19 Jun 2011

My dad: 1939-2011

Earlier this year my dad died very suddenly. An extremely fit and active man who was working full time at the age of 71, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia and died just four days later. In memory of him, this is the text of the tribute I read out at his funeral.
I shall never forget the surreal day he died. Just a week before he had been enjoying the final week of his holiday merrily riding on a boat at Iguassu Falls in Brazil. I had put together a selection of his holiday photos for him to enjoy in his hospital bed. But when I arrived at the hospital with my mum and my sister we were told that he had passed away just five minutes beforehand. His loss has left a big hole in my life in many different ways. But his spirit of curiosity and adventure well and truly lives on.

Grief is challenging, sometimes impossible, to navigate. It is like climbing a steep mountain shrouded in mist. It is odd how a feeling so empty can weigh so heavy. However hard you try, you can never quite shake it off.
Not many people leave the world at the age of 71 without retiring from work or life. He did.
In some ways being retired and sedentary would never have suited him. Far worse still to be bed-ridden and incapacitated, suffering and struggling for many weeks or months….with greatly diminished capability.
So, amongst the shock and sudden grief, maybe there was some mercy somewhere.
All of us here never really had the chance to properly say goodbye. But there are plenty of warm memories which we have to share.
For me, every day I spent with my dad, sometimes every hour almost, there was an abundance of moments to make me smile.
We are not only here to mourn a death. But also to celebrate a life.
So let us irrigate our sadness and illuminate our grief with one or two cheerful recollections:

Early Life
Not many people finish their working days on the same land a stone’s throw from where they were born having devoted nearly 50 years to the same business. From an early age it was clear he liked being outside.
By the age of 12 he could be found looking after 2 pigs, a flock of flapping hens and driving a tractor.
I shudder to think what boy of 12 in this day and age would be allowed anywhere near such things without reams of risk assessment paperwork or child safety regulation compliance
My father was a remarkably active, tough and energetic man. Perhaps the most active and boyish 71 year old you knew of.
Incredibly dedicated to his business. When it came to the work-life balance there was none. They were the same thing.
Less than one year ago he was in this church for my sister’s wedding…one of the rare moments in his life when he was actually rendered speechless.
He greatly enjoyed playing and watching sport. First rugby - always a keen and knowledgeable watcher - and then later on cricket and football as an Arsenal supporter.
Last November I took him to watch Arsenal. They beat Aston Villa 4-2, painful for me but entertaining for him.
Barely 18 months ago I was stood proudly with him on the summit of Snowdon, no mean achievement for a septuagenarian.
In his working life…
He was always up a ladder or down a ditch or with his head submerged under the bonnet of a piece of old machinery
He had a knack for fixing and repairing things
I’d seen him bang his head or slice his hand open, which he would casually and cheerfully shrug off.
His hands would often be coated in mud but they belonged to the soil
He lived and breathed the outdoor life, ploughing the furrows of a full and active subsistence. Always enthusiastically absorbed and with purpose in whatever he was doing.

Being in his company was rarely anything other than entertaining.
With a furrowed brow he once asked me where his glasses were. Had I seen them? I replied that yes I had seen them. They were sitting on his forehead.
On another occasion - having stopped to take a photo of a French chateau on holiday - his glasses managed to smoothly pour themselves out of his shirt pocket and deposit themselves in a roadside ditch
And on a similar theme…He once came home and managed to drop his keys in the dustbin.
People’s names could be merrily mixed up or muddled around.
Foreign language forays were legendary. Unleashing his limited Italian vocabulary on the population of Spanish speaking Argentina was his most recent contribution.
Or ask my mother who watched him collect the wrong suitcase from the airport in Buenos Aires and drag it all the way up to the hotel room. Still, he always liked a challenge.
Modern technology presented its challenges. He had an email address but seldom managed to locate it. I remember once receiving 6 consecutive blank messages
Mobile phones were even worse. Once we had got beyond establishing what the green and red buttons did, I think we’d reached the ceiling of possibility.
My dad was the only man I knew who could answer a call by simultaneously terminating it!
Whether it was something he said or something he did, it usually left you with a smile on your face.
Aged 70, scaling Crib Goch ridge, Snowdonia

A few years ago we were descending a mountain in Snowdonia. I heard a noise behind me. When I turned round there was my dad sliding past me on his backside in a small stream. Somehow he managed to halt himself just in time. He picked himself up, shook himself dry then had a good laugh about it.
Laughter was often the best medicine for my dad.
The fates of the weather were central to his existence. He could often be heard to curse or marvel at the elements and often spent a great deal of his time and energy, at various hours of day and night, attempting to thwart or negate their effects.
In particular, the BBC weather forecast after the 10 o’clock news was a religious devotion. Sadly, more often than not it passed him by because he had surrendered himself into a deep noisy sleep in front of the fire, worn out by his exertions.

Nonetheless, my dad was a man of remarkable energy and action. Never one to sit still or hold back.
In his later years he found himself driving a tank and up in a hot air balloon to celebrate various birthdays. Itineraries for holidays left very little room for lounging or lazing on a beach
He was a man of adventurous spirit. It took him - and my mother - to many corners of the world. New Zealand, South Africa, India, driving independently around Cuba - again with no Spanish - and finally, and perhaps most dramatically, South America.
As recently as a few weeks ago he was bounding up mountains, marvelling at glaciers and enthusiastically driving a large truck across spectacular deserts in Argentina.
He often revelled in venturing into places he wasn’t supposed to go A trait which, for better or worse, I may have inherited.
The rougher the road the more rewarding the journey and the more absorbing the story.

Indeed of all the supposedly dangerous places I travelled to around the world he would nearly always express a keen interest in what they were like rather than concern for me being there.
Plunge in head first and give it a go. That was my dad’s approach.
He always encouraged other people to have a go too. Have a go at things. It is a wonderful attribute to carry with you in life.
And what of his own character?
Well there was plenty of it.
He was never afraid of hard work. In fact, he knew no other way.
“Crack on! Don’t hang around! Get stuck in!”
These were his mottos. No time to waste.
Take the hands on approach and leave the Health & Safety manual in its rightful place gathering dust.
Yet he always had time for people, to chat to them, to give advice, even to lend a hand or fix something.
He was more than capable of seeing the good in all sorts of people, even those who sought to take advantage of his good nature.
He was unceasingly good-humoured, easy going and his company lively, always good value for giving as good as he got.
He was always willing to engage in banter or make a joke with his loud distinctive voice which seemed to dominate a room.
Yet he was also unfailingly curious and genuinely interested in the wider world. Eager to broaden his understanding.
He was whole-hearted in most things he did. Never shy to speak up, offer an opinion or put the world to rights.
So although his hands belonged in the soil, his mind, perhaps well-furnished by a lifetime of listening to Radio 4 and regular news watching and reading, was well-informed, engaging and perceptive.
He had a priceless ability and willingness to relate to and engage with others. Particularly young people. For more than a few people - myself included - he was the first employer.
I shall certainly miss his opinions, his insights, his advice, his humour, his encouragement…even his disapproval
So when I hear the words, “Rest in Peace”, I do reflect on the irony that peaceful resting was something he didn’t do an awful lot of.
Always in a hurry, he hurried through his life and, you might say, he hurried through his death too.

Life is rich. Time is precious before it overtakes all of us.

The lesson of his life is don’t let life or time pass you by.
My dad and mum in Argentina, the country where she was born and finally returned to enjoy....just a couple of weeks before my dad died.

5 Mar 2011

Libyan Lessons

Gaddafi, Gaddafi. Everyone wants to get rid of the rotten old mangy dog. But no one knows how. In fact, no one knows an awful lot about Libya at all.
A short hop across the Mediterranean from Italy, yet Libya might as well be on a distant planet for all the knowledge and insight we have had about life inside its borders.

For several years we've heard virtually nothing of substance from inside the country. Very few people bothered to speak to the Libyan people who lived under his Gaddafi's mean, repressive regime. Their voices were muted. Until now.

The country erupts in revolt against its leader and we don't have a clue what to do about it.

