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Blog Post #33…..Miracles Still Happen – the Story of LCC International University…..July 14, 2017
A political statement in the shape of a University A Soviet bible smuggler, a Lithuanian Social Entrepreneur and an American Academic joined Leona and myself as we negotiated the sandbag barriers (intended to slow down Soviet tanks) to enter the Lithuanian Parliament Building. That sounds like the setup for a joke but it was a deadly serious event. It was November 10, 1990. In March of that year Lithuania had been the first Republic to declare its independence from the Soviet Union. The dramatic coup and the events of August 1991 that effectively ended the Soviet Union were part of an unknown future – and Leona and I would be there as well to witness and participate. Our objective on this day was to respond to the request from the self-declared ‘Government’ occupying the Parliament to establish an English-language University in a future independent Lithuania. It was understood as part of the process of re-orienting an occupied Lithuania away from the political embrace of Moscow as well as the stifling and corrupt Soviet educational model. We celebrated the 25th anniversary of LCC International University in April 2017. Celebrating 25!! Flags, color and noise are central to many events. Celebration is an important part of LCC culture. Anneke – a powerful symbol of resistance. When Hitler arrived at the conquest of Lithuania he spoke from a balcony. The statute of Anneke had her back to Hitler and entire crowd joined her in silent but powerful protest. The Berlin Wall had come down in late 1989 but the Soviet Union was still alive and well. After limited violence in Vilnius, Gorbachev had decided to allow a stalemate. Our little venture and others were willing to fill that void with ideas and initiatives. History would be written but the future narrative was totally unknown. We met the 29 year-old self-declared Minister of Education and agreed to establish an English-language North American style Liberal Arts University. Between us we had an early version of the PC and a portable printer. In a Parliament denied power by the Soviets we managed to record a draft of the Memorandum of Agreement on the computer and squeeze out a couple of copies before we lost all power. We signed in the half-light and celebrated with warm champagne! The Lithuanians proposed the rural City of Panevezys as the location. Since we were not familiar with that City we left a blank on the document. The next day we visited the site, met with Civic authorities, filled in the blank and all initialed the decision. The selection of Panevezys would have consequences. The program started in July 1991 with a 6-week English summer school for eager and anxious high school graduates plus hopeful future English teachers. Teachers of the Russian language were reading the political tea leaves and guessing that their future might be in the teaching of English rather than Russian! The English studies went extremely well – but the response on the street and in the community was less welcoming. Lithuania is dominated more by its Catholic experience than virtually any other country in Europe. Catholicism was often a substitute for nationalism or patriotism and as a result was severely suppressed by the Soviets – together with any other form of religious expression. Senior clerics were persecuted and many in the current leadership had spent the intervening years in Siberia – thereby missing Vatican I and II plus most modernizing and moderating influences of the late 20th century. This history was to play out in our project. We were greeted on arrival to start the summer program with an article in the National newspaper with the headline…. “And how shall we answer Art DeFehr?” Vilnius Cathedral at the heart of Lithuanian history. Symbols of a history both Catholic and Pagan. This was a consequence of a public letter from the senior Catholic cleric demanding that our project not be allowed to proceed. The rationale was that we were sponsored by Protestant Christians and Lithuania should be restored to its unitary Catholic past. The argument was further made that we represented a ‘sect’ and were therefore more dangerous – by ‘sect’ he was referring to my Mennonite background. We arranged to meet the local Bishop. After some discussion I asked the following question. Assuming we were sponsored by and represented Mennonites – why was that so offensive? The Chicago-trained priest doing the translation then volunteered his own answer in perfect English – “If there would be too many Anabaptists in Lithuania (using the 16th century theological expression rather than the term Mennonites – referring to the pacifist position of this group) then who would fight the Russians!” We were amazed that we were right back in the middle of the Reformation – and that would not be the last time. This continued with an all-of-society meeting where the feelings between collaborators (those who managed to stay in Lithuania to deal with the Soviets) or patriots who had been exiled to Siberia resulted in hours of rancorous debate – having nothing to do with our University. For anyone concerned – we are pleased to advise that time and experience heals – today LCC enjoys excellent relations with local and national Catholic and all other religious authorities. In fact, LCC is the convener of most ecumenical activities in the country. These attacks did have important consequences relative to location. In January 1991, I attended the World Economic Forum in Davos. All of the leaders of the very recently independent former Soviet Republic had been invited. I arranged to meet President Lansbergis of Lithuania – who also happened to have been elected in the constituency where LCC was located. His first question was – “Are you a Mission or a University?” Lithuanians know their history – the nation had initially responded well to Calvinism. This was reversed in the Counter-Reformation by Jesuit intervention specifically through the role of their own University – now Vilnius University. The Catholic authorities had respect for the potential of educational institutions and therefore the suspicion of LCC. Memory of the Hanseatic League and Memel history. The Baltic shore that has shaped the legacy and role of Lithuania in the world. Storm clouds over Klaipeda harbor. A violent history and uncertain future. I reminded him that the keynote address to the Davos audience the previous evening by the senior Catholic prelate of Milan was titled “Your Vocation is your Mission.” I responded that we are motivated to come to Lithuania to serve because we are Christians – but we come as professionals to teach – and will teach from that perspective. He then made the interesting comment. “If I support LCC I will lose the next election – but if I fail to support LCC then I deny my principles – would you consider relocating to the Port City of Klaipeda.” His rationale was that the coast of Lithuania which includes Klaipeda – the historic Hanseatic League City of Memel – had a different and more diverse religious experience and would be more accepting of a Protestant institution. The experience in Panevezys that winter included violence against our young female students so we were motivated to consider alternatives. We visited Klaipeda. Before the meeting started the mayor related a fascinating story. “In 1542 two Protestant scholars arrived in Memel to found a University. The town authorities considered the matter and denied permission. The two scholars walked 100 km down the coast and founded what was to become the famous University of Koenigsberg. (known for scholars like Emmanuel Kant) We missed the opportunity to have a University n 1542 – we will not miss our second opportunity!” Incredible – we were re-living the Reformation and history going back to the Hanseatic League! LCC relocated to Klaipeda in the summer of 1992. Further challenges would involve issues such as accreditation. During the term of President Valdas Adamkus who had been raised in America there was an opportunity. Adamkus understood the Liberal Arts concept and accreditation was achieved through an Act of Parliament. The EU had decided to ‘grandfather’ most existing institutional arrangements as new members joined – resulting In effective accreditation for LCC inside the EU. There were many more adventures and some misadventures as we navigated the change from the Soviet Empire to an independent Lithuania to the EU. There was a change in currency from the lita to the Euro. The vestiges of the Russian Empire decided to make life interesting by collapsing in 1997, then returning to nationalism and expansion under Putin in more recent years. LCC Campus with Academic Center. Modern dormitories at LCC. As crisis management eventually changed to a more normal existence – a very relative term in that environment – actions were taken such as buying a site and building a modern campus. LCC has four modern facilities. These include an Academic building, a state-of -the-art Gymn and two purpose-built dormitories- all located on a premium site with a small lake at the center. Two developments have shaped strategy for LCC. The first was the demographic impact of accession to the EU resulting in greater access to Europe for Lithuanians. 25% of the Lithuanian population has emigrated since independence and this includes a disproportionate share of youth as they search for opportunities outside of Lithuania. This has reduced the number of students available to study at LCC. The reality is that LCC was never intended as a Lithuanian University but was designed to serve students from the former Soviet Union. The objective was the development of graduates with a different sense of civic purpose and appreciation and experience of a more open society. The response of LCC has been to develop a sophisticated recruitment system in the countries East of the EU. This includes Ukraine, Russia, the Stans: Moldova, Georgia plus new markets such as Albania. This has been very effective but complicated by the impact of the Russian adventures in the Ukraine with political ramifications but more important the severe negative impact on all regional currencies. Current enrollment includes students from 30 countries. Lecture Hall Christian and Yezidi clerics from Georgia celebrating LCC 25th and visiting their students. More recently LCC initiated the Middle East Scholars program. This is a special program designed to create opportunity for war-affected students in areas such as Syria and northern Iraq. The first group includes Yezidi, Iraqi Christian and Syrian Muslim and Christian students – of which 40% are female. The challenges include selection, access to visas, travel, matching educational background and expectations, absence of any financial ability plus the unique political dynamics. The trauma experienced by this group simply adds to the challenges. This is an experiment to create international pathways for war-affected students. We expect some to complete at LCC and others to transfer to Universities worldwide. We all note the global discussion about migrants and hope to provide real opportunity to these individuals but also to shake up the global system that deals with – or rather does not deal with youth in trouble. How does LCC survive under these challenging circumstances? LCC receives no significant funds from Lithuania and is not supported by any local or international NGO, church denomination or international Government. The modern campus is fully paid for, LCC has no debt and has never experienced a deficit. Students pay a modest tuition but the majority receive financial assistance. How does LCC manage to exist? First, students do pay tuition plus dormitory fees. Student and other program revenue cover 75% of the budget. A critical element of LCC survival has been a loyal, committed and generous group of friends in Canada, the USA and Europe. This group has provided a consistent base of financial support and at times extraordinary donations to build the campus. The most important explanation for the survival of LCC is the unusual strategy of relying on volunteer staff or more frequently described as externally-supported staff. Support may come from their friends or churches but in very many cases the sacrificial time and funds come from the volunteer. Volunteer staff may come for a summer, semester but many come for up to 10 years! They come because they are committed but also because the experience is personally rewarding. An incredible 2000 volunteers have served at LCC during these 25 years! LCC understands itself as a unique institution on the border between East and West, between the democratic traditions of Europe and the authoritarian legacy to the East. The intellectual foundations of LCC are firmly grounded in Western ideas of Democracy and an open Civil Society. However it addresses these values from the perspective of Christian teaching. It speaks of transforming society through the transformation of its graduates. When LCC students engage in debate and business games in Europe there is frequently an observation that LCC students are more likely to shape their contributions from the perspective of values and ethics to the degree that is noticed. LCC currently provides baccalaureate and masters programs to 500 students plus approximately 80 North American and European students who join for an ‘international semester’. There is a large summer program plus several remote summer language institutes in places such as Georgia or Russia. The campus is host to both national and international educational seminars, conferences and various special study programs. Students are housed in dormitories designed as self-contained apartments for 4-5 students. LCC will typically mix students from different countries and traditions to reinforce the learnings about culture and diversity. Leona testing piano donated by her. Meeting of International Board. LCC is ‘owned’ by two charities – one based in Canada and another in the USA. The board come from Canada, USA, Western Europe, the former Soviet Union, Lithuania plus faculty and students. Board members attend in Klaipeda twice each year, are not compensated and pay their own travel and lodging expenses. LCC has been challenged over these 25 years by political events, currency changes, recessions East and West, demographic earthquakes plus the need to consistently meet rising academic expectations. By all rights it should not exist and arguably should never have been founded. A number of educational initiatives were launched after the fall of the Soviet Union and virtually all have succumbed to the challenges. The survival of LCC is a tribute to capable and experienced leadership, fantastic staff, a committed board, generous donors and an accepting political environment. Finally it is a tribute to students who have risked their careers and future initially to an institution that was totally outside of European ideas of education. More than 1,800 graduates have moved on to many of the best graduate schools around the world and have been eagerly employed especially by international companies and Governments. An encouraging number have chosen to stay in the region to build their own societies. A visit LCC is to believe in miracles! Art with Dr. Marlene Wall, President at LCC. Student Council President – Female and Muslim from Kazakhstan. Diversity has real meaning at LCC.
Blog Post #32…..Weekend in Geneva…..June 16, 2017
The untold story from the jungles of Cambodia. The multi-dimensional chess game that accompanied the end of the Khmer Rouge. Wars, famines and diplomatic disputes are the stuff of headlines and “Breaking News” but those formats are seldom capable of describing reality. Cambodia and the reign of the Khmer Rouge ended in an apocalyptic collapse in the jungle border separating Cambodia and Thailand. This story describes the weekend where a group of 5 activists including Joan Baez, myself and 3 others challenged the UN system and emerged with our program and views intact. To read more… click on the following link: Weekend in Geneva After reading “Weekend in Geneva” there is reference below to a longer essay which describes the entire amazing experience of the Landbridge and more details of the hypocrisy, ingenuity, passion and commitment of the actors. For a more detailed description of the entire Cambodia border-related events of spring 1980 click on the following link: Landbridge – A Personal Perspective …….The endgame of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge could be defined as a multi-dimensional Cold War Chess Game or an elaborate ballet – but that word is too kind to the protagonists. This essay was written 25 years after the fact after several authors began to circulate what I considered revisionist history – including changing and enhancing their roles in this history. It represents my intimate experience of the time and events and my perspective on the politics and roles of the various nations, agencies and personalities. The story reads like the plot of spy novel except that all of the events and details were real. The reality on the ground in these complicated international emergencies is much more complex than can ever be reported in most media – therefore this essay.
Blog Post #31…..Immigration Policy – Some Unsolicited Advice for America…..April 21, 2017
IMMIGRATION POLICY – SOME UNSOLICITED ADVICE FOR AMERICA America has historically been the dream destination for the aspiring genius, the creative entrepreneur and the huddled masses. America is scoring an own goal and quickly and unnecessarily losing its luster as a beacon of hope and opportunity. Refugees braving winter weather to leave US and enter Canada in early 2017. They are welcomed by police but must meet refugee test to remain. President Trump uncharacteristically suggested in his speech to Congress that the Canadian immigration system may have something to teach America. With that encouragement, I will offer a few ideas.Is immigration good for America? 1. Immigration can be a source of additional economic growth if immigrants represent youth, skills, energy and consumption. In other words, if they are encouraged to be full participants in the economy. 2. America is an open society that can attract and benefit from the creative genius that exists globally. But….. History, an undisciplined system of governance and unrealistic expectations of personal success result in demographics (within the American population) that do not match the job market. An inappropriate immigration policy – if the term policy is the correct term for the current situation – arguably does not produce the results that would make immigration a success in America. Suggested immigration policies and principles for America 1. How many immigrants? Legal immigration to America has been at a level of 1,000,000 per year for some time. More than 50% are people already in America who simply change their legal status. This represents 0.3% of US population annually. In comparison immigration to Canada has represented 0.7% per year and is scheduled to increase to 0.9%. Australia is similar to Canada. The appropriate level of immigration to America should be not less than 2,000,000 per year and better outcomes if 2,500,000. 2. Categories of immigrants. a. Family unification The US immigration policy or outcome is heavily skewed to family re-unification at 60-65% of immigrants compared to 25% In Canada. Family unification is itself an appropriate category but these immigrants are not selected based on merit if that implies skills or regional mobility. The dominance of this category squeezes out the other categories – given a limited overall total – categories that would make immigration feel more successful. Super Visa Canada initiated an interesting innovation recently to address the desire of families to sponsor parents and grandparents. Given the realities of communication, social media and low cost transportation – Canada has initiated a 10 year “super-visa” for parents and grandparents. They can come and go freely, support (their Canadian) families through child care but cannot accept a job, are required to have their expenses covered by family and the visa does not lead to permanence. b. Refugees The US admits 60,000 refugees per year, 6% of the immigrant flow and 0.018% of its population. Canada normally admits 25,000 or 10% of immigration, and 0.070% of population. In 2016 Canada admitted 60,000 refugees and current plans are for 40,000 per year. The Canadian program of “private sponsorship” of refugees has been a critical factor in the ability of refugees to become successful and to create the political support for refugee immigration. c. Diversity Lottery This is a unique creature of America where a substantial number of immigration slots are distributed by lottery. The original objectives may be commendable but with the limited size of the legal immigration program this random selection is unlikely to contribute to success. Canada does not have a similar program. d. Economic migrants These are immigrants selected on the basis of age and skills that are in demand. The nature and rules of the current US program – popularly referred to as H1b visas – results in a domination of this category by IT specialists employed by companies, predominantly from India, who have figured out how to game the system. The H1-b visas are actually considered as temporary workers with transition to permanent insecure. The number of arrivals is about 85,000 per year. The permanent economic category should really be the largest and dominant category in any immigration program – implying arrivals of more than 1,000,000 immigrants per year. This category represents 65% of immigrants to Canada. An important difference is that economic migrants into Canada are expected to remain and become citizens – the pathway to permanence in the US is much more difficult. The south to north train in Mexico called “The Beast” . A very dangerous journey. e. Low-skilled workers This category as an official immigrant category does not really exist in either Canada or the US but is supplied in each country in very different ways. In America it is quite usual to hear the expression that immigrants – often really referring to undocumented migrants “do the dirty, difficult and low-prestige jobs that Americans no longer want to do”. There is a “Catch-22” quality to this argument. America, through bad policy, has permitted or at least facilitated the existence of the incredibly large pool of undocumented migrants who fill these jobs. Their precarious legal existence does not allow them to climb the economic and skills ladder. Second, the risk and difficulty of entry across the southern border ensure that only the desperate and economically disadvantaged will submit to these conditions. American policy ensures that the undocumented group will represent less skill and therefore be willing to do menial work at subpar wages and conditions. America needs to either create conditions where it’s own citizens will fill these jobs or create a program where this category of person can work legally. The Canadian approach to less skilled labor Canada fills this void in several ways. The family unification program and the refugee inflow often represent persons with less skill or persons who require a period of adaptation. Canada also has programs like the “nanny” program that legally increase the supply of service workers. However, these persons all have legal status, full access to services and the opportunity to climb the economic ladder. The role of Temporary Worker programs Canada has a number of programs that bring economically active workers to Canada on a temporary basis. When well-managed, these programs fill the gaps in a more logical way than the undocumented in America. Seasonal Agricultural workers Canada provides seasonal permits for 42,000 workers per year from the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America. (Recent US visas for temporary agricultural workers have been in the range of 140,000 per year). A similar program in America would be half a million and given climate might be twice as large. Workers under this program in both Canada and the USA are protected as to wages and conditions. They represent an assured supply for employers and most important this program maintains family structures and provides income to poor communities. America does have limited seasonal worker access but inadequate relative to the need. Temporary workers related to projects, specific industries or as response to periodic skills shortages Canada typically allows more than 300,000 such workers to be in the country, generally on permits up to two years. They have full legal status and protection. In many cases they are permitted to bring family. Many of these temporary workers transition to permanent status and citizenship later. This is a good recruitment tool for Canada (for permanent immigrants) since these are known people and therefore low risk. The categories are different between the two countries but excluding the H1-b visas the total of temporary entries is basically equal between the two countries – yet Canada Is only one-tenth the size in terms of population. Experience Canada A successful program that allows young people from around the world the opportunity to live and work anywhere in Canada for a period of time such as one year. Typically these are educated, capable and energetic youth who represent a great pool of employees for service industries such as seasonal resorts. Many of these young people become attracted and attached to Canada and will eventually transition to permanent resident status under some other program. If the USA had a similar package of policies one can draw the following conclusions. If immigration levels were 2,000,000 to 2,500,000 per year instead of the current 1,000,000 that would represent an additional 10-15 million landed immigrants over the last decade – a number that matches or exceeds the entire current undocumented population. This scale of program would permit a program more oriented to skills and economic requirements. If the above was matched with temporary or seasonal legal work access, a policy comparative to Canada would result in possibly 4 million legal workers matched to demand. International Students Both Canada and the USA have important and overall successful policies of attracting and educating foreign students. (Depending on how you count approximately 13% of students in Canada and 10-12% in the USA represent foreign students in the post-secondary population.) Both countries charge higher fees to these students and use their presence as a source of income for Universities and for the economy. The path to permanent residence has been challenging in both countries but Canada has recently recognized the folly of educating and acculturating selected young people and then asking them to leave. Accordingly there are now more opportunities for graduating foreign students to remain in Canada. The pathway to permanence in the USA remains more difficult. A recent innovation in Canada is to allow foreign students to work while they are in Canada to contribute to the financing of their education. A combination of policies such as the opportunity to work, generally lower tuition fees in Canada and the recent geopolitical environment have increased the attractiveness of Canadian Universities to foreign students. This is being reflected in increased applications. Citizenship ceremonies are a popular, colorful and celebratory event in Canada. Citizenship In the USA an estimated 40% of foreign born are US citizens. In Canada it is expected that 85% of landed immigrants will become Canadian citizens. The equivalent in Europe is 20%. Attachment to a nation is a profoundly important aspect of successful immigration. The antipathy in the US to the granting of citizenship contributes to a failed policy. Comments re Europe The European continent has a long history as a source of emigrants rather than a destination. Post WWII and post-Colonial developments have changed the situation in Europe. This has been compounded by demographic developments and the creation of the EU. Europe struggles with the idea of immigration in the Canadian sense. However, the structure of the EU and the policy of mobility across 28 borders allows a natural sorting out of employment opportunities and labor shortages – without the need to change or acquire passports. This reality is not without issues but the policy of mobility has contributed to an overall successful Europe. The refugee surge starting in August of 2015 is adding new complications. Conclusions: 1. America would benefit from an immigration program that allows for legal entry of the people it needs in any event. Such a program could create space for some of the current undocumented and result in a more moral basis for border and entry control. 2. America would do well with a properly designed and managed temporary work program. Many of the current undocumented come from places that are not inherently dangerous and could support their families in their home countries and maintain acceptable contact – assuming seasonal or time-limited visas with travel freedom. 3. President Trump described the Canadian system as merit-based. Another term I like to use is “Likely to Succeed”. This implies success at various levels in the workplace and socially – but immigrants who are contributing and allowed and encouraged to invest in the next generation. 4. Citizenship and attachment to the society is critical to a successful immigration program. 5. Another unique feature in Canada is the PNP or Provincial Nominee Program. Under the Canadian Constitution immigration is a shared responsibility. Agreements between the Federal Government and individual provinces allow for selection of immigrants by Provinces based on their priorities. This ensures a greater local “touch” and contributes both to immigrant success and political support. America like Canada has vast regional differences and would benefit from an immigration system that allowed some degree of regional initiative. The Mexican -US border is a dangerous place with or without a wall. As a Canadian who is reasonably informed about our system – I can offer plenty of criticisms of the Canadian system – until I remember (with very limited exceptions like New Zealand and Australia) – that all of the other systems are much worse. As Canadians, we sometimes quietly remind ourselves that the dreadful US approach to immigration is a kind of blessing. The global reality is that most potential immigrants would choose America – until they are dissuaded by the reality and the rhetoric. Nevertheless, the inhumane treatment of millions of migrants who are permitted to remain because they are useful but then treated in violation of many conventions – not to mention Christian values and principles – is a self-inflicted wound on the promise of America. The American paranoia about security and guns is a subject for another essay – but a comment about the control of the borders. There are genuine and valid reasons to manage the border but a militarized approach will not assure success and is not a substitute for good policy. 1. Start with an immigration policy that reflects reality. The preceding comments speak to policy that balances economic and labor needs with the reality of the geopolitical neighborhood. 2. The USA would do well to focus on its neighborhood down to Panama to create stable and successful political and economic nations that can hold their people and share in a larger prosperity. Supporting dictators will not accomplish that! 3. Assuming a more successful and democratic Central America – the limited number of political fugitives can be managed regionally within established norms. A combination of the above policies would create conditions where border management would become both possible and acceptable – but there is plenty of reality between that vision and today. We all wish America well and trust they will find their way to a more enlightened policy regarding the movement and welcome of people. Refugees from Central America crossing into Mexico from Guatemala. I have written extensively on migration and refugee issues over the years and if the reader is interested in additional views or facts on the subject they are directed to the following articles on my website. Making Sense of Migration Presented to the Trilateral Commission in Mexico City in 2010 plus the UN Global Migration Conference. It speaks to the larger issues of migration plus a more detailed explanation of the Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program including charts. Blog #24 – The Changing Dynamics of Refugee Movements Blog #17 – The Refugee Dilemma Deeper analysis as to why the refugee problem has increased so dramatically and why it is unlikely to go away.
Blog Post #30…..Myanmar and the Challenge of Peace…..March 3, 2017
“It is easy to start a war but hard to end it” Myanmar is frequently in the news as it struggles to create peace and a nation out of 135 ethnic communities. Even that incredible number leaves out challenging situations like the Rohingyas. I had the privilege of participating in the Myanmar Peace Process in November 2016 in the form of a 4-day Peace Forum and workship organized by the Center for Development and Ethnic Studies (CDES) of Myanmar and the Parliamentary Center of Canada. The DeFehr Foundation brought the parties together and provided the funding. This was the fourth Peace-building event sponsored by the DeFehr Foundation since 2013. Peace Forum platform including myself as presenter. The Peace Forum – an afternoon event that included Government, Ethnic Groups, speakers from workshop, Military plus international actors. Workshop breakout session. Burmese always participate enthusiastically in working sessions. Political Sector workshop with Armed Ethnic Organizations about the concept of Federal Systems of Government. Myanmar has been at war for more than 50 years. Other conflicts like Columbia, Israel-Palestine, the Kurds, Afghanistan and parts of Africa share the dubious distinction of seemingly endless wars. Why are some wars so hard to end? Myanmar gained its independence from Britain in 1948 but its popular leader Aung San was assassinated before he could take office. Aung San had negotiated independence but equally critically a formula for governance in the form of a federal system of Government that had been accepted by its diverse ethnic communities. The successors to Aung San abandoned federalism and Burma struggled to find its way. In 1962 General Ne Win orchestrated a military coup and became President. His group represented the dominant (68%) Burman/Bamar majority and convinced itself that Burma could become an officially Buddhist country with Burmese as the official language and a dominant political center that made little space for its ethnic diversity. This resulted in a civil war of more than 50 years with catastrophic results. An estimated million died in the conflict, a larger number escaped as refugees and Burma earned the dubious distinction as one of the poorest countries in Asia – in spite of its rich natural endowment. The student revolt of 1988 was a precursor to Tiananmen in 1989 and produced the generation of leaders that are now leading the Peace process. In 2011 a new military leader, Thein Sein, realized that Plan A was not working and announced Plan B – to create space for other political actors in the Government. They were prodded in this direction in large part because each time they attempted to demonstrate their popularity through an election – they were trounced – finally recognizing that even their own ethnic community did not support their nativistic and repressive regime. History is a grand process but sometimes the unexpected happens in the pivotal role of an individual – and sometimes this individual had never planned to be part of the process. The accidental presence in Myanmar of Aung San Suu Kyi (daughter of Aung San) during the student revolt of 1988 created one of these rare moments that has the power to shape history. Dr. Lian Sakhong the Chief Negotiator for the Armed Ethnic groups. Aung San Suu Kyi – a very impressive person. Art and Leona DeFehr with Aung San Suu Kyi. Leona speaking at the workshop. Aung San Suu Kyi seized the moment and started and led a political process that has dominated every election attempt – in spite of every effort to silence or isolate her. She paid a heavy personal price but has emerged as a strong leader. In 2012 she assumed a role in Government and in spite of a law designed to prevent her leadership has navigated the very difficult political shoals to play a guiding role in the establishment of a participative form of Government. She is frequently criticized for what she has not accomplished or causes she does not support – especially the very complex situation of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine state. She walks a delicate tightrope as the head of a party representing primarily the Burman majority but attempting to guide a process of inclusion for the ethnic communities and states in open rebellion. The Peace Process started in 2012 and is expected to take another 4 years. Why so long? There are 16 important armed ethnic groups with various degrees of strength, history and geographic challenges. After 5 decades these groups have effectively become local Government with an embedded political and economic benefit including the drug trade. Signing away their authority is not seen as an automatic benefit to leaders who are established. On the other hand, the military and business associates of the regime have effectively absconded with the wealth of the country through ownership, monopolies or other structures. They similarly do not see the benefit to themselves and their families of participating in a more equitable form of governance. Within this unstable environment the parties are slowly pushing the process in the direction of Peace, sometimes with a few steps back. 8 of the Armed Ethnic Organizations (AEO) have signed Cease-Fire Agreements while the others have found various reasons to hold out for better terms. (As the reality of loss of political and economic power by the military elite becomes more of a reality the hard-liners in the military are digging in their heels creating the current stalemate). After more than 5 decades of costly conflict all of the parties have convinced themselves of the merit of their cause and hold out for an ideal solution – if an ideal solution existed for all sides there would have been Peace a long time ago. The purpose of the Peace Process and our goal in engagement is to provide opportunity for the actors to more fully understand the compromises required to achieve Peace. Our first event in partnership with the CDES in 2013 was a one-week seminar which targeted 26 political parties plus a number of the Armed Groups. The program was a seminar on techniques of negotiation – how to talk without becoming antagonistic. One person stated: ”After 50 years we know how to fight but do not know how to talk!” This was followed by two regional events and the recent national event. Platform poster for Seminar and workshop re Peacebuilding. Zaceu Lian, Head of Council of Democracy and a Canadian who has returned to Myanmar to promote the peace process. Workshop posters from Negotiating Seminar. These Burmese are creative and participate enthusiastically. Everyone received a Certificate of Achievement. These Buddhist nuns were fully engaged in the process. After 5 years of process the challenge has moved from negotiation to substance. In this last event (November 2016) we brought experts from Canada to speak about the actual operation of a federal system and the compromises required in areas like power and revenue sharing, how to deal with the unequal distribution of natural resources, how to allocate power between the regional and national levels etc. We are absolutely not the only actors in this process but many Western Governments including Canada have been reluctant to partner with political actors that may technically still be at war. We have taken the position that it is important to participate in the process while it is still fluid and there is room to shape the outcome. Should Peace be achieved there is still plenty of need to assist the new Government – but it is too late to influence the structure of the outcome. Peace is anything but assured, however there is a fatigue in the nation that creates a climate of hope for Peace. There are any number of challenges but I will use the example of the Rohingya problem to explain the complexity of issues (see my essay on the Rohingyas in my Blog Post #8 – So..Who are the Rohingyas..and why are they being Persecuted?…July 15, 2015). Incredible Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon completed in the 6th century. Candles and prayers in the Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset. The Rohingyas are a Muslim minority in Rakhine State originally from Bengal or now Bangladesh. Many arrived during British times when borders did not exist and as partially a fishing community many continue to be mobile. They share the territory with the ethnic citizens of Rakhine state whose ancestry reaches back to the ancient Empire of Arakan. The direction of the future political solution/structure in Burma relates territory to ethnicity. Since the Rohingyas are seen as interlopers – any territory assigned to them is a takeaway from another group. We have been told that the Rohingyas have been offered citizenship but as general citizens of Burma and not associated with territory – and their more radical Islamic leaders have ostensibly rejected that outcome. Whatever the facts it is not difficult to understand the problem and the dilemma for Aung San Suu Kyi as a leader of a party centered in Buddhism and with political support from the Burman majority. That is only one of many challenges in the creation of a new and united Burma!! Christmas concert in a Christian Church of the Chin ethnic minority in Yangon. The building does not officially exist and the service did not officially take place. When we look at these seemingly endless conflicts they seem to relate to two principal issues. One is the structure of society that allows for economic domination by a strong person or group. Columbia and arguably the conflict in the DRC relate to economic power. The more intransigent current and recent conflicts relate to identity – whether religious or ethnic. Israel-Palestine, Kurdistan, Timor-Leste, South Sudan, Somalia, the Sunni-Shia divide, Tibet and Myanmar. A conflict between nations can be incredibly vicious and destructive but you can know when there is a victor such as in VietNam. Identity conflicts can be repressed but seldom really end unless there is a political solution and that usually only comes when all parties are exhausted. Leaders and speakers at the Peace Forum: Lt. General Khin Zaw Oo ( retired) General Secretary of the Peace Commission, Art DeFehr, Dr. Lian Sakhong (Chief Negotiator), Juan Fernando Londono (Columbia), Ivo Balinov (Parliamentary Center of Canada). Myanmar has reached that moment and it is critical that they receive the right kind of advice, support and encouragement to move along the path to genuine Peace. We are supporting local leaders in their search for Peace. Our key partner is the Chief negotiator for the Armed Ethnic Groups with a Ph.D in conflict Resolution from Sweden. This small group of courageous Burmese – often survivors of the 1988 student violence – need and deserve the sensitive and generous support of a caring world. A very interesting intervention and presentation was Juan Fernando Londono of Columbia. He was the key negotiator for the political part of the negotiations between FARC and the Government. The need and the goal (in Columbia) was to have both sides come to an agreement that respected reality and the aspirations and needs of each group so that they could move to Peace. He explained to the Armed Ethnic Group leaders that Peace is never a one-sided affair and every party must make some kind of compromise. He left us with a very profound thought Peace has a Price! This sounds very simple and obvious but in most such negotiations the parties feel that the other group should pay the price – and Londono was very effective in pointing out that Peace is neither free nor easy. The Burma Peace Forum occurred immediately after the failure of the referendum in Columbia. Londono pointed out that during the four years of negotiation violence had significantly declined and the urban population had come to believe that the problem was gone – and wanted FARC to pay a steep price. The people in the countryside who had been the victims understood that the FARC was still alive in their areas and could return to violence if the talks failed – and were prepared to pay a higher price for peace. The vote followed that perception with the countryside voting in favor of Peace. The people of Myanmar remain hopeful but there is no guarantee of success. Yangon lake covered with walkways and water lilies. A magical way to start the day. The following are Myanmar related articles, please click on links below: Blog Post #5 – Tea with the Lady…May 6, 2015 Blog Post #13 – Myanmar Election…the Essential Aung San Suu Kyi – November 16, 2015 Seminar and Workshop on Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding in Myanmar – December 2013 Report of the Peace Forum and Seminar re Federalism November 2016
Blog Post #29…..World Without Pity…..February 17, 2017
A critique of globalization based on my analysis of the phenomenon in 1999 and relating the outcome of this process to the current populist expressions in many countries. My critique is based on the absence of morality in the new global structures and how that is reflected in economic and cultural outcomes. WORLD WITHOUT PITY The relationship between globalization and populism Introduction Populism speaks to the grievances of people who perceive themselves as a former majority or at least an advantaged group where somehow global events beyond their control have taken away their prosperity and the security of their culture. The perceived cause is often rooted in “globalization” – a term and concept that is little understood and masks both macro and granular changes and events that lead to this sense of grievance. This essay was originally written in 1999, immediately after the global financial crisis of 1997, a crisis that affected developing countries much more than the wealthy developed nations. The essay points out that the early impact of globalization tended to impoverish developing countries but was masked in the rich countries. The past two decades have allowed the “third world” and the global financial community to play out the logic of a more global world – the rich countries or a portion of the population in the rich countries now also feel the pain. The tendency is to blame the players who benefit and the Governments that are trapped by the internal logic of a global system that they often do not understand and that does not respond easily to national or local solutions. This essay speaks to the systemic issues that are the reality of globalization and the outcome of a market system disconnected from community and morality. Arguably people are no less ethical (possibly they were never ethical but there were boundaries) but the game has changed and most of us have failed to understand the impact of the new rules – or rather the absence of rules. The populism of America and Europe in 2016 and 2017 is the product of these changes – significantly amplified by the effects of migration and cultural disruption. WORLD WITHOUT PITY In 1995 I gave a speech on the subject of globalization – the word I chose to use. I checked my 2000-page unabridged dictionary, spell-check plus recent documents from the World Economic Forum, World Bank etc. and the word ‘globalization’ could not be found. That was only 1995. The point is that although the elements that we describe as globalization today have always existed in some form, something has changed and it has become different and something that politicians and arguably economists do not really understand. They speak to the evidence and not the plumbing that drives these changes. My argument will speak to the ethical deficit that lies behind the perceived negative outcomes of globalization so morality is a good place to start. The logic of the ‘market system’ is that winner-takes-all. Historically this has been bounded by religion, rules or the limitations of technology and geography. When those restraints disappear we get to a situation where the reported wealth of the 8 richest people on the planet equals that of the poorest 3.6 billion. To understand the subject of globalization and its impact I will ask three questions: FIRST….. DOES GLOBALIZATION MATTER? WILL A BORDERLESS ECONOMIC WORLD BE SIGNIFICANTLY DIFFERENT FROM THE WORLD WE HAVE KNOWN? SECOND….. DO THE RULES OF THE MARKET OPERATE IN THE SAME WAY ON A GLOBAL BASIS AS THEY HAVE WITHIN LOCAL AND NATIONAL MARKETS? THIRD….. WILL THE CHANGE TO A GLOBAL SYSTEM BE ETHICALLY NEUTRAL? The point of my argument is not that there are no good people or responsible companies. The reality is that these kinds of people and companies do not run the world. The driving force in the world has become financial and the connection between the decision maker and the persons and communities that are impacted has been cut. The moral dimension of our society has always been based on relationships between people – but when the important decisions of our time are made without any reference to relationships – you can be assured they are made without reference to the moral dimension. Morality does not exist in a vacuum. Morality develops in context. This context or framework relates to community, to religion and to the heritage and values of nations and societies. As the supportive framework or context disappears, there is increasing evidence that morality also disappears. Does this matter? Many voices argue that the unseen hand of the market place will result in a better outcome than the heavy hand of Government or any other countervailing force. The problem is that a market place dominated by derivatives, hedge funds and short sellers is hardly the market described by Adam Smith. There may indeed be an unseen hand – but it is hardly the benign hand of pure competition. In January 1989 I was in Buenos Aires and met a senior diplomat from the Washington DC Embassy of the Soviet Union. We became friends during the course of the Conference. He challenged me to return to the birthplace of my parents and become part of the process of change (both parents were born in southern Russia prior to the Revolution and departed as refugees at different times). I asked him what I could bring to the Soviet scene that would be useful. He made a very perceptive response. As a businessman, bring the idea of the entrepreneur, but as a Christian help us rebuild a MORAL FOUNDATION. He went on to say that he had studied the West very closely and realized that the success of the market system could not be separated from the Judeo-Christian heritage. He pointed out that in North America many transactions took place in an environment with a very substantial level of trust. This was the lubricant of the market system. He maintained that this trust was absent in the Soviet Union and for this reason the introduction of the market system would be a failure. The market system cannot exist without a moral foundation. The Soviet Union and its modern fragments do not have the necessary moral memory and the economic collapse of Russia in August 1998 will not have been a surprise to my friend. Note: It can be argued that the global financial crisis of 2008 was significantly caused by the decline of this historic moral foundation in America and Europe. A small group toured the decaying Soviet Union (August 1989) and then organized four national Conferences on “BUSINESS AND ETHICS” in 1990, ’91, and ’92. History suggests that our efforts were a very small drop in a very large ocean. We do not need to flay the Soviet Union for its ethical failures – we can find plenty of examples closer to home! In 1936 three companies pooled their resources to start a Holding Company called National City Lines or NCL. The purpose of NCL was to promote the virtues of buses for public transportation in major American cities. Since many cities had well-functioning electric street car systems the buses were not taking hold. NCL would purchase the street car companies, tear out the tracks and electric lines and replace them with buses. Who were these insightful investors in NCL? The three major investors were General Motors who built the buses plus Firestone and Chevron. Was it really the market system at work when America changed from non-polluting electricity to diesel in public transportation? Their greatest success was replacing a well-functioning electric system in the Los Angeles basin. World Without Pity At the beginning of November 1998 the market capitalization of all of the shares on the Indonesian stock market had dropped to 16 billion dollars. In other words, Bill Gates could buy 51% control of the entire Indonesian economy for 20% of the value of his shares in Microsoft. Quoting Peter Newman, the Canadian financial writer, “Bill Gates is not a person, but an ecosystem.” What about the Big Leagues like the World Bank and the US Government? Larry Summers is a senior economic advisor in the Clinton Administration. In 1992, Summers was chief economist at the World Bank and actually wrote the following memo regarding pollution. “Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the less developed countries?” Summers added: “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.” Why is the logic impeccable? Because, life is cheap in the third world. World Without Pity Do you recognize the world I am describing? The purpose of these anecdotes is to demonstrate that when a decision becomes disconnected from its context – when the people or cities or countries who are affected by a decision are not part of the decision – somehow the ethical dimension disappears. Palliser Furniture was founded in the northeast corner of Winnipeg and the majority of our factories are (not true in 2017!) still in that location. Most members of our family live in the same community, shop in the same stores as our employees and attend the same churches. We are not immune to economic realities and deal with tough business decisions when necessary. What would happen if Palliser would announce an across the board cut in our staff of 20% just to raise our share price? A visit to the grocery store would become distinctly unpleasant when we have to look into the eyes of those affected by our arbitrary decision. Note: Subsequent events included the massive shift of furniture manufacturing to China plus the increase in value of the Canadian dollar as a result of the natural resource boom. Palliser eliminated 2/3 of its employment in Canada – more than 2000 persons – moving production to Asia and Mexico HOW DOES THIS PHENOMENON AFFECT US IN NORTH AMERICA? Both Americans and Canadians consider their societies to be basically fair. The major difference is that Americans tend to define fairness as opportunity while Canadians would put a little more emphasis on outcomes. We can afford to have these opinions because the world as it has existed tends to work well for us. How would we feel if it stopped producing acceptable results? The number of Indonesians below the poverty line increased from 20 million to 90 million during the past year (1998). Would anyone care to explain to me what those 70 million people did wrong? What would happen in our countries if 70 million people were suddenly thrown into extreme poverty? It isn’t happening in such a dramatic way but in the past quarter century the least competitive part of North American society has been increasingly marginalized. The disparity of incomes and opportunity for those at the bottom and the top has increased dramatically. Why is there no revolution? Will there be a collapse in the consensus that our society is basically fair? Will there be a collapse in the international consensus about the fairness of the world and its systems? Note: Arguably the Trump phenomenon is the outcome of this process – it simply took 20 years to express itself! WHAT IS DRIVING THESE CHANGES? In a 1993 speech entitled NORTH AMERICA – NO LONGER AN ISLAND, I argued that technology was the driving force for globalization and that it created opportunity for all societies. I further argued that culture would play an increasing role in the competition between societies and would give the developing societies a chance to catch up. What I failed to anticipate was the emerging dominance of FINANCE over every other dimension. There was a time when most people with capital owned some real assets they could see and be identified with – such as my Furniture factory in my own community. This has been changing for some time – but the bull market of recent years and the development of a much more international capital market have changed all of the rules. There is a progression of steps from the operator of a business to a public company to a long term investor and then to a punter or speculator in shares and finally to gigantic hedge funds. Investors buy mutual funds with little interest in the underlying shares and in the last few years the hedge funds have emerged. In this latest incarnation investors simply try to find the best poker player to play the game on their behalf. Do we have any idea what these people are doing with our money? Earlier I promised to address three questions. The first was: DOES GLOBALIZATION MATTER? A global world is different than a local or national world in very fundamental ways. We easily understand the economic analysis of free trade and comparative advantage. What is important to add is that a global world tends to become a financial world rather than a world of operators. Secondly, a global world centralizes the power of the decision-makers and increases the remoteness of those making a decision from those affected by that decision. The fact that the most important decisions are now financial rather than operational only compounds the problem. Our moral values were developed in a much more local context and seem to evaporate in a global marketplace. The second question was: DOES GLOBALIZATION AFFECT THE RULES OF THE MARKET SYSTEM? I have answered this question in part by pointing out that our market system has some form of moral foundation even if we never speak about it. If we shift to a marketplace where the invisible hand of the market is the only set of rules – what will our world look like? Macleans magazine (a print magazine that Canada defends as a cultural icon and the US Government would consider simply as a commodity like shoes) used the following headline for a commentary from Peter C. Neumann GET READY FOR THE RUTHLESS ECONOMY The subtitle was “GLOBALIZATION MEANS THAT PEOPLE ARE KEPT ON THE JOB ONLY UNTIL THEY CAN BE REPLACED BY CHEAPER CANDIDATES? Palliser Furniture rated a paragraph in this article and I was not sure if we were part of the problem or the solution. Newman describes the different nature of this new more global economy. We live in a world where 51 of the world’s 100 largest economies are corporations. Wal-Mart by itself has revenues greater than the GDP of 161 countries. Concentration of power is only being increased as one mega-merger after another is announced. These mergers are in part driven by ego but also by real global considerations. How will the market system function with a herd of corporate elephants roaming the globe? International investors have become accustomed to investing in high risk situations with appropriately high returns on the expectation that in the event of an economic collapse, such as Mexico in 1995 or Thailand in 1997 or the world in 2008 – the international community would bail them out – with the bills paid by the locals through an austerity program. This phenomenon has even been given the wonderful name of MORAL HAZARD. In other words, investors have been led to believe that they will not be held accountable for their follies. At the top of the pyramid are an evolving set of international arrangements which are in effect the rules of the game – but it is a game designed for big players and for trade and finance. For example, the Uruguay round of trade negotiations resulted in the WTO or World Trade Organization. The WTO has created a rules-based system of trade. Smaller countries must give up sovereignty to be a part of the game but have little negotiating power. The largest actor on the field, however, states that no agreement can impair its sovereignty (Trump is amplifying this reality). Imagine a game where the strongest team always reserves the right to re-interpret the rules if it is not winning. The other part of this picture are the corporations. They can now play the game in different places where there are different rules. By different rules I mean the wage structure, the rules on pollution, the corruptibility of local authorities. They demand to be treated in a fair and equitable manner inside each country – the punishment is to withdraw investment – or use legal avenues. The corporations, however, do not agree to submit to any global rules of the game. For example, every country has a local structure for income tax but given the global web of relationships within a large company, a small jurisdiction in Central America does not have a hope of claiming its share of tax or of insisting on other measures of performance. Many of the world’s most international companies in fact pay very little tax. The point I hope is being made in these arguments is that the trend to a more global market and the reliance on market principles alone creates circumstances where the distance between financial decision-makers and those affected becomes ever larger. In this context the moral dimensions of any decision or action tend to disappear entirely. This is complicated by the fact that the larger corporations operate in a largely borderless environment and can escape the restraining effect of local authorities. There is no international body which matches the corporations in power or scope. Our world is also divided on how we understand the problem. Angus Reid, an important Canadian polling firm does an annual global survey. One question was of particular interest: He asked people all over the world whether they thought the Government had a role in the reduction of the disparity of incomes. 69% of Americans and 47% of Canadians said the Government had no role whatsoever. The next highest country was 39%. North Americans and Americans in particular have a different view of fairness compared to the rest of the world. This difference of views may yet come back to haunt us. The rest of the world is not willing to bet on the market for a fair outcome – at least not the way the game is being played. Note: the election of Donald Trump suggests that the VOTERS IN AMERICA HAVE ALSO CHANGED THEIR VIEWS. Three more examples and then a conclusion. NIKE Nike is a major American sport shoe company that does not own any factories. Nike reputedly produces most of its sneakers in Indonesia paying wages of $1.00 per day (1999) and that was before the collapse of the currency. Nike has established great brand identity by using Michael Jordan to endorse its products. It has been reported that the endorsement fees paid to Michael Jordan alone are greater than all of the wages paid to all of the workers in all of the Nike factories in Indonesia. Assuming that is true, how does that feel? HAITI In the final analysis, these problems become very practical. An activist group known as the “Christian Peacemaker Teams” had been active in HAITI in the critique of a company producing products for Disney. After being pilloried for its low wages, the company shifted its production to China. The reality is that the same company has a new factory in China – where CPT would not be allowed to demonstrate. The company is still in production, Disney has its products and the CPT members have not reduced their standard of living. The only losers are the workers in Haiti who went from a low paying job to no job. Justice and fairness are becoming very complicated questions. We all agree that what we see in the world around us does not pass the smell test. If it smells unfair it probably is unfair. RUPERT MURDOCH A final example will be a story from the October 26, 1998 edition of Fortune – hardly the flagship in the fight against Neoliberalism. The cover story is about Rupert Murdoch who owns the Fox network and much more. The title of the story is: THE RULES ACCORDING TO RUPERT Murdoch became an American citizen so that he could qualify for the ownership of television (Fox) in America. The parent company, however, does its accounting out of Australia where lax accounting standards permit him to exaggerate his income. When it comes to taxes Fortune says that he sings with a Caribbean lilt. News Corp has 800 business units of which the majority are incorporated in low tax or no tax havens like Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Netherlands Antilles and more. The result is an effective tax rate during the past 8 years of 5.7%. At least Murdoch is a real investor who starts and runs things – even if he wishes to control the world – or at least the media end of it. CONCLUSION My reason for editing an essay on globalization written in 1999 is twofold. First – It is obvious that the issues we face in 2017 and that are part of the daily political dialogue (with the exception that the issue of migration was largely absent) were evident in 1999 except that the impact was experienced more in the less-developed part of the globe. Today this pain or frustration has spread to the developed countries in the form of growing inequality of income and opportunity and that now expresses itself in populism. Second – Globalization is a phenomenon that is beyond the control and arguably the comprehension of most people and probably most politicians. As a consequence the arguments from both right and left fail to deal effectively with the core issue of how to create a world that can work in spite of the digital and other technological realities. The populism of the USA and several other countries responds to this dilemma by resorting to a kind of protectionism that circles the wagons. Given the reality of an increasingly connected world this will hardly resolve the problem in a productive manner. The world needs a new kind of economic and political architecture that deals with these issues but probably not in the bureaucratic manner of the EU, the America First of Trump or the self-serving strategy of China. I would like to think that I am hopeful but I am not – because I cannot think of a politician who truly grasps the nature of the problem or is keeping it secret from the rest of us! May the world survive until that leadership emerges somewhere. WHY DOES THE WORLD FEEL DIFFERENT? We speak of the 1% or similar category to define inequality. The reality is a bit more complicated. The 0.1% actually controls most of the wealth. The 1% are relatively wealthy people who have enough resources to insulate themselves from the masses. However, there is another category which I will describe as the 10%. These are the global economic nomads who exist at the upper reaches of every nation on the globe. They are educated, tend to speak English, travel freely and are either employed globally or are active with global reach. These are the economic nomads of our time with limited national loyalty and do very well from the current global system. This 10% exists in Canada, America and Europe but also in the Middle East, Russia, Indonesia – and everywhere else. In former times inequality was experienced between a limited number of highly developed economies and the rest of the world. Today inequality is a global phenomenon – the same elite exists in every society – and a parallel sense of inequality is experienced in most nations (a few places like Northern Europe have figured it out a little better). We are now experiencing the backlash from the part of the American population that believes it has unjustly been left behind and has a dim understanding that world structures, Governments and sometimes migrants have somehow created this new reality. Stay tuned!
