A Month in Indonesia

I spent January in Indonesia, mostly in and around the urban sprawl of Jakarta. It’s a city that is in motion — things are happening there and I find myself returning to this place of concrete and boulevards again and again. The first time I was acquainted with Jakarta was in 2007 when I attended Pesta Blogger, a massive gathering of online innovators from all over Indonesia’s many islands. I went back in 2008 to work on a magazine story about urban flooding with my friend and colleague, photographer Jacqueline Koch.

Jacqueline invited me to go back once more, this time to delve into religion in Indonesia. There are so many little known facts about this dynamic place. It is the fourth most populated country in the world, and largest majority-Muslim country in the world. While it is difficult to get an accurate count, the number of Muslims in Indonesia is as many as, perhaps more than, the Muslim populations of all Arab countries combined.

We spent the month exploring the diverse religious practices of this country. Islam does not just come in the Saudi Arabian brand so ubiquitous in the American press, and a visit to Indonesia makes that fact clear almost immediately. We wanted to know what the future of religion looks like in Indonesia, and how the rest of the world might incorporate the diversity of the country into their often limited views of Islam.

There was never a dull day.

Stephen Farrell, Sultan Munadi and a panel on war correspondence

Yesterday’s news that The New York Times correspondent Stephen Farrell was freed from captivity in Northern Afghanistan has been met with mixed emotions. His fixer, journalist Sultan Munadi, was killed in a raid of the compound where the two were being held.

George Packer at The New Yorker explains the often precarious position of fixers–the locals who help foreign correspondents with everything from translation to logistics–and expresses his frustration at what happened to Munadi in a blog post called, “It’s Always the Fixer Who Dies.”

In the course of the work, the fixer is relied on so heavily by the foreign correspondent that an observer who didn’t understand the system might assume that it’s the fixer who is in charge. After all, it’s the fixer’s country, and he or she knows it so much better. And yet the foreigner has the money, the name, the infrastructure, the power to hire and fire, and the ability to come and go, especially if things get sticky.

Packer’s post is exemplary of growing discomfort amongst foreign correspondents about safety for themselves and their fixers. Panelists in the first session of the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellowship 60th Anniversary Event, four seasoned conflict reporters moderated by CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, discussed the risks of reporting on wars.

This Week: Singapore in the news

When I lived in Singapore I stayed in Bukit Timah, on the west of the island near a large nature reserve and beneath the city-state’s tallest peak, which is not the grandest mountain at just over 530 ft. Bukit Timah is just south of the bridge that crosses into the Malaysian border town of Johor Bahru, in the southern Malaysian state of Johor. At the end of February, 2008, soldiers combed this area and security along the border was tightened in an effort to catch terrorism suspect, Mas Selamat, who had escaped a maximum security prison from an unbarred window in a restroom. Fliers of Selamat with a mustache, without a mustache, every detail of what he was wearing, his alleged limp, his favorite meal (ok, that last one is from an interpretation by Singapore’s most famous satirists) — one by one, the government released more and more details and asked for vigilance.

The big news this week is that Selamat was captured in early April, over one year after his escape. Authorities believe that Selamat, who had been held without charges under Singapore’s Internal Security Act since his first capture in 2006, is  the leader of the Singapore arm of Jemaah Islamiyah, or JI, which is responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings and an alleged plot to attack Singapore’s Changi Airport. News of his arrest came out last week, withheld, say Malayasian officals, to allow for continued investigation into the JI network. According to Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng, Selamat escaped across the Johor Strait on an improvised flotation device; weaknesses in border security, say Singapore authorities, will be addressed. Perhaps now is a good time to revisit another mr brown show classic, Blame It on Somebody (or perhaps the remix, or the follow-up episode Just Can’t Quit). For a good explanation of the whole story, read the account from AFP.

From FP Passport via International Economy via vesseltracker.com, global trade is taking a hit, and Singapore, the “world’s busiest port for container traffic” according to International Economy, is feeling the pain. Compared to last year, traffic in Singapore dropped almost 20 percent in January and February, 2009. See the short but striking report (and a really startling graphic) on a PDF from International Economy. Other indicators of Singapore’s financial predicament are the central banks’s move to devalue Singapore dollars and Singapore Airline’s move to give people $1 hotel stays.

And not related to Singapore at all, an Asia Pacific Arts story is getting a lot of buzz in the Los Angeles neck-of-the-woods. I’ll let the headline sell it: Hot Asian Actors Hollywood Doesn’t Yet Realize It Needs.

This Week: Follow-ups to terrorist attacks in India and the earthquake in China, perspectives on Iraq and North Korea

I’m starting a weekly post that rehashes some of the most interesting and unusual reports on Asia (in English) and the world. Let me know what you think, and if you find this kind of feature useful. For more interesting things on the web, from newspapers and blogs, see my shared stories page.

