2019
June
17
Monday

It might be understandable if Peter Amsler felt some resentment toward Islam. In some corners of the Islamic world, his Bahai faith is banned. Yet on Saturday, he visited Germany’s oldest mosque with joy.

Media accounts of Muslims in Germany often focus on the negative, he says, so he went to the mosque to challenge himself, “seeking contact and cultivating friendship.” Experiences, he says, are more powerful than images in the media. “Experiences act like an antidote.”

This is the purpose of Berlin’s Long Night of Religions, an annual event in which faith communities across the city open their doors in fellowship. “We can be different without fear,” says Mr. Amsler, who is a cofounder of the event, now in its eighth year.

Highlights of Saturday’s event included a dance from the Candomblé – a faith community facing intolerance in Brazil – and a discussion of the grace expressed by both sides when St. Francis of Assisi visited the Egyptian sultan 800 years ago amid the Crusades.

That same grace happens today, says longtime Monitor reader Anni Ulich, who attends the Berlin event annually. “If somebody would have said 10 years ago, ‘You will be friends with people from the New Apostolic Church and from the Religion of Abraham and with Sikhs and with Franciscans,’ I think I wouldn’t have believed him. But now, this is a fact.”

Now on to our five stories for today.

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1. Guatemala election: What campaign chaos has to do with migration north

Immigration from Guatemala to the U.S. and Mexico points to the deeper problem of corruption. An election four years ago kindled hope of reform. New elections show why that has fizzled out.

Mark
Saul Martinez/Reuters
A woman reads a newspaper as she stands in a queue outside a polling station during the first round of the presidential election in Guatemala City June 16.

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Taxi driver Nery Vásquez begrudgingly cast a ballot on Sunday for the person he decided was least corrupt on the lengthy list of candidates. “We have to pick somebody [other than Sandra Torres], so that there’s competition,” he said, adding that none of the candidates excited him.

If Guatemala’s 2015 presidential election was defined by an overwhelming sense of hope and possibility, this year’s vote underscores the persistence of Guatemala’s struggles with corruption and organized crime. Five candidates in a field of more than 20 – including those polling in first and second place – were disqualified ahead of Sunday’s vote.

Guatemala is increasingly in the global spotlight, with tens of thousands of Central Americans leaving the country due to poverty, violence, and lack of opportunity, and being stopped at the U.S. border this year.

Sunday’s election highlights the vast challenges its next president will face – including the lack of confidence in government leadership, which helps propel many people north.

After voting, Mr. Vásquez called his daughter in South Carolina. She was born in the United States, but grew up in Guatemala. She and her father talked about the need for the economy to improve and for more job opportunities.

“We are talking about my country, the country I grew up in,” she says. “I want to return and raise my family there.”

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Guatemala election: What campaign chaos has to do with migration north

A little boy ran out of a voting booth Sunday in the Guatemalan department of San Marcos, a rural area south of the Mexican border. Grasping his mother’s hand, he victoriously screamed, “I voted!” holding up his inked index finger.

“He’s the only one here that’s excited,” joked Lesli Pérez, his mother, who says all the candidates in the first-round presidential vote have serious shortcomings – most prominently, allegations of corruption. 

If Guatemala’s 2015 presidential election was defined by a sense of hope and possibility, after a sitting president and vice president were arrested on fraud charges, this year’s vote underscores the persistence of Guatemala’s struggles with corruption and organized crime. 

Guatemala is increasingly in the global spotlight, with tens of thousands of Central Americans leaving or traveling through the country to flee poverty, violence, and lack of opportunity stopped at the U.S. border this year. And after years of battling corruption with the help of an independent body backed by the U.N., the government plans to shutter it in September (a process set in motion after it launched investigations into the current president). Yesterday’s election and its many twists and turns underscore the vast challenges the country’s next president will face – and the lack of confidence many here have in government leadership, spurring many people’s decisions to head north. 

Five candidates in a field of more than 20, including front-runners like anti-corruption crusader and former Attorney General Thelma Aldana, were disqualified in the weeks leading up to yesterday’s vote. With nearly all votes counted, former first lady Sandra Torres is the front runner, earning roughly 26% support. A runoff between Ms. Torres and four-time presidential candidate Alejandro Giammattei (14% of votes) is expected in early August. 

“There was this excitement and feeling of a potential for change in 2015,” says Mike Allison, a professor of political science at the University of Scranton, in Pennsylvania, who specializes in Central America. “But the initiative to fight organized crime in the country has been stalled if not crushed by [President Jimmy] Morales over the past four years. And it shows in the lack of enthusiasm for this election,” he says.

Voter turnout is estimated at 61% (compared to almost 70% in 2015), with an estimated 12 percent of ballots coming in blank or spoiled. Professor Allison notes that, with the two candidates who were polling first and second just a few months ago disqualified, Guatemalans are voting for their third and fourth preferences. In a poll released before the election, more than 30% of respondents said they anticipated election fraud.

‘A problem that transcends borders’

Migration from Guatemala is top of mind for neighbors Mexico and the United States, which have been locked in tense confrontations in recent weeks over the number of Central Americans crossing Mexico and arriving at the U.S. southern border. The topic played a fairly small role in campaign talking points and proposals, but experts say there are direct links between migration and the corruption that’s plagued Guatemala.

“Corruption in Guatemala has led to citizens not having access to quality public services for several decades,” says Lizbeth Gramajo Bauer, an anthropologist and political scientist who studies migration at Rafael Landívar University in Gautemala. Many communities migrants come from “have suffered decades of neglect by government authorities who have violated their rights to education, health, decent work, food, access to housing, and lives free of violence.”

