicians say Mugabe is buying time while his party decides on a candidate in the next election.

Nelson Chamisa, spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said this is part of Mugabe’s plan to die in office. “Zanu PF must be stopped now if Zimbabwe is to be saved from the jaws of this tyranny,” he said. The MDC is the most credible opposition movement in Zimbabwe. Led by trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai, it won 57 seats in the 2000 parliamentary election compared to PF-Zanu’s 62. Tsvangarai then lost the 2002 presidential election to Mugabe with widespread allegations of vote-rigging and corruption. With Tsvangirai continuing to call for international sanctions against Zimbabwe, the MDC lost ground in the 2005 parliamentary election picking up only 42 seats.

Robert Mugabe has been the only president of Zimbabwe since it became independent in 1980. He was born in 1924 in what was then white Rhodesia and he was raised by Catholic missionaries. He went to South Africa to study at Fort Hare University. Based in the semi-independent bantustan of Ciskei, Fort Hare was the only tertiary education establishment open to blacks in the apartheid era. Here Mugabe met many future black African leaders such as Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda and Tanzania’s Julius Nyrere.

Mugabe returned to Rhodesia in 1960 and joined Joshua Nkomo's Zimbabwe African People's Union (Zapu). Nkomo was to become Mugabe great rival for power among the black population in the next 30 years. Barely three years after joining Nkomo, Mugabe left to form his own party the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu). The split was mostly on ethnic grounds with Mugabe leading the Shona majority (85%) while Nkomo leading the smaller Ndebele tribe (15%). Both men were jailed by Ian Smith’s apartheid government and spent ten years in prison without trial.

When they were released in 1974 they both fled the country to continue the resistance. Nkomo went to Zambia, Mugabe to Mozambique. The civil war they raged paralysed the Rhodesian government. Smith installed a puppet government under Abel Muzerawa in 1978 but it lacked credibility with the black participants. Britain finally brought the parties to the negotiating table in 1979 and hammered out the Lancaster House agreement. A ceasefire was agreed and parliamentary elections were called for 1980. But the main stumbling block was land reform. Eventually the British and US governments underwrote a fund to buy land from willing white settlers for reallocation to blacks.

Joshua Nkomo was favourite to win the 1980 election due to his enormous personal popularity. But Zanu played the tribal card and won. Nkomo declined the ceremonial post of President. He was appointed to the cabinet, but was accused of plotting a coup two years later. His passport was seized and he was restricted to his Bulawayo home before fleeing the country. Mugabe strengthened his hold on power and launched a brutal crackdown on Zapu supporters not dissimilar to tactics employed in the past against enemies of white rule.
Mugabe abolished the role of prime minister in 1987 and awarded all the powers of that role to himself as president. He was re-elected in 1990, 1996 and again in 2002.

In recent years, Mugabe turned his attention to the unfinished business of land reform. The Lancaster House agreement only held to ‘willing sellers’ and many whites had no intention of moving. The ten year moratorium on constitutional change expired in 1990. Mugabe moved to amend it in order to provide for the redistribution of land within the country. Much of Zimbabwe’s most fertile land remained under control of a few thousand white farmers. And in 1997 newly elected Tony Blair ended Britain’s involvement in the buyback program. Mugabe started to forcibly repatriate the land.

His actions attracted the attention of the NGOs. Amnesty International, a long-time supporter of Zimbabwe since the apartheid era, criticised the Mugabe regime for its new activities. In 2005, it wrote a letter to Mugabe accusing him of orchestrating “widespread, violent and forced evictions of informal traders and families living in informal settlements.” Their call to the government to end “grave human rights violations” went unheeded. Zimbabwe's economy also continues to slide after Mugabe's ill-judged involvement in the Congolese wars.

However Mugabe remains popular in black Africa. When London-based New African magazine launched a 2004 poll for the “hundred greatest Africans” of all time, Mugabe came in at number 3 behind only Nelson Mandela and Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

YouTube top 10 for 2006

2006 saw the astonishing rise of the video sharing website YouTube. Founded less than two years ago by three PayPal employees, it was sold in October to Google for a cool $1.65 billion in Google stock. According to a survey in July, 20 million viewers a month visit YouTube and they watch 100 million clips every day. This week, journalist Jake Coyle of Associated Press released his list of the top ten videos of 2006 declaring this to be the year that YouTube became “culturally ubiquitous”.

Number 1 in the list is Lonelygirl15. The series of videos purported to tell the story of high school girl Bree and her lonely life as the daughter of well-travelled parents. She has a boyfriend and a webcam and she spills the beans about her emotional life in her videos. Bree proved a quirky hit and she quickly became YouTube most viewed site. Then in September, Lonelygirl15 was exposed as a hoax. The videos were scripted and Bree turned out to be 19 year old New Zealand actress Jessica Rose. The creators exploited the anonymity of the Internet to pull off a new kind of storytelling. The site remains popular despite being exposed as fiction.

