Hugo Chávez, ever the soldier, likes to refer to elections as "battles." But after last Sunday's vote, in which Venezuelans re-elected him for another six-year term (which will give him a total of twenty years in office altogether), he might as well start referring to them as "massacres."
A new official report declaring the purge of communists in the 1960s in Indonesia to be a crime against humanity may be a historic milestone, but the muted public reaction suggests that this tragic episode has almost been wiped from the nation's collective memory.
On Monday, the National Commission on Human Rights, an independent state body, released its findings from a four-year investigation. The commission concludes that the army-led campaign amounted to a gross violation of human rights. It urged the government to prosecute the perpetrators and compensate victims and survivors. It also called upon President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to issue a public apology.
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In a new report launched today, the liberal group Political Research Associates (PRA) documents the role of U.S. right-wing evangelicals and religious institutions in fostering homophobia in several countries in Africa. With data from seven countries (Uganda, Liberia, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Nigeria), the report exposes the impact of U.S. conservatives on policies toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people as well as reproductive rights. This latest report builds on PRA's earlier research on the issue.
The report argues that the culture wars between pro-life and pro-choice groups within the U.S. have been exported to Africa. Homophobia has connected different Christian denominations which are usually suspicious of one another, such as Evangelicals uniting with Catholics and Mormons who promote a "pro-family" agenda.
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Tripoli, July 7
The polling stations opened at 8 AM, and already there are reports of long lines of people waiting outside. A normal day in Libya usually gets going much later, so I'm a little bit caught off guard.
I join a Libyan friend, Huda, and her brother on their way to a polling station in central Tripoli. The voting system is complicated, to say the least. In some districts they're voting for individual candidates, some for party lists, and some for both. One third of the seats are going to political entities (parties, basically); the rest go to individual candidates. Altogether 2,639 individual candidates are competing for 120 seats and 142 parties are competing for 80 seats. Add the fact that there haven't been any pre-election polls and it's impossible to tell what the results are going to be. For example, one of my friends is voting for both the Muslim Brotherhood's party and Fatima Ghandour, an outspoken female liberal activist -- just to even things out. How are you supposed to predict anything?
Courtesy of Chloé de Préneuf
You'd think it would catch the world's attention. The revolt is being led by an educated, young, polyglot class of people attempting to spread the message in half a dozen languages. Media-savvy bloggers and activists are being arrested; internet campaigns to free them are launched every day (in Arabic and English). Foreign journalists are being detained and deported. The protestors are confronting a military-religious dictatorship with demands for a civil state and social and economic justice. And, unlike some of the other worst offenders in Africa, the ruling regime is at least somewhat familiar to the western public thanks to coverage of the atrocities in Darfur and South Sudan (not to mention the involvement of George Clooney and company and the International Criminal Court's first arrest warrant -- as yet futile -- for an acting head of state).
Courtesy of Azaz Shami
The demonstrations began in Khartoum on June 16, and have since spread not only to the rest of the city, but to other parts of Sudan as well. They began with a small peaceful group of students at the University of Khartoum, near the office where I work for an international organization. A few hours later the demonstration had developed into a crowd of 100 students. I could not see the demonstration, but through the open window the teargas stung my eyes, and I could hear the crowd of students shouting slogans and the sirens of the riot police approaching the scene. Now, ten days later, demonstrations are taking place daily but everyday life caries on surprisingly normal with the sound of shouting and sirens in the background.
Courtesy of Azaz Shami
Sectarian violence in the western region of Burma that shares a long border with Bangladesh has now claimed at least 25 lives since Friday. President Thein Sein has declared an emergency in Arakan State, where a feud between ethnic Arakan Buddhists against stateless Rohingya Muslims has spiraled into full-blown communal violence. The looting, arson, and mob clashes are spreading fast.
Although a predominantly Buddhist state, Arakan is home to a large number of Muslims, including the estimated 800,000 Rohingya, who are regarded by the Burmese government as stateless illegal aliens. The United Nations has described them as one of the world's most persecuted minorities. However, many Burmese call them "Bengalis," or even use a racial slur, kalar, a derogatory term for foreigners, especially those of Indian appearance.
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It's been three days since I first heard about the insulting sms message sent by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (shown above) to his finance minister: "Stand your ground, we're the number four power in Europe. Spain is not Uganda." Business Insider translated the statement as follows: "We're a major power, not some random IMF-case banana republic." (A friend and blogger, Rosebell Kagumire, first posted it on Facebook, where I saw the link to the article.)