There’s a “very close link between corruption and migration,” she says.

Guatemala ranked 144 out of 180 countries in the 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index, compiled by Transparency International. Its citizens gave the Guatemalan public sector a confidence score of 27 out of 100 (down from 28 in 2017).

“Trust is a condition in democracies, especially during transition processes,” says Renzo Rosal, a political analyst in Guatemala City. But in Guatemala, trust “has gone in reverse,” potentially creating problems for the next president in terms of citizen confidence.

Talks are reportedly underway to place U.S. officials on the Guatemala-Mexico border, or possibly have Guatemala designated a “safe third country,” something Mexico has thus far refused to do. The designation would require migrants that arrive in Guatemala to apply for asylum there first.

Guatemala doesn’t have the “minimum conditions” to take in refugees, Professor Gramajo says.

Ms. Torres, who has run for president twice before, was allowed to run despite accusations of illicit campaign financing in her 2015 presidential bid. She told reporters on Sunday that her administration would focus on some of the root causes of migration, like “poverty, violence, delinquency, lack of political stability.” She also noted that migration “is a problem that transcends borders.”

As first lady from 2008-11, Ms. Torres oversaw many of the social programs of her now ex-husband’s administration. If she wins, “there might be a little more focus on rural issues than there was under Morales, which is important given that most of the people leaving Guatemala today are really leaving rural areas that have been neglected for decades,” says Professor Allison.

Nery Vásquez, a taxi driver who lived in the U.S. for five years in the 1990s, begrudgingly cast a ballot for leftist politician Manuel Villacorta, who he decided was least corrupt on the lengthy list of candidates. “We have to pick somebody [other than Sandra Torres], so that there’s competition,” he said, adding that none of the candidates excited him.

After voting, Mr. Vásquez immediately called his daughter in South Carolina. She was born in the U.S., but grew up in Guatemala. In 2013, she left for the U.S. in search of employment.

She and her father talked about the need to improve the economy and job opportunities – something they hope a new administration can focus on.

“We are talking about my country, the country I grew up in,” she says. “I want to return and raise my family there.”

• Emily Green contributed reporting from San Marcos, Guatemala.

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2. In Trump peace conference, a perilous balancing act for Jordan

The Trump administration is depending on Saudi Arabia to deliver Arab support for its Mideast peace plan. But Jordan and Egypt offer a glimpse of how hard that might be.

Mark
Chris Sétian/Jordanian Royal Court/AP
Presidential advisers Jared Kushner (center l.) and Jason Greenblatt (third from l.) meet with Jordan's King Abdullah II (center r.) and his advisers, in Amman, Jordan, May 29. Jordan stands by a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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When the White House said that Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco had agreed to take part in the June 25 economic conference in Bahrain – the first leg of its Middle East peace plan – it unleashed a media firestorm. Arab and Palestinian media expressed “shock and anger,” and the three countries downplayed their involvement.

Rather than advocates for the administration’s undisclosed “ultimate deal,” Jordan and Egypt are reluctant guests at the conference. They must walk a political tightrope to appease Washington while not angering Palestinian allies and their own publics who worry the Trump plan will be the death knell of Palestinian statehood.

For their part, Palestinians are also applying pressure to Arab states to boycott the economic workshop, which many Arabs fear will offer investment projects to Palestinians in return for recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the West Bank – a “selling off” of Palestinian statehood.

Jordan, torn between its allies abroad and stability at home, is trying to forge a third way: using the gathering to push Palestinian statehood back on the agenda. “Jordan is searching for the least provocative position it can take; they are basically walking between raindrops,” says Daoud Kuttab, a Jordan-based Palestinian analyst.

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In Trump peace conference, a perilous balancing act for Jordan

As the Trump administration prepares for an economic conference next week in Bahrain, the first leg of its Middle East peace plan, it is exerting immense pressure on two of America’s closest Arab allies to take part in a process seen as toxic by their own publics.

Rather than advocates for the administration’s undisclosed “ultimate deal,” Jordan and Egypt are reluctant guests at the conference. They must walk a political tightrope to appease Washington while not angering Palestinian allies and their own people who fear the Trump plan will be the death-knell of Palestinian statehood.

For their part, Palestinians are also applying pressure to Arab states to boycott the economic workshop, which many Arabs fear will offer investment projects to Palestinians in return for recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the West Bank – a “selling off” of Palestinian statehood.

So Jordan, torn between its allies abroad and stability at home, is trying to forge a third way: using the gathering to push Palestinian statehood back on the agenda.

Jordan would be the “eyes and ears of the Palestinians” and use the workshop as a platform to promote the two-state solution, Jordanian officials say.  

“In the event we decide to participate, we will attend to express our stance with confidence,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said in a local television interview Thursday. “We will listen to what is proposed, and if it is in line with our positions, we will acknowledge it. If not, we will reject it.”

‘Shock and anger’

When the White House said last week that Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco had agreed to take part in the June 25 economic conference in Bahrain – it unleashed a media firestorm.

Arab and Palestinian media expressed “shock and anger,” as the three countries sought to downplay their involvement.

Foreign Minister Safadi stressed that Jordan “has not officially declared its position,” Morocco’s prime minister denied any knowledge, and Egypt was notably silent.

With Lebanon and Iraq boycotting, Palestinian Authority spokesman Ibrahim Melhem warned that Jordan and Egypt’s participation “would carry wrong messages about the unity of the Arab position.”

Yet in private the Palestinian leadership acknowledges the “immense pressure” Arab states are facing and are urging participants to instead drag their feet over U.S. plans, which is precisely what some officials privately say they will do.