Blog Post #28…..Stone Age to the 21st Century in One (Short) Lifetime…..January 27, 2017
Stone Age to the 21st Century in One (Short) Lifetime Papua is a living laboratory where we can experience the stone age in real time but also observe the process of transition to our modern world. The change is not only clothing and tools but the adaptation of cultural values. What really marks the end of the Stone Age? Technology, clothing, values? I was told that the two men in the photo might show up tomorrow dressed in opposite styles – a new definition of cross-dressing! They were introduced to metal only 50 years ago but still use many Stone Age tools. My friend and I both think we are appropriately dressed. I chose not to argue with him about anything. Arrowheads The bows they carry are traditional and unchanged from their Stone Age origins. The arrows have a deadly purpose. Many men whether dressed in shorts or a penis gourd carry their weapons at all times. They have several types of arrows in their quiver. One is designed to kill a pig, another for birds and all carry weapons for war – an arrow specially designed to do maximum damage to another human being. The tip is notched so that it breaks and remains in the body. With a little pig’s blood on the tip it will do its job! New Guinea, Irian Jaya, Papua or whatever name meets current political realities is the last bastion of the Stone Age – protected by crocodile-infested malarial mangrove swamps along the coasts and the vertical mountain barriers created by the collision of 3 tectonic plates. Dozens of tribes persisted as isolated stone age animists until “discovered” during WWII. Yes that is an airstrip. The Highlands of Papua are rugged contributing to isolation. Geography favored isolation. The tectonic forces created not only mountain barriers with sheer cliffs but a highland interior of steep hills and mountains with little discernible pattern and few navigable rivers. The Baliem Valley in West Papua – the part controlled by Indonesia – had the best terrain to support a large population (the Dani) and is accessible today with a jet-capable airport. This brings tourism, development and modernity. The Stone Age is increasingly a curiosity for tourists. Leona and I had the opportunity to visit a part of West Papua that remains inaccessible except for the incredible airstrips hacked out of hilltops and jungle by the tribesmen – often with Stone Age tools – with the encouragement of a small band of intrepid missionaries. This is the home of the Moni – a Stone Age tribe of about 50,000 with no access other than very difficult trails or these jungle strips. We landed on a local dirt airstrip in the Village of Pogapa. It is situated at 2000 meters altitude. Half of the airstrip has a slope of 15 degrees and the balance 6 degrees. The amazing small planes and pilots land uphill and take off downhill – little room for error. The first known external or at least western persons to interact with the Moni were a missionary couple from the Christian and Missionary Alliance in 1950. They learned the language and provided the foundation for the ability to develop written materials. They were followed by their son John who together with his wife Joy carry on the relationship with the Moni. The majority of the Moni are Christians today as is true of most of the tribes of Papua. I never received such a welcome back home – and it’s all in technicolor! John as walked with the Moni from the Stone Age to the edge of the modern world A typical Moni hut. Everyone sleeps around a fire. It’s not much but that’s all I have to sell today. Missionaries have often been criticized for changing cultures but these missionaries did not challenge any aspect of their culture such as food or clothing. Today they are the carriers of ideas and initiatives in education, agriculture and community leadership. The challenge faced by these Stone Age cultures is coming to terms with the inexorable arrival of the modern world. Stone Age life was characterized by disease, precarious access to food but most notably superstition and competition for territory and limited resources. The result was short life spans and by our standards an uncompromising response to the reality of their precarious existence. If a mother died in childbirth the tribe had no means of dealing with a surviving infant and the newborn would join the mother in death. Your hair would be red too if you had my bad diet. No – it’s not in the genes – it’s in the diet. Color is in fashion in the Highlands. Where will school lead these children? The response to these challenges was war which in that hostile environment usually consisted of hunting down a member of the “other” by seeking them out when they were alone or working their scattered slash-and-burn fields in the jungle hills. These conflicts could stretch into months and years with tit-for-tat murders. The consequences could be devastating. An entire village or tribe might be prevented from the essential hunting or care of their gardens resulting in starvation. Whatever our secular criticism of Christian missionaries one of their major contributions was to introduce different values and techniques of conflict resolution. We were unexpected witnesses to one of these moments where Stone Age values are challenged. There was a violent incident in the village moments prior to our arrival. A man came to the very small local market and savagely attacked his wife with a knife. The wife was accused of being unfaithful and that charge was never in question. The attacker was stopped from killing her and arrested by the local police but released a few hours later. Local medical services could bandage her wounds but little more. There was concern that her stomach had been punctured which meant death if not treated. Our missionary host provided the strongest antibiotics in his possession then all sat back to allow the culture to play out this little drama. Men deliberating a question of life and death. The women waiting for the verdict. Will our friend live or die? The men of the village could be observed sitting in a circle in the market debating the right course of action – while their wives and friends of the victim sat silently in another circle nearby (see photos). The traditional response would be that she deserved to be attacked since she was guilty. If she died it was the spirits or whatever serving out justice – the village should not intervene. Our missionary friend John is very familiar with the culture. He has lived with the Moni since the age of 2 and Moni was his first language. He has walked with the Moni their entire journey from the Stone Age to the brink of modernity. After observing events for a day with a close eye on the medical condition of the victim, John made an interesting intervention. He reminded the men that many were now believers and recalled the biblical story of the woman accused of adultery. Jesus challenged the person without sin to cast the first stone. John also reminded the men how quickly their culture and lives were changing – we visited the schools where the children of these Stone Age men were studying world geography, math and English. He suggested that they consider how the memory of this decision and its outcome would feel in 5 or 10 years. They would have to live with the consequences of their actions. Great pilots – but plenty of accidents. Flying to the hospital with her friend. She survived. Everyone was aware that a private charter would arrive in two days to pick up Leona and myself. The night prior to our departure the men advised John that they would approve of flying the victim to medical care. The morning of the flight one of the men arrived with an envelope. They had collected some money to assist with expenses. We provided two seats on our charter and flew the woman and a friend to Timika – the support City for the Grasberg mine – the largest gold mine in the world. Another notable experience in Moni country was a community pig roast. Pigs are very valuable and reserved for special occasions such as a wedding. We purchased a 30 kg pig for $US 400 from a nearby village and arranged a pig roast with the neighboring compound. They were delighted and volunteered to go to their mountain gardens to harvest vegetables and then produce the feast. We observed the complex process of heating rocks and creating a four-layer cooking pit. Everything was prepared with great care and arguably a very high level of cleanliness under the circumstances. We enjoyed the dozen varieties of vegetables plus the well-cooked pork. It was interesting to observe the interaction of the 20 or so men and women involved in producing this event. They worked seamlessly and effectively in the various tasks with few instructions and a complete absence of friction and conflict. It could have been a communal BBQ back home – but we might have argued more! the Pig is deboned so it cooks evenly. Leona, Art and John Papua at dinner. We were impressed with neatness and cleanliness. We left the Papua Highlands with a profound appreciation of these so- called ‘primitive’ people and the challenges they face. They are traveling a journey in one or two generations that our societies navigated – mostly violently – in millennia. The modern age is arriving in the form of education, medicine, air travel and even sophisticated agriculture. Politics are on the way (many tribes are not thrilled to become part of Indonesia) soon to be followed by roads and mobile phones. However, the greatest challenge may be the ability to develop and appropriate the values and cultural norms that can assist them in navigating this journey. May they have more friends like John! Grasberg gold mine taught me to grow this. They pick up with a helicopter and pay top dollar. the deal is we no longer shoot poison arrows at their people? Let’s talk about the grandkids. Rest and community after the big feast.
Blog Post #27…..President Trump – Really?????…..November 26, 2016
I never thought I or anyone would write those words. I have studiously avoided blogs or other commentary about my American neighbors and their politics – but the recent election calls for something. If you want to skip my thoughts scroll down and enjoy a hilarious piece – 100% plagiarized – about American liberals sneaking across the border into Canada. Books can and will be written about the election but at the risk of vast over-simplification will limit myself to three ideas. 1. American self-identity. The US as represented by its leaders, its citizens and often its press express a self-identity which sometimes serves to justify hubris that bears some examination. No other country unselfconsciously uses terms like Manifest Destiny, the exceptional or essential nation, describes itself as Great and promotes its political architecture as the best in the world. There were times when other countries saw themselves as different or exceptional and often supported by some kind of reality. We can go back to the Roman Empire but more recent history records the British Empire and its sense of “the white man’s burden”, the French Revolution with its political ideas, a unified and successful Germany that came late to the global game or the Chinese and Japanese sense of racial and civilization superiority. The US is unique and successful but it is useful to consider some of the roots of its apparent success. The US, in spite of its rejection of British suzerainty inherited the values and traditions of governance that have generally proved superior when compared to the legacy of other colonial powers. America also inherited the Protestant variant of Christianity which has proven to be more supportive of progress in the modern age. America had the benefit of inheriting a richly endowed continent located in the temperate climate zone and largely empty – and when not empty enough conquest, disease and re-location made it essentially empty. The rest of the world has been forced to modernize under historically imposed conditions of over-population, incompatible religious traditions, multiple languages and cultures, often a depleted environment and memories of violence. The economic and cultural progress of America is remarkable but considering the starting point – possibly the ability of Japan, Germany and Europe to rise above their history may be even more remarkable. America also has inherited several own goals which contribute negatively to its perception as a successful society. The first and most enduring is the history of slavery and the continuing inability to absorb with grace the consequences of its own actions. The second is the inability to create a modern society where violence is viewed as a negative. The frontier spirit may have contributed to a sense of innovation but the legacy of a gun culture with homicide rates of 5-50 times all other modern societies is hardly an example to the world – and does not merit the claims of greatness referred to earlier. Some combination of the above have contributed to the emergence of a candidate like Donald Trump. 2. The American system of democratic governance – does it really stand the test of superiority relative to alternatives? Systems of governance are exceedingly complex. A system is a structure but also a product of the people in the system and how the system is allowed to be used or distorted over time. The Constitution affirms the equality of all persons – but that same constitution was used to legitimize a century of slavery followed by a century of Jim Crow followed by?? The Division of powers is based on solid principles – but is also based on the assumption of some common collective purpose – which requires negotiated compromise. Elections allow the adjustment of the balance of power if the outcomes move away from some shared idea of the nation. But what if the idea or ability to compromise is no longer an accepted concept? Democracy is based on the idea of a majority or plurality at successively higher levels of government. But what happens when constituency boundaries are Gerry-mandered to the point of the bizarre? What happens to an electoral system in the complete absence of control over the influence of money in elections? And what happens if these conditions exist in one of the most unequal societies? The electoral college system simply amplifies the negatives implicit in each of the above. The American electoral system has many unproductive outcomes including perpetual election cycles and discouraging intelligent and qualified citizens from even participating – it takes an incredible ego and a surfeit of narcissism to place yourself into that situation. More critical is the demonstrated reality that the system as it currently functions pushes candidates and policy proposals away from the center and toward extremes. This is where comparison with other systems can be productive. The Parliamentary system as practiced in Canada and elsewhere is often criticized because it permits majority rule with less than 50% of the popular vote. A benefit of that outcome is that the party in power has a genuine ability to govern. A unified political right allowed Stephen Harper to govern in Canada for 10 years with 40% of the vote. Most of the 60% was split between two center-left parties. Although the parties could not structure an agreement to defeat Harper and shift governance closer to the Center – the electorate figured that out on their own in 2015 – voted strategically and created a Government near the political Center – the place most Canadians are comfortable with. Canadians relish their self-effacing jokes. Question: Why did the Canadian chicken cross the road? Answer: To get to the center! European systems of proportional representation offer another variation of governance that normally results in a coalition or compromise that may lean center-left or center-right but usually excludes either extreme. The natural move to the center fails to happen when ideology (think Venezuela) or religion (Israel or Iran or Egypt) play an outsize role. America appears to have evolved into a system that discredits the center – suggesting that future Governments may all reflect some kind of extreme to the detriment of all. 3. The failure of the Democratic Party to be a ‘Big Tent’ for various sectors of the population. The current expression of the Democratic Party focused on certain issues and groups (referred to as Identity Politics) and has defined that particular set of prejudices or views as the center of the universe. Referring to latinos, African- Americans and maybe Asians in the same sentence was proof of being inclusive. Adding Q to LGBT was an example of the expanded mind – even more if you promoted trans-gender bathrooms – parts of France have been unisex forever! The point is that I share the concern about views that tend to racism or fail to adequately protect rights of women or vulnerable minorities like immigrants. On the other hand liberals have blind spots that are equally reprehensible or at least unhelpful – and contributed to Election Day results. An interesting example is the attitude of liberals (often with the same meaning as Democrats) and their attitudes to people of faith – whether Catholic or evangelical Christian – as an ‘ identity’ they cannot identify with! You are likely to be denied tenure at a University – or even the freedom to make a convocation address if you do not tick the correct PC boxes. I will limit my comments to evangelical Christians – and the church into which I was born and still attend – is part of that universe. That same church is also the oldest (500 years) of the historic Peace Churches, has sponsored thousands of refugees and supports an endless list of social action causes. And yes, folks in my church would have a range of views on moral or social issues such as the value of life or the role of women. The point is Christians come in all sizes, shapes and colors like the rest of the world. When 81% of US evangelicals vote Republican it suggests that Democrats failed to find any positive message that relates to their very legitimate concerns and interests. When I travel the world as I am doing currently, it is disproportionately Christians (generally socially engaged Catholics or Christians from the evangelical wing) who are operating life-giving hospitals in the jungle, sheltering orphans who are victims of war or the HIV crisis or supporting schools when Governments fail to show up. Check the shelters for the homeless or the programs for inner-city kids in your own community and you will find the same. The point is evangelical Christians are multi-dimensional people like hopefully most of us. When Hillary Clinton fails to find a single issue on which to engage a reported 25 million voters that is an unfortunate failure of imagination and an indictment of the more extreme wing of the liberal community that believes they have a lock on truth. Let me close with an anecdote. In 1964, as a Canadian student in the US, I became involved in the civil rights movement including participation in the latter part of the Selma-Montgomery march. I also made several visits to Koinonia Farms in southern Georgia, an intentional inter-racial community founded in 1942 by a theologian and a band of risk-taking Christians. The point is that much of the civil rights movement grew out of the work of people whose degrees and titles included words like “Divinity” or “Rev”. That community was also the incubator for what has become a marvelous and inclusive social enterprise we know as Habitat for Humanity. The Trump presidency looms like a threatening typhoon. Americans vote but the rest of the world will be impacted by decisions about the use of military force, leadership on complex international issues and the health of our climate and world. There is the old proverb that Americans always do the right thing after exhausting all alternatives. Not sure if our world will survive that test under current circumstances! Pray for a peaceful world and let’s search for some alternatives to the current political process!
Blog Post #26…..Breaking News – Canada Building Wall…..November 25, 2016
Canada building a wall to defend against desperate Americans…. News Update from Canada The flood of Trump-fearing American liberals sneaking across the border into Canada has intensified in the past week. The Republican presidential campaign is prompting an exodus among left-leaning Americans who fear they’ll soon be required to hunt, pray, pay taxes, and live according to the Constitution. Canadian border residents say it’s not uncommon to see dozens of sociology professors, liberal arts majors, global-warming activists, and “green” energy proponents crossing their fields at night. “I went out to milk the cows the other day, and there was a Hollywood producer huddled in the barn,” said southern Manitoba farmer Red Greenfield, whose acreage borders North Dakota. “He was cold, exhausted and hungry, and begged me for a latte and some free-range chicken. When I said I didn’t have any, he left before I even got a chance to show him my screenplay, eh?” In an effort to stop the illegal aliens, Greenfield erected higher fences, but the liberals scaled them. He then installed loudspeakers that blared Rush Limbaugh across the fields, but they just stuck their fingers in their ears and kept coming. Officials are particularly concerned about smugglers who meet liberals just south of the border, pack them into electric cars, and drive them across the border, where they are simply left to fend for themselves after the battery dies. “A lot of these people are not prepared for our rugged conditions,” an Alberta border patrolman said. “I found one carload without a single bottle of Perrier water, or any gemelli with shrimp and arugula. All they had was a nice little Napa Valley cabernet and some kale chips. When liberals are caught, they’re sent back across the border, often wailing that they fear persecution from Trump high-hairers. Rumors are circulating about plans being made to build re-education camps where liberals will be forced to drink domestic beer, study the Constitution, and find jobs that actually contribute to the economy. In recent days, liberals have turned to ingenious ways of crossing the border. Some have been disguised as senior citizens taking a bus trip to buy cheap Canadian prescription drugs. After catching a half-dozen young vegans in blue-hair wig disguises, Canadian immigration authorities began stopping buses and quizzing the supposed senior citizens about Perry Como and Rosemary Clooney to prove that they were alive in the ’50s. “If they can’t identify the accordion player on The Lawrence Welk Show, we become very suspicious about their age,” an official said. Canadian citizens have complained that the illegal immigrants are creating an organic-broccoli shortage, are buying up all the Barbara Streisand CD’s, and are overloading the internet while downloading jazzercise apps to their cell phones. “I really feel sorry for American liberals, but the Canadian economy just can’t support them,” an Ottawa resident said. “After all, how many art-history majors does one country need? Please note Blog 26 is unapologetically plagiarized, Do not know source so cannot give credit! Blog Post #27 will arrive tomorrow. My views on Trump and the American electoral system.
Blog Post #25…..Meet Junior…..November 18, 2016
Meet Junior……. Junior in his days as a child soldier. Child soldier, victim of abduction, participant in atrocities, humanitarian, survivor, international diplomat, sensitive human being, friend – now in search of asylum. Junior on bridge with gun. The story of Junior Nzita Nsuami speaks to everything that is both inhuman and beautiful in our world. I met Junior in Montreaux, Switzerland in April where a movie about his story was being filmed. Junior is the UN Goodwill Ambassador for the cause of child soldiers appointed by Ban-Ki-Moon. Recent events in the Congo (DRC) precipitated his departure and when you know too much you cannot return and survive. He had an invitation to speak to the UN Security Council about the deteriorating political conditions in the DRC and the invitation included a visa to visit the USA. Junior had an earlier opportunity to visit Obama but the timing conflicted with a commitment to speak to an auditorium full of youth in Switzerland. He decided the youth were more important! Junior in a more reflective moment. Following the meeting at the UN Junior did meet Obama who encouraged him to enter DRC politics with US support. Junior had seen enough of violence and conflict and told Obama he would rather commit his life to humanitarian causes and Peace – politics where he comes from means only corruption and violence. Junior then used the opportunity as encouraged by his friends to take a bus to the Canadian border and ask for political asylum. He had only one friend in Canada plus our recent acquaintance. Junior is Francophone and his friends felt that considering language and politics Canada offered the best chance at a stable future. He is now waiting for the outcome of a legal process which will hopefully give him legal status in Canada – and restores his ability to travel the world to speak about children and war. Junior is now age 32. He was abducted from a private boarding school in the Eastern Congo at the age of 12. The teachers were killed and the boys were forced to join the unfortunate ranks of child killers. The militia which captured Junior was headed by Laurent Kabila. That group emerged as victors in the vicious civil war (Kabila became President) that reportedly killed more than 5,000,000 Congolese. All conflicts and violence against civilians are evil – but what does it say about our values and biases when many of us are only marginally aware or even unaware of the most violent conflict of our generation? Junior was able to leave the military at Age 22. He has since devoted his life to help other surviving child soldiers regain some semblance of normal life. He has founded an organization/orphanage that gathers survivors and related children and provides shelter and the opportunity for education. Cover of German Version of his life story. Junior has published a small book about his life titled “My Life as a Child Soldier” . The book is available in English, French, German and Dutch. It is a very tough read but targeted at youth to sensitize them to their privilege and encourage sensitivity and empathy to a less-sheltered world. What is remarkable about Junior is his friendly and open personality and the incredible commitment to make the world more peaceful. Junior has the unusual ability to speak to Obama, the UN Security Council, convention audiences but equally effectively to a high school classroom and even children gathered at his feet on a Sunday morning. Junior attributes a deep and profound faith not only to his physical survival but also the ability to retain a deep empathy for others. Ten years of unspeakable horror do not leave the mind undamaged. He visited the new Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg and was unable to visit some exhibits without breaking down. How does Junior build a future out of the wreckage of his past? Some friends suggest he work toward a law degree in international human rights. With his experience, appealing personality, obvious intelligence and established connections he could aspire to make a contribution at the international level. He also needs to stabilize his life and was recently engaged to a young woman from the DRC. Children at camp with new backpacks. Junior with children. A great capacity for love. Junior in Kinshasa surrounded by his children. Junior with Ban Ki Moon. In the meantime he subsists on limited but welcome assistance from the Government of Canada, accumulates friends, studies English and waits for the outcome of the legal process. I write this story as a reminder about the potential of the human spirit to survive and even thrive against all possible odds. Some day you may hear of Junior – he still has a future! Note: Sales of the book about the life of Junior is the primary source of income for his orphanage in Kinshasa. All proceeds of sales go to this purpose. The books are available for a price of $20.00 (USD or CDN) which includes shipping. Please note all revenue after postage goes to Junior and his project. The book is a tough but very meaningful read and a good gift. To purchase a book please contact Carol Collins by email at email@example.com or by phone at 204-988-5605. Cover of English version of his life story.
