Category Archives: Politics

With Historic Elections Approaching, the People of Yangon Ponder Their Fate

Script from the hour-long PRI radio program on Burma, published April 23 2015

Yangon Mosque Pagoda 2

In the heart of downtown Yangon — formerly known as Rangoon — the 2,500 year-old Sule Pagoda buzzes with the chants of monks and worshippers. Over the years, this iconic Buddhist structure has been a major attraction for both the pious and the political in Myanmar, serving as a rallying point for what was then called Burma’s 1988 student uprisings and again for the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

This country’s incredible diversity of cultures, backgrounds, religions and ethnicities are crushed together in the rapidly developing city. Yet many of its residents share the experience of decades of oppressive isolationism and military rule.

Meandering through gridlocked traffic below the Sule Pagoda, Muslims filter past their Buddhist countrymen and cross the street to the Bengali Sunni Jameh Mosque, just in time for sunset prayer. Down a small alley by the mosque is Mg Mg Nyunt’s electronics store. In a small, air-conditioned office at the back of his shop, he considers how the political landscape is changing.

“I haven’t seen any real democracy in my lifetime. But everybody wants to see something new, and they are eager to have democracy. We even have a common saying now whenever we go to a funeral, we feel sad for the person because they never had a chance to see democracy,” he says.

Nyunt has followed international affairs since childhood, and he’s now keen to analyze politics a little closer to home. And yet, even with his excitement, he’s quick to temper his positivity.

“I’m really not too optimistic, even though Aung San Suu Kyi’s party will win the election. I think these transitional problems will continue for decades,” he says.

A few blocks to the east of Sule Pagoda, Than Than Naing busies herself at her food stall, quickly loading plates with hot food and shouting orders to her family. For her, the politics of elections come second to surviving and the practical realities of making a living.

“The reason I’m not interested in the elections is we are running a business, so we can’t keep politics in mind too much. I have to care about myself, I have to struggle myself, whichever government comes in. I hope that something will change. It would be much better if the country had justice and rules of law. Everybody is struggling and I want everybody to be alright,” she says.

Just around the corner from her food stand sits a small newspaper shop. Inside, a worried Kyaw Wanna Soe seems overwhelmed with the myriad issues affecting the people of Myanmar.

“There are a lot of problems right now. The problems between the students and the government and the different types of people. There are problems here and there and it never gets solved. If one problem is solved, another pops up,” he says.

With his floors a mosaic of newspapers and his walls plastered with posters of Aung San Suu Kyi, Soe feels torn between a desire for a stability that won’t threaten his livelihood, and a desire for a National League for Democracy (NLD) victory and positive change.

“I’m worried about whether the demonstrators will cooperate, or if the elections will be canceled, because I witnessed the Saffron Revolution and when that happened I had to stop my business for some time. If something like the 1988 demonstration happens again, I truly worry what the future of my business will be,” he says.

Another part of his anxiety lies in the constitutional ruling that bars Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president. For him, this is a sure sign that true change is not coming anytime soon.

“Everybody wants change, everybody hopes there will be change. But I have to say that the change that everyone hopes for is not really happening so far,” he says.

For many, Aung San Suu Kyi is the personification of change. And yet for others, her worrying silence on more recent human rights matters, such as the plight of the Rohingyas, Myanmar’s persecuted Muslim population, is concerning.

David Mathieson can see why people would feel this way. He’s an Australian in his 50s who’s been travelling to the country for 20 years and now works as the main researcher for Human Rights Watch. He says many people in the West — and in Myanmar — are oversimplifying the situation she’s in.

“I think the new disappointment with Suu Kyi is a convenient diversion for their own delusions for how complicated the country is,” he says.

Myo Yan Naung Thein, a former political prisoner and research assistant for Suu Kyi’s NLD party, agrees that things are more complicated than they appear to be.

“People still recognize her as an ideal, [the] human rights leader of the world, and at the same time they want to see her to be a successful politician. She is trying very hard,” he says.

While the international community and many within Burma place the spotlight solely on Aung San Suu Kyi, for the ordinary people of Myanmar the priorities are simple: A chance to enforce positive changes for others like them. Reforms have been a start, but with the elections just around the corner, too many feel there is too much at stake where too little is guaranteed.

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The Chinatowns of East Burma

First Published in Roads and Kingdoms, 20th April 2015

Pano4

From the top of a hill on the Burmese borderlands, a 30-foot tall golden Buddha stands in the cool breeze and solemnly watches over Mong La, a gambling mecca that has come to symbolize much of this border regions’ most peculiar aspects. Less than a mile from the statue’s back is China, whose influence over the town looms much larger than the Buddha’s.

Shadowing China’s southern Yunnan province within Burma’s Shan state, a number of ethnic armed groups have governed a landmass the size of Switzerland for more than two decades. Through a shared history of conflict and détente, these groups have helped form an eccentric region that is today more Yunnan than Yangon.

Three main groups can claim de facto control of this peculiar region: the powerful Wa and their United Wa State Army (UWSA); Kokang and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), itself split in allegiances; and Mong La, under their National Democratic Alliance Army-Eastern Shan State (NDAA-ESS).

Together, they once formed the core of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), a one-time major actor in an ongoing ethnic conflict—one of the longest ongoing civil wars in the world. With backing from China just across the porous border, the CPB were able to maintain effective resistance to central Burma for a number of decades before finally succumbing to pressures in 1989.

The reformist Deng Xiaoping, China’s then Premier, was never too happy with the CPB’s hard-line Maoist stance; Deng himself was twice purged during China’s Cultural Revolution. Moreover, Deng’s economic-reform mentality meant improved relations with Burma’s military government was almost inevitable. This reality left the CPB, already struggling with internecine ethnic tensions, feeling somewhat isolated and vulnerable. The Kokang were the first to split, signing a ceasefire with Burma in 1989. The Wa and Mong La quickly followed suit.