First, two Saturday features by two great reporters. Babara Demick for the Los Angeles Times writes a follow-up to stories about the Sichuan earthquake last May. Families there are still waiting for the official death toll and results of DNA testing to confirm the identities of the victims: China quake survivors still wait for word.

Emily Wax in South Asia for the Washington Post writes about discrimination against Muslims in Mumbai following the terror attacks last year: Muslims Find Bias Growing In Mumbai’s Rental Market.

And two from the BBC: First, a piece featuring the voices of American female soldiers serving in Iraq: Women at war face sexual violence. Army specialist Mickiela Montoya and others are explicit about the treatment of women in the army. She says:

A lot of the men didn’t want us there. One guy told me the military sends women soldiers over to give the guys eye-candy to keep them sane.

He told me in Vietnam they had prostitutes, but they don’t have those in Iraq, so they have women soldiers instead.

The BBC also ran this week an article that is quickly making the rounds on the web: Iraqi gay men face ‘lives of hell’.

And one more, from the Christian Science Monitor: American journalists could be bargaining chips for North Korea. It’s a well-reported piece that complicates the story of the two Current TV journalists who have be held by Pyongyang for a month.

the China bloggers post

I’ve been a loyal reader of Tim Johnson’s McClatchy Newspapers blog, China Rises, since it started three years ago. It’s only today that I thought about it, though, because Johnson is leaving the blog behind. He writes:

All good things come to an end, and that is true today for myself and China Rises. This blog is taking a rest. At some point in the near future, a new McClatchy correspondent will arrive in China and likely take over this blog – certainly with a different perspective than my own.

It’s been nearly three years since I started the China Rises blog, and my family is on its sixth year in China. English-language blogs on the Middle Kingdom have exploded in that time, and there’s a huge variety to read.

Indeed, China blogs have come to dominate my reading from Asia, mostly because there are so many good quality blogs out there. It began with my daily look at EastSouthWestNorth. The most recent addition to my China reading list is a Hindustan Times blog, Middle Order. I wrote a quick piece and Q&A with the author for The China Beat:

In the land of news-meets-the-Internet, China has been fertile soil for very interesting blogs by journalists…Perhaps what is most interesting about these blogs is the opportunity to get a greater picture of reporters’ perspectives as foreigners living in a new country. But if the recession — and the seating arrangements at a G-20 summit dinner — tells us anything, it is that the West’s perception of the East is not all that counts. How emerging powerhouse economies see each other is of great importance, and lucky for us is incredibly interesting. An excellent entree into Asian takes on Asia is a Hindustan Times blog, Middle Order, written by the newspaper’s first China correspondent, Reshma Patil.

Next up on the cross-culture China blog list: Double Handshake, written by Tom Pellman in Peru.

Global Lives #1: Project Kashmir

I did a story about the documentary film Project Kashmir for Asia Pacific Arts. You can see the story and all of APA’s coverage of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival in their website. I also made my first attempt at making a podcast start-to-finish. I hope these will become more engaging as I keep practicing.

I’m working on getting my buggy website to work with a player, so for now you can listen and subscribe directly from my site on mypodcast.com. UPDATE: It works now!

Here’s the intro:

Welcome to the first episode of Global Lives, a show about the kinds of people who make the whole world their home. Today, I’m talking to Senain Kheshgi and Geeta Patel, the filmmakers behind the much acclaimed documentary Project Kashmir.

For more information about the film, visit projectkashmir.org. This episode is co-produced by the online magazine Asia Pacific Arts, asiaarts.ucla.edu. You can discover more Global Lives on my website, angileeshah.com.

You can easily subscribe to this podcast or share it on your own blog or website.

Listen to Global Lives #1: Project Kashmir

Thailand news editor faces computer crimes charges

In Jan. 2008, the Computer Crimes Act was about six months away from taking effect in Thailand. It was part of the Internal Security Act, a complicated series of laws that were passed just before the leaders of a military coup held elections to restore democracy to the country. In Bangkok, journalists and web entrepreneurs were worried. Their main concerns were, first, the vagueness of the law, and second, the requirement that Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, log web usage. In essence, the ISPs had to be able to report who was doing what and saying what online, but exactly what information was to be logged was unclear.

No one was quite sure how the law would or could be applied, just that it was the kind of law that could be used quite easily for political rather than security purposes. Chiranuch Premchaiporn told me then that this scared her more than Thailand’s infamous lese majeste laws, which accord steep punishments for anyone who insults the King. If she was accused of lese majeste, Premchaiporn said with her ubiquitous smile, at least the King could pardon her.

