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Malaysian policemen check a vehicle along the main road near Lahud Datu in Malaysia's eastern Sabah state Thursday. Malaysian security forces in Borneo surrounded armed intruders believed to be from the southern Philippines and sought to persuade them to leave peacefully Thursday, authorities said. (Bernama News Agency/AP)

Is historical claim behind the mystery group of (armed?) Filipinos in Borneo?

By Correspondent / 02.15.13

It's around an hour by speedboat from Sulu in the southern Philippines to Sabah in the Malaysian part of Borneo, a route often plied by fishermen, traders, and migrants. The maritime route goes from what is the poorest part of the Philippines to eastern Malaysia, and many make the journey in search of work.

But when on Tuesday around 100 men arrived in batches to – and depending on what account you read – camp out in, or occupy a village called Lahud Datu, it soon become clear these weren't the usual fishermen or migrant workers.

What exactly is going on is unclear, but it has both countries on high alert. Malaysian security forces have sealed off the village, which is 300 miles from Sabah's regional capital Kota Kinabalu, a two-hour flight from Malaysia's main city Kuala Lumpur.

On Thursday, Malaysia's Home Affairs Minister Hishamuddin Hussein said that Malaysian security forces had cornered the group, said to be armed. By Friday, however, the Sabah police chief was reportedly negotiating with the men, some of whom were claiming to be descendants of the Sultan of Sulu and therefore, they said, entitled to land in this part of Malaysia.

What is the Sultanate, anyway?

The sultanate, or the territory the sultan governed, existed from the late 15th century until the late 19th century, governing Muslims spanning parts of Sulu and northern Borneo.
Though the sultanate is not recognized anymore internationally as a governing entity, Malaysia still pays a token "rental fee" to the heirs of the last sultan.
The claims could put the Philippines in an awkward position, embroiled in an unwanted territorial dispute, given that the men camped out in Lahud Datu are Filipino nationals.

Who are these men?

Though it’s unclear who this “royal army” is, analysts are eyeing three southern Filipino militias. Militants from the southern Philippines have a history of crossing the narrow stretches of water to Borneo.
Some speculated at first that the groups' appearance had something to do with deadly clashes in early February between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and Abu Sayyaf, two Muslim armed groups from Mindanao, in the southern part of the Philippines.
Some Filipino media reports suggested that at least some of the men who crossed the waters to Sabah are MNLF fighters. But that has not been confirmed.
The MNLF signed a peace deal with the Manila government in 1996, while the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a MNLF splinter, recently forged its own tentative peace agreement with the Filipino government (with the aid of Malaysia).
By far the smallest of the three groups, Abu Sayyaf opposes the agreements, as they grant autonomy to parts of Muslim Mindanao, because Abu Sayyaf has said it wants an Islamic state in the southern Philippines.
And Abu Sayyaf has been known to make the same crossing to Malaysia as these self-described descendants of the Sultan of Sulu, much more frequently than other groups, as they have been pursued on and off by the Filipino Army.
Abu Sayyaf has long been linked to Al Qaeda. It’s known for hosting the likes of Khalid Sheihk Mohammed, a central figure in the 9/11 attacks. And it is also known for taking 20 people, mainly tourists, hostage in 2000 in Malaysia.
These days, though, the group seems more like a criminal gang than a politically-motivated terror cell. It is currently holding, by some estimates, six foreign hostages who it likely wants to exchange for ransom, a money-making tactic used by Abu Sayyaf in the past.
MNLF leaders spun a recent attack on Abu Sayyaf as an attempt to crush the group, end such hostage-taking, and thus widen the appeal of the impoverished southern Philippines to tourism.
If this group of self described descendants are linked to either the MILF or MNLF, Manila will hardly be happy that groups with which it signed peace deals crossed to Malaysia and faced off with Malaysian soldiers. If they're linked to Abu Sayyaf, it would highlight the inability of US-trained Filipino troops to rein in the group.

Pope Benedict XVI attends Ash Wednesday mass at the Vatican Wednesday. Thousands of people are expected to gather in the Vatican for Pope Benedict's Ash Wednesday mass, which is expected to be his last before leaving office at the end of February. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

Pope Benedict XVI and the road not taken (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.13.13

By the time Pope Benedict XVI made his surprise announcement to abdicate, his image had become fixed as one of the stoutest defenders of tradition and an arch-enemy of change, liberality, and the reforming intent of the Vatican II council. But at the start of his career, he looked as if he might be a budding reformer himself.  

The pope, then Joseph Ratzinger, collaborated on changes during Vatican II with Karl Rahner, a Jesuit star from Munich who in the 1970s was talked about as pope material in liberal circles. Mr. Rahner advocated women’s ordination, supported seekers in churches outside the Catholic faith, and his theology arced more toward a universal spirituality than institutional rules, emphasizing “a human search for meaning … rooted in the unlimited horizon of God’s own being experienced within the world.”