Yet the initial ceasefire agreements did not lead to a peace treaty or any integration of the region. Far from it, the groups demanded, and received, conditions that granted a great deal of autonomy, including the retention of their military capacity. It’s estimated that today the UWSA alone has command of over 30,000 men.

This limbo between war and peace continued for the next two decades, and, in its own way, the region thrived: The respective rulers remained close to one another and governed their fiefdoms unmolested. So while their counterparts in the Burmese Military ran a repressive crony operation with underhand business dealings, the heads of the border regions followed their own injurious path and raised revenue through drugs and shady business deals with their partners in Yunnan.

Over the past year Mong La has found itself the subject of renewed interest, its notoriety growing with each new sensational “exposé.” Recent coverage from the BBCTIME and the New York Times paint a shallow but vivid picture of a “City of Sin,” a “Burmese Las Vegas,” a debauched “Wild East” outside the control of Burma’s central government. The region, and this town in particular, was seemingly filled with drugs, gambling, and prostitution. I had to see it for myself.

After taking off from Yangon, I survey the changing terrain below from the window of a slim and rather splendid ATR72 propeller plane. We fly north, roughly following the flat basin of the Irrawaddy River before veering east after Mandalay, the landscape slowly transforming into a canvas of green, undulating hills. Along a small plateau, I spot my last stop, Kyaing Teung, situated in the heart of the infamous Golden Triangle, and just 52 miles southwest of Mong La.

Kyaing Teung is a rather beautiful town where gentle hills are dotted with golden pagodas and several bodies of water, including the picturesque Naung Tong Lake. It’s a fairly popular tourist destination and is also, incidentally, home to liaison offices for both Mong La and the Wa.

While relations remain cordial, a special permit is still needed to pass the numerous military checkpoints between the Kyaing Teung and Mong La. Thankfully, decades of uninterrupted peace between the NDAA-ESS and Burma proper have made acquiring that permit simple. No bribes are paid and no suspicious officials provoke or prevaricate.

Soon after I find myself in a breathtaking drive through the Shan hills—breathtaking in part because of the untouched green vistas, and in part because of the blind hairpin corners that we round with gusto. The severity of the land makes it clear why Shan was never truly under the control of the British colonizers when they claimed dominion over Burma.

The region has long been ruled through a number of separate principalities, each under their respective Sawbwas, or Lords of the Sky. These old rulers were once the only way the British, and the Burmese after them, contrived to enforce any influence over the domineering lands of Shan. A single group hoping to control the entire region would struggle with the harsh terrain, and today, in their own way, the ethnic armed groups continue to exploit the geography.

The location of these groups—immediately along the border with China—has provided them with a degree of covert, and not so covert, trade and support that has proven invaluable to their development and survival. Paul Keenan, a senior researcher on the region for the Burma Centre for Ethnic Studies, told me that he couldn’t imagine with whom else these groups were doing business, other than with the Chinese in Yunnan.

Yet recent history has seen big changes that hint to a potential geopolitical shift. Burma’s military government, for several decades ruled under a self-imposed isolationist policy drearily titled “The Burmese Way to Socialism,” has opened up in the last five years and made rapid steps towards reform and liberalisation. As a result, Western sanctions have been dropped and Burma now promises a future of increased capability.

Meanwhile, Beijing has invested billions of dollars in energy, extractive and development projects throughout Burma, including $2.54 billion oil and natural gas pipelines that run from the Bay of Bengal through to Yunnan, its conduits flirting with the boundaries of Kokang, where recent fighting has raised apprehensive eyebrows on both sides of the border.

Back in the taxi, I check my watch, trying to estimate how close we are to entering Mong La, the de facto capital of the zone known as Special Region 4. The driver rounds yet another speculative corner with unabashed confidence and I suddenly find myself upon a sharp valley.

The dark green hills on either side loom ominously over the road. As we draw closer I begin to notice four or five camouflaged pillboxes embedded in the hills and pointlessly try to peer into the black slits. I have no idea if they are occupied or empty. A handsome guard with a rifle waves us to stop and takes my permit while I cautiously survey the rest of the checkpoint from my passenger seat. Planted all over are flags with the insignia of the NDAA-ESS.

“Welcome to Special Region 4,” reads a large, peeling sign.

Strangely enough, within Special Region 4 even the land itself seems to change. The terrain no longer feels as unsullied—even the gentler hills give the impression they have been tended to by a prodigious landscaper. For the first time in the trip we run into real traffic. Huge lorries grunt their way up inclines, some filled with basic aggregate; others carrying dozens of metal barrels, black oil leaking from the rust. The Chinese company names “LiuGong” and “Sinomach” are proudly emblazoned on most of the machinery.

Our road detours onto a rough, loose gravel path while what looks like a four-lane highway nears completion. The air is filled with yellow dust and the hills exposed of their red-brown rocks. Alongside the road, indigenous trees are mostly felled, replaced instead with banana and watermelon plantations. Construction is underway everywhere.

We round another corner and a large, gleaming-white casino garishly called Galaxyse appears. Just beyond it, a pristine golf course stretches away from sight. Where once there were huts and agriculture, now there is high speed Internet, pristine fairways, and all-you-can-eat buffets.

Looking around, it’s hard to believe that 20 minutes earlier I was high in the untouched greenery of the Shan mountains. It’s hard to believe I’m still in Burma at all.

 Pagoda2

In the near distance I begin to see an outline of the town itself, or rather, I can make out the tall hotels that could only mean Mong La. My taxi driver pulls up outside the central market and I slowly trudge my way to a nearby hotel where a Chinese-American friend, who had arrived from China two days before, was waiting.