Saudi Arabia as enforcer

When crafting the “deal of the century,” the Trump administration viewed the support of Jordan and Egypt – which border either side of Israel and the Palestinian territories and are the only two Arab states with peace treaties with Israel – as automatic.

Jordan and Egypt are the second and third biggest recipients of U.S. aid in the world after Israel; Jordan received $1.52 billion in financial and military assistance in 2018, while Egypt received $1.3 billion.

With Jordan facing record 19% unemployment and Egypt battling inflation, and both weathering debt crises, the administration believed neither were in a position to say no to Washington.

So rather than involve Jordan and Egypt, President Donald Trump and his son-in-law and envoy Jared Kushner have overridden Amman and Cairo and arranged the peace plan directly with Saudi Arabia, as the political force they thought could deliver much of the Arab world.

To Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies in the Gulf, the Palestinian issue increasingly has been seen as a stumbling block to forging a closer alliance with Israel in order to counter perceived Iranian aggression in the region.

Jordan was already the object of substantial Saudi financial pressure. Aid was temporarily cut off over Amman’s criticism of the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and the Trump administration’s heavy-handed tactics with the Palestinians. How quickly the aid is being restored appears now to be linked to Jordan’s support for the Bahrain conference.

“Jordan is in a very difficult position as its major allies are exerting pressure on the country; but Jordan has always turned its weaknesses into strengths by maintaining the widest number of allies,” says Daoud Kuttab, a Jordan-based Palestinian analyst and journalist.

“Jordan is searching for the least provocative position it can take; they are basically walking between raindrops.”

Domestic pressures

Roughly half of Jordan’s citizens, some 3 million people, are of Palestinian origin. The vast majority of them – some 2.2 million – are card-carrying U.N.-recognized refugees, including descendants of those who fled or were pushed into the kingdom during the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli conflicts.

The other 3 million-plus Jordanians hail from indigenous East Bank tribes who make up the army, the security services, and much of the political elite in the kingdom.

Both sides fear the stripping of the Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their ancestral lands, as well as the dismantling of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which provides services to millions of Palestinians in the region, including in Jordan.

More concerning are rumored attempts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without a Palestinian state, leaving Jordan to administer the West Bank or grant residents Jordanian citizenship – the so-called “alternative homeland” project promoted by the Israeli far-right.

Jordanian tribes are concerned the move would make them a minority in their own country and threaten their political and economic status. Palestinian-Jordanians believe it would sever ties to their homeland.

Feeding into these fears is the Trump administration’s relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, refusal to endorse a two-state solution, recognition of Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights, and most recently, the U.S. ambassador to Israel’s comments accepting Israeli annexation of some West Bank territory. 

“For Jordan, it is really a situation of ‘to be or not to be,’” says Hassan Barari, a Jordanian analyst and expert in Arab-Israeli relations. “If you go along with this plan and kill off the two-state solution, Jordan as you know it will cease to exist.”

It is difficult to overstate the Jordanian public’s rejection of the Trump administration’s approach to peace.

When Mr. Kushner met with King Abdullah in Amman in late May to urge Jordan to attend the Bahrain conference, multiple protests erupted outside the U.S. Embassy in Amman. Protests at the heavily guarded fortress-like embassy are rare.

Jordan’s Press Association, a syndicate representing the country’s newspapers, websites, and television networks, announced its boycott of the Bahrain conference and threatened to expel members who attend or report on the event.

Even in Egypt, where strongman President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has jailed, silenced, or exiled most of his opponents and critics, fears remain of the emotive resonance of the Palestinian cause among Egyptians and the potential backlash if Cairo appears to have “sold out” Palestinian statehood.

Participate to advocate

While Egypt has remained largely quiet on the U.S. plan, Jordan has left itself with less political room to navigate.

In multiple speeches over the past three months, Jordan’s King Abdullah has given rare public rebukes to the U.S. in which he rejected “pressures from outside,” the surrendering of Jerusalem, and the idea of an alternative Palestinian homeland.

Torn between its allies abroad and stability at home, Jordan is crafting a finely-tuned position: participate to advocate.

Jordan’s participation in Bahrain would not mean Amman endorses any Trump plan, officials argue. On the contrary, they say Jordan would go to Bahrain to fight to prevent an “economic proposal replacing a lasting political solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But it remains to be seen if the deft diplomacy would sway Jordanians.

“You have to prioritize the argument you will take to your people,” says Mr. Barari, the Jordanian analyst. “Because at the end of the day, you can’t put all your eggs in the baskets of the Americans, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.”

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3. Why this Republican senator has been able to forge her own path

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski is that rarest of political breeds today – an unabashed moderate. On a trip to the Last Frontier, we looked at how she manages to survive in a polarized world.

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Voters in Bethel, Alaska, speak warmly of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, saying she’s a frequent visitor and praising the work she’s done to keep federal dollars flowing to their state.

The support is a window into Senator Murkowski’s political viability – and vulnerability. That’s because most voters here are Democrats and Senator Murkowski is a Republican. Tellingly, Kathryn Bowerman, a retired landscape architect, describes the senator as “kind of like an independent.”

A genuine swing vote in a polarized chamber, Senator Murkowski voted for President Donald Trump’s tax cuts in 2017 and with Republican leadership on other major bills. But on certain highly contentious issues – such as whether to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court – she has bucked the party line.

To some extent, this has worked like a charm, since a plurality of Alaskans approve of her performance, says Ivan Moore, who runs Alaska Survey Research in Anchorage. “She can defy the conservative right all day long with her coalition of moderates and progressives,” he says.

