Sunday, May 31, 2009

Independence versus Neutrality

When I was a child, my Father played a game with me.

He would ask me, “If I’ve committed a crime and you’re the presiding Judge, would you hand out a guilty verdict?”

I would answer “Yes” without even taking the time to ask him what sort of crime and what was the reason. I thought if a person had committed a crime, he/she should be judged as guilty and deserved to go to jail.

In my childish mind, I didn’t consider whether there would be any mitigating factors which would influence my judgment.

But I’m your Father! You won’t even use your position to take my side?” My Father persisted.

"Nope.” I stood firm with my answer.

He would continue to ask me the same question over the years and I would always give him the same answer. 

One day he stopped asking and I can’t remember when or why. I don’t know what I would have answered him if he asks me again one day. I’ve never even asked him why he had asked me those question.

Was he merely testing my loyalty? Or was he testing my neutrality, independence or impartiality?

A few weeks ago, the Cambodian Red Cross (CRC) launched a huge fund-raising event in conjunction with World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day. It managed to collect more than USD4 million. It comes as no surprise because the President of CRC is an influential person and hence was able to use her status  to garner support from many.

It’s not a secret either that the President is the wife of the Prime Minister of Cambodia.

During the World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day; amidst thousands of people, including members of the press and other high profile representatives from international aid organizations, the Prime Minister handed over the amount of fund collected to the President of the CRC.

This gesture, what would be considered as merely protocol (as a respect to the Prime Minister) by many Cambodians, was highly criticized by certain international community. The close connection between the President of CRC and the Prime Minister has always been a point of contention for those who understand the concept of independence within the Movement but it was easier to overlook such flaw when both personalities were careful to keep a distance from each other in public.

All recognized national Red Cross/Red Crescent societies must subscribe to the seven fundamental principles (humanity, universality, unity, independence, neutrality, impartiality and voluntary service) of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. While playing an auxiliary role to the State, they are expected to maintain independence at all time.

In many countries, including developed ones, many governments are known to provide funds to their national Red Cross/Red Crescent societies and this is not against the Movement’s constitution. However, it’s imperative that they maintain independence by staying away from government influence when making decisions and executing their duties and responsibilities.

I think the CRC’s independence is further questioned for two strong reasons; the intimate relationship between the two main personalities and the lack of faith in the Prime Minister’s administration. Cambodia’s poor human rights record, weak rule of law and challenge to democracy have reduced the Prime Minister’s credibility.

The fact that the CRC’s President is so closely linked to the Prime Minister has caused discomfort to those who have vested interest in the Movement. To be fair, the CRC’s President tries hard to exclude the participation of the Prime Minister in many CRC events just to avoid such criticism. But is that enough?

My Father’s little game would not have happened in real life. My close relation with him would have automatically rendered me ineligible for precisely the same reason. Justice must not only be done but also seen to be done. I could be as impartial as possible but it wouldn’t have made any difference to the public’s eyes.

However, in the case of the CRC, I think it’s important to consider the “mitigating” factors before making any judgment.

First of all, it’s not a judiciary but a humanitarian institution. It’s main duty is to provide humanitarian aid for those in need. When facing a dilemma such as this (particularly when it’s difficult to change or challenge a sovereign institution so entrenched in its tradition and culture),  it’s always helpful to go back to the main foundation and objectives of the institution.

In this case, it’s clear that at the end of the day, the Movement’s duties lie in the interest of the people. The international community needs to weigh the costs and benefits before making a judgment in condemning the institution’s independence which can harm its relationship and hence jeopardize its core mandate.

I read a commentary made by Jean Pictet, former Director-General of the ICRC, on the Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross. He wrote:

“It is clear indeed that the Red Cross Society in a country under an authoritarian regime cannot serve as a centre for opposition to the regime or to any party or faith. It can thus display an attitude of benevolent neutrality towards temporal or spiritual authorities, maintain good relations with them and co-operate with them in humanitarian activities, since the National Societies are called upon to serve as auxiliaries to governmental institutions.”

Neutrality also is the attitude observed by the ICRC in its relations with governmental entities, treating them on the basis of equality, not expressing itself on their legitimacy, not considering whether they are recognized, not judging their politics. If it acts in this way, it does so not in order to waste its energies in idle diplomatic procedures but so as to gain access to victims in need of help, and these victims are in the power of the States. It is therefore necessary to obtain the required authorization from States and to maintain the relations of confidence essential for continuing co-operation.”

While it is fair for the Red Cross Movement to judge an institution’s independence, it is equally fair for them to ask themselves where they stand in terms of neutrality.

In humanitarian field, neutrality is perhaps the most important of all principles because at the end of the day, those who seek to benefit from humanitarian aid should not be judged by their religion, race, political affiliation, etc. This also means that they should not be deprived from aid simply because their government or national Red Cross/Red Crescent society has failed to satisfy the Movement’s criteria of independence.

What could ultimately be a problem is when funds collected are not being channelled towards its people. Such allegation will however need strong evidence before any judgment can be made.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Good Read: Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts


I normally write my thoughts on the books I’ve read on the sidebar. For this book, it was not possible to add all my thoughts adequately on a small space.

So, I’ve decided to start a new category called Good Read. It’s not exactly a book review because I don’t think I’m qualified to provide expert opinions on literature and authors. It will be just my story and thoughts on the book.