Gaddafi is an evil, nasty man, right? So the consensus now goes.
But he wasn’t so evil or mad when Tony Blair was embracing him, when Berlusconi was giving him the Bunga Bunga treatment, when Peter Mandelson was shamelessly spending lavish weekends with his playboy son on Corfu yachts; when the London School of Economics was financially brown-nosing itself to his shadowy ways, when BP (remember them?) was eagerly salivating over his oil millions.

The problem with Gaddafi was that he, his family and their acolytes became the state. The people of Libya existed to serve him instead of the other way around. They feared him. How ironic that he is now the one living in desperate, aggressive fear of his own people.

Like dictators and tyrants everywhere, he was simply too insecure to take criticism. Then, like a cornered lunatic, he became desperate. Gaddafi seems happy to buy in rent-a-thug militias from neighbouring Africa countries to coldly shoot and murder his own people.

Even the saintly Nelson Mandela misguidedly lavished praise on Gaddafi, warmly greeting him as his ‘brother leader’.
Because Gaddafi could be contained he could be condoned. Those oil millions made it easy for a succession of foreign leaders to do a deal and overlook the blood on his hands.
Never mind the revolting acts of bombing the Lockerbie plane and paying for the bombs of Irish terrorists. Look south across the Sahara into Africa and you will find Gaddafi’s grubby and bloody fingerprints all over the making and shaping of some of Africa’s nastiest, most brutal dictators and butchers: Charles Taylor in Liberia (now on trial in the Hague; how long before Gaddafi joins him?). Foday Sankoh in Sierra Leone and bloody involvement in Dafur.
All of this casually overlooked, outshone by those flashing dollar signs in the eyes of giddy leaders.
Blair, Mandelson, Rothschild and their greedy ilk…all of them are as unrelentingly shameless as they are self-justifying.
The shit might change but the flies stay the same.

It is very easy for many politicians to cosily hide behind the idea that international organisations like the UN are the most effective way to deter Gaddafi from murdering his own people. A strange sort of cosy consensus seems to have emerged that the UN can make everything right. Don't count on it.
If I was a Libyan on the streets of Tripoli or elsewhere fighting for my country's liberation from brutal despotism and freedom I wouldn’t count for one moment on the UN, the EU, or indeed the passive, pondering Barack Obama, helping me in any meaningful way. Fine words usually followed by impotent actions.
Remember that the UN happily allowed Libya to sit on its Human Rights Council until only a few days ago. That tells you plenty about the way the UN operates.

And when it comes to the EU, can its foreign policy representative, Baroness Ashton, gives serious, straight-faced lectures about democracy when she has never been democratically elected to anything in her entire life?

My solution?
Send in Gaddafi’s old chum Tony Blair. Lock them in a room together and let Tony talk him into exiled retirement. He’s probably got a room or two going in his Egyptian Red Sea mansion. Erect the tent extension. The two of them could sit by the sea and reminisce their good times.

Perhaps Tony Blair should also be asked to provide detailed disclosure of every visit he’s made to Libya, how much he was compensated and where exactly that money came from.

You sense that a small, but significant slice of Gaddafi’s (or rather the Libyan people’s) oil money has (via rich American banks) been channelled into funding Blair’s exotic global lifestyle. Come clean Tony.

Don’t let Gaddafi hide a thing. Don’t bomb him. Instead, flood the country with journalists and information: things he cannot fight or shoot. Instead of threatening and cornering him, why not entice him or confuse him. Why not seek to divide those around him?

There are many things we can do to enable and empower the many Libyan people bent on toppling Gaddafi. But they, the Libyan people, must do it for themselves.
The big failures of the West (as so often) has been the failure to be smart and anticipate what might be coming. The failure to sufficiently understand a country and all of its people from the inside. The failure to read and anticipate is not a Libyan failing. It is a failure all across the Middle East and beyond, down into Africa and across into Iran and Afghanistan.

That is what happens when governments (not just stuffy foreign mandarins but also the high-minded and worthy DIFD idealists) only deal with those in and around other governments instead of meaningfully engaging with ordinary people on the streets.
We criticise Gaddafi and his ilk. That is too easy to do. Yet we are as detached from his people (or subjects) as he is.

Political outrage is a common noise. And there is nothing like selective outrage too.
So to all those who condemn / deplore / express outrage over Gaddafi, why not Mugabe in Zimbabwe? Or King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia? Or Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia? Or Vladimir Putin in Russia?

Or indeed why not be outraged by the repessive, brutal dictatorship in China?
Why are any of them really any different? Or is it all a matter of degree?
Principles and values don’t seriously matter. Despite the fine words, stability and security interests nearly always trump them.

Think about that next time you hear a politician - from any party - using words like ‘totally unacceptable’ and ‘strong condemnation’, expressing outrage about how an unpleasant dictator treats its people. However much some would like us to, we cannot go around the world imposing our ways and values on other countries.

We choose our dictators, sorry allies, according to our strategic and economic interests. Many of them are far from virtuous. Lets just make our leaders be honest in admitting it.

The revolutions in the Middle East are all about the people. The best we can do is wish them well and wish them luck. They will need it.

3 Feb 2011

The Audacity of Hope?

"People should not be afraid of governments. Governments should be afraid of peoples." Egypt erupts and the world watches on. The audacity of hope...waiting to be fulfilled.

What is going to be the outcome? We can all interpret and speculate but nobody knows for sure what sort of Egypt will emerge from the debris. Like so many other countries in the Middle East (Israel included) we understand so little of the realities of day to day life inside.
Egypt didn't so much erupt as heatedly simmer over a long period of time before coming to an angry boil. It did so largely because its ruler and those dependent on him became far too detached from his own people.

Hosni Mubarak was kept afloat by £1.3 billion dollars of American aid money every year. For the Americans he provided stability. But that stability has now come at a very costly price for ordinary Egyptian people and now for the wider influence of America itself.

Mubarak is a rigid army man and, like many military dictators, his instinct will be of stubborn denial: to stay and fight to the end, however he can and whatever the cost. No humiliating exit for he. He will want to leave much later rather than sooner, if at all. By playing for time he might be able to restrengthen his grip once more, or at least secure a more comfortable and lucrative exit mitigating or eliminating potential retributions and prosecutions.

The problem extends well beyond Mubarak because of all the people within his corrupt regime who have strong vested interests in maintaining their power and privilege. The longer they manage to cling the more time they have to 'tidy' their financial affairs (international property empires and Swiss bank accounts no doubt) and bury the evidence of their wrongdoing.

One of the most striking things about the recent events in Egypt has been the caution bordering on appeasement of international politicians (particularly America) to speak up more forcefully and unequivocally for the Egyptian people.

But for decades America has decided to pick and choose its dictators. The double standards hypocrisy of preaching democracy to the rest of the world while indulging and financing nasty, repressive, but friendly allied, regimes is not easily forgotten on the Arab street. The hatred of American regimes has its roots.

Bank Ki Moon expressing his concern or Baroness Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, calling for restraint is like a petrified pygmy trying to irrigate the Sahara desert with a watering can. These leaders are little less detached from the realities of everyday Egyptian life than Mubarak.

Tony Blair, belatedly in his role as Middle East peace supremo, decided to speak up on behalf of the Egyptian people. Perhaps he fancied stepping in for a quick, you-know-I'm-a- pretty-ordinary Egyptian kinda guy, stint as president from his Egyptian holiday home or a short commute from his Jerusalem mansion.

Yet the biggest failure of leadership here has come from Obama. He sounded more like the defence lawyer for the accused when he should have speaking up for the abused, especially when they were being battered by their own regime. What use was a nice speech about stability for the Egyptian people? Too little, too late.
Sometimes you need to call a spade a spade. You sense Obama would insist on calling it a long-handled earth moving implement until he was sure he could say otherwise.

The great pity here is that America has missed a wonderful opportunity here to redefine itself across the Middle East as being on the side of the ordinary, oppressed and stifled populations instead of being seen to be sticking up for repressive dictators.

This is precisely the sort of revolution - peaceful protests, secular, young, democratic - which America and Obama should be doing everything possible to encourage and enable instead of attaching themselves to an outdated, brutal regime.

The fact that Mubarak sent out his ugly rent-a-thugs to deliberately provoke violence was a tactic as clever as it was desperate. Organised anarchy. It is an old tactic used by dictators everywhere: sow the seeds of chaos and violence, then use the violence as a pretext to reimpose order and rule by emergency decree.