Blog Post #24…..The Changing Dynamics of Refugee Movements…..October 28, 2016
The migration debate has emerged in the last 15 months in a manner where it is having a profound influence on the global political debate and has been a critical factor in decisions such as Brexit and is influencing the trajectory of the political alignment of many countries. What has changed in our world and do we understand the deeper currents that are creating this new and disturbing reality? Ban-Ki-Moon dedicated September 19, 2016 as a special refugee focus at the United Nations at a time when global leaders are present – to bring the catastrophic issues of displaced people to the attention of the world. (Many eloquent words were spoken but my initial assessment is that nothing material has changed). Although migration issues have seemingly come out of nowhere their roots can be found in developments that reach back at least to WWII. In this paper I look at the impact of history and venture into some of the more challenging questions such as the role of culture and religion. The problems related to migration will be with us for a long time! When the value of life becomes zero. Nobody stopped. The Changing Dynamics of Refugee Movements Refugees like the poor have always been with us – and likely will be – but something changed in the summer of 2015. Images of desperate people filled our screens. Refugee issues began to impact both national and international politics. Equally important and somewhat surprising, news stories went beyond the sheer numbers and photogenic aspects of events and began to speak about the relevance of laws and conventions related to refugees and migrants. Reporters began to report about the difference between an economic migrant and a refugee. Other stories attempted to explain the responsibility of governments to people crossing their borders. In Europe this took on the added dimension of a collective responsibility versus individual national responsibilities. Structures such as the Schengen Agreement designed to make borders less visible were suddenly threatened by people movements that had never been anticipated. In the United States a national and rather toxic debate developed about the reality and rights of migrants. Countries such as Canada and Australia had the opportunity to use isolation as a defense. In Asia we learned of migrant groups in great difficulty such as the Rohingyas only when they appeared in the lens of a TV camera. Something has changed and I will attempt to address that question in both a historical sense as well as consideration of the nature of refugee movements and how that matters. What has changed in numbers and nature of flows since WWII and since the drafting of the various Conventions related to refugees and migration. Do numbers matter? The Conventions speak about principles but does it matter if there is a significant change of scale? People are not simply people. They bring with them culture, language, religion, political views and experiences, racial differences, economic circumstances and in a world of information – differing expectations. Finally – are the various Principles embodied in the Human Rights Declaration or subsequent Conventions designed to deal effectively with this often dramatic and substantive shift in the nature and scale of refugee and migrant movement? Is someone sending me a message? 1. What has changed since WWII? The Human Rights Declaration and subsequent Conventions were written and designed in the period immediately following WWII. They were written as a response to the particular nature of the migrant issues that arose from that catastrophic experience. The Declaration of Human rights was adopted in 1948 and other conventions followed. The drafters were in large part from Europe and the principles in these Conventions reflect the cultural and religious background of the period and the persons. Kurdistan refugee camp 2016. Tough as it is, look at photos of earlier refugee camps. An important series of events after the War and often a product of the War was the process of de-colonization. We think of the dramatic events around the independence and then partition of the Indian sub-continent. Events led to the independence of countries such as Indonesia but more consequentially to the effort to dislodge the French in South East Asia that resulted in the VietNam War. This had important political ramifications plus the dislocation of populations – and the development of novel responses to refugees. During the decades and centuries of colonization there was little thought given to the idea that persons who were treated in any particular way by the colonial master of one colony might be given civil rights in another – especially another colonial master. If you were treated in ways we would consider inhuman in a country like the Belgian Congo there was zero prospect that Britain or France would extend asylum – especially not in the home country. The point is that political repression, racism, famines and every other kind of persecution or problem might have been a feature of those times but it was unlikely to result in a flow of refugees that would be granted any universal political rights. De-colonization changed our world and our understanding of rights in two important ways. First, there was a recognition that persons from former colonies would be considered as worthy of human values and rights as represented by the Declaration of Human Rights. Second, there was the establishment of new post-colonial sovereign nations, often with inappropriate borders, absence of any Governance tradition and an inheritance of tribal, religious and cultural fragmentation that had never developed into a political understanding. There was an expectation that freedom would allow for political development that was more benign and reflected superior local values compared to whichever colonial master had existed before. Events proved this hope to be more than elusive and many Governments and leaders disappointed the world and more often their own citizens. This substantive change in global political architecture must be understood and appreciated when we consider the current emergence of a different kind and scale of migration. Bangladesh Bihari refugee camp 1972. 2. Do numbers matter? Previous movement such as migration from Europe to the Americas was the relocation of surplus population to arguably relatively empty spaces – and into cultures which were similar. The current migrant surge is from the less developed world into a developed world that is really relatively small in comparison. Relevant developed destination countries are limited to North America, Australia and Western Europe. America is in the process of excluding itself so that leaves Europe with a modest contribution from a few others like Canada. Yes there are a lot of us and more are on the way. If we consider the period since 1980, countries such as Canada, the United States and China have increased their population by 40%. Considering the same period the countries of Northern Europe – such as Germany but including Poland, Russia and others have had zero increase. During that same period a number of the countries which are the source of war-affected or economic migrants such as Ethiopia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Syria, Congo – have increased by 200%. Even more alarming from a purely demographic perspective this latter group has increased in population by 500% since the end of WWII or when the Human Rights and refugee Conventions were written. This could lead to the conclusion that this disparity in population growth implies that Western Europe has a serious demographic problem and can therefore absorb migrants. That may have some truth but there is still a matter of scale. The problem is that many of the slow growth countries such as Japan or parts of Western Europe do not have a political or social culture that will readily accept refugees except at the margin. It is notable that Japan increased its approval of asylum applications by 50% over the past year. The increase was from a tenth of 1% to a seventh of 1% of applications! The United States has a modest legal immigration program relative to its size but the movement of irregular or economic migrants from Latin America has actually been North to South for the past 5 years – in spite of the toxic political rhetoric. Geography in terms of source countries and physical access reduce the effective options for voluntary relocation from South Asia and Africa to Western Europe. Within Europe migrants themselves are predisposed to settle in a limited number of countries. In reality the available target destinations in Europe represent possibly 200 million people at a maximum plus Australia and Canada that are destinations that can strategically and politically manage some inflow. If countries such as Nigeria with 200 million and predicted to grow to 500 million continue to experience political chaos – which destination could possibly accept and integrate the overflow – and then add all of the other countries in current or potential trouble. Syria has only 22 million people – up from 5 million at the end of WWII and that modest population causes a crisis that is proving hard to manage. Somali refugees in 1982. Local design but effective and practical. The point is that all of the issues of culture, race, education skills and other issues aside – the numbers suggest that relocation is a limited option to deal with any future crisis and possibly even the present crisis. It is important to recognize that reality when we hear passionate appeals to live up to the obligations of the various Conventions and to consider our human and moral responsibility. Reality suggests that is not helpful if we do not understand the dimensions of the problem and the capacity of any available current and future solutions. Before I continue with the role of culture and other differences I will address the frequently heard argument that countries adjacent to a conflict are carrying an inordinate share of the burden. If a civil war occurs in Guatemala or El Salvador and this results in forced migration to Honduras or Mexico to escape the violence, the argument could be made that Europe or New Zealand should share the burden – but we never heard that argument when such a migration did in fact occur. The same could be said of Bangladesh in 1971 when 10 million crossed the border to live in refugee camps near Calcutta. The current Middle East crisis is creating different views on burden-sharing and it is fair to ask why that region’s problems are different. One reality is that the Middle East today – at least the portions that were part of the Ottoman Empire – are essentially a single population that was divided artificially by the post WWI and post WWII borders. Arguably it was a single population in Ottoman terms but also a region historically divided into a multitude of tribal, religious and sectarian differences – although essentially similar racially and sharing a single dominant language and religion. We did not read the part about color. When populations cross borders from Afghanistan to northern Pakistan or Eastern Iran – they are arguably sharing space with similar people and often their own tribal relatives. When Syrians cross the border into Jordan the differences in nationality are essentially an accident of history – and they share most aspects of language, culture and traditions. Why am I making this argument? If we go back to the prior questions of the history of colonization and the impact of numbers – we are facing a world where many regions will continue to be unstable or may become ungovernable over time. As migrants cross these new and artificial borders – is the answer to keep and support them in the region and invest in political and economic solutions or in each case relocate major populations to the relatively small proportion of the world that is wealthy and politically stable? Is there a risk that if not handled with care we destabilize the relatively few parts of the world that are currently stable with potentially severe negative consequences. It should be noted that burden-sharing is not really a well-accepted principle. Although the oil-rich Gulf States need millions of workers and have wealth – they prefer to import more malleable employees from places like Nepal who will arrive without the burden and inconvenience for the locals of family – and can be sent home after the slightest indication of a desire for human rights or simply humane treatment. As an alternate the Gulf States could accept the well-trained displaced people from Syria or Iraq – including their families – who are seeking both employment and safety. These migrants or refugees share history, geography, language, religion and culture with these wealthy neighbors but are rejected – yet Europe is castigated for not accepting large flows of people who will struggle to integrate economically and as a consequence socially even under the most generous conditions of asylum. Cambodia border 1980. In the middle of active conflict refugee camps do not even exist. I suppose simple survival is a form of success. I was part of those events. The point I am trying to make is that the reality of numbers, artificial borders, a growing and variable list of failed states plus natural phenomena such as drought or climate change create circumstances that require us to re-evaluate the current concepts of asylum and mass relocation as a solution to the larger problem of global distress. The UN recently announced a goal of 10% of refugee populations to be re-settled. Where does that leave the 90%? Even if achieved this exceeds the historic pattern of resettlement by vast orders of magnitude. Actual resettlement has been less than 1% of official refugees annually – and that total excludes the 80% of migrants or IDP’s in distress who are not recognized officially by the UNHCR. I am not speaking against the need to grant asylum, selective resettlement or programs to assist migrants and other populations through periods of distress. I am simply making the point that the debates about asylum and other principled solutions are not and are unlikely to address the current and future nature and scale of the problem. 3. Does Culture Matter? I risk being labeled as politically incorrect by venturing to speak about the role of culture in the current political and economic conflicts and their impact on migration. It is my view that we will not deal effectively with the sources of migration or their solution – if we do not consider the role of culture using the word in its broadest sense. The Cold War dominated the period to 1990 in a way that masked many of the migration flows. Political circumstances did not permit local cultures to emerge as the decisive actors in local or national outcomes. The two Cold War protagonists supported whichever authoritarian ruler could keep tight control and support their side in the ideological conflict – human rights, gender equality and political freedom were of no consequence in that Faustian bargain. Yes I will wear this hijab but I will wear it my way! Mother and daughter in Iran. Different approaches to religious tradition. I will frame my comments about the role of culture by using two well-known phrases – “The End of history “ and “The Clash of Civilizations.” The first was the essay and book titled “The End of History” by Francis Fukuyama published in 1992. It argued that the conflict about ideological choice was over and liberal democracy was the only remaining viable and acceptable alternative for Governance. Prof Samuel Huntington responded in a lecture later the same year using what has become a famous and infamous term – “Clash of Civilizations”, and agreed that the age of ideology may indeed have ended but predicted that the world would return to its more normal state of affairs which was conflict along the lines of culture or religion. That is vastly over-simplified but it is a good starting position for the discussion. Both theories were criticized by the ruling political and academic elites and resulted in some interesting debate. Huntington responded in a creative way by joining with Lawrence Harrison and organizing a conference and the later book with the title “Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress”. To avoid the anticipated criticism that would result from a Western academic critiquing other cultures – a reputable academic from each of the cultures being considered was selected and asked to critique from within. This was not a book about Islam versus the rest and Islam figured very lightly in the book. For generations we have been told that the legacy of colonialism explains the failure of certain parts of the world to develop. One example compared the post war and post-colonial experience of Taiwan and Korea – both traditional societies and colonies brutalized by Japan – and their successful economic and political emergence – with the experience of post-colonial nations in Africa or elsewhere. An interesting comparison is with a naturally endowed nation such as Argentina in which the statute of limitations for complaining about the colonial heritage has long expired – but a country with great promise that has failed to produce results. Another comparison is Ghana which became independent while Korea was going through a brutal internal conflict. Both started the period with similar economic indicators – but today the Korean GDP exceeds that of Ghana by a factor of 15. The major point of the book is to consider the role that cultural inheritance plays in the ability of a society to respond to economic opportunities, the capacity to shape political structures that encourage the development of its human resources and the ability of a nation to navigate its neighborhood. The book does not judge the merits of the values of the Orthodox, versus the Confucian versus the Islamic versus the Catholic Latin American or the Protestant Northern Europe worlds – but it does analyze outcomes and does try to link these outcomes to attitudes and values. French approach to diversity. The point I want to make is that culture, values and attitudes have an important and often decisive impact on how a society or group of people responds to opportunities and challenges. A completely different argument can be made about the role of the individual in responding to the particular cultural inheritance they bring with them. We can all recite anecdotally and often statistically the personal experience of individuals from various cultural, racial or religious backgrounds who have responded in ways that we – again using our own values – consider constructive, successful and positive. I live in a City and Province that is in the midst of an astonishing anthropological experiment. The Provincial Nominee Program now known as PNP was invented here in 1998 and continues as the most successful program of its kind in Canada – and arguably globally. In recent years immigrants have arrived at the rate of 1.2% of the population annually – and the number would be higher if the Federal Government would stop putting impediments in the way. Some people expected migrants to use Manitoba as a convenient way to access Canada and relocate to cities like Toronto – this has not happened. Migrants have stayed, they have been received positively by the population and they have been overwhelmingly successful if measured by economic independence and a high degree of social integration. Comparable rates of immigration into the US would be 4 million per year – or 400% of the current real rate of arrivals. In the case of Europe it would be 6 million per year – but they are overwhelmed by a rate of one million. I want to make two points. First – it is possible for a society to absorb a large number of migrants – but note that the receiving population was itself primarily former migrants and already viewed itself as multicultural – even if the variety was mainly of European origin. Secondly, the program was deliberate and planned. Arriving migrants came at all skill levels but represented a package of skills, life experience, aspirations and linkages to the Manitoba society that allowed for some predictability of success. Settlement assistance was also generous and carefully implemented. How does this analysis relate to the current experience of Europe? We have looked at some of the origins of current migration patterns such as de-colonization, the impact of demographics and the fact that culture matters. Stating that culture matters is different than saying one culture or religion is superior or unacceptable – but to ignore the reality of differences does not lead to any productive outcomes. I recently visited Tunisia where one objective was to understand why Tunisia alone in the Middle East has achieved some success – even if fragile – in the internal development of democratic governance. Who defines fashion? Michael Moore in his recent provocative movie visited Tunisia to examine the revolution and in his interviews noted the critical role played by women in preserving the democratic impulses that emerged from the Arab Spring. I asked Tunisians why their country had a different political outcome and they quickly pointed to the role played by women and the much greater sense of gender equality in the country. They proudly pointed out that at the time of independence the country focused on education and gender equality as priorities and Tunisia was the first and possibly only Islamic country at that time to outlaw polygamy – and according to my interlocutors this created social and political space for women. The debate about the role and problem of Islam in terms of current political and migrant issues sometimes attempts to analyze theology and quickly turns to the role of the conservative Wahhabi teaching. When this tendency inspires violence it is easy to say – “this is not the real Islam”. I spend my winters in a Mexican city and frequently walk by a house which is still labeled as the “House of the Inquisition”. My own ancestors were refugees from the Inquisition in the 16th century in Flanders and it is possible that much of the population was not supportive of that brutality either. Such an attitude would not have made the Inquisition less Catholic. Wandering around the Mediterranean basin this spring it was easy to note the brutality of empires or religions at various times. History is interesting and sometimes instructive but that history does not threaten the present – and that is why the challenge of a real or not real Islam needs to be dealt with – because the problem exists in the present. In the current reality Islam has the burden of dealing with the perception of theological and cultural differences that affect our individual and collective ability to solve conflicts or deal with desperate flows of migrants. There is surprisingly little public analysis of the underlying issues in Islam that result in problematic cultural attributes that promote resistance by host populations – and sometimes resistance by migrant Muslim populations to accept the norms of the societies which receive them. It is not my purpose here to accomplish that difficult task but will make one observation. It has been asserted that the problem of acculturation into western societies by Muslim populations has related more to Eros than to Demos – another way of referring to issues of gender equality versus the ability to respond to democratic governance. Gender inequality or gender issues also feature in other cultures whether it be female mutilation or child brides – but these tend to affect the person or the community inward and do not affect the host population other than our disapproval. When we consider the points of tension as reflected in our news stories they refer to female dress code, hesitance to mix in schools, the refusal to accept social norms such as a handshake or reported mob misbehavior in front of Cologne Cathedral. In societies like Saudi Arabia the distinctions are much more severe. The point is that issues many of us would refer to as gender inequality are the most visible points of tension and more open discussion may allow all parties to get beyond them. However, accepting inequality whether regarding gender, race or LGBT issues will not be the answer for open societies. The question of Demos or the ability of Islamic or other cultures to accept democratic ideas of governance is interesting to analyze. We note the mixed history of Africa, Asia and Latin America and the only recent and incomplete democratization of Europe. There is no indication that the ability to accept communal governance values is genetic or antagonistic to adherents of most religions. However, experience with open societies is a very recent phenomenon and could benefit from study. In any event an open society is a value to be protected and we need to draw new arrivals into the democratic culture and not accept excuses that allow for authoritarian exceptions. The personal and collective freedom of our society is what attracts the asylum seeker and we need to both invite them to join and participate – but also insist that they accept or at least not damage these values. The role of culture in many aspects of life is a challenging subject. Avoiding discussion and stating that all values are equal in terms of their impact on the success of a multicultural and diverse society and world is not helpful. 4. Is the Human Rights Declaration still relevant? When the draft of the Declaration was circulated in 1947 the Anthropological Society of America declared it to be culturally biased and more or less stated that all societies and presumably their values should be considered as equal. Modern day misery on the Mediterranean. The Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam passed in 1990 by the Organization of the Islamic Conference states that sharia is the sole source for the understanding of human rights. How universal is the Universal Declaration really? The Declaration is admittedly entirely focused on the rights of the individual with scant reference to the rights of the collective. The problems currently experienced in Europe with regard to the challenge of the mass arrival of asylum seekers and the perceived threat to collective life and values illustrates the problem. Whether universal or not the principle of asylum as stated in article 14 is not adequate to deal with the problems of our time as I have described them. I have worked personally in refugee or IDP situations including Bangladesh, boat people, Cambodia, Somalia and more recently the Middle East – so understand and am fully sympathetic. However, that experience has also taught me to question the relevance of our understanding of human freedom and the institutions and values that are intended to result in solutions. Most of my family were refugees. This includes grandparents, parents, stepmother, both daughters and one son-in-law. I appreciate the need for and benefit of migration and asylum. We need to speak honestly to the issues that make borders and migration more rigid – and these discussions need to include history, scale and culture. Bangladesh 1972. Beauty amid poverty.
Blog Post #23…..Oh Canada…..August 26, 2016
A reflection on a country charting its own path through the xenophobia and cultural wars of our age. A moment of Peace and tranquility that is to be cherished. Canada Day – July 1, 2016. Breakfast in our screen porch overlooking the 14,000 islands of Lake of the Woods. We enjoy every modern comfort but a deer, bear or wolf could join the eagles and loons in our environment at any moment. There are 250,000 lakes in the Province of Ontario There are six of us this morning. I scan the table and note the places of birth represent Siberia, Bangladesh, Paraguay and even Canada. Between us we carry or are eligible for 11 different passports from four continents. Another recent breakfast featured 11 persons born in 7 countries on 4 continents. The facial features covered the palette of our global village. This is the Canada of today and I wonder whether this is the new normal. I was reminded of the Creation story in Genesis and God reflecting after Day 6. “God saw all that he had made and behold, it was very good.” Canada and it’s lakes have many moods. The views are from the deck of our Lakehouse. I had just returned from Ottawa which had featured visits by President Nieto of Mexico and President Obama. Obama spoke eloquently of a generous society that created space for minorities, was accepting of differences of race and religion, was invitational to refugees, a society that could celebrate the differences in culture and sexual preferences, that cared for its people through health care and social programs …the only problem was that the oratorical flourishes were much more representative of Canada than the nation represented by Obama. How many Senators or members of Congress would stand up en masse and give a resounding applause to each of these topics – which they did in Parliament. The world is struggling with what seems like a tsunami of generally unwelcome migrants – affecting global and national politics. It is noteworthy that the population of Canada is 19% foreign born compared to 13% in the UK and only 11% in the USA. Toronto is 50% foreign born! From the elevated level of hysteria one would think the proportions would be reversed. At the dinner in honor of President Obama he referred to our shared experience of a wild and unruly frontier – except that Canada never had a wild and unruly frontier. There is an anecdote about the American film producer doing a story on the Klondike gold rush. He wanted to include a scene with a shootout. The Canadian historian advising on the project stated that such a scene was historically impossible – when the American producer pressed for an explanation the historian pointed out that the Northwest Police in Canada always preceded the arrival of settlers – or miners. In the Klondike the miners could visit Dawson City but would be required to check their guns at the edge of town – they could drink, fight and gamble – but they could not shoot. Canadian Museum for Human Rights The scarf worn by Malala when she was shot – an exhibit in the museum Statistics indicate that 6 times as many people are killed by guns in the US as a proportion of population compared to Canada – but most countries of Europe are even safer. Guns are easy to buy in Canada – if your gun is designed and intended for hunting. Canada has emerged from a decade of Government that (by Canadian standards) was pro military, tough on crime, cautious on social issues, wary of our historic engagement with Peace, anti science and climate change and lacked transparency. After this political experiment to make the country more conservative and inward-looking – the people of Canada decided that we wanted to be an open society where diversity, transparency and freedom of expression and ideas could be celebrated. We will always have our political differences but the reality is that it is currently difficult to arouse enough people to populate a demonstration on any issue where the feature is to criticize the government – we will certainly find some but we are living in a moment of unusual social peace. Canada is far from perfect. We are in a period of national repentance about the experience of our First Nations and residential schools. While the policies may have been culturally ill-advised, the many citizens of Canada who arrived fleeing from repression and social conditions that were much less accommodating have difficulty understanding the national trauma. Our First Nations are indeed in deep trouble – but legislation will not solve deep social and community issues. We debate the precise rules about assisted-dying legislation – but do not argue the principle. Women have the right to abortion with basically no restrictions. You can love and marry whomever you wish. French and English are protected as official languages yet the population increasingly does not reflect these heritages. World is at Peace Girl with Dog Several years ago former premier of Quebec Daniel Johnson visited Winnipeg and was hosted by the Business Council of Manitoba. He began his comments with a reference to “The two solitudes that comprise Canada” – a reference to our French and English heritage for any reader from outside of Canada. I made a quick scan of the 14 business leaders around the table – then stopped the Premier to note that none of the members present represented either of these founding nations – does that make us less Canadian? This made enough of an impact to be recorded in his memoirs. Canada represents a unique but important experiment. Together with very few other countries we are embarking to an untested destination where a nation will not be defined by ethnicity, race and increasingly less characterized by culture and religion. Under these circumstances what do we become? Will the final product be an accidental outcome or a guided destination? If we are not defined by race, religion, culture or color – what is the basis of our unity in the future? Canada is more than trees – spot the Polar Bear We casually and seamlessly mix our sushi, satays and samosas with our steak. We worship in different ways but we are increasingly less defined by our religion. Many members of our visible minorities are raised or born in Canada. I enjoy closing my eyes as I hear them speak and socialize – aware that it is impossible to guess at their appearance or heritage from the sounds I hear. At the same time it is legitimate and accepted to value the heritage from which we came – without being less Canadian. I turn on the world news with increasing trepidation. On a massive scale we observe anger and violence based on real or perceived differences in national identity, religious interpretation, racial discrimination, economic inequality and social values. The First Nations still search for a future based on identity but that is an increasingly questionable destination. The view from my Canada Day breakfast is serene. I wonder whether we are living in a mirage that is about to disappear or are we at the edge of a hopeful world that has not existed before. I contemplate the energetic children who are growing up in a world where all are different – therefore none are different. Canada eh? Joys of Summer in Canada
Blog Post #22…..Who are the Mennonites?…..July 8, 2016
This blog is based on a presentation made to the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of San Miguel de Allende. The group tends to be from the US East Coast and has a perspective on Mennonites based on their regional experience. Leona and I and friends who occasionally attended the Fellowship did not fit their stereotype. Has anyone ever said to you – “You do not look like a Unitarian?” Amish couple riding in style I have often been told that I do not look like a Mennonite – so people have a pre-conceived perception as to what a Mennonite is or believes or should look like. Mennonite children in rural Mexico – my relatives 8 generations removed Mennonites no longer look predictable Mennonite musical group look and sound differently around the world A little reality check…. On a typical Sunday morning Mennonites will worship in approximately 100 countries. Major cities like Vancouver will host services in a dozen or more languages. Mennonites will worship in North American mega churches and in remote villages in sub-Saharan Africa. Meserete Kristos (Mennonite) church in Ethiopia is active in social and rural development Meserete Kristos (Mennonite) church in Ethiopia is active in social and rural development Meserete Kristos Mennonite congregation in Addis Ababa – church seat 3,000 Ethiopian women outside church in Lalibela celebrating special Coptic religious event St. George Coptic church in Lalibela – one of the famous 11th century churches carved into living stone In terms of racial identity only 40% will have a European background. The largest church in Ontario is Anabaptist and will project its services electronically into a dozen sites – the pastor has long hair, wears jeans and rides a Harley. At the same time there will be services in rural Mexico or Pennsylvania where sermons written a couple of centuries ago will be read by men with beards and traditional dress. Some services will feature bands that would do well in a jazz competition, others will sing soberly to the accompaniment of a Steinway or organ and some will sing A Capella. A Mennonite Sunday service in Canada Horse and buggy – Mennonites at church – ahead of the curve on climate change The original name for the group now known as Mennonite was Anabaptist. The group originated at the dawn of the Reformation in German-speaking Europe, a world that had been totally Catholic for centuries but was now in religious and social turmoil as groups that would become known as “Protestants” challenged Rome’s legitimacy and authority. The term Anabaptist comes from their practice of re-baptizing adults who had been baptized as infants on the grounds that baptism should be based on freedom of informed choice. This practice of voluntary baptism has since become standard practice in many other Christina groups. The name Mennonite came from the name of Menno Simons – a converted Catholic priest who provided leadership among the Dutch Mennonites during the early years of persecution. As a result they were called “followers of Menno” by others. It is interesting that even the Swiss adopted this name but the Dutch never did. A translation of their name in Dutch refers to its origins as “inclined to baptize”. Anabaptist adult members plus associated adherents such as children now number 4,000,000 globally – double the membership of 50 years ago. Many denominations including Mennonites are shrinking in North America and Europe but growing in other parts of the world. Much of the growth represents the more conservative groups with large families and high retention rates in North America plus international churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The various Mennonite-related groups in the US collectively represent the largest single national population but Canada has more Mennonites as a proportion of its population. The fastest growing churches are in countries like Ethiopia, the Congo, India, Indonesia and surprisingly Laos. Mennonites or Anabaptists are a product of the very early Reformation and in all cases took the point of view that neither the church bureaucracy as in Catholicism or the Prince or town authority as in the movements established by Luther and Calvin should determine the belief of its citizens. They were the genuine radicals and free thinkers of the Reformation, promoted separation of church and state and were seen as a threat by all of the other groups. The result was persecution which destroyed much of the original intellectual leadership and forced believers into hiding or migration to less violent locations. The effect was predictable – a radical group shorn of its leadership may resort to efforts to maintain its belief, practices and identity – and in the absence of leadership may become conservative. The Swiss believers retreated to remote Alpine valleys while Flemish believers such as my family threatened by the rule of Spain and the Inquisition migrated to Danzig and other more liberal Hanseatic locations. Eventually the Swiss believers were physically expelled from Switzerland and were fortunate to have Pennsylvania as an alternative – and became the Mennonites most Americans know. They have enjoyed 3 centuries of mostly peace and a significant degree of isolation. The other major Mennonite group was Flemish or Dutch and many migrated east to Hanseatic Cities and the Vistula Delta. They experienced moderate liberty (if you exclude all of the wars of those times) until Frederick the Great was unimpressed by their pacifism. Southern Russia became an alternative when the German Czarina Catherine the Great expelled the Ottomans and invited the Mennonites and others to populate and hold the newly conquered lands. That narrative represents my personal story. The Russian experience was very positive until the catastrophe of WWI and the Bolshevik Revolution. The result was our own version of the holocaust. A portion of the Community had migrated before WWI and others like my family escaped in one way or another during the period of turmoil. These collectively became the other major identifiable group of European Mennonites and are internally known as Russian Mennonites – although the group has very little Slavic blood but did pick up a wonderful cuisine. The group that remained in the Netherlands prospered during the golden Age of that region and over time integrated with the rest of the Dutch. The group that continues to self-identify as Anabaptist is possibly the most liberal religious group in the Netherlands in terms of social and political attitudes – quite an achievement among the already very liberal Dutch! Mennonites generally do not have centralized leadership and this creates plenty of opportunity for fragmentation based on differences of theology, dress, geography, language or music. When you align the core theological beliefs they have remained remarkably similar allowing the groups to work together in areas such as social justice or efforts to promote local or global Peace. Modern suburban church in Canada New library at Canadian Mennonite University – one of a number of Mennonite Universities Many will recognize the work and reputation of the Mennonite Central Committee supported by most Mennonite Church groups. Leona and I are alumni of that organization and our first assignment related to international social justice was with MCC in Bangladesh after the 1971 Civil War. Others will recognize the work of Mennonite Disaster Service, the retail stores of Ten Thousand Villages or MEDA – Mennonite Economic Development Associates – a pioneer in Microfinance. WWI created a crisis for Mennonites who at the time were still very rural. Since most were practicing conscientious objectors there was a popular view that Mennonites did not support their nation. MCC was developed out of the wreckage of WWI in 1920 and continues to operate across the world. Many Mennonite churches pioneered in the development of health facilities, senior and mental health programs, mediation and many other social and peace initiatives. Following WWII the Mennonite Community developed an initiative for young people to model the experience of young men being drafted into the military by developing the PAX Corps as a form of global service. You might note that the name Peace Corps sounds rather similar and is in fact a takeoff from the Mennonite initiative. The end of colonialism had a dramatic impact on the relationship between the parent churches of North America and Europe and the churches in newly independent post-colonial countries. Outcomes were predictably variable but several national churches celebrated their independence and developed aggressive church growth movements within their ethnic groups or nations. Mennonite World Conference celebrating our diversity and our common faith Mennonites do not have anything approaching a Pope or even a global Synod. We do have an organization with the name Mennonite World Conference which meets every 6 years and is essentially a global celebration of culture and people but does serve to bring disparate groups together through personal interaction. Recent global conferences have taken place in Zimbabwe, Paraguay, Calcutta, Brazil and Pennsylvania. Recent leaders have come from Indonesia, Zimbabwe, America and currently Columbia. Global dispersion, cultural influence and leadership have pushed various parts of the group in different directions. The horse and buggy Mennonites in Eastern Bolivia or Belize are doing well in terms of economics and numbers but remain very culturally conservative. The Conservative group that moved into the challenging Chaco or Green hell of Paraguay conquered that difficult land and today enjoy an average income 16 times as high per capita as the rest of the Paraguayan population. Eastern US or Swiss Mennonites have remained challenged by American culture while Western US Mennonites of Russian origin have moved much more into the US mainstream. In Canada the churches and communities include mega-church evangelicals, educated and socially-conscious congregations plus a range of conservative groups that include those who negotiate modernity on their own terms. Some pastors will arrive in church on a buggy and others on a Harley! Several international Mennonite churches have tended to a charismatic style. Globally, churches will often be mission-oriented but also are known for their work with health, development and social justice. There is no church requirement to tithe but virtually all Mennonite communities and groups are leaders in the support of various causes. The generosity of Mennonites shows up on Canadian geographic tax donation statistics. The Mennonite Community has experienced a great deal of group and individual trauma. Virtually all Russian Mennonite families have a personal or family story of persecution, war, dislocation, famine or flight and this leaves its marks. The International churches are dealing with the trauma associated with the post-colonial experience and when I mention countries such as Ethiopia, the Congo, Zimbabwe or Central America no details are necessary. Groups and individuals respond differently and this creates stories where the response to this stress has been very negative – in other cases there are heroic responses. The point is that any stereotype of the term Mennonite is probably true – but represents a very incomplete picture of the totality of the Community. Mennonite children in Canada Leaders of the various Mennonite groups make efforts to retain the elements of the Mennonite traditions that reflect our uniqueness but more important our contribution to the essence of Christianity. The idea of pacifism or non-violence developed at the earliest stage of our tradition when it was noted that every form of Christian was killing every other kind and justifying the act. The early Anabaptists concluded very quickly that you could not justify the killing of your fellow Christian and that has developed into a comprehensive philosophy of non-violence. This has profound implications for the promotion of Peace and techniques like conflict resolution and mediation. The pacifist stance also has implications for the relationship of Mennonites with their fellow citizens. Another description of Mennonites has been the term “People of the Book” and the group is very biblically oriented. Mennonites share the view of Jesus as Savior with other denominations but place a greater emphasis (compared to many denominations) on Jesus as teacher and example in terms of community and social justice. At the practical level this expresses itself through the support of international development, Peace initiatives or work with refugees. Many groups are active in global Missions and others in the local development of new churches. Biblical literalism can also be a cause for division and disagreement. My personal story is a parallel of our communal experience. The ancestry of my father is Flemish and we can trace our roots back to the Reformation. The family left Catholic territory and became grain merchants in Amsterdam. In 1580 part of the family relocated their enterprise to Danzig or what is today Gdansk. After 200 years of experience ranging from brandy distilling to lace making to becoming an orphan – a member of my family relocated to the Southern Ukraine in 1789 with the first group to accept the invitation of Catherine the Great. The family prospered in Russia and were grain millers when WWI and the Bolshevik Revolution intervened. My father’s family had the foresight to escape to Mexico although it also meant poverty. My father grew up as a shoeshine boy on the streets of Ensenada. My Mother’s story was similar until the War. Her family stayed and experienced Stalinist repression. Together with two University friends she managed a story-book escape through China in 1931 and all three became Academics in America. Leona visiting Lalibela churches My parents met as refugee children in Russia during WWI and by accident in Minneapolis 20 years later – and then we became a Canadian family. Many Russian-Mennonite families have similar stories of persecution and survival. This family and personal history is part of the reason why I have dedicated much of my life to working with international development, refugees, immigration and Peace issues. Leona did not grow up Mennonite but shares an Eastern European background. Her family was able to emigrate under somewhat more normal circumstances. My interest and passion for work with development or refugees has undoubtedly been influenced by my exposure to these issues through the Mennonite church and community. The personal experience of family where parents and children were themselves refugees undoubtedly played a role. The Mennonite Church and Community is diverse. There are many individuals with an engagement and passion that results in the active pursuit of social justice. Others live their lives quietly and like any group of people – some are oblivious to the issues of this world. To return to the beginning – The Mennonite Community lends itself to certain stereotypes but any one of them is an incomplete picture of this diverse, growing and changing Community. I was born into a Mennonite home and Community but the decision to remain part of that Community was deliberate. We all live within a tradition or view of the world and I felt that Mennonite values and history were a powerful perspective from which to negotiate life. Leona joined the group through marriage but with conviction and has grown to appreciate the strength of a people and a Community. The next time you see an opera star at the MET, Premier of a Canadian Province, the CEO of a major corporation or even the Secretary General of NATO, you might ask if they are Mennonite or have Mennonite roots. If you find workers in refugee camps, negotiating Peace or cleaning up after a Disaster – you might find Mennonites among them. Your quiet neighbor or colleague at work may also be a Mennonite. We are a diverse group but consider ourselves part of the larger Christian family and global citizens. Many find the ethnicity and Community confining and choose a different identity – but Leona and I have chosen to see it as a source of strength. As a Community we share a common desire to live in Peace and to contribute to a better world. Mennonites live in suburban bungalows, traditional farms, high-rise condos and villages around the world
Blog Post #21…..Three Men with Guns…..May 13, 2016
Terrorism has become an unfortunate fact of life in our world. We are all affected in some way but the impact is not distributed equally and arguably not fairly. This post looks at the impact of two attacks in 2015 directed at tourists in Tunisia – the country where the Arab Spring started and is struggling to survive. If we want to make a personal statement against terrorism – sometimes the answer is as simple as showing up somewhere. Three Men with Guns Two attacks involving a total of three armed men effectively destroyed the most important part of the economy of an entire country. Tunisia developed a very successful tourist industry since its independence in 1956 based on location, sun, sand, historical and archeological heritage plus a friendly and accommodating people. In spite of the convulsions of the Arab Spring, Tunisia sustained a robust tourist industry with 6,000,000 visitors per year. 5 star hotel at noon. The wonderful souks and historic towns of Tunisia. Not quite open for business. I visited Tunisia a few weeks ago. Virtually new tourist resorts stand empty like the Sphinx waiting for the nearby Sahara to encroach and leave its mysteries. Some hotels remain open like zombies, pretending to be open, staff dressed and ready, tables set, cushions by the pool but devoid of any other life. We toured a fabulous 5-star resort with 300 rooms and suites, great location and outstanding design and facilities. We were told that the hotel was serving a total of 15 guests and many of these are Tunisians taking advantage of exceptional values. Drivers and guides suggested that an honest estimate of the tourist industry since the two terrorist attacks was a drop of 95%. Two armed men entered the spectacular Bardo National Museum mid-morning of March 18, 2015. We were told the guards were on coffee break – what a price to pay for slack management of security! The Bardo is focused on the mosaics recovered from the extensive Roman ruins and the earlier Carthaginian challenger to Rome. The Museum is housed in a former Ottoman palace and the complicated structure created opportunity for local guides to take advantage of their knowledge of the building. When they heard gunfire they guided their guests through hidden hallways to safety. Some tourists were less fortunate and were trapped in the former harem with no escape. 22 Tourists were taken hostage and killed but 400 others escaped in the confusion. Mosaic of the poet Virgil flanked by the muses Poetry and Eloquence. This mosaic is considered the Mona Lisa of the mosaic world. Roman mosaic in Bardo Museum. Tunis was once the second city in the Roman Empire. Bardo Museum. Display includes evidence of the terrorist attack. The museum has re-opened and there is a large plaque in the modern entry recording the names and nationalities of those who died. The glass cases and other exhibits damaged by the wild gunfire have been controversially left displaying their wounds together with their history. Our guide estimated daily visitors at 20. Beautiful tourist beach but no people. The sun and sand tourism is concentrated on the long Mediterranean coast south of Tunis and on the island of Djerba. On June 20, 2015 a lone gunman walked onto the beach while tourists were taking the sun and enjoying the water. He shot every person in sight and followed the panicked sun-seekers into the hotel. He was finally killed by a guard. 38 tourists died in this senseless attack. Tunisia depends on mass tourism driven by charters, groups and good value. When such an attack occurs embassies issue warnings which impact this kind of tourism. Warnings by Government can have the secondary effect of preventing access to insurance coverage for tour operators – and they switch destinations. The net effect is catastrophe for a country like Tunisia where 400,000 of its citizens were employed directly or indirectly in the tourism industry. Tunisia has no oil so tourism matters! The events we refer to as the Arab Spring started in Tunisia when a frustrated street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi burned himself to death in the middle of the market. The totally unexpected result was a popular response that forced the increasingly unpopular and corrupt dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from office and the country in 28 days. A Tunisian souk at mid-day. Tourists missing. This single spark lit the fire that is consuming much of the Middle East. Alone among the nations of the region, Tunisia is sustaining a fragile democracy. The loss of its most important industry will not be helpful. In 2002 we visited the island of Bali several weeks after the terrorist event in Kuta that killed 202 mostly young tourists. Our visit was in part a deliberate statement of support for a community that was not responsible for the attack and was itself a victim. We wandered around the very popular artist town of Ubud and I counted at best two dozen people I would judge not to be local. Ubud would typically be crowded with thousands. A local shopkeeper commented that when the 9-11 attacks occurred in New York there was a popular outcry – “Visit New York to show the terrorists that they will not win – but when Bali suffers a single attack – and the perpetrators are already in jail – the same people warn tourists to avoid Bali – why the difference?” It will be interesting to observe the response of tourists and Governments to recent attacks in Brussels, Paris and Istanbul. I would not be surprised if Governments are under pressure to protect the reputations and tourism in these politically prominent cities. But who ever said the world was a fair place! Last night we wandered through the delightful bohemian part of Rome known as Trastavere. The narrow streets were filled with the young (and a few our age) celebrating life and friendship. We noted soldiers in military gear and carrying visible guns stationed at every little piazza. There was no known immediate threat but the statement was clear. Rome and other cities that survive because of global visitors cannot afford the risk of becoming another Paris. One street vendor can start a revolution and three misguided young men can destroy the economic foundation of a country. Entry restricted to Muslims at the oldest mosque in North Africa. Unusual since visitors allowed in most mosques around the world. The Roman baths at the old Carthage – largest in the roman world when built. Greek Theatre in Tunis that survived the Roman centuries and the Arab and Ottoman empires. Now hosts global musical acts.