Shantaram was given to me as a Christmas gift. When I first saw the book cover and the volume (more than 900 pages), I thought Oh my God, would it be interesting enough for me to read the whole book?

I do tend to judge a book by its cover, if I haven’t heard of the author before and I’ve definitely not heard of Gregory David Roberts. The cover didn’t attract me. It looked boring.

Nevertheless, the friend who gave it to me insisted that it’s riveting and I simply must read it. She told me that the story is about a man who escaped from prison in Australia and made his journey to India where all sorts of things happened. Apparently it’s partly based on his own life story.

Hmmm….if it was another Prison Break kind of story, I didn’t think I would be interested. Too dramatic and unrealistic. Plus, I always thought that criminals should never benefit from their crimes and I wasn’t sure whether I would like to contribute to that.

Anyhow, I packed this humungous giant of a novel with me to Cambodia, hoping to have enough courage to read it one day. (It’s a present after all and it would be rude to have it ravished by dust in my apartment in Kuala Lumpur).

And so I finally picked up the book last week and found myself turning from one page to the other, often reading into the late hours of the night.

Shantaram is not just any kind of book. There are reasons why it’s that thick. It has all the essential elements in a story; romance, drama, action, thriller, suspense, mystery, philosophy, culture and politics. It was indeed riveting enough to sustain my interest.

Nearly all parts of the story is based on the author’s true life story, perhaps being dramatized quite substantially.

Roberts did escape from a maximum security prison in Australia. He did live a life as a fugitive in Bombay (where a huge portion of the story is based). He did turn native by learning the local languages and love Bombay and consider it as home. He did live in the slum and worked as a “doctor”. Finally, he did join the mafia and become fully engaged in the black market trade.

Everything was apparently not figments of his imagination, except for the part when he went to war in Afghanistan.

Shantaram is really a story about a man who becomes the worst person he thought he could ever be due to unfavourable circumstances. He commits a series of armed robberies to feed his addiction for heroine, gets caught and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. The moment he escapes from prison, he starts a soul-searching journey in Bombay where he is constantly challenged to question and find the ultimate answer to the meaning and purpose of his life.

I think, one of the book’s attractions and success lie on the fact that most of the events did happen to the author. Roberts eventually returned to Australia to serve his remaining sentence and it was during this period when he wrote the book.

However, when I was reading through the book, I couldn’t help but regard it as a novel or even a compelling story for an action movie where the protagonist always comes out alive from every single life threatening situation, no matter how impossibly dangerous it is. It’s hard to imagine someone who is that lucky and invincible in real life.

If not that, the protagonist seems to personify Mother Theresa during his free time by attending to the poor and vulnerable. He is always counted on by others to come to their rescue when things get rough.

I think Shantaram is written to provide hope and inspiration to those who have strayed so far away from the path of righteousness but also to dispel judgments made by the righteous.

Shantaram has been compared to A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, one of my favourite books. I can see the similarity between the two where both the protagonists went through series after series of tremendous hardship and spiritual tests (the human spirit as oppose to religious spirituality) but it ends just there. The style of writing is very different. A Fine Balance is more literary while Shantaram has that raw and open approach.

I would still recommend Shantaram to anyone. It has the ability to cater to everyone due to all the elements it represents, including a strong and colourful line of characters.

The protagonist isn’t really my favourite character but there are others who reached out to me, particularly one. You just have to read it to find out who. :)

P/s: For more information about the author, please refer to his official website,

Friday, May 29, 2009

Tripping is part of the whole trip


If you have been following my blog regularly, you’ll notice that I’ve changed the layout a couple of times. Unfortunately, my blog is not the only thing which has been subjected to such irregularity.

Sometimes, it can be disconcerting to know how fickle and restless I can be. I’m not sure whether this is a result of constant dissatisfaction towards things, not knowing what I really want or just a drive so forceful that it pulls me towards wanting to know and experience new things.

Two old friends once said to me out of the blue. They told me that I’m unpredictable. Not the flattering “wow-you’re-so-mysterious” kind. Their tone was more of the mocking “So-what-is-it-this-time-now? You’re-so-bloody-inconsistent” kind. Sooner or later, they both became too tired to keep up with what’s going on in my life.

When I look at some friends of mine who are so grounded; with careers, babies, homes, it’s hard not to feel lonely and lost. Contrary to what most people might think, moving from one place to another is not as exciting as it looks. Yes, in the beginning it always is, but it doesn’t last. You meet new people, develop new friendships and then it’s time to go again.

What’s left is another old vacuum with the same kind of loneliness and uncertainty.

Sometimes, it’s hard to think what’s worse; living the same routine day in and day out, or the permanence of impermanence. Whatever it is, this year was a wake-up call for me.

The misery and loneliness I felt when I was in Ethiopia has taught me that I have every opportunity to change life’s unexpected circumstances to my advantage but only if I want to. I’ve been without a career for more than 4 years now and lived in regret for the most part of it.

Somehow similar to a leafless tree during the winter, it’s time to soak in the sun and sprout. Hibernation’s over. It’s time to do something for it’s dormancy that kills, not the place or the people.

Miscellaneous 012

The first thing my husband and I did when we came to Cambodia was to adopt a kitten that was found trapped beneath another expat’s wooden floorboard. I didn’t even like cats then but what the heck. The kitten needed a home and we needed more life in the apartment. Now, she’s part of the family.

