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Maldives ministers prepare for underwater cabinet meeting

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Politics in the Maldives will sink to a new low later this month, when the nation’s cabinet holds its first meeting underwater.

The country, a collection of atolls and islands in the Indian Ocean, stands less than two metres above sea level, and as climate change causes seas to rise it will probably be the first nation to sink beneath the waves.

Under the threat of that looming watery Armageddon, President Mohamed Nasheed has announced plans to hold a cabinet meeting under the sea, ahead of the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen this December.

Ministers clad in wetsuits and shouldering oxygen tanks, will meet about 20ft (6m) underwater on 17 October. They will communicate through hand gestures, according to Aminath Shauna, an official from the president’s office.

“It is to send a message to the world. The intention is to draw the attention of the world leaders to the issue of global warming and highlight how serious are the threats faced by Maldives as a result,” she said. “If we can stop climate change, the lowest-lying nation on earth will be saved.” The gathering will take place off the island of Girifushi, which lies about 20 minutes’ journey by speedboat from the capital, Male. One minister has already had to pull out: scuba instructors said the education minister was not fit enough to take on the dive.

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Political geeks in Europe

Whether you call them politechnorati, eGov geeks or political hackers, they are giving new meaning to the word participatory democracy, which can be much more than “just” voting in an election every forth year. Most of them are working in the outskirts of political institutions, but influencing them by building tools that are vastly better than what the institutions can come up with themselves.

From my base in Brussels, where I work as a journalist who writes about communication technology and EU, I bump into them frequently. I will soon give you an overview of some of the hardworking political geeks in Europe. But be aware, this is just a small selection of them, there are many more, and we will continue writing about them.

Even though they come from different European countries and political cultures, they have a lot in common, such as the fight for:
– access to public data
– improving communication between politicians and constituency through new digital communication tools
– transparency in political processes
– encouraging use of open source
– teach people how to use the internet most efficiently to improve lives

At this point, the most innovative eGov geeks are based in Britain, but that can soon change. ()

J’en ai bien impression !

(For @thanough =)

University of California campuses erupt into protest
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The Berkeley protest was one of many held across California in an unprecedented day of action directed at university authorities and state governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger as he attempts to curb the state’s multibillion-dollar budget crisis. Faculty, students and unions from the University of California’s 10 campuses including its two most prestigious, UCLA and Berkeley, joined forces in what was the biggest student protest for more than a generation.

The scale of the protests has come as a shock to state authorities. What began as a marginal dispute in the summer between university faculty and their management over cuts in salaries has in recent weeks escalated into a statewide walkout by students and faculty as well as a day of strike action by campus technical workers against layoffs and diminished terms and conditions.

The turning point came two weeks ago when university authorities warned of savage budget cuts to deal with a $750m (£466m) shortfall and mooted huge increases in the cost of tuition. “UC regents vote next week to raise student fees, already up 250% over the last decade, by an additional 30%,” was how one group of protesters summed up the situation today.

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A propos: Free Speech Movement 1964

Questions for Ken

What advice do you have for young people who want to engage with politics and fight the recession?
Noel Hatch, national chair, Compass Youth

Join a political party so that politicians find it harder to ignore you. Argue with your friends that doing nothing is not an option and get them involved. And cause as much trouble as you can.

Why are you getting married at London Zoo?
James Beveridge

It’s great for the kids and it will be poignant for me. I applied for a job there in 1962 and they turned me down – although they did later have me as vice-president of the Zoological Society.

What three things would you do to improve allotment provision in London?
Becky Hogge

One, set aside space in the Olympic Park; two, ban development on allotment land; and three, introduce a London-wide, cross-borough waiting list.

At what stage did you know that Gordon Brown was going to lose the next election?
Peter Bingle

Curiously enough, I think the Tory domination of the polls makes it theirs to lose. They should be treated as the incumbent and subjected to relentless scrutiny. Tory economic policy is so hardline that it has the potential to unite very large layers of society in opposition. If Cameron wins, we may be in for a period of revolving-door government like the 1960s and 1970s.

For which musicians would you dust down your microphone to make a record with, as you did with Blur in 1995?
Jenny Simmons

This answer is based on the fantasy that I have a decent singing voice, which anyone who has seen me do karaoke knows is far from reality. I would work with Blur again, who are both a great band and really good people. And I’d love to duet with Scott Walker.

Is there anything you think Boris is doing better than you?
Tom Daniels

Yes, falling in the river.

In Norway, prisoners take part in TV debates

It was a stunning political debate that would be hard to imagine in Britain. But it was not so shocking in Norway, where a general election is taking place on Monday.