The young Ratzinger in the 1960s was brought to Tubingen University partly by Catholic theologian Hans Kung (later censored for views bordering on heresy) and taught in a progressive Protestant-Catholic faculty. 

Ratzinger's first faculty lecture at Tubingen, eagerly awaited and still remembered today, stressed the importance of the interpretation of the Bible via church fathers of the pre-medieval era, at a time of relative excitement in scholarly circles over new "subjective" and "spiritual" interpretations of scripture. Mr. Kung was disappointed, his colleagues remember. 

Later in the mid-1960s Ratzinger experienced student campus protests firsthand. For a shy scholar whose vision of church was hewn in the clean and well-ordered Alpine villages of Bavaria – the experience deeply soured him on change as well as the often excessive experiments of Vatican II to open the church up "to the modern world," as the saying went. 

Vatican II was heady days at a time of ferment, but neither Ratzinger nor the church he eventually led, ever made the leap. Faced with a changing world, Benedict opted for a church of greater purity and reliance on past traditions – even as his tenure will be marked by a priestly child abuse scandal that two years ago was described as the biggest challenge faced by Rome since the Reformation.

Yesterday Vatican officials affirmed the outgoing Benedict will not personally direct the choice of his successor. But the outgoing pontiff has been so instrumental in shaping the policies and personnel of the Roman Catholic church that his presence won’t matter, analysts say.

For 24 years Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, ruled the roost in the Vatican as Pope John Paul II’s enforcer, the powerful head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and he has overseen a tightening, not a loosening, of church doctrine.

Since 2005 he further consolidated power as pope. So the conclave of cardinals and bishops meeting in Rome next month are there precisely due to their loyalty to Benedict’s vision of the Roman church.

The effect of Benedict’s reign as pope in this sense cannot be understated.

To take one example: In recent years under direct Vatican influence one of the largest Benedictine training schools in the US has, against the sentiment of its teaching clergy, been forced to disallow males and females to study in classes together. So the "Benedict effect" is not something found only in books and encyclicals; it has had an effect "on the ground," as one Benedictine theologian reports, off the record. 

In a church still quite divided on moral issues, sexuality, modernity, the concept of priest, and so on, it is unclear whether the pope’s resignation, itself an unusual break from the past, may lead to other changes.

Benedict oversaw a 2,000-year-old church with an all-male hierarchy that struggled to respond to a child abuse and pedophilia scandal that reached new excesses two years ago on both sides of the Atlantic during the "year of the priest."

The German pope did not create what some hoped would be a “Benedict generation” with his robust defense of church doctrines and a controversial return to a more traditional liturgy. While some conservative religious orders have seen some new applicants in the US, the overall numbers remain a far-cry from those before 1960. Instead, church issues among youth seem pressing, at least in the post-modern West that Benedict had hoped to appeal to with a new Catholic moment. If that moment never comes, says one New York-based Jesuit, “The church is going to go one way and the rest of us are going to go another.”

The child abuse scandal, which many dissidents in the church say is a result of the policies of all-male clergy and celibacy (the Vatican denies this) did allow, however briefly, space for different voices to be heard, and for issues treated by church fathers as settled for all time, to be raised.

The issues run from sex and gender to spiritual authority inside the church. They track the shrinking of Mass attendance in the West, the sharp downturn of youth desiring to be priests, and the angry reaction of females (again in the US and Britain) who see roles as clergy closed off when in many churches they are the most faithful.

In the midst of the priestly child abuse scandal, the church issued a circular that put women’s ordination into the same category of disciplinary crimes as heresy, pedophilia, and promoting schism. Benedict was given credit for suggesting that wearing a condom is acceptable in certain odd cases, such as that of a male prostitute. But with many Catholics no longer even following church teaching on condoms, and with the pope visiting Africa and talking about abstinence and no wearing of condoms, many can’t relate.

The pedophile cases also sparked what many Catholics say is a need for a greater spiritual awakening in a church that has placed a great emphasis on institutional authority; they placed a critical focus on old assumptions that male priests, through the act of their ordination, are holier or more spiritually endowed than ordinary members of the laity.

The British newspaper The Guardian pointed out in an editorial that it could not find a single current liberal candidate for pope, and quoted from Carlo Maria Martini, a cardinal, who said before passing last year that, “The church is tired in Europe and America. Our culture has aged, our churches are large, our religious houses are empty, and the bureaucracy of the church climbs higher, our rituals and our clothes are pompous…[the church] must recognize her mistakes and must follow a path of radical change, starting with the pope and the bishops.”