Then, I quickly jumped into volunteering work while applying for jobs. The work that I’m doing now is definitely more interesting than what I did back in Ethiopia.

Yet, there is still something missing. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I started this blog. I realize that I needed to do something more, something to stir my soul, not just the mind.

It comes a time in everyone’s life, I think, when you suddenly feel that you’re dead inside. It happens to a housewife, a teacher, a judge, a doctor, an artist, etc.

Seeing the misery in this world has created a brick wall around my heart, making it impenetrable. I couldn’t remember the last time I cried for a mother who has lost her child or laughed so hard that tears came to my eyes.

My photographer friend in Ethiopia told me recently that she had a sudden episode of emptiness although she is doing what she loves best. She started taking photography seriously last year and she has seen a rise in her career as a professional photographer. Just after 1 year down the line, she felt unmotivated. Dead.

She’s one of the most passionate person I know and even then, she finds it hard to stay inspired all the time.

Curious, I asked her how she managed to pull herself out of it. She wrote to me, “Every week, I make it a point to take one photo just for myself. Even if it’s the best photo I’ve ever taken, I won’t sell it. It’s for me.

So, week after week, she keeps collecting all these photos and when she feels uninspired, she’ll look at them to remind her why she loves photography.

I do believe that it’s common for most people to feel as if nothing they do is ever meaningful anymore. If you do and feel guilty or sorry for yourself, don’t. The need to feel alive and moved is what makes us all human beings.

Just like our bodies, the heart and soul need nourishment and this comes in different forms. You don’t have to quit your job or leave your home to achieve that. All you need is to find that one simple thing which can give you the joy and satisfaction you need.

I found mine and it’s writing. It’s that one thing which has constantly nourished me again and again. It doesn’t even cost me anything.

I may have moved from one place to another, from one job to the other, but I never stop writing. So far, I’ve been pretty much writing for myself. Not for money, glory, love or anyone.

A writer friend gave me some good advice recently. She said it’s important to do something else while writing. Pick up a hobby; dancing, photography, cooking or arts. She said that it’ll train me to see the world in different lenses. I like what she said.

So with this, I’m going to keep on skipping and not walking – stirring in some motion to keep my heart rate up. The problem with skipping is the danger of tripping but there’s always the possibility of pulling yourself up again.

When you manage to do that, you’ll realize that tripping is just part of the whole trip.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Verbal abuse to be legislated as part of domestic violence in Malaysia?


Since nowadays I hardly have the time to surf through the internet for news on Malaysia, I rely a lot on my Facebook friends to update me on something interesting.

Today, someone posted a link from The Star on the proposal to include verbal abuse as part of the Domestic Violence Act. Of course, as usual, the post attracted the attention of some witty fellow friends who couldn’t help but add humour to it. The Star is partly to be blamed for “belittling” the issue by giving it a title “Telling your wife she’s not pretty may soon be an offence”.

Naturally, verbal abuse is not quite the same as making unflattering remarks.

I don’t know exactly how far this proposal has gone or whether it will ever be adopted but it would be interesting to read the actual draft and even more interesting to know about the drafting process itself.

In Malaysia, whenever there is a legal proposal related to women’s rights, one can almost always guarantee protest to the extent of insensitive sexist remarks coming from a specific group of people; well, usually men; may it be law makers or religious authorities.

Mind you, we’re not exactly like many countries in the Middle East, Africa or Asia where women’s rights are considered as taboos but the fact that we still do not have a law against marital rape should explain that we’re not exactly there yet.

So, this proposal is particularly interesting. According to those who made the proposal, verbal abuse is as equally damaging as physical abuse. To many extent, I agree that emotional trauma can have a deeper and longer impact than physical violence. There is a famous saying, sticks and stones may break my bone, but words will kill me.

I found this from an article written by Patricia Evans, Verbal Abuse Precedes Domestic Violence:

Domestic violence is about the control of one human being by another. This control begins with verbal abuse and is similar to mind control. Verbal abuse attacks one’s spirit and sense of self. Verbal abuse attempts to create self doubt. "You don’t know what you’re talking about," "You don’t have a sense of humour," "You can’t take a joke," "You’re too sensitive," "You’re crazy."

Verbal abuse so controls ones mind that some women who have left a verbally and sometimes physically abusive relationship twenty or more years ago still find themselves wondering, "Maybe there’s something I could have done...," or, "Maybe if I’d tried to explain just one more time my relationship would have gotten better." 

While I think it’s a brave and commendable move to regulate verbal abuse, the ultimate challenge facing the victim, offender and members of the judiciary is the burden of proof. It’s hard enough to prove domestic violence when there is an absence of visible marks or scars in cases where women often fail to report the abuse on time, what more verbal abuse? It’s basically my words against yours.

I tend to see verbal abuse and physical violence as similar to rape and sexual harassment because in the end, it’s difficult to draft and implement such law and there are many issues to be considered. 

1) Definition – What is considered as verbal abuse as opposed to “unflattering” or offensive remarks?

For example: Is there a difference between “You’re full of crap”,“Move your fat ass, bitch!”, “You’re a worthless piece of shit!” and “I swear I’ll kill you one day!”?

Sexual harassment is typically defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that tends to create a hostile or offensive work environment. It doesn’t matter whether the offender is aware of his/her action, as long as it makes the victim uncomfortable, it’s considered as harassment.