It was an affront to me as a Ugandan. Indeed, a number of netizens -- both Ugandans and non-Ugandans -- took to Twitter with the hashtag #ugandaisnotspain to protest the remarks. Ms. Kagumire set up the hashtag on Twitter in order to prompt Ugandans and friends to comment about the article:
The White House announced yesterday that it is lifting two of its major sanctions against Burma. At the same time, the Obama Administration nominated the first U.S. ambassador to Burma in 22 years. (Technically speaking, President Obama first extended one more year of the "national emergency" that serves as the legal basis for the investment ban, then used his presidential waiver to suspend the sanction. Yeah, it's confusing.) He also decided to waive a measure banning the export of financial services, which was a provision of the JADE Act passed by the Congress in 2008.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined five possible responses to the political opening in Burma in remarks she made on April 4. The United States, in Ms. Clinton's words, resolved to "meet action with action." Yesterday's announcement means that the U.S. has now implemented all five of the measures she alluded to.
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Traffic in Caracas -- which is chaotic at the best of times -- ground to a virtual standstill today as authorities were forced to shut down the main east-west highway crossing the length of the long and narrow city. The reason? Gunfire. Not just any gunfire, but assault rifle fire and sporadic grenades traded between the security forces and the heavily armed inmates at the notorious La Planta prison, which sits next to the highway just off of downtown.
Stories about conditions in Venezuelan prisons often have an other-worldly, Mad Max feel to them; with nearly 50,000 inmates crammed into jails built to hold 12,500, overcrowding in Venezuelan jails is cinematographic in scale. Overwhelmed by the number of people, prison guards long ago gave up trying to control what happens inside, limiting themselves to guarding the perimeter to prevent breakouts. The result is a Hobbesian state of nature inside the prison, a never-ending war of all against all that left 560 inmates dead last year.
Making things worse is the rampant corruption of prison authorities, who make a profitable trade selling anything you can think of to the inmates: marihuana, handguns, stereos, assault rifles, blackberries, girls, waterbeds, DVD players, cocaine, laptops, even military-grade grenades. Anything you can think of, you can smuggle into a Venezuelan jail -- at a price.
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The stage was already set for battle between the 52,000 Indonesian fans of Lady Gaga, who bought and paid for tickets to see her perform, and the 30,000-strong Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), who promised to disrupt her concert in Jakarta scheduled for June 3.
Going by the Twitter and Facebook posts this week, the Little Monsters (as fans of the American pop singer call themselves) say they are not intimidated by threats from the FPI, Indonesia's notoriously violent, self-proclaimed morality police. "If it's a fight they want, then it's a fight they'll get" is essentially the attitude of the mostly young Lady Gaga fans.
But now it looks like the showdown will never materialize.
The police. The real ones, paid with taxpayers' money.
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Makerere University's College of Computing and Informatics Technology is trying to get its students to create solutions to real-life problems. On its website, the department praised one team, Cipher 256, for winning the Microsoft Imagine Cup (in the East and South Africa Region). Aaron Tushabe, Joshua Okello, and Josiah Kavuma make up the winning team. In July, they will travel to compete at the world cup finals in Sydney, Australia. Their college has won this honor for its students five times in a row.
The winning concept is a mobile phone device that can detect ectopic pregnancies in women and monitor the movements of the fetus inside the mother. The application can be used at home, since the user only needs a mobile phone to carry out the scan. Uganda has over 14 million mobile phone users; today, people have phones even in remote villages. The group took its inspiration from the UN Millennium Development Goals for cutting maternal mortality.
I'm excited about this innovation because it can potentially do a lot to detect complications during the early stages of pregnancy. By picking up on these sorts of problems early, mothers will have the time to contact a medical professional who can offer therapy. Maternal mortality rates in most African countries are still far too high, of course, and an innovation like this seems like a great way to reduce them. The application, which is called WinSenga, can be found on both facebook and twitter.
"Smile before you hit" suddenly seems like perfectly good advice for men in uniform who, in Indonesia, still think they can get away with abusing their powers. These days, in a world increasingly dominated by social media, there is a chance that you will be caught on camera, and when that happens, you might as well make sure that you look good.