But, thanks to the remarkable will of the protestors and enabled by the power of modern technology, these despicable tactics have been transparently exposed.

The intimidation of foreign journalists - smashing cameras and beating up reporters - is also completely unnacceptable. Such bullying betrays the fear of a guilty regime caught bare-handed wanting to shoot and silence the messengers before they tell the world of the dirty truths they wish to hide and bury. Their self-preservation, it seems, comes at any cost.

Closing down the internet and shutting off mobile phone networks are not enough to silence the people. Where in the past dictators could hide many unpleasant things, in 2011 very little can remain hidden.

It is only a matter of time before Israel, a country whose regime itself exists on the perpetual reinforcement of fear and threat by pre-emptive aggression, starts scaremongering. Extremists on both sides need to empower and embolden enemies to justify their own ways and means. So why have Obama and co. been so slow, muddled and ambiguously timid in speaking up for the moderates?

It must be because they too are afraid of the consequences of losing a strategic ally. Never mind the fact that Mubarak has screwed his own people for 30 years. Lets gloss over that shall we? Because in the outdated simplicity of America's security and oil interests Mubarak was 'with' them rather than 'against' them.

The blood of the violence on the streets of Cairo is blood on the hands of Hosni Mubarak. He must be held responsible for the actions of his regime. International leaders could and should have taken a much firmer pre-emptive line in warning him that his actions in tacitly enabling the increase in violence would have retrospective consequences for him personally.

So watch now for exaggerated threats stemming from Israel about the Muslim Brotherhood turning Egypt into a supersized Hamas and Hizbollah combined. Or, even more outrageously, the prospect of Egypt becoming another Iran.

This is nonsense of course, but Israel knows that this sort of noisy threat rhetoric (deployed for years to justify the 'War on Terror') goes down well in America. So often people fear things they don't properly understand, or indeed want to understand.

Look at Turkey. It has an Islamist dominated government, but so what? The country is largely peaceful. It has free and fair elections. Its people have become significantly better off in the last ten years because the country is on the whole well governed and the economy well run. All those who like to demonise Islam and exist in fear of Islamic governments should go there to see for themselves.

Israel has a very real opportunity to address its own security issues much closer to home by opening up the prison-like entity of Gaza and engaging with Hamas. In fact, I think it is quite likely that under the next Egyptian regime, the Egypt-Gaza border will become more open. Israel can do nothing about this, nor should it.

It would be no bad thing to reassess how we think about Israel. Is it wise for American foreign policy to be dictated by a relatively small number of Zionist nutters distorting and poisoning the wider Middle East with their uncompromising, aggressive behaviour?

It cannot even be in Israel's security and economic interests to continue living in aggressive isolation from its neighbours
With a change in Egyptian regime to something far more representative of the people, Israel will have to think very hard about its own future, possibly one without such wholehearted American support for every action. Religious fanatacism must have its limits.

Obama is cerebral kind of guy. If he is to tackle the root causes of the cycle of conflict and violence in the Middle East he must start by tackling Israel itself.

Obama has an opportunity to push Israel much harder into making peace. He must stop appeasing its aggressive behaviour. He can and should withdraw or dramatically reduce the vast foreign aid America gives to Israel. He can tell them to stop the settlement building and end the apartheid of treating Palestinians as second class citizens.

Obama can stop the collective punishment, but will he?

Does Israel, hijacked by its own zealous extremists in government, really want to make peace. Does Obama have the desire to compel them to do so? Can he lose the blind committment to everything Israel does and open his eyes to the realities of Palestinians lives?

Sadly, there seems to be a large gap between what Obama says in his nice speeches and what he actually does. But then, I suppose that's called being a politician. So much for the progressive president and his audacity of hope.

Indeed can America as a country be less one-eyed and one dimensional in how it views this part of the world and the people here? If it cannot then it risks becoming irrelevant and more loathed.

The repression of stability is not what the Egyptian people want. When people lose their fear, governments that have no legitimacy are in trouble.

The lessons from Egypt and Tunisia are clear. When illegitimate governments don't respond to or even listen to the needs and aspirations or the people, they are going to be in big trouble. Bad goverance will lead to a change of governance, as it should do everywhere.

Imagine the consequences elsewhere if Egypt, the beating heart of the Arab world with 84 million people, can force out one of the world's most well backed and entrenched dictators. Dictators everywhere are already thinking harder than ever before about how to avoid a similar fate.

They ought to be very afraid. People ought to be emboldened.

Satellite television, mobile phones and internet technology have never been more prevalent in enabling information and knoweldge to be shared. Western governments should be doing everything they can to enable and bolster transparency and free expression in the darker, more repressive corners of the world.

Such things can help people start to hold their rulers to account and the rulers will have to respond.

Responding with force will have consequences. Cosmetic changes and buying off core supporters might not be enough. To bribe and bully are not enough. Military solutions to political problems don't work. Ask Hosni Mubarak.

Before, people were angry but they couldn't do anything about it. Now they can.

As one bloodied protestor said,

"Mubarak is the terrorist here. He is causing the blood on these streets! Barack Obama, are you with us or against us?"

What happened to the audacity of hope, Mr. Obama?

Opening Up The Middle East

This is the summary extract from my book ‘Opening Up The Middle East’, which I wrote a few years ago. In light of recent events in Egypt, it seems oddly relevant.

Reflections: What Now For the Middle East?
‘Seize opportunity by the beard for it is bald from behind’
- a rather unlikely, but appropriate Bulgarian proverb.
It’s probably not a good idea to convey the meaning using such bodily
terms of reference in this part of the world, but it is accurate nonetheless.
Looking at the broad regional picture in the Middle East, many things are
complicated, but some things are clear. I don't come anywhere near to
holding all the answers, but, based on my experiences, these are my
The great irony of the Arab world is that, historically, it was once the
spearhead of what we now term 'globalisation'. In the West, rightly or
wrongly, today’s image of Arab people is of a people who are proud, but
angry. They once had a glorious, and at times comparatively enlightened,
past. They lived under comparatively enlightened empires and in golden
ages. But what of their future?
Firstly, for a long term solution, the entire region could revert to a very
short term US electioneering slogan Bill Clinton used in 1992,
– ‘It’s the Economy Stupid!’ Everyone becomes so preoccupied with talk of territory, guns, bombs and
religion, that economics has been virtually sidelined. Yet economics
matters. It really matters, and has been shown to matter, in other areas of
the world where long-standing conflicts are on the way to being resolved.
If a continuing sliding trajectory of economic growth, in somewhere like
the Palestinian areas, is prolonged it will do much to undermine the best
laid plans for peace.
Take China and Taiwan for example. Increased prosperity for the growing
numbers of middle class citizens has translated into greater stability.
Increased trade is an important component of acceptance and
reconciliation. When people become better off, they are less interested in
instigating or supporting violence as a means to achieve their ends. In the
words of one former Jordanian foreign minister,
‘The Americans seem to understand the importance of economics, but
their focus is never sustained.’
The irony of this, is that America became the world’s most powerful
superpower thanks in major part to the strength of its economic power.
The reality though, is that plenty of economic good can be done
internally, without the Americans.
Prosperity to the Rescue?
The Arab region as a whole has a GDP which is less than that of Spain,
yet it has six times the population. Half its people are under 25 years old.
Many economies in the Middle East have been badly managed and are
endemically corrupt. This has benefited no one, apart from a select elite.
Countries like Syria and Egypt drown in a sea of unnecessary regulations
and rules, which stifle individual initiative and enterprise.
Trading is historically inherent to the people of the Middle East. They just
need to be freed up from the oppressive and centrally planned command
economic structures, which are consistent with inflexible authoritarian
and corrupt regimes. Economies can succeed with or without the
government, but they cannot succeed against the government.
There needs to be less interference and more freedom, for people to make their
own financial decisions. Then imagine what could be achieved.
Liquidity is a major issue which must be resolved. People and companies
cannot make decisions to invest and take risks, like so many people do to
keep our own economies motoring along, without access to capital. There
is too much wasted or ‘dead’ capital, which cannot be mobilised.
A fair and reliable system for owning property would also be useful. The
banking and credit systems – which we take for granted to do things like
borrowing to start businesses and take out mortgages – are inadequate.
Funnily enough, we even obtained the word ‘cheque’ from the Arab word
‘sek’, which means draft order.
Meaningful property rights, a key tenet of any economic development,
barely exist. The rule of law and institutions are not credible, or
independent enough, for people to rely on. This, in turn, breeds more
Satellite TV and the internet are now ensuring that
authoritarian leaders can no longer guarantee the captive audiences they
have relied on to instil propaganda and fear into. Words like democracy
and elections are sprouting up in next doors' gardens.
Politicians and arms manufacturers do not create (and cannot impose)
wealth and prosperity, and never have done. The people do, organically
from within. They do it best without the incompetence and self-serving
corruption of their own leaders and foreign occupation. Historically, the
people in this part of the world have entrepreneurial instincts, which they
should be allowed to unleash once again.
In some East Asian countries, particularly South Korea and Malaysia,
authoritarian regimes were able to gain some degree of legitimacy,
because their people became better off. However, the distance between
the rulers and the ruled in the Middle East is too much of a one way
relationship and the gap must be narrowed.
Politically, the issues of legitimacy, accountability and fair representation
are particularly sensitive ones – but why? Most leaders in this part of the
world are authoritarians without legitimacy. They are accustomed to
packaging failure as success in a very New Labour way. No one can
meaningfully argue with them, or dispute what they say. Many times the
people of this region have had to stand back from the roaring flames of
bonfires fuelled by hollow rhetorical promises, vows and pledges on
democracy and opening up, which quickly burn to miserably charred
Looking at a bigger picture then, perhaps the Bush administration has
misunderstood and misjudged what fundamentalist Islam represents in the
Arab-Muslim consciousness. Benign ignorance of Islam became fearful
ignorance after 9/11.
The key now, as it always has been, is the Arab middle class, whom the
US should be concentrating its energies and resources supporting, not
alienating, rather the dictators who rule them badly (Saudi Arabia, Egypt
particularly). Consistent with this, will be the formation of credible
institutions and a reliable rule of law.
The billions of dollars of American aid money could be better spent elsewhere - why not graduate from aid to trade? It is folly to suggest that Israel, for instance, still needs economic assistance. It can look after itself, and the $1.5 billion used to build settlements on Palestinian land under ‘humanitarian aid’ should be more
vigorously scrutinised, not least by American taxpayers.