Yet many following the daily operations of the Holy See feel there is unlikely to be any revolutionary “Papal Spring.” Some reform-minded Catholics and many who have left the church say the Vatican is so deeply into the wrong questions, and has been relying so heavily on those who are not interested in questioning in the first place, that any positive reforms will only be on the margins. 

A lion rests in the grass plains of the Maasai Mara game reserve in Kenya. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File)

Good Reads: A family in isolation, Pakistan's difficult present, Africa's biggest game

By Cricket FullerStaff writer / 02.12.13

In 1978, a group of Soviet geologists trying to land their helicopter in the taiga (thick wilderness) of remote Siberia saw startling evidence of human life. Soon they found the Lykov family – who had been living in an encampment for more than 40 years with no contact with the outside world.

Mike Dash, writing for, recounts their incredible story and the chance meeting that brought it to light. The Lykovs were Old Believers, a fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect that had been persecuted since the days of Peter the Great. In 1936, after his brother was shot and killed by a Communist patrol, Karp Lykov took his wife, Akulina, and two young children and fled into the forest.

For 40 years the family eked out a living in the unforgiving Siberian wilderness, “permanently on the edge of famine.” Two more children were born. Akulina died of starvation in 1961 when a June snow destroyed the family’s small crop. The Soviet scientists were astounded to learn that the family had no knowledge of World War II, the moon landing, or any other major development of modern society of the past half century. The two youngest children had never seen a person outside their own family.

But over the next few years, says Mr. Dash, as “the Soviet geologists got to know the Lykov family, they realized that they had underestimated their abilities and intelligence.”

The family at first spurned, then gradually accepted most of the modern technology they saw at the scientists’ research camp nearby. When, during this period, three of the Lykovs died, scientists tried to convince Karp and his daughter Agafia to leave the wilderness, but they chose to rebuild their small cabin and stay on.

After Karp died in 1988, Agafia, the youngest child, again refused to leave the life her family had forged – and the only one she has ever known. “A quarter of a century later, now in her seventies herself, this child of the taiga lives on alone, high above the Abakan.”

Pakistan, a forbidden love

For Taymiya Zaman, Pakistan is not Osama bin Laden or blasphemy laws or drone attacks. It is her homeland, a place of rich culture and history, struggling under the weight of change and competing stereotypes. But for many people in the United States, where she is a history professor, Pakistan is a harbor for terrorists or the scene of poor brown children waiting for Western benevolence.

Ms. Zaman’s rich personal essay appears in Tanqeed, an online magazine of politics and culture that focuses on Pakistan. Her essay first ran in the quarterly magazine Critical Muslim.

Tired of the questions and accusations surrounding her nationality, Zaman “builds a wall” around Pakistan. Finally, weary of the disconnect, and against the advice of her colleagues, she returns to Lahore for a sabbatical year. It will be the longest she’s been home since leaving for college 13 years earlier.

She describes the homecoming: “Landing in Karachi is like running into the arms of a lover you’ve been forbidden to see for years.” Once there, however, she gains “the realization that I can’t hide from the things about being here that leave me troubled and edgy.” She is heckled by a bearded student who accuses her of disrespecting Islam. The traffic congestion is overwhelming.

Zaman returns to her teaching position in San Francisco with newfound appreciation for the US and enduring love for her Pakistan. “I know the newspaper images that fuel Pakistan-bashing. I know the minefields of personal sorrow and betrayal that don’t make it to newspapers. I also know a Pakistan beneath these images that is rich with extraordinary possibilities....”

Take photos, not big game, on safari

On Foreign Policy Blogs, Daniel Donovan writes of Botswana’s recent decision to ban big-game trophy hunting by 2014. Zambia followed suit soon after by banning hunting of lions and leopards.

Botswana’s move has inspired both praise and criticism. In spite of short-term setbacks to the hunting industry, Mr. Donovan points to Kenya’s thriving nonhunting safari business as a sign of greater long-term economic gains in banning trophy hunting.

“While hunters and hunting advocates point to large profits being made in hunting of animals in Africa ... the reality is that photographic tourism far outdistances any money made in hunting safaris,” he writes. Big-game hunting in Africa has always held an allure for the rich and famous, but one study in Botswana showed that trophy hunting only represented approximately 0.1 percent of gross domestic product, as opposed to phototourism, which yields 11 percent. And as Zambia’s tourism minister, Sylvia Masebo, put it: “Tourists come to Zambia to see the lion and if we lose the lion we will be killing our tourism industry.”

Donovan concedes that “[c]ritics of the decision argue that it will encourage poaching over the long-term,” which has reached alarming levels in Kenya. But “even countries that encourage trophy hunting are not immune from illegal hunting,” as revelations of poaching violations in South Africa and Tanzania show.

“Ultimately, each country must decide which direction will benefit them both ecologically and economically.”