Yet it infuriates many Alaska Republicans, and could lead to a primary challenge when her seat is up in 2022. “I’m very disappointed in Lisa,” says Mike Tavoliero, a Republican district chairman in Eagle River outside Anchorage. “On key issues nationally, she’s failed.”

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Why this Republican senator has been able to forge her own path

This dusty riverside town of 6,000 feels a long way from Washington, D.C. It’s about as far as you can go without leaving the continental United States.

But many voters in Bethel, Alaska, say they feel a strong connection to their U.S. senator, Lisa Murkowski. In their minds, she’s popular and present, an Alaskan politician with a voice at the table in Washington who doesn’t forget them.

“As long as she’s working for the state of Alaska, people support her,” says Kathryn Bowerman, taking a break from crocheting in Bethel’s public library.

The support from Bethel’s voters is a window into Senator Murkowski’s political viability – and her vulnerability. That’s because Ms. Bowerman, like many here, is a Democrat and Senator Murkowski is a Republican. Tellingly, that isn’t exactly how Ms. Bowerman, a retired landscape architect, sees the senator. “She’s kind of like an independent,” she says.

In fact, Senator Murkowski’s record in Washington as a moderate Republican who at times defies her party – and President Donald Trump – infuriates many Alaska Republicans. And even as she remains popular overall, garnering more than 50% approval in recent polls, conservatives have turned sharply against her, particularly over her vote against confirming Judge Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice. That raises the possibility that she will face a Republican primary challenger when her seat is up in 2022.

“I’m very disappointed in Lisa,” says Mike Tavoliero, a Republican district chairman in Eagle River outside Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska. “I think Lisa has tried to do a good job for Alaska, but on key issues nationally she’s failed. That’s my opinion.”

Senator Murkowski declined to back Judge Kavanaugh after he was accused in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing of sexual assault while in high school, igniting a furious partisan battle. President Trump later took a swipe at her, telling The Washington Post, “I think the people from Alaska will never forgive her for what she did.”

In 2017, Senator Murkowski also voted against a Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, another high-profile vote that angered Mr. Tavoliero. “She had an opportunity to abolish ‘Obamacare,’ and she chose not to,” he says.

A genuine swing vote

A former state legislator who became U.S. senator in 2002, Senator Murkowski has become that rare breed: a genuine swing vote in a polarized chamber. She voted for President Trump’s tax cuts in 2017 and with Republican leadership on other major bills. But on issues like Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination, which was opposed by many women and Native leaders in Alaska, she has conspicuously bucked the party line.

To some extent, this middle path has worked like a charm, since a plurality of Alaskans approve of her performance, says Ivan Moore, who runs Alaska Survey Research in Anchorage. “She can defy the conservative right all day long with her coalition of moderates and progressives,” he says.

Mr. Moore polled likely voters in March and found 53% approval for Senator Murkowski. Among conservatives, however, that flipped to 62% disapproval, a negative trend that had been building and was supercharged by the Kavanaugh hearing. Mr. Moore says he expects a Republican will challenge her in 2022, but also believes she could win even if she winds up running as an independent, given her broad appeal to Alaskans and her track record, particularly on women’s causes.

In 2010, Senator Murkowski lost the Republican primary to a tea party firebrand, Joe Miller, whom she had heavily outspent. Undeterred, she mounted a successful write-in campaign. “If she can do it as a write-in, she can do it as an independent,” says Mr. Moore.

Mary Sattler Peltola, a Democratic former state legislator for Bethel, helped to run the 2010 write-in campaign here for Senator Murkowski, whom she befriended in the legislature. Like many here, Ms. Peltola is an Alaskan Native, and she points to Senator Murkowski’s standing in Native communities.

To beat her opponent, Senator Murkowski needed to make sure voters could write her name on the ballot – no small feat. Ms. Peltola handed out bracelets with the senator’s name, including a transliteration in the Yup’ik language spoken by thousands of indigenous residents in Western Alaska.

“We know how to spell Lisa. We know how to spell Murkowski,” she says.

Residents say Senator Murkowski is a frequent visitor to Bethel and to the outlying Native villages for which it is a commercial hub. Showing up for events in villages of fewer than 500 residents matters, as does lobbying to keep federal dollars flowing for public services here.

“People like Senator Murkowski because she goes to the villages and sees how village life really is,” says Brenda Slats, as she pushed out her boat in Bethel for a hunting trip upriver.

Vernon Kylook, a Democratic activist who grew up in a Native village and moved to Washington state, says he respects Senator Murkowski, despite their partisan differences. “She talks to people, face to face. That’s how she gets votes out here,” he says during a bingo evening at Bethel’s VFW.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Vernon Kylook plays bingo with his family at the local VFW on May 19, 2019, in Bethel, Alaska. A Democrat, he says he respects Sen. Lisa Murkowski, despite their partisan differences. 'She talks to people, face to face.'

Alaska’s political map inverts America’s familiar urban-rural divide. Its rural areas are far more rural and home to many Native constituencies that skew Democratic: Only 22% of voters in Bethel went for Donald Trump in 2016, though Alaska overall has not voted for a Democratic president since 1964. Republican strongholds cluster in larger towns and cities, especially exurbs like Eagle River and Wasilla, the home base of former Gov. Sarah Palin.

‘Following her own moral compass’

Senator Murkowski is a product of that Republican establishment: Her father, former GOP Sen. Frank Murkowski, appointed her to fill his seat in the Senate in 2002 after he became Alaska’s governor, an act of nepotism that didn’t seem to hurt her. By 2010, she was vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference when Mr. Miller ran against her in the Republican primary. After she lost, the GOP leadership tried and failed to quash her write-in campaign.

