Category Archives: Politics

Tohoku earthquake and tsunami

That seems to be what the disaster is being officially called. Some of my own thoughts on the events, divided into a few categories:

Civil Order / Looting

Many commentators, particularly in Asia, have noted how civilized the Japanese have acted and how little looting there is. Most people cite it as evidence of their superior educational system and the way their culture frowns upon individualism. But that’s a shallow and general observation that doesn’t satisfy. What would be interesting are concrete examples of how the Japanese are taught differently and how their system is set up that delivers these results.

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The disputed origins of Yoga

As much as I would like to write something about the ongoing events in Japan, events are developing too quickly to really write anything intelligent about it. The situation with their nuclear reactors could really go anywhere at the moment. Obviously, I hope that things go well. The Japanese sure could use a break.

Instead, here’s a link to an article disputing the Hindu origins of yoga. It has since evoked a great deal of controversy and ignited a significant debate over the issue. Considering how popular yoga is in Malaysia now and how it has stirred some debate over here as well as to whether or not it is a religious practice, I thought it would make for interesting reading.

Part of the article is a reaction against the “Take Back Yoga” campaign in the United States by the Hindu American Foundation who are upset that the modern practice of yoga is, more and more, shorn of its Hindu elements. In response, the author roughly makes the following points:

  1. Yoga, as it is popularly practiced and known throughout the world, is really just the physical component of yoga, hatha yoga. This style is extremely popular in India as well and has little spiritual or meditational content.
  2. This form of yoga is not really that old after all. The author claims that it was born in the late 19th or early 20th century as a form of exercise during the Hindu Renaissance that incorporated Western ideas of science, evolution, health and physical fitness.
  3. Effectively the techniques were drawn from drills, gymnastics and boidy-building techniques borrowed from Sweden, Denmark, England and the United States and then grafted together with the Yoga Sutras. In particular, the author traces the teachings to physical yoga to a school based at the Jaganmohan Palace of the Maharaja of Mysore in the early 20th century. In the 19080s, a Swedish yoga student found in the library of the Palace of Mysore a book entitled Sritattvanidhi that illustrates many of the techniques of modern yoga but also included rope techniques practiced by Indian wrestlers and traditional Indian gymnastics. It may also have drawn from exercises developed by a Dane and introduced to India by the British in the early 20th century. The palace at that time was certainly equipped with a Western-style gymnasium including wall ropes and props.
  4. Finally, the author claims that it is impossible to trace the ancient origins of most yoga sutras. Some yoga teachers claim that the sutras exist in some texts that now no longer exist. Others claim that a particular text contains some of these sutras yet other scholars cannot find them. One prominent yoga teacher claims that he traces his teachings to a text that dates from over a thousand years ago but now no longer exists. He knows of it because the ghost of an ancestor dictated it to him while he was in a trance.

Obviously, all of this is strongly disputed by opposing parties and the magazine even hosts a rebuttal by another author who fiercely disputes these conclusions.

Color revolutions

It appears that the current term for the recently successful democratic revolution in Egypt is “Lotus Revolution”. It technically isn’t a color but is still considered to be one of the color revolutions that started with the mass social movements in various formerly-USSR states in the early 2000s. I keep wondering where these names come from. The Tunisian one that ended with the ouster of President Ben Ali has been the Jasmine Revolution, which isn’t a color either but does at least share a plant theme. The failed movement in Iran in 2009 was called the Green Revolution and that one certainly is a color.

Still, even the revolutions in the former-USSR states weren’t always named after colors. I think things started with the Rose Revolution of Georgia in 2004, which appropriately enough is both a plant and a color. But it really became a trend only with the Orange Revolution of Ukraine later that year. Next came the Tulip Revolution of Kyrgyzstan in 2005. Strangely enough, it seems that the red-shirt protests of Thailand in 2010 doesn’t count even though I distinctly remember them evoking the spirit of the earlier movements.

I don’t really have much to comment on them except to say that I’m all for democracy, even if the will of the people means that the new governments are less friendly to the West. Having Islamist parties come into power is certainly a real possibility but in the long run, I do not believe that this is something to be feared. In fact, I believe that this will be a critical step in enabling the Islamists around the world reconcile themselves to democratic values and find their place in the world. It is one thing to be express extremist views in opposition to gain popularity but as such movements as Hamas has learned, it is quite another to do the same when you’re running the government where compromise is routine and wooing the moderate middle becomes critical.

The rise of China’s military power

Late last year China sent Western defense analysts all atwitter when it released photographs of their supposed new stealth fighter, given the designation J-20. Pundits spent much time and effort theorizing what all this meant, especially since the leak was timed to coincide with US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visit to China. Another worrying sign was that when Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived in Washington DC on January 18th, he was understandably quizzed by US President Barack Obama about the subject, but the Chinese delegation seemed to be genuinely unaware of the J-20, leading some to speculate that China’s civilian and military leadership were at odds with each other.

This week another new development took place, one that suggests that the threat of the J-20 is less than what it appears. China’s state broadcaster, CCTV, ran footage of what was lauded as a live-fire exercise by the J-10 fighter. The J-10 appeared to fire an air-to-air missile that hit and destroyed another aircraft. However, attentive bloggers analyzed the video frame by frame and noticed that the video seemed identical with scenes from the 1986 film, Top Gun. As the Yahoo article points out, Chinese media has been known to do this sort of thing before, and it could be just another example of journalists being lazy and sloppy. But it could also be a sign that China’s military, egged by a newly confident and assertive public, is tooting its own horn.