The city itself is surprisingly simple, almost quaint if not for the hotels and heavy construction. Acting as locus is the marketplace, a square some 400 meters in length, split into quadrants and with a tiny roundabout at the middle. Nearby, the muddy Namp Ma creek oozes through the town and above, some distinctly Burmese Pagodas dot the hills, arguably the only real reminder that you are not on the Chinese side of the border.

It’s true that many shops still carry the Burmese script, but it’s difficult to see them as much other than a forgotten footnote; the Burmese on many signs often left to fade away with time.

In my early vigor I begin making note of every distinctly Chinese thing I see. The architecture, the signs, the language, the cell phone networks, the shops, the money, the power grid, the food—it all screams China. The town, as my friend puts it, “looks almost like any other fourth-tier industrial Chinese town.”

After our quick tour, my friend and I sit down in a central market drinking station and call over the owner-cum-waiter. A moustachioed man from Nanjing strolls over and brings us two of the house beers: Tsingtao.

I sit back and casually watch the other punters at our host’s bar. It’s suddenly clear that the very tables at which we are sitting also double up as automated electronic mahjong tables. Gambling is technically illegal in both Burma and China, so I guessed everyone was seemingly making the most of any opportunity. I soon afterwards realized that such opportunities are practically everywhere.

Early the next morning, my friend and I decide to venture to the corner of the market where the endangered animal goods are sold. When we arrive just a few sleepy men and women display their illicit goods among fishmongers and vendors of watermelons. The most objectionable artifacts on offer—pangolin hides, tiger penis, bear paws—were surprisingly few in number and of questionable authenticity.

 Animals8

A little underwhelmed, that evening we passed the town’s red light district where healthy looking women handed out business cards and spoke cordially with enquiring Chinese men. Many simply hung out in their open brothels, talking and laughing amongst themselves.

It occurred to me that once this border region’s obscure context is considered, Mong La’s mystical aura quickly disappears and the city’s peculiarities become more typical of the region at large. In Wa, the UWSA have built Chinese-backed casinos too. The signs in Wa and Kokang are in Chinese, and the most common language used is Chinese. Most towns here, like Mong La, are hooked to China’s electricity grid and prefer the use of the renminbi. Yet the commonalities run deeper than just appearances or exploits in the illicit.

After decades of cross-border contact, intermarriages have further clouded already blurry ethnic lines and regional relationships. Many people carry two spellings of their name: one Chinese and one Burmese. The leader of Mong La is a case in point and starting with him, we quickly discern one example of relations that run across the entire borderlands.

Sai Leun (or Lin Minxian) is Shan-Chinese, a known drug lord and the son-in-law of Peng Jiasheng, the long-time ruler of the Kokang region.

Peng Jiasheng, an ethnic Han Chinese octogenarian druglord, commanded the CPB’s Kokang forces in the 1980s, and later spent time in Panghsang, the one-time capital of the CPB, now the de facto capital of Wa State.

The Wa, for their part, are the strongest ethnic armed group in the country. Their 30,000 fighters pose a serious deterrent to any consideration of intervention by the Burmese government. Yet more than their numbers, the UWSA have a capable military arsenal that is almost entirely obtained from China.

A Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) member put these dynamics in layman’s terms when we met before my trip: “The Kokang and Mong La won’t do anything without consulting the Wa, and the Wa won’t do anything without speaking to China.”

Yet with Beijing entering into ever more lucrative deals with Burma proper, the ethnic armed leaders and their business partners in Yunnan – those most invested in consolidating the status quo – recognise a changing landscape. Too much ostentatious chaos could now risk an intervention from Beijing or Naypyidaw; an intervention that would imperil the fiefdoms they have come to dominate and profit from.

These dynamics came to light when Peng Jiasheng was ousted from Kokang in 2009 after the Burmese exploited a split in his MNDAA. Almost none of the other groups stepped in to help. It seemed that at least one group in the region had fallen under the control of the Burmese government. But earlier this year Peng Jiasheng came back with a vengeance. On February 9, just three days before the country commemorated Union Day, he launched a bloody counter-offensive to regain control and the fighting remains unresolved—a nearly impossible feat without some kind of support, or so the Burmese government says.

The accusations have been flying thick and fast: Who is helping Peng Jiasheng to reclaim Kokang? China, the Wa, and Mong La have all had to deny supporting the ageing warlord.

So while the fighting in Kokang continues, and the accusations towards China, the Wa, and Mong La persist, construction grows in the de facto capital of Special Region 4. Chinese tourists are the bread and butter of Mong La, and hotels with names promoting the tripled symbol, jin, or gold, continue to promise riches to their guests. Gambling is the main attraction now.

Back in Mong La’s marketplace from my seat at the aptly named Kokang restaurant, I watch while the other men and women ready themselves for yet more gambling. Everyone carries a bulging man bag of cash, slung over a shoulder or tied to the waist. Cars bearing the license plates “SR4…” registered in Mong La, “SHN…” registered in Shan, and several Chinese license plates, registered in Yunnan, once again head out into the night for the chance to make a fortune, or lose it all.

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An hour long radio documentary from Public Radio International’s America Abroad Media on Burma in the buildup to the elections later this year.  First broadcast on Tuesday 7th April with my contribution starting at 27 mins.

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April 9, 2015 · 11:15

In Jordan, Thousands of Syrian Refugees are Under Serious Threat From a New Law

First published in Newsweek in print edition 17/10/2014 and online on 8th October 2014.

women and men make the long walk back to their shelters as  the return from the only market in the camp.