Blog Post #20…..A Night in the White House…..April 15, 2016
Blog Post #20 – A Night in the White House The August 1991 Coup and Counter-coup in Moscow precipitated the events that ended Soviet Communism. It was remarkable that the great edifice of Communism could collapse with virtually no violence or victims. We can speculate how events might have ended differently if a determined person like Vladimir Putin would have been in charge rather than the conciliatory Gorbachev. Leona and I had the unique opportunity to be part of those events. This is a blog from my past – what it was like to participate in one of the epic events of our generation. A NIGHT IN THE WHITE HOUSE Tuesday, August 20, 1991 Art and friends with Lenin. Look closely and note the bullet holes on Lenin’s body. Still standing but someone has expressed their opinions of his legacy. We were never actually in the White House – it was more like spending the night on the front lawn except instead of grass it was a concrete plaza. There was no memorial to Lincoln but plenty of other monuments to characters best forgotten. It was not really a formal inauguration but when the night was over it represented the most monumental change of administrations and systems in our lifetime. You probably were there with us through the medium of TV. We were not really invited guests – unless the appearance of my friend Sasha in the Peking Hotel represented an invitation. Sasha was a renegade in every sense of the word and among other things he operated a private printing press. In fact he had a press that I had sold to him – if selling is the right term for something that was never paid for. Sasha showed up around sunset on Tuesday – there were few reliable systems of communication other than showing up where you thought the person of interest might be – so Sasha appeared at our hotel. He asked if I would go to the White House with him since he expected that something would happen during this particular night. We were in the third day of a monumental revolution – really two revolutions since the group in the White house was rebelling against the group in the Defense Ministry which had taken over from the group in the Kremlin – and the Great Leader (Gorbachev) was being held against his will in the Crimea. Sasha had used his press to print leaflets calling people to gather and defend the second revolution against the first as well as providing food and supplies to the crowd inside the barricades. He commented simply that “if they capture the White House tonight they will come for me in the morning – so I may as well be there”. He then added – “and you should be there with me.” I had my own reasons for considering such an invitation. My parents had both lived through the Revolution of 1917 and watched their comfortable world fall apart. Both families had lost all of their earthly possessions. My father’s side escaped with their lives and little else. My mother’s family was less fortunate and half of the family ended up in Siberia or one of the “Stans”. Some ended up in prison camps and others never survived long enough to reach any of those destinations. My mother’s story was the stuff of adventure novels and she had actually walked in the 1930 Red Square May Day parade in front of Stalin (without permission) and then escaped with two other fellow University students through China and eventually to America. She had seen the beginning decade of this nefarious regime and I wanted to see its end – how often do you get the chance to be part of history? Except that we did not yet know how history would record that evening. Crowds wandering aimlessly in downtown Moscow – a revolution in slow motion. Yeltsin addressing crowds inside the barricades protecting the Russian White House. Lee was in the hotel with me and asked what I expected her to do if I left to join the revolution – sort of the French Revolution without baguettes and stirring ideals. I helpfully suggested she could stay alone in the Hotel or join Sasha and me in the crowd at the White House. She was not about to hang around the Peking Hotel alone all night in the middle of a Revolution and decided to join us – her presence was actually quite helpful. The Peking hotel was a pleasant and well-located edifice by Moscow standards. I am not sure of its pedigree but it lacked the wedding cake architecture favored by Stalin and the heroic monolithic style favored by someone in some architectural bureaucracy. It was located on the corner of Gorky Street and the Garden Ring known as the Inner Ring which allowed for some reasonably pleasant walking – and it was possible to reach the centre of the City on foot. That was important in those days since finding a taxi was an absolutely random affair – flashing a pack of Marlboro cigarettes was by far the most effective part of the wave. The Peking hotel architecture suggested construction prior to the Revolution of 1917 so that it at least had some internal and external character. The name and the presence of the best Chinese restaurant in the City may have had some special historical reasons – but they were unknown to me. The presence of a clean room, great location and a Chinese cook were enough of an attraction. These names in Moscow may have suggested points in time when the political agenda focused on certain external friendships and I suspect that was part of the reason for the existence of this hotel. The Soviet Union and India enjoyed a special relationship throughout this period and we experienced the result through another food experience. We were really exhausted from the terrible cuisine at the various official hotels – you had to pay a bribe to get a table in an empty restaurant and then pay again for bad food. On one occasion Sasha had asked if I wanted to go to the ‘deli restaurant’ – at least that is what I heard. I was thrilled at the thought of a good corned beef sandwich – on arrival realized it was the ‘Delhi restaurant’ and we had a marginal approximation of curry. Since I had lived in South Asia it did not quite meet my expectations – but I realized there was very little that existed or happened in Moscow that did not have a political origin or rationale. Sasha, Lee and I headed for the revolution. Tanks surrounded the Kremlin waiting for instructions. We had planned to return to Moscow that Tuesday from Kazakhstan to meet our daughter and a group of teachers from our first “Summer Language Institute” in Lithuania – then still an integral part of the USSR. We had just completed a visit to Northern Kazakhstan where I was the proud owner of a velvet plaque that indicated that I was “Investor number 8” in either all of Kazakhstan or the northern territory. We had arrived on the weekend to be hosted by our friend who was taking full advantage of the emerging opportunities to participate in various enterprises – including long distance transport, fuel and construction. The early Monday agenda was the tour of a furniture factory – the industry in which I was engaged back in Canada. With the reality of time zones – we were touring the factory while Moscow was waking up – to an expected August sunrise but unexpectedly to a news conference of 6 senior military and political officials who announced that they had taken over the Government on the weekend and Gorbachev was their prisoner. Most of the factory workers had abandoned their machines and were huddled in the cafeteria with eyes glued to a little TV screen and the news conference. The message was translated to me as it was in process. My Soviet friends have survived by reading and interpreting body language and nuance. My host stood beside me and watched this nervous and possibly inebriated sextet and announced – “they will not make it”. That is – they do not have what it takes to pull off this revolution – however they did have the power of the entire military and intelligence apparatus at their disposal so could be rather dangerous. An example of the clever way reporters dealt with the challenges of the system was the question at the televised live news conference – after the coup leadership group had declared that Yeltsin was on their side – “… and how do you respond to the call by Yeltsin for a national strike?” We quickly realized that nothing exciting or dangerous was likely to happen in this remote and largely ignored corner of the empire – so we could have safely sat out the whole event. Others took more dramatic action. The Canadian who was CEO of McDonald’s Canada was also responsible for the development of McDonald’s in the Soviet Union and happened to be somewhere in the Caucasus at the time. He either chartered a plane or took some other flight and made a ‘dramatic’ escape from this dangerous state of affairs by flying to Turkey. It was sort of like a revolution in Washington and you are in Arizona and escape to Mexico – but his ‘daring’ escape made the headlines in Canada! It is not every day that you get to experience a tumultuous change in the state of the world – and I had already missed the fall of the Berlin Wall while being trapped somewhere in remote Russia on that occasion. We abandoned our factory tour, evaluated our options and decided head for Moscow early the next morning. In those days all flights passed through Moscow anyhow – the original hub-and-spoke system in the airline industry! The local joke was that there were now 5 airports in Moscow since a German teenager had recently flown a small plane all the way from Western Europe at low levels, evaded all of the defensive systems and landed in Red Square. We arrived at Domodedovo Airport on the eastern extremity of Moscow – the four airports are organized like the train stations in Paris – if you fly north your airport will be on the northern side of the city. If you need to transfer airports – good luck! It was a hub and spoke system with a rather dysfunctional hub. We took a taxi to the center of the city and aimed for the well-located Peking Hotel. By this time the people of Moscow had begun to absorb the import of the news and had gathered in all of the major squares and boulevards – the Inner Ring near the Peking Hotel was one of these destinations. We never got closer than 5 blocks when the crowds on this very wide boulevard took over and taxi travel ended. We took our luggage and wandered through this rather aimless crowd to our hotel. This was noon on Tuesday. The revolution actually started some time on Saturday when the military detained President Gorbachev at his dacha in the Crimea. Sunday was a day of some confusion and the nation did not really know what had happened until the early Monday news conference. We had departed Lithuania on the Saturday morning to fly (through Moscow) to Kazakhstan. Lithuania was one of the 15 fictional Republics in the Soviet Union – which to the chagrin of Russian authorities claimed to be less than fictional when the Soviet Center disintegrated. Lithuania had in fact anticipated the collapse of the empire by declaring itself independent of Moscow on March 11, 1990. A group of young leaders had barricaded themselves inside the Lithuanian Parliament Buildings and surrounded themselves with sandbags to act as tank traps. The Soviet army surrounded the whole place with tanks from time to time – but it was really a political tempest in a teapot that Gorbachev was not committed to end with the required violence. Soviet tanks prowling the streets of Vilnius, Lithuania in January 1990. Coffins of civilians killed by these Soviet tanks in an effort to put down the Lithuanian rebellion. The crowd was singing as they were shot. We had become part of these events in November of 1990 when we responded to an invitation by this ‘revolutionary’ Government to help connect them to the West. The negotiations took place inside this ‘fortress’ and the result was an agreement to create an English language program with the goal of creating a Western-oriented University. (This actually happened – today LCC International University exists and prospers in historic Klaipeda serving students from Lithuania and the various parts of the former empire). Our daughter Tara had stimulated our involvement in Lithuania when she joined a group of German young people (all émigrés from the Soviet Union) who travelled to Lithuania in the summer of 1990 to support the emerging Christian and independence movement. This had resulted in a 6-week English language program in the City of Panevezyz in the summer of 1991. The program had ended on the Friday and Lee and I participated in the closing. Our younger daughter Tara was back in Lithuania for a second summer with her group of street activists. Our older daughter Shanti had participated as instructor in the English language program. Shanti and most of the other teachers had decamped for St. Petersburg and on the Monday evening had boarded the overnight express to Moscow. The prospect of this group of foreigners arriving in the middle of a revolution was an additional reason for me to head for Moscow – we managed to place them in a hotel at the extremity of Moscow for some modicum of safety – to the chagrin of some of the younger members who would much rather march with placards. They did manage to create their own adventure and Shanti possesses a photograph of her sitting on a tank with Soviet soldiers with the Kremlin in the background. It seems a soldier can always be diverted by an attractive woman. LCC International University. Now in its 25th year with students from 28 countries in the region. A dormitory on the campus of LCC International University. Art, Leona, son-in-law Peter Tielmann and a young woman from Kazakhstan who is the President of the LCC Student Council. Tara had remained in Lithuania with her German group and her future husband Peter. Since Lithuania had been the epicenter of revolt prior to this time there was greater potential for violence – especially if those in Parliament attempted some kind of action. Tara and her group headed for the Polish border and returned safely to Germany with great stories and memories – but safe. Given our situation and limited communication we would not know her whereabouts until a few days later. We proceeded to make contact with friends and acquaintances among the foreigners, friends like Sasha and various Government officials that were part of our circle of contacts. There was no local access to news and what there was would be in Russian. Possibly the world observing events on CNN was more informed than we were! However, we were not without resources. I had been involved with people in the media and television business – official Soviet television. One friend was a well-known TV personality with her own current affairs program every Wednesday evening from 1800 – 2100. I had been part of an interview on her TV program on an earlier occasion and we were friends together with some of her staff. A young woman from this group was a reporter – a single mother (many Russian women had given up marriage over the behavior of their husbands) who spoke no English but we shared the German language. Her TV group was based 12 floors up on the very visible Moscow communications tower. They were documenting the revolution as it was happening not knowing if they would be able to ever broadcast the outcome. They had staff stationed at ground level for the purpose of warning if military appeared – they would then send up a quick message and all documentation would be destroyed while the troops travelled up the 12 floors! Her role was to monitor the Vnukovo airport at the southern edge of the City. (Our son-in-law Dan would at a much later date sell public seating to this airport). If there was any movement between the Crimea and Moscow it would be expected to happen at this airport. In the absence of modern or trustworthy communication – she would travel back and forth continually to check the airport – then to the TV tower to relay any recent news or gossip – then back to the airport. While at the Tower she had good phone access so we arranged that each time she was in the tower we would have a phone conversation and I and some colleagues would be updated on what she knew or more important what the whole TV group knew – since they had many reporters monitoring the situation from many vantage points. Russian citizens challenging the young and confused troops in the tanks by decorating these lethal weapons with flowers. That brings us to Tuesday evening and the invitation from Sasha to head for the White house. The White House is a multi-story office building that contains the Soviet Parliament. Boris Yeltsin was the President of the Russian Federation and when the news of the putsch by the military group became public he headed for the White House and announced to the world that he and the people of the Soviet Union would not accept this attempt to take over the Government. There is the famous photograph of Yeltsin standing on a tank, waving his arms and telling the world that the putsch will not succeed. Yeltsin had no troops or any particular authority so this was a bold move. There was a call for the people of Moscow to defend the counter-revolution at the White House by showing up to surround the Parliament with their bodies. A number of streets radiate from the square in front of the White House and the public began to build barricades that looked like the common images of the French revolution except that the pile of rubble was composed of more technologically modern trash like vehicles and buses or anything that could be pushed or lifted into a pile that would discourage tanks or other forms of attack. When we arrived we had to climb over or around four separate barricades to get to the center where we estimated some 50,000 people were gathered. A noisy tank in battle mode can feel very menacing up close. It was a warm night with light rain and the whole affair was surrealistic. The Moskva river is directly to the east of the White House and one theory was that any attack would likely come by helicopter from across the river. Another theory was that the first tanks would be allowed past the barricades and that the vast crowd would then block the infantry with their bodies. We watched as military veterans with all of their honors on their chest, tears streaming down their faces – dragged pieces of steel to add to the pile. They were joined by office secretaries in short skirts and high heels, bureaucrats in suits and groups of thugs. Surrealism became real when we noticed a group of Hare Krishnas chanting among the metal scrap of a barricade! The most amazing memory is the silence – no bullhorns, no roaring engines, no helicopters, no guns – only the sound of metal being dragged on concrete and the crash as a crane would drop another vehicle on top of a pile that was already a couple of stories high. It was still early evening and there was no sign of central authority or purpose – just an air of expectancy. With multiple barricades on each street and the river to the West – we realized that should an attack occur there was really no avenue of escape. While I have been in some challenging situations I did not consider myself entirely foolhardy. I was later asked by friends how we could make the decision to put ourselves into such a position of risk. My answer was “the kids are adults, my insurance is paid – and I want to see the end of the revolution that had affected my family so much.” Anyhow – having been in a war zone before it seemed prudent to at least understand my surroundings and options. On one corner of the square is the American Embassy. The gates and wall were high and the marines were not even available to discuss the possible merit of our being allowed emergency access. They were inside their own fortress. At an adjacent corner is the Mir (Peace) Hotel – a relatively modern structure of about 20 stories with the wide side facing the White House. This is the view of events as seen by the world since CNN and other news agencies were positioned in windows at the higher reaches of this building. Given that it contained many foreigners we assumed that it would be the least obvious target of attack on the square – so access to the Mir might be a good thing. Soviet soldiers were stationed at the entrance to the hotel and only allowed entry to those who could prove they were registered residents. After a couple of futile efforts on my part – and my Russian friends were even less successful – we went to strategy B. Lee was assigned to do what women have done through history – use their guile to get past a man who was not supposed to allow them access. Lee succeeded and roamed the hotel floors to search for some friends known to be registered. Finding none – she located a Russian man standing and watching events from an upper floor and persuaded him to become her ‘sponsor’ for the evening and that included arranging access for me. After a few passes through the front door the military took us as legitimate, and with an escape plan in place, returned to the square and our friend Sasha. The Russian White House in September 1993. On this occasion it did not end peacefully and the White House was attacked with tanks. Hours passed and there was no sign of an attack, no news. The large crowd simply stayed in place. Suddenly Sasha complained of chest pains and we realized that his weak heart was not reacting well to the strain so with some assistance took him outside the barricades and arranged for him to get home. We walked along the silent Inner Ring to our hotel and decided to get some sleep. Around 4:00 A.M. we heard a low rumble – like a rolling thunder that does not end but keeps getting louder. We looked down on the Garden Ring and watched as a column of tanks rumbled toward us – away from the White House and we assumed that this had some meaning – the direction was a good omen. The world later learned that a small car with four occupants had been crushed by one of these tanks as it presumably failed to get out of the way in time. Those were the only people killed in that incredible evening. The next day was confusion. I had planned some business meetings in other parts of Moscow to gain some inside information. The meetings were in another part of Moscow but the streets and surface life were in chaos. My contacts were very well connected so it seemed like a good idea to be with people who would have access to information. With the surface in chaos we would use the subway and emerge close to our destination. By mid-afternoon my TV contact advised that some of the putsch leaders had departed Moscow via Vnukovo Airport – and this indicated that something important had happened and it was soon reported that the coup had failed. The mighty edifice of Communism that had destroyed so many generations ended with a whimper – and we were there! We celebrated Wednesday night by taking our Lithuania teachers together with a collection of Moscow friends to dinner at the Peking Hotel Restaurant. We heard stories of the coup that had only ended hours earlier. Saint Basil’s Cathedral at night, Red square, Moscow, Russia Our original plan for Thursday evening had been to have dinner with our friends from the TV program since we were proposing a joint business venture related to media. We now believed they would be working hard to complete their TV program but they insisted on sticking to the schedule. We had reserved a private penthouse dining room at the very exclusive “Prague” restaurant on the Arbat walking street. Our terrace faced the Kremlin and suddenly this historic fortress erupted in a massive display of fireworks. We had suggested to our friends that they should cancel the dinner since we assumed they would need to be busy with their TV program. They amazed us by pointing out that they had been documenting everything from the start of the putsch – as it was happening – and had the entire program in the can by Wednesday afternoon. The show was on the air that same night with a full documentation of a coup that had ended less than 6 hours earlier – and they were celebrating with us. Leona and I walked home to our hotel around midnight. We walked the length of the Arbat, past the National Hotel favoured by Lenin, walked in the shadow of the Kremlin walls and skirted Red Square. We then headed in the direction of our hotel. We were to learn later that the prominent statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky – the founder of the KGB had been pulled down by an angry mob from its location in front of the infamous KGB prison literally at the time that we passed by a block away. Our memory of that evening is that in spite of the fireworks and the opportunity to attack the symbols of oppression – there was no joy in the expressions of the multitudes on the street. Somehow they sensed that while Communism in its official form was ending – the future was unknown and they had reason for fear. Decades later many in Russia are still waiting for the promised future. For us it was a satisfactory end to a painful family history. Relic from the last big war in the Baltics. We really do not need another war. Peace is a precious commodity.
Blog Post #19….The World has Discovered the Yezidis…..March 19, 2016
The World has Discovered the Yezidis The Yezidi people have suddenly emerged into our collective conscience. Several years ago very few of us had ever heard of this religious community never mind its history. Unfortunately it takes a catastrophe to allow information to squeeze past our preoccupation with sports, the weather or the current political gong show. When 5,000 young women are kidnapped and quite literally disposed of to ISIS fighters through sex slave auctions – with the price based on youth and beauty – the world suddenly takes notice even if it does very little to help. (John Kerry stated March 17 that the ISIS actions against the Yezidis constitutes genocide.) The Yezidi are one of the historic religious minorities in the Middle East that reach back to the dawn of civilization. They are in year 6764 of their calendar – 1000 years older than the Jewish calendar. I had the privilege of visiting Kurdistan in February. The visit included the Yezidi, displaced Christians and Kurds in February and I returned with many impressions but an undoubtedly incomplete understanding. I had the benefit of advice and perspective by consulting senior Christian and Yezidi scholars in the region. Their views are reflected in the specifics of the description of the Yezidi religion and some of their political and social observations. The photos and the essay do not identify my colleagues or the people we visited who are working in the region. This is for their protection. I asked one of their leaders when the Yezidi faith or tradition had its beginning and he responded with a surprised look “It has always been”. They are sometimes described as a “pre-Abrahamic” religion with elements of Zoroastrianism and share elements and practices that we would associate with Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Yezidi originate in the same part of the world from which Abraham emerged according to our Jewish and Christian traditions. We should not be surprised if the tribal movement we call “Abraham” carried with it experiences, ideas and practices that were known and practiced. The Citadel of Erbil – a historic tell or mound. Claims are that Erbil is the oldest continuous inhabited city in the world. The Fertile Crescent after 8000 years of goats and sheep. Art sitting in Erbil market – a false sense of normality only 25 miles from the ISIS front. Center of Erbil – its still a man’s world! The Yezidi practice monotheism and when I asked if they distinguished their Allah or God from the God of Christians or Islam they very clearly state there is only one God. We have traditionally given all or most of the credit for monotheism to the Jews but possibly the idea and credit needs to be shared a little. The Yezidi religious pantheon includes seven angels. Melek Taus is the Creator God who is revealed as the Peacock Angel. The usual information about Yezidis states that Muslims accuse them of being devil-worshippers because the name of one angel sounds similar to the Arabic word for Satan. A Yezidi scholar corrects this perception and states that on the contrary the Yezidi theology has no place for negative celestial forces – unlike Christianity or Islam. Muslims have used this as an excuse to label them in a negative way. Yezidi Temple of Lalish. Worship inside Lalish Temple. Yezidi Temple at Lalish – integrated with nature. Yezidis view God as remote or holy and can only be approached through these Angels. (Arguably the early Jewish practices in the temple and the way Jesus is used in Christianity – or Mary in Catholicism may not be all that different.) Daily worship and devotion is individual but festive worship is corporate. Festive worship is made up of sermons, chanting of hymns and recitation of sacred texts. Nothing is in written form – both faithful and clergy should know all the liturgical texts by heart. We had the opportunity to observe worshippers enter and worship in their most holy temple in Lalish. Pillars were covered with fancy cloth and the worshipper would stand in front of each pillar, look up with hands held up in supplication and then tie a knot somewhere in the fabric to complete the act of prayer or worship. Sitting with elders including Sheikh of temple at entrance to Lalish Temple. The Yezidi heartland is in the region that is today northern Iraq and in areas shared with the Kurds. The Yezidi identity is racial and one can only be or become Yezidi through birth – another tradition shared with Jews to the extent that jewishness is racial. As a result they do not proselytize and this may account for being considered a peaceful group – they did not have the imperative to capture other nations, land and territories in the manner of traditional empires. Yezidis form a theocratic society which is governed by the highly hierarchical Supreme Council – Majlis Rohani, led by Emir Thasin Beg and Baba Sheikh Khato. The society is divided into three castes: Sheikhs, Firs and Mourids. Sheikhs and Firs are believed to be descended from the ancient saints. Elders sitting at entry to Lalish Temple – pick the century. Yezidis will state that historically they were a much larger population – using numbers as large as 20 million. Today Yezidis number less than one million with the majority still living in their historic lands. The only significant diaspora is an estimated 150,000 in Germany who relocated there in very recent times. Yezidis speak Kurdish and a little Arabic and some argue that the Kurds are really Yezidis who converted to Islam by force or otherwise over the last 14 centuries. The world was surprised and shocked by the unique and barbarous attack on the Yezidi population by ISIS in August 2014. Although seriously mistreated and abused by ISIS, most Christians and Shia were given opportunity to escape with their lives if little else during the dramatic events in Central Iraq. The now infamous events around Sinjar and Sinjar Mountain, the area with the largest Yezidi population, have now been added to our shameful list of human atrocities. When ISIS attacked the Sinjar villages on August 3, 2014 the Yezidi view is that the Kurdish peshmerga forces defending the area abandoned them – leading to the publicized catastrophe. This has been viewed as a betrayal and will only add to the difficulty of future reconciliation, cooperation and unity. Since we knew so little about the Yezidi we were collectively surprised when ISIS singled them out for such barbarous treatment. The explanation given is that Islam generally has considered Christians and Jews as “people of the book” together with Muslims. Although still considered infidels with various degrees of accommodation or persecution during the course of history, they are distinguished from groups that do not share this degree of commonality. Yezidis are unfortunately outside of this limited sense of shared identity. The Yezidi may be candidates for the most persecuted group on earth if one considers persecution as arising primarily from their identity over time. While they do not have a robust written tradition they seem to remember their history of mistreatment with some precision. They claim something like 170 specific and important periods or events of persecution reaching back several thousand years. That works out to an average of one significant event every generation. The catastrophe being experienced by the current generation adds to this tragic list. (I was advised that many unpublished manuscripts exist and are kept by the Firs but do not have the extensive written tradition comparable to Judaism and Christianity.) We are all aware of the Armenian genocide in Eastern Turkey a century ago. One of the Yezidis stated matter of factly that they had historically shared that region and similar suffering “but we do not have the benefit of a powerful diaspora or shared religion to make our story known.” The center of the Yezidi religion or tradition is a temple located at Lalish a short distance east of the Kurdish City of Duhuk. The temple is located in a narrow valley and surrounded by historic buildings. What is notable to a visitor is that many natural elements such as large stones, rough canyon walls and gnarled ancient trees have been left in place – as if they form part of the totality of the temple. The most notable element of the temple is a series of short spires that reach to the sky. The Yezidis were afraid that the Lalish temple might become victim to the current conflict and as security have built a modern version of the Lalish temple in Tbilisi, Georgia. I had the privilege of visiting the new temple and its leadership in May, 2015. Although we arrived at the temple unannounced we were welcomed graciously, taken on a tour of the temple and introduced to Baba Sheikh, the leader in charge of the temple. We discussed the purpose of our visit and were invited to join him for lunch. Adjacent to the temple is a small covered pavilion where Baba and other elders were sitting and engaged in discussions with passersby, visitors and each other. It reminded us of the Old Testament images or ancient Greece where the elders or wise men sat at the City Gates and engaged with their world. Note the photographs – some of them could have been taken a thousand years ago and would have looked the same – until you note the photo with Baba Sheikh on his mobile phone! Yezidis have often been described as nature-worshippers suggesting an element of paganism. They acknowledge the sun as the ultimate example of creation and this is reflected in their worship – but they state that is different than describing the sun or other elements of nature as God. The temple is entered through a very low door as a symbol of humility. The interior includes two parallel chambers framed by arches and joined by other arches. This results in seven pillars to represent the seven angels. Each pillar is wrapped in layers of very colorful and expensive satin. Worship includes tying a knot at the conclusion of a prayer. The temple is tight against a canyon wall. Inside the canyon rock are a series of parallel chambers which predate the current temple. They contained ancient clay jars formerly used to store olive oil. There were a series of rock niches left in their natural organic shapes and evidence of locations to light candles for worship. A final chamber went deep into the ground through a narrow tunnel. This tunnel accessed water and is used for the purpose of an inclusive religious initiation for boys and girls. Initiation also includes circumcision for boys and the cutting of hair for both boys and girls. We were advised that the region had been dominated by the Muslims from the inception of Islam. Many of the records had consequently been lost and we were told that the temple had even been used as a mosque for a while. This has limited their knowledge of their own history. The explosion of ISIS plus the Syrian civil war affected many religious and ethnic communities but in different ways. Individual families and villages may be uprooted but in many cases their religious communities as a totality are not affected. The Middle East will remain predominantly Sunni and Shia and both groups have safe havens if they need to relocate. Minorities such as the Alawites in Syria could be in serious trouble if Assad is replaced. The Jewish populations abandoned their historic communities after the creation of Israel – but at least had a destination which preserved their sense of community. Middle East Christians have been a slowly unfolding tragedy for a century. Their presence in the region had been reported to have declined by 75% before the Iraq wars and the Arab Spring. When the Middle East dust settles – do not hold your breath – there may be nothing left but a few isolated Christian groups such as in Lebanon. Display of Kurdish skull caps – an example of how tribal these societies still are. Textile museum in the Erbil Citadel – Kurdistan shares the ancient regional practice of producing beautiful carpets. It is tragic to speak to the Bishops and Archbishops representing the historic 2000 year old churches of the region. They are desperate to sustain the Christian presence but have nothing to promise in terms of a secure future. We spoke to families from Mosul and other towns of the historic Nineveh Plain. “We have lived peacefully with our Muslim neighbors for generations – but when ISIS arrived they betrayed us (to ISIS) and we fled for our lives – how can we go back to live with those neighbors again.” Then there are the Yezidis who have been so traumatized they really have little idea about their future. Return to towns surrounded by people who did not support them will be difficult. The majority of the Yezidi population lives in refugee camps in northern Kurdistan and some in Turkey. We had the opportunity to visit and walk through the largest of these camps. Over the last 50 years I have visited dozens of refugee camps around the world. What was noticeable about this visit was the complete absence of smiles. Even when things are tough refugees exhibit some recognition of visitors and their presumed good intentions. The men were largely absent and the women were doing an amazing job of keeping a conglomeration of thousands of tents built on sand in immaculate condition. These are the people who lost and are mourning the 5,000 enslaved girls plus the massacre of their men and those women not useful for sexual purposes. These are the survivors of Sinjar Mountain where they were trapped in extreme summer heat without food or water while most of the world limited itself to wringing of hands and watching “breaking news”. The re-capture of Sinjar Mountain and the town of Sinjar is publicly credited to the efforts of the peshmerga – but the Yezidis hold the peshmerga responsible for the initial massacre by their failure to assist in the defense. This is a highly traumatized population and healing will take time. Refugee camp in Kurdistan – one of far too many! Yezidi refugee camps – cleanliness is a virtue. (Some Yezidis do fight alongside the peshmerga but we came to understand that the level of distrust is high and given the political realities the Yezidis are reluctant to state this openly.) We visited with a Yezidi researcher who is documenting aspects of this tragedy. There are a known 300 of these girls who have been rescued from ISIS – some girls were as young as 10! Most are being ransomed at various prices and one can only imagine the dangerous nature of this kind of activity. Individual stories are reaching the world but he wants to interview each girl or woman that is rescued and record and honor their suffering so that rest of the world has less excuse to pretend that we do not know. Some of the Yezidi women who have been ransomed or escaped undoubtedly face a difficult future in terms of marriage and family. A number from this group have created a female military brigade that fights alongside the Kurdish peshmerga – who also have female brigades. They state their purpose is to rescue some of their ‘sisters’ still in captivity – and I would suspect that when they meet their former captors little mercy will be shown! Christian refugee family from a village near Mosul or the ancient Nineveh. Refugee camps – organized but full of despair. Next stop Germany….. The purpose of our visit was to identify the nature of the refugee problem as it affects University students whose studies have been disrupted. There is a general impression that Yezidis are more rural, more traditional and therefore an assumption that University is not a high priority. The reality surprised us. Many Yezidis attended University in the past or would like to and the absence of restrictions on females compared to the surrounding Muslim culture means they are more free to attend and participate. We were told repeatedly that Yezidis compete very effectively in the University environment and it was not unusual that the top student in a class of mixed religions was Yezidi. Our objective will be to identify these exceptional students, first to give them opportunity but also to create a positive and constructive image of this community. Although some students are admitted to local Kurdish Universities there are many restrictions and problems which make the opportunity theoretical for most. It is difficult to know how to assist or intervene with such a unique and traumatized group. Given the importance of racial identity they have fewer options than other groups. If scattered as individuals or even families they may survive physically but without that critical sense of community. The UNHCR has the policy of not listing religion or race on its documents and countries like Canada share in that policy. The idea of neutrality is commendable but every person we met in Kurdistan was defined by their identity. Their prior experience, reason for persecution, access to services, future opportunities, ability to travel and more were all linked to identity. Neutrality is a notion that is best left to academia. When considering the Yezidis, dispersing the group may in fact be an act of cultural genocide. Any slightly informed reader will note that I have not discussed the Kurds or Kurdistan. We arrived in Erbil with no visa or letter of introduction. We cleared passport and customs in about 5 seconds. The Kurds are absolutely in charge and Iraqi sovereignty is a theoretical notion. This is as close as the Kurds have come to a country of their own and the debate about a Declaration of Independence rages. The Kurds say the mountains are our friends – they have contributed to their ability to protect their territory. Kurdish village posing for a photo in 1970. In 1977 this village and hundreds more were bulldozed by Saddam Hussein. The Kurds and Yezidis share a language and significantly overlap geographically. They probably have emerged from the same original population. Many historians have noted that the Kurds were the one group left out when the borders were rearranged (Paris in 1919) following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Given that the Yezidi have so much cultural and linguistic overlap – the Kurds have suddenly re-discovered a forgotten kinship – or conveniently a kinship with political ramifications. The Yezidi occupy territory to the northwest of the main Kurdish part of Iraq and incidentally there is oil under their lands. The Kurds have calculated that if they can create some form of Kurdistan – it would be politically and economically very convenient to have the Yezidi areas identify as part of Kurdistan instead of Iraq. The colorful maps from the war in Syria show virtually the entire border area on the Syrian side between Syria and Turkey controlled by the Syrian Kurds. Now consider a future Kurdistan that in addition to the historic mountain areas of Northeast Iraq would include a strip that includes all or most of the border with Turkey. Given the political incompatibility of the Kurds inside Turkey and the government of Turkey you can already see the outlines of a future conflict (not so future if you note the recent news) that could go on for generations. Kurdistan was booming until ISIS attacked in August 2014. Now hundreds of buildings like this are abandoned. The Canadian Government may play an interesting and unintended role in this outcome. The incoming Liberal Government promised to withdraw Canadian fighter jets from the fight against ISIS and has in fact done so. Under pressure to contribute in some way to the coalition against ISIS, the Government of Canada found it politically more acceptable to send additional military advisors and trainers to assist the peshmerga. The Kurds have always been tough but now they are becoming the most battle-hardened and effective force in the region and one that has relatively few internal divisions. Canada may not be dropping bombs but is contributing to the ability of the Kurds to become independent – and in doing so will contribute to the effort by Kurds inside Turkey to fight for more autonomy. However, that is another essay!
Blog Post #18….. Creation 5.5 – Antarctica and Easter Island…..March 9, 2016
ANTARCTICA AND EASTER ISLAND – CREATION 5.5 Creation and the Ego of God It was noon on day 6 and according to Genesis “God saw that it was good.” Almost as an afterthought God said “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…..So God created mankind in his own image….” What if God would have reconsidered whether a species created in God’s image would be a good thing? When we consider the destructive outcome of our species we need to ask whether God got it wrong or allowed his/her ego to get in the way? I had the privilege of visiting Antarctica in early January together with my daughter and with excellent weather we experienced Antarctica in all its magnificence. This was followed by a sobering visit to Easter Island, the most remote inhabited piece of land on earth. If Charles Dickens had been my companion he might have produced another book titled “Tale of two Planets.” Quiet beauty in Antarctica Note our ship – the Antarctica has a way of making you feel insignificant Antarctica remains a close approximation of its primordial past with giant whales, ice floes full of seals anxiously eying the fins of killer whales, penguins taking advantage of the first exposed rock to lay eggs before the next winter arrives. We were followed by the incredible albatross which never seems to touch the earth. The great glaciers produce uncounted icebergs and the sea below teems with krill, the staple of Antarctic life. The isolation, climate plus the stormy 700 km wide Drake Passage with reputedly the roughest seas on the planet kept the human species off the continent preserving a vision of creation as it was after 5.5 days. Almost. Our ship among the icebergs Icebergs all around us Whalers reached Antarctic waters in the 19th century and managed to reduce the regional population of blue whales – the largest mammal to have ever existed – from a population of 250,000 to around 2,000 before the mind of man – the one created in the image of God – decided to call a moratorium. Blue whales each eat 4 tons of krill daily or collectively a million tons per day when they were at full strength. The absence of the large whales increased the food supply for other species such as seals and penguins and their population exploded. However the krill reproduces and thrives under sea ice and with a warming climate the total area of sea ice has declined and with it the quantity of krill. To really complicate matters the Norwegian salmon industry – the product we buy at our grocery store – invested along the coast of Chile and quickly fished out the local anchovy as fish food. Most other protein supplies produce a white salmon which is not appreciated by the market but the krill will produce a pink salmon. Now the salmon farming industry plus the reduction of sea ice is threatening the delicate balance of life in the last place on the planet that looks somewhat like it emerged from creation. Penguins are alive and well if we do not mess up their food supply Seals can be expressive – this is my territory The Antarctic is ecologically protected from human or industrial interference by the Antarctic Treaty which came into force in 1961 – a remarkable achievement considering it was in the middle of the Cold War. The original signatories have expanded from 12 to a current 52. The Treaty covers important subjects such as banning militarization, no nuclear activity, shared science and other important aspects. The Treaty has been remarkably effective but like anything else there may be loopholes. Article 6 says that “The Treaty applies to all land and ice shelves south of 60 degrees but not to the seas.” Well, guess where most of the life in Antarctica lives – in the sea and from the sea. The Norwegians quit hunting whales effectively when they ran out of whales and Japan pretended to pursue scientific research (hunting whales) until this past year when they were finally shamed into stopping the practice. With an eye to the resources many nations are establishing ‘research’ installations to position themselves for a possibly different future. Who would think that catching krill to feed salmon in the fjords of Chile would threaten Antarctica – but it is the absolute base of the entire food chain in Antarctica. Are you prepared to start ordering white salmon? That is what it might take to save Antarctica! The point is that Antarctica reveals how absolutely fragile the ecosystem of the planet is. The rest of mankind lives in the parts of the planet with greater diversity and ability to absorb shocks but it simply means that we need to demonstrate greater greed or commit more senseless actions for damage to accumulate and become visible. In February I travelled to Kurdistan and through the hills adjacent to the ancient Nineveh Plains – the reputed home of the Garden of Eden and the biblical epitome of the fertility of the created planet. The hills these days are ribbons of rock with bits of grass fighting to survive -and that little is hunted daily by sheep and goats. Historians tell us that these hills were green and fertile before humans arrived and began abusing the land with their domesticated animals. Antarctica – cold and vast Fertile crescent hillside after 8,000 years of human intervention – note sheep still there Antarctica is not some idyllic place that represents creation as God intended. Antarctica is a demonstration of what the earth might look like or function like if humans stayed out of the way. Each climate and bit of geography would have a different solution – from the coral reef to the rain forest – but Antarctica with its limited life forms represents the purity of the balance of nature. The balance of life forms may change and adjust over time – but they do not collectively destroy their environment and disappear. As humanity tampers with the balance of nature we may not be playing with fire but certainly are playing with water. The Greenland ice sheet is massive and if it all melted would raise the oceans by something like 7.2 meters. Antarctica on the other hand has so much ice that if it melted it would raise the oceans by 58 meters. Now consider where you live, or the coastlines of your country and consider what an ocean rise of 65 meters or 200 feet might do to the world. Beachfront property might emerge in interesting places assuming any of us lived to appreciate that. Now lets take a look at Easter Island. This island is considered to be the inhabited place that is furthest from any other inhabited place on earth. It lies in a reasonably temperate climate zone but was missed by the ocean currents that carried the essential plankton and the corresponding richness of sea life. Given its isolation a limited number of tree species and other plants arrived on the island, several non-flying birds adapted but all mammals were missing. Easter Island was green and thriving but was like a miniature planet with a very small fraction of the life forms that developed on the rest of the planet. The incredible stone moai on Easter Island The hillside or quarry where the moai originate Around 1500 years ago a group of humans arrived, possibly by accident, but stayed and created a miniature civilization. DNA, visual appearance and cultural values suggest they were part of the Polynesian movement that populated the Pacific islands. There is little evidence of communication between this original group and its place of origin and no evidence of further arrivals. Easter Island is a real-life experiment as to how the human species adapts to the limitations of its physical endowment. Does society recognize there are limitations to the carrying capacity of the island and manage population? Do they kill the last of the flightless birds rather than learn to breed them for food? Do they use their energies to build terraces on the volcanic slopes to increase the ability of the land to produce food or is that same human energy engaged in creating massive stone heads to acknowledge ancestors and to compete for prestige with the clan in the next cove? The fallen moai – sort of represents the tragedy of Easter Island Thoughtful – why did we fail? I had the privilege of spending a day with Sergio Rapu, anthropologist and archeologist, former Governor and one of the few survivors of the original population. Research suggests that the population of Easter Island reached 20,000 about 500 years ago and this population placed so much pressure on the resources of the island that the society collapsed into warfare and then began a serious decline. The flightless birds became extinct, when the last tree was cut down it became impossible to build boats for fishing or consider contact with distant places. When Europeans made contact in 1722 the society was already in a state of collapse. Slave-trading, the introduction of disease, large scale sheep farming and greed reduced the native population to 100 early in the 20th century. Easter Island is a tragedy but the collapse occurred or was well underway when the outside world arrived. Islanders practiced a form of ancestor worship represented by the giant stone heads or ‘moai’ that have fascinated the world. The giant stone heads may not have contributed much to the success of Easter Island society –but it has given the island a unique heritage that makes it a global tourist destination today – the only resource that supports the current population. The objective of every clan – who can produce the most impressive collection Today 8 billion people populate and pollute an increasingly crowded world. The planet has phenomenal resources but the extreme climates and locations of Antarctica and Easter Island suggest that it is possible to challenge the capacity of parts of our planet and quite possibly the entire planet – at least in terms of its ability to support the species ‘created in the image of God’. When we observe our collective actions in how we treat our fragile planet, mess around with the climate, accept various forms of expression and oppression that forget we all share one creation and one Creator, one can easily become discouraged. Returning to the original question – did God really create the human species in his own image? Many believers like to say that God knows all in advance – it is hard to imagine a God who would create a planet and populate it with a group that are well on the way to its destruction and then state that we are created in the image of God. I like to think that this universe has a purpose – and we call that purpose ‘God’. The human species has the unique ability to not only respond to the universe and creation – but we have the ability and intelligence to participate in that creation. We can collectively make the planet a space and a place for everyone and make it better – or we can participate in its destruction – at least as a habitable home for us. We exist with the unique ability to create and destroy – and in that sense we are created ‘in the image of God’. Mankind has achieved a great deal – but the outcome of our collective existence is somewhat in doubt. Father and daughter sharing the experience
Blog Post #17…..The Refugee Dilemma…..January 27, 2016
Refugees are not a new phenomenon but they have suddenly emerged as a Central part of our news and awareness. What has changed? The Refugee Dilemma The refugee crisis emerged seemingly out of nowhere during the summer of 2015 – at least in terms of news coverage. Was the photo of Alan Kurdi on the beach really that consequential or was it the arrival of the problem into ‘our space’? Is the problem new, different and permanent? The UNHCR reports there are 15,000,000 officially registered refugees and another 45,000,000 in refugee-like situations. This is the largest number since World War II. Although slightly smaller, there have been similar numbers for decades – what has changed? We are also dealing with new terminology. In addition to refugees we now speak of immigrants, economic migrants, victims of climate change, ‘illegal migrants’ and ‘undocumented migrants’. Is there a solution to the refugee dilemma? Refugees cross the Mediterranean with their children in over-crowded boats stating that staying on the land is more dangerous than the risk of the sea. I am reminded of the Leonard Cohen lyric – “There is no decent place to stand in a massacre…” I will suggest that the altered global system of political organization plus the impact of access to information technology plus population pressures have created entirely new circumstances. These are unlikely to change in a direction that will reduce the ability and urge to migrate. This leaves the question of whether the world can manage this new reality and the consequences of this reality. Einstein was a refugee. Jesus was a refugee and so were the pilgrims on the Mayflower. When the refugee becomes a real person rather than a category it seems different. On a very personal note my grandparents, my mother, my father and both daughters were refugees. My stepmother survived the Soviet gulag and later defected from the USSR – my son-in-law was born in the gulag. Those of us with a refugee pedigree should find it easy to demonstrate sympathy and generosity to the victims of today – and those whose family had the good fortune to avoid these challenges should be generous out of gratitude. Unfortunately this is not always the case. Getting a little political – If some of the Republican Presidential candidates had been in authority in Bethlehem they would have stopped Joseph and Mary at the city gates, never mind a little space in the stable…. War, violence, poverty and famine are certainly not a novelty of the 20th century but the world was organized very differently until the 1960’s – a difference which has a profound impact on the nature and flow of migrants. Most of the non-European world pre WWII was organized into colonial Empires. Governments may have been cruel, exploitative and even dysfunctional from the perspective of the locals – but this was of no consequence since there were few opportunities for geographic mobility. A victim of exploitation or natural disaster in the Belgian Congo would hardly be welcome in Belgium and probably even less so in other developed nations. The post-colonial world released demons such as tribalism, racism, religious divisions and political ideology – or at least made them consequential. These contributed to discrimination, violence and poverty and unsurprisingly produced refugees. At the same time the end of colonialism hardened borders – many of them artificial and inappropriate. These factors plus increasing population created the push. Advances in transportation, communication and information allowed desperate people to note the differences in their circumstances and prospects – that created the pull toward the more developed, safer, prosperous and generally more tolerant world. These new circumstances are matched with increasingly narrow views of citizenship and sovereignty. Immigration policies have become more rigid. Old and new forms of xenophobia are finding their way into public discourse and the political domain. These changes in how the world is organized plus the emerging pressures create the setting for the immigration stories and events that have assaulted our public space and discussion. Add a few social or political catastrophes like Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan and a few others and the situation spins out of control. Europe had a different experience and history. The global dominance of Europe allowed its population to move moderately freely within Europe but even more important its citizens could escape the wars, population pressures and other dysfunctional events by emigrating. This resulted in the development of a “European” world beyond Europe including the Americas and outliers like Australia. For reasons beyond the scope of this essay the European world emerged (after plenty of experiments with religious wars and unhelpful ideologies) as the most prosperous and overall as tolerant, liberal and open societies. Although movement of people was substantial, most migrants were racially and culturally similar to each other. WWII created a gigantic refugee crisis but most movement remained within regions or historic patterns. Following that war there were several very significant refugee events but they barely registered on the conscience of the Western World. The Partition of India in 1948 resulted in the relocation of 14,500,000 people (or over 40,000,000 as a proportion of the global population relative to 2015). The Bangladesh Civil War of 1970 resulted in 10,000,000 refugees and there were other events – but international relocation on a large scale was never considered. Several conditions or events began to change the pattern. France accepted immigrants from North Africa as its colonial policies collapsed resulting in the presence of a population that did not integrate easily. Germany instituted its “Gastarbeiter” policy and invited workers from Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey. Most of the first three groups returned home with increasing prosperity while the Turkish population stayed and brought more of their less educated and cultured Anatolian cousins. Policy failures and cultural reasons resulted in the assessment by Angela Merkel in 2014 that “multiculturalism does not work”. The UK inherited a variety of new citizens from its vast array of former colonies. North America faced a changing migrant world where Europeans no longer felt compelled or interested to relocate in large numbers. At the same time both Canada and the US changed to more or less color-blind selection policies. Certain regions and cities such as San Francisco, Toronto or Vancouver have become radically and racially different over the last 50 years as a result of these policy changes. Several changes or events combined or conspired to create the conditions and mindset for the current refugee crisis. 1. The failed state syndrome The independence of former colonies did not assure economic success or governance that addressed the needs of the people. This resulted in significant populations facing civil war or poverty that was interpreted as the problem of their leadership and escape to another jurisdiction became a possible answer. 2. The boat people phenomenon The VietNam War and its consequences struck a global chord that was different than most earlier refugee emergencies. The United States became engaged whether through guilt or altruism and was joined by Canada and several other countries. The result was a magnificent act of generosity and an example of successful relocation of a major population. The Balkan War in some sense was a parallel situation for Europe. 3. Latin America and Mexico The Movement of population from countries of Latin America and the Caribbean to the USA and Canada has been substantial. There are various currents such as the highly politicized immigration of Cubans into the USA. Poverty and internally and externally driven political events have resulted in substantial movement of people around the Americas. One effect was to politicize what had been a more normal and functioning informal labor movement between Mexico and the USA. 4. The Arab Spring appeared unexpectedly and raised hopes of genuine change in the illiberal governance of the Middle East. The toxic combination of historic Islamic Divisions, the absence of democratic traditions, a century of meddling by the West plus tribalism, oil and intransigent leaders produced the catastrophes with labels like Libya, Syria and Iraq. 5. The access to the Internet and modern information systems created conditions where events could metamorphose into mass movements that could spin out of control. These various events and prior sensitizing or radicalizing of populations and politics conspired to create the mass movement of refugees into Europe in 2015. Undocumented refugees from war zones and economic immigrants had been arriving in Europe for many years but the numbers and context were manageable. In the meantime Europe had been developing on a unifying and liberalizing track including developments such as Shengen that had never anticipated anything like the refugee events of 2015. Is there a solution? The push factor can be expected to become more severe. There is no sign that the failed states, war zones or areas of economic deprivation will change to the degree that the source of migrants or refuges is decreased. The pull factor is also unlikely to diminish. Jobs, prosperity, safety and a hope of a future for their children are the factors that motivate migrants – that difference in reality and perception is unlikely to diminish. Population pressures are a factor and will not go away. Countries that produce migrants including Ethiopia, Nigeria, Syria and Congo have seen their already large populations increase by more than 500% since 1950 and grow more than 200% since 1980. In contrast the group of China, USA and Canada have grown by 40% in the last 35 years while Germany, Poland and Russia have had virtually no growth. Mathematics will simply not permit relocation of affected populations to be more than a relatively symbolic part of any solution. Any massive relocation of population requires a successful transition in recipient countries to a multicultural society that works. Canada represents a hopeful if not perfect example. The USA has exhibited success in absorbing different populations and cultures but recent events indicate a reduction in the ability and willingness of its population and politics to consider a more multicultural and differentiated population as positive. That leaves the United Nations or more specifically the UNHCR – my former employer when I was head of their program in Somalia – as the instigator and manager of the resettlement of the most vulnerable. The reality is that total annual official international resettlement has been in the range of 75,000 per year or barely a dent in the 15 or 45 million in trouble. The unusual acceptance of refugees by Germany may create some different numbers but the jury is out whether that rate of immigration can be sustained by Germany or any country. Generosity toward a specific visible group of refugees (Syrians) by Canada and Germany is commendable but it would only take a variation of the Paris attacks to destroy that acceptance and welcome by the population and therefore the Governments. Is there a solution? The United Nations recently passed a new set of development goals to replace the original Millennium Goals. While imperfect they reflect idealism and a positive view of the future. Migration locally, regionally or internationally is nothing new and will and should remain a reality. However, migration on a massive international scale cannot be the solution to every problem of a failed state, civil war, failure to manage population or bad governance. The world in all its imperfection will need to address the root causes which begin with bad Governance followed by inappropriate development policies to create conditions which make it reasonable and possible for people to remain in the country of their birth. The current and unexpected migration emergency in Europe may stir Governments to take a more serious look at their engagement with the countries that produce the migrants and refugees. The causes of migration go well beyond development and include religious issues such as an Islam that is struggling to come to terms with modernity, climate change, our reliance on resources such as oil and others. The nature of the debate needs to change from xenophobia and fear to a positive and constructive approach to a better world – but that is asking something of politicians and religious leaders that is difficult to visualize. Whatever the challenges as indicated, there will be a growing movement of populations and increasingly these will have the character of greater diversity of race and religion. This will require a more constructive understanding of multiculturalism. We need to develop strategies to make all societies more tolerant and inclusive. This includes those in Islamic or other societies that are currently highly resistant to such ideas. Do we have reason to be hopeful about the refugee dilemma? The ‘world’ will find some way to manage the current uncontrolled movement of people but I suspect it will not be pretty and will not end the problem. The nature of the post-colonial world combined with notionally acceptable human rights standards create conditions where people are able to migrate and have reason to do so. Nothing will solve the problem better than Peace within and between countries plus good Governance. The Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen famously made the statement that famines never occur in democratic countries – in other words good Governance creates the capacity to manage difficult situations. The other pre-condition for management of migration is a greater ability to develop societies that can be successfully multicultural. This requires more than the willingness of receiving societies to be tolerant of others – it will also require entities like Islam to accept and encourage their adherents to adjust to the societies in which they find themselves rather than transport attitudes and rigidities from somewhere else. Conclusion Refugees and the problem of uncontrolled migration emerged into the public perception in 2015 but should not have been a surprise. It was convenient for the world and specifically Europe to ignore this growing problem and to avoid dealing with the difficult issues that created the refugees until they appeared inside ‘our space’. Canada is commendable in its acceptance of 25,000 Syrians but we need to remember how geography protects us. The attitudes of the USA as exhibited in public discourse are of greater concern since they prejudice the ability to develop a future consensus in the American population. European response reflects its internal problems and the challenge of responding as a unified entity. The refugee dilemma will become a semi-permanent feature since the drivers of migration have not begun to be resolved. At this stage policies to manage the problem will be the first response. We can already see this in the proposal of the EU to massively increase support to Turkey to improve conditions of the refugees inside its borders and reduce their urge to relocate. The refugee dilemma has become visible and its dimension better understood – but solutions are partial, temporary and often ad hoc. The dilemmas of refugees and economic migrants searching for security and a better life will be a continuing feature of our global reality. Stay tuned.