What I found interesting, and slightly surprising, was that of all the
countries I travelled in during my journey through the Middle East, none
of them could really be labelled a strictly Islamic country. Of course
religion plays a vital role in many of them, but each has its own
Syria is officially secular. Egypt is also wary of extremist
elements in the Muslim Brotherhood; Palestine, where the people are
more concerned by territory and living ordinary lives than religion;
Turkey where the importance of religion is increasingly being traded in
for opportunities of material improvement. The problem is that so many
people in the West lump together all these countries under the Islamic
banner, when the reality is more complex.

Is Democracy the answer?
Democracy is an incredibly powerful and contagious thing. Modest, but
notable steps seem to be occurring in the right direction. On the other
hand, to prescribe liberal democracy as the one-size-fits-all solution
straightaway for everything would not be the answer, especially if it
needs to be imposed from the outside rather than being encouraged to
organically develop from within. In this respect, maybe something is
stirring. President Bush may express his ideology in rather unsubtle and
simplistic terms, and can be inconsistent in applying his credentials
around the world, but it does at least set a benchmark, or a well lit
However, if you choose to force democracy - since embryonic democracy
cannot normally be nurtured without a change of circumstances - then
you must accept its consequences. Maybe it is better perhaps, to stand
away and let a ripple effect take place aided by the desire to be truly
independent, like Lebanon. The powerful rhetoric of ‘resistance’ is not
likely to lose its potency for a while yet. This might involve bringing the likes of Hamas and Hizbullah for example, properly into the mainstream.
But will they want to wholeheartedly evolve into mainstream politics?
At the other end of the political spectrum, can despots become trusted
democrats overnight? Probably not. Can new leaders be truly democratic,
legitimate and accountable? In the long run it is possible. Politicians and
systems can evolve and mature. They have to if the public appetite for
change has been sufficiently whetted.
It brings us back to the very beginning of my journey and Turkey. The
extremists soften their policies in office and are often best placed to carry
their constituencies with them on a modernising journey. Turkey could be
the testing ground for the argument that Islam is compatible with a
secular liberal democratic system. It would benefit everyone for the EU to
make sincerely inclusive overtures to Turkey, rather than harshly
exclusive ones, especially ones termed in prejudiced and religious tones.
Alienation risks unpredictable consequences. Why not engage them
instead? Who knows? Turkey may be more of an asset, than the burden
many people fear and governments expect.
However, further south and east, the Americans have an inherent
addiction to selling tanks and fighter jets to satisfy a thirst for oil.
America spends $420 billion each year on defence. Think how big that
figure really is, but they still struggle to rustle up a single spokesman
capable of putting across its message in Arabic on Al-Jazeera.
We should not misunderestimate, as George Bush might say, the colossal
political power, in the medium to long term, of these two domestic
lobbies in America - the right to drive huge vehicles and sell weapons -
and the broader implications these addictions have externally.
But particularly the dependence on foreign oil. Americans’ love for cheap
petrol props up those economies, which rely on selling oil. So in an era of
higher oil prices, all that extra money from the pockets of American
citizens goes straight into the bank accounts of Middle Eastern
governments, some of which (Saudi Arabia, Iran) are indirectly financing
the terrorists the president pledges to destroy. How much simpler life in
international politics would be for America if it could significantly reduce
its dependence on oil from the Middle East.
Peace might be more destabilising for many people in powerful positions
with vested interests on all sides. We should be honest in admitting this.
Over inflating the Fear Factor does not really bring much clarity to the
situation - it is mutual vulnerability. You cannot defend or fortify every
single soft terrorist target and it obscures the more important economic
The population growth of the region is also a problem - 60 % of the Arab
world is under 25 years old. If a country like Syria keeps growing at the
present rate, its population will double in a generation, and the economy
cannot grow fast enough to keep up. The rate at which average incomes
are rising is less than the rate at which the population is growing, which
might spell trouble. Those who work have to support a lot of dependents.
On the other hand, the Middle East looks likely to continue to suffer from
the ‘Brain Drain’, where all the most talented people of working age
desert their countries in search of better lives elsewhere. And the ones
who don’t desert, without meaningful economic opportunity, often turn to
religion. Secular education would empower these young people and
possibly divert more of them away from the radical madrassas. Swap
passion and emotion for the nuts and bolts of policy and debate.
Have we reached the point where the structure of hate is now too
ingrained and endemic for the necessary co-operation and compromises
to succeed? Where people resort to emotion before reason, and violent
extremism becomes the norm? Unremitting bitterness, reciprocal violence
- the breakdown in trust could become permanent. Is it a case of
choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable? A world in which
using human shields, putting bombs in ambulances, targeting schools and
bombing religious sites becomes the norm?
A perpetual war is a dreadful prospect, especially if the world diverts its
gaze from Iraq, and gives the Israeli-Palestinian conflict an escalated
international and religious dimension. Many Arabs, rightly or wrongly,
already see no distinction between Israel's occupation of Palestinian
territory and America's occupation of Iraq. Both conflicts are portrayed
on Arabic satellite channels as similar dramas of national or Islamic
resistance. They undeniably fuel boilings of anger hundreds of miles
beyond the epicentres. An apocalyptic scenario might fancifully envisage
Al Qaeda setting itself up in the Palestinian territories to attack Israel,
followed by forceful, disproportionate US retaliation on Israel’s behalf,
inflaming even moderates in the Arab world.
I don’t buy the argument that poverty and desperation equals suicide
bomber, but there is a contributory effect, and it is depressing to think of
children growing up, knowing nothing different to hatred, violence and
death - fertile growing conditions for the ingredients of violence to grow.
Which again emphasizes how essential it is to get the economic bit right.
However, it must be stated very clearly and loudly that nearly all Arabs
and, indeed Muslims, are not remotely anything like Osama Bin Laden.
The most effective fighting tool against Bin Laden and his ilk is the
bravery, integrity and decency of the immense majority of the world's one
and a half billion Muslims.
It is very tempting to say that religion is not as big a deal as people make
it to be from the outside. Most people in this region have broadly secular
instincts. Religion is nothing more zealous than a source for moral
guidance. They simply want legitimate, accountable leaders to represent
them. Not democracy through fear, intimidation, assassination, fraud, and
total control of the media - the Russian way. Does the new generation of
political leaders have the stomach for the right kind of fight – opening up
and reforming to make their people more prosperous? The jury is still out.
As one former Egyptian minister said,
‘They [Arab governments] can make the right gestures, but even a small
relinquishment of authority produces ugly withdrawal symptoms’.
Rhetorical talk of impending reform from the top may be no more than
skin deep. It will be especially shallow, if the real balance of power might
become threatened by change, at which point the well practised survival
instinct digs in again.
Having preserved power for so many years, many of the regimes of
Egypt, Syria and the like, are nothing if not muscular, cunning and
ruthless. In Egypt the people have become so used to fraudulent and
manipulated voting that they might be warily cynical and deservedly
distrustful of the benefits of voting. Things that we take for granted, like
being able to properly scrutinise government spending, a hostile press,
independent courts, full emancipation of women and impartial police
remain a long way off. Expedient, vested gradualism is the chosen path.
You have to be very optimistic to believe all these diversely converging
problems can be resolved smoothly, and any window of opportunity will
not stay open for long. However, as well as the threats and fears, there
does exist promise and opportunity, in the form of different, emerging
leadership, and the greater potential for reform they can provide.
Then we might just begin to see another side to the Middle East through
our news screens and in our newspapers. So instead of always associating
the Middle East with death, bombs and terrorism, we can also talk about
life as well. And perhaps returning to what Confucius said, the Middle
East is not simple and, in analysis, we should complicate it more.
So it may be time to seize opportunity by its beard. Is the Middle East
waking up to something significant, or merely rolling over in its sleep?
As someone once pronounced, it is best to never prophesise, especially
when it concerns the future.
But one thing you can be sure of in the Middle East, is that the coarsely
evolving momentum of events will always keep things bumpily rolling
along with unpredictability, as they always have done. Just like my
travels. It will be worth following.
So in the end, there were no kidnappings or suicide bombings. I had
certainly spent an uncomfortably excessive amount of time in the
company of people with guns employed by dubious governments. I had
also become undesirably intimate with an unhealthily excessive amount
of animal excrement. But these were the worst things to happen to me in
the Middle East.
There was little time to sit comfortably. But I wouldn’t have done any of it much differently. The pounding pulse of life in the Middle East remains compellingly vivid and vibrant. There is still plenty of Middle Eastern promise. It deserves to be properly sampled.