Women and men make the long walk back to their shelters as the return from the only market in the camp

Just 10km northeast of Jordan’s Mafraq city, some 20 tents are pitched next to a plot of agricultural land, the conspicuous greenery breaking up the otherwise flat, sun-bleached desert. In a faded blue font on the side of some of the tents are the words “UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency”.

This small plot of land in the desert is the latest settling ground for Ahmad Al-Obeyd and over 100 members of his extended family, all refugees from the same rural Damascus suburb. For almost a year, Ahmad has been moving his caravan of tents around Jordan, following agricultural harvests in the hope of finding work. For the past five months, they have been based near Mafraq, on a dusty plot just two kilometres from the very country they once fled.

Al-Obeyd and his family all arrived in Jordan between December 2013 and March 2014.  Carrying whatever they could, some of his family paid smugglers while others hitchhiked through dangerous territory, before finally walking the last few kilometres across the border. His family were registered in Za’atari camp. “It was very, very tough,” said Al-Obeyd, “I don’t like to think about that journey, but thank God we made it.”

Now, thanks to a recent change in Jordanian Government policy, Al-Obeyd and tens of thousands like him live under threat of eviction, incarceration, and even deportation back to Syria.

Since the start of the Syrian conflict in the early spring of 2011, over 608,000 Syrians have crossed the border, seeking asylum and refuge in Jordan.  A recent economic study by the World Food Programme stated that the sheer number of Syrians coming in had “triggered major demographic shifts; tested infrastructure and pressured social services”.  Today, Syrian refugees make up one tenth of the Jordanian population.

As a result, public opinion has slowly turned on the refugees, and in a speech to parliament on the November 3rd 2013, King Abdullah II stated that unless the international community quickly came to Jordan’s aid, he would “take measures to protect the interests of our people and country.”

The resident of Mafraq, for example, are keen to keep Syrians away from their communities – a September 2012 poll by the Jordanian Centre for Strategic Studies found that 80% of townspeople supported the idea of segregation of refugees inside refugee camps.

Then, in July of this year, the government and its new Syrian Refugees Directorate, SRAD, implemented a new policy. According to the new rules unregistered refugees, and those who choose to leave the confines of the camps without official authorisation, find themselves cut off from any humanitarian assistance, access to public services, and at risk of incarceration, eviction and even deportation back to Syria. The choice presented to theserefugees is simple: stay in the camps, or give up your access to aid.

The reality is more complicated: nearly 100,000 refugees currently live in one of Jordan’s two refugee camps, created in response to the Syrian conflict – around 85,000 in Za’atari camp and an estimated 12,000 in the new Azraq camp, opened on April 30th this year. The rest – the vast majority – live outside the camps; having registered with the UNHCR in urban areas, not registered at all, or having simply left without authorisation.

“If you are not going through the bail out procedure, UNHCR is no longer in a position to renew your documents and to officially recognise your stay outside the camps,” says Bernadette Castel-Hollingsworth, UNHCR’s Head of Azraq Camp’s Field Office. As partners of SRAD, few aid agency workers are willing to openly decry the new policy for risk of a government backlash that could in turn seriously hinder their efforts with refugees. Nevertheless, many quietly worry that the policy signifies a new hardline shift from the government, presaging a more coercive, restrictive future for refugees without the right papers.

In order for someone to obtain a bailout from Za’atari or Azraq today, Syrians need a Jordanian relative – “not necessarily a blood relation, but there has to be a justified relation” Castel-Hollingsworth adds – who can vouch for you and is willing to act as your guarantor while you try and start a new life outside the camp. She acknowledges that obtaining a bailout permit is incredibly difficult: “It is very restrictive in terms of the criteria you need to meet, in order to be able to apply, and then to actually get the permit,” she says, from her office in Azraq camp.

At the other end of Azraq, sitting in the shade of his corrugated metal shelter, Sabra, a 41-year-old Syrian refugee from Aleppo, describes his first stay at the camp: “I arrived in Jordan and came to this camp on May 2nd,” he said. “I escaped the camp on the 28th May.”

It took just two and a half months before police in Amman stopped and questioned him, and, with only Azraq registration papers, he was quickly returned to the camp. Sabra’s story resonates with many like him: “I tried [to leave legally], but I couldn’t,” he says. “I tried to get the bailout [through SRAD], but I don’t have any relatives in Jordan or anybody who could be my [guarantor].”

Azraq camp’s creation was a direct result of the huge number of refugees overwhelming Za’atari camp in 2012. With a maximum capacity of 60,000 Za’atari quickly swelled to 120,000 just over a year after opening. Refugees soon streamed out of the camps and entered Jordanian residential areas. Al-Obeyd and his entire family were among them. As was common at the time, they snuck out in the night. “We left slowly, my son-in-law leaving first, then afterwards, in small groups, the rest of us snuck out,” Al-Obeyd says.

“At that time in Za’atari, there were 2,000 refugees arriving per day,” says Castel-Hollingsworth. “The government and UNHCR realised…Za’atari could not cope.”  In February, the government decided there needed to be another camp. Today, Azraq accepts 96-97% of all new arrivals into the country.

Azraq is unlike almost every other refugee camp in the world. Out of the gently undulating desert in central Jordan, Azraq’s rugged shelters sit in perfect rows. Today, close to 10,000 shelters have been built, each with a 5-person capacity. At 14.7 square km, the camp itself has the feel of peculiarly sparse, under-construction town. Everywhere is orange desert, grey roads and yellowing shelters.

“People say [it’s like planning a city], but yes it is urban planning. Yesterday I was approving the layout for a cemetery,” Castel-Hollingsworth says. Lessons have certainly been learned from the chaos of Za’atari, and Castel-Hollingsworth is proud of the fact there have been “no security incidents in the camp,” a serious issue that continues to plague Za’atari.