Would this also apply to verbal abuse? Would it then make a difference if a husband makes a remark as a joke and with no intention to offend? If this is the case, does the wife have the responsibility to tell the husband that such remark hurts her feelings?

Let’s face it, a lot of women, particularly those who have been brought up in conservative societies are likely to take insensitive remarks without much protest.

2) Proof -  Like sexual harassment, verbal abuse will be difficult to prove unless a woman is vigilant enough to wire tape herself before being subjected to verbal aggression or if such abuse takes place in a public place.

Again, in a society such as Malaysia, couples are often careful when it comes to creating a scene in public. Chances are, it will happen at home. Even then, family members tend to turn a deaf ear when it comes to matters between a husband and wife.

3) Victims – Who will be considered as real victims of verbal abuse and according to what and whose standard? What if one woman is particularly more vulnerable than the other?

Will this law apply to men as well or we just assume that women are incapable of verbal abuse and men are simply too “macho” to get hurt?

4) Implementation – would police officers take verbal abuse report seriously or they’ll just simply laugh it off? Even if they don’t, how does one tell an officer that she has been verbally abused without feeling embarrassed or silly, unless it’s a death threat?

Women often don’t report far greater physical abuse for precisely the same reason. They feel shameful and often guilty for allowing herself to be beaten up. Unsurprisingly, they expect police officers not to understand or sympathise with them.

5) Punishment – How do you punish an offender to make sure that it’s fair, adequate and proportionate to the crime committed?

I was curious to know how many countries have legislated such law. It wasn’t easy to find and surprisingly Sierra Leone is one of them. I couldn’t find other more credible jurisprudence yet and I think it’s important to see how this law is being implemented and how effective it is.

The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women defines violence against women within the community as ‘physical, sexual and psychological violence within the general community, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, educational institutions and elsewhere, and trafficking in women and forced prostitution’. It doesn’t go as far as to spell out verbal abuse.

To sum this up, I acknowledge the harmful impact of verbal abuse and the need to address this issue. At the same time, I also acknowledge how such laws need to be drafted as carefully as possible in order to make a real impact and to avoid any  risk of abuse.

Needless to say, I also think that if we are genuinely concerned about the danger and “criminality” of verbal abuse, then we should also think about children who are being subjected to similar threats; may it be at home or in school.

It’s hardly fair to assume that only women suffer from it.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The simple pleasure of LIFE-style

I recently asked a leading lifestyle magazine in Phnom Penh whether I could write for them on a freelance basis. I thought it would be a good place for me to gain experience on writing something different, get professional input on my writing style and a good way of knowing the city more.

When I finally met with the Editor in Chief, I realise that there’s so much I don’t know about writing lifestyle issues. I made mental notes as he gave some pointers on how to start and what to look out for.

I had given him the link to my blog to view some samples of my writing and he reminded me (not in verbatim but something along this line), “Writing for this magazine is very different from blogging. You have to emphasise more on facts, on the places and people that you’re writing about, less about yourself and what you think. Of course you should include your thoughts and sense about a place if you’re reviewing a restaurant, food, shop, etc. but definitely less on a first person narrative.”

It sounds easy enough when you think about it – no analysis, no opinion, just facts. I can do that, at least I think I can.

When I got home, I started doing an online search on restaurant reviews just to have a feel of how a good review should be. Then, I begin to notice that I’ve been trained to search for facts, analyse the facts and then give my opinion based on my analysis. Much of my writings have been more focussed on politics and social issues that look into the intricacy of state policies, human interaction and social and economic behaviour. I’ve never really ventured into something beyond  the faculty of logical and critical thinking.

After reading some reviews, I gather that in order to write a captivating piece of review, I need to be able to describe all the sensations generated by our five basic senses; sight, smell, sound, taste and touch. Now, this is not as easy as it sounds, even to the most observant of person because the real challenge lies in using the right words to describe as precisely as possible those sensations you feel. This means more nouns and adjectives and of course excellent grammar to form coherent and yet lively sentences.

Yes, lifestyle writing to me is about bringing sentences to life so that the readers are able to feel (not think about) the sensations that you would want them to.

Would I be able to make that mental switch from critical to creative writing? I think I would always be tempted to “scratch beneath the surface”, partly due to my inquisitive nature which unfortunately, sometimes I feel as a liability rather than asset. For instance, instead of looking at a clock and just appreciate its beauty and ingenious design, I tend to ask how it works and by asking, I often lose sight of its aesthetic values.

I also find that I am not able to draw the line between social and lifestyle issues, although the Editor in Chief tried to explain  when I asked him whether he would consider an article about the challenges of expats who want to marry Cambodians (I’ve read on the news recently that expats who want to marry locals are forced to pay “additional” sum of money in order to get registered) as lifestyle or social. He made it very clear that the magazine is not interested in anything which would dig into what he considers as political or administrative flaws.

To reinforce his explanation, he then pulled up several copies of local newspaper lying recklessly on the table and pointed out the headlines, “Swine Flu – not interested.” Then another, “The Khmer Rouge trial – not interested.”

OK, OK, I get it. If I want to write about those issues, I should arrange for a meeting with the Phnom Penh Post or Cambodian Daily’s editors instead.