That victory set her on her current course as a moderate who doesn’t always heed the party line. Still, she has also taken flak from progressives over her backing for oil drilling in the Arctic. While she says she recognizes the risks of climate change, an issue that is becoming a litmus test for national Democrats, she generally sides with vested oil-and-gas interests.

Analysts point out that she often defies her own party on votes where Alaska could lose out, such as her opposition to Betsy DeVos as education secretary because of rural Alaska’s reliance on grants for schools.

Ms. Peltola says Senator Murkowski is too diligent a legislator to fall into line with Republicans in Congress who seem beholden to President Trump. “She’s really following her own moral compass. That appeals to Alaskans. We like people who are independent thinkers,” she says.

At a resource-industry breakfast in Anchorage, Jason Davis, a registered Republican who runs a marine services company, praised Senator Murkowski for her independence. “I like that she doesn’t always follow the party line. She listens to her constituents. She’s responsive,” he says.

Still, he said that his was probably a minority view among Republicans in the room. And activists like Mr. Tavoliero take aim at her centrist politics. “Whenever you walk down the middle of the road, sooner or later you’re going to get run over,” he says.

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4. Cambodia’s islands are under threat. This woman is trying to save them.

Environmental stewardship can be a tough sell. On the Cambodian island of Koh Sdach, it has been openly mocked. But one woman is showing how determination can begin to change a culture.

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Oeun Sina is fighting an uphill battle.

“I want my community to understand about plastics and not to fish illegally,” she says, sitting outside her house, as her three grandchildren play at her feet. “They have no understanding of how bad [their actions are] for the environment or their health.”

Ms. Oeun Sina, a deputy village chief on the Cambodian island of Koh Sdach, is attempting to bring about a sea change in her small fishing village of 3,000 people. Waste management and conservation-minded fishing techniques are tough sells here. Environmental education is limited and there is little economic incentive to recycle.

But awareness is slowly growing, thanks, in part, to people like Ms. Oeun Sina and Commune Chief Sok Chay, who both facilitate cleanups and education efforts.

“I am optimistic for the future,” says Chief Sok Chay. “From the national level to the local level, people care about Koh Sdach. People here are doing what they can, and I am confident that things will improve.”

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Cambodia’s islands are under threat. This woman is trying to save them.

The handful of market stalls lining the narrow concrete path that serves as the island’s main artery offer the usual assortment of goods found across rural Cambodia: cheap noodles, stacks of Coca-Cola bottles, fake soccer jerseys, household cleaning products – and the plastic bags to carry them home.

Littering the floor between piles of squeezed sugarcane and empty clam shells is an ocean of plastic wrappers, bottles, cups, straws, and empty bags. Swept out of the way, but not out of sight, it’s a stark reminder of the challenges residents of Koh Sdach island and the surrounding archipelago face in living harmoniously with their environment.

Just a five minute boat ride from mainland Cambodia, Koh Sdach is surrounded by clear blue waters that have sustained fishing communities for generations. But decades of overfishing and indiscriminate waste disposal have taken a steep toll on the environment.

“It is well known that plastic waste harms our oceans,” says Marianne Teoh of Fauna & Flora International (FFI), a nonprofit environmental organization supporting coastal communities and partners in Cambodia to strengthen coastal resilience. “Cambodia is no exception, with trash littering the shore and sea turtle nesting beaches, and plastic bags and discarded plastic fishing nets smothering coral reefs. But the plastic problem in these island communities is not just environmental. Plastic pollution is a social issue that threatens the health and livelihoods of vulnerable communities that are often dependent on natural resources.”

Awareness is slowly growing on Koh Sdach. But with limited environmental education, economic incentives, and law enforcement, waste management and conservation-minded fishing techniques are tough sells. That doesn’t dissuade Oeun Sina, the loudest voice calling for better environmental practices on land and sea.

As deputy village chief on the island, Ms. Oeun Sina is trying to usher in a sea change in the way the 3,000 residents of her small fishing village see their island and the waters that surround it. She has taken it upon herself to educate her neighbors about recycling and trash disposal, and joins otherwise all-male community sea patrols in search of illegal fishing.

“I want my community to understand about plastics and not to fish illegally,” she says, sitting outside her house, as her three grandchildren play at her feet. “I ask people who I think are interested to at least collect their trash, and take it to the dump up by the pagoda. ... Only 20% understand. Its difficult to explain things to them, as so few are well educated.”

Peter A. Ford
The beach at the main dock on Koh Sdach is covered in garbage. Trash is a persistent problem on many Cambodian beaches.

Ms. Oeun Sina didn’t finish high school herself. But what she lacks in formal education she makes up in passion and determination, no matter how futile it may seem.

“I want my community to be clean, but people don’t care,” she says. “They have no understanding of how bad [their actions are] for the environment or their health. We even get teased when trying to arrange cleanups.”

When recycling doesn’t pay

Recycling is widespread across Cambodia but it is largely driven by financial needs rather than environmental concerns. Scavengers, mostly vulnerable migrants, pick through city garbage for metal, plastic, and cardboard to sell to dealers who then transport it to recycling plants in Vietnam or Thailand.

On Koh Sdach, three empty beer cans fetch 5 cents, the same price as 1 kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of plastic bottles. Such price differences mean that there is no market in remote areas for plastic collection, explains Commune Chief Sok Chay.

“People here just throw everything away as there is no way to sell the plastic,” he says. 

Old fishing nets full of empty beer and soft drink cans are common across the island. His response has been to instigate regular community cleanup days.