Pope Benedict XVI delivers his message during a meeting of Vatican cardinals, at the Vatican, Monday. Pope Benedict announced Monday that he would resign at the end of the month - the first pontiff to do so in nearly 600 years. (Courtesy of L'Osservatore Romano/AP)

Pope Benedict's legacy: More influential than Pope John Paul II?

By Staff writer / 02.11.13

Pope Benedict resigns later this month after arguably being the single most influential figure inside the Roman Catholic Church for three decades, dating to the early 1980s.

A shy but brilliant scholar whose consistent vision has been to reinstitute the grand authority held by the Vatican in the Middle Ages, Benedict has, often single-handedly, redirected his church away from the liberal experiments and sometimes amateurish enthusiasms of the Vatican II period of the 1960s, which conservatives saw as a dangerous diversion. He has also, over years, instituted doctrines, individuals, and orders consistent with his theological view of the Catholic Church as the true and only authentic one.

While not as widely beloved as his predecessor John Paul II, the popular Polish pope who helped crack the Soviet hold on eastern Europe and attracted global crowds, Benedict arguably has had more influence inside the church – even as he often irritated Protestants who he said were not "authentic" Christians, angered Muslims by put-downs of Islamic figures, or unsettled Jewish-Catholic relations by rehabilitating a fringe religious society with a bishop who denied the severity of the Nazi holocaust.

Benedict's chief occupation as pope has been, observers say, to purify his church. 

To do so, Benedict crushed the liberation theology movements of the third world, put a slammer hold on efforts to ordain women and question celibacy, put earlier ecumenical impulses on the back burner, and, instead, has greatly empowered more hardcore orders like Opus Dei, Legions of Christ, and other orthodox wings, largely on the idea that the church must first cherish its most ardent believers.

Yet, while Benedict has won many battles inside the church, he is also widely seen as having lost many larger wars that he either instituted or took part in.

Benedict’s effort to reinstitute Christianity in its European context has largely failed to generate enthusiasm on a continent increasingly secular. While in pursuit of liberal priests and nuns who he implied were polluting the church with wrong doctrines, Benedict has appeared to many Europeans to be too inattentive to priests who sexually abused minors, of whom there are an estimated 8,000. The revelations of sexually abusive priests in Germany, Ireland, Belgium, and Austria two years ago brought a change to the story line that such problems were restricted to the United States

For fully believing Catholics, the Roman church is a divine, not a human institution; its leader, the pope, is the “vicar of Christ,” the direct spiritual descendant of Jesus Christ and his disciple Peter. The kingdom of heaven on earth that Jesus asked his followers to pray for, must, in orthodox Catholic doctrine, come through the Catholic Church and the pope, also known as the Holy Father.

For many modern-thinking or non-literal Catholics, particularly after the long-running church self-examination known as Vatican II, those orthodox doctrines of the identity of the church and the pope were put in question and thrown open for new interpretation.

Vatican II lead, though often quite indirectly, to a massive re-evaluation of things like the operation of the spirit in the church, the possibility of women being ordained as priests, a faint questioning of the doctrine, only adopted in pre-medieval Europe, of celibacy, and of more "democracy" or power by the laity or non-clergy members in matters of church governance.

For a rising college theology professor named Joseph Ratzinger, these new interpretations were viewed with increasing horror. They often lacked seriousness, were sloppy, and seemed chaotic and undignified.

As then-Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict took office in 1982 as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the same office that earlier conducted or oversaw heresy trials. Yet while that office has a five-year term and most predecessors held it for 10 years at most, Ratzinger stayed 24 years, only leaving to become pope in 2005.

Now, as Catholics think through their future they will do so with a set of cardinals, bishops, priests, and church authorities that have largely been vetted through the orthodox filter set up by the Bavarian-born pontiff.

Indeed, a church hierarchy carefully pruned of liberal and ecumenical impulses may be one of Benedict’s enduring legacies, though it has brought the current pontiff into serious disagreements with powerful orders, like the Jesuits, that previously saw themselves as the main defenders of Rome.

A Borneo pygmy elephant looks for food along the Kinabatangan river in Malaysia's state of Sabah on the Borneo island in this file photo. (Bazuki Muhammad/REUTERS/File)

Palm oil casualty? 14 pygmy elephants fall prey to pesticides in Borneo

By Jason MotlaghCorrespondent / 02.11.13

A rare breed of elephant appears to be the latest casualty of the palm oil boom that is sweeping Malaysian Borneo, reigniting an already heated debate over the pros and cons of the world’s cheapest cooking oil. 

Malaysian wildlife officials say 14 dead pygmy elephants were found last month in the wilds of Sabah Province, apparently poisoned by chemicals used by farmers to keep pests from eating the palm fruit grown on plantations that blanket vast swaths of the countryside.