Yet there is much to be done. The camp itself has only one supermarket; no electricity save small, solar powered devices; no running field hospital; no floors in the shelters, and unlike Za’atari, practically no business opportunities for the refugees.

Castel-Hollingsworth considers these issues very urgent. “People say that if they get electricity, the hospital and the markets, people will come back from the urban areas to live here,” she says.  Yet, in the mean time, the refugees continue to leave – bailed out or not.

Sabra says that leaving Azraq was a way of restoring his “dignity”. “There is only so long you can live off [hand outs]. I feel I am living half a life here.” It is a sentiment echoed by Al-Obyed: “In order to live in dignity, you have to work,” he says. “That’s why we prefer to live [outside], even with all the risks involved.”

An estimated 13,000 refugees, or around 50% of those registered at Azraq, have already left illegally. Almost all of them will fall foul of the new bailout policy. Al-Obeyd knows his family are at risk by continuing to illegally reside in what are termed “informal tented settlements” (ITS). “When the policy first started, we began hearing of mass evictions of people just like us,” says Al-Obeyd. “We were seriously considering moving back to the refugee camps before they had a chance to move us forcefully.”

To date, ITS evictions have been fairly piecemeal, but one aid agency worker in Jordan warns that, “It seems to be accepted by aid workers that [more wide-scale evictions] will inevitably happen.” Al-Obeyd calls the new policy “devastating”. Nodding in the direction of his family, he notes, “It is the poorest, the most desperate, who are most affected.” He explains that for the Syrian refugees, everyone has lost something, and some have lost everything. “If they evict us, destroy our things and send us back [to the camps] I would ask them to instead return us to Syria.” He pauses to consider what he has just said, before nodding, “Yes. That would be kinder.”

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City Of Life

First Published in Philanthropy Age Magazine in October 2014.  Tearsheets below.

On the outskirts of central Cairo, in the shadow of the Mokattam hills, some 70,000 Zabaleen (literally ‘garbage collectors’ in Arabic) collect, sort and recycle nearly two-thirds of Greater Cairo’s daily municipal waste output – all 10,000 tons of it.

Originally from Upper Egypt, this majority Coptic Christian community has gone on to thrive in the one sector that has hitherto only been addressed begrudgingly: waste management.

In the Manshiyet Nasser neighbourhood of Mokattam, the largest congregation of Zabaleen live and work in and amongst the rubbish they collect. Specially built apartments tower over a maze of narrow streets where the ground overflows with the municipal waste of almost 12 million Cairenes. When the wind picks up, the air becomes saturated with a grimy dust while clouds of flies attack any decaying organic matter.

On first inspection, the area seems to be a pungent, anarchic mess of people, buildings, narrow alleys, cars and rubbish. Yet within the apparent chaos, the zabaleen families are able to achieve a diversion rate that would arouse the envy of waste management corporations worldwide.

“The Zabaleen are now recycling about 85% of the garbage they receive.” Explains Ezzat Naem, the head of the Garbage Collectors Syndicate. By comparison, the EU is aiming for a recycling rate of just 50% of household waste by the year 2020.

Originally subsistence farmers from Upper Egypt, the Zabaleen arrived in Cairo in the 1940s and began working in coordination with the existing garbage collectors, who hailed from the western Oasis governorates.

“When my people first came here, it was the Wahaya (Oasis people) who were collecting the rubbish.” Explains Naem, “they would simply take it to the outskirts of the city and leave it to dry in the sun before maybe selling it back to people as a fuel for fire.”

With the sudden influx of Upper Egyptians, the Wahaya quickly began contracting the new migrants to specific areas of Cairo. It was a business partnership that persists to this day. “Families have been working the same areas for over 60 years.” States Naem. “For example, my grandfather started by collecting garbage in El Koba Gardens, my father continued collecting the garbage from El Koba and my brothers today still collect the garbage from El Koba!”

Yet while the routes may have remained consistent, the incredible proficiency of todays Zabaleen is the result of a long evolution in their operations of collection, sorting and recycling.

The early Zabaleen would simply use the organic waste as a source of food for their livestock and just ignore most of the inorganic materials, instead preferring to dump them in landfills. Local small and medium enterprises (SMEs) spotted an opportunity and in the 1960s they began visiting the Zabaleen to buy leftover inorganic materials like paper and metal, which they would then process and resell.

It wasn’t until 1984 that the Zabaleen themselves started recycling proper. Microloans provided in coordination with a World Bank program allowed the Zabaleen to begin their own recycling, thus forgoing the third party SMEs. With advice and help from local NGOs, the Zabaleen entered a new period of efficient recycling that continues to outstrip most European and US cities today.

In Manshiyet Nasser, the Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE) NGO was established in 1984 with precisely this goal. The NGO was determined to help the Zabaleen make the most out of their situation in both an environmentally safe, and economically sound manner.

For over 30 years, APE – with funding from local and international donations – has been offering the residents of Manshiyet Nasser help and guidance through an ever-expanding range of programs and workshops.

“The main objective when we started was to simply help them in the recycling of rubbish,” Says Hany Al Arian, the current director of APE. “Right now we have diversified to: the production of recycled products; programs for women; pre school for the kids; and of course, health coverage for the people.”

In spite of the Zabaleen’s obvious proficiency in recycling, the working conditions remain a major health concern. The Zabaleen and their families spend their days surrounded by potentially infectious, disease-ridden garbage. “We are especially concerned for the women. They are the ones sorting through and categorising the inorganic waste their husbands bring them.” Explains Al Arian. “We have been doing a number of awareness, treatment and prevention programs on good health practices for the Zabaleen.”