The topic was crime policy and – so far so normal – it featured a panel of politicians discussing the best ways to reduce crime. But the live TV show was set inside a high security prison, the audience consisted exclusively of guards and prisoners, with one inmate, Bjørnar Dahl, taking part in the panel alongside the justice minister and the deputy leader of the main opposition party.

“It was high time the politicians came here to talk about crime policy,” explains Dahl, 43, a few days after the event. “This is about us, what happens in prisons and how we can return to society in a way that is beneficial to everyone.”

Dahl, who is serving a five-year sentence for complicity in smuggling amphetamines, stole the show. When the representative from the populist Future party, Per Sandberg, argued that there was an increase in criminality in Norway caused by gangs of Eastern Europeans organising beggars in the streets of Oslo, Dahl dismissed him as talking “crap” and asked him whether he had any knowledge of the situations the beggars were coming from.

When Sandberg tried to argue that the solution to reduce drug abuse in prisons was to increase the level of control on inmates, Dahl shot back: “We’re controlled from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep. I get strip-searched every time I have a visit and all my phone calls are monitored. You can’t have more control than we have now.” ()

Maddow’s “Pizza Parable” Demonstrates Futility Of “Bipartisan” Health Care Reform

Two people agree that the only prescription for their hunger is to order a pizza. But what happens when one of those people doesn’t want pepperoni, doesn’t want sausage, doesn’t want olives, doesn’t want cheese, doesn’t want crust, doesn’t want any of the components essential to making a pizza? Well, if the other person doesn’t step up and act pro-actively to get fed, everyone starves. That’s the parable that Rachel Maddow and her colleague Kent Jones performed on The Rachel Maddow Show last night, and yes: this is an effective demonstration of the strange relationship that has developed between the pro-reform Democratic Party and their Republican colleagues, who say they want health care reform, but who’ve made it clear that they won’t actually be voting for reform, no matter how awesomely “bipartisan” it is.

China’s wild west

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As ever, history becomes politically charged – historical facts are regularly pressed into service and even falsified in current disputes. In Kashgar’s dusty, little-visited museum, there’s a sign reading: “In 60BC… local government was established under the Han dynasty. Since then Xinjiang has been part of the Chinese state.” That version was the official one for a long time but has now been dropped, as has the idea that the Chinese were the first inhabitants of the region. The magnificent Indo-European mummies found in the Taklamakan desert put paid to that claim. Xinjiang was on the Silk Road and has seen a mixture of races, cultures and warlords. It’s absurd to try to reduce it to a single influence.

On the other hand, dating the “colonisation of the province” to the arrival of the communists in 1949, as the World Congress of Uyghurs would have it (a view accepted by several French newspapers), doesn’t reflect reality either. The first Chinese political presence in Xinjiang dates from the Manchu dynasty in the 1750s. In the wake of rebellions, Daoguang, the eighth emperor, created the first “reconstruction offices” as part of a policy of assimilation in which the powers that be were reluctant to depend on local leaders as they were “corrupt and harmful to the policy of central state”. In 1884 the province became part of China. (By way of comparison, New Mexico became part of the US shortly before that (in 1846), as did California (1850).)

It’s true that history is not linear and Xinjiang has seen several bids for independence. The emirate of Kashgarie survived from 1864 to 1877 thanks to the recognition of the Ottoman empire, Great Britain and Russia. A short-lived East Turkestan Republic lasted from November 1933 to February 1934. And finally, a Second East Turkestan Republic, a vague satellite of the USSR comprising three northern districts, existed from 1944 to 1949. As Rémi Castets puts it, “the feeling of being heir to a powerful empire or kingdoms which have sometimes rivalled China” has left its mark.

Most Uyghurs are not in fact calling for independence, but greater justice and recognition of their identity. “We may be better off than we were a decade ago,” Abderrahman says, “but we’re still lagging behind.” GDP stands at 15,016 yuan per inhabitant in Shihezi (which is 90% Han), 6,771 in Aksu (30% Han), 3,497 in Kashgar (8.5%) and 2,445 yuan in Hotan (3.2%) (6).

These flagrant, ethnically based inequalities are pushing the Uyghurs towards Islam, the only vehicle for their opposition and means of affirming their identity. Already the sight of women in burqas is no longer a rarity. There is a clear danger that the fundamentalists will be the beneficiaries of this shift. Extremist groups are still marginal, but that could change if Beijing refuses to engage in any sort of dialogue.