In once instance, a 3-month old baby elephant was photographed nuzzling its mother, who lay on the ground next to three other corpses. For activists, the image is emblematic of nature’s losing battle with man in and around the farms.

Favored in developing countries for its versatility and long shelf life, palm oil is now found in more than half of processed foods in Western supermarkets, from cosmetics to Girl Scout cookies. Surging global demand has generated billions in profits for Indonesia and Malaysia, the world’s first- and second-largest producers, bringing prosperity to once poor corners.

The boom is changing the complexion of Borneo, the resource-rich island they share that is one home to one of the oldest rainforests on earth. But environmental groups say the palm oil boom is driving the expansion of plantations deeper into hyper-diverse tracts of forest, accelerating global warming and forcing rare species like the pygmy elephant and orangutan into deadly confrontations with humans.

In a statement following the elephant report, Dionysius S.K. Sharma, executive director of World Wildlife Fund-Malaysia, said the “central forest landscape in Sabah needs to be protected totally from conversions” and called for "frequent and large-scale patrolling" of forests to protect elephants. Yet he conceded this would be a "massive task" given the remoteness of the terrain and large areas involved. 

The scale of the plantations is massive. Take a flight from Kota Kinabalu, the provincial capital, to Lahad Datu, also known as “Palm City,” and permaculture reigns: Palm plantations sprawl for miles on end, occasionally pocked with the smokestacks of large processing facilities. The largest are owned by agribusiness giants like Sime Darby and Wilmar International, with clients that include top consumer goods companies Unilever and Nestle.

Business booming

Thanks in part to new US laws mandating the removal of oils rich in trans-fats, business has never been better.

In 2011, the export of palm oil and palm-based products netted the Malaysian economy $27 billion, a fivefold increase over the past decade. With such profits at hand, the Malaysian government wants to double the area under cultivation by 2020.

This is welcome news to longtime residents of Lahad Datu, the coastal town that has been transformed in years from a crime-ridden backwater to an investment-friendly hub. Real estate prices are soaring, investors are pouring in and the streets are safer than ever, replete with fast-food franchises and shiny hotels.  “This place is opening up, finally,” says Arnan Angkut, at a bustling seaside teashop. “We are doing much better than before because of palm oil.”

But this kind of enthusiasm could spell long-term trouble for communities in the region and beyond.

A joint study published in October by Stanford and Yale universities revealed that land-clearing operations for plantations in Borneo have emitted more than 140 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2010 alone, equal to annual emissions from about 28 million vehicles. Over the past two decades, about 6,200 sq. mi. of primary and logged forested land have been destroyed in Borneo.

Orangutan populations reduced by half

Activists say that palm oil deforestation and hunting have already combined to reduce Bornean orangutan populations to half the total of the 1980s. At this rate, some predict the iconic animal could be extinct within years.

For its part, the pygmy elephant, a rare sub-species of the African elephant, is in even greater peril: WWF-Malaysia estimates there are about 1,200 left in the wild. And Malaysian wildlife authorities have said they expect to find more dead elephants as they comb the jungle.

*Jason Motlagh reported this story on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

A vendor walks out from a room where boxes of firecrackers with the words 'Tokyo Big Explosion' are stored in Beijing, Wednesday. The vendor said Chinese authorities have asked that the fireworks not be sold due to its name on the package. China and Japan are in a tense dispute over East China Sea islands that have inflamed anti-Japanese sentiment among Chinese. (Andy Wong/AP)

China tensions with Japan sell fireworks?

By Staff Writer / 02.06.13

Nothing defines Chinese New Year like fireworks. On the stroke of midnight, Beijing erupts in a riotous, deafening barrage of explosions that out-bangs any war zone.

This year’s celebration, though, will carry ugly undertones of real war in the midst of rising tensions with neighboring Japan. On sale on the city’s streets in advance of Saturday night’s festivities is a box of pyrotechnics called “Tokyo Explosion.” 

Most fireworks here bear more benign names. “Golden Snakes Dancing Crazily” is expected to be popular, as Chinese welcome in the Year of the Snake. “Wish You Get Rich” and “Billionaire” play to traditional desires.

But some manufacturers are seeking to profit from a seething undercurrent of anti-Japanese sentiment that has bubbled to the surface as a dispute with Japan over ownership of a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea grows increasingly bitter.

“I Love the Diaoyu Islands” is one such product, referring to the Chinese name for the islands. In Japan they are known as the Senkakus.

“Aircraft Carrier Shows China’s Might” is another, celebrating the October 2012 launch of the Liaoning, China’s first carrier, which has become a symbol of Beijing’s growing military strength.

Tensions around the islands edged up another notch this week, when the Japanese government revealed that a Chinese naval frigate had “locked on” to a Japanese vessel with its missile-guidance radar system.

On Wednesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the incident a “dangerous” and “provocative” act “that could have led to an unpredictable situation.”

On the Chinese Internet, however, angry micro-bloggers hailed the Chinese action.

“We should shoot at Japanese vessels before we warn them,” advocated Li Xu on’s popular Twitter-like Weibo platform. “The only way to punish Japan is to annihilate all Japanese,” added another commentator calling himself Truelove Leo.

The aggressively named fireworks reflect an anti-Japanese mood that the Chinese authorities sometimes seem eager to feed. Government and ruling Communist Party officials orchestrated anti-Japanese demonstrations last year when the island dispute broke out, and Chinese TV is flooded with drama series – one much like another – set during the Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945), featuring inhuman “Japanese devils” as the popular Chinese phrase has it.

There is even a theme park in Shanxi Province where tourists can dress up as soldiers in the Eighth Route Army, the Communist Party’s main military force during the war, sing anti-Japanese war songs, and join in mock guerrilla battles against the Japanese invaders.

A public opinion poll released at the end of last year found that 87 percent of Chinese had a negative opinion of Japan, up from 66 percent a year earlier. And the feeling is mutual. A Japanese government survey in December found sympathy for China at a record low, with less than 20 percent of respondents reporting an affinity for their giant neighbor.

Not everybody buys into the prevailing atmosphere, however. When one Chinese blogger posted a screenshot from a recent TV drama capturing a particularly gory and ludicrous scene of a Chinese man tearing a “Japanese devil” in half with his bare hands, most of the comments were scathing.

“Another brainwashing drama,” scoffed one. “The Communist Party is unparalleled in this field.”

North Korea video: Welcome to theater of the bizzare

By Staff writer / 02.05.13

A propaganda video released by North Korea showing New York City being bombed is pure fantasy – and just another weird window on the Hermit Kingdom's propaganda machine.

First, North Korea doesn't have a space shuttle (or the capability to launch one), as the video portrays in a boy's dream.

Second, North Korean doesn't yet have the capability to reach the US with one of their Unha rockets, let alone New York City.

As The Christian Science Monitor reported recently: "Concerns about their missile tests are overblown, according to RAND analyst Markus Schiller in a lengthy 2012 report on North Korea’s missile programs.

“Every launch further depletes the limited North Korean arsenals, and North Korea gains no real experience from these events. Since the purpose of the launches seems to be political, the United States and other nations should downplay or even ignore them,” he writes.

But this is classic North Korean propaganda, a sort of geopolitical WWE. All bluff and bluster. This latest video, like many before it, ignores copyrights and rips off from others.

Exhibit A of both weird and stolen: The theme music to this attack is "We are the World" by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson. Really.

Exhibit B: The scenes of the New York attack are literally pulled directly from the video game "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3." according to the blogger Kotaku. Apparently, Activision agrees. They complained and YouTube took down the North Korean video.

Remember, this video is a North Korean boy's dream sequence, and it may be an apt metaphor for North Korea's ambition to be taken seriously around the world. That isn't to say that the leadership's nuclear ambitions aren't real and don't present a threat, especially to its neighbors.

"North Korea is likely to carry out multiple nuclear tests at two places or more simultaneously" to maximize scientific gains from the event, said South Korea’s outgoing President Lee Myung-bak in an interview with the Choson Ilbo newspaper today, according to Agence France-Presse. And the UN voted last month to increase the sanctions on North Korea.

But don't confuse North Korea's silly propaganda with reality.

If you peruse the North Korea YouTube channel, you will find Disney characters and an homage to North Korea's fantasy world. You will find North Korean soldiers in a kazoo orchestra, a brand new (and completely empty) bowling alley, and 40 minutes of synchronized swimming, according to Business Insider.

You can't make this stuff up. Oh, wait, yes you can if you're in North Korea.

A man wears a pair of high heels at a Gay Pride celebration in Madrid in 2011. (Susana Vera/Reuters/File)

Good Reads: Women in crime, democracy's era, digital mapping, a history in heels

By Staff writer / 02.04.13

War is ambiguous. Sometimes it’s easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. But more often, players fall somewhere in between, both committing crimes and being deeply affected by them. The drug war in Mexico is no different, no matter if the participants are men – or women.

Julie Turkewitz in The Atlantic Monthly interviews Katie Orlinsky about her project photographing female prisoners in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, bringing a fresh eye to the conflict there.

Turns out, writes Ms. Turkewitz “women – not just men – were serving as its weary warriors, ferrying contraband and kidnapping kingpins. Between 2007 and 2011, the number of women incarcerated for federal crimes rose 400 percent.”

It was a figure that Ms. Orlinsky wanted to understand. Were these women – mothers, sisters, teachers, and widows – victims or perpetrators? The answer, of course, both provides insight into the drug war and highlights how complex of an issue it is.