Premchaiporn is the editor of a pioneering news website, Prachathai. Today, her site reports that she was arrested and then granted bail for violating the Computer Crimes Act. According to the BBC and the Thai daily newspaper The Nation, police officers arrested her on Friday afternoon and confiscated hard drives from Prachathai‘s offices in Bangkok. Premchaiporn’s alleged violation is allowing lese majeste comments to appear on the site in discussion boards. She has reportedly been charged under Article 15 of the Computer Crime Act, which makes it illegal for anyone to support or consent to Internet posts that violate criminal codes or present a threat to national security. She faces a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment.

“When the joke became true, [it was] a bit of a shock,” Premchaiporn wrote in an email. “Our lives will go on and this charge won’t stop me from doing what I need to do.”

A series of lese majeste charges filed in recent months have called into question Thailand’s committment to freedom of expression. Two weeks ago, an Australian author was pardoned after spending seven months of a three-year sentence in prison. Political scientist Giles “Ji” Ungpakorn left the country after being charged with lese majeste for his book about the 2006 coup. BBC reporter Jonathan Head (who inicidentally wrote one of the first English-language reports about Premchaiporn’s arrest) is currently facing three charges of lese majeste for comments he allegedly made to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Bangkok.

Being charged under the Computer Crimes Act, however, presents different challenges than being charged with lese majeste because it has not yet been applied against individual news reporters. The law has been used so far most often against pornographers and to temporarily shut down websites, including YouTube and Prachathai. Two of Prachathai‘s web board users were arrested and then released in Aug. 2007 for comments they made about Thai royalty, but the government never brought charges against them.

The Asian Human Rights Commission and the Committee to Protect Journalists have criticized the action against Premchaiporn and Prachathai as a threat to free expression.

[See my past entry about Bangkok, the elections and the Computer Crimes Act. For more on the Computer Crimes Act, see Don Sambandaraksa’s Bangkok Post article, reposted by Freedom Against Censorship Thailand.]

my online life

Next week, I’m attending a talk in Culver City. It’s one of my favorite parts of the greater Los Angeles sprawl, a no-fuss but energetic neighborhood with approachable people and good food. It represents comfort in a big city. But the talk, hosted by Zocalo Public Square, is about what is perhaps the antithesis of neighborly comforts. It asks the provocative question “Is the Internet Making Us Mean?”

Since returning from my last trip to Asia, my relationship with my laptop, my netbook and my iPhone has intesified. It’s amazing thing that a writer in Southern California can maintain close friendships with her friends in Singapore and Bangkok and Hong Kong. I’ll never regret that I can do very rich reporting on places far away because of Google Talk and Skype. As isolating as a subrurb can be, I can only imagine how much less interaction with the world I would have without social media and blogs and instant messaging.

But I also have serious reservations about my online life. Online, I am a private person and not a very patient person. Even though I spend a considerable amount of time chatting and blogging and twittering (on both the writing and reading sides), there are a lot of things that cannot happen for me in a virtual world. The Guardian reported last week that Facebook and social networking sites might alter the way the brain works. Neuroscientist Lady Greenfield (Baroness Greenfield according to the Telegraph) is calling for more investigation into the long-term consequences of living online. Indeed, there is a double effect that I’m sure many of us Facebook and Twitter and blog addicts are familiar with. We have constant interaction, “constant reassurance – that you are listened to, recognised, and important,” as the Guardian quotes Greenfield. But on the other hand, we lose depth or narrative in our relationships. Both literally and metaphorically, we diminish our two-dimensional lives. And our brains, as elastic and adaptable as they are, might be losing their capability to think deeper in terms of our relationships. If social networking and blogging might be causing these kinds of visceral changes, I can only imagine what Twitter is doing to my brain.

My editor at The China Beat sent me an article by Andew Sullivan that ran in The Atlantic last year. It’s a great explanation of its title, Why I Blog and presents some really interesting ideas about what a blog can do differently than other mediums. Sullivan writes (on page three of the online text) that a blog “renders a writer and a reader not just connected but linked in a visceral, personal way. The only term that really describes this is friendship. And it is a relatively new thing to write for thousands and thousands of friends.”

I don’t have thousands of readers, and by extension I don’t have thousands of friends, but this was a really interesting thought to me. I read EastSouthWestNorth and Traveller’s Tales. Heck, I even read DipNote — not sure that makes me friends with the Secretary of State. But even Madame Secretary takes on a new tone in the blog, with entries like “Question of the Week: What Is the Best Path Forward for Gaza?” and “A Visit to the New Forbidden City.” It’s certainly a way to create more personal, if carefully managed, relationships between citizens their government leaders.

All of this, I think, will make next week’s talk very interesting. If this is what friendship has become — communing on a blog with the Secretary of State, keeping abreast of status updates on Facebook, physical changes in our brains that make long-term attention much more difficult than before — than certainly, the Internet has made us mean. It’s a good thing I’m getting off the Internet at least once to discuss it.

my desk

(My desk in California — it’s a pretty mobile existence, which means I take my desk everywhere.)

not usually a fan

I’m in Los Angeles, but I’m not a big Grammys watcher. This year, I might just let CBS run in the background.