Blog Post #16…..Understanding ISIS…..January 7, 2015
The Role of Wahhabi Teaching, Internal Saudi Politics and the Role of the West in Creating the Conditions for ISIS to Emerge ISIS together with its excessive violence and military success came as a surprise to most of us including our political leaders. This essay is an attempt to place ISIS and its cousins into a historical and religious context. ISIS and other manifestations of radical Islam may be an embarrassment to moderate Muslims and Western politicians but the problem comes from within Islam and cannot be defined away. The Middle East has taken a sudden and dramatic turn toward increased instability with the public antagonism of Iran and Saudi Arabia. The immediate cause is the execution by Saudi Arabia of a Shiite cleric but the roots are both historic and more current. The alignment (of supporters of Saudi Arabia) follows the Sunni-Shia divide of the 7th century but is amplified by Arab-Persian competition that reaches back millennia plus the more current issues of oil and regional dominance. The nuclear accord has allowed Iran to lose its pariah status and again become a political actor to the chagrin of Saudi Arabia. ISIS is not the cause of the immediate diplomatic tangle but it’s existence, success and behavior complicate the situation since it makes it more difficult for external powers (read USA) to support Saudi Arabia. With the real or perceived reduction of the Iranian nuclear threat attention has turned quickly to the roots of the more visible conflicts. The headlines start with ISIS, Al-Qaeda and their cousins but sober analysis is quickly and consistently identifying the 18th century Wahhabi movement as the spiritual and philosophical parent of these movements. The movement originates in Saudi Arabia and is politically closely associated with the house of Saud. The Saud dynasty was established in the 18th century by agreeing to a Faustian bargain with the founder of the Wahhabi movement – we have political power and you can dominate the religious sphere. A second Faustian bargain was struck between the West (USA and Britain ) after WWI. The House of Saud can run the new country of Saudi Arabia the way it wants to but we have assured access to oil. The modern version of these deals with the devil is that the Saudi Government and its wealthy citizens support Wahhabi activism around the Islamic world and beyond. The understanding is that their right to rule will then not be challenged. Goethe and Wagner would have felt such a complicated story line tested credulity! These various chickens are now coming home to roost in a violent and dramatic fashion! Western countries are increasingly speaking of Saudi Arabia and its policies as the primary source of Islamic extremism and consequently regional instability. This reality will threaten the close alignment of Western interests with the rich, conservative and illiberal oil monarchies of the Gulf. To understand ISIS, Saudi Arabia and many aspects of the Sunni-Shia divide and current tensions it is important to understand the religious and political roots of Wahhabism. Brian Stiller, Global Ambassador of The World Evangelical Alliance has written an excellent summary on this subject and a portion of his analysis is attached with his permission. I have limited the attachment to the portion which seeks to explain the historical and religious origins of the bewildering array of emerging extremist groups. It is a discouraging read since the annihilation of any one leader or group will do little to deal with the roots of the problem. The Wahhabi Movement and the Origins of ISIS What it is ISIS (Daesh)* is a flowering thorn attached to a stem and rooted in a life-sustaining soil. ISIS is the bloom; an extremist messianic Wahhabism (Salafism) is the stem; a longing to return to radical Islamic tradition, to expel Western influence from the Middle East, and to launch global Islamic rule is its soil. To mix metaphors: “Daesh [ISIS] has a mother: the invasion of Iraq. But it also has a father: Saudi Arabia and its religious-industrial complex.”** To say ISIS is not Islamic is disingenuous. But to tar all of Islam, and therefore Muslims, with this brush is like saying that Northern Ireland’s Protestant/Roman Catholic war represents all Christians or that Buddhist conflict in Sri Lanka or Myanmar is a sample of all Buddhists. However, what is not understood is that ISIS’ roots reach back to the mid 1700s, from which emerged Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the late 1980s and ISIS in Iraq in 2006. Today we live with news of violence on a grand scale and are horrified by its rise to global prominence. ISIS is both notorious and mystifying. Most Muslims too are scandalized by this vicious and bloodthirsty mob, bewildered by its expansion, and unsure of its future. Muhammad ibn ‘Abd-al Wahhab’ ISIS’ religious beginning Startled by its rapid rise in early 2014, yet ISIS is really a more virulent manifestation of an Islamic movement from the mid 1700s which was inspired by an Islamic cleric, Wahhab (Muhammad ibn ‘Abd-al Wahhab’, 1703-1792). Scandalized by what he saw as loose living and superstition, he believed Muslims should strictly observe Islamic rituals and follow a literal interpretation of the Quran. Under the Ikhwan, a tribal militia group, Wahhab’s influence rose in central Saudi Arabia. In 1744 Wahhab engaged with tribal leader Muhammad ibn Saud (his successors today are called the House of Saud), and over the next 150 years its influence fluctuated in the Arab Peninsula. While Wahhab taught that only by education and debate could Islam advance, Ibn Saud saw it otherwise, advancing faith by decapitating tens of thousands to build his political power base. After WWI the Saudi chief Abd-al Aziz consolidated his power with Wahhabist theology, creating in 1932 what today is Saudi Arabia. The role of Saudi Arabia and Sunni Wahhabi fundamentalism surfaced in 1973 as the exploding price of oil gave Saudi Arabia money, influence and power. While Saudi Arabia’s prime export is oil, what is less known is its export of radical Islam. The Muslim World League opened offices where Muslims lived, funding the building of mosques, printing educational curriculum, and sending out Wahhabi preachers. As scholar Karen Armstrong notes, all the while they demanded “religious conformity in return for their munificence, so Wahhabi rejection of all other forms of Islam as well as other faiths would reach as deeply into Bradford, England and Buffalo, New York as into Pakistan, Jordan or Syria: everywhere gravely undermining Islam’s traditional pluralism.” (Author of Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence) ISIS Fighters Today the Saudi kingdom downplays radical Sunni Islam, although it accepts takfir in which a Muslim, such as a Shiite can be declared an unbeliever. This allows them then to kill other Muslims and enforce strict religious laws including cutting off hands of thieves, beheading criminals and stoning to death women accused of adultery. In the 1980s, encouraged by Saudi princes, many went to Afghanistan to expel the Soviets, and in the 1990s to Bosnia and Chechnya to support Muslims. From that world Osama bin Laden rose to prominence, driven by a passion to rescue his Muslim community humiliated by infidels. Incensed that the US military was present in his homeland, in 1989 Al-Qaeda was created which in time morphed into ISIS (2006). The long history of strict, sectarian Islamic doctrine found its beginnings in the Bedouin tribal militias of Ikhwan, inspired 270 years ago and played out in Paris, November 2015: one of the suicide bombers was, as reported, radicalized in a Wahhabi mosque in Chartres, France. Division within Islam Befuddling to non-Muslims is the major historical division within Islam. The majority of Sunni, who make up 87 percent of Muslims worldwide, are located mostly in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia and most North African countries. The other 13 percent is Shia, its majority residing in Iran, as a majority in Iraq and a minority in India. Altogether there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. In the hotbed of the Middle East these two factions often view each other as infidels, as they regard Christians or Jews. Their deep and hostile division was born from a dispute over succession after Mohammed died in 632 AD. This major fault line is partly political: Shia, or “followers of Ali,” link themselves with Mohamed’s son in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib. The Sunni, or “people of tradition,” believe that selection is best made from the most qualified. Next door to the Sunni majority of the Middle East is Iran, ethnically Persian and the global center of Shia. Next door to them is Saudi Arabia, both Arabic and Sunni and holder of the holy site of Mecca. Most Muslims in the Middle East – apart from Iran, Turkey and the Kurdistan province of Iraq – are Arabs. All this tinderbox needs is a spark: Saudi Arabians are both Sunni and Arab; Iranians are Shia and Persian. Arabs and Persians are hostile neighbors – one Persian and Shia, the other Arab and Sunni – contentious and fighting each other by way of proxy battles in Syria. Palmyra Ruins Antagonisms of the region are both contemporary and historic in people bred in the art of making fine their Islamic distinctions. Theirs is a region of world sites etched with memory of strong and vibrant Jewish and Christian communities, now nearly obliterated or vacated. Their political sensitivities have been grieved by foreign geographic rejigging of territory, as the West carved up its borders with the scratch of a pen. We are witnessing a settling of historic grievances. (Recall a million military and civilians were killed in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.) In more recent days we see the unsettling of peoples by the 2003 invasion; after the invaders popped the corks of fizzing cultures, we watched as they blew apart. —————————————————————————– * ISIS, means Islamic State of Iraq and Syria: ISIL the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant. (Levant an ancient term referring to eastern Mediterranean.) IS, meaning Islamic State, is so self-named to appear to the world that Islam is theirs to rule. Daesh is an acronym from Islamic Resistance Movement in Arabic. ** Kamel Daoud, New York Times Brian C. Stiller Global Ambassador, World Evangelical Alliance December 2015
Blog Post #15…..Reflecting on 50 Years Together…..December 31, 2015
The season seems to call for a little reflection. Instead of the past year it seemed like a good time to look at a few more – therefore reflecting on 50 years of an exciting life with a wonderful partner. If you prefer geopolitics – wait for the next post. In the meantime we wish both you and the world a year of Peace……… Reflecting on 50 years Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 is known for the passage “There is a time for everything……And a season for every activity under the heavens”. Somehow the writer did not include “a time to give thanks” and that is what this essay is about. Art and Leona The Family Leona and I celebrated our marriage of 50 years on June 25, 2014. We celebrated our Creator, our family, our health and most important each other. The theme of the event was “Going for Gold” to stress the opportunity for more to come rather than the idea of “Golden Years” which implies decline and disappearing into the sunset. We believed 50 years was an accomplishment worthy of celebration! The years have encompassed exhilaration, joy, stress, disappointment, family, discovery, travel, challenges and much more. We often end an evening looking into each other’s eyes and marveling that God and life have been so good to us – and at the love and friendship that has survived the years and hills and valleys. The Celebration Shanti, Dan, Leo, Sachin, Colette The celebration with 250 guests took place in the historic Fort Garry Hotel. We used the entire 7th floor with two ballrooms and an imposing lobby. After the reception and welcome there was a program featuring music, our children and grandchildren plus a dramatized version of our life together using actors and media. This was followed by dinner with four cuisines to represent aspects of our life – Mennonite, Thai, India and Mexico. The evening ended with a jazz café and dessert. Peter, Tara and Mila The event was in stark contrast to the relatively simple and traditional Mennonite church wedding of 1965. The service was in my home church followed by a cold supper in the church basement – with much of the food prepared by family. The evening ended with a party for friends in our home. Leona was limited to two bridesmaids and the row of trumpeters in the balcony was a bit too much for my mother! The guest list in 2015 included many friends from our beginnings but had expanded to include representation from the many different aspects of our life. The Meeting Like two ships in the night we met in 1963 at a Christian University Retreat – we attended different Universities and outside of this event it was unlikely that we would have met. Art had just returned from a summer on a motorbike exploring Europe and Leona from two years of Bible School. Art was raised in the City – albeit at the messy fringe while Leona was raised on the farm quite literally at the edge of civilization. We shared similar Christian traditions, the German language and an Eastern Europe Immigrant heritage. Leona was an accomplished musician and brought her talent and love of the arts into the relationship. Art was already exploring issues and places beyond the horizon. These themes plus faith and family became the canvas for our life together. Boston and Harvard Harvard – Baker Library Our honeymoon involved a few days in the pristine northern Canadian woods at Minaki – and then we moved to Boston in our $55 Plymouth. Those two years established interests, patterns and friendships that have survived this half-century. For Art it was the exhilaration of being exposed to people and ideas at an institution that represented the apex of educational opportunity and challenges – and the discovery that he could compete successfully. Leona moved from the music experience of a small town and local church to the world of music and Arts at its best. Ballet meant the recently defected Soviet superstar Nureyev, opera the New York Met, participation in the Boston Philharmonic as singer, a professional singing role at Harvard and performing in concert with Duke Ellington. Leona thrived in this new world of culture. As a couple it allowed us to see ourselves on a larger stage of ideas and experiences and gave us the courage to accept challenges beyond the boundaries or our origins. We also became a genuine couple rather than separate extensions of our traditions, family and history. Business and Return to Winnipeg Palliser Showroom in High Point, NC The return to Winnipeg was deliberate. Art wanted to hone his business skills where business offered freedom and personal opportunity but not the limitations of climbing the proverbial corporate ladder. Business has provided the financial freedom we desired but also management skills that were transferable to other spheres of life. Most important the business career resulted in access to global networks that have been critical in the other half of our lives. Leona took the leadership with home and family. She was supportive of the family enterprise as Board member and interest in Employee issues. Leona created her own space in music, writing, support of the Arts and entertaining with a purpose. Both Art and Leona shared charitable interests such as LCC International University. The Other Career – International, Refugees, Development…… In 1972 Art was invited to become Director of the MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) program in Bangladesh. The new nation had just emerged from a devastating civil war with 3,000,000 casualties – plus we were assigned the region that had been hit hardest by the devastating tsunami a year earlier. MCC in Bangladesh Art provided the leadership for an agricultural program focused on crop diversification to use the full 12 month cycle. The program was successful, won awards and contributed to a significant shift in the patterns of agriculture and survived in various forms for decades. Leona was profoundly challenged by the misery of the refugee camps. She joined international colleagues and the sisters of the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa) in establishing a center to rescue the most vulnerable infants and young children in a nearby camp. Leona brought her musical talents and became the piano player of reference for the local Dacca church. Art became engaged in the larger political and management issues of the one million refugees inside Bangladesh and this became the foundation for understanding, relationships and experience which informed the many later refugee engagements. From the perspective or our marriage these years resulted in a greater commonality of purpose and experience that has allowed us to share many aspects of the international challenge and lifestyle as a couple. The 5 Year Plan This Bangladesh assignment was compatible with our personal objectives as a couple. When we finished Harvard we decided to live our life in 5 year segments – with the idea that if we stayed too long in one place or career the ”ruts get too deep” and it becomes difficult to accept change. Our stated goal was to find an international assignment for the second 5 years. Art departed for Bangladesh 5 years and one week after graduation….Our movement through very different parts of the world and experiences has approximated the initial 5 year idea – but more important it provided a continuing framework for considering opportunity and change. Shanti and Tara as children Family We had planned on family but when nature did not provide Bangladesh became an easier, unique and ultimately very successful path to children. Shanti and Tara became an integral part of our family – and along the way introduced two wonderful sons-in-law into the group and later grandchildren Leo, Sachin, Mila and Colette. Given the challenges of adoption in Canada and elsewhere our assignment in Bangladesh had the bonus of allowing us much greater personal freedom in finding and choosing children. The fact that both children were of international origin complemented and enhanced our chosen lifestyle. The addition of children and the consequences of their choices has contributed immeasurably to our marriage. Our Winnipeg Home Winnipeg home Art’s home office Our home in winter In 1973 we purchased a 10 acre market garden in Winnipeg along the banks of the Red River. In 1977 we completed the home in which we still live. Art planted hundreds of trees to create our personal park while Leona applied her design sensibilities to shape a home with beauty but also warm and comfortable. The home has been a wonderful retreat where we could raise our family, entertain our friends and express our personality and interests whether in the arts or entertaining. Peter and Tara are now building their dream home on part of the property. The presence of a granddaughter just across a stretch of lawn will be a huge attraction to stay there a few years more! Our home would be considered modern design in terms of its origins in the 1970’s but we always have difficulty with design purity. We both like to include collections from our travels and experiences and they rarely fit into one type of look or design statement but do reflect our life. Art has developed his study with books and Windows to contemplate the world while Leona’s focus is on music, writing, friends, family and entertaining. To the credit of Leona visitors repeatedly describe the home as “warm and comfortable” and that is a description with which we are pleased. The Pattern Continued The Bangladesh experience opened the door to many opportunities. In 1976 a Vietnamese woman with four small children quite literally knocked on our door with a slip of paper that said – if you get to go to Canada look up Art DeFehr. She did, we became friends, Leona an expert on hosting refugees and this led to an assignment for Art with the boat people problem. Cambodia land bridge project in 1980 That developed into a significant engagement at the Cambodia border in 1980 and the family relocated to Bangkok. A short time later the family joined Art in Mogadishu where Art was Director of UNHCR for the refugee work in Somalia. Leona and the girls learned to adjust and thrive wherever they were – making it easy for Art to accept assignments in places like Ethiopia and Sudan. We then settled down in Canada for a number of years until the Soviet Union called. USSR – Returning to Our Roots 1989 saw the beginning of an engagement with the part of the world where both sets of our parents originated. We made many visits and friends and out of these events evolved what is today LCC International University – a respected and thriving University in Lithuania catering to students from the region. Both Leona and Art could find their place in this chaotic situation and had some dramatic experiences together – like spending the last night of the 1991 coup inside the barricades in Moscow. Art Speaking with picture of Karl Marx looking over shoulder Residence Hall at LCC International University Equally important our daughter Tara found her partner in the middle of a revolution. Since they met in Lithuania they later decided to celebrate the wedding there – not the first choice of a mother of the bride – but successful and dramatic nevertheless! The Family Leaves the Nest Both Shanti and Tara chose to attend University in the United States. Shanti later made her parents proud by earning her MA from the London School of Economics. Shanti met her match named Dan while in College and they were married in Winnipeg in 1995. Since Art preferred a wedding on the yard we were blessed with a tremendous downpour to make the event memorable. They have blessed us with grandchildren Leo, Sachin and Colette. Tara chose to be married in Lithuania providing a few geographic challenges. Tara and Peter have blessed us with Mila who lives nearby and next year will be living physically on our property. Leona’s piano at home Music, Family, Friends, Entertaining Those words encompass much of Leona’s life these past several decades. She loves to play her piano but even more to create opportunities for both young and experienced musicians. We love to share our home and our friends. Ideas and Projects CMU Campus Building – new library Art loves to create something new. Along the way this has resulted in the establishment of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, LCC International University plus a role in the Manitoba Immigration Program and the founding of Canadian Mennonite University. Travel This summary of our 50 years would be incomplete without a reference to travel. Art will visit country/territory number 136 this January and Leona has shared the great majority of these experiences. Travel is mostly for a purpose – but sometimes the purpose is simply the fact that the place exists and is somehow on the way. Church and Community Art and Leona continue as members at River East Mennonite Brethren Church in Winnipeg . Art was one of the founding members over 50 years ago and the services and friends continue to meet our need for a spiritual home and community. We also value the role that our Mennonite Community and heritage have played in allowing programs and ideas to emerge because there was a committed and generous community available. Transition Art has switched from active management to encouragement, mentor and as few meetings as possible. Leona needs to relate to family at a much greater distance but family and friends remain at the center of her reality. Time, international experiences, changing family roles and the weather have encouraged us to build our lives a bit more around climate. We enjoy Lake of the Woods in the summer and our new home in San Miguel de Allende in the winter. Planes fly from or to anywhere and the internet remains a companion anywhere on the planet. Lake of the Woods in all its beauty San Miguel de Allende street scene Home in San Miguel Gratitude We are grateful to our Creator and acknowledge that life has given us more joy and opportunity than we deserve when we consider the world in which we live. Our June 25 celebration was designed to say “Thank You” to as many people as possible – our children and grandchildren, our friends and other family, our Church, the Community, the people with whom we work and live as neighbors, the country that gives us freedom. Finally speaking as Leona and Art – we are thankful to each other and for each other. God is Good!
Blog Post #14…..Is Vladimir Putin a Rational Actor?…..November 20, 2015
Vladimir Putin has become an important personality and leader in the world but a leader who is not well understood. Most articles or exposés focus on his personality, corruption in the Soviet Union or a narrow view of geopolitical realities. Analysis of Putin is a very difficult subject but given a long personal and family history in that part of the world I thought I would give it a try. I welcome your feedback. Is Vladimir Putin a Rational Actor? Vladimir Putin emerged seemingly out of nowhere on the stroke of the millennium as President of a diminished and dysfunctional Russian Empire. He has been vilified for his personal style and his belligerent strategies – but is he acting responsibly and intelligently within his national, historical and personal context? Photo of Putin and colleague during their 1994 visit to Canada and Winnipeg. The phenomenon we refer to simply as ‘Putin’ is giving rise to books such as “The New Tsar” which in the very title speaks of our understanding of power as a combination of the person and the position. Margaret MacMillan (Paris 1919 etc) looks at the question of the role of the individual in history in her new book “History’s People” and others have dealt with history through the lens of a strong and sometimes accidental leader. Most commentary speaks about Putin and his choices as if he lives primarily in current time and history is something for the textbooks. This essay will acknowledge that Vladimir Putin is very much a product of the present and his personal KGB history. Equally important, he is part of a historical process that goes back centuries and is absolutely critical to an understanding not only of Putin but the trajectory and psyche of Russia and its people. In 1994 I hosted the Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg and his colleague in my Winnipeg office. That happened to be the recently appointed Vladimir Putin. We toured my furniture plant and shared a cup of coffee. We communicated through translation – I did not realize at the time that we shared the ability to speak German. A more important reason for his visit to Canada was the negotiation to purchase the Canadian Candu nuclear technology. I had an earlier connection to the Soviet nuclear industry. In 1989 Brian Mulroney, Prime Minister of Canada, led a delegation of 200 Canadian business leaders to the Soviet Union. I was present and active in the USSR during those years so joined the group when they arrived. I was invited to meet several officials from the Nuclear Ministry of the USSR and protested that they had made a mistake – I was in the furniture business – but they persisted. I met them and given the radical reduction in military and nuclear expenditures the Ministry was converting military factories to civilian use and wanted my assistance with a complex related to the use of wood. After reviewing the project I asked how they intended to pay for the investment. They stated that the ministry had access to many materials and they proposed barter. The first item on their list was enriched uranium and they insisted they could legally give that to me. Art Speaking with picture of Marx looking over shoulder. I tell that story because it illustrates how bizarre the USSR was at the end of its life cycle – the USSR inherited by Putin a decade later. The Soviet Union had not only lost the Cold War – it had lost its soul. My initial involvement was the organization of four National Conferences on “Business and Ethics” from a Christian perspective – some held in Communist Party buildings with Engels and Marx looking over our shoulders. In those days we managed to ‘secretly’ print 100,000 bibles on a Communist Party press because they needed something I owned. We created Conference on Business and Ethics – Marx and Engels were keeping a watchful eye – as was the KGB. dozens of fake documents to meet Soviet requirements for visas, crossed borders without documents on many occasions, purchased an antique car from the KGB and any number of other adventures. The most infamous was when the KGB smuggled an antique blockprint Bible OUT of the USSR for me. Working within the stated rules and laws assured that nothing usefully could be done. That corrupt reality set the stage for the Russia that is today. Putin with his KGB background was simply the person to perfect a rotten system. The story of the Bible and prior connected events is described in an article titled “How the KGB Helped Smuggle my Bible”. The antique Bible smuggled out of Russia by the KGB We also created some investments that stood the test of time. From a purely business perspective, together with friends, we built a factory in Siberia to introduce high tech farm equipment (Air Seeder technology) designed for soil preservation in the challenging climate of Siberia and Kazakhstan. That technology is now the standard in Soviet agriculture. Another well-known initiative was LCC International University which survives and prospers to this day – initiated in Lithuania prior to its independence. I was invited to ‘return’ to the USSR in early 1989 by a senior Soviet diplomat who stated that his country would attempt to create a market economy and fail. He stated that without entrepreneurs Russia will be dominated by large controlling companies (think oligarchs and their western equivalents) and without ethical values – referring to my Christian faith – there would be a deficit of trust. Given my family history in the USSR my engagement had a very personal element. When Gorbachev was ousted in August of 1991 by a putsch or coup – Boris Yeltsin mounted a counter-coup. We all remember photos of Yeltsin standing on a tank in front of the Russian White House (Parliament). Leona and I participated with our Russian colleagues in those events and spent the final and decisive night of the August coup inside the barricades protecting the Yeltsin group from a possible military attack – presumably with our bodies. I did have a small direct part in those events. I had provided a printing press to a friend in Moscow – and it was used to print the pamphlets to call Muscovites to action and protect the Yeltsin counter-coup. Yeltsin rallying support inside the barricades surrounding the Russian White House in August 1991. The detailed events of that night are described in an essay I wrote at the time titled “ A Night in the Whitehouse” and can be accessed here or through my website. The events of 1991 led to the lost decade that articulated a void in the shape of a personality just like Putin and he arrived to fill that void – and that is the thesis in the rest of this essay. I will start with History: The vastness of Russia and at the same time the confinement and paranoia created by the inhospitable north, endless forests, deserts filled with independent nomads and competing empires shaped Russian politics and the Russian psyche. For centuries Russia struggled to expand to warm water and the freedom of the seas but never succeeded. The Soviet Empire only collapsed in 1991. Those distant and remote border territories had served the purpose of keeping enemies at bay. Suddenly all of the historic challengers became near neighbors. We tend to forget that the Ottoman Empire was at the gates of Vienna until the final effort in 1683. Catherine the Great succeeded in pushing the Ottoman Empire out of what we call Ukraine a full century later in the 1780’s. With that victory over the Turks she invited more advanced farmers from Western Europe to settle the captured lands as a defense against the Ottomans – my own ancestor arrived in the Central Ukraine from the Hanseatic City of Danzig as early as 1789 – a mere 5 years after the end of hostilities. The Crimean War followed in the 1850’s with a technical defeat for Russia – but placed the former Islamic Crimea firmly under Russian control. That war resulted in Russian gains in the Transcaucasus and the same pattern followed. In this case my Mother’s family settled the nomadic plains of Cherkessia on the north side of the Caucasian mountains – again less than 10 years after the Crimean War. One accomplishment of the 1784 Treaty (Between the Ottoman Empire and Russia) was assured access for Russian ships through the Dardenelles – we tend to forget the incredible geographic challenge faced by the inland empire of Russia. The wars continued in the Balkans until the outbreak of WWI with its start in Sarajevo – one of the flashpoints of this endless challenge. I suspect that Europeans have a much better grasp of History – but in North America we are blissfully yet dangerously unaware of these complicated centuries of competition between a paranoid and expansionist Russia and a declining Ottoman Empire. To complicate matters the European Powers would often intervene on the side of the Islamic Ottomans against Christian Russia to keep Russia from becoming too powerful – the basic rationale behind the Crimean War. North Americans and their politicians may be unaware or unappreciative of this history – but I can assure you that the citizens of Russia and one Vladimir Putin are not. The competition went beyond land, power and sea access. The 1784 Treaty between Russia and the Ottomans also assigned Russia the official role of “Protector of Orthodox Christians” inside the Ottoman Empire – and that was a significant proportion of its population. One cause of the Crimean War related to the protection of Holy Sites in Jerusalem. The Balkan Wars in the half-century before WWI were fought primarily in places with a significant Christian (Orthodox) population – often with the rationale that Russia was coming to their defense. The Russian Orthodox Church is again reclaiming its historic pre-eminence inside Russia. Whatever Putin believes – giving encouragement to this religious exclusivity makes for good politics. This explains why Putin publicly asks the question why it is only Russia that has a concern for the protection of Christians in the dangerous Middle East – and uses that defense as part of the rationale for intervention in Syria. WWII had a favorable outcome for Russia with the absorption of most of Eastern Europe. This represented the greatest territorial extent of the Russian Empire. With more advanced technology Russia could overcome its lack of access to warm water and develop a strategy of client states anywhere in the world – think Cuba. The final Soviet over-reach was Afghanistan and the beginning of the end. Unfortunately it was also the beginning of a new danger to the world when the USA chose the strategy of supporting fundamentalist Muslim militants to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. The direct descendants of those militants became the Taliban and with the support of a Wahhabi Saudi Arabia – supported by the USA because of oil – morphed into Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and who knows what will come next? The other historical context grows out of the events during and after WWI, the carve-up of the Ottoman carcass into unsustainable client states and the complicating politics of oil and Israel. In the West we tend to be somewhat informed about this latter process but the history that shapes the minds and actions of the Russian people and their leader Putin is the other history about which we know too little. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the response of the West: The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union were seen in the West as proof of the superiority of Western ideology and technology. Francis Fukuyama wrote the memorably titled essay “The End of History”. Well, History did not end! Those of us who spent significant time in the Soviet Union during these tumultuous years perceived a real opportunity to shape a different world. Unfortunately, the West responded with a triumphalism that contributed to the devastation of the the economy of the surviving Russia but also helped to destroy the dignity and self-worth of its people. Very clearly the Russian leaders contributed substantially to the negative outcomes but they were helped by a West which offered bad advice and very little meaningful support. During the early period of privatization I was one of the people inside Russia with connections in the West and was correspondingly asked to assist in finding relationships and partners for the emerging entrepreneurs (the future oligarchs) with a promise of 5% of any deal. When too many of my opposites ended up at the bottom of the Moscow Canal and the pattern of kleptocracy became clear I decided to stick to charitable activities – plus our farm equipment project remote enough to survive most of these challenges. While these events were taking place Vladimir Putin resigned from the KGB. He had been based in East Germany and became a bureaucrat (strategically in charge of foreign relations) within the Administration of Mayor Sobchak of St. Petersburg. His biographers do not paint him as a Napoleonic figure with a dream of power and a scheme to get there. He had a reputation for effectiveness, reputedly immune to corruption and opportunistic on occasion. (His reputation as corruption–free has since been challenged). He ended up as a rising official in the dysfunctional Government of an ill and frustrated Boris Yeltsin. It seems he was simply in the right place at the right time when he was offered the Presidency at the stroke of the millennium. Putin recognized the opportunity, took charge and made history. We need to evaluate his actions and decisions in the light of this (over-simplified) history of Russia, the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet experience. It has been pointed out that Putin’s worst approval rating (by his citizens) is higher than the best-ever approval rating of former Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper. Why has Putin become such an ‘evil’ person in Western eyes? The primary concern is the treatment of the Ukraine starting with manipulating gas prices and supplies and then followed with the takeover of the Crimea and presumed support of rebels in the eastern industrialized region of Ukraine. Russia had earlier participated in the war with Georgia which resulted in the partition of South Ossetia. We should note that the vicious war in Chechnya launched immediately after Putin’s rise to the Presidency bothered us a lot less. Doing damage to some pesky Islamic separatists was somehow acceptable. If ancient history was one chapter then the period beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is another. We all cheered as the wall fell and countries like Lithuania followed by Georgia declared their independence. We failed to note that South Ossetia responded by immediately declaring its independence from Georgia. The final breakup of the entire Soviet Union into fragments in late 1991 seemed to us like the end of Russia as a geopolitical actor and problem. Only a few people like George Soros and his Open Society Fund noticed and tried to stem the damage. He personally contributed more funds to the development of stability, good Governance and protection of the knowledge of nuclear scientists than the entire US Government. Given a weak and putative democratic and no longer threatening Russia – what was the thinking behind the very quick extension of NATO membership to countries of Eastern Europe? The Yeltsin Government was in disarray and the borders of NATO were pushed to the Eastern fringe of Russia while it was too weak or distracted to respond. The Baltic countries could argue a separate and more European history – but the Ukraine never really existed as a country. If you really want to understand Putin and his view on these subjects it is very useful to read his April 2, 2008 speech to the meeting of NATO in Bucharest (search NATO/Bucharest/2008/Putin). He goes into great detail about the history of the Ukraine, Crimea, Transcaucasus and the dispersal of Russian people throughout the region. The NYTimes describes Putin as combative and thoughtful. President Bush arrived the next day and the NYTimes reports that “President Bush threw the NATO summit meeting off-script…by lobbying hard to extend membership to Ukraine and Georgia, but he failed to rally support for the move among key allies.” A very senior NATO official recently confided in me that this speech (by Bush) seemed to send a message to Putin that he had no deal or understanding with the West on the question of being totally surrounded by NATO. Whatever the USA thinks, Ukraine and Georgia are the ‘near-abroad’ for Russia in the same way that the USA for decades has viewed all of the Americas as their ‘near-abroad’ – think Munroe Doctrine. He stated it seemed as if a switch went on in the mind of Putin and he began acting on a strategy that would assure that the extension of NATO could never happen. The South Ossetia war took place a mere 4 months later and the engagement with Ukraine seemed to harden. Russia has a very sound rationale for claiming that Crimea should be part of a Russian state given its history, population and role as a military center. The switch from Russia to Ukraine was made one morning in 1954 when Khrushchev simply signed a paper – no discussion and no rationale. If you read speeches by Putin he objected vigorously to the NATO bombing of his (Orthodox Christian) ally Serbia which resulted in the creation of a separate nation of Kosovo. The Western argument was that Kosovo had become predominantly Muslim and therefore this seemed to justify independence. Putin points out that the great majority of Crimean residents are Russian and have been since its capture from the Ottoman Empire – so why is Crimea different than Kosovo? Indeed why? My personal connection extends to Crimea as well. My maternal grandmother was Crimean. She was non-Slavic but some mix of many DNA strands from the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. We have taken the view that somehow borders are sacrosanct regardless of facts on the ground like Crimea – and they should not be tampered with. At the same time in recent decades we have accepted Kosovo, the partition of Czechoslovakia, the separation of Eritrea and the creation of South Sudan. Cyprus is divided and Israel builds walls at its pleasure. Closer to home we could look at the history of how the border with Mexico was relocated from time to time. Panama could be added to the list. The point is that we should look at the Crimean dilemma in context and with perspective. The reality is that Russia has a strong claim to Crimea and the majority of people genuinely prefer to be part of Russia. Eastern Ukraine is both the same and different. The totality of Ukraine is a combination of Russian territory – if population matters – in the east, Crimea as explained in the south, territory gained from the Catholic Hapsburgs after WWI in the West and a more authentic Ukrainian center. By claiming Crimea and creating havoc in the East Putin has created a de-stabilized Ukraine and in his view an assurance that it will not become a part of NATO. We all understand the term ‘Finlandization’ as the necessary compromise to allow Finland to be itself but not a threat to its neighbor. In a world of competing powers this kind of strategy has become a necessity for many countries that border a strong or paranoid and powerful neighbor. As Canadians we understand the limits to our geopolitical imagination! Is Putin a rationale actor? I would argue that Putin bases his objectives and world view on a rational and overall fair understanding of the place of Russia in the universe. When we look at Western actions in the Balkans and elsewhere since 1991 we have not set a great example nor have we allowed Russia to find a place that allowed for dignity and a political role in the world. While we wring our hands about the Ukraine – and Russian actions are very unhelpful – we forget how Western policies and actions have messed up the Middle East, a region of genuine concern to Russia. Given its significant Muslim population Russia has a legitimate concern about policies that seem to promote or result in an increasingly unstable and fanatical region. We should not be surprised that Russia has a view on matters like Syria and its Government. If Putin’s view of his region and the world may be rational I would argue that he exhibits a genuine weakness of judgment – a weakness that he shares with George W. Bush. Both men were or are too ready to apply a violent solution with the false belief that such action could be surgical and you could withdraw back to the prior situation. If the goal was a Ukraine that was not a military threat to Russia that might well have been accomplished through more diplomatic means – assuming that the West read a little history first. Many experts acknowledge that if Crimea had been allowed a fair and contested independence referendum similar to Quebec, Scotland, South Sudan or Catalonia – quite certainly an association with Russia would have been the result. The argument is also made that Putin is afraid of a democratic and economically and socially successful Ukraine on its doorstep – as an example to the people of Russia of what might be possible with better governance. It is not my intention to justify all of the actions or attitudes of Vladimir Putin but it is unhelpful to simply characterize his actions in defense of his idea of Russia as ‘evil’. He is a product of KGB training and clearly operates by values and principles that many of us find problematic. At the same time he is President (or totalitarian leader) of a country that has no democratic history and with a much greater tolerance or acceptance of an authoritarian leader – especially a leader that appears to restore their place in the world. We need to remember that he is the President of the people of Russia and not of Europe or the world. The USA Government, by claiming ultimate military superiority and the self-proclaimed authority to act independently of UN or other international sanctions carries with it a greater responsibility. Putin can be criticized for permitting the existence of the oligarchs – at the same time inequality in the USA has reached levels only seen in the 1920’s. I recently visited the USA Embassy in Tbilisi Georgia, a country of 4,000,000. The Embassy is a highly protected fortress with a staff of 800 compared to a single honorary consul for Canada. The stated objective of the embassy is “to prevent further encroachment of Russian influence”. Lets imagine a massive Russian or Chinese Embassy in Mexico City with the stated objective of minimizing USA influence in Mexico? I simply suggest we need some perspective. I do not claim the gift of prophecy but the following paragraph is from my 12th and final trip report written in March 1992. Many of the issues of today were substantially predictable from the perspective of a dying Soviet Union. Western politicians could have done better in their anticipation of events and issues. Following paragraph a direct quote: “There is no precedent for the disintegration of an empire covering 1/6 of the globe with 100 nationalities and 30,000 nuclear weapons. The absence of civil war is itself an achievement. There are any number of potential local wars but a realistic appraisal limits the danger to the Southern Caucasus with some flash points on the northern slopes plus Moldavia and some Asian Republics. The Baltics may have problems but probably not of a military nature. The most damaging conflict could arise from the inability to resolve the complications caused by the Ukraine’s search for identity. The absence of an independent history creates problems when the Ukraine attempts to reinforce its identity by assertive action. The Crimea will undoubtedly resist rule from Kiev regardless of Yeltsin’s or Kravchuk’s policies…..If the Crimea is successful in its challenge, problems in Eastern Ukraine will not be far behind. Russia will have some severe problems such as the Chechen-Ingush region….” How to deal with Putin Now? First, we need to understand that his primary role is to represent the interests of the Russian people. Second it would be useful to get up on our history of Russia and the region – plus the history of the complicated Middle East which requires another very long essay. It is also useful to read his speeches. He defends Russian interests with vigor but also more thoughtfully than the speeches of his counterpart George Bush through 2008. Putin has the ability to make decisions with less restraint than the leaders of most or all Western nations. This does not automatically assume that he will make bad decisions but allows for the fact that he can make a deal and choose to keep it where Western leaders are often more constrained in their actions. It is predictable that he will use this freedom of action to play a more decisive role in Syria –a problem that has incapacitated the West. We began using the rhetoric of a unipolar world in 1991 but have failed to look at the reality. The US undoubtedly has military superiority but is discovering that military power alone does not assure desired outcomes. We are now observing an assertive China, a recalcitrant North Korea, Iran has the ability to project regional instability, Israel projects intransigence, African poverty and tribalism defy solution and so on. Russia under Putin has restored its ability to project its influence in its near-abroad and sometimes beyond and we all act very surprised that it has a point of view. The point is that we need to start with the assumptions that the interests and objectives of Russia need to be understood in the light of their perspectives and at least have their validity considered. Whether or not we agree with the actions of Putin, his actions are largely rational from the perspective of a diminished and humiliated Russian Empire. Note: My website artdefehr.com contains a number of articles and reports about the Soviet Union at the time of its breakup. Simply click here USSR, or go to the website, then select International Experiences/USSR. There are articles like “Field Notes from a Revolution” – which is a series of 10 reports covering 12 trips between August 1989 and March 1992. There are additional stories and topical writings.