While preparing myself for my meeting with the Editor in Chief, I was bursting with ideas and now when I look at my list of ideas (which were meant to impress him); volunteering work, adoption issues, education system, understanding Buddhism, domestic helpers, HIV/AIDS, medical services, etc. they all look so “sedative” (There! My first creative word). My initial excitement was deflated because I’m not sure whether they will be given the response – NOT INTERESTED. Period.

Am I disappointed or discouraged? On the contrary. I’m excited to embark in this new experience. I think this “adventure” will open up my senses and give me a much needed new perspective towards life; that is if I manage to hand in an acceptable piece of writing by the end of next week (I’m put on trial).

Above all, I think it will teach me to appreciate some of the simple pleasure of life – more on the living and less on the probing and analysing.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Beware of this scam from this scum

I received this email from this address, c.ced to this address on my spam box today and it drives me crazy to think that people like this are around. If I’m in Malaysia, I would have submitted this to the police.

DIRECT LINE +60143292085


Your e-mail address came up in a random draw conducted by our law firm; YOUSF MUSTAFA Law Chambers in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia My name is YOUSF MUSTAFA. A personal Attorney to our late client Mr. TAN SRI LIM GOH TONG who built a hilltop casino in Malaysia (Genting Highland), Mr. TAN SRI LIM GOH TONG a well known Philanthropist, before he died, he made a Will in our law firm stating that $3M (Three Million U.S. dollars only) should be donated to any Philanthropist of our choice overseas.

We have made a random draw and your name and e-mail address was picked as the beneficiary to this Will. I am particularly interested in securing this money from the Bank, because they have issued a notice instructing us to produce the beneficiary of this Will within two weeks which happens to be you or else the money will be credited to the Government treasury as per law here.

It is my utmost desire to execute the Will of our late client. You are required to contact me immediately to start the process of transferring this money to any of your designated official account. I urge you to contact me immediately for further details bearing in
mind that the Bank has given us a date limit. Please contact me urgently with the following .




Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hairline cracks

So I guess honeymoon’s over, huh?” I heard my husband said a week ago.

Hmmm…it only takes 8 months but still, it isn’t the worst record so far. It was much shorter in Ethiopia. For me, it was about one month. In Afghanistan, it was about a year and Timor Leste, it never really stopped. The 10 months that I was there had been more or less a bliss, right until the end and if I could, I wanted to go back for more.

The honeymoon period I’m referring to is the length of time taken for reality to set in, you know, all the novelty of being in a new country where everything seems new, exciting and exotic until one day, you realize that things aren’t that rosy after all.

What is the deal breaker for Cambodia? Yesterday morning while waiting for my ride to work, I read on the front page of the Cambodia Daily of a crime so heartless and cruel that it made my stomach churned. Just a day ago, I passed by Wat Lanka, a temple close to my apartment and saw some sort of big ceremony. At first glance, I thought it was just another religious ceremony that the locals are so fond of, but quickly deduced that it was a funeral judging from the sombre mood and the pre-dominantly white attire worn by those in attendance.

It was then revealed on the paper that the funeral was for three children, savagely killed at their home last Sunday. Apparently, two armed men had carried out the triple murder, but not before torturing them first, forcing one of the victims to call her mother home to witness the crime and then finishing them off by smashing their skulls with steel pipes.

According to the local police, “This is a case of revenge.” The father of the two victims is a prominent figure in Cambodia. He is the Director of the Royal Academy for Judicial Professionals. Last week, he was put on the spotlight when rumours circulated that students were paying between USD20 – 30,000 to be eligible for a position in the courts upon graduation. It is not clear how this is related to the crime in terms of motive.

This is not the first time I’ve read incidents and crimes motivated by revenge in Cambodia. A popular method is splashing acid on the targeted person. I’ve also heard that it costs USD300 to hire a hit man to get rid of someone. Apparently a few years ago, it was much less, only USD100. Over the last 8 months, I’ve read fatal incidents involving gunshot in broad daylight in the middle of busy streets. Most of these crimes are committed by jealous spouses, over land dispute or injured egos.

I could easily ignore this kind of news before but not this time. Anyone who could have the heart to orchestrate the murder of three innocent children, whether for revenge or not, is beyond my comprehension. And if it was indeed out of personal revenge, I am now thinking twice before voicing out my opinion in case I unconsciously step on anyone’s toes.

I know someone who is in the midst of firing a local staff for gross misconduct. I must admit that after reading this news, I felt a bit uncomfortable, afraid for the person’s safety. The thought of being over-paranoid did come across my mind but then again, being relatively new to the country, I wasn’t sure whether the fear was as unfounded as I thought. I also question whether I would have reserved the same amount of respect and esteem for the person if he were to compromise his integrity and principles for fear of reprisal.

I talked to a colleague of mine who has been living in this country for 7 years and is married to a Cambodian. She told me never to take the typical smiles and hospitality of Cambodians for granted. Beneath the amiable facade, there is a sort of hidden sinister side often triggered by jealousy and loss of pride/face. She didn’t think that anything will happen to my friend but losing face (as a consequence of being fired) is a greater wrath than losing a job, particularly if the person’s incompetency is made known to others. According to her, Cambodians in general do not welcome criticism, more so in public, and do not like to be held responsible for any wrong doing. She warned me that when dealing with Cambodians, diplomacy, politeness and discretion must be strictly observed.