2 Dec 2010

FIFA: It's a Rich Man's World

Well done to Russia and Qatar for paying, sorry earning, the right to host the world cups of 2018 and 2022. But the nature of their 'triumph' raises more questions than answers.

The way football's governing body FIFA runs the secretive vote you half expected plumes of white smoke to emerge marking the winner. FIFA and the Vatican have plenty in common as it happens. Both of them secretive, senile autocracies who have hoarded vast concentrations of ill gotten wealth.

The decision about the world cup is largely about the ego of one man: Sepp Blatter and his Swiss-dominated quasi-dictatorship over the governing of football. And you can almost here the joyous jangling of the pockets of those bloated, sycophantic jobsworths who swim in the murky cesspit of FIFA's unaccountable millions.
So good luck to the fans travelling to enjoy those two world cups!

3 Mar 2010


Interesting article. Something to think about the next time someone in a developed country asks, or insists you give money to 'help' or 'save' an African country. The money is very likely to 'help' some people much more than others and most of us shut our eyes and ears to it. We hand over our money and go back into our own busy worlds. Not for a moment, do the vast majority of people stop to think, where exactly has our money gone to and was it really well spent?
Children at an indepenent school for deaf children in Addis Ababa, which the Ethiopian government wants to shut down. Why? Simply because it is not run by the government.

I have spent the best part of a month slogging my way around Ethiopia. In some ways it is an amazing and eye-opening country. In others it is depressing for the very large numbers of people who do little more than subsist. Hard questions need to be asked about the way the country has been governed and why it remains so wretchedly and miserably poor.

Ethiopia's population is quietly exploding. It has virtually quintupled in lass than a century. Half of the people cannot read or write. They live very primitively off the land. Schools and health services are woefully under-provided in large swathes of the country. Is that really because we in the west (poverty always seems to be about 'us' doesn't it?) have not poured in enough money? I don't think so.

Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister, seems strangely beyond criticism. But I wonder if it was wise for him to decide to spend large amounts of his country's (already slim) budget on fighting two major wars with Eritrea and interfering within Somalia instead of on schools and health services for his own people. Wars which America and Britain happily supported by the way.

'What is my president doing for me?'

There is a very intersting debate to be had (not that we are likely to have it in this country any time soon) about the consequences of shovelling large amounts of money into very poor (and very corrupt) countries. Can we be honest enough to ask ourselves, is it really a good thing?
I can assure you that the consequences are very far from favourable. In fact - and this is hard to believe but it is true - they have even been detrimental and regressive to a country like Ethiopia's development. Aid dependency and the corruption it engenders has severely hindered the lives of ordinary Ethiopians.
There is a very important and relevant discussion to be had about these aid and development issues, which I am sure I will return to another time.
But bare in mind one thing: most of the people you hear talking (or should I say lecturing) about these issues in the mainstream media have their own agendas to promote. They wear their development hats or NGO badges. It always pays to look at who pays their salary.
They are unable to be truly objective and rational in analysing the effectiveness of aid and development policy. They live a very nice and relatively comfortable life in the countries they are so earnest about saving.
For me, the biggest and most relevant challenge in reducing poverty is not about how much money we 'should' unburden ourselves with. It is reducing corruption and improving bad governance. African poverty should not be about our guilt complexes and our 'must-do-something-anything' culture. It should be about the many and deep failures of African governments to do effective things for their own people. It should be about making them more transparent and accountable to the people they govern.

Forget the coloured wristbands, the emotionally blackmailing slogans and the day trip celebrity guilt tears. We do not have a hope of making poverty history unless we are searchingly honest about understanding the real causes of it. From inside the places where it exists and is perpetuated.
So what is Saint Bob Geldof's response? 'Just keep giving money!'
Just keep giving money. Keep pouring it in. Throw enough of it at Africa and all poverty will magically dissapear and we can all ease our guilty wealthy consciences. How simple. How naive. How wonderful for Africa's corrupt leaders. How disrespectful to the people of Africa.
Give me the valuable currency of real life experiences over the cheap currency of celebrity moralising every time.
When will we learn? It's not about the money, the impressive pledges, the warm slogans or the good intentions. It must be about understanding the realities on the ground.

23 Jan 2010


Its where the two Niles meet. It has been described as the world's largest waiting room. From personal experience this is not unfair.
Nothing happens in a hurry here. The word for 'urgency' does not exist. You just keep your patience, wait and wait. Otherwise it can drive you slowly mad. Even without doing very little of note, the city seems to exhaust you and wear you down.
I got pulled over yesterday in Omdurman market by a stern plain clothed man. It was a fairly innocuous area. But he told me he was from the Tourism Police. I was not to take photos, he insisted. He demanded to see my passport. After trying hard not to laugh at his title, I had no choice but to comply. He didn't seem in a mood to argue.
Sure, I said, no more photos. I walked on down the road. After waiting until he was well out of sight, I continued taking photos. This side of the Sudanese government is unpleasant and extremely counter productive to the enjoyment of being in a fascinating country.
It is also a total contrast to the wonderful nature and generosity of the vast majority of the Sudanese people. They are several worlds away from their government in so many senses of the world. Sanctions have punished them in the same way they have punished the ordinary and poor people of Burma.
I wish more people had the capacity or initiative to take their curiosity beyond the simplistic and often misleading news headlines, to climb over the easy and lazy negative assumptions we make and solidify about countries we know so very little about from the inside.
And yet, the notoriously slow and unhurried Khartoum appears to be changing. Or at least undergoing a dramatic visual facelift. The Chinese haven't just arrived. As quietly and discreetly as they always seem to do, they have built themselves upwards and concreted their way into influence and power here.
Colonel Gaddafi has erected an outrageously attention grabbing shiney tower. Maybe he knows a thing or two about what is going to happen in this big and mysterious country.