Since 2007, Al Arian estimates that APE has spent some EGP 17 million (USD 2.4 million) on treatments alone. “Hepatitis C, Diabetes, Anaemia with the blood, Glaucoma. These are all major problems here.”

On the ground floor of one of APE’s buildings lies their small treatment room. A small congregation of women wait patiently outside to see the doctors, happy just to have a healthcare option so close to their homes.

Outside the main block, a small school is hidden among some recently planted trees. Packed with young children, the small classrooms overlook an eco garden built by APE in 2002, replacing what had once been a large composting plant.

“It was important that we gave these children something to do, some preparation for school and to keep them away from the streets.” Says Al Arian explaining that they accommodate children anywhere from birth up to the end of primary school. “Right now, we have approximately 650 children altogether coming to our schools.”

A common set up found with APE is to have the women working in APE’s recycling facilities, while their children cared for in the school not 200 meters away. “One of the most important things we at APE can do is to empower the women here.” States Al Arian. “But empowering the women is not enough; you have to educate the men. So we are also trying to do some workshops to broaden their minds.”

One woman who found exactly such an opportunity with APE is 38 year-old Aida Ghaly. “After I was married, I became very lonely so I came to APE looking for something to do. I quickly learnt embroidery and now teach it to other girls.”

“My husband was happy because I was nearby, had work that would help our income, and APE were able to help me when I had my children, [post natal] and in providing early education for them too.”

With her embroidery, Ghaly joins around 200 women who help to create recycled products from paper and textiles. Close to the rooms where the women work, a huge array of their products is on offer for sale, from bags and birthday cards, to pillow covers and coin purses. “We have maybe 200 different design styles, but we modify and add new ones everyday.” Explains one of the workers proudly.

“The income made by selling our recycled products should make the program self-sustaining, but since the revolution we have had trouble on that front.” States Al Arian. “Because the local economy is in such trouble, people are less willing to spend and we are having to look more to overseas markets.”

In spite of the successes of the Zabaleen with the help of NGOs like APE, in the early 2000s their community was dealt a massive blow when the Egyptian government decided to instead contract four multinational waste management corporations.

A 15-year contract was signed that stipulated the multinationals needed to maintain a recycling rate of just 20%, while the Zabaleen were told to stop collecting altogether. The income loss of the Zabaleen coupled with the needless waste ending up in landfills meant that only a few years into the contract, the experiment was already considered a desperate failure.

“These multinational companies came with a European attitude, they weren’t aware of what the zabaleen provided.” Explains Naem. “So they placed large [skips] in the streets, instead of going door to door. They asked the residents to bring the garbage down to the street. Of course the Egyptians refused.”

“We are the only people in the whole world who will go into apartments and collect your garbage from your front door.” Says Naem proudly. “Now they are subcontracting the Zabaleen through the Wahaya, adding another layer where income is lost for the average Zaabal.”

However, with the Multinationals’ contracts due to end in 2017 and with APE continuing in their work with the Zabaleen community, Naem is optimistic for the future. “Now the Government is beginning to acknowledge us and we are cared for a bit more. I feel the future could be very bright for my people.”

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‘Trade In Spade’ – Gaza’s Destroyed Tunnels

First published in print with Makeshift Magazine July 2014

Tearsheets below:

Abu Mohamed hovers near the entrance of a gaping cavern and fumbles with a small set of speakers. He carefully traces his fingers along a black wire until they reach a tiny, metal nub soldered onto the end. Putting the ad-hoc microphone to his lips, he shouts, “Ready? Okay. Pull, Wajdi!”

At the end of the tunnel, nearly a kilometer away, Abu Mohamed’s command booms through another set of speakers in a haze of distorted feedback. Wajdi, hunkered underground in near-total darkness, reaches over a mound of freshly dug soil and flicks a rusty switch from “0” to “1”. A nearby crank whirrs at full speed and a sprawl of cable slowly spins towards him.

Back at the surface, Abu Mohamed watches as an empty rubber sled, hooked to one end of the cable, slowly slithers down a steady gradient and into the tunnel to Wajdi, who fills it with soil and sends it back. Turning to me, Abu Mohamed smiles, throws his arms open and almost bows. “This is how you build a tunnel, my friend.

For the beleaguered residents of the Gaza Strip, underground smuggling tunnels to Egypt are a lifeline. When the Islamist group Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007, Israel responded with a trade blockade, and the subterranean black market became the main thoroughfare for everyday necessities. “We’re talking everything here: household furniture, flour, sugar, cement, tobacco, electronics, gas. It was a huge business,” says Omar Shaban, an economist and director of the local think tank PalThink.

Hundreds of tunnels that connected to Egypt’s Sinai region once accounted for 99 percent of trade in Gaza, he adds. The market was so lucrative that in 2008, Hamas started incorporating tunnel revenues into its fiscal budget. “At its height, the tunnels were the main source of tax to the Hamas government. There were some estimations that the taxes arrived to half a billion dollars a year.”

That has all since changed since the summer of 2013, after Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in a military coup and a spate of terrorist attacks hit Egypt’s poorly policed Sinai. The Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas (an original offshoot of the Brotherhood) were quickly blamed for the attacks, and the smuggling tunnels were labeled a conduit to terrorism.

“They must have destroyed some 1,100 [tunnels],” Abu Mohamed sighs, remembering the Egyptian military operation that followed Morsi’s coup. He adamantly denied that weapons or militants flowed underground. “We use it as a lifeline, not for terrorists.”

Abu Mohamed is one of a handful of remaining diggers trying to resuscitate the tunnel networks and ameliorate an economic slump that Omar Shaban describes as “the worst ever in Gaza’s recent history”. Abu Mohamed’s tent in the southern Rafah region of Gaza is a rare sign of life in a sea of abandoned white marquees that shelter the entrances to defunct tunnels.