Strangely enough, these characteristics are very similar to those in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Timor Leste but the truth is, I haven’t felt as worried as I do now. I think it has a lot to do with appearance. I went to Afghanistan with a clear understanding and expectation of the culture. I knew that it would be potentially a dangerous work place and hence, I was mindful of the possibility of being harmed. Since Afghans are extremely conservative and proud, I was prepared to face any unpleasant reaction from those who might not approve of my views, particularly when it concerned human rights. Besides, the real threats often came from the Taliban, their sympathizers and warlords out of political or religious motivation.

Ethiopians are equally proud people and it is difficult to gain their trust. They too are warm, friendly and hospitable people. However, they usually display their dislikes for someone by ignoring or snubbing them. The Timorese whom I had come across were more ready and eager to express their intentions and hence, more transparent and easier to read.

What has made it more difficult for me in light of this new revelation is how long it took me to look beyond the appearances and I almost wish that I didn’t. I think it’s also important for me to clarify here that it would be completely unfair and wrong for me to generalise all Cambodians and the other nationalities mentioned above. It’s equally important to acknowledge that high crime rates are manifestation of low and weak law enforcement.

About a year ago, my husband and I were discussing about where we would like to settle down eventually. He prefers somewhere along the Mediterranean Sea while I prefer the Indian Ocean. Wherever it may be, we both know that unless we are able to look beyond idealism and accept the fallibilities of governments, societies and people, we will not be happy anywhere. I spent most part of my time in Ethiopia by loathing the country and being utterly unhappy. It wasn’t until towards the end of my stay that I began to live and start to see the positive side of things. Once I was able to open up my heart, there was room for other things apart from anger and bitterness and that was how  I made my peace and thankfully, it was not too late.

So, I think it’s important for us to learn to embrace life as it is; all the imperfections and perfections that come with it. Above all, not to allow our lives to be over powered by irrational fear which is ultimately the most debilitating of all diseases. It prevents you from living. A wall doesn’t cease to be a wall despite all its hairline cracks.

In the mean time, I will also remember my Mother’s advice to me when I first left home.  “Do not harm others but do not allow others to harm you as well.” What she meant was (mostly referring to my initial naiveté) while I should not hurt others, I should be weary of others who might and hence should be wise enough not to present any opportunity for others to endanger my life.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A fable on retribution

As a child, I’ve always enjoyed reading classic short stories by Hans Christian Anderson and fables from La Fontaine or Aesop. These stories are not only interesting and fun but also impart some sort of wisdom or moral lessons which are easy to understand and relate to.

I’ve long forgotten the joy of reading them until I came across one story by Beverly Naidoo in a book I’m currently reading, Lebanon, Lebanon; an anthology of short stories by a panel of world-renowned writers across the world. Since the book is sort of a tribute to the Lebanese people after the Israeli-Lebanon war in 2006, this story managed to capture the essence of how most wars come to being.

I hope I’m not infringing any copyrights law by replicating the story here. All credit must be given to the author. According to the book’s list of contributors, Beverly Naidoo joined the resistance to apartheid as a student in South Africa. After detention without trial she came to England, into exile. Her writings have won many awards including the Carnegie Medal.


Stork was in mourning. Her black feathers hung like a cloak around her white breast. Crying had made her eyes as blood red as her long beak. But tears could not bring back her babies. She was resolved to have her revenge on Crocodile, who had raided her nest.

Crocodile shall cry tears like mine,” she vowed.

Everyday she waited for hours in the reeds beside the water. The leg on which she stood was as still as a reed itself. Only in the evening shadows, when hunger made her feel faint, did her beak strike down like an arrow to catch one or two fish. Afterwards, she returned to her mute pose.

From her hiding place she saw where Crocodile hid her eggs in a hole on the riverbank. Patiently Stork waited, day after day, until the young had hatched. Silently she watched Crocodile carry the first baby in her mouth and lower it gently into the water. Stork remained perfectly quiet. As soon as the little crocodile began to swim away from the bank, its mother set off for her nest to collect another. Stork saw her chance and swooped. Lifting the crocodile baby in the cradle of her beak, she flew down the river and dropped it into an empty animal pen at the edge of the village. By the time the baby shrieked, its mother was too far away to hear.

One by one, while Crocodile’s back was turned, Stork captured every one of her twelve babies. When Crocodile realized that they had all disappeared. she screeched with rage and pain. Stork now flew up into a tree above the riverbank.

Have you seen my children?” Crocodile cried. Giant tears welled up in her eyes.

Oh yes,” Stork replied. “I have taken them.”

Where are they?” Crocodile roared. “Give them back or I’ll..”

If you want them back, you will have to bring me seventy fish for each child,” Stork said calmly.

Crocodile gnashed her teeth and whipped her tail but, in the end, it was agreed that the exchange would take place three days later. Crocodile knew that she would have to work night and day to collect enough fish in time.

On the day of the exchange, Crocodile pulled heavy basket of fish upstream towards the appointed place. On the way, she passed some villagers plucking a large bird near a fire. A small gust of wind caught one of the feathers and blew it towards Crocodile. It was a long, black feather. Fear lodged in Crocodile’s throat. She swam closer to the shore, and sure enough, the bird that the villagers were preparing to roast was Stork!