Last week a young man was attacked by an army captain on a busy Jakarta road. The officer thrashed his victim on the head with a baton while wielding a pistol in his other hand. The fight apparently started after their vehicles swiped one another during afternoon rush-hour traffic. The soldier was in civilian clothes, but what gave him away was not his car's army license plate or his buzz cut, but the arrogant display of power.
The whole thing was recorded in a two-minute video that went viral on YouTube last week. The video prompted a chorus of anger expressed through all forms of social media. The spontaneous public outcry indicated that this was not an isolated incident of abuse of power by the nation's security apparatus.
When South Sudan became the world's youngest nation in 2011, we greeted it with excitement. Decades of warfare were finally over. We praised Sudan for allowing the South to go, and we praised President Omar Al-Bashir for handling the separation calmly, despite losing the country's oil sources.
For Uganda, the successful peace talks and the creation of a new state meant that the Sudanese refugees long residing in refugee camps in Uganda would soon return home. (The photo above shows refugees returning to South Sudan from Uganda last year.) Most importantly, it meant that Khartoum would end the support it had been giving Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). Since the 2006 peace talks (initiated by Riek Machar, the current vice president of South Sudan), northern Uganda has seen relative peace.
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When President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono leaves office in 2014, one legacy he hopes to leave behind is an Indonesia that is truly committed to upholding and observing human rights, now fully enshrined in the nation's constitution.
His chief legal advisor, Albert Hasibuan, recently disclosed that the president has asked a team to prepare the text of a formal public apology for all the human rights violations that the state has committed against its own citizens. While he did not give any specific details, Hasibuan said the apology, to be issued before 2014, would cover all the tragic events in which the state was the main perpetrator, going as far back as the 1960s.
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The probability that Hugo Chávez may soon leave the political stage is increasing. Which member of his movement is poised to lead it?
Information on Hugo Chávez's health over the past year has been heavy on innuendo and short on fact. But in recent weeks, Chávez has virtually disappeared from the public airwaves, which suggests that his condition is serious. During his rare public appearances, he appeared sickly and unwell. On two recent occasions, he broke down and cried while pleading for his life.
In short, this is a very sick man who may not have much longer to live. The question that begs asking, then, is who can lead the chavista movement in the post-Chávez years?
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"Hello Venezuela! I inform you that I approved 1.95 billion bolívars for state and local governments, coming from extraordinary income! Onward!"
The above is a rough translation of a tweet written by Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez on April 17. As strange as it may seem, Twitter has now become ground zero in Venezuela's public sphere. Both the government and the opposition use the platform intensively to convey their messages, and even to talk to each another.
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This week Indonesia was gripped by the appearance of a now-infamous one-minute sex clip that appeared on the Internet. House of Representatives member Muhammad Prakosa must have watched it over and over again: As head of the House's Ethics Council, it's his job to decide whether the man and woman in the video are his fellow honorable members of parliament, as many are claiming.
The Council has yet to announce its finding. Prakoso says he will meet with the two alleged MPs first. This won't happen until the end of recess and the House resumes on May 13. If indeed the two MPs are the couple in the video, they will be fired.
In the meantime, the political rumor mill is already busy. Fingers are pointing at the two representatives from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the country's main opposition party. Last month, the party blocked the government's plan to increase domestic fuel prices.
The way the story has been played up by the website that posted the video suggests a political motive aimed not only at discrediting the PDI-P, but also at destroying the careers of the two politicians. Somehow the video clip managed to slip past the Internet censor -- despite the government's efforts to scrub pornographic materials from the Internet.
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In last week's paper, I was delighted to come across a profile of Abdu Ssekalala, a young and upcoming software development engineer at Makerere University's school of Computing and Informatics Technology (CIT). The article credits Ssekalala with developing nine internationally recognized mobile phone applications. His most successful application is Wordbook, a dictionary application that provides its user with a randomly chosen word of the day, including definitions, examples, and a selection of related words. The app costs the equivalent of $1.25 per download, and it's been downloaded over 300,000 times on the Nokia Ovi store.
I spent last fall taking courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and I couldn't help noticing the relative paucity of African tech developers there. Most of the non-U.S. students came from Asia. During my stay in Cambridge I was also struck by Soledad O'Brien's October show on CNN, Black in America: The New Silicon Valley. It followed eight African-American tech entrepreneurs who are trying to build names for themselves in Silicon Valley. The show sought to explore why black tech entrepreneurs haven't featured much in Silicon Valley's success story.