“Experts have told me that the plastic in the water is bad for our health, as the fish eat it and then we eat the fish. I gather people together to educate them about the problems of plastics – school kids, students, and government officials – to learn and then collect waste. Some 30 students and 30 government people come to collect litter, plus a few people from the village,” he says.

Mr. Sok Chay sees no solution to the problem of waste and recycling other than burning waste. He has bigger environmental (and economic) issues on his mind, as local populations rise and fish stocks dwindle.

“Illegal fishing from our own people using illegal tools to catch fish, as well as people from neighboring countries sneaking in to fish illegally [is a major challenge],” he says. “Then [there are added] environmental issues from tourism and modern life. It is hard to deal with the waste properly on the island and all the plastic that washes up on the shore.”

Community sea patrol

Cambodia’s 280 mile coastline and surrounding waters support fishing, tourism, and salt-farming industries. While there is little data on marine life numbers, local communities report increasing difficulty in finding sufficient fish and shellfish to support their families.

Pheng Chay oversees the community’s efforts to protect the fishing areas. Using a boat supplied by the Fisheries Administration and FFI, members of the community, accompanied by armed government officers, have started to patrol the waters around Koh Sdach about four times a month looking for illegal fishing activity and equipment. Ms. Oeun Sina regularly joins these patrols.

“Mostly men go to sea here. Women have traditionally stayed at home [but Oeun Sina] is very involved. She is great. She is the only person who takes part all the time,” Mr. Pheng Chay notes, and the only woman in the 10-person community team. There are some 40 such community fisheries (CFi) organizations along the Cambodian coast, all aiming to support the communities that depend on the sea for their livelihoods.

While the Koh Sdach CFi was founded in 2013, it only started regular patrols in 2019. Already the community teams have stopped and fined a number of Vietnamese boats using illegal nets, Mr. Pheng Chay explained. But with limited powers of arrest (and a quiet admission that they will be lenient on any Koh Sdach residents they stop), the effectiveness of the patrols is limited.

Ms. Chhoeng Sotheavann says FFI is working with other nonprofits and Cambodian authorities to establish the country’s second marine protected area, after the success of conservation efforts around the nearby Koh Rong archipelago.

The 156-square-mile Marine Fisheries Management Area around the two main islands of the archipelago took more than five years of government, NGO, and community work to create. Now three CFis help to protect the waters, corals, and ocean floor from harmful fishing practices, and ensure that threatened species can recover and future generations of residents and tourists can enjoy Cambodia’s rich marine environment.

“Cambodian authorities and communities have asked for a similar model to be applied around Koh Sdach. The project will support the community in identifying areas of the archipelago that are critical fishing grounds and those that could be no-fish or no-entry areas to help habitat and stocks to recover,” Ms. Marianne Teoh says. There will also be a focus on supporting the communities with their plastic and waste management problems.

For Mr. Sok Chay, the growing interest from the community and government in the long-term protection of the local environment is a source of pride.

“I am optimistic for the future. From the national level to the local level, people care about Koh Sdach. People here are doing what they can, and I am confident that things will improve.”

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5. Welcome to the museum. Did you bring a spoon?

Wandering through galleries requires only a few of the senses. By introducing food, artists and institutions are transforming a passive experience.

Mark
Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
An artist works on a mural while museum-goers eat Thai food at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. The exhibition, created by Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, invites people to share a meal together while discussing images and ideas presented in the exhibition.

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At one of Washington’s buzziest new exhibitions, “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Green,” museumgoers are invited to eat Thai food while they contemplate their surroundings. The concept, dubbed “relational aesthetics,” is as tasty as it is meta. It’s also the latest example of how some museums are pairing food, now something of an art form in its own right, with the art-viewing experience.

Those who champion the approach say the presence of food encourages socializing and conversation about the art on display. In cases where cuisine might attract pests, at least one museum did the next best thing: it used scent discs to simulate food smells. Patrons visiting galleries where they are allowed to eat say it’s an unusual experience. 

At the Hirshhorn exhibit, patrons slurp spicy curry while contemplating charcoal murals depicting political turmoil and protests. “It’s weird to eat where there’s a place with a bunch of conflict,” says Eric Blair, while attending the Hirshhorn exhibit with two fellow students from Pomona College. “The curry makes your mouth feel pain when you’re looking at something.”

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Welcome to the museum. Did you bring a spoon?

On the subterranean floor of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum, a new exhibition appears to flummox two visitors. A middle-aged man and woman linger at the doorway, their expressions quizzical as they take stock of the scene.

There aren’t any framed pictures, sculptures, or artistic objects inside the tennis court-sized room, which is bustling with visitors. Instead, the four walls feature charcoal murals depicting political turmoil and protests. Museumgoers shuffle around the space, pausing to take in images such as Parkland shooting survivor-activist Emma González, her short hair rendered in porcupine strokes. But the most unusual activity inside the hall isn’t the presence of an artist sketching a tank on one of the walls. In the center of the room, two people standing at a table serve up bowls of Thai food. An aroma of curry, sweet and spicy, wafts from their steaming pots. 

The two tourists at the entryway turn on their heels, perhaps unsure what to make of it all. In doing so, they’ve missed out on a free lunch – and one of Washington’s buzziest new exhibitions. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Green,” which runs through July 24, incorporates Thai dishes as part of the installation. In fact, Mr. Tiravanija views the act of communal dining inside the museum as a work of art in and of itself. The concept, dubbed “relational aesthetics,” is as tasty as it is meta. It’s also the latest example of how some museums are pairing food, now something of an art form in its own right, with the art-viewing experience.

Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
The red, yellow, and green curries served in the installation mirror the colors of three Thai political factions.