17 Jan 2010

Inside Sudan

'Ah, you are British.' said the uniformed official as he looked me up and down with suspicion. 'You are the colonisers!'
I didn't know what to say.
Then with a big flourish he imitated a large handlebar moustache and afforded himself a chuckle.
'Welcome to Sudan!' he beamed.
I can assure you that the Republic of Sudan is not at all what you might think it to be. In fact, it could be so far away from cliched and negative perceptions that it is a mystery why we understand so little of it. Africa's largest country - 8 per cent of its the continent's total land mass even - and still one of the most closed off and well hidden.
Next door Egypt receives something like 12 million tourists every year. I would be surprised if Sudan receives more than 1,200. I've only witnessed a handful of other Westerners so far as I follow the River Nile south through the desert.
The landscapes are extraordinary. The people are luminous and warm spirited. The roads are generally good (thanks to the Chinese - more on that another time). The biggest challenge seems to be the bureaucracy. There's so much of it. Everywhere I go I have to register. Imagine that. I need permission to move from one place the next. Yet so much of the form filling and box ticking is utterly pointless and irrelevant. Often I write it out myself. I could write anything on some of the forms and the policemen would not raise an eyelid. Such is the structure of Sudan.

6 Jan 2010


Having travelled through (a very cold) Europe by train to Istanbul, and through the Middle East for a second time, I am in Egypt heading down the Nile and waiting for my Sudan visa. It might be a long and expensive wait!

6 Dec 2009

Obama's War

I like Barack Obama. He says a lot of fine things. But I am starting to wonder if the warm rhetoric can be bolstered by effective judgement. And I amm not the only one.
Things are about to get increasingly bloody. He's decided to pour another 30,000 soldiers into Afghanistan as if their presence there will magically give the illusion of a war being won just in time for the next presidential election in 2012.
It sounds so seductively simple doesn't it? Just add more military power and the 'war' can be won. But you could very easily add another 300,000 soldiers and it won't make very much difference. Because Afghanistan has never been and never will be a country which can be readily conquered. It is too complex, too tribal and too hardened to resisting occupation.
The price worth paying, in terms of blood (Afghan and Western) and money is way too high for the ends which might be achieved.
There are many better, much smarter and more effective things which can be done to improve Afghanistan.
First, start with the corruption and pitifully low legitimacy of Hamid Karzai's government. Compel him to devolve power. Force him to expose and punish large scale corruption where it has taken place.
Second, think economics. The reasons many young Afghan men fight for the taliban is money. They are not necessarily comitted to the radical ideology of wanting to murder all infidels. They just get paid more in a desperately poor country where alternative opportunities to earn money are virtually non-existent.
Third, remember that intervention and occupation in a foreign country will always be unpopular as long as the ordinary people can see no benefits. If they have no water, electricity or indeed security, then of course they will be angry and more motivated to get rid of foreign occupies trying to impose their own values and ways on them.
Think more about political and economic solutions rather than military ones.
Fourth, lets just either drop or demolish this frequent and righteous line that having more soldiers fighting in Aghanistan somehow makes the streets of Britain safer. It is tenuous at best and misleadingly disingenuous at worst.
The taliban are not about to invade us any time soon. We may not like them, but then there's lots of rulers around the world who we may not like. We don't go around making excuses to get rid of them. Nor should we. Unpalatable as it will be, we may have to deal with the taliban politically.
Besides when it comes to terrorist attacks on British soil and keeping 'the streets safe' (the favourite phrase of lazy politicians), it was the breeding of homegrown extremism which was the principal fuel.
British soldiers are in Afghanistan because we always have to follow what America does. Our leaders have been too timid in being candid about the realities of winning in Afghanistan and understanding both day to day inside the country and also its history.
Finally, something that is mentioned very infrequently. Fighting wars and occupying other countries is extremely expensive - something like one million dollars per soldier per year. Could that money not be better spent on something more effective at home?
Both America and Britain have never been closer to bankcruptcy. They cannot really afford grandiose foreign adventures. America is losing its leverage and influence in the world just like Britain lost its after Suez in 1956.
Is it not better to accept and manage that reality sooner rather than later before hundreds more people lose their lives for no sensible reason?
How about less invading and more intelligence?

4 Dec 2009

Next book...coming soon...

Is This Burma?
Sit yourself comfortably for an eventful ride. Let the journey take you down rivers, up mountains, inside monasteries and inside people’s lives. Let it introduce you to remarkable characters. Let it take you where no foreigner is allowed to go, by motorbike right up to the Chinese border.
Here is a very exceptional country in every sense of the word. On the outside, a closed off pariah, very far away in our consciousness. Yet, if you can let go of your preconceptions, on the inside there is so much to discover.
Above all let this book shed intimate light on a little known country and people so cruelly shut off and isolated from the world as we casually know it. Prepare to be surprised by a very exceptional country. This is the Burma we can discover a little more about from the inside.

Should I Go?
1 Yangon - The End of Strife
2 Yangon - All That Glistens Is Not Gold
3 The Golden Rock Rollercoaster
4 Lights Out in Mawlamyine
5 Hpa-An - Monks and Monkeys up a Mountain
6 Bago: Mr. Bald, Mr. Funny & the Goat’s Fighting Balls
7 Kalaw - Win Win the Lottery
8 Mandalay - The Moustache Brothers: No Joke!
9 Snakes and Horses: The Deserted Cities of Mandalay
10 Pyin U Lwin - The Footsteps of Empire
11 The Chapatti Interviews
12 The Heavy Hand of History in Burma
13 The Slow Train to Hsipaw
14 Mr. Book: Crying For An Education
15 The Forgotten Palace Meets the Forging Empire
16 Motorbike Misadventures One: Switzerland & Back
17 Motorbike Misadventures Two: China and Back
18 The Wrong and Winding Road
19 I’m a Tourist. Get Me Out Of Here!
20 Whispers in the Shadows of Mandalay
21 River of Destiny to Bagan
22 Bagan: Dusty Desert of Forgotten Gold
23 Questions From A Monk
24 On the Way to Pyay
25 Bay of Bengal - End of the Bumpy Road
26 The Japanese Original with Fried Fish
27 A Land to Savour and Set Free
What Now? Is This Burma’s Future?