It reminded me of some of the discussions of similar topics back home. We, too, have been asking questions about the lack of innovation in Uganda and the support for such initiatives. Stories like Ssekalala's show that once young tech brains get the right training, support, and opportunities, they can compete ably with their counterparts in the rest of the world.
Last Wednesday, hundreds or perhaps thousands of people took over Habib Bourguiba Avenue, Tunisia's revolutionary epicenter. Not to protest the prime minister and his assembly, and not to make political claims of any kind. They weren't carrying banners, but books. It was an odd sort of protest. People of all ages (though mostly young) sat on benches, on steps, under trees -- and read. They were reading novels, comic books, political books, philosophy essays, and newspapers. The youngest, 4-year-old Laila, had a coloring book: Quite the young star, she didn't skip a beat (or color outside of the line) as others took photos of her all day long.
All of them had answered a call for an event simply called "The Street Reads," which invited people to join "the first silent protest on the avenue, with no political claims; just to prove that Tunisians do read, and that those who read are those who will change the world." (Yesterday, on Sunday, they repeated it again for good measure.)
University student Taqwa Giga sat under a tree and read a Paul Auster novel, unfazed by the traffic of the central avenue. Her friend, Habib El Hafsy, went for a classic: He was reading the Quran. "We're here to remind everyone that books are not neglected," said Taqwa. "People are quite alienated from books, clicking away on their computers. They need to be reminded of the value and richness of books." Habib found it hard to abide by the no-politics theme of the day. "The people who made the revolution didn't just do it out of hunger; they did it out of consciousness," he told me. "We may be a third-world country economically, but intellectually we definitely aren't." Their classmate, Ehsan Timoumi, jumped in: "After years of intellectual sidelining, we wanted to show that change comes from changing mindsets," he said. "It's unfortunate that Arabs in general have little awareness of the importance of reading. But it's culture that will take the country forward." He blamed the censorship of the old regime, which allowed only works that showed it in a positive light, for discrediting reading.
The demonstrators were quite positive about the awareness effect of their campaign. "Plenty of people stopped by to ask us what we were doing," said Taqwa. "Some laughed at us and walked on. And some -- did you see the man who was leaving when you came? We told him what we were doing, and he went and bought a newspaper, and joined us." But there's more to this "protest" than showcasing the importance of culture. Tunisians were once again reclaiming a public space. The first time, they reclaimed it as theirs to declare their political opinions, defying the Ministry of the Interior that stands at the entrance of the avenue, and which had set the dials of freedom of expression at close to zero. This time around they were claiming it as a space that didn't necessarily have to be political.
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On April 23, 43 members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) are supposed to take up their seats in Burma's national parliament. But before they can do that, they have to swear an oath. Now NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi has started a fight over its wording.
The MP-elects have refused to take the pledge because it requires them to state that they will "uphold and abide by the Constitution of the Union." The constitution in question is the one that was adopted in 2008 as the result of a process orchestrated by the then-ruling military junta and denounced by most outside observers as illegitimate. During the recent election all the NLD candidates campaigned on a promise to amend this constitution. In a recent meeting with President Thein Sein, Suu Kyi asked that the text of the oath be changed from the present version to one that stipulates only "respect" for the constitution.
The present standoff was preceded by a lot of complicated maneuvering that probably isn't worth going into. Suffice it to say that it will be almost impossible for the NLD leader to get her way unless the government amends the constitution itself accordingly. While some sources suggest that Thein Sein might be willing to concede the point, it will be very hard for him to do so without causing considerable discontent among other members of the ruling elite.
While the NLD has threatened to boycott parliament if its demand isn't met, Aung San Suu Kyi has tried to avoid saying this all too directly. "We won't say we are not attending parliament," she told Radio Free Asia in an interview on Thursday. "We will attend after the oath [is amended]."
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Egypt's presidential elections will take place less than four weeks from now and we still don't know who's running. As I've said before in this column (this sentence is fast becoming a fixture of my assessment of Egyptian politics): if it sounds ridiculous, that's because it is.
So far the list of candidates being served up by the Electoral Commission seems as changeable as the menu du jour of a capricious chef. The Commission's website, with no irony whatsoever, is displaying a blank candidate list on its homepage with the date "26 April 2012" in small characters below it, the date the final list is to be announced.
Over the weekend, the electoral commission disqualified 10 of 23 presidential candidates for not fulfilling the conditions to run for election. The commission gave them two days to submit appeals. By law, the decisions of the commission are final.