I first listened to the music of M.I.A. in 2005, when Asia Pacific Arts took an early bet that she would become big news for the music industry. This year, her second album, Kala, has become a staple in my musical diet. It is absolutely layered and filled with unexpected sounds and lyrics. Maybe that’s why Paper Planes, nominated for record of the year, gave such great character to the most entertaining scenes of Slumdog Millionaire, and made a really great trailer (just the end part) for Pineapple Express.

She’s got guts, and not just with her music. She’s slated to take the Grammy stage this year, very pregnant, for a performance on the day her baby is due. It’s certainly garnered her a lot of attention. She wrote (in hot pink) on her MySpace blog:

I want you to know that , everyone has been asking me on the shows to talk about the sudden popularity im experiencing, the babies, the grammies the oscars etc

and i want you to know that this has been part of the plan from day 1.

Indeed, M.I.A. has a plan; she’s got something to say, and it will be interesting to see if a show like the Grammys, not well known for its risk-taking, will let her say it. And what the last hours of pregnancy looks like on stage.

Here are a few interviews, if you’re unfamiliar with M.I.A.’s story. The first is another great interview by Tavis Smiley, the second a basic CNN interview, a quick sum-up of the Sri Lanka conflict in between M.I.A. soundbites, that is getting some flack.

 


 

(I am also intrigued by Radiohead’s reported Grammy night plans.)

good feelings and the Olympics

After visiting grand Shanghai and glittering Chongqing, it was in a taxi in Dongguan that my view of China took a small, but important shift. I was traveling with a friend to the South China Mall, down the main road that stretches from the city’s train station all the way out to the suburbs. It was Olympics time, but we were a far cry from Beijing’s impressive Bird’s Nest.

The train station was bustling with passengers, laborers and managers who clogged up nearby cafes and bars, eating cost-efficient meals before getting on buses to their offices or factories or wholesale shops. We were trying to get to a magical place, though, a place hailed as the world’s largest shopping mall. But we knew something was not quite right as the crowds thinned out and the buildings got taller but the streets got emptier. The downtown megacity was full of half-empty towers and ambitious but abandoned construction projects for new skyscrapers. The media, even China’s state-media Xinhua, was already reporting on falling property prices and demand well before the Olympics, and  in Dongguan, it was obvious, even to our taxi driver, that things were not as great as so many people thought they were.

At a University of Southern California conference on Friday, scholars gave more academic perspectives on China’s Olympics. Anthropologist Susan Brownell discussed China’s goals as hosts. Contrary to popular belief, she said, most of their efforts were turned toward their domestic audience. They did not have a “master plan to promote a positive image of China to the outside world.” She outlines this argument in a post on The China Beat and in her book, Beijing’s Games: What the Olympics Mean to China.

China promised to host a “People’s Olympics,” but can that kind of agenda survive, or even have any effect on the post-Olympics ground reality? Stanley Rosen raised the question, citing the warnings of state-run weekly magazine Outlook. Because of rising unemployment, reporter Huang Huo wrote that China is entering a “peak period for mass incidents.” Rosen, a USC professor of political science, pointed out significant, and emotional, upcoming anniversaries; May 4 will mark the 90 year anniversary of Beijing student protests that sparked the May Fourth Movement for populism and June 4 will mark the 20 year anniversary of the violent put-down of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Economist Jeffrey Owen stressed that the Olympics did not provide direct financial benefit to Beijing or China. With a $40 billion price tag, including Olympics and Olympics-related costs, the gains come more in the form of less quantifiable “legacy effects,” the good feelings, China brand building, and the international education received by volunteers, students and residents of Beijing. Certainly, Chinese residents of the second-tier cities, like Chongqing and Shenzen, felt pride for the country’s successes, even though they were far-removed from the glamor and cameras. But still, they, like me and my traveling companion, became very tired of the Game’s soundtrack.

 

Last week’s conference, hosted by the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, the Center for International Studies and the US-China Institute, was filled with interesting food for thought. But it was hard to get the repetetive refrains Beijing Huan Ying Ni out of my head every time I thought about my time in China. A friend in Chongqing told me the young people there were alternately pulling their hair out and making lewd parodies of the song, just to make its constant presence bearable. So while Premeir Wen Jiabao does his best to spread hope for China’s near future on his global financial goodwill tour, it’s still difficult to figure out if the Beijing Olympics gave China any significant leg up, if it was, as the conference asked, a “Public Diplomacy Triumph or Public Relations Spectacle?”

So what happened when we finally got to the world’s biggest mall? My friend, Anka Lee, wrote about it for NBC in San Francisco. But I think you can guess that it was not as triumphant as Beijng’s fantastic opening ceremonies.