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WikiLeaks updates

News coverage of the WikiLeaks affair has been so dominated by the criminal charges against Julian Assange and debates about whether the leaks are good or bad, that it’s easy to forget that the release of the embassy cables are still proceeding according to schedule. So far, we’re on day 23 of the leak and 1,862 cables released out of the total cache of 251,287. The main WikiLeaks website is hard to access, but there are still plenty of easily available mirrors, such as this one. But it’s probably easier to read the summaries released by The Guardian here.

As I previously stated, most of the leaks aren’t really revolutionary stuff, so that’s another reason why press coverage about the actual content of the leaks has been less intensive recently. Relatively few of the cables are genuinely surprising. The best stuff probably include the following:

  • Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi may be deriving handsome personal profits from energy deals negotiated with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
  • Foreign contractors, including the US-owned DynCorp which runs training centres in Afghanistan, have hired local “dancing boys” for entertainment. There is apparently a local tradition in the country of dressing young boys as girls to dance for adult men and this sometimes extends to performing sexual services.
  • The ruling elite of Saudi Arabia, including members of the royal family, regularly attend parties, that contrary to the precepts of Islam, involve plenty of sex and alcohol.

Some other stuff are interesting only inasmuch that they confirm existing suspicions, such as these instances of corporate malfeasance:

  • A top executive of Shell in Nigeria claims that the company has infiltrated all relevant ministries of the government and knows all of their plans.
  • In a story straight out of The Constant Gardener, it emerged that Pfizer has paid investigators to unearth evidence of corruption against the attorney general of Nigeria to avoid having to pay damages for claims that one of their antibiotics had harmed children during a drug trial in 1996.

Other bits are just plain weird, most notably the revelation that the military junta that rules Burma considered paying a billion US dollars to buy the UK soccer team Manchester United in an attempt to use football to distract the country’s population from its economic and political problems.

Unless something really important pops up, it looks increasingly likely that the main impact of Cablegate will be the precedent that it sets rather the contents of the leak, providing an inspiration for countless copycat outfits and reminding those with secrets that it’s hard to keep them off the Internet. As The Economist recently wrote, governments are only now just realizing what the music and film industries have known for over a decade: it is impossible to stop people from distributing files over the Internet.

The Wikileaks scandal

The biggest news this week, and likely something that will stay in the headlines for months to come, is of course the rolling release of over 250,000 cables from the US State Department by the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks. I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. On the one hand, many of the documents are of doubtful value. It’s clear for example that a significant percentage of the documents are gossipy nonsense. Salacious details like what kind of girls Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is into no doubt attracts plenty of eyeballs, but it’s hard to see what kind of public interest is being served by publishing them.

Of the rest, some are interesting but don’t really tell us anything that we didn’t already know. Should we be surprised that the US aggressively spies on top UN officials, or that half the countries in the Middle East are apparently more eager to bomb Iran than even the craziest American neo-con? As satisfying as it is to see these suspicions confirmed, that’s not worth the damage that making this all public will do to international diplomacy. Outing Saudi Arabia in this way for example will simply put more pressure on their government to cave in to their local Islamist factions and compel them to turn up the anti-American rhetoric. In the same way, China seems to be more open to a unified Korea under Seoul than they’d henceforth admitted but this public revelation will simply make them clam up again to appease their nationalist faction.

On the other hand, good can and has many times in the past been served by whistle-blowing. Western governments have certainly been happy to encourage workers to blow the whistle on employers who have broken laws and have recently made it much easier and safer to do so. Why should governments themselves be held as an exception? This editorial from The Economist for example argues that while such leaks damage the effectiveness of government, they also improve the quality of democracy by allowing voters to peer into the inner workings of the bureaucracy and to know what’s really going on. The example it cites, of the Bush administration pressuring Germany not to prosecute CIA operatives involved in the “extraordinary rendition” of somone who was ultimately proved to be innocent, is a solid case of government malfeasance that would not have come to light without leaks of this kind.

The conundrum therefore is that it is in the public interest that morally corrupt government wrongdoing be exposed and that the legitimate business of government that needs to be secret should remain so, but we trust no one to be an impartial and infallible judge of which category any particular case might fall into. Due to this, I guess Wikileaks is not such a bad compromise after all if it could live up to its mission statement of being open to everyone and of being impartial. Sadly, judging from the personal history of its founder Julian Assange and the anti-US editorial Wikileaks chose to attach to this round of leaks, this does not seem to be the case.

Subsidized holidays for Europeans

Okay, the headline is pure sensationalism and the anti-EU slant is blatant since this is an article from the Murdoch-owned The Times, but even after filtering out the propaganda, I think it’s still a pretty dire example of EU socialism. It’s a scheme to subsidize holiday travel for under-privileged citizens of the EU. From the article:

The scheme, which could cost hundreds of millions of pounds a year, is intended to promote a sense of pride in European culture, bridge the north-south divide in the continent and prop up resorts in their off-season.

Tajani, who unveiled his plan last week at a ministerial conference in Madrid, believes the days when holidays were a luxury have gone. “Travelling for tourism today is a right. The way we spend our holidays is a formidable indicator of our quality of life,” he said.

Now, this might not sound so bad if you think of it as just another form of economic stimulus though you’d think that they’d come up with better ideas to stimulate the economy than funding subsidies. How about throwing more money into education and job retraining programs instead? But what is really annoying is that the EU still wants to increase its expenses when the budgets of many of its member countries aren’t in such hot shape. Greece recently had one of its worst bond sales ever and there’s now a real chance that it could get ejected from the Euro.

The talk of traveling for tourism being a right also makes it a good case for making a distinction between positive and negative rights. I don’t really want to go into this debate again but it’s just one more example of how adding more and more “rights” just dilutes the really fundamental ones that actually deserve the moniker.