Crocodile wept tears of fury. She knew that she would never see her babies again. With a heavy heart, she turned away, swearing to kill all those who ate the bird that had stolen her babies.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Global aid contributes to global pollution

We the peoples…A stronger UN for a better world.”

These are the first words you see when you click on the UN official webpage. I’ve stolen the words but replaced them with a green font. I’m sure if you look at other major organizations’ mission statement, it bears similar sentiment of wanting to make the world a better place.

This article is about how global aid operations, in all its good intention have unconsciously or perhaps consciously neglected the environmental impact caused by excessive carbon emission from vehicles and generators, imperishable pollutants such as plastic bottles as well as chopping down of trees to accommodate its paper-based administration.

The UN is being singled out here for the mere reason that by far, it has the biggest peacekeeping/peace building and humanitarian operations in the world. Nevertheless, wherever there is a UN presence, there are hundreds more smaller aid organizations working alongside, including other inter-governmental agencies and UN agencies. Hence,the burden of responsibility is not limited to the UN only.

Currently, the UN is operating in Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Haiti, Timor Leste, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cyprus, Georgia, Kosova, Lebanon, and many more. In each mission, depending on the mandate and  resources poured into it, thousands of four-wheel drive and trucks are being deployed to assist the logistic aspect of the operation. On top of that, thousands of military and civilian staff are being recruited to execute  its mandates. With such sizable workforce, one can assume the amount of waste  being accumulated each day.

Now, in developing countries like those in Africa where cars are rare,  UN vehicles are probably the biggest contributors to environmental pollution. In addition to that, generators are often used to compensate for the often inadequate and erratic electricity supplies. Since clean drinking water poses a huge problem in most of these developing countries, all staff resorts to gallons of bottled water which are often disposed off without any thought on the environmental impact it produces. During these missions, hundreds of thousands (if not more) of A-4 paper are being used to print out often thick and lengthy documents which are read only by a handful of people.

Climate change is fast gaining global attention and yet aid organizations focussing on sustainable development are slowly addressing this issue. We have now begun to understand and recognize that climate change is one of the biggest causes of natural disaster, which in turn,  propagates the cycle of poverty. Tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes may have killed hundreds of thousands of people in the past few years, recurring flash flood and drought are the permanent nemesis of generations of people who rely on agriculture as their main source of livelihood.

And so, what are these organizations doing? They are developing more policies, resolutions and action plans to tackle food insecurity, population displacement, loss of assets and disaster management. All at the same time, unknowingly contributing to the cause of it. All these action plans are simply addressing the impact but not its cause.

I think that these aid organizations have failed to recognize and address one of the biggest catastrophes facing humanity today. It’s all well and fine when each wants to improve peace, human rights, democracy, rule of law, economic empowerment, mortality, health, education, etc. but what about our planet earth? Degradation of our planet is slowly becoming one of the main causes of human suffering and perhaps one day, a threat to the mere existence of humankind.

I think that if any of these organizations really want to make this world a better place, it should start to make concerted and committed effort in protecting our environment, especially of those that they claim to help. There are some measures that can be taken such as below and as idealistic as the idea sounds, one cannot deny the urgency that calls for such necessity.

1) Start from within. Each organization needs to set an exemplary role to others and this can be done by establishing internal policies and guidelines pertaining to environmental preservation. For instance, organizations like the UN which maintains huge presence in post-conflict countries should create an environmental unit to focus on what I would consider as one of the biggest challenges in the 21st century.

2) Practise what it preaches instead of just paying lip service. Aid organizations should consider turning green by implementing environmental friendly practices. Just as the many gender positions that have being created to promote and protect gender equality, environmental protection officers must be recognized as essential staff to help reinforce and promote these policies.

Some policies recommended are:

  • Start minimizing energy and paper consumption. Procurement of greener cars in future operation, using energy saving bulbs, installing solar panels in countries with sufficient and often excessive heat from the sun to run electrical operated appliances. Encourage staff to use recycled paper and print what’s only necessary on both sides of the paper. Such exercise is not difficult particularly when big organizations such as the UN often benefits from tax-exemption and competitive rate as a result of massive procurement needs.
  • Implement “green taxes”. Most aid workers, specifically the UN, do not pay income tax and as such, a small portion of their salaries can be used to subsidize some of the operational cost incurred by environmental policies.
  • Recycle imperishable waste. In UN compounds that house hundreds of staff, some sort of recycling mechanism should be adopted to reduce the amount of pollutants.

3) Start moving from a reactionary mentality to one of prevention and preparedness. I often feel that human beings are good at responding to threat but not at prevention and perhaps this is where all the problems come from. By spending excessive amount of resources to supply aid  after a disaster hits does not solve the problem. It becomes a greater problem when the organization’s presence contribute to exacerbating the process of polluting the environment.

4) Make environment protection as part of its agenda. When drafting and allocating operational budget, consideration must be given towards the implementation of environmental policies. The only way to realize such policies is to pursue it as vigorously as it would of other agenda and this includes financial commitment.

5) Promote as well as protect. Organizations that have access to the community often have the advantage and ability to reach out to the mass. Instead of just going to a village to distribute aid, it should also disseminate information on environmental protection. Besides this, huge humanitarian operations often attract attention from the media and this serves as a great tool towards global awareness.

