Good Reads: A lesson for democracy, lost and found on Google Earth, and the next Arab uprising

This week's good reads include words of wisdom from Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi, using the Internet and applied mathematics to find the long road home, and a profile of Egyptian courage.

Khin Maung Win/AP
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (c.) leaves a branch office of her National League for Democracy party during her visit to Thone Gwa township in Yangon, Myanmar, Thursday, Oct. 11.

Larry Diamond writes in the Atlantic of the recent 17-day US tour by Myanmar (Burma) pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi – the first since her release from house arrest in November 2010.

Mr. Diamond writes that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s “moral authority has grown through personal suffering and sacrifice” after decades of house arrest and persecution under the military junta in Myanmar, where a fledging democracy is now beginning to take hold.

But it is Aung San Suu Kyi’s “spirit of pragmatism and dialogue” that holds a relevant lesson for American politics. As she told her fellow Burmese in the audience during her American tour, “We must learn to compromise without regarding it as humiliation.”

When Aung San Suu Kyi was asked if she aspires to rule her country, Diamond noted that “rather than shying away from politics, she embraced it. ‘You should think of me as a political party leader. I was a politician before I was a ‘democracy icon.’ ”

Diamond concludes, “At a time of rampant cynicism about parties and politicians in the United States, it is invigorating to have a ‘democracy icon’ remind us that politics can be a noble calling – and an indispensable means for advancing the public good.”

Google Earth and a long road home

Commentators have done plenty of hand-wringing over the Internet’s corrosive effects on civil society. But not to be neglected are the triumphs of the digital realm – and its sometimes life-changing human impacts.

Vanity Fair’s David Kushner found one such story in the incredible saga of Saroo Brierley. As a 5-year-old in India, he was separated from his older brother at a train station, and through a series of dramatic turns, found himself lost among the poor and homeless on the streets of Calcutta. Taken in by an orphanage, he was eventually adopted by Australian parents.

Mr. Brierley adjusted well to his new life, but after graduating from college in 2009, he hit a rough patch: “After years of ignoring his past, it finally came crashing back – the desire to find his roots, and himself.”

Enter Google Earth. Brierley used the program’s satellite imagery to search for his home village in India – whose geographic location and name he did not know. “All he had was a laptop and some hazy memories, but Saroo was going to try.”

Brierley used strategies from an applied-mathematics course to narrow his search, and after months of scouring aerial photos, researching leads, and networking on Facebook, he pinpointed his hometown. 

Armed with the encouragement of his adoptive parents, Brierley flew to India. “With every step, it felt like two films overlaying, his wispy memories from his childhood and the vital reality now.”

Spoiler alert: Brierley found his biological mother. A tearful reunion was followed by 11 days of family reintroductions.

A profile in Egyptian courage

Yasmine Fathi, writing for Al Ahram, the English-language Egyptian paper, pays tribute to Mina Danial, a revered 19-year-old Christian activist a year after his death. Mr. Danial was one of 27 Coptic protesters killed by Egyptian security forces in the Maspero massacre on Oct. 9, 2011. The piece captures not just the brave ethic of a young revolutionary but the struggles of post-Mubarak Egypt, strained by sectarian tensions.

The recollection is framed largely through the lens of Danial’s unlikely friendship with Salafist Tarek El-Tayeb, forged in “Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square” during the uprising. Though the two “became like brothers,” Mr. Tayeb “still struggled to overcome his discomfort at having a Christian friend.” Eventually he says the “emotions I felt towards him destroyed all of these shackles.”

“Despite being heartbroken over the deteriorating situation for Christians in Egypt, friends say, [Danial] did not have sectarian tendencies. He always believed that the Christian problem was part of the bigger Egyptian problem.”

Saudi Arabia, the next revolution?

Bruce Riedel, in a book review in Al-Monitor, a website of news and commentary from the Middle East, notes that the “greatest international challenge the next US president could face is a revolution in Saudi Arabia.”
In his review of “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines and Future,” by Karen Elliot House, he details a “country seething with internal tensions and anger” – a stratified society, with high poverty rates, a glut of foreign workers, “regional racism,” gender discrimination, a largely unemployed youth bulge, Al Qaeda undercurrents, and an aging royal family facing an “unprecedented succession challenge.”

The stark takeaway: “Revolution in Saudi Arabia is no longer unthinkable.”

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