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Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy never fail to surprise the pundits. When the NLD (whose symbol is shown in the photo above) won 43 of the 45 seats up for grabs in the April 1 by-elections, the result caught most observers off guard. Most of them had expected the party to fall short of overwhelming victory. As I noted in my previous post, this victory demonstrated that people of Burma were prepared to practice "sincere voting" in the by-elections, defying various forms of government pressure to vote for the woman many of them call "Mother."
What happens next is much harder to predict. The NLD and its parliamentary group now face the challenge of actually trying to effect change in a system defined by the authoritarian constitution of 2008. The constitution guarantees the military political supremacy and ensures the domination of parliament by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the military's proxy party, by giving it 80 percent of the seats. In short, the recent "flickers of progress" in Burma have not substantially contributed to solving the country's two most intractable political problems: the lack of democratic governance and the failure to provide autonomy for its many ethnic minorities.
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On March 14 Burmese state TV allowed something that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago: it broadcast a speech by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Her speech, which was leaked online a few days earlier, was partly censored by the authorities, who deleted some unflattering references to the still-powerful military.
But even the broadcast version enabled Suu Kyi, who is running along with other members of her party in the much-anticipated parliamentary by-election on April 1, to deliver a powerful message to a national audience. In her speech, she said that her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), will pursue three priorities should it achieve a presence in parliament: It will work to promote the rule of law, to end the civil war, and to amend the 2008 constitution that grants 25 percent of the seats in parliament to the military without any of its candidates having to stand for election. Aung San Suu Kyi also pledged to support market-oriented economic reform, improvements in education, language rights for ethnic minorities, greater opportunities for young people and women, and freedom of association for labor unions and farmers.
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Anwar El Balkimy, a Member of Parliament for the Nour Party, underwent a nose job on Feb. 29 in the private Salma Hospital in the posh Cairene district of El Agouza. He insisted on leaving the clinic, according to its manager, on the same evening the procedure was performed. In so doing he defied their advice that he remain under supervision for another day.
By itself this story would offer little cause for headlines. But Nour just happens to be the party of those ultraconservative Islamists, the salafis, and they explicitly deem plastic surgery as forbidden by religion. This was probably why he refused to remain bedridden: He was afraid of getting caught. But how could he conceal his new nose from his fellow MPs once the bandages were off?
That's when it gets really entertaining.
Here's what Nikolai Gogol writes about the leading character in his short story The Nose: "...[A]s though visited with a heavenly inspiration, he resolved to go directly to an advertisement office, and to advertise the loss of his nose."
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"You're not more Muslim than the rest of us!"
So shouted Parliament speaker Saad El-Katatany at Member of Parliament Mamdouh Ismail. The whole thing happened in Tuesday's session of Parliament in Cairo. Out of nowhere, Ismail suddenly decided to stand up in the back of the assembly and make the call for prayer, the azan. Loud. Ignoring the speaker's objection to his disorderly conduct.
Ismail is one of Egypt's ultraconservative Salafis. Speaker El-Katatny is an MP from the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, so he's hardly a secularist.
But even to him Ismail's actions were utterly unnecessary. An irritated Katatny chastised his unruly colleague: "There is a mosque [in the parliament complex] for the call for prayer; this room is for discussion."
But MP Ismail was trying to one-up everyone else. His previous claim to fame, as journalist Issandr Amrani reminds us, was the lawsuit he filed against businessman and politician Naguib Sawiris for tweeting what he deemed to be an offensive cartoon. So it seems that he needed a new hobbyhorse.
The importance of this incident is twofold.
First, it showcases the difference between the Muslim Brothers and the Salafists. Both are Islamists, adherents of political Islam, and are instrumentalizing religion for political gain. But Salafists, representatives of a more hardline interpretation of Islam, are often more concerned with the superficial expressions of religiousness than with faith: Think strict dress codes, beards, complete gender segregation, and so forth. The Muslim Brotherhood is both more realist and somewhat more amenable to discussion.
Second, it is a reminder that religion sells -- and particularly the superficial expressions of it.
Mamdouh Ismail probably has nothing to add to the debate. His only contribution would've been a call for prayer and perhaps even a compulsory prayer break, à la Saoudienne.
And it wouldn't have been a once-off occurrence. Ismail would've probably stood up and interrupted discussions every day for the next five years around prayer time.
Transitions is the group blog of the Democracy Lab channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.