Abu Mohamed is five months and one kilometer into the project; he will need to double this to finish. “The tunnels need to be longer now to avoid the Egyptian military,” he says.

The typical strategy for building a tunnel is to simply dig at an angle perpendicular to the border with Egypt. Ahmed, another digger here, peers over the edge of a tunnel well and explains, “You have two basic types of tunnel: one like this,”—he kicks a rock down the shaft and waits to hear it crack against the bottom—“which is built straight down around 15 meters, before going straight across the border, then straight up again.” The other type slowly curves down in a gentle “U” shape before popping back up in Egypt.

“I have heard of some people digging with their hands,” Abu Mohamed explains as another sled full of soil emerges from the hole. “But we have spades and pickaxes. Gaza is good for that. It has a lot of construction equipment lying around and no materials to build with.”

The Gazan diggers almost mock the Egyptian border guards with how close they build to the border. None of the tunnel entrances are more than 200 meters away from the Egyptian outposts. “They already know we start here. What’s really important is that they don’t find the exit,” Ahmed says, pointing over into Egypt.

“We don’t know exactly where the other tunnels are, underground, but it isn’t that congested down there,” Abu Mohamed says. “As long as we dig straight from here we won’t have any problems. The only problems are when we reach Egypt.”

The entrance to his tunnel, which measures four-and-a-half feet high, is framed with large piles of sandbags in a cursory attempt to stop the earth from collapsing in around it. Wooden supports prop up the passageway for the first 20 meters, but after that, the tunnel continues on its own, unsupported and with tons of earth above it.

Towards the middle, the claustrophobia-inducing tunnel reaches several lows of less than three feet, requiring visitors to assume a prostrate crawl to sneak through. The atmosphere hangs heavy with a stale humidity, the earth sweats and heaves under the immense weight above it. In these tunnels, workplace safety and standard engineering codes are merely an afterthought.

“It’s very dangerous. I know a lot of people who have died,” Ahmed says. “My cousin was injured in a tunnel collapse just six months ago.” Peering into the darkness he recalls his first venture into one of the tunnels. “It felt like I was walking into my own grave.”

Wajdi suddenly comes in over the speakers from deep inside the tunnel. “[The sled is] all full, Abu Mohamed. Can you send some water and cigarettes down the next time?” Abu Mohamed reaches into his packet of cigarettes, pulls out three sticks and lays them down next to the microphone. “No problem, Wajdi.”

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August 7, 2014 · 16:55

Orwell’s Nationalism in Egypt

The 25th June 2014 marks the 111th anniversary of George Orwell’s birth, and it seemed as appropriate a time as any to add my own little contribution to the already near-bursting oeuvre of work connecting Orwell to contemporary news.  In my case, Egyptian news.

As the Egyptian state and its institutions continue to bludgeon any dissent or opposition out of the public sphere, one of Orwell’s earlier essays proves helpful in understanding how it has come to this: why the current government is so desperate to enforce patriotic sentiment; how they can get away with obvious lies and brutality; and why even peaceful disobedience and dissent is no longer allowed.

In his essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’, Orwell starts by appropriating and altering the definition of ‘nationalism’ beyond that of everyday parlance, beyond the parochial allegiance to ‘the nation’. Orwell hypothesised there was an associative emotional phenomenon that could be applied to a swathe of constructs outside (and indeed, inside) any nation.

Orwell writes, “It can attach itself to a church or a class,” and importantly adds, “or it may work in a merely negative sense, against something or other and without the need for any positive object of loyalty.”

In his simplest definition, ‘nationalism’ is an emotional phenomenon that creates a blinding allegiance to something (positive nationalism), or perhaps against something (negative nationalism).  As a societal construct, attaching oneself to others of similar ideology and agency arises naturally and is almost impossible to avoid – even hermits and misanthropes can and will identify with one another – but Orwell takes it one step further.

The inherent problem, he says, is that nationalism also acts as a perfect incubator of the irrational zealot.  Victories and losses are almost irrelevant to belief and allegiance, as the fanatical nationalist (and for Orwell, they are the rule, not the exception) will not only stand firm, but will actually grow in their stubborn righteousness as a result.

As Orwell puts it, “[The nationalist] persuades himself that [his side] is the strongest [side], and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him.”

They can become either the ‘martyr’ (after a loss) or the ‘noble victor’ (after success) – either way their reservoir of righteousness grows.  In this schizophrenic atmosphere Orwell posits that even the most intelligent person is suddenly willing to “suppress their sensibilities and sacrifice their intellectual honesty for the cause of propaganda”.

In Egypt, this style of ‘nationalism’ can be a helpful lens through which to view recent events.

Suddenly, Egypt is seen as the battleground of vying political nationalist actors:  The Muslim Brotherhood, Youth Movements, Military Trial Activists, Anti Sexual Harassment movements, Business magnates, the Army, the judiciary, and so on.  People may ally themselves to many different groups, and though few of the nationalist groups have anything to do with the nation directly, they all demand one thing: power.  Were any one group to hold a majority mandate, the other groups would immediately feel threatened, and be seen as a threat.

In the immediate aftermath of the coup of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the interim government-backed military approached the problem of the Brotherhood and public relations with a modus operandi akin to the US Straussian neo-conservatives of the 1970s: Scare everyone with a deadly enemy (USSR/Muslim Brotherhood); overplay the enemy threat through propaganda; and promulgate the myth of the benevolent state, thus encouraging an unquestioning patriotism.  But instead of fighting the selfish and immoral individualism of liberalism, as the neo-cons did, the new Egyptian state is fighting a proliferation of political nationalism that threatens allegiance, stability and the power hierarchy.