Blog Post #13…..Myanmar Election – The Essential Aung San Suu Kyi….November 16, 2015
Myanmar Election – The Essential Aung San Suu Kyi Reports about the Myanmar election almost universally begin with the name ‘Aung San Suu Kyi’ followed by the intended message. It is interesting to look at the unique role played by this remarkable woman and what her role has been and will be in the future. Aung San Suu Kyi is a great conversationalist but has a clear idea of her objectives. Many world leaders pass through her living room! It can be argued that without her role and persona there would not even have been an election or certainly not an election that represented as great a possibility for political change. Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, considered the father of the nation of modern Burma who was assassinated six months before independence when she was barely two. She became an exile, mother, scholar and an accidental politician and tragic heroine at the age of 45. Aung San Suu Kyi lives in a part of the world notable not only for family dynasties, but dynasties where frequently a daughter becomes an important and forceful leader after the death of her father – think Indira Ghandi. The ethnic history of Burma with the dominant Burmans, of which she is a member, plus an official 135 ethnic entities hardly provides the basis for political unity. The military attempted to force unity through compulsory assimilation around an ideology resulting in a catastrophic legacy of conflict. Aung San Duu Kyi challenges the military Government from a corner of her living room. Her only weapons are a cup of tea plus her forceful personality. Aung San Suu Kyi accidentally and providentially entered this political drama 25 years ago wearing the mantle of legitimacy provided by her father. Becoming the tragic heroine imprisoned in her own home and separated from family gave her a legitimacy and a power that is genuinely her own. She has been able to represent national unity based on her personality and personal history allowing groups and voters beyond her core Burman base to see her as a representative of their aspirations. In her absence any election would have likely resulted in an outcome that strictly followed ethnic lines allowing the military to justify their continued domination of political life. Aung San Suu Kyi is a formidable opponent to the reluctant military leadership. At the biblical age of a completed life – three score and ten – it can be argued that she has spent her entire life preparing for this moment. History will judge how well she handles the challenge of real power. She will unquestionably become the power behind the throne if not on the throne – but Burma still will struggle with a Constitution that in many respects is short of a real democracy. Very recently eight ethnic groups signed a comprehensive ceasefire – but eight other groups are still waiting cautiously before signing. Creating confidence that the new Burma under her leadership will be genuinely inclusive will be an early test. Aung San Suu Kyi is generous with photo ops. Leona brought roses. Burma has many additional challenges. Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized for not taking a more forceful public stance in favor of the inclusion of the persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority. I had the opportunity to personally ask her that question several months ago. In the privacy of her home she asserted that a path to citizenship must be found. Her unstated reality however was that becoming champion of unpopular causes before the election might prevent the very outcome that will permit her to become author of change. Aung San Suu Kyi is cultured, intelligent and gracious. Her hair is black, her body taut, she listens well and responds with confidence. Her ship has come in and now she has the challenge and opportunity of writing the other half of her personal history and hopefully of the people and nation of Burma.
Blog Post #12…..A Moment of Hope in the Middle East…..October 31, 2015
In a world filled with violence and intolerance – this blog describes a rare moment where sanity and respect ruled. …..and the Lion shall lie down with the Lamb…. This metaphor describes our improbable experience of the celebration of the Muslim festival of Eid-al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice) this September while on a working visit to the Middle East. Isaiah never actually wrote those words (check the text – Isaiah 11.6) but we sometimes remember only what we hope for. Eid celebration in Peace Cathedral in Tbilisi When is the last time your church or synagogue experienced a service shared by your priest or rabbi and a Muslim cleric? More unusual, this service took place amid the turmoil of the Middle East and was focused on the Muslim celebration of Eid and not simply a polite exchange of greetings. We attended the service at the Peace Cathedral, a congregation of the Evangelical Baptist Church in Tbilisi Georgia. Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, an Oxford Ph.D, chooses to live and practice his profession in what he refers to as ‘context’. He has a terrific long white beard and dresses in the traditional robes and colors of the locally predominant Orthodox Church. The Cathedral is filled with icons and other symbols familiar to the orthodox tradition – but to cover all bases includes a Jewish Menorah. Interior of Cathedral under renovation The Cathedral is actually a low structure that from the exterior looks more like a shed than a sanctuary. During Soviet times on the few occasions where a Protestant church received permission to build they were required to maintain a low physical profile. Soviet authorities apparently thought this would make the church less attractive to potential adherents. Between my visits in May and September the church structure had undergone a rather unusual renovation. The entire floor had been lowered 1.5 meters so that the internal dimension now approximated what we might consider appropriate for a church. The willing sheep – it survived that day The first surprise was the entry of two boys carrying a live sheep. Since this event celebrates the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac (or Ishmael in the Koranic version), the sacrifice of an animal by each family is an integral part of the festival. Leona panicked for a moment suspecting that an execution might take place during the service – but this sheep lived to see another day. The Bishop and the Mufti sharing a pulpit The morning reflected the traditional Baptist order of service with music and sermon – with the latter eloquently delivered by a woman. The service then shifted to what passed for an unusual variation to the idea of the Christian sacrament of Communion. Bishop Songulashvili was joined by Mufti Aivaz Madinov, Deputy Representative of the All Caucasian Council of Muslims. There was a visual reversal of roles given that the Christian cleric wore long robes and the Mufti was dressed in a traditional western business suit – minus the tie. The Mufti recited the Christian prayer “Our Father” in Georgian followed by the bishop reciting a parallel classic Muslim prayer in Arabic. Distribution of dates to the congregation The Muslim fast is traditionally broken by eating dates. In this remarkable service the priest and the cleric took a platter of dates and circulated through the entire congregation offering each person a date – a parallel image to the Christian distribution of the sacraments of bread and wine. We noted that the female Christian preacher was dressed in a long black robe while the wife of the Muslim cleric joined her husband on stage in a knee-length western dress minus a hijab – the only head-coverings in sight were the elderly Georgian matriarchs in the front pews. Lunch included the Baptist Bishop and Imam Ali Aliev, the senior representative of both Shia and Sunni in the region – no end of surprises. The Imam was educated in the famous Islamic religious Universities of Qom in Iran. We enjoyed a remarkable and delicious extended Middle Eastern lunch covering every conceivable secular, political and religious subject. When stereotypes do not fit the occasion The Imam of Sunnis and Shias of Georgia and Azerbaijan, the Bishop and yours truly out for lunch. The Imam, the Bishop and Art sharing business cards and a joke The Bishop and the spiritual leader of the Yezidi Community During this week there was chaos on Temple Mount, crowded skies over Syria, ancient monuments were destroyed and I could add Republican candidates competed in debate to plumb the intellectual bottom – but that night our heads were spinning with a spiritual and cultural high. A small candle of hope keeps burning…..
Blog Post #11…..North Korea – An Inside View….September 13, 2015
The mention of a visit to North Korea always elicits surprise and curiosity. I had the opportunity to make a 10-day visit recently and will offer some observations. Dick Simon of the USA led the group and wrote an excellent summary – more immediate and more emotional – which I will share. I will start with a few personal and geopolitical comments of my own. Comments written by Art DeFehr The homogeneity of the population is one of the first impressions when arriving in North Korea. Even the haircuts seem to be universally identical. When the West encounters uniformity we conclude this is a product of sterile Communism or totalitarian Government. That probably plays a role but the history of Korea is notably different from most nations in Europe or Asia. The reality of geography has placed Korea not only at the extreme eastern edge of the great Eurasian landmass but on a peninsula. There has been no mixing of populations or cultures and this has resulted in a genetically homogenous people similar to Japan. My theory is that this has permitted the development of “groupthink” in a manner we can hardly imagine in our European context. That is a good starting point to understand North Korea. Pyongyang – Skyline and Impressive Buildings A senior official offered his view of North Korea and the world. He pointed to a map and then to China which was the prime neighbor for most of Korean existence and has dominated for millennia. In 1905 Japan invaded and acted as brutal colonizer until the end of WWII. Russia has always threatened from the North and they now describe South Korea as a US military colony. He stated that the current nation of North Korea represented the first time in history where at least a portion of Korea was genuinely independent. The implication was that nuclear capability is the only way to keep any or all of these challengers at bay. We may or may not agree but that is a reasonably coherent view of their reality. When I was in Iran they took a map and made exactly the same point about their neighborhood! We should note the US anxiety about Cuba 50 years ago and the current Russian concern about NATO in the Ukraine. We in the West lament the lack of personal freedom and expression in North Korea but should step back and take a longer view. East Asian societies were all unified, stratified and structured societies and cultures that had precious little space for the individual. Japan began to open after the black ships and then the big shift after the shock of losing WWII. China has only begun to create more individual space since the death of Mao Tse Tung. During the period to 1950 all of Korea was colonized and dominated. After the shock of the devastating war South Korea became part of the Western World and North Korea retreated into its shell – but arguably also into its culture and history. Given time and opportunity I am certain the North Korean population would become successfully modern – but they are playing with a historic deck of cards. The Christian Private University in Pyongyang North Korea deserves most of the images and caricatures we hold in the West but it also offers many surprises. As already mentioned there is an apparent coherence in terms of the perspectives of the population that is strange to Western sensibilities. Within this rigid structure there are surprises. One was the private University in Pyongyang operated by Evangelical Christians from the West. It teaches in English, has excellent Internet access and the curriculum in areas like business is identical to what is taught in our Universities. One day we had dinner in a private “brew restaurant” that produced its own beer. Consider a Kempinski Hotel near the top of a 102 story building shaped like a pyramid. Simon comments on some of the restrictions on photography but note a couple of the pictures I have attached. We attended several special schools where students are taught in a foreign language and had the opportunity to engage privately with the students. Note the photo of a sewing factory. Western countries have all placed sanctions on North Korea in terms of sourcing product – these clothes were fully produced in North Korea but the labels read “Made in China”. Homogeneity – Students at the private Christian University Sewing factory “Made in China” The experience at the Pammunjom border was more than interesting. While visitors to the south side (South Korea) are highly regimented in terms of dress and behavior, the North Koreans encouraged us to go anywhere and photograph anything – please just do not step across the border! My American colleagues enjoyed standing near the border, waving and calling to the American tourists standing in rigid unsmiling rows and dressed in blazers on the other side. “Hi, my name is Joe – I come from Oregon!” No response and the North guards were immensely amused. We had arranged to be the first bus at the border and as we left there were 19 buses full of Asian or Western tourists waiting to repeat our experience. A youthful group from Eastern Germany stated they came to experience the life that had been lived by their parents. Pammunjom negotiating table in the DMZ Photo with Senior Military Officer The North Koreans took us to another part of the border where we could observe the concrete wall built by the Americans/South Koreans right across the peninsula except for Pammunjom. Dick Simon points out the limitations on photographing the military – but look at the photo of myself with a smiling senior military official. We had a terrific group of fellow travelers. Whatever the limitation everyone was determined not to be the first to mention the problem. We found the experience energizing but extremely sobering. The country and population of North Korea lives in a time warp that is painful to watch and we could only wish them a different outcome. Our feeling was that the regime may have the ability to stay in power quite a while longer. Starving people do not start revolutions. Continue to read the report by Dick Simon which covers more of the colorful details of the travel and our collective emotions. Following Report written by Dick Simon of Peace Action Network – part of YPO/WPO NORTH KOREA VISIT REPORT Subway Station – marble like Moscow I just returned from an incredible trip to North Korea leading a 12-day Peace Action Network (PAN) Experience with 16 YPO/WPOers from India, Pakistan, Albania, Poland, France, UK, Brazil, Canada and the US. The trip shattered preconceived notions and ‘truths’, and provided opportunities for deep personal growth. I am writing to share my raw impressions and experiences, and hope you enjoy, possibly see new perspectives, and maybe even become inspired to visit North Korea for the experience of a lifetime. Before going I “knew” travel to North Korea was impossible for Americans, until I saw a photo of a friend taken in Pyongyang. I called to find out how she made this happen, immediately decided that I wanted to go and created a PAN Experience to share this unique opportunity with other business leaders interested in making a difference. The real “truth” is that is very easy for Americans, or citizens of any country other than South Korea, to visit North Korea – you just make arrangements with a tour operator, get a visa and go. Pyongyang – The Skyline was a Surprise I also “knew” North Korea was a dangerous place to visit. I got wary looks and nervous advice from family and friends about how brave or foolish I must be to travel there. My kids “joked” that they should be making holiday plans without me as it might take years for me to “get out”. I came biased and paranoid, fueled by anti-North Korea books and documentaries. The real “truth” is that there has never been an incident in which a western tourist was imprisoned or worse. You go in and out of North Korea through China. We had received special permission to exit by train, normally forbidden for Americans, which was revoked a few days before the trip in response to heightened tensions over US-South Korean war games, officially called “Ulchi Freedom Guardian” exercises. They had no sense of humor about thousands of US and South Korean soldiers practicing invasion and using the North Korean flag for target practice. Children are the same everywhere School children from the bus Our experiences reaffirmed my belief in the value of being on the ground eyeball-to-eyeball in order to begin to understand. Even in the context of minders, restrictions, no pictures, etc., I experienced and learned from the human connection moments: when our guides very privately shared their secret dreams to create a business and better lives for their children, participating in mass dancing with thousands of North Koreans in Kim II Sung Square during National Day celebrations, purchasing and wearing military hats which brought the thousands of vendors in Rajin Central Market, the largest free market in the country, to a standstill as everyone stared and giggled, and our last night visiting Rungya Amusement Park which gave us the opportunity to share the excitement of work units travelling from the countryside into the big city, and trying out the roller coaster – definitely self-inflicted torture. Mass Dancing Demilitarized Zone We realized that everything can be seen from multiple nuanced perspectives, and words are very powerful whether they be American Imperialist and South Korean Puppet, or Axis of Evil, rogue nation and Hermit Kingdom. When we visited the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, we heard about two small villages still inhabited in that no-man’s-land. In the South they call the North Korean “Propaganda Village” and South Korean “Freedom Village”. Undoubtedly the North would have opposite names. The term “defectors” is used for those who leave North Korea, although they primarily leave for economic, not political reasons. We don’t use the term “defector” for Mexican laborers illegally entering the US to earn money for themselves and to send home to their families, which is much the same activity and motivation of most North Koreans leaving their country. Border between the Koreas The ominous feeling of being constantly monitored was ever present and we learned a lot despite rules and controls we were subjected to. We were not permitted to go outside our hotels or walk anywhere without a guide/minder, were closely watched, and probably bugged much of the time. One evening four of us were walking on an outdoor path, presumably alone, to the hotel’s dining hall, when a voice from the woods behind us said “wrong way, turn left”. On another occasion, our guide/minder was woken up in the middle of the night by a security guard to investigate a guest who was seen outside his room, but still inside the locked, gated compound. Rural Hotels were Simple but Clean and Adequate There are strict rules around photography. No photos are allowed from buses or of anyone in uniform (of which there are a million out of 24 million population). I decided that the North Korean translation for “hello” was “no-photos” as we were so frequently greeted with that admonition. When we visited the DMZ I realized how inconsistent the North Korean rules were. The most sensitive part of the country was the only place we were allowed to take photos of soldiers. There are rules to ensure a sacred respect for the Leaders, including never taking pictures of only part of a statue. On arrival in Pyongyang we made the obligatory visit to place flowers at Mansudae Grand Monument – 20-meter high statues of the Great and Dear Leaders. The guides/minders were vigilant about our camera angles to ensure no one took a picture of the bowing crowd at the base of the monument without including the entire statue in the frame! At the border some of the cameras were checked and “offending” pictures deleted. Monumental Statue You are not allowed to deface or discard any image of the Leaders. As North Korean newspapers run their image on the front page almost daily, these papers are neatly folded and saved after they are read. We heard of a tourist forced to write an apology letter when a crumpled newspaper was found in his hotel room trashcan by a vigilant maid who reported it. Cell phone, iPads and any devices that contained GPS or cellular communication capabilities could not enter the country and had to be left in a sealed container at customs to be returned when we left. The best way for me to understand North Korea is as a theocracy with a state religion, rigid acceptance of dogma, deification of Leaders and proliferation of rules to live by. The dogma is Juche, the philosophy first promulgated by Kim II Sung, the Great Leader and Eternal President. This is a complex cultural/political notion of self-reliance. It is constantly preached by the Government and media and followed like a bible by the masses. All acts and teachings from the Leaders are treated as divine and they travel throughout the country “giving guidance” to share their wisdom on all matters, from education to writing to manufacturing and agriculture. We witnessed revered photos of their visits everywhere. At a cooperative farm we saw a large museum (aka shrine) dedicated to the three leaders’ visits with objects they touched and chairs they sat in enshrined in glass cases set on pedestals. Cult of the leaders The most surrealistic experience was pushing a North Korean truck (accidentally!) into a ditch and then being told to flee. (We felt terrible, but followed instructions!) In the dark on a remote country road a broken down truck blocked the middle of the road so that our bus couldn’t pass. We got out and asked the driver to let us move the truck to the side of the road. As we pushed and speed built up, the “driver” who turned out to be a watchman who didn’t know how to drive or use the brakes, accidentally steered the fully loaded coal truck into a deep ditch. After making sure he wasn’t hurt we were instructed by our guides, the police (who mysteriously instantly appeared), the assembled onlookers and the driver to leave as the presence of foreigners would dramatically escalate the situation from a minor accident to an incident which would require full investigation by state security services, an outcome they all dreaded. The aftermath of that “ditch and run” caused some real soul searching by our group, imagining what would happen if a group of North Koreans visited the US, pushed a car off the road and fled. We saw the Arirang Games, a spectacle with 100,000 synchronized acrobats, gymnasts and dancers performing themes showcasing North Korea’s history, present and future (with lots of ideology mixed in!). The Olympics Opening Ceremony or Super Bowl Half-time shows pale by comparison, and we were additionally fortunate to have “VIP” tickets that gave us the seats Kim Jung Un and his retinue would have used had they attended. Arirang Games VIP Tickets Arirang extravaganza in a stadium that seats 150,000. Background with sun is 20,000 persons switching placards a couple of hundred times We visited and I hope to return and lecture at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, the only foreign university allowed in the country. The University was established by a group of South Korean and American Evangelical Christians who have invested $50 M in the project. Foreign teachers teach all courses in English. Proselytizing religion is completely banned, but the management school includes teachings on free markets and even about portfolio theory and derivatives. A religious group from enemy nations teaching about capitalism in the capital of the communist Hermit Kingdom – welcome to the enigma of North Korea! Many industrial installations were in bad shape – no money for paint or maintenance The country’s socialist economy runs on competing commercial enterprises based on work units and leagues that retain profits, pay bonuses (and taxes) and function from a management perspective somewhat like corporations. The fall of the Soviet Union and the embargo has led to fuel shortages, power plants failing, factories closing, agricultural disasters (without fertilizer from the closed factories) and economic stagnation. While mass starvation is, for now, thankfully a thing of the past, it remains a lurking threat. North Korea is trying free market experiments, but has a very long way to go. We visited the Rason Special Economic Zone, opened in 1991 to foster economic development and joint ventures. We had dinner with their leadership and experienced a bizarre multimedia presentation that would scare off any sophisticated investor. Pyongyang has massive empty roads and boulevards as there are very few cars (none privately owned). On rural roads, you sometimes see wood burning propulsion based Soviet era trucks belching smoke. I was impacted in deeply subconscious ways. Despite all of the positive experiences, I had many nights of nightmares relating to Nazis – North Korea’s oppressive totalitarian regimes, controls, prison camps, informers and the impact on its people made a deep impression. I also felt tremendous gratitude for the liberties and privileges I have in the US. When leaving our North Korean guides at the airport departure gate I began weeping at the injustice of the situation – I would be able to continue to pursue my hopes and dreams, while they could not. This trip was a life-changing experience for all of us. I am grateful for my fellow travelers – an amazing group of passionate, adventurous, smart, funny and fascinating individuals. We were fed well I plan to return to better understand and to engage, believing there is real opportunity to make a difference, both within North Korea and by increasing international awareness about its complexities and nuances. I’d love your thoughts, comments and reactions, and hope to post selected images to my website (www.dicksimonphotography.com) very soon. With gratitude, Dick Simon +1-617-417-0327 “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness” – Mark Twain I got a weird adrenaline rush from hiding images to make sure they weren’t deleted at the border when we exited. I backed up onto memory cards which I then encrypted and used multiple external hard drives with hidden directories. I invested lots of effort and late night hours “protecting” my photographic “take”. One night two maids from housekeeping (everyone always comes in pairs, one watching the other) delivered hot water to my room at the Koryo Hotel as I was backing up images, and I was sure they would figure it all out, and that I would be visited by security services.
Blog Post #10…..My Mother…..August 28, 2015
Mia – The Story of a Remarkable Woman (Title of English version of her biography) This is the title of one of three books (German, English and Russian) describing the life of my mother. She lived through the most tumultuous events and decades of the 20th century and survived with dignity. Born in the reign of the czars she experienced WWI, the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin, the persecution of Stalin and made a storybook escape to China, later the USA and finally became my Canadian Mother. This is my version of her biography and contains more than a little autobiography. Events often make the person and the story – and that reflects the odyssey of my mother. —————————————————————- There are books and movies with plots that are so improbable that they cannot be taken seriously. The story of my mother falls into that category –except that it is completely true! Among other things my mother managed to be blacklisted by the Communist Party in the Soviet Union and later by the Un-American Activities Committee of Senator McCarthy in the USA. Her autobiography is entitled “Mia – The Story of a Remarkable Woman.” This is the story of my mother. Mia in 1936 – age 27 Mother was born on May 9, 1908 in a remote corner of the Russian Empire – within sight of the mighty Caucasian Mountains. Her birth date in early May always presented a bit of a problem since she was born according to the Orthodox calendar and lived the rest of her life under the Julian. She decided to simplify matters by declaring that her birthday would always fall on Mother’s day – a close approximation that assured her of an appropriate celebration and made it easier for the rest of us to remember. This only created a problem in later years when credit card companies and others of that ilk decided to use the birth date of your parent as a test to determine if you are the right person – and more than once I failed that test. Mother was born prematurely and as an infant with doubtful chances of survival was given the name Mia – the diminutive form of Maria to reflect her tentative hold on life. Her legal name was Maria Jacob Reimer – the masculine second name reflecting the pattern of the time where you were identified with your parent. Her father was a well-established farmer – but that really does not describe the reality of the time or the term. They lived in a prosperous and civilized Mennonite Community that was an island of progress surrounded by the Russian steppe populated with nomads from nearby mountains. Today these former nomads remain in the news as an ideological challenge to modern Russia. Together with his brother Cornelius they owned a large estate reported to be in excess of 10,000 hectares – historical records are sketchy. These brothers and others in the Community were highly competent. Cornelius had travelled to Germany to study horticulture and when I arrived in 1990 the mayor and Community still remembered his property – destroyed in World War II – for its exceptional layout and unique horticultural character. Legend has it that Cornelius and his wife were sent to Siberia as part of the Stalinist purges – presumably for doing things too well. He applied his skill in the underground coal mines somewhere in remote Siberia to grow food for the miners. This brought him enough recognition to be recalled South and given the task of gardener at the dacha of Stalin at Sochi on the Black Sea. He and his wife lived there peacefully until the Nazi invasion when they were relocated to the Far East where they at least died with more dignity than many others. Cornelius on one occasion was reported to have bred all of the animals and fowl on his farm in white purely for aesthetic reasons. My grandfather reportedly had 40 varieties of cherries on his property and my mother describes his pride in beautiful horses. In light of the tragedies that followed it is difficult to imagine the world of those miniature civilizations and isolated communities. The ‘Colony’ was Southern Russia with Inset of Kuban Settlement composed of two villages with a total population of only 2000 people. One village was on top of a ridge and the other at the bottom. Along the winding road that joined the two villages was a very picturesque ‘aula’ or concert hall where musical events took place. The Community prided itself in education and was known as one of the most advanced of the Mennonite colonies in this respect. This is sometimes difficult to understand in light of the battles about education that were fought within later generations of Mennonites. Today, as descendants, we are challenged to separate the idyllic stories and memories from the hardship, internal dissension, relationships to the larger society and many other mythological or maybe historical realities. Nevertheless – my mother considered herself to be born into a loving family, a caring and well-established community and church and a comfortable life punctuated by medical and other tragedies that could not be controlled. Whatever the reality of this community – it produced a person of great internal strength and outstanding character and values. My grandfather was a direct descendant of part of the family that provided the leadership in a split within the Russian Mennonite Church in 1860 based on pietist influences from Germany. The (ethnic Mennonite) Community and Church had become largely indistinguishable and this created the opportunity to again remind the group of its origins where personal faith and appropriate lifestyle played a greater role. This was not well received by those in power and the new group known as Mennonite Brethren experienced many challenges resulting in 65 families relocating from the comfortable and well-established villages of Central Ukraine to the newly pacified steppe at the foot of the Caucasian Mountains. Between the challenges of changes in climate and soil and marauding neighbors – it was not an easy beginning but the Community eventually became established and very successful. Vineyards represented the first commercial agricultural success and carried the community in its early years. This was a bit of a contradiction in view of the strict abstinence of the new religious tradition. Decades later I would attend a banquet in the same region in a Resort used by Kremlin leaders on vacation. As the mayor, inebriated before dinner even started, plied us simultaneously with beer, cognac and vodka I was having trouble keeping up. The old stories about vineyards came to mind and by now the Caucasus had become famous for its wines and champagnes. I reminded him of the tradition of my ancestors and somehow thought a switch to wine might help me survive the evening. With great gusto he stopped the whole process – someone produced six different varieties of local wines and we were required to taste each one of them before we got back to the hard stuff – and his idea of tasting wine meant a full glass! My maternal grandmother was always somewhat of an enigma. Her picture shows a regal and confident person with black hair and eyes and reportedly with olive-colored skin. Clearly her ancestors had not made the traditional Mennonite trek from somewhere in the Lowlands of Northern Europe through Prussia into Russia. She was Emilie Zeh – the name taken from her adoptive German parents from the Crimea. Since the Crimean locals could be expected to be Tatars or Mongolian in origin and given her adoptive status I always suspected she was at least partially of that heritage. The recent advances in DNA analysis have allowed me to test that hypothesis and I do admit to some disappointment that Genghis Khan or one of his lesser nobles do not appear to be part of my ancestry. On the other hand the DNA suggests that Ashkenazi Jews, Berbers from Tunisia, a population in Bosnia and strands from Gypsies and others all figure somewhere in her makeup. That combination of parents and history produced the person who is my mother and somehow I have to believe that this mix of genetics and tradition contributed to her unusual personal strength and character. The remote location of my Mother’s village at the extremity of the Russian Empire reminds me of the story of Dr. Zhivago. As World War I ended to be followed by the various manifestations of civil war, local brigands (celebrated by others as nationalist heroes) and finally the Communist Revolution merged into one forgettable blur. However, some remote parts of the empire carried on with minimal disturbance. When these internal battles ended to be replaced by the official oppression of the emerging Communist dictatorship – reality finally struck. My grandfather, as a community leader, left his family and participated in the organization of the famous escape of many Mennonites from Moscow by rail through the Red Gate to Latvia and then wherever they could find a place in the West. He planned for his family to join the exodus as time and politics closed in – placed his name on a list for a future train and went to the deep South to collect his family. Tragically, another person replaced the name of my grandfather with his own – and placed our family on a later train that never left Russia. He went into hiding and after a number of years the Communists caught up with him and together with the elegant Emilie they lived out their days in a remote village in Siberia. The stories of escape or tragedy have an incredibly random character to them. My paternal grandfather made the same journey a number of years earlier. The family myth is that at the time of departure authorities called out the names of people they wanted to exclude from the exodus – and called my grandfather’s name. They had one of his initials wrong – all Mennonites or at least all DeFehrs were known by their multiple initials. It seems that one initial was incorrect and my grandfather convinced the official that it must be a different person and escaped to the West. The journey took them to Latvia, Germany, France, Spain, Cuba and finally Mexico. They were denied entry to Canada at that moment because of the trachoma of the very aged grandmother. As a result my father would spend some of his teen years on the streets of Ensenada in Baja California shining the shoes of American tourists. Escape Route through China My mother decided to enter medical studies in the new Soviet Union. As the ideological noose of Stalin closed in on her world she was called in front of a student assembly to renounce her (kulak) parents and her Christian faith. She and two friends would do neither and they were banned from all further study in the Soviet paradise. They left their families and went underground in Moscow where Mia had a sister working in the Embassy of Finland who provided access to food coupons. That kept them alive for the winter while they considered their diminishing options. The borders to the West and South had become impenetrable – but there were rumors that people were escaping through China. May Day of 1930 the three young women attended the infamous military parade in Red Square and impulsively joined a marching parade of “joyous workers of the Soviet Revolution”. They walked in front of Stalin and as they emerged on the other side of the square managed a quick exit into the crowd before they were apprehended. May 2 they departed on the legendary Trans-Siberian railroad to the Far East of Siberia. They were aware of some Mennonite communities in the region so went to the local market to listen for accents and voices. They located some low-German Mennonites who hid them in their empty wagons and took them back to hide in their village near the Amur River that bordered Manchuria. Escape was not easy but escapes were taking place in small groups across the river with the help of Chinese human smugglers. On the appointed day the young women joined a small group that made their way to an island in the river – only to discover that the Chinese “coyotes” did not arrive. They hid among the sand dunes and survived on the island in spite of Soviet guards. 24 hours later they made the crossing with the help of a small raft for people like Mia who could not swim. During the crossing one of the Chinese guides panicked and climbed onto the raft which promptly capsized. My mother was in deep trouble and another young man with the last name of Copper rescued her – years later I was able to visit him in a village in Paraguay and offered him my gratitude. Arrival on the Chinese side of the Amur was not an occasion marked by any papers or official action – they were in one of the most remote corners of China after the end of Empire and before the Japanese invasion – they were on their own. A Russian woman married to a Chinese man approached them on arrival and suggested that staying this close to the border was very dangerous – the “guides” were perfectly capable of earning their fees a second time by selling them back to the Communists. Taking her advice they left their local hostel where they shared a sleeping platform with half of China and walked into China in the middle of the night. The Russian woman was waiting for them at the edge of town with a package of food and her blessing and these three twenty-something young women walked into the Chinese night. The next part of the story always remained a little vague in their various biographies. My mother did acknowledge (verbally but not in her autobiography) that at one point they were taken or captured by a local Chinese leader of undetermined local power who claimed that since they were unattached they would be his concubines. The story goes on that some of the Russian Mennonite young men on a parallel personal journey who heard of this misadventure approached the Chinese man and advised him that he had captured their wives – and as a “person of honor” they were released and continued their journey. When their captor asked if they were married they apparently pointed wordlessly at the young men who had heard of their predicament and who had arrived to claim them. Mia told us that it was as close as she ever came to a lie! Who knows the truth – something happened that they chose not to write about or at least limit the truth. There were in fact three counterpart young men who had participated in the plans to escape during the winter in Moscow. In the end they had felt that taking three young women with them would be too dangerous and complicating and had ventured on their own – leaving their girlfriends behind. It happened that the men had a much more harrowing journey and on their eventual arrival in Harbin – the destination of every escapee – they were in terrible shape and were nursed back to health by the young women they had abandoned. Tragically – one of the couples decided to marry in China but the groom became sick on the wedding day and died within days. The women eventually managed to take one of the river boats that traversed the Amur and then up the Sungari to Harbin where they joined the eclectic “White Russian” community of refugees of every stripe. The ship had to use parts of the Amur river that were in Russia to avoid the sand bars so the women were rather nervous until the ship finally turned south and deeper into China! They reportedly hid in the cargo hold during the times when the ship ventured into Russian waters. In Harbin they worked as nurses to the arriving refugees while they considered the next move. They could not be aware that they were within months of the invasion of Manchuria by Japan. At Bethel College with Girlfriends and Mrs. Regier Many groups complain of discrimination during this period in that they were denied entry by Western countries – but this was an almost universal condition. The only destination available to the Mennonite refugees accumulating in Harbin, Manchuria was the Chaco (green hell) of Paraguay. A group of conservative Mennonites had left Canada a few years earlier and had settled in the very heart of this desolate place that had resisted all attempts at settlement by Europeans for centuries. Conditions were challenging, the death rate was high and if they emigrated there they would face a grim future of working in the fields to carve a living out of this desolation. They decided that they had not risked so much to become farming pioneers in such a desolate and intellectually sterile place and planned a more daring adventure. They took a boat to Yokohama in Japan and then a ship to San Francisco – without any papers whatsoever. On arrival they were predictably interned on Angel Island – the immigrant counterpart of Alcatraz in the same Bay. Fortunately a man from the Salvation Army was regularly scouring this immigrant prison to see what kind of human flotsam might be washing ashore. He sensed that these women might have a future given their abilities and youth if he could find a place in some College or University. He managed to arrange a 1931 in Chinese attire scholarship at Bethel College in Minneapolis and that allowed them to enter the United States after a couple of harrowing years on the road. After a short time the Mennonite Colleges in Central Kansas heard the story and suggested that they could “take care of their own” and invited the young women to Kansas where they each earned their first degree. All three went on to graduate degrees and all of them became university professors. My mother earned her third degree at the University of Minnesota and became a professor of German literature. I was to grow up us as a child listening to the usual German fairy tales punctuated with an appropriate amount of Schiller and Goethe. I was raised in a community where our neighbors shared this (German-speaking Russian Mennonite) heritage and that resulted in a Kindergarten operated completely in German – as was our local congregation. Our teacher ‘Tante Anna’ had been educated in Berlin before the revolution and had all of the competence and discipline we associate with the educational tradition of Frederick the Great. She had not been told that 5 year-olds could not read or write so we were taught to read and write German – but she used the Gothic script! As a result our class of Kindergarten grads was later accommodated by the local public school in that we had a special class and teacher who taught us in German and in Gothic until Christmas – then we made the transition to the English language and the Latin script. This was taking multiculturalism to an extreme! Mother survived initially through the charity of Colleges and friends and managed to support her parents in Siberia during years when contact was still possible. This ended with the purges of 1937-38. She had a compelling personal story and was asked by churches, service clubs and University-arranged audiences to share her story – which would result in a gift of cash or in kind. This allowed her to complete University and provide parental support – in the middle of the Great Depression! The University would arrange her speaking tours – she told us that she had accumulated news clippings of about 500 presentations – many to Russian-interest groups. This was to haunt her after she emigrated Wedding Day: Abe and Mia – August 17, 1940 to Canada to marry my father. US immigration reportedly kept her album of news clippings. In 1952 when the young family had stabilized we made our first trip as tourists to the USA. On arriving at the border they asked about her background since she had been placed on some version of the famous or infamous “Un-American” list. Whoever had scanned her clippings had not been able to distinguish the difference between talking about her dramatic escape from Communism to supporting Communism. The record was finally cleared in 1956 and our family could enjoy all of North America. My mother had actually been an American citizen but was never bitter about this part of her treatment by US authorities – she remained grateful for the haven and the opportunity of her arrival from China. A decade later I would enter the US for University studies. These were the sixties – a time of idealism and transition and a great time to be a student. After marching with Martin Luther King on the epic Selma-Montgomery adventure and participating in many anti-war or anti-violence events I managed to attract the attention of the FBI. This resulted in the loss of my security clearance in Canada and with that the loss of my appointment to the Canadian Diplomatic Service. My mother was actually rather proud of the fact that at least my values were noticed! She was rather inventive in these kind of situations. During the thirties she would frequently travel to Canada to visit her brother and sister. Returning to the USA the border authorities would ask “where were you born” and with Russia as the answer this always caused a long discussion. Since her home was technically in the area that had once been Northern Georgia – my mother reverted to saying “Georgia” when asked that question and that made entry a lot simpler! Mother had several opportunities to marry educated Americans but somehow felt that she wanted to live closer to the kind of community she had known in her youth. With the outbreak of WWII American University authorities had the brilliant idea that closing German Departments would somehow aid the war effort and she lost her appointment. She decided on further studies and at that point met my father. His family had reached Canada via Mexico in 1924 and as a poor immigrant he managed to learn English and complete Grade 11. In 1939 he was traveling alone by car from Winnipeg to the New York World’s Fair and stopped for night at friends in Minneapolis. It was a Sunday and his hosts were aware of several German-speaking women at church and invited them for Sunday lunch. It happens that my father’s family lived well to the north and was in relatively greater distress during the years of the Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War and the entire DeFehr family had found refuge for two winters in the village of my mother. Although she was two years his senior they had met as children and now their paths would cross as a random event on the opposite side of the world. My father had traversed Europe, the Atlantic and Mexico to Canada and mother had traversed Siberia, China and the Pacific to the USA – now they would meet in a manner that can only be considered as destiny! Mia was a person of strong character and discipline. She had spent a decade where she had experienced intellectual challenge and had participated fully in modern society. She drove a car, wore lipstick and attended movies – all of which were frowned upon in the conservative immigrant community she joined by marrying my father. She had made a choice to live in community and managed to refuse to be dominated by these restrictions although she lived within them. Mother was leader of a group of younger women in her church and helped them with the social and intellectual transition to a larger world. Eventually the church closed down her ‘radical’ class but participants of that group to this day talk to me about mother and the impact of that class. Years later I would receive a large coffee table book about the work and life of Gathie Falk – a significant Canadian artist. In her biography is a picture of mother and her group of girls – including the artist. She refers to mother as “a proto-feminist and important mentor. DeFehr was a woman of extraordinary character and education….” Whatever Mia was – she was ahead of her time. Two decades later I would lead a Sunday School class with a colleague and we found the affairs of the world (rather than the prescribed curriculum) more interesting and in our view more useful to the students who chose to attend. Somehow the congregational authorities of that later time also found it in their wisdom to shut down this class and invite attendees to spiritually safer venues – regrettably the majority stopped attending both the class and our congregation. The community that Mia entered might have been intellectually restrictive but somehow the world of my mother always remained global. It is rather common today for “Mennonite” authors to write about the