Extract from Chapter 23 - Questions From A Monk:
"Sat next to me was a venerable middle-aged monk wearing sunglasses. For a moment I wondered if someone high up had assigned him to keep an eye on me and make sure I stayed on my best behaviour.
From the inside, the bus was nowhere near as bad it looked from the outside. It seemed to move along without too much of a rough splutter, which was always an unexpected bonus on any Myanmar bus.
The seats were high so your legs could barely touch the floor. But then they never needed to touch the floor because the floor was piled with sacks and boxes of luggage. Giant white bags of rice consumed much of the aisle space. Getting on and off necessitated tackling a mini obstacle course. One man simply resorted to sliding his frame in and out of the window to free himself.
It was the hottest part of a hot day in a hot place. There was barely any air flow. Dust tickled the palm trees along the roadside. The air outside the window caressed my face like a constant warm hairdryer.
It made me drowsy to the point where I found my head slowly but surely rhythmically lolling onto the monk’s shoulder. I’m not too sure what the local etiquette should be in such a social situation when you wake up near dribbling over a monk.
His English was strained, but he tried very hard and we managed some conversation.
‘I think this bus is older than me!’ he joked. ‘It is hot, hot, hot on this bus!’
‘Yes, very hot. And slow, slow, slow!’
‘Today the bus is very fast.’
‘Yes, because no breaks on the road, no accidents, no failing the engine. Very fast today.’
‘Very fast?’ I found myself asking out loud. ‘What is your mother nation?’
‘What is your origin?’
‘Good question. I suppose I came from my mother in England too.’
‘And what is her origin?’
Unfortunately for me, after a couple hours of hot, sweaty and slow progress some distinctively unholy aromas of body odour drifted into my nostrils. Perhaps this was silent revenge for my sleeping misdemeanours.
On the television screen the movie Transporters was playing, starring Jason Statham. Two girls in front of me turned around to point out some sort of resemblance between Jason Statham and myself. Then they dissolved into fits of embarrassed giggles. The monk next to me seemed to be enjoying some of the action sequences and even the shootouts.
‘Do you have many gun problems in your country?’ the monk asked me.
‘Erm, some gun problems, yes. But not like in the film.’
‘In your country, tell me, is sex free? Is it liberated to make sex with other people or do you have many disciplines to stop this?’
He was curious this monk. These were good questions which made me think. Did we have many disciplines to stop people making free sex?
‘Well,’ I began just as the bus lurched into a noisy pothole, ‘I suppose the sex is liberated for some people, but not always free.’
‘Sometimes you have to pay?’
‘Erm, a few people do but no. Most people get married or live together and then the sex is free. Although not always free.’
‘Your country very glamorous, yes?’
‘Well, it depends where you go or who you are with!’
'Sex is very free!'
'Maybe we are not very free from sex.' I replied.
At the end of the film, which the monk and myself had sat through stoically, there was a long and intimate kissing scene. He felt obliged to politely look away at anywhere or anything apart from the screen directly in front of his eye line.
Outside dusk was sliding up on us. There was sand everywhere. I felt like we were crossing some sort of desert. My stomach was stirred and swirled by the unpleasant momentum.
‘Road is very bad now here. Many holes. A lot of jumping I think. Very slow.’
‘Great, I can’t wait!’
The sandy dust, the long unexplained stops. The villagers rattling collections tins as we entered and exited every through settlement. The local bus was feeling just a little too local.
Every Myanmar bus journey had its obligatory food and toilet stops. Where England had motorway service stations, the mostly dirt track main roads were usually broken by large dusty shacks. The food was never particularly appetising unless you were ravenously hungry.
Various meats swam in oily tanks. There were dollops of rice and piles of noodles with complimentary flies. There was always plenty of tea of course and occasionally a Myanmar beer could be served. And a bit of fruit could be found afterwards from one of the street vendors if you gave it a good dusting down.
Eventually the bus arrived in Pyay around one o’clock in the morning. It was only around three hours late, not that lateness had any significant meaning for users of Myanmar’s well worn transport system.
Although determined not to miss my stop, I had been lulled into a deep sleep. As I groggily fished my mind back into normal consciousness, I became aware of a strange presence next to me.
My monk friend was sat with Zen like calm, crossed legged, gazing straight ahead. I wondered how he was able to give off the air of such relaxed serenity. It was almost as if he was floating above the ground and the white sacks of rice, like a meditating spectacled Buddha.
What a splendid religion Buddhism must be, I reflected, if it enabled you, or taught you, to sit so calm and serenely unaffected by thirteen hours of bumpy, dusty, noisy Myanmar bus travel.

Sanctions punish people


Before I go anywhere, it’s a valid question which needs addressing. The answer can never be a resounding, unhesitating yes. It seldom is in life. Travelling to countries with unpleasant governments does not meet with the approval of everyone. Let me explain why I strongly believe it is the right thing to come to a country that very few people know much about from the inside.
I met a man who had been travelling in Burma nine times in nine years. Not once in all that time did any person in the country tell him he shouldn't have come. Tony Blair - amongst other so-called esteemed (but obviously not informed) experts - called for people to boycott this country. Please remind me how many times he has actually visited this country. How many times has he spoken to or listened to any ordinary people living inside the country?
Are we all supposed to unquestioningly defer to such high profile people and lose all ability to think and act independently for ourselves? Why should the likes of Tony Blair and Bono, or indeed any hectoring campaigner, dictate where we should and should not go in the world? Who gave them the right to preach to others and impose their own morals?
Travel - and I write here with a conviction based on no shortage of extensive and diverse experiences - is an incredibly powerful force for good. It can be extremely effective in raising awareness, deepening understanding and broadening knowledge and sharing vital insights.
Travel, tourism and trade, if conducted with a sufficiently open, well-informed mind, independent thought, cultural sensitivity and a discretionary purse, can affect things in a very positive way and do a great deal to open up a country.
In particular travel and tourism can afford a country’s people the precious opportunity to open up their lives to the outside world.
To some people, just by going to the country I am effectively contributing to the human rights abuses of the Myanmar government. Of course a small amount of money is likely to unavoidably end up in their pockets. But I am extremely discreet and careful where I choose to spend my dollars.
I always try to travel as locals do. I try to eat where they eat and so on. And I talk to people, lots of people. I listen eagerly and respectfully to what they tell me. I am offering an income to them and an opportunity to opine which they would not otherwise have enjoyed.
How exactly can people ever be free when we keep them isolated? You tell me in which other ways are we going to so fully and comprehensively inform ourselves about a country whose regime thrives on being 'isolated'?
This country is anything but isolated to those who run it and the sooner we stop pretending that sanctions - over twenty years worth - are doing anything good for the ordinary people in Myanmar, the better. Lives depend on it. They depend on us being well-informed, realistic and genuinely open-minded. The sanctions have been in place for two decades and they patently have not worked. What has occurred, or been allowed to occur, over the last half a century has been the sad dilapidation of a proud country.
Under which of the following circumstances do you think a government is more likely to repress its people?
a) with no one allowed in to see anything?
b) with international visitors, like me, walking around asking awkward questions, probing for answers, taking photos, recording memories and conversations, interacting with local people...?
Ultimately, is it not better to be as well informed as possible instead of keeping things concealed in the dark?
How exactly am I legitimising a nasty government when I intend to do no more than share with you what I see, hear and what people I meet tell me? If people want to feel ethically better about themselves for choosing to boycott and to help massage a troubled conscience, that’s up to them.
But do you know what most boycotts and sanctions tend to do? They make the poor poorer while the rich and powerful elite drive fancier cars and live in more luxurious houses. The people at the stop show not the slightest inclination of being particularly discomfited by gaping discrepancies in wealth. They thrive.
Who really pays the price of isolation? Who really has to make the big life-changing sacrifices of having sanctions imposed against them. You've guessed it, the people at the bottom. Who really gets punished? The people who don’t matter and are easily forgotten about.
So why keep pushing a country, any country, backwards? The only things we end up sanctioning - if we take a long, hard, cold and critical look at the effectiveness of sanctions - are the regime's own propaganda, when we should be doing all we can to help demolish it. There are many similarities with Iran.
Boycotts can never be perfect or consistent anyway. Nor are they ever strictly adhered to anywhere near as much as their proponents and supporters like to convince (or delude) themselves they are. Rather like communism perhaps, an attractive and appealing sounding idea in strict idealistic classroom theory but totally unworkable and even counter-productive in real life practice.
Who is going to be brave (or foolish) enough to tell the Chinese that they should stop doing business with a country on their own doorstep? Or the Indians? Who is going to tell the French and the Germans that they have no morals for going on government-controlled expensive package tours? They'll all just laugh at you dismissively.
I happen to buy a cup of coffee in a government owned hotel and suddenly, according to some noisy idealists bashing me with their righteous morality, I am responsible for the mass murder of innocent babies.
By the same perverse logic, are all smokers responsible for the deaths and exploitation of children in developing countries by big tobacco companies because they purchase cigarettes? Are all American taxpayers responsible for the deaths of innocent civilians in Iraq because they happen to pay taxes to the American government?
Besides, it matters very little what we ethically chose to do about Burma anyway because of one word: China. China controls much of the economy here already. It quietly got on with asserting itself and because we all stayed away, held our noses put our fingers in our ears and covered our eyes we are near blind to it.
Tourism is anyway a drop in the economic ocean to this government, peanuts in its fingers compared to the revenue feasts it generates from selling gas, teak and oil to the likes mainly China, but also Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Japan.
Through apathy, misguided and ill-informed ideology and complacency we have left an entire people in near muted silence. We should be encouraging as many people as possible to go and see and listen for themselves.
Its like one Burmese man said to me:
"We are alive and I can feed my family because of tourists. Why is my country so neglected and forgotten? Please ask more people to come and speak to us."
And the words of another:
"Go and see for yourself. Listen for yourself. Then you can decide. What will you know, or anyone know, if you never come and never speak to us and us to you?"
Myanmar is a country where the government seeks to do all it can to stop outsiders going to places it doesn’t want them to go. The generals want to stop people looking and seeing, hearing and reporting.
The government of Myanmar tries to hide things and our governments and politicians in the west have helped them to hide things by continuing to isolate them more and more. Western governments, pushed on by noisy lobbyists, have kept adding the cement of sanctions to the immovability of an unpleasant dictatorship.
Many people in my own country might think we are isolating or punishing the nasty generals. The reality is that the people who are isolated and punished the most are the ordinary people trapped inside the country. But who will, or who can, come and speak to them and listen to them?
I am not aware of many government representatives, or indeed journalists, either willing or able to go out of their way and come and find out for themselves the realities of life for these isolated people inside their own isolated country.
If we are honest, often it is easier or more convenient for us to see a different country or the people from it in a more unfavourable light. Doing so makes us feel slightly better and more reassured about our own country and upbringing. We cannot help but think of certain people from certain countries in certain ways.
Yet, it is all but impossible for us to be objective in making sweeping judgements or definitive definitions. Stereotypes are easily reinforced through (largely negative) media reporting and in some ways they help to reassure us of our own identity by reminding us how much more developed or civilised our own ways of life are. Supposedly.
But because most people never have been and probably never will be exposed to the realities of life inside a country as foreign and exotic as Burma, our understanding of it (and similar closed off places like Iran and Afghanistan) will inevitably be limited and simplistic.
For me, this is a strong part of why I like to travel: to try to see a country and its people as they really are.
Frankly, it is just silly and naïve to somehow claim that by isolating people you are somehow going to eventually make them more free. How exactly are people going to be more free when they become more and more isolated and closed off?
People inside Myanmar have been made to live in hindered silence. We have been doing little more than making them almost totally mute altogether. Is muting people and deafening ourselves really smart and constructive policy?
There are plenty of reasons not to come to Burma, many of them deceptively seductive. It is easy to be put off. You don’t come to Myanmar for the food, the shopping or the nightlife. Those that do come are more likely to be here for the business or political reasons.
As well as having as many conversations with as many Myanmar people as I could, it also occurred to me to ask other Western travellers or tourists, when I encountered them, why or how they had chosen to be in a country which plenty of people thought it was wrong to visit.
‘How can it be wrong to be giving an income to ordinary people?’ one woman told me. ‘How can it be wrong to talk to them, to listen to them and share information and experiences?’
‘It doesn’t make sense to punish them, normal people, just because they don’t have a very nice government. In fact, can you tell me a country that does have a nice government, a perfect and well behaved government?’ I couldn’t. ‘I mean if people were only allowed to travel to countries with nice governments there wouldn’t be many countries in the world we could go to!’
The more people I spoke to and engaged with inside Myanmar, the more assured I felt in doing the right thing.
I cannot repeat this any more clearly or more often:
Ordinary people everywhere just want the freedom to get on with their lives. They don’t particularly care about governments. They do care about their families and they do care about having enough money to eat. They care about being able to work and live without fear.
When we, on the outside, inadvertently or unintentionally, make life harder for the ordinary people, we risk not only making them worse off but also losing their support.
As a Burmese friend of mine said to me,
‘Go and see for yourself. Listen for yourself. Hear our stories. Then you can decide. Tell me, what will you, or anyone else, know if you never come and speak to us? What will you learn from staying on the outside?’
And, as one of the brilliantly effervescent Moustache Brothers told me with startling candour, ‘We are alive because of tourists. We want you all to come. We want a Trojan horse!’