“ ‘I am not ashamed. There are worse things,’ says Lorena, who is in prison for drug trafficking. ‘My husband is dead and I did it for my children.’ ”

Democracy in demand

Contrary to popular thought, the world is ready for democracy. Arguments that poor, non-Western countries are in some way not “ready” for democracy have been upended, writes Larry Diamond in The Wilson Quarterly.

Two mainstream theories on democracy have directed the discussion for decades: One postulated that countries had to grow rich under authoritarian rule before they would be able to sustain democracy. The other insisted that some countries were poor “because the West had trapped them in a structural condition of economic dependence and servitude (a modern form of imperialism),” writes Mr. Diamond.

But something funny happened in the 1980s and ’90s: A number of poor countries went ahead and adopted forms of democratic government, and for well over a decade, many of them have had some success. Consider Taiwan and South Korea: “Once they achieved democracy, South Korea and Taiwan continued to record brisk economic growth,” writes Diamond.

Although countries and regions vary widely, and many do not trust politicians, polls say people prefer democracy to authoritarianism. “This is strikingly the case now in the Arab world, where the Arab Barometer surveys show that upward of 80 percent of the citizens of most countries name democracy as the best form of government, even if they do not define democracy in fully liberal and secular terms.”

It’s not a perfect road, of course, because systems of corruption easily undermine democratic progress. But the best way to democracy may be just to trudge through it.

In iPhone we trust

Remember when driving to someplace new meant consulting a foldout map before you left the house? Those days are more or less gone with the advent of GPS, smart phones, and digital mapping.

Mapping the indoors could be the next frontier. Just think: You’re in Home Depot or Ikea and with a touch to your smart phone you can orient yourself, find what you are looking for, avoid congested aisles, and compare prices. But does this convenience mean we will stop thinking for ourselves?

Kat Austen in The New Scientist warns of the perils of overdependency on digital mapping. “Apple recently misplaced an Australian town on its iPhone map, a mistake which led to the map’s users becoming lost in the outback and having to be rescued by police.”

And if your battery runs out, there’s no app for that.

Men in heels

High heels were designed for men, not women. That’s right. Another surprising news flash: They weren’t designed for walking.

“The high heel was worn for centuries throughout the near east as a form of riding footwear” for men, Elizabeth Semmelhack of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto tells William Kremer for the BBC.

Persia, with the largest cavalry in the world, was the epitome of masculinity. The shah wanted to ally with rulers in Western Europe to defeat the Ottoman Empire so he sent diplomats to Russia, Germany, and Spain. The exotic warriors wore ornate outfits and heeled boots, which helped them stay on their horse while shooting arrows.

When all things Persia (modern-day Iran) became the rage in 16th-century Europe, “Persian style shoes were enthusiastically adopted by aristocrats, who sought to give their appearance a virile, masculine edge that, it suddenly seemed, only heeled shoes could supply,” writes Mr. Kremer.

It didn’t matter that they were completely impractical for the muddy, rutted streets of Europe. And in the following century European women adopted the trend. Men’s fashion, meanwhile, took a turn toward the more practical, dropping them completely by 1740 as “foolish.” Some 50 years later women followed, leaving the world more or less sans heel until the mid-19th century when female fashion tottered over the sidewalk once more.

Shyrine Ziadeh leads one of her three classes at the Ramallah Ballet Center, which she opened in December 2011 with the help of her family. (Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor)

In West Bank, a space for tutus and pirouettes

By Chelsea B. SheasleyCorrespondent / 02.04.13

The Ramallah Ballet Center, where girls in white tights and pink tutus twirl in front of a long mirror, seems a world away from the street below, where butchered lambs hang for sale, resentment lingers from the last intifada, and horns blare as cars snake dangerously close to each other in the narrow streets. 

“Doesn’t the music make you feel so peaceful?” asks studio owner Shyrine Ziadeh, as she surveys her students. “That’s one of my favorite things about dancing.” 

Ms. Ziadeh’s dance studio is the first to open in Ramallah and the only one she knows of in the West Bank, following years of foreign instructors teaching lessons out of their homes or in local schools. (Read more about female entrepreneurs in the West Bank here.)

Ziadeh, who grew up in Ramallah, planned to leave the West Bank to study dance abroad after graduating from Birzeit University four years ago. But she changed her mind after she opened the studio last year and saw how popular her classes are. If she leaves, she fears no one will be there for the students.

“The kids here, they have many talents but no one to support them,” she says. “So when I find a talented girl, I support her with all my heart.” Ziadeh says part of her motivation was the fact that when people around the world think of the Palestinian territories, they don’t see hope or talent, but violence.

Ziadeh sees her studio as place where local kids – she teaches between 30 and 40 students a month – can come to have fun in a safe place.

