WTF Friday, 2/20/2015

A few weeks ago, I wondered how 3,172 year old dictator Robert Mugabe would celebrate his birthday (actually, his 91st) this year.

The answer turns out to be: by gorging on Zimbabwe’s precious wildlife. The big day is tomorrow, and the menu reportedly includes ELEPHANT MEAT. This man is leaving no box unchecked in his quest for super-villain status.

I’m at #ISA2015, so that’s all I’ve got for today, but here is a giraffe standing perfectly still to avoid being spotted and eaten by Robert Mugabe.

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(Photo credit: me, 2010.)

WTF Friday, 2/13/2015

I don’t even know where to start with this one. Earlier this week, Uganda’s Minister for Gender, Labour and Social Development (those things go together, right?) exhorted women to quit refusing to have sex with their husbands.

After a high profile incident in which a man in Bushenyi murdered his wife, Minister Mary Karooro Okurut told an audience of local women’s groups that domestic violence is fueled by lack of sex. Endorsing the sort of progressive, sensitive opinion you’d want in a gender minister, she explained that if ladies would just put out more, they wouldn’t be at such high risk of getting beaten and murdered.

She did allow, however, that it might be okay for a woman to abstain if she’s ill. Obviously she’d need a note from a (male) doctor, though.

h/t to Ledio Cakaj

Things You Can’t Say in Burma

Burmese newspaper “Voice of Arakan” has been informed by the government that its English name must be changed to “Voice of Rakhine”.

Arakan state was renamed Rakhine by the military junta in 1989. Situated on the border with Bangladesh, it is home to the majority of Burma’s beleaguered Rohingya minority. Since 2012, attacks on the Muslim Rohingya by Buddhist Arakanese have displaced approximately 140,000 people.

“Rohingya” is of course already a banned term in Burma, whose government does not admit to their existence. Recently, extremist monk Wirathu excoriated UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee, calling her a “bitch” and a “whore” for speaking on Rohingya rights. (He’s not sorry.)

Now the name of their home has also become politicized. The editor of the newspaper (already named “Voice of Rakhine” in Burmese) says that the English name will not change. But journalists in Burma have little protection from the government, and if pressure escalates, he may have no choice.

WTF Friday, 2/6/2015

So:

WTF Friday, 1/30/2015

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe just became chairman of the African Union. That’s right, Mugabe, destroyer-of-hope, wrecker-of-the-economy, thrower-of-extravagant-birthday-parties-for-himself.

You might be thinking: “This man has completely mucked up the one thing he has ever been in charge of [and again, that thing is a country of 14 million people], why would anyone elect him chairman of anything?”

I don’t have an answer for you. But what I do know is that the 1115 year old Mugabe (or 90, whatever) looked “youthful and strong” speaking to press yesterday. Can’t wait to see what he does for his birthday next month.

“Author Perumal Murugan is dead.”

The conflict between respect for faith and freedom of expression has been a hot topic in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks. But somehow the story of Tamil writer Perumal Murugan hasn’t made much of an impression outside of India.

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Earlier this month, Murugan announced on his Facebook page that he was killing off his identity as a writer and asked publishers to stop selling copies of his work. He had been hounded by hardline Hindu groups over his 2010 novel, Mathorubhagan. The book (translated into English as One Part Woman in 2013) tells the story of an early 20th century couple from the Gounder caste community in the town of Thiruchengode. Childless and desperate to conceive, they turn to a temple festival at which extra-marital sex is permitted in the hope that the wife will become pregnant with a “god’s child”.

Although its initial release was met with critical acclaim, there were objections that the book insulted Hinduism in its portrayal of the licentious temple festival (which oral histories suggest was an actual custom). Then the local Gounder community in Thiruchengode got on board, complaining that Murugan made them look bad. In late 2014, their protests escalated into book burnings, calls for Murugan’s arrest, and a bandh (a strike… ish) in the area.

I asked political scientist and friend-of-the-blog Pavi Suryanarayan to link this episode into the broader politics of speech policing in India.