“This move on the part of Hirshhorn, which is also reflected in other institutions, is this idea of a different kind of engagement with the general public,” says Mark Beasley, curator of media and performance art at the Hirshhorn. “Relational aesthetics is completed by engagement with an audience. So it needs people in that room eating that curry. It needs artists doing live drawing. It needs this kind of sociability of the work or the installation for the work to complete itself.”

Introducing food into art exhibitions transforms museum-going from the sometimes yawn-stifling experience of wandering quietly from room to room. Plus, engaging visitors’ taste buds helps them forge a more personal connection to the artwork.

The Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh accomplishes those goals by hosting occasional events that synchronize meals with the themes of art exhibitions. For example, Brazilian chef Ana Luiza Trajano flew to Pittsburgh to prepare a dinner to accompany a 2016 art exhibition by fellow Brazilian Hélio Oiticica. (“She brought two suitcases full of food, somehow, through the airport,” laughs Laura McDermit, the museum’s manager of social experiences.) Both the chef and the artist are renowned for “cultural cannibalism” – appropriating global influences into their Brazilian traditions.

“Food is such a great connector,” says Ms. McDermit. “That’s another way for us to get people to interact with, and maybe connect with, the art in that very sort of simple way, which is over a meal and with making new friends.”

Similarly, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York invited Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi to prepare a medieval-themed meal for its 2016 exhibition “Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven.” At 13 courses, the feast gave visitors plenty of time to digest the ancient artworks on display.

Museum exhibitions often have to display cuisine art in a separate area from regular exhibitions as a matter of practicality. When the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York explored the sensation of taste as part of its 2018 exhibition “The Senses: Beyond Vision,” they weren’t able to bring actual food into the gallery. It carried a risk of introducing pests that could harm the museum collection. Instead, the museum found ingenious ways to represent taste, including an exhibit of an Ode scent player.

Courtesy of 100 Tonson Gallery, Bangkok
Artist Rirkrit Tiravanija pauses during an exhibition in Bangkok. He views the act of communal dining as a work of art, part of a concept of museum engagement called ‘relational aesthetics.’

“You can add in these different scent discs which emit the smell of food,” explains Andrea Lipps, associate curator of contemporary design at Cooper Hewitt. “So that was also how we kind of brought in this idea of even just smelling itself and the power that that had just even on appetite stimulation.”

Mr. Tiravanija, who was also included in the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art’s “Feast” in 2012, has long been renowned for cooking meals inside galleries. His current work at the Hirshhorn reflects his Thai heritage in more ways than one. He was taught to cook by his grandmother, a noted chef. The red, yellow, and green curries in his exhibition (only available in the exhibit Thursday through Sunday) mirror the colors of three political factions in Thailand. The associated murals, which look like black-and-white stills from a CNN broadcast, include disturbing illustrations of Thai protesters killed during anti-government protests between 2009 and 2010. The effect is as pungent as the tongue-blistering red curry. 

“It’s weird to eat where there’s a place with a bunch of conflict,” says Eric Blair, who is visiting the museum with two fellow students from Pomona College in Claremont, California. “The curry makes your mouth feel pain when you’re looking at something.”

Mr. Blair’s two friends, Anna Sipowicz and Aidan Moore, opted for the milder green and yellow curries. The murals, too, differ in intensity. For every depiction of brutality, there’s a corresponding image of peace. “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Green” acknowledges historical protests on the nearby Washington Mall with murals depicting the Women’s March of 2017, Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech, and even a suffragist riding a white horse in 1913. 

“I didn’t realize before coming in that there would be different images from different contexts. It seemed like it would be a Thai context,” marvels Mr. Moore, gazing out into the busy room where people have put away their phones so that they can hold their bowls of food. The collective conversations in the room sound more like a dinner party than the morgue-like quiet of most art museums.

“There’s a different kind of communal vibe going on right now,” he says. “It encourages people to talk with the people who are here.” 

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The Monitor's View

Hong Kong’s quiet message to Beijing

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On Sunday, more than a quarter of Hong Kong’s residents were out on the streets to defend the territory’s much-cherished rule of law.

It was the third protest in eight days against a proposed extradition treaty sought by China. While Sunday’s protest was the largest since the former colony was handed back by the British in 1997, the size of the crowd was the least of signals sent to Communist leaders in Beijing.

The week of demonstrations included symbols, songs, and a diversity of people rarely seen in previous pro-democracy protests. Not surprising for a city with more than 1,500 churches, the protests were remarkable for their religious themes, aimed at peaceful persuasion.

With such a large and peaceful crowd on Sunday, the Beijing-backed chief executive of the Hong Kong government, Carrie Lam, was forced to suspend consideration of the proposed measure. She also apologized for not listening more closely to the concerns of the people. While China’s rulers may someday tighten their grip on Hong Kong, they’ll have to do so over millions of people singing and praying with messages of love and freedom.

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Hong Kong’s quiet message to Beijing

On Sunday, more than a quarter of Hong Kong’s residents, or about 2 million people, were out on the streets to defend the territory’s much-cherished rule of law. It was the third protest in eight days against a proposed extradition treaty sought by China. While Sunday’s protest was the largest since the former colony was handed back by the British in 1997, the size of the crowd was the least of signals sent to Communist leaders in Beijing.

The week of demonstrations included symbols, songs, and a diversity of people rarely seen in previous pro-democracy protests. Not surprising for a city with more than 1,500 churches, the protests were remarkable for their religious themes, aimed at peaceful persuasion instead of violent confrontation.