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Image source: Unkar.jp

The Real News From Pakistan

Ten years ago Pakistan had one television channel. Today it has over 100. Together they have begun to open up a country long shrouded by political, moral and religious censorship—taking on the government, breaking social taboos and, most recently, pushing a new national consensus against the Taliban. One channel in particular, Geo TV, has won a reputation for controversy more akin to America’s Fox News than CNN or Sky News. Some Pakistanis see it and its competitors as a force for progress; others as a creator of anarchy and disorder. Certainly, the channels now wield huge political influence in a country where half the population is illiterate. But their effect is now felt beyond Pakistan’s borders too—revealing an underappreciated face of globalisation, in which access to television news means that immigrant communities, and in particular Britain’s 0.7m Pakistanis, often follow events in their country of origin more closely than those of the country where they actually live.

I went to Islamabad this April to learn about what many Pakistanis call their “media revolution.” The previous month, during a spate of anti-government protests, Geo TV had again demonstrated its influence by using its popular news programmes to support a “long-march” by opposition groups on the capital Islamabad, and even hosting a celebratory rock concert on the city’s streets when the government caved in to demands to reinstate the country’s most prominent judge.

I had chosen a tense time to visit. On my first day a man loyal to the Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud walked into an army camp two blocks from where I was staying and blew himself up, killing eight soldiers. That same day news channels first aired a grainy video of a Taliban punishment beating in the Swat valley on the northwest frontier. A girl had been accused of infidelity and in the clip she was pinned face down by two men in a dusty village square while a third beat her with a stick. It topped the news for days, causing controversy for its brutality and for exposing the reality behind a “peace deal” to hand Swat over to the Taliban.

The video marked the start of an important new phase in Pakistan’s internal battles, with the army launching a bloody offensive to retake Swat in May, and a further push against the Taliban’s mountainous strongholds during July. Pakistanis have often felt sympathy for the Taliban, seeing their struggle as an understandable reaction to America’s military presence. This view began to change as militants launched more frequent bombings in major cities. But media coverage of Taliban brutality—beheadings, murders and most gruesomely the exhumation of a corpse to be hung in a public square—swayed opinion further. At the beginning of June one story in particular captured the country’s attention: a young army captain, killed on his birthday in a battle with Taliban fighters in Swat. The night before he had written to his father, worrying that he might die, but asking his family to be proud of him and his country. Pictures of his distraught mother ran for days, further pushing anti-Taliban opinion with far-reaching implications in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. And behind this shift lies a new power in Pakistan’s normally rigid hierarchy, which now rivals the ability of politicians, generals, spies and mullahs to shape events: the media itself.

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Geo TV is hard to place on the political spectrum and it has many exotic allies. There is, for example, a popular political rock band in Pakistan called Laal (meaning red in Urdu) which has been given plenty of airtime by the channel. The band’s lead guitarist, Taimur Rahman, is a young Marxist-Leninist academic who is finishing a PhD in London. I met him recently at a greasy spoon café close to his academic home at London’s SOAS. He wore a peaked Che Guevara-style cap with a red hammer and sickle badge over his dark, floppy fringe. In conversation, he enthused about music and politics, cracking more jokes than one might expect from a central committee member of his country’s Communist Workers and Peasants party. Rahman told me how Laal’s singer Shahram Azhar (also finishing a PhD at Oxford) was once his student in Pakistan, where both worked as community organisers. The band was a hobby, he said, although the rallies they organised also helped to build a repertoire of songs. Rahman says audiences were especially enthusiastic when they first began borrowing words from a previous generation of leftist Urdu poets, notably Habib Jalib. Both eventually moved to Britain to study, becoming involved in British protests against Musharraf. The band helped to organise protests outside Downing Street, and celebrated when the dictator finally resigned in November 2008. This might well have been the limit of their political involvement were it not for a chance meeting with Pakistani film director, Taimur Khan. At a party in London he heard the band play a song based on Habib Jalib’s poem Main Nay Kaha (“I said”). Originally a swipe at postwar Pakistani authoritarianism, its lyrics resonated with many Pakistanis’ despair at their country’s intractable divisions. Khan says he “knew immediately it was a hit. The lyrics were so timely, they represented the state of the country so simply in one song.”

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Habib Jalib – Mainay Uss Say Yeh Kaha – Laal

Confidence in Obama Lifts U.S. Image Around the World

The image of the United States has improved markedly in most parts of the world, reflecting global confidence in Barack Obama. In many countries opinions of the United States are now about as positive as they were at the beginning of the decade before George W. Bush took office. Improvements in the U.S. image have been most pronounced in Western Europe, where favorable ratings for both the nation and the American people have soared. But opinions of America have also become more positive in key countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia, as well.

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