1 Oct 2009

Hope for Africa

Here's the remarkable and uplifting story (how often do you say that about Africa?) of a boy, William Kankwamba, in Malawi who created electricity for his village:
We hear a lot about the need to eradicate poverty in Africa and elsewhere. And yet there are too many people who still cannot think critically enough about the most effective ways to do so.
Simply pouring millions of Western money into the country will never achieve the intended result. Enabling people to trade will.
A few years ago, the government of Tanzania, one of the world's poorest countries, recieved £30 million in aid from Britain. Not long after they purchased a military air traffic control system for around a similar amount of money, in effect British aid money. It is a classic example of how well intentioned aid simply does not work and can even makes things much worse.
The solutions to poverty in Africa and elsewhere will come from things like the freedom afforded by more accessible technology, particularly mobile phones and internet access. And also from the spirit of the people within the countries themselves and their determination in spite of their corrupt governments. We should be doing all we can to enable their efforts to better themselves by encouraging trade rather than containing them solely with corrupt aid.

26 Sept 2009

Iran Sanctions

I wonder if Gordon Brown has finished stalking Barack Obama yet after he cornered him in the UN kitchens for a face-to-face. For an awkward moment there as they greeted, so keen was Brown to be seen as Obama's best buddy, I thought he might attempt to slobber him with a full on kiss.
Anyway it turns out Iran may have another nuclear facility. The world leaders, prominent among them World Statesman of the Year (I'm still trying to work that one out!) Gordon Brown, are once more full of bluster, feigning exaggerated astonishment and strong, serious sounding words condemning Iran. Condemnation is cheap and easy.
Stronger sanctions will be imposed, we hear, as if they are an effective tool. They are not and hardly ever have been. I've said it before on a number of countries, but sanctions don't work. They make for great headlines and do wonders for swelling the egos of politicians who want to sound tough and be seen to be doing something.
But they can never be comprehensively enforced. Sanctions do more to punish ordinary poor people than they do to their leaders.

Alas, words alone only take you so far. In our soundbite driven, attention seeking media world it is easy to forget that actions are more important than words. there is regularly a gaping chasm between the two. Stoking up fear suits politicians and the media. It is a brilliantly effective way to get support for things, making them easy to view in simplistic black and white terms and grab people's attention.
Ever since I visited Iran (I drove right past the Nuclear facility in Natanz) I've maintained the opinion that really there is nothing anyone can effectively do to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Of course we all agree how dreadful and dangerous this would be for the region and the world. But the reality is that governments will probably have to get used to Iran with a nuclear weapon.
Afterall, it all looks a bit hypocritical when we lecture other countires in patronising tones telling them they cannot have something which we already have. Indeed Israel has nuclear weapons - something most news organisations rarely feel bold enough to talk about - and they have concealed their regime in secret. So, from an Iranian point of view, if it's good enough for Israel, then why not Iran too?
It also looks a bit rich, from an Iranian perspective, for a country like America, where the right to bare arms is practically enshrined in the constitution and whose military merrily imposes itself on people in other countries, to be telling other people around the world that they don't need arms and shouldn't have them.
So why might Iran want a nuclear weapon?
Well, for a start, most of its neighbours (many of them unstable and unpredictable) have nuclear weapons. Iran was a country with a serious and mighty empire. Today it is surrounded by dangerous countries and powers. American troops are entrenched in countries on either side. It is only natural for te Iranian rulers to feel insecure. They regard America as a threat. Until these security concerns are meaningfully addressed or settled the tension remains.

To the uninitiated outside observer - and there are many - the neat and simple solution to stop Iran going nuclear is to let Israel start bombing. It sounds seductive doesn't? A few precision air strikes. No need to invade. I bet the Israeli prime minister is already rubbing his hands with glee. I bet ordinary people living in Iran's cities (who we hear very little of) are not rubbing their hands with glee. Especially bearing in mind Israel's recent track record in Gaza.
I can guarantee you the one thing likely to make Ahmadinejad and his nasty regime stronger is if it comes under attack, especially by Israel, and the bombs start to fall. That neaderthal, one-dimensional approach - even just the warm suggestion of it occurring - plays straight into his hands.
Worse than that will be an escalation across the Middle East and elsewhere. Sooner or later, we will have to eal with the reality, unpleasant and undesirable as it might be, of Iran being a nuclear power. Would anyone seriously argue that Iran is anywhere like as unstable as next door Pakistan, which has had nuclear weapons for years?
And so a vicious cycle is likely to continue. The government represses the people and the world feels better about isolating the government but it isolates the people as well. It is unfortuante that so many people in important positions only see countries through their governments rather than the people inside them.
Instead of bombing bridges why don't our leaders try building some instead?