At number 2, is Saturday Night Live's "Lazy Sunday" which did much to start the momentum for YouTube early in 2006. Lazy Sunday was a music video starring Saturday Night Live (SNL) cast members Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg. It mixed the hipness of rap and comedy with a knack for well-rhymed cultural references. It aired on SNL in December 2005. After being posted to YouTube, it was viewed more than five million times. Finally its popularity alerted copyright owners NBC Universal who asked the site to remove it in February. The video is still available on NBC’s site.

Republican senator George Allen from Virginia was deeply embarrassed after his racial slur of an opponent’s native American volunteer was captured on video. Coming in at number 3, Allen repeatedly called a volunteer for Democrat James Webb a "macaca” at a campaign rally saying “This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is. He's with my opponent.” A macaca can be a monkey, a town in South Africa or a racial slur against African immigrants in some parts of Europe. As a large result of the publicity of the video, Allen lost his re-election bid.

AP awarded the number 4 vote to the YouTube founders themselves. Chad Hurley and Steve Chen posted a video after they sold their stake to Google. They thanked their users and promised to remain committed to the project. They also were now filthy rich.

At 5 was the video Here it Goes Again by the American band Ok Go featuring the band doing a very elaborate choreographed dance on treadmills. The video was viewed by over 1 million people in the first 6 days. By virtue of this exposure, the band scored a massive radio hit and an MTV video music awards performance. The video is now the 8th most viewed item on YouTube with almost 9 million views.

Michael Richards won 6th spot for his head-turning racist rant at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles last month. Richards said he lost his cool during a stand-up slot while being heckled. Richards repeatedly called the heckler a nigger. The former Seinfeld star went on the Letterman show and deeply apologised for his rage. But the damage was done and the YouTube video of the tirade did much to leave Richards “washed up” as predicted in the video itself.

Number 7 was a victory for the grey brigade. Although it is seen as a youth marketing tool, the user geriatric1927 has become one of the biggest and unlikeliest stars of the YouTube community. Geriatric1927 is Peter from Britain dubbed “virtual grandad” by the media. Born in 1927 and now a widower, Peter has been telling his life story on camera. He now enjoys the status of YouTube’s elder statesmen to a growing audience of younger viewers.

Coming in at number 8, is the video of police officers striking a suspect in California which had big repercussions. Two police officers repeatedly struck William Cardenas while arresting him. The footage was captured by a neighbour on a phone camera. When the footage was shown in court it was ruled as "more than reasonable” behaviour. But when the video was posted on YouTube, over 155,000 viewers were horrified by this version of reasonableness. The FBI is now investigating the case as potential police brutality.

Number 9 highlights the international appeal of YouTube. Two art students in China became internationally known without saying a word. Known as the "Two Chinese Boys" or the “Back Dormitory boys”, Huang Yixin and Wei Wei became renowned for their passionate and over-the-top lip-synching of Backstreet Boys songs. The career of the two basketball-shirted Chinese Boys is now on the move and they have been hired by a Beijing media agency for a Pepsi television commercial.

Finally at ten is another Asian entry. “Funtwo” is a young guitarist in his bedroom playing a rock arrangement of Johann Pachelbel's Canon using a difficult technique called sweep picking. Canon is a turn of the 18th century piece known for its solemn chord progressions. It was an instant success with almost 8 million views. Funtwo’s baseball cap obscures his face during the video. Funtwo was eventually revealed to be 23-year-old Korean Jeong-Hyun Lim.

They were the best of 2006. The big question for YouTube in 2007 is how it will handle the copyright challenges. 65,000 videos are downloaded to YouTube every day, many of which are in breach of copyright. The issue of a merger between Google Video and YouTube also needs to be addressed. For now however, YouTube’s large user base continues to enjoy the democratisation of video.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Beginning and ending with Kosovo

The new UN Governor of Kosovo has called for the international community to quickly decide the fate of the province’s plea for independence from Serbia. Western powers had promised a decision on Kosovo's future by the end of this year, but recently postponed it until after a 21 January general election in Serbia.

Kosovo Prime Minister Agim Ceku also hoped Kosovo would soon be granted independence. ”Any political association with Belgrade simply will not work," he said. But Russia says the settlement must also satisfy Serbia, which flatly rejects independence preferring instead some sort of autonomy within Serbia. Russian ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin accused Kosovo's leaders of resorting to blackmail in threatening mass unrest in the event of more delays. However, the German diplomat Joachim Rücker, who was appointed UN governor in September, has warned against delaying the decision any further. Rücker told the Security Council “Delay will only prolong the tensions existing in Kosovo society, which will feed frustration and make the new start, when it does come, even harder to get right."

The UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) is the interim civilian administration of the country while it waits for the UN to decide on its future. UNMIK was established in 1999 by UN Security Council Resolution 1244. Resolution 1244 defined the legal status of Kosovo as a UN protectorate, while being legally an autonomous constituency of what was then the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

The task before UNMIK was defined at the time by Kofi Annan as "The task before the international community is to help the people in Kosovo to rebuild their lives and heal the wounds of conflict." But Kosovo is a troubled province at the heart of the complicated life of the Balkans. As author Miranda Vickers said about the history of Yugoslavia "Everything started with Kosovo, and everything will finish with Kosovo.

Kosovo has been at the heart of Serbian life since the 13th century. The Albanians claim that they are its original inhabitants, being the descendants of the ancient Illyrians. But Kosovo came to prominence as the site of a bloody battleground of a battle between Serbs and Ottomans in 1389. The outnumbered Serbs lost the battle and the Ottoman Empire gained a crucial toehold in the Balkans. The Serbs never forgot this battle and used it as a rallying cry in campaigns throughout the centuries. In the 17th century Serbs were replaced in Kosovo by mostly Muslim Albanians who came to the fertile lands from the hostile mountains of Albania proper. In 1878, Serbia gained independence but Kosovo still lay under Ottoman rule. The Muslim peoples of Kosovo founded the League of Prizren a pan-Albanian nationalist group. The aim of the League of Prizren was to unite the four Albanian areas within the Ottoman Empire into one Albanian State.

In 1912, the Balkan states took advantage of a power struggle within the Ottoman Empire to drive the Turks out of Europe. The Kingdom of Serbia claimed newly independent Kosovo. It was determined to recolonise Kosovo and thousands of Serb families moved in. The ancient 1389 battle of Kosovo was invoked as a touchstone of Serb nationalism. Many Albanians fled into the mountains as the Serbs conducted ethnic cleansing of the areas they controlled. Serb immigration continued during the inter-war years. In 1941, most of Kosovo became part of an Italian-controlled Greater Albania. Tito found it hard to recruit Albanians in his partisan army until he promised Kosovo Albanians the right to unite with Albania after the war. But the newly independent Yugoslavia had no intention of keeping that promise. Kosovo was declared an "autonomous province" within Serbia and Albanian insurrection broke out again.

Finally in 1974 Kosovo was granted full autonomy, which gave it almost the same rights as Yugoslavia's six republics. However Serbs complained of harassment by Albanians who were demanding the status of a full republic for the province. Due to Serb emigration and high Albanian birth rate, the proportion of Serbs in the province had now fallen to one for every nine Albanians. The new head of he Serbian Communist party Slobodan Milosevic manipulated these fears. He became a hero overnight in Serbia when two years earlier he went to Kosovo to quell the fears of local Serbs amid a strike by Kosovar Albanian miners that brought the province to a halt. In a speech televised throughout Serbia, he told the waiting crowd of angry Serbs, "You will not be beaten again." He stripped Kosovo of its autonomy on the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo in 1989.

Ibrahim Rugova led a non violent resistance movement against Milosevic. He formed a political party, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). However his actions were not fast enough for some Kosovars. While the war raged in Croatia and Bosnia, Serbia held tight control of Kosovo. In 1995, some Albanians impatient with Rugova’s Ghandi-like tactics formed a new resistance movement called the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Tit-for-tat violence and response escalated until the West started to pay attention to Kosovo in 1998. Throughout that year Milosevic increased his troop strength in Kosovo and began a scorched-earth policy of destroying whole villages in his attempt to wipe out the KLA.

The violence continued to escalate despite the introduction of 2,000 unarmed verifiers under OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). In 1999 a group of nations known as the Contact Group (the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia) brought Kosovar and Serb negotiators together in Rambouillet, France, to agree to a peace plan. The agreement called for the KLA to disarm and Milosevic to reduce troop numbers. Kosovo agreed to sign up but Milosevic refused. In March 1999, NATO launched an air campaign against Serb military targets in Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo. In retaliation Milosevic stepped up his campaign to ethnically cleanse Kosovo.

But the international community put Yugoslavia under increasing pressure to come to a compromise and withdraw its forces. Finally on 10 June 1999, the 77 day NATO air campaign was ended after confirmation from General Wesley Clark, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, that the full withdrawal of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo had begun. That same day the Security Council passed Resolution 1244 by a vote of 14 in favour and none against, with only China abstaining.

After Serb withdrawal, the first big issue was establishing a peace framework that would lead to long-term stabilisation. The establishment of the provisional governmental institutions through fair and democratic elections in 2001 marked the beginning of a new political era in Kosovo. There is an uneasy truce with the Serb minority in the country but on the whole they are treated with respect. The Muslim majority want to push for full independence similar to Montenegro however the official Serb position remains that such an outcome is “impossible”. Even in the post-Milosevic era, dreams of a Greater Serbia exist in the minds of the power hungry leaders in Belgrade. Everything has yet to finish with Kosovo.