She explained that India’s constitutional guarantee of free speech has been repeatedly amended to incorporate so-called “reasonable restrictions” to protect religious feelings. But, although there have been high profile cases of the state banning books under this logic (Rushdie’s Satanic Verses for one), recently it’s been happening without the state’s involvement. In the case of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, for instance, “the publishing house voluntarily took the book off the shelves to avoid being taken to court by Hindu groups”.

Similarly, the silencing of Murugan was driven by non-state actors; even though he offered to change the book’s setting to a fictional town, the protesters refused to stand down. Pavi warned that this may be a sign of a things to come in Modi’s India:

“The strategy of book burning and protests has taken on more credibility amongst Hindu right-wing groups after the success of the Doniger case. With a BJP government in power, with [Hindu nationalist NGO] RSS shakhas (units) growing at faster rates than ever before, and with right-wing parties keen to make forays into new electoral territories such as Tamil Nadu, book banning seem like a tactic that will have good payoffs in rallying potential Hindu voters.”

Speech policing is always a divisive political issue. And as long as we’re all thinking about it this month anyway, we should probably pay more attention to how it’s handled in the world’s largest and most diverse democracy.

Come Hear Me Talk About Sri Lanka

PSA: I’ll be participating in a screening and discussion of “No Fire Zone“, a documentary about the Sri Lankan Civil War, along with the director, Callum Macrae. It’s next Monday (2/2), 12:30-2pm in room 1512 at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. I have it on good authority there will be snacks.

Check out the trailer below, and if you want to come, more details and RSVP info are up on the Pulitzer Center’s website.

WTF Friday, 1/23/2015

Here is a list of things I am genuinely confused about today:

  1. The International Commission of Inquiry for CAR has apparently recommended the establishment of a tribunal to try international crimes committed during the recent conflict there. Is this not exactly why we did this whole ICC thing?

  2. America is super-sad that an extremely old, repressive Saudi Arabian dude had died. Don’t worry though, he’s been replaced by another extremely old Saudi Arabian dude, who will almost certainly be just as good at repressing people.

  3. Nepalese opposition legislators staged a protest in Parliament yesterday (and, apparently, threw their shoes) preventing a long-delayed vote on a new Constitution. I’m not so much puzzled by this one as Nepal has essentially been in “political limbo” since 2008. But I would like someone to tell me what to read to understand the situation there. Anyone?

WTF Friday, 1/16/2015: Sri Lankan Election Edition

Last week, President Mahinda Rajapaksa was unexpectedly unseated in an election in which nearly 82% of eligible Sri Lankans turned out to vote. I was there, and wrote about how exciting it was for the The Washington Post’s political science blog, Monkey Cage.

I left a few highlights out, though, so to supplement that post, I give you my top 5 WTF moments of the Sri Lankan presidential election:

1. In the last week of the campaign, Rajapaksa made a visit to Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka, where he asked Tamils to vote for the “known devil” (himself, the commander-in-chief who presided over mass bloodshed in the region at the end of the civil war) over the “unknown angel” (Sirisena). Shades of Charles Taylor’s “he killed my ma, he killed my pa, I’ll vote for him“, anyone?

2. Campaigning ended on Monday, January 5 at 11:59pm and all campaign posters were supposed to come down at that time. They didn’t. A day or two later, someone got around to blacking out Rajapaksa’s face on billboards around town. This is what it looked like:

campaign poster

3. In the final hours of the campaign, state-aligned media paired coverage of the terror attacks in Paris with graphic footage of LTTE bombings, reminding voters that Rajapaksa had been responsible for the defeat of the insurgency.

4. On election day, Rajapaksa went to cast his vote accompanied by a doppelganger of his rival Maithripala Sirisena (now the president). The look-alike was one of several “joke candidates” fielded by both sides in an attempt to confuse voters. You can see him here.

5. In the days following Rajapaksa’s ouster, a number of things have emerged, not just coup attempt rumors and allegations of corruption, but secret helicopters (actually a persistent campaign issue symbolizing Rajapaksa extravagance) and illicit elephants.