incredibly conservative and stultifying conditions under which they were raised. Somehow they became Ph.D’s and authors in spite of these limitations. It makes for good novels if you have talent – but the Mennonite communities were no different than the immigrant communities of every other tradition – but tell that to an author who is winning honors for mining a subject that is already history! Mother loved gardening and nature but housework was considered a regrettable necessity – she did it dutifully and well but had refined it to an art-form. She had a 14-day menu with practical and tasteful meals that were faithfully reproduced on schedule. This allowed for maximum planning and minimal effort to produce the needful. This created time and space for intellectual intercourse with a great variety of neighbors, friends and correspondence. Mother stated that she maintained contact through letters with 300 people around the world. She would serve us lunch (we walked to and from school and returned home for lunch – winter or summer) and then took the afternoon to write – every day! Somehow every missionary or President of a Mennonite College who passed through town spent time at her table and the intellectual debates were lively. We were raised with compassion and support but with high expectations. There were two plaques on the wall of our kitchen. The plaque placed by my father read “Aim Higher Than You Can Reach” and the plaque of my mother read “It Matters Not How Long You Live But How I” If praise was appropriate it would be given – but school came easily to me and her comments reflected that reality. I might come home with the highest grade in class but if it was a result of less than maximum effort she would simply say – “You can do better”. Mother would plant a garden and then phone the University and have long discussions about the scientific merit of particular plants or the care of them. She engaged fully in the social life and the caring community of support around her – but led what seems like a complete double life of books, correspondence, friendship and travel. Some people think that I travel a lot and I do. However, I was well into my fourties before I exceeded the number of countries visited compared to my mother – and she lived in an age where there only half as many official countries on the map! She was completely satisfied living in her community – helping her neighbors and friends to grow and develop and make her personal mark on the neighborhood and the world. Anyone who met her remembered her vividly. There is a story about two men who did know each other sitting on a flight in Business class and somehow the conversation turned to me and one person stated that “You should meet Art DeFehr!” The immediate riposte from the other person was – “You should meet his mother”. Mother felt a responsibility to the larger world although limited by family obligations and the reality of the time. Although the immigrant community was financially very constrained the women managed to collect and prepare all manner of supplies and services to refugees around the world and the needy closer to home. I have this strange memory of a teepee pitched in our backyard one winter. Presumably it was an aboriginal man who was spending the winter in Winnipeg and somehow our family managed to provide some manner of support. When refugees from WWII began to arrive in Canada our home together with many others in our relatively poor community hosted these families. The Mennonite church has organizations that are oriented to proselytizing and others, especially the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) that provide services related to war, poverty, development or human rights. These agencies are very specific about their turf but in my upbringing they merged into one – I did not appreciate the difference between missions and service to the world until I arrived in University. This inability to separate the larger mission of the church into its component parts has caused me a great deal of trouble since I still see the total mission of the church as part of a whole. Every child presents unique challenges to a parent and I presume that I was no different. Mother was influenced by her education and would call the University for advice and when in doubt we were raised by Dr. Spock. His later apology to the world was of little benefit to me where it may have been inappropriate. Hindsight suggests that I was a restless child and she searched for ways to keep me challenged. At age 14 I was sent to camp as a part of the staff to work in the bush and maintenance rather than be a camper. At age 16 I wanted to work at Banff for the summer and she rather found me another Christian camp at an even greater distance. Mia and Sons Given her own experiences as part of a much larger world in the thirties she could not be convincing about a restrictive view of life and reality. Instead of too many rules and boundaries we were told that we could and should use our own judgment about how we spent our time and what events we attended – but she had a very simple but effective rule. When we came home we were obliged to tell her all about our experiences – if we were embarrassed to tell her we probably should not have been there. University was an intellectually challenging and liberating experience for me – as it had been for my mother. I was very conscious of her attainment under much more difficult circumstances and was determined to at least match her accomplishments. I graduated with two Bachelors degrees and then went on to an MBA at Harvard. Both my mother and I found the experience of that grad very meaningful and I felt liberated from that personal burden. In 1972 I was asked to become the Director of the new Bangladesh MCC program following the end of the civil war. When I received the invitation I indicated that given my role in the family business I would need to check with my parents first. The person making the phone call happened to my first cousin and he simply replied – I already checked with your mother and she simply stated that it was time for Art and Leona to go and do something in the world. Mother had a very clear sense of what was important in her life and the life of her children. Mother had married into a community but also the personal situation of my father. As an immigrant and with the completion of Grade 11 during the Depression years, his opportunities in life were limited. He worked for Piggly-Wiggly, the San Francisco predecessor of Safeway. He was very proud of the fact that he introduced better methods of caring for the display of fruit and vegetables that made them more attractive – an idea that was then applied by the company more broadly. This success notwithstanding, in the early thirties he was summarily fired. On asking for the reason he was advised that they were following instructions from HQ that when a person reached the top of the wage scale that person should be fired and replaced by a person at the bottom of the scale. They advised my father that he was an outstanding employee and they would be pleased to hire him on Monday as a new employee at the bottom of the scale. This happened to my father 3 times during the thirties. When my father searched for employment after WWII my mother encouraged him to work on his own rather than risk being humiliated again – and stated that “she would live on whatever his income would be.” During the early years of marriage she dutifully and effectively sewed clothing, managed an incredible garden, prepared many items of food for winter, raised chickens and ducks and stretched the income of my father. In 1944 my father started a wood-products business that was to become the largest manufacturer of furniture in Canada and the largest private employer in Manitoba. Mythology has it that he sold his car for $500, purchased some equipment that was installed in our basement and began to produce whatever the market would accept. I recall our living room as a kiln dry for lumber and our garage filled with finished product. Mother was never directly involved in the business but was certainly aware and supportive. Mother’ sense of service to the community extended to her style of philanthropy. When my father returned with his weekly salary during the first years of marriage – the first 10% of his $22.00 per week salary went into a milk jar that would later be dispersed as donations. She supported many different ministries but always had a special place in her heart for students. When mother wanted to repay some of the charity directed toward her as a student one benefactor told her to “gib die liebe weiter – pass the love along.” She always felt that her debts had not been adequately repaid and many students received lodging, funds or encouragement to help them achieve some particular educational goal. When mother died she had arranged for the security of several relatives in challenging situations, left a small legacy for each grandchild and beyond that her estate did not really exist. She had managed to disperse all available funds under her direction before she died. One particular anecdote speaks to her tenacity and her influence in the community. On the way to church from our home – mother always walked – lived a family with nine children of whom the majority were mentally challenged and had parents with limitations. The house, yard and care of children reflected these realities. Mother was distressed and decided that the family really needed a larger home – fortunately they lived on a rather generously sized property. She went to the local lumber yard to have a plan drawn that doubled the size of the house – then went to every contractor of relevant services to assign him his part of the project. She would then add that they should not bother to send a bill to anyone. One of these contractors recalled years later that it was much easier to perform the job gratis than argue with Mia. In May of 1971 at the age of 63 mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Surgery followed but the cancer never left her. She lived these final years with dignity and people who came to offer sympathy Mia’s last Christmas picture with her grandchildren, 1976 often felt encouraged instead. She used these years to spend time with her children and grandchildren and managed to write what would become the essence of her biography. These notes have been taken by three different authors and resulted in an initial book written in German, a second in English and later a novel based on the story written in Russian. Many have been blessed and encouraged by her story. Many anecdotes could be added but she was a person who navigated a place in time and history that absorbed and destroyed millions around her. She accepted the limitations of her place in the world but also took full advantage of every opportunity. As I watch my own life unfold and my own response to challenges and opportunities I can often recognize the legacy of my mother. She left a great personal legacy – a remarkable person and a remarkable life. Mother died surrounded by a loving family in June of 1976 at the age of 69.
Blog Post #9…..An Alternative to the Panama Canal….August 14, 2015
I realize that the title sounds rather presumptuous! However I did propose this idea to the Government of Mexico in 2007 as well as the last three Presidents of Mexico in person. There is actually an interesting alternative. There are very few remaining opportunities to use geography to change how the world is organized but there is such an opportunity in Mexico. An interest in logistics and a curiosity as to how the world works is helpful when reading this post. An Alternative to the Panama Canal We take the Panama Canal for granted – but is it really the best way to cross the American barrier? If there was no canal today – what would be built? I will suggest that in the world of containers a different strategy could win. In 2007 I published an essay in Letras y Libros – sort of the Latin American equivalent of Atlantic Monthly – titled El Futuro Cruza el Istmo de Tehuantepec or in the original English version Imagining a New Future for Mexico. The journal was founded by the Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz. Enrique Krauze, historian and current editor invited me to write about an idea I had shared with him. The original article was philosophical in nature. In this essay I will argue the more pragmatic merits of the idea. (You can connect to the original in either language or locate on my website). The basic concept is that the container flow between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and relevant ports would be better served by a ’scramble’ or transfer point located on what I call the American barrier rather than the current canal. FEDEX and UPS represent variations of the scramble idea with their strategy of shipping all parcels via one central North American location rather than point-to-point. My research indicates a time saving of one to two weeks for the average container and a significant cost saving. This strategy would radically reshape the politics and economy of Mexico in a constructive direction. This concept would also shift the container flow away from a number of the larger ports in favor of a variety of medium and smaller ports. All of these changes imply disruption and adjustments in power relationships – in the same way that the original Panama Canal affected many cities and regions. Why have I become engaged in this idea? In 2007 I participated in a pro bono study for the Canadian Government into the question how Canada could participate more effectively in the global container trade using its geography. The imminent opening of the northern Canadian Port of Prince Rupert for the container trade created new opportunities for strategic use of Ports and inland connections to markets such as the Central US. (Asia Pacific Gateway and Corridor Initiative). We visited many of the world’s great ports and studied how they functioned and in particular how they inter-acted with their respective hinterlands. In 1998 my company expanded into Mexico with manufacturing facilities including an investigation of southern Mexico. We concluded that it was impossible to develop in the south because of logistic isolation. Leona and I have more recently made Mexico our winter home so we have a heightened level of interest and awareness. The Rationale – and a short study in Global Logistics The impact of Port size The sending ports in Asia and the receiving ports on the Atlantic Seaboard are very different in size. The largest port globally is Shanghai at 34 million TEU (20 foot equivalent units) and the top 8 ports are all in East Asia. The largest US Atlantic port is New York at 5.5 million TEU and # 27 in global size. The next East Coast port in size at #45 is the ‘Georgia Ports’ at 3 million and its down from there. To understand what that means think of a 747 flying from New York to service cities like Des Moines and Wichita – but that is the container reality of today. The impact of ship size and port size on schedules. Panamax refers to the maximum size of a ship that can traverse the canal. The current locks allow for a containership with max capacity of about 5,000 TEU and the new enlarged canal will have capacity for ships with 12,000 TEU. Why should that be a problem? Consider that there are various shipping lines who divide the business and each makes pickups and deliveries from a variety of ports. Because of the relatively smaller size of US ports the standard pattern is to visit 4 ports in Asia and then stop at 4 ports on the East Coast. This relatively large number of stops reflects the challenge of balancing differences in port size. This pattern typically requires 63 days or 9 weeks for a roundtrip – and therefore 9 ships for a single schedule of one shipping line. Now imagine the scheduling challenge of increasing ship size from 5,000 to 12,000 TEU? What affects the days required from shipper to recipient? Weekly shipping schedule – Most shippers have a contractual arrangement so the container may be ready to go on a Monday but generally the ship will sail on some other day of the week so a built in delay. The additional stops create delays. The length of delay depends on the order of ports but typically will add on average an extra week. The transshipment problem for the smaller ports. The strategy of maximum 4 port stops mean that the lesser ports must transship to the major ports such as Singapore or Hong King – adding time and cost. The example of FEDEX makes the point that a scramble allows for the use of larger and smaller planes to a great variety of locations. Without that strategy FEDEX could not guarantee one day service to every city it serves. The container world has accepted the idea of major and minor ports with variable shipping times because it is assumed there is no alternative – what if there was an alternative? The Alternative The Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico is a break in the mountains with a low elevation and a short distance between oceans. It is located north of the Yucatan and given the nature of the Great Circle route on the Pacific requires several days less sailing time than the Panama route. The conquistadores crossed at this point, built ships and sailed away to conquer new worlds. Mexico started to build a railroad across the Isthmus in 1857, before any transcontinental rail in the US, but the idea never captured the imagination of the world. Why could it be a good idea today? The advantage of a scramble is that the two oceans and their various ports can be served in the two oceans by a variety of ship sizes that are designed for the particular ports they serve. Today major ports such as Hong Kong send a number of ships daily to transit the Panama Canal and then go off in different directions in the Atlantic visiting a variety of ports – often including transshipment to minor locations. In the proposed scenario a single ship departing a Pacific port could carry containers from one Asian port for every single port in the Atlantic and even across the Atlantic – from Argentina to Halifax. An important change would be that secondary ports such as Ho Chi Minh or Surabaya could now send ships directly to the Isthmus, bypassing the expense and disruption of transshipping through another port. This could radically change the importance of some of the major ports that rely on the accumulation rather than generation of freight. Crossing the Isthmus would involve the development of a specialized port on the Pacific to handle the expected giant containerships combined with the redevelopment of several existing smaller ports on the Atlantic side that could be re-designed to handle a variety of medium and smaller ships. The crossing could utilize rail or a specialized road but these are not especially difficult challenges. An important point to understand is that with this system the great majority of containers would be carried on ships appropriate to the volume of a port and would not require multiple stops. This makes it absolutely the fastest and least expensive (ocean) way to ship product around the world. Now think of the possibility of the Isthmus as being more than a scramble location but also an industrial hub that receives commodities and components from around the world and ships back to the world. There is no other location on the planet that would have as direct and frequent shipping connections to a very large number of ports across the globe. Given an underutilized labor force of 50 million in southern Mexico and neighboring Central America this would create a fantastic new industrial opportunity – and a human and economic development opportunity for Mexico. The point is that when a container leaves the ship it has many possibilities. It can certainly cross the Isthmus and be loaded onto another ship. However, should there be an unexpected urgency the container could be routed from the initial ship to a truck and sent north to its destination saving critical days. As already noted the products of a container could be warehoused for future shipment, stored for safe-keeping or included in an industrial enterprise. Panama does not serve any of these purposes well. Who would promote or not promote such a potentially beneficial system? We should expect that the very large transshipment ports would see such a change as a threat since the lesser ports in both Asia and America could now bypass the dominant ports. Do not expect support from the owners of the large ports. Shipping companies face a more complex problem. They can adjust to the new pattern but the scramble would create opportunities for specialized smaller or larger shipping lines that offer exceptional designer service to certain ports and take away portions of the available business. If the Isthmus became important they could hardly avoid becoming part of the action. Mexico should find this idea very attractive but the Isthmus is part of a region that still operates in a feudal style and there will be parties who will attempt to retain control. A significant change in the region would alter the political structure of Mexico by making the south more like the industrialized and more modern Center and North. What about the United States? An important portion of migrants crossing the US border originate in southern Mexico or in Central America. A genuine hub of development could act as a “migration dam” by creating incentives to find employment at home or stop and work on the way north – provided Mexico allows. Possibly the US should consider paying for the Isthmus project from the savings and presumed aggravation of unwanted irregular migration. If it works it would even be a profitable intervention! Mexico has had a North-South fixation for centuries and a project that adds East-West to their view of the world could be incredibly helpful to Mexico. I discussed this concept with a senior automotive executive and he expressed surprise that to his knowledge nobody had ever considered this idea seriously. He quickly calculated that this could be the least expensive point on the planet to ship from or to. Next he calculated that this location could have most of the advantages currently enjoyed by the auto industry in Central Mexico but would benefit from a new large and low cost labor supply. An Isthmus location would offer the ability to not only ship north by truck or rail but could now ship effectively to either coast up and down the Americas plus source or ship anywhere else on the Atlantic or Pacific or globally with great efficiency. With the right policies on the part of Mexico he stated that this could become one of the premier industrial locations in the world. My personal calculation is that an Isthmus project that achieved scale could reduce most container shipments between oceans by one to two weeks with a cost reduction of 20%. It would allow smaller ports to become competitive in many countries with significant social and political impact. If the idea has so much merit why has it not happened and why is it not high on the agenda of Mexican politicians and development organizations? As stated, while the concept would be useful to users of shipping services in North America it may not be of obvious benefit to the big players such as ship owners and operators of major ports – so they will not promote. It should be of great benefit to Mexico itself and I have personally handed this proposal to the last three Mexican Presidents plus a number of senior officials. The response is typically that it is a very interesting idea. However, consider the cost (never properly researched), the political barriers – and they are fighting more urgent alligators. They also state that the concept of the Isthmus has been studied to death. I looked at reports done prior to 2007. None of them considered a container scramble and generally the consultants studied previous reports and summarized them – with expected outcomes. I asked the most recent consultant if he had visited ports in Asia or America – No. Did he speak to major shipping companies such as Maersk – No. Did he speak to important users of the service like Home Depot or WalMart – No. As part of my personal study in 2007 I developed a great deal of information on shipping patterns, strategies to cross the Isthmus, ideas to develop the required ports and so forth. This is not the place to get into that level of detail but the concept has the potential to develop incrementally so that the initial investment is not prohibitive especially in comparison to projects like the proposed canal in Nicaragua (40-50 bilion). Will the Isthmus ever be developed as a container bridge? A recent news report from Mexico announced a series of investments at the Isthmus to improve roads, rail and ports – but no mention of a container strategy. This idea must begin with a huge leap of the imagination. It could have an incredible outcome for Mexico and its people if developed correctly. I see my role to be the Prophet pointing in a new direction – others will need to decide if they choose to follow that path and then make it happen.
Blog Post #8…..So…Who are the Rohingyas…and why are they being persecuted?…..July 15, 2015
The Rohingya of Burma/Myanmar have suddenly emerged from obscurity as possibly the most persecuted minority on earth? Who are these unfortunate people and why are they so persecuted? This Blog Post speaks to the origins and politics that have isolated the group rather than the current humanitarian issues. So……Who are the Rohingyas……and why are they being persecuted? Jews in 1939………Rohingyas today – Recent Haaretz headline. “The most persecuted people on Earth” – Headline of article from June 13th Economist. The readers of my blog have more than average political curiousity but I would guess that most have only peripheral knowledge of the Rohingyas. Scenes of thousands of desperate people stranded in the Andaman Sea, pushed back by one nation after the other have captured the attention of journalists and the world. Who are they and why have they become victims of persecution and are now emerging from obscurity? This blog will speak to the above question and will suggest why they are being singled out for persecution. The current humanitarian crisis is being covered in the press and will not be the central part of this analysis. A political travelogue written January 2014 about a visit to Burma and the region describes my engagement in the Peace effort in Burma plus comments about SE Asia. The name Burma is used instead of Myanmar since that is the preferred term of the ethnic communities. To view Article please click here: Christmas, Peace and Other Subjects. First some facts The term Rohingya is a manufactured term that simply means “inhabitant of Rohang” which is the early Muslim name for Arakan. The term Arakan in turn is the historic name of what is now the Burmese state of Rakhine which was an independent entity for much of its history. How many and where do they live? Those who identify as Rohingya are estimated to number about 1,600,000 of which 1,100,000 live in Rakhine State, another 100,000 elsewhere in Myanmar. A similar number have migrated to Malaysia for economic and security reasons. Another 250,000 have “returned” to Bangladesh plus scattered communities in India and Saudi Arabia. Where do they come from? It is reasonably clear that they originate in the Indian sub-continent with the majority from neighboring Bengal and speak what is described as a “Chittagonian” dialect – Chittagong is the nearest major city and port in Bangladesh. What is the nature of migration that brought them to the former Arakan and now Rakhine? Records indicate that there were migrants dating from the 8th century but more substantial movement of people occurred when the Mughal Empire advanced as far as Bengal – defining a difference and religious boundary between the Muslim and Buddhist worlds. Arakan, although Buddhist, was a sea-faring entity and because of geography related more to the Indian and Muslim reality to its north than the Buddhist and Burmese tribes scattered across mountainous terrain to its East. There are many recorded migrations over centuries plus all of the random and voluntary movement of populations driven by opportunity, geography and sometimes political events. There were several instances of recorded migrations from the sub-continent that became permanent and remain as additional identifiable ethnic groups. One group is the “Kaman” who were Mughal soldiers stranded (in Arakan) by events in India in 1660 and became an elite palace guard reinforced by Afghanis. They are Muslim, are unusually successful in the professions and other ventures and are recognized by the current Myanmar authorities as one of the 135 officially recognized indigenous/ethnic minorities. They now suffer from identification with “less desirable” Muslim residents and are experiencing an encroachment of their long-established status as citizens of Myanmar. A parallel group is the Gurkha who were originally from Nepal and employed by the British as very reliable mercenary soldiers throughout the Empire. Since terms of engagement could be decades, many brought their families to where they were stationed or married locals and established families. The British conquered Burma in 1825 and departed in 1947 allowing plenty of time for a community to become established. Many of the Gurkha found life in Burma to be superior to the difficult conditions of Nepal and chose to stay. Today there are an estimated 300,000 residents of Burma who self-identify as “Gurkha”. They are primarily Hindu and because of their elite military background have always valued education with the expected outcome that they are relatively successful. The Gurkha fought against the Japanese, supported the Burmese Nationalists against the British and finally were part of the Burmese effort in the 1950’s to subdue rebellious minorities. They had historically been considered citizens of Burma (remember this was during the period of British control and they were unusually closely linked to the colonial system) and when the dictatorship of General Ne Win stripped them of that identity in 1962 they withdrew with a deep sense of grievance and disappointment. Today they suffer discrimination but since they are scattered around the country they do not correlate territory and identity in a manner similar to most Burmese ethnic groups and to the Rohingya. The Government in the recent census insisted that the Gurkha be enumerated as “Nepali” which in the Burma context makes them outsiders and non-Burmese. (This is parallel to the demand that the Rohingya identify as Bengali). The Gurkha refused and now share pariah status with the Rohingya and a few other groups. Sometimes history becomes personal……. We adopted a daughter in 1974 from a Catholic Convent in Chittagong. Very little was known about her background except that she was the child of “Nepali refugees who had come to Chittagong” and died shortly after the civil war that created Bangladesh. There were no particular events in Nepal at the time that would have resulted in refugees and in any event not with Chittagong as a destination. I now realize that she is almost certainly of Gurkha heritage and has the visual appearance of the Nepali people. This was during the years when the Ne Win regime practiced a scorched-earth policy in many of the ethnic regions with upward of a million refugees fleeing in all directions – primarily to Thailand. At the time (1972-1974) I was Director of an international NGO (MCC) with substantial relief capacity and at one point we were asked to go to the border of Rakhine State and Bangladesh to assist with thousands of refugees who had suddenly appeared from the other side of the border. They were not identified with the name Rohingya at the time and it is suggested that the name has really only become prominent in the last decade as they are increasingly being pressured to self-identify as “Bengali” with the implication that they are not part of (historic indigenous) Burma. There have been several recent instances where events in Burma resulted in large refugee movements. In addition to 1971-73, there was a major outflow in 1990 following the failed 1989 election and again in 2010. The recent more visible persecution and outflow of desperate people follows the highly –publicized move (2012) toward a more democratic Burma and efforts to end the six decades of civil conflict. The transition to some form of Democracy and Federalism will hopefully bring stability, identity and self-governance to the myriad of ethnic communities but may leave the Rohingya without a seat at the table. It is a paradox that the move to the recognition of ethnicity in Burma may be their undoing. The problem stems from the very tight linkage between ethnicity and specific territory. The very rugged and inaccessible terrain of northern and eastern Burma allowed ethnic communities to survive into the modern era with their unique languages, cultures and sometimes religious differences substantially intact. Rakhine state is separated from the rest of Burma by a very challenging mountain range which has allowed it to retain an identity separate from the dominant Burman population of the Irrawaddy delta. Rakhine was only ruled by what we now know as Burma for the short period of 1785-1825. The British Empire set the rules during the period 1825 – 1947 with open borders. The consequence of this history and geographic reality was a steady increase of population from British India. The migrants were primarily Muslim and did not assimilate with the local Buddhist population. WWII was an added complication since Rakhine State was the furthest advance of the Japanese military. The ethnic Rakhine sided with the Japanese with the hope of ending British colonialism while the Rohingya supported the British and their religious/ethnic colleagues up the coast. The result was a significant demographic shift of the Rohingya to the northern part of Rakhine. This allowed the Rohingya to become a localized majority and potentially make a territorial claim in a future Federal system if they were recognized as an official ethnic group. The periods of persecution in the last century have their roots in the existential fears of the ethnic Rakhine population that they would become minorities in their own territory. (Rohingya number 1,100,000 out of a total Rakhine State population of 3,200,000.) There is the belief, and possibly fact, that Muslims have larger families and there are efforts to restrict the number of children born to Muslims. The current negotiations about the future of Governance in Burma speak of a Federalism built around a tight connection between ethnicity and territory. Ethnic Rakhines fear that if the Rohingya become citizens they will have the potential to vote as a bloc and may effectively control the politics of their state. Their fear is not unfounded. These realities and the greater space for political expression have created the opportunity for extremist Buddhist leaders to stir up attitudes and fears which have predictably resulted in violent expression of those fears. The Military Government presumably has the power to control civil violence but by remaining on the sidelines appears to encourage efforts to isolate the Rohingya and encourage their emigration. We should therefore not be surprised if thousands of refugees cross the border into Bangladesh and others seek security and opportunity by attempting the precarious journey south to Thailand or Malaysia. Rohingya and Burmese National Politics The road to Democracy and Federalism will pass through the prism of an important election in late October. The Burman ethnic majority hopes to capture enough seats to control the new parliament. The National League for Democracy headed by Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to dominate but will compete with ethnic Burman parties to its political right plus the expectation that ethnic minorities will vote for their own political entities. If Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD take a public stance in favor of protection of Rohingya interests they are vulnerable to attack from the Burman and Buddhist right and risk election defeat. During my April visit with the Lady she recognized (See my Blog Post #5…Tea with the Lady….May 6, 2015) that there were few realistic alternatives to eventual citizenship but has not taken a public position in their defense – and has been criticized for her apparent silence. We might think that the 135 other officially recognized ethnic groups would come to the defense of the Rohingya but that has not been the case. Each group is jealous of its own particular territorial claim and set of rights expected from a Federal outcome and sees risks in recognizing additional groups that may infringe on their own claims and identity. This leaves the Rohingya uniquely out of the loop and isolated. They tend to be landless and poor making them vulnerable. Other unrecognized minorities like the Gurkha or Kaman have their challenges but are not as immediate a territorial threat to other recognized indigenous ethnic groups as is the case with the Rohingya. Expect the pressure to continue with more reports of humanitarian transgressions. The UN, the International Crisis Group, Medicin sans Frontiere and others have been engaged in humanitarian activities but discouraged or restricted by Burmese authorities. They maintain that this is a problem that belongs to two countries – Burma and Bangladesh – but Bangladesh authorities maintain that there have been many historic movements across borders in past centuries and this problem now belongs solely to Burma. This blog could continue by reminding us of the atrocities committed in the name of ethnicity, language, religion and territory in South Asia. Think of the untouchables in India, the Partition of 1947, the million Biharis in Bangladesh after 1971, the genocide at the creation of Bangladesh, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia plus the atrocities committed over 6 decades in Burma in the name of religious and ethnic purity. The Rohingya are simply the latest chapter in a very difficult and tragic history. Do not expect a simple, easy or quick solution.
Blog Post #7….. Time to plan that visit to Iran! ….. June 30, 2015
Time to plan that visit to Iran! Is it possible to visit Iran? What kind of reception do visitors receive? How much freedom and how safe? As a result of my several writings on Iran (reference to these articles at end of blog) I frequently receive these questions – primarily from Americans. Attached is a short report from Dick Simon based on his April 2015 visit and third visit in 24 months. Simon is chair of PAN – Peace Action Network which Is associated with YPO – Young Presidents Organization. I was part of the second visit April 2014. I am writing this blog the day that nuclear negotiations with the West are scheduled to be finalized – so written with some degree of hope. The attached article is short and concise but contains interesting references which demonstrate that conditions in Iran are a rapidly moving target. For example, the PAN group were the first Americans to enter the infamous US Embassy since the hostage crisis. The visit of the PAN group received substantial coverage in U.S. Media. If Iran is on your travel agenda – read on…… Dick Simon – Iran trip updates and observations Reference to Art DeFehr articles re Iran: Blog Post #4 – Does Iran Matter…….April 30, 2015 http://artdefehr.com/blog-post-4-does-iran-matter-april-30-2015/ Iran in Transition Based on a visit to Iran in April 2014 with the YPO Peace-Action Network. Purpose of essay is to give readers a more nuanced view of what is actually happening in the country. Read more>> Iran in Transition – Photojournal Photographs taken by myself on the April 2014 trip to Iran. Many photos show people in public and demonstrate a more vibrant society than we normally allow in our thinking about Iran. Read more>> Op-Ed piece by Jeffrey Simpson in Globe and Mail – May 2014 based on my Iran in Transition essay. 140517Iran – The Globe and Mail_ The Iran you won’t hear about from Ottawa
Blog Post #6…… Georgia on My Mind……June 4, 2015
Georgia on My Mind I made a visit to Georgia and Armenia May 2015 as part of an exploration of Tbilisi as a site for a specialized campus to transition highly competent students from Syria and Iraq to Western Universities – students who have had their studies disrupted because of war and violence. This blog focuses on the unique and perilous geo-political situation of Georgia and Armenia, their survival strategies and comments on their interesting history, geography and personalities. Most people do not spend a lot of time thinking about the Republic of Georgia or for that matter its neighbor Armenia. They make the news when Russia takes another bite out of Georgia, if the dispute about whether or not a genocide occurred a century ago becomes a bit heated or possibly a really good earthquake. What is truly amazing is that they exist at all. I was living on the Indian sub-continent in 1972 and heard Indira Gandhi deliver the speech celebrating 25 years of Independence. I recall her opening line – “The greatest achievement of India is that we have survived…”. That was indeed an achievement but put that into context with Georgia and Armenia who against all odds have remained as independent and identifiable nations for millennia! Leona and I visited Georgia and Armenia with the objective of investigating if this remote but volatile corner of the world could host a program to rescue promising students from the turmoil of the Middle East. Tbilisi is at the very fringe of our Western Civilization and at the same time adjacent to another and at the epicenter of a volatile region. Art with VP Marketing of LCC international University which we founded in the Soviet Union in 1991. The other person is the Baptist Bishop of Georgia. Georgia – Rugged beauty and cities as old as Rome. Look at a map. Georgia and Armenia are surrounded by three empires or growling residues of empire. Turkey in the form of the Ottoman Empire dominated the region for centuries and is responsible for the pain of Armenia and the shrinking of Georgia. Russia was invited to expel the Turks which they did. Becoming part of the Soviet Empire was the reward. Georgia even contributed favorite son Joseph Stalin as a form of thank you. Iranian influence goes back millennia. Castles and Churches dominates the high places. Art and Leona with our Friend the Bishop. How did these two nations with a combined population less than Israel with distinct languages, religions and cultures survive for millenia? Geography is part of the answer. The Caucasian mountains to the north serve as a barrier from the volatile tribes of the North Caucasus (think Chechnya) and create some distance from the Russian heartland. The access to the south is similarly characterized by difficult geography. Geography undoubtedly played a part but a combination of religion and a fierce ethnicity were likely decisive. Religion matters in Georgia and defines its difference from the neighborhood. The Armenian Orthodox Church is still the center of Armenian self-identity. Most of us consider this part of the world as remote and marginal to our thinking and experience. I have a strange personal history. My Mother was born on the north slope of the Caucasian mountains among the nomadic tribes known as Cherkessians and part of the historic challenge to Russian dominance. She was a member of a remote but successful Mennonite settlement given a land grant by the czars – presumably with the objective of helping to occupy and pacify this recently conquered and rebellious region. Mother became an American citizen in the thirties and when crossing the border if she stated her birthplace as Russia – many questions. Mother opted to state Georgia as her birthplace and was graciously welcomed. Cave City occupied until 1500. Stalin lives on and is honored in his birthplace. Most of the world has come to accept or believe that borders should not be violated or changed but this region has yet to receive that message. To the north Moldova is challenged by a spirited Trans-dniestra. Ukraine is more visibly troubled with the events in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia, the most western part of Georgia managed to disengage with more than incidental help from Russia. In 2008 a similar process led to a short war between Russia and Georgia with South Ossetia going the way of Abkhazia. In the meantime Armenia remembered that the neighboring region of Nagorno-Karabakh had been transferred to Azerbaijan by Lenin on a day when he was repaying some favor. People in this region never forget anything and when the opportunity arose Armenia attacked and took the region back. In this instance Russia was inclined to back Armenia. To the south Iraq is being effectively dismembered as Kurdistan becomes an increasing reality and the future borders of Syria and a lesser Iraq are called into question. The unsatisfactory situation of Bosnia and Srpska come to mind and the shape of a future Israel and Palestine remains unresolved. Moving just a little south and west we can consider the Horn of Africa. Somaliland has become another country, Eritrea recently split from Ethiopia, Libya is effectively fractured and Sudan has divided into two. What is going on? We look at each of these as unique and singular events but when virtually every border of a very large region is in play something bigger is going on. Back to Georgia and Armenia. How do these remarkable countries survive at all in the middle of chaos? It is notable that they are making different strategic bets on their futures. Georgia sees itself as an extension, politically and culturally of the new Europe. It envisions itself as a western democracy, part of Schengen and a future as a full member of the EU. More controversially it promotes a future as part of NATO which would secure its northern flank and make Turkey a partner to the south. Russia has signaled very clearly that NATO is not in the cards and Georgia risks further direct or indirect pressure from Russia. Armenia made the unexpected decision to ally with the new economic constellation based around Russia. Armenia has essentially nothing of value to sell to Russia (or it seems to anyone) beyond its cognac. Its value to Russia is a bit baffling with the singular exception of providing a forward military position to Russia in circumstances where NATO is viewed as an increasing threat. Access to Armenia makes the volatile Middle East more accessible. An alliance with Russia is also insurance against a sullen and wealthy Azerbaijan. Armenia celebrates Soviet Victories as if 1991 had never happened The internal political and economic history of Armenia is no less volatile. Consider the physical logistic reality of a land-locked Armenia. Turkey to the south is probably not a current military threat but the continuing argument about the events of 1915 are not helpful. Notably Turkey elected to commemorate the start of the WWI Gallipoli campaign, which it won, on the exact date commemorated as the beginning of the Armenian ‘genocide’ and thereby forcing world leaders to choose which event to attend! (Nothing actually happened in Gallipoli on that 1915 date). Iran lies to the Southeast and little needs to be added. Azerbaijan shares the long northern border and the recent war in the Nagorno-Karabakh region which Armenia won results in a sealed border. Georgia to the North has a friendly border and represents the only land access to Armenia’s current patron Russia. Regrettably the Russian attack on South Ossetia results in a frozen border for Georgians. Technically Armenian people and goods can transit this rather problematic path. The only real access to the world for Armenia is via Moscow by air or 7 hours of bad road from Tbilisi. We took the bad road using a van with steering on the wrong side – a challenge on narrow mountain roads. The old Soviet Union with its centralized economy could force outcomes. There is a historic rail connection through wild valleys between Tbilisi and Yerevan. Authorities located a great deal of heavy industry along this corridor. Given the events of 1991, changes in the Soviet economy plus the isolation described above, this entire corridor now represents a moonscape of abandoned and grotesque remnants of an industrial empire that died but nobody came to bury the remains. Yerevan is a surprising exception. It is a modern city in the shadow of Mount Ararat with a pleasant semi- tropical climate, palm trees and most of the trappings of modernity. Armenia has a large and prosperous diaspora but politically and economically is on a path to nowhere. Armenia industrial landscape. Ready for a movie set of the apocalypse. The biblical Mt Ararat looms over Yerevan. Georgia felt more hopeful in spite of the fact that they claim to have experienced three civil wars plus two invasions from Russia – all since 1991. After the disastrous experience with President Shevardnadze, a gift from the Soviet Empire, Georgia had an interesting experience with a sophisticated and dynamic reformer Saakashvili. He built infrastructure, attracted foreign investment and oriented Georgia to Europe and the West. Eliminating corruption was a singular achievement accomplished by firing and replacing the entire police force on one day, then building all glass police stations to symbolize transparency – it worked. It seems he forgot about the social needs of the common man and was unceremoniously unelected. The new regime has reverted to former habits of jailing those who preceded them. Saakashvili and much of his cabinet have re-invented themselves as advisors to the new reformist Ukrainian regime. Meanwhile the new political masters are proving to be totally incompetent and will likely have a limited mandate. In spite of these challenges Georgia felt dynamic, relevant and generally hopeful. It is an incredible country of natural beauty, historic treasures and vibrant people. The Bishop and the Yezidi spiritual leader. Two buddies – the Baptist Bishop and an Iman who represents both Sunni and Shia. Tbilisi like Yerevan is a modern city that dominates its country and society. Our work involved visits with leaders of the Government, the economy, the Academy and the Church. This included the various Christian religious flavors, an Imam who represents both Sunni and Shia and we met Yezidis relocated from Iraq. When the Baptist bishop dresses like an orthodox priest, is surrounded by icons and celebrates communion in front of a Menorah, the Imam describes himself as a ‘good Christian’ and the Yezidi spiritual leader looks like he is ready for a meeting with the bank you know you are in an unusual place. The new Yezidi temple in Tbilisi to replace the historic center lost to ISIS. Georgia represents one of the few places in the world where you can be away from the crowd and experience culture, fantastic natural beauty and a dynamic and energetic population. The challenges are genuine but it represents a place where it is possible to be hopeful. We plan to return and invest. Put Georgia on your bucket list but come soon before it becomes simply another normal country – or events take it in an unpleasant direction. Tbilisi – a thriving modern City with plenty of History.