“I want to show the world that as Palestinians, we have talent and can defend our land not only in violence, but in the arts.”

Ziadeh sees the studio as a success, though it’s not yet profitable. She charges 200 shekels (about $55) a month for two classes a week, but some parents can’t afford to pay. The Orthodox Church that owns the studio space has so far allowed her to pay rent late when needed and she’s still repaying a loan her parents gave her. 

Some Israelis who heard about her business offered to give funding, something she’s so far declined in the hopes that Palestinians will be the ones to provide support.

In a region where the political conflict is reflected in so much of society Ziadeh says Israeli-Palestinian politics have complicated her business. She can’t get the costumes she needs because West Bank stores don’t sell them and she doesn’t have a permit to travel 15 miles to Jerusalem to buy them. Instead, she goes to Amman, Jordan to buy the outfits necessary for performances, or has them made by hand.

Hoping for more boys

Another challenge Ziadeh hopes to overcome is gender. Her classes have been predominately female, but she thinks it’s important to involve boys as well because of the impact dance can have on them. She hopes that boys will start to enroll if she offers hip-hop classes.

“The problem is not with the Arab culture,” she says, citing a friend who teaches more boys than girls in the Egyptian royal ballet. “I think it’s here, the boys want to be more tough.”

Being ready for an intifada is a prominent part of how boys are raised, she says. “[They say] ‘how can I dance when I have to defend my country?’ But they can defend the country by dancing,” Ziadeh says.

Fadia Othman, the mother of one of Ziadeh’s students, says the classes help her 6-year-old daughter to be calmer in school.

Hadeel Kamil, a German-Palestinian gum surgeon who also has a daughter in the class, praises the decision of people like Ziadeh who stay in the Palestinian territories, sharing their talents locally instead of moving to a potentially easier and more lucrative life abroad.

"Palestine deserves people who know how to think," Ms. Kamil says.

What's behind Mexico's silence on immigration debate?

By Correspondent / 01.31.13

The days when a Mexican president would raise the battle cry for US immigration reform are long past.

Since a bipartisan group of US senators unveiled their proposal this week to resolve the status of millions of undocumented workers in the United States, and President Obama outlined a set of principles for reform, the Mexican government has stayed quietly out of the fray – sparking questions here about what, if any, role Mexico should play.

Mexico has more at stake than many other nations whose people leave for US shores: Fully 10 percent of the Mexican population resides in the US. Sixty percent of the 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants living and working in the US are Mexican, according to Pew Hispanic Center.

“The current Mexican government of Enrique Peña Nieto has been very careful to say that they are not going to interfere in the domestic decisions of the US,” says Jesus Velasco, a political science professor at Tarleton State University in Texas. “It’s silly. The American political system permits that the interests of foreign countries should be represented here.”

Mr. Velasco cited the effective lobbying by the Mexican government on NAFTA in the 1990s. But immigration has been a stickier issue.

Immigration was once the central theme of the bilateral relationship. A decade ago, former Mexican President Vicente Fox met with President George W. Bush five times in nine months to discuss the issue and in an address to Congress boldly requested action before the end of the year. That was in 2001, just days before the Sept. 11 attacks. The agenda quickly fell apart.

Former President Felipe Calderón wiped immigration off the slate in 2006 and retrained the focus of the US-Mexico relationship on security. Today, six years later, Mr. Peña Nieto appears poised to do the same.

So far the only public comment on the proposals has come from the Mexican ministry of foreign affairs, which said in a brief statement that it “recognizes the commitment demonstrated by an ever larger number of parties” on the issue but noted that reform is an “internal matter” for the US federal government.

Work to do at home

Mexico’s real work today – given that net emigration from Mexico to the US fell to zero in the past year – lies not in promoting reform in the US but in ensuring economic opportunity for people here, says Antonio de la Cuesta, a senior political analyst with Mexico City-based think tank CIDAC.

“The focus has been wrong,” he says. “Mexico waits for the US to do everything. It’s about both countries [taking action].”

Roughly half of Mexicans live below the poverty line, according to the United Nations. Last year, Mexico’s social development agency reported the number of Mexicans living in extreme poverty at 13 million.

Mexican immigration to the US may have slowed because of the recession in the US and increased enforcement at the border, but the conditions that have historically driven people north haven’t yet changed. For many Mexicans, a daily wage here amounts to less than the hourly wage in the US.

There are consequences for Mexico, too, in whatever the US decides, says Mr. De la Cuesta. For example, he asks, would Mexicans living in the US bring additional family members north, and stop sending the remittances that rank among the country’s top three income sources?

Mexico needs a “complementary” proposal, he says: solutions for poverty.

“Mexico has a lot to say in this respect,” he says, “and no reason to interfere.”

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