Many protesters, for example, adorned themselves in black. The color was made popular in December when churchgoers in Hong Kong wore black over two Sundays in solidarity with fellow Christians in the mainland suffering a government crackdown on religion. To many Christians, black is the symbol for the persecution of Christ. For the vast majority of Hong Kongers who are not Christian, the meaning was apt for the struggle against China’s growing encroachment on the city’s semi-autonomy.

When one protester was killed in a fall on Saturday while unfurling a banner, people brought white flowers to the site, bringing out yet another Christian icon. In addition, the Hong Kong Red Cross and similar groups set up hotlines to support people traumatized by the incident and the relatively few cases of violence by the police.

Local churches also held prayer meetings while encouraging followers to join the protests out of their concern that the proposed law would be used by China to squash freedom of worship in Hong Kong. Organizers asked believers to pray for both the “persecuted and persecutors.”

On the front lines, pastors stood between the crowds and police to help prevent violence. Some clergy led the singing of a Christian hymn, “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,” one of the favorite songs of the protesters.

The crowds also sang tunes from the hit show “Les Misérables,” such as “Do You Hear the People Sing?” (That song is largely blocked on the internet in China.) The lyrics in the musical’s final number were particularly fitting:

They will live again in freedom

In the garden of the Lord.

They will walk behind the plough-share,

They will put away the sword.

The chain will be broken

And all men will have their reward.

With such a large and peaceful crowd on Sunday, the Beijing-backed chief executive of the Hong Kong government, Carrie Lam, was forced to suspend consideration of the proposed measure. She also apologized for not listening more closely to the concerns of the people and promised to act in a “humble way.” While China’s rulers may someday tighten their grip on Hong Kong, they’ll have to do so over millions of people singing and praying with messages of love and freedom.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Emerging from negative expectations

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Here’s an article inspired by one man’s experience breaking out of a downward mental spiral at work. It considers a spiritual basis for expecting good in our lives – one that goes beyond positive thinking and opens the door for meaningful change.

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Emerging from negative expectations

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Cynicism and despondency can seem the order of the day, especially when things aren’t going the way we’d like. A string of disappointments may lead us to wonder what disaster awaits just around the corner. On the other hand, even if things are going well, we may be convinced a big letdown is inevitable. Either way, we’re harboring a negative expectation, a sense that good in our lives is undependable, unsustainable, or unattainable.

Years ago I had the need to challenge that. I worked at a large bank selling financial securities. Although I labored diligently, my performance was very poor, and the rest of the group was not faring much better. Morale sank very low, and it was easy to come in day after day with a poor attitude.

I knew I needed to break out of this downward mental spiral, and I’d seen before that a spiritual perspective could help. Acknowledging God as the provider of all good is a sound foundation upon which to build and has proved to me to be a much different and more powerful approach than mere optimism. So that’s where I began, with an assurance from the Bible: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (James 1:17).

What a great promise! Even if storm clouds seem to be gathering, we can affirm that God is not an arbitrary distributor of good, but the source of perpetual good, without any variation in quality or quantity. The Divine does not bestow good at some times but not others, in some places but not others, or on certain individuals to the exclusion of others. Goodness describes the very nature of God.

Knowing this brings about change in our circumstances. As we come to understand God as infinite, all-loving, all-powerful good, we start to see more of His goodness in our experience – reflected in better health, greater fulfillment in our careers, more abundant supply, satisfying companionship. In her revolutionary book “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, captured the essence of this idea: “Good is natural and primitive. It is not miraculous to itself” (p. 128). If good indeed characterizes God, isn’t it logical, then, to expect good in our lives, rather than its opposite?

The apostle Paul saw the source of this goodness. He called us “heirs of God” (Romans 8:17). As heirs of God, good, what is our inheritance? It must be good. This birthright can’t be diluted or divided, can never be taken away or used up. Each one of us, each spiritual son and daughter of God, shares equally and infinitely in the goodness God bestows. Even past mistakes cannot disqualify us; rather, God’s goodness impels redemption.

We do, however, have to claim, or accept, the good that’s ours. We do so by correctly identifying ourselves as God’s spiritual offspring, created in God’s image and likeness, and by living in accord with the qualities that implies.

Since God is good, and is infinite, good is infinite; so it’s vital for us to keep our thought wide open to the evidence of good in our lives. This may require yielding our preconceived notions that things must work out in a certain way, at a certain time, or with a certain person. Yielding to God’s goodness gets us beyond the concept that there’s only so much good that can come our way. It opens the way for God’s plan, which includes boundless goodness – more than we can imagine on our own – to be seen in our lives.

Back at the bank, these ideas helped me approach my work every day with a confident, spiritually based expectation of good. A very short time later, I was offered a sales position at another firm, which provided greater opportunity for success, and I enjoyed many productive years there. And over the next few years, everyone in my former sales group at the bank also found success in new jobs. To me, this was further proof of God’s all-encompassing good.

We can maintain an expectation of good that’s so much more than simply a positive attitude or hoping for the best. Expecting good because God is good, along with understanding the true nature of our relation to Him, opens wide our experience to the touch of His goodness.

What do you expect?

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Viewfinder

The umbrellas of Hong Kong

Jorge Silva/Reuters
The streets of Hong Kong are quieter today, one day after an estimated 2 million of the territory’s 7 million people turned out to protest an extradition bill. Many Hong Kong residents are calling for the now-indefinitely delayed bill to be scrapped and are demanding the resignation of Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive. The demonstrations have drawn comparisons to the 2014 Umbrella Movement, named for the umbrellas pro-democracy protesters used to protect themselves against pepper spray.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( June 18th, 2019 )

Thank you for joining us today. Please come back tomorrow when we consider what will happen to Montana’s Glacier National Park as it faces a future with no glaciers – perhaps soon.

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