Blog Post #5……Tea with the Lady……May 6, 2015
Tea with the Lady A visit with Aung San Suu Kyi On the occasion of my 60th birthday Leona asked if I could visit with just one person in the world who would that be. My unequivocal answer was Aung San Suu Kyi. On April 29, 2015 we had tea in her home in Yangon and my bucket list became a little shorter. Aung San Suu Kyi is a great comversationalist but has a clear idea of her objectives. Many world leaders pass through her living room! My expectations were met and exceeded. Suu Kyi is gracious, animated, thoughtful and 69 going on 45. Her body is trim, skin flawless and hair jet black with her trademark flowers. The meeting started promptly on time and she is generous with the inevitable photographs. We discovered that she actually puts them to her own use – the staff at our hotel commented the next morning that they had seen our photos on her Facebook page! The meeting was arranged by friends engaged in the effort to establish peace after 60 years of conflict. Zaceu Lian is founder of the Canadian-based NGO Council for Democracy in Burma our primary contact in Burma and the person who arranged the meeting. We were joined by Dr. Lian Sackhong founder of The Burma Center for Ethnic Studies, chief negotiator for the Chin ethnic group and the person who personally drafted the recently accepted (not yet signed) ceasefire agreement between the Military Government and the 16 major armed groups. He asked to take advantage of our appointment to raise an issue with Suu Kyi and we readily agreed to share the time. His planned short intervention turned into an animated, energetic and passionate discussion between two extremely capable and intelligent political actors. They apologized for the switch to the Burmese language and we watched as two professionals sparred and found an acceptable compromise. Her next appointment was with the British Ambassador but she presumably decided to deal with the political issue at hand so he cooled his heels in his black SUV for another 25 minutes. Visit to Aung San Suu Kyi accompanied by Zaceu Lian and Dr. Lian Sakhong. We had assisted with the sponsorship and organization of a Peacebuilding seminar a year earlier. She missed the event due to health and invited us to see her on a future visit. Suu Kyi is a gracious host, listens well, expresses genuine interest in her guests and maintains continuous eye contact. She leans forward, gestures with both hands and is fully in control of the room and event. Her performance provided some insight into the inner strength that has allowed her to survive 25 years of confrontation – one woman against one of the largest military establishments on earth. But Aung San Suu Kyi is not just any woman. She is the daughter of Aung San, a WWII Burmese military leader who first sided with the Japanese invaders to oust the colonial powers but switched sides in time to become a military hero. He went on to negotiate independence from the British with a formula that was acceptable to the complex mix of nationalities and is considered the hero of Burmese independence. He was unfortunately assassinated before the agreed political structures were in place and his followers reneged, attempted to establish the dominance of one group. The result was 60 years of conflict, a million casualties and additional millions of refugees. Suu Kyi left Burma for an education at Oxford and a family life in the West. Her return in 1988 to care for a sick mother coincided with the student riots that became the Burmese version of Tiannemen Square. The coincidence of personality, events and history are so improbable that if proposed as a plot for a novel or movie they would stretch credulity – except that the plot is the reality. This is the person who hosted us for tea. Aung San Duu Kyi challenges the military Government from a corner of her living room. Her only weapons are a cup of tea plus her forceful personality. Suu Kyi had been briefed on our background and asked us to describe our history in the region and especially our work with refugees. We worked with the post-war reconstruction of neighboring Bangladesh 1972-74, adopted our daughters from there and have had continueing engagement. We worked at the Thai-Cambodian border during that conflict and have been involved with development efforts that include all of the regional countries. When we described our role in the establishment of a University (LCC International University in Lithuania) to serve students challenged by the post-Soviet environment she very aggressively asked how we could assure that these students would return to serve their own countries. This concern seemed to reflect her own sense of obligation (or accident of history) to return and play a role in Burma. I suggested that many refugees like my mother represented minorities or situations where they were unwelcome because of their very identity rather than their political views and could not be expected to be obligated to the oppressor. On the other hand my engagement with the Soviet Union a generation later is one answer to her concern. Aung San Suu Kyi is generous with photo ops. Leona brought roses. I asked her if I could seek her views on several political issues and she was very willing. Suu Kyi is from the majority Burman group so I wanted to hear her understanding of federalism in the Burmese context. There have been questions about her commitment on this question. She was very forceful in explaining that it was unhelpful to identify a country or model in advance – but unless they found a form of federalism that was meaningful and acceptable to the ethnic minorities all other efforts were futile. The question of religious pluralism has been problematic in the current Burma. Suu Kyi practices Therevada Buddhism and noted that both of us had retained fraying string on our wrists – originating in earlier Buddhist ceremonies – and both of us were superstitious enough to leave them in place until they disappeared of their own accord. She lamented that religion should be a source of unity rather than conflict but did not address the political question directly. I then turned to the Rohingya problem in the western parts of the country. The ancestors of this group would have migrated from Bengal or other parts of British India at a time when borders did not exist. The Burmese do not consider this group as part of the ethnic legacy of Burma (they list 135 accepted ethnic groups – one would think they could make it 136). The fact that they are Muslim is likely the biggest factor. I had personal experiences with this group during my time in Bangladesh. Our agency was asked to assist with an influx of refugees coming out of Burma in 1973. In other words the repression of this group is not a new phenomenon! Suu Kyi acknowledges the problem but has been accused of public silence on this issue. A highly moral stance would not play well with her Burman and Buddhist support base. She is after all a politician trying to win an election! Another critical issue for my ethnic colleagues is her perspective on the relative priorities of a national cease-fire agreement (to allow these groups to get on with life after 60 years) and the need for constitutional changes which would end the military monopoly of power and co-incidentally clear the way for Suu Kyi to become President. One might think that the two issues are parts of a whole but one does not in fact depend equally on the other. My colleagues were concerned that her focus on the constitution might create space for the military to go slow on the ceasefire. The concern of Suu Kyi is that the ceasefire and its consequences might allow space for the military to lose focus on a meaningful election that they might lose. These concerns were at the heart of the debate that we witnessed. We discussed the role that a country such as Canada should play (Canada has made her an honorary Canadian) and we all agreed that Canada to this point has been a bystander and may be hostage to the conservative Burmese diaspora in Canada that tries to prevent any efforts to negotiate with the military Government. It seems Canada is developing a reputation for being the most rigid in terms of dealing with complex situations like the current Ukraine, Iran, Israel- Palestine, China and Burma. Diplomacy is not about celebrating with your best friends! I asked if she could articulate her vision for the country. She responded that the country first needs to get past a successful election in November. We discussed this and other issues with Suu Kyi and also with the many passionate activists who have returned and are taking advantage of the real but far from perfect political opening. The history of transitions from military Governments to successful democracies is anything but a straight line. I came away with the impression that Aung San Suu Kyi will remain a formidable political actor with the vision and ambition to create a Burma that is at peace and reflects the wishes of all of its’ people. Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and many subsequent awards. She faces the risk of being criticized for actions or views that will result from the realities of political power or compromise. It is easier to be rewarded for what has happened in the past but she does not have that luxury. Whatever the future holds we left the meeting aware that we had been in the presence of greatness. She is playing a difficult hand and we wish her and the people of Burma well. Note: I have used the term Burma rather than the official name Myanmar which has specific negative political connotations for the minority ethnic groups. Suu Kyi also chose to use the term Burma. My visit to Burma, Laos and Ho Chi Minh in December 2013 is documented in the essay “Christmas, Peace and Other Subjects” on my website. The format is political comment embedded in a travelogue.
Blog Post #4……Does Iran Matter…..April 30, 2015
Dear blog recipients, Attached is in connection to my thoughts on Iran, nuclear proliferation, the noise in the press and some thoughts on an appropriate perspective. This essay was very difficult to write since it touches on many sensitivities. If the reader disagrees with a sentence or two please look at the larger picture I am trying to paint. Note that I wrote a more detailed essay called “Iran in Transition” following my visit to Iran 12 months ago. I remind that my blog posts are imbedded in my website artdefehr.com and can be accessed directly through that window. Why does Iran Matter so much – or Does It? Headlines this winter suggested that the future of the world depends on the outcome of the Iranian nuclear program and negotiations. We were occasionally diverted by the antics of Vladimir Putin, a suicidal pilot or the profligacy of Greece. Is the level of concern warranted and equally important are we concerned about the right problem? The focus has been on the potential for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon and secondarily the real or presumed role of Iran in the promotion of “terrorism” in the Arab world. Let’s take a long step back and examine these two questions. Caveat: This is not a defense of Iran or a particular critique of anyone else but rather an effort to expand our understanding of a complex problem. In the world of Twitter and 24 hour “news” (a euphemism for ego-centric entertainment loosely connected to real information) – what are the chances for real comprehension? Most nations and civilizations cannot be understood apart from History and that is especially true of Iran. It’s History is both long and complex. Iran or Persia was the center of the world when Rome was still a village and Washington a bend in the river. This historical memory is every bit as real for Iranians as the Revolutionary War for Americans or the Revolution of 1789 for the French. Iran not only has history but it has substantially remained a people apart from its neighbors in spite of the impact of civilization – shaking events like Alexander the Great, the forced adaptation to Islam, a visit from Ghengis Khan and more recent events like the colonial interventions and dominance of the West. This is important since Iran, in spite of minorities and other divisions, has a sense of identity that allows it to act with a unity relatively unique in the region and under-appreciated by the West. I visited Iran a year ago and an educated Iranian – and there are many – made the following observation. (Iran has Over 4,000,000 students at the Post-secondary level. Iran is also the country with the largest proportion of US trained Ph. D’s in its cabinet – exceeding even the USA). He felt the West should understand Iran as the natural partner to the U.S. and Europe in the ‘management’ of an under-developed Arab world. One Iranian suggested that the Arabs of the Gulf region were “camel-herders with too much money”. That somewhat self-serving self-perception helps to explain in part why Iran is confused by the U.S. infatuation with oil-rich sheikhs devoid of culture. Iranians, as heirs of Cyrus the Great and the first written human rights code consider themselves superior and we do well to understand their view of the world. The same person suggested that the West should design it’s approach to the region by working with the “two and a half” civilizations in the region. His list included Iran, Turkey and Oman. The inclusion of Oman has piqued my curiousity and I plan to visit. Arguably Egypt could be included. His point was to work with the more stable cultures and societies with deep roots in the region – and try to bring some coherence to the artificial countries established from the debris of the Ottoman Empire. The point of these comments is that we at least consider Iran in light of its self-perception and historic and potential role in the region. Next let’s consider Iran and the nuclear question. Is the real issue Iranian nuclear proliferation or is it future proliferation if Iran assumes a dominant and unassailable position by going nuclear (relative to its rich but vulnerable neighbors who may then also go nuclear). We then need to test the validity of the proclaimed fear of Israel that Iran has the potential to commit national suicide with a nuclear attack on Israel. Let’s start with Israel. We need to remember that if there is a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that Israel made the first move. There were no sanctions or consequences but it places all its neighbors in an inferior position. Arguably Israel could have relied on the strength of its bond and protection with America – as South Korea and Japan have been asked to do and have complied – and look at their neighborhood (North Korea, China, Russia). When I was in North Korea recently we were shown a map and were reminded that each neighbor had historically been a predator and considered South Korea a military colony of America. The point is that Iran can develop a rationale for going nuclear without reference to Israel. The Iranians pointed out the recently unpredictable menace to the the North, a virtually failed state gone nuclear to the southeast, nuclear armed American warships within swimming distance at times – and then there is Israel which has demonstrated its ability and willingness to attack. They added the lawless Afghanistan plus the former enemy Iraq to the list. Finally you have their real ideological competitor – the wealthy Saudi Arabia across the narrow Persian Gulf. This person argued that Iran and Israel actually were the two countries with the greatest strategic commonality in the region – with the caveat that Israel must deal with its colonization of Palestine first! The second question regarding Israel is whether the risk of an unprovoked nuclear attack by Iran has any degree of credibility. Given the depth of its civilization and memory one does not get the slightest sense in Iran that it is suicidal – which would be the outcome of any attack. If we take the view that nothing can be ruled out then we can make a much longer list of worries beyond Iran. We must also note that nuclear weapons have been used only once and that was by the democratic America – and many historians view those bombs as a gratuitous action. Remember war crime trials are only organized by the victors – and victors also write the history! Let’s accept that Israel has legitimate security concerns but the best place to start would be a solution to the issues in its own back yard. Many apologists within and without Israel repeat the mantra that the occupation of Palestinian territory has nothing to do with the Middle East tensions. It is far from the only problem but is a severe aggravation and its solution may be one of the pre-conditions to regional stability. Arguably every nuclear bomb is an existential threat. Every additional country with nuclear capability adds to the threat but we have singled out Iran as a particular evil that is not supported by the facts. If an Iranian bomb is a threat to Peace it is the contribution to the very genuine risk of regional proliferation. In other words, let’s identify the real problem and address it from that more useful perspective. Next let’s look at the question of terrorism. By now we should understand the irrelevance of that term. It has come to be used by most nations as the actions of those they tend to disagree with. Russia, China and Cuba have in the past exported their brand, America through the Munroe and other doctrines self-declares the right to intervene at will including the right to change regimes – and well beyond the Americas. Terrorism is best understood as asymmetric warfare or competition. In fact, as the capability of weapons increases (we use the term WMD or weapons of mass destruction) intelligent people adjust their tactics. The level of brutality can change but there are no innocents in our world. So what is Iran actually doing that is considered so egregious? As a very amateur historian I will focus on two issues. One is the after-shocks of the collapse of the colonial world, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the shocks of the two World Wars. The Middle East was uniquely destabilized and is far from achieving a new equilibrium. The second factor is the re-emergence of the Sunni-Shia split and the need to discover a formula for co-existence. The politics of Iran are complicated by both of these issues. During the days when colonial powers including the Ottomans had substantial powers they could keep a lid on religious intolerance and events were driven more by political considerations and the economics of oil. We note that during the time of the Shah there was an external perception that Iran acted in a manner recognizable to the West – but we could not (or chose not) to see the impact of the corresponding religious and other internal repression. We should note that Iran is the only country that ever went democratic in the region, however imperfectly, some 70 years ago only to be returned to authoritarian rule with significant complicity of Britain and the CIA. Only Turkey, Iran, Egypt and possibly Oman and Lebanon exist in a historically recognizable form. Given this history plus the unresolved competition between various minorities, religious sects and simply centers of power we need to understand that the region needs to come to an internal consensus to which outsiders can only make a limited contribution. Arguably interventions like the Bush-initiated war of 2003 significantly aggravated an already difficult process. Iran is a player in this process as is Turkey (especially related to the Kurds), America in terms of its oil protectorates, sometimes Russia and the other intervenors grow out of the religious issues. The effects of the wars, interrnational interventions and artificial borders have left a legacy of largely dysfunctional political structures. This has ranged from efforts at Arab nationalism, secular authoritarianism, conservative monarchies and religious tyrannies. Each political manifestation in the context of the largely artificial entities has created opportunity for conflict. From the perspective of the West we easily conflate categories that are not helpful. There is an Islamic reality but you cannot speak of Indonesia or India in the same sentence as Islam in the Arab world. Although Shias represent only 15% of Islamic adherents their geographic distribution within different political entities has emerged as a significant problem. Scholars are beginning to compare the Sunni-Shia conflict to the religious wars of Post-Reformation Europe which dragged on for decades or centuries depending on how you count. They were never resolved with an ultimate winner but the eventual resolution was the move to separate church and state and accommodate various religious flavors within a political entity. This outcome was preceded by the exhaustion of war and assisted by the Enlightenment and other intellectual leadership. Is it a foregone conclusion that the Islamic world has within it the capability of producing its own variant of an acceptable outcome? Equally important, in our much more connected world will they have the space to resolve this internally or will outside actors interfere too readily. Recent history casts doubt on the proposition that the conflicting religious ideologies in the Middle East will have either the political space, religious insight or intellectual leadleadership to come to a resolution. If that is true then what is the future of the region? What is the role of external actors whose security and interests are affected in our super -connected world? A tragic side effect to this process is the collateral damage to other groups and issues. When elephants fight someone gets trampled. The emergence of Israel precipitated a radical change in the degree to which Jewish communities could live reasonably comfortably within an Islamic ocean. More recent events have had a similar disruptive effect on the historic relationships between Christian communities and their Islamic neighbors. A century ago it is stated that 20% of the Middle East population was Christian. A more recent estimate is 5% and given the current chaos many communities may disappear entirely. This is not only a demographic statistic. Both the Jewish and Christia communities represented different strengths in terms of their contributions to a more complex and more complete economic and social polity. Other groups such as Bahais and other less known Islamic variants are suffering a similar fate. Their loss is a permanent diminution of social and intellectual capital. In areas with either a Sunni or Shia minority it has the effect of isolating a single protagonist – but both groups can find external sponsors or protectors. We need to consider Iran and its policies and influence in the light of this history and these relatively recent processes and events. The Islamic Revolution was one manifestation of this chaos. Others have been the radical secularism of Ataturk now under threat. Another outcome was the development of oil-rich monarchies designed to protect Western oil interests but with the unintended consequences of creating space for the expansion of the destructive and dangerous Whahabi doctrines. Then we have secular ideologies in Syria and the earlier Iraq which degenerated into authoritarian regimes and so on. In this context Iran sees itself in its historic role as the inheritor of the Persian legacy, understands itself as a more sophisticated culture with a natural regional role and now finds itself as the only defender of the minority Shia populations. The competition with the West may actually be an accident of history and the side-effects of the reality of Israel and its unique relationship to America and the parallel partnership of the U.S. with the Saudis – it’s natural regional religious and political competitor. All of this does not make Iran an easy nation to deal with today but let me close with two thoughts. We asked many students in Iran about their personal views on religion and specifically Islam. They very freely suggested that alternative religious options were not currently available to them and that Islam as represented by the Islamic Revolution was of no interest. Their preferred option was to ignore the mosque entirely and focus on a secular life and values. They stated that this represented the views of a very large majority of the emerging educated class. They insisted that the ayatollahs had lost the youth and that Iran would eventually emerge as a much more secular society. A second comment relates to how we categorize or demonize a person or a nation. If you search Google re “anti-Israel comments made by Iranian leaders” the results are virtually entirely statements made by former President Ahmedinijad. Many Iranians stated emphatically that they disagreed with these provocative statements, were embarrassed by them and to the credit of the Iranian people voted him out of office when given an opportunity. (We then asked why he was ever elected and they pointed out that he actually ran an effective local Government). Let’s compare Iran to Israel. We all read the well-publicized comments by Prime Minister Netanyahu that there would never be a Palestinian State on his watch. From the perspective of a Palestinian person that sounds about the same as “Israel should not exist.” My purpose is not to defend either person or statement. Arguably both are contributing to a more dangerous Middle East – but at least the Iranians recognized the folly of their leader and acted within their limited options. Israel rewarded Netanyahu with an electoral victory! So does Iran matter to the degree reflected in the news? Iran does matter but only if we place that concern into a much larger context. The development of nuclear capability by Iran will increase the risk of nuclear proliferation but poses very limited direct risk to Israel. The Sunni-Shia conflict is very real and the West needs to calibrate its interventions toward actions that minimize these tensions. Arguably Iran uses its support of some groups as leverage against Western interests. A more constructive relationship with Iran may reduce some of these proxy conflicts. Iran will always be an important player in the Middle East. If Iran is a problem today, a war that destabilizes or breaks up Iran would vastly increase Middle East instability. The West needs to allow space for Iran the way space has been allowed for China and other entities. Finally we need to remember that diplomacy is about speaking with the enemy rather than with your friend. The U.S. chose to engage with China at a time when there was little sign of common ground. The Cold War also remained cold because enemies kept talking. Failure to engage with Iran or Cuba has served no useful purpose – so let’s try the alternative! Yes Iran does matter but let’s start with a more appropriate grasp of the issues and options.
Blog Post #3…..Color Blind…..April 15, 2015
Color Blind The Selma-Montgomery March revisited – A Personal Journey March 7-25, 1965 was a memorable period in the history of US race relations. It began with ‘Bloody Sunday’ when a group of marchers including Martin Luther King Jr. (“MLK”) crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and were viciously attacked by Selma police authorities. The march ended March 25 when some 25,000 marchers arrived at the steps of the Alabama State house and heard MLK deliver the famous “How long- Not Long” speech. As a 22 year-old student I had the privilege of participating in the historic final stages of those events. Fifty years later – March 25, 2015 – I participated in the re-enactment of the march accompanied by my 14 year-old grandson Leo. Between those two dates in 1965 President Lyndon Johnson bowed to the pressure of the incredible events and images and announced support for the Voting Rights Act. Discrimination was at the heart of the problem and the vote is the basis of power in a democracy. 10 seconds before the start of Bloody Sunday Art on the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge – the scene of Bloody Sunday. The bridge is named for a Confederate General and former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan – a fitting location for such a confrontation. Reliving the events of 1965 was a searing reminder that in the 100 years following the end of the Civil War the life of the former slave population had hardly changed. I recall traveling through the American south in the 1950’s as a teenager. It was a world where every washroom, water-cooler, lunch counter and every other conceivable facility was color-coded. I had limited understanding of the implications since my skin allowed me a privilege that I had done nothing to deserve. In 1965 I attended College in Indiana – hardly the Deep South – but a College that attempted to be inclusive. Mixed with mid-western whites and possibly future Republicans were young women and men from Africa and the tough parts of Chicago. A delightful young woman from the south side of Chicago named Jan became a personal friend. I invited her to join me for a Valentine party and dance but she kept saying ‘No’. Finally she said – “Art – don’t you get it – the event is at a private golf club and they will deny me entry when I show up.” Remember, we were in northern Indiana rather than south of the Mason-Dixon Line. I became part of a College group that had strong views on many controversial issues of the day. I was chair of the student group opposed to the election of Barry Goldwater. We marched and protested when the first American soldiers went to VietNam. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing and became all-absorbing. We talked, held hands, sang protest songs and marched with or against anything that moved. There were consequences. The FBI was not amused and sent a report to Canada which took away my security clearance as well as my appointment to a diplomatic career with the Canadian Foreign Service. I suppose I should be grateful since it saved me from a life as a civil servant – I doubt I would have performed well limiting my views to the perspective of whatever Government was in power. (The US Government never forgets. It took the equivalent of Divine Intervention to acquire my NEXUS pass). Rosa Parks who started it all in 1955 by insisting on her seat on a Montgomery bus! A small part of one of the many marches during the height of the Civil Rights era. The number and persistence of marchers gave the leaders the power to demand change. The Civil Rights era changed America but also had a profound impact on people like myself. I made visits to Koinonia Farm, an intentional inter-racial community near Americus, Georgia founded by theologian Clarence Jordan in 1942. This community was hardly popular in the Deep South and experienced violence and boycotts. Its unique program and existence attracted many people trying to find their way through the American tragedy. One such person was Millard Fuller, the millionaire lawyer and entrepreneur from Montgomery, Alabama who opted for voluntary poverty and activism. He would become the founder and charismatic leader of Habitat for Humanity, a global leader in housing for the poor. I met Fuller when he arrived at Koinonia and we debated whether a Christian could be in business or needed to be a radical activist. He was a factor in my moving to an international career starting in Bangladesh in 1972. Fuller changed the world in his way while I entered business and have attempted to use my skills and influence to change the world from inside that perspective. The original law partner of Fuller would later initiate the legal case that destroyed the Ku Klux Klan plus lead the effort to build the moving Museum of Civil Rights in Montgomery. While there were many leaders of the movement – a few people always play an extraordinary role. Leo exploring the collection of third world shacks assembled at the Habitat for Humanity Global Village Museum in Americus. A personal note: Habitat operates ReStore outlets to recycle building materials in over 800 locations and provides an annual income in the hundreds of millions to Habitat for Humanity. The very first location for ReStore was a Palliser warehouse in Winnipeg. I cannot take any credit for thinking of the idea but am pleased that our company and some of our people could play a role in starting this remarkable venture. Nobel Committee documents made public after 50 years. To think that Martin Luther Kling was in competition with Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi – the repressive Shah of Iran for the Nobel Peace Prize! Jimmy Carter was literally a neighbor to Koinonia and later together with Rosalynn became the very effective spokesperson for Habitat for Humanity. Carter was influenced by these experiences and through his work at the Carter Center in Atlanta – which won the Nobel Peace Prize – became undoubtedly the best ex-President of the USA. Leona and I had the privilege to work with Jimmy and Rosalynn on several of the weeklong special Habitat ‘builds’. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Jimmy Carter and the Carter Center for their work in building Peace and Democracy. Two Nobel awards out of the same set of problems and small community. Another memorable contact from those years was Joan Baez. I attended the Washington concert where she was turfed out of the auditorium of the “Daughters of the American Revolution” hours before her concert and instead was allowed to sing from the Washington Memorial to a much larger crowd. At the time Baez was plying her trade in the cafés of Harvard Square where I was a student. Years later I would attend a UN Conference about Cambodia in Geneva with Baez and a couple of others (See Weekend in Geneva in my Website) where I wrote the paper and she wrote the songs and we did alter a UN resolution. The return to the events and roads of the Selma-Montgomery March should have been a celebration and in many ways it was. On the current march we visited with young professional black women who stated their careers would not have been possible without the events of that earlier period. We visited Lowndes County on the road between the two cities. In 1965 Lowndes had 5,000 eligible potential black voters but zero were registered to vote. Selma had 15,000 potential voters but after years of some of the most effective and persistent efforts to register voters – only 200 had succeeded. In 1965 the crowd of 25,000 marched to the foot of the Alabama Statehouse steps and MLK gave his powerful speech from the back of a flatbed truck because the march did not have authority to touch the statehouse property. In 2015 the same truck was in place – but symbolically drove away to reveal the assembled dignitaries including the current Governor speaking from the impressive steps. In 1965 Governor George Wallace ostensibly watched the events from an upper floor window. In 2015 the daughter of Wallace followed the speech by the daughter of MLK with what was in effect an apology – “My father was on the wrong side of History”. From tenant farmer parents in Lowndes County to College degrees in one generation. They know who to thank for the changes. There were no smiles on the walk 50 years ago. The mayor of Montgomery was all over the march and pleased to pose with Leo – who is impressed my important people. The woman in red is Congresswoman Terri Sewell, the first black woman ever elected to Congress from Alabama. She is a grad of Princeton, Oxford and Harvard Law – I suspect could beat most others in Congress on educational qualifications! She gave me a hug and said it was because of all of us who were involved 50 years ago that allowed her to be elected today. The last word was given to Morris Dees – the lawyer and former partner of Millard Fuller. Dees was vintage southern orator and reminded the crowd and assembled authorities that the battle was not over. With the current Republican Governor sitting a few steps away he pointed to the Statehouse: “These legislators have recently passed laws that will restrict voting for blacks and minorities.” Rather symbolically the US Supreme Court had that very morning declared some of those changes to the law unconstitutional! He then referred to the efforts to restrict Healthcare for poor people, Medicaid for the old and much more. Close my eyes and it was vintage 1965 – but the truth. MLK at the height of his oratorical powers. The right person for that moment in time. My 14 year-old grandson was introduced to practices and events that were new and shocking for him. He lives in Ontario and stated that in his school with a multicultural student body he had never experienced events or attitudes that reflected negatively on race – can he only remain so innocent and that be the real world. The experience caused me to reflect on my life living with a family that includes visible minority children and work in countries with diverse races, colors and problems. I recalled that phone call to Jan over 50 years ago. I remember that I could see her features, her winning smile, her intense eyes – but I could not see the color she was referring to. Obviously I see color! That was an insight that has remained with me. When we meet a person and they begin to become someone with personality, competence and most important a name – color tends to disappear. May we all become Color-Blind. P.S. I returned from the 1965 march as a much less innocent person and wrote a poem titled In His Steps. An abridged version is the oldest entry on my website and located in the category “Stories and Reflections”.Blog Art and Leo in front of Alabama a Statehouse. A privilege to share my life experience with my grandson Leo. Time will tell how this will impact him.
Blog Post #2 ……When Chaos is the New Normal……. March 31, 2015
When Chaos is the New Normal Operating a University in a World Shaped by Vladimir Putin Imagine that you are operating a business or a University in an environment where your most stable markets are Albania (the former North Korea of Europe), Moldova (probably the poorest country in Europe) and the Republic of Georgia which has been carved into three pieces courtesy of Putin policy. I just returned from our semi-annual meeting of the LCC International University (LCCIU) board in Klaipeda, Lithuania. The University is located in the historic Hanseatic League port of Memel – now Klaipeda – and its historic reason for existence remains relevant today in terms of a bridge between two worlds. After 24 years living with variations of this kind of chaos the meetings were calm without any sense of panic. Chaos can actually become the normal – we should design a University course with that title!< LCCIU was founded in that amazing interval in 1990-1991 when the Berlin Wall had just come down. Lithuania alone among the Soviet Republics had declared independence. The Soviet Union still existed but Gorbachev hesitated to shed blood to prevent its imminent collapse. Leona and I together with a few colleagues negotiated the idea of a Western-oriented English University with a self-declared Government inside a Lithuanian Parliament “protected” with sandbags to slow down Soviet tanks. Inside this ‘citadel’ were 20- something self-appointed leaders. Related articles located in the attached website artdefehr.com The story of the politics of the event and times is described in two similar documents written as opening chapters to two different books about the history of LCCIU: LCC in the Beginning – Background and Vision – 10 year retrospective Reflections from a Revolution – 20 year book about LCCIU Field notes from a Revolution – A series of Trip Reports and related articles that report on my visits to and observations about the decline and end of the Soviet Union The University was initially conceived as a challenge to the sterile moral world of Homo Sovieticus – the legacy of Lenin, Stalin and the decaying Communist structures. This was the world into which my parents were born and a world I was given some opportunity to challenge. LCCIU was designed as a challenge to the rigid Soviet style of University but more important to train a new generation of leaders who understood and appreciated an open society, were trained in a corruption-free environment, understood democratic ideas and were taught to think and act in terms of internalized ethical values. LCCIU is designed to serve and appeal to students from the more challenged remnants of the post-Soviet world. Lithuania as local market is an important source of students. As the western extremity of the Soviet Empire Lithuania was in a privileged location. With the collapse of the USSR Lithuania emerged as a backwater between two empires and the loss of its former market and patron. Lithuania was desperate to join the EU and NATO to get under a security umbrella and eventually succeeded. It is now a backwater of the EU – a country that looks like Denmark but absent the entrepreneurial energy. Young Lithuanians appreciate the access to a larger and more dynamic world. Unfortunately too many are voting with their feet to access superior employment opportunities in Europe or beyond and to benefit from the free or low-cost Universities now available to them. The result is a demographic disaster with a reduction in population of 20-25% since independence and a much greater reduction in the critical 20-35 year age group. LCCIU and other local Universities compete against each other and the world to attract the diminishing local student cohort. Since LCCIU was created with a much larger vision of its market we at least have alternatives. Historically the prime sources of (non-Lithuanian) students are the high-population and adjacent neighbors of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. If you would be Director of Marketing – consider that list for a moment. Ukraine is normally the largest source of students. Consider the impact of the civil war, economic chaos, the return of conscription, the loss of income by many families, internal refugees and most critical the 56% devaluation of the hryvnia – the local currency. Russia is the second-largest source of enrollment. The Ruble has depreciated 28% against the Euro. However, consider the emotional state of mind of parents planning to send their sons and daughters into a hostile Western environment. Lithuania is a particular challenge for Russians since Lithuanians carry long memories and grudges from the centuries of first Russian and later Soviet repression. Belarus as the last Stalinist state always deserves special consideration. Although our immediate neighbor the country is becoming more restrictive and our recruiters no longer have access to the High schools within the country. The currency has also depreciated by 20%. LCCIU currently attracts students from 27 countries which in addition to the above includes such interesting markets like Azerbaijan, Kyrgysistan, Chechnya – you get the picture. Enrollment and currency are only part of the challenge. LCCIU is blessed with a beautiful, new and purpose-built residential campus since building community among this diversity is a primary goal and strategy. The dorms are designed as apartments shared by 4 or 5 students where they sleep, study and eat. The University administration deliberately creates clusters of mixed nationality. A typical dorm cluster could include a student from Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, Albania and frequently a North American “Study Abroad” student. Consider the dynamics but also the opportunities for learning the values the University was created to promote. LCCIU is unique in other ways. The curriculum and campus atmosphere follow the philosophy of a North American Liberal Arts model but must also meet the requirements of the emerging EU consensus on post-secondary education. We were fortunate to find a window of opportunity within the post-Soviet chaos where the University could achieve a charter through an act of the Lithuanian Parliament. Given the complexity of accession to the EU, anomalies like LCCIU were simply grandfathered. Such a charter and therefore such a University could probably not be established in the EU of today! The University is unique in other ways. Given the low-income countries from which students are recruited and the complete absence of Government funding – how does LCCIU survive? Many of us were attracted by the opportunity to make a contribution and sometimes a personal statement about the world after Communism. It is quite incredible that the University has had the benefit of almost 2,000 volunteers as Professors, student life workers, campus construction, board membership, advocacy and the raising of resources. In the earlier years to volunteer meant that you would buy your own air ticket, rent an apartment and cover your own expenses. The University provided a class of eager and appreciative students. Many contributed under these conditions for years. The terms of engagement are more generous these days. An anecdote we refer to as the “flag incident” best describes why LCCIU exists and why many of us remain engaged. Several months ago during the height of the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine one of the students from Russia hung a Russian flag from the window of his dorm. Given the timing this was considered a provocative event, the Lithuanian press picked up the story and it instantly became national news. This had the potential for huge damage inside the culture of the University as well as our image in the country. The student council and student life faculty immediately grasped the potentially damaging nature of the problem. The solution they devised was immediate and ingenious. Within hours every student from our 27 countries had located a flag from their own country and hung it from their dorm windows. The resulting colorful image of a 5 story dorm decorated like the United Nations sent an incredibly positive image which became an even bigger national news story. We were incredibly proud of our students. The values and lessons for which the University had been created have been internalized by our students. They represent a new generation that can shape a narrative beyond the world created by Putin. *For other information related to LCCIU and my other writings you are invited to look at my website artdefehr.com
Blog Post #1…..Welcome to my New Blog and the first post: Art DeFehr…..March 6, 2015
Welcome to my New Blog and the first post: Art DeFehr You have received this blog message because you are on my email contact list. If for any reason you are not interested in receiving any future messages please scroll to the bottom and “unsubscribe” and that preference will be respected. The content of this initial posting will be the introduction of my website artdefehr.com. Please click on the access button at the end of this blog to get to Website. I have received encouragement from friends to make my various written articles, essays, stories and travelogues more accessible and this website is the result. The website currently includes about 100 different articles. The earliest intervention is a poem “In His Steps” written immediately after my participation in the original Selma-Montgomery civil rights march. The latest article speaks to the problem of Christians as a persecuted minority in the current Middle East. The great majority of the articles are either essays on a subject or first-person accounts regarding an international experience or assignment. Some of those first-person articles could be useful as part of the reading list for a University course about a challenging global situation or just out of personal interest. The website provides guidance as to its organization and content. I will be adding additional articles as they are edited or in some cases written. I will also add several books such as the biographies of my mother that are out of print but retain an interest for many people. If you are interested in browsing a bit through my website I will make a few initial suggestions that provide a guide to the range of writing. My Mother A recent article that attempts to understand my own background through the experiences of a mother who successfully navigated some of the more challenging events of the early 20th century. Iran in Transition A widely –circulated report based on my April 2014 visit. The essay is an effort to offer a more nuanced view of modern Iran than is available in our Western Press. Field notes from a Revolution A series of Trip Reports from my interventions in the final years of the Soviet Union. The reports were written as events unfolded and offer interesting insights into the collapse of an empire – written while these events were taking place. There are a series of stories or travelogues that offer political and social comment on important events in our collective history. A few examples below: Night Train to Riga Social commentary at the very end of the Soviet Union A Weekend in Geneva 1980 Geneva Conference on Cambodia and some thoughts on how the global system really operates. Christmas, Peace and Other Subjects December 2013 experiences in Burma, Laos and Ho-Chi-Minh that includes a combination of travel with political and social observation based on my years in the region. I hope you find some of these articles of interest and may wish to recommend the website to another person. The blog and the website will provide opportunity to sign up and we will be pleased to add such names and email addresses to the blog. The website is open and does not require a password. There will be opportunity to respond to myself through either the blog or the website but the responses will be private to myself and will not be displayed publicly. Thank you for your interest and welcome your feedback. If you do not wish to receive any future blog postings or similar messages please unsubscribe Thanks and best wishes from San Miguel de Allende in Mexico where Leona and I are spending the winter months – but connected to the world through the magic of the internet. Sincerely, Art DeFehr