After all, any nationalist group ipso facto is a threat, irrespective of whether it poses a direct challenge to the incumbent power, because, as stated earlier, every nationalist demands power: power to do business free of restrictions; power to operate with impunity; power to hold a government accountable; power to change a law.  In 2011, power in Egypt was momentarily, and spontaneously, redistributed in an 18-day revolt, much to the chagrin of the deep state.  In the aftermath of the 2013 coup, a President more amenable to the old pillars of power is taking charge, and any further redistribution of power will once again be at the discretion of the old institutions.

Facing the swathe of serious political nationalist groups, the nation state and its institutions are trying its hardest to redirect the varying nationalists back to one overarching allegiance: loyalty to the State above all; overt patriotism over the more exclusive and fractured swathe of nationalist groups.

In the most blatant effort to date, the Egyptian Presidential office recently released a new decree regarding two major symbols of the State: the national anthem and the flag.

In it, the decree repeals two previous laws and demands a more devout reverence to these two symbols.  It stated the Egyptian flag cannot be lower than that of any other state institution flag (such as an army or a state flag), and is not to be on display if damaged, altered, worn or faded.  Egyptians must stand for the national anthem “out of respect” and military personnel must salute.  One line states, “Pre-university education authorities should strive to disseminate the norms and values enshrined in the words of the national anthem.”

To stress the seriousness of this new decree, anyone who insults the flag (by breaking the above rules) or doesn’t stand for the national anthem “shall be punished by imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year and a fine not exceeding thirty thousand pounds ($4200)”.

“We are somewhat telling people “the state is back”.” Was the blunt response of Ehab Ghobashy, the presidential spokesman, when asked what the objective was in creating this new law.  “You could describe Egypt during the last three years as messy… because the state institutions were not able to perform their duties and the state pride was not given its due respect.”

The timing of the decree is key.  The immediate aftermath of the coup last year inspired what seemed to be an unquestioning patriotic atmosphere, akin to Orwell’s positive nationalism, in a huge and loud majority of Egyptians.  This loyalty remained even after the slaughter of over 1,000 people in less than a week in mid-August 2013.  Many cheered the dispersal of Rabaa square where some 638 people were killed and almost 4,000 injured, almost exclusively civilians of an opposing nationalist allegiance: the Muslim Brotherhood.  Even those not overtly pro-Army were willing to perform mental gymnastics in order to avoid calling Rabaa what it was: a massacre committed by their side.

With the Muslim Brotherhood almost completely crushed in just six months, a new enemy was needed by the state to once again unite the masses in fear – mistaking Orwell’s negative nationalism with patriotism.  The list of potential threats quickly increased and the new enemy suddenly became anyone openly dissenting.  An abhorrent protest law was passed and suddenly, the secular activists and youth movements (many of which supported the overthrow of Morsi) ran into trouble.  According to the Interior Ministry, some 16,000 people have been imprisoned since the fall of Morsi in July 2013.  One independent statistics database puts the number closer to 41,000, the overwhelming majority political prisoners.

Furthermore, journalists opposing or questioning the state line have been targeted, harassed, killed and jailed.  Two days ago, after 6 months of the most farcical trial proceedings to grace a courtroom, 3 Al Jazeera journalists were sentenced to a cumulative 24 years in prison for doing nothing more than basic reporting.

Despite all this, it appeared that the reverence (in the form of enthusiasm) towards the state was waning as time passed and conditions continued to stagnate for the average Egyptian, and the old institutions were clearly alarmed by this sudden reality.

Turnouts in the recent presidential elections were low, far lower than anyone expected.  After the scheduled two days voting, one poll put the turnout at a laughably low 7.5%, although others placed it closer to the 20% mark.  The Presidential Elections Commission quickly took the extraordinary step of extending the voting to another day in a desperate effort to increase their “mandate”.  After the additional days voting they claimed overall turnout finished at just under 50%.  This sudden and dubious increase prompted the opposition candidate to call the proclaimed turnout percentage “an insult to Egyptians’ intelligence” and yet it was still far short of what the incoming President had hoped for.

The most obvious answer to this sudden indifference was that the overt patriotism of last year was simply ebbing away with time.  Therefore, the logic goes, a more patriotic sentiment needs to be drilled into the Egyptian psyche.  After all, the upcoming period of austerity, of “hard work and self-sacrifice”, could easily stir an angry and resentful crowd unless subconsciously cowed with an undying nationalism towards the state.

Yet through the lens of Orwell’s nationalism, it could just as easily be the case that the apparent patriotic fervour in the immediate post-Morsi period was not an allegiance to the state, but rather a negative nationalism against the Muslim Brotherhood.  If this were the case, then the patriotic reserve the state is relying on has been massively overrated from the start, and the turnout in the elections may be an indicator of such a reality.

In attempting to ameliorate their position and increase unquestioning loyalty, the state is now trying to force ‘reverence’ by law.  An obvious mistake in strategy: it’s difficult to make someone love you if you caveat your desire to be loved with threats of imprisonment and fines.  However, by overplaying the existential threats of terrorism, dominating the press and closing down a major avenue of dissent (through protests and marches), the state is well on its way to a new era of stultifying submission.

This strategy is made especially clear when you realise it is very possible to break all these new laws and still not find yourself in any trouble, so long as you break them the right way.  Scrawl “Sisi for President” on the flag, have an impromptu march along the bridge in support of the army, write outright lies against foreign journalists in you newspaper and you will get on just fine.  Just so long as you belong to a nationalist group that somehow benefits the incumbent powers, you can get away with murder.  Or even a massacre.

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