Just as more and more organizations are adopting zero-tolerance policy against sexual exploitation, environmental protection must be included gradually as one of its top agenda. Organizations such as the UN has a huge potential to pave and leave a greener path on our planet. By subscribing to environmental friendly products and practices, it will change the course of how commercial products are being made and marketed. After all, we’re talking about millions of dollars being spent on the procurement of logistic equipment and if any company want a piece of the pie, they might start to think twice about creating more environmentally friendly products.

Last but not least, the UN has the ability to become our planet’s advocate through all its minions across the globe. Just as those first three words you see on its webpage, “we the peoples…” and so they should start from the “We” before it starts to think about making this world better. 

I received this email today from an unknown source and I think it aptly concludes this article.

“We should expand national and local capacities for disaster response preparedness, and complement this with up-scaling disaster risk reduction. This should be our contribution to climate change adaptation. In relation to climate change mitigation, we should promote social mobilization towards “greener lifestyles”, and community programmes to protect environmental assets as part of sustainable development initiatives. We should advocate on behalf of vulnerable people who are most affected by climate change”

p/s: The recommendations above are not only applicable to big organizations, but should also be strongly considered by any organization that claims to serve the people, regardless of its capacity and size.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Are Bhutanese genuinely happier than other nationalities?

If you want happiness for an hour -- take a nap. If you want happiness for a day -- go fishing. If you want happiness for a month -- get married. If you want happiness for a year -- inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime -- help someone else. (A Chinese proverb)

Bhutan is on top of my list of places to visit. This small Himalayan Kingdom is so isolated that not many people know much about this country with only 700,000 inhabitants. If you follow the news, you’ll know that it is known for two things.

On 24 March 2008, Bhutan held its first democratic election which officially ends its system of absolute monarch to constitutional monarch without executive power. Unlike its Nepalese counterpart, the election came as an aftermath of the Bhutanese King’s voluntary resignation and urge for his people to pursuit democracy. According to the Secretary of Information and Communications, “They resonate well, democracy and gross national happiness. Both places responsibility on the individual. Happiness is an individual pursuit and democracy is the empowerment of the individual.

This change in governance is part of Bhutan’s pursuit in gross national happiness (GNH). This term was first created by former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1972, soon after the demise of his father. It signalled his commitment to building an economy that would serve Bhutan’s unique culture based on Buddhist spiritual values.

According to Buddha’s teaching, the cause of suffering (as opposed to happiness) is want or desire. By rejecting such want and desire, one shall attain happiness. Which is why, when calculating gross national production of Bhutan, the criteria used is not economic benefits but by the happiness it produces.


The Bhutanese government has developed a unique and intricate model of well-being when measuring the gross national happiness, conducted every 2 years through its nationwide questionnaire.  The model consists of four pillars, nine domains and 72 indicators of happiness. The four pillars of a happy society involve economy, culture, environment and good governance, which then branches out to 9 domains; psychological well-being, ecology, health, education, culture, living standards, time use, community vitality and good governance.

The nine domains are then assessed using 72 indicators. An example given is from the psychological well-being domain where the indicators include the frequencies of prayer and meditation, feelings of selfishness, jealousy, calmness, compassion, generosity, frustration and suicidal thoughts.

While I feel that such “scientific formulas” are no doubt interesting and unique,  I feel that some of the questions asked are too subjective and not to mention unrealistic. For example, under the emotional experience indicator, respondents are asked how often they feel angry, guilty, jealous, forgiving, etc. in the past few weeks (see picture above). Unless each Bhutanese actually keeps a daily diary religiously, I think it would be difficult, if not impossible, to measure such state of emotion accurately.

Bhutan is the only country where cigarettes are banned (making it the first country to be tobacco free) and the television was introduced only 10 years ago. It is also probably the only country which makes it mandatory for its people to wear traditional clothing. Amongst these laws, laptops are being banned from parliamentary sessions for fear of representatives playing computer games.

Generally, I do agree that economic development is not indicative of a population’s happiness and hence, the gross national happiness is a better reflection of the overall well-being of a nation. The problem is, how does one define happiness and whether the concept of happiness can be accepted and agreed upon by the majority? When you look at the case of Bhutan, I also think that it is important to differentiate between what’s “forced happiness”; i.e. standards imposed by the government and a general consensus of what should represent happiness.

Going back to Buddha’s teaching, it would be difficult to discredit  wants and desires manifested by the internet and television (which incidentally are not banned in Bhutan) which often “market and sell” various forms of desire as well as dissatisfaction. If Bhutan’s standard of happiness is to reject the causes of suffering, then the government should also ban the media as well as its nationals from travelling abroad.

The last criticism I have about the GNH brings me back to the Chinese proverb at the beginning of this post. Today, the government of Bhutan is yet to answer for the hundreds of thousands of nationals with Nepalese ethnicity who have been stripped off their citizenships and deported to bordering Nepal, making them stateless. Many children have been borne and brought up in refugee camps without any identity or nationality. Neither the Nepalese nor Bhutanese governments want to have anything to do with them.

According the the Bhutanese government, these refugees are not Bhutanese but at the same time, is unable to explain why many of these refugees possess formal documents to prove their Bhutanese nationality.

I then question this, if a nation is able to feel proud of its GNH while hundreds of thousands of its people are being cast off on grounds of ethnicity, then something is terribly wrong. Either that, or we haven’t got a clue at all about happiness.

p/s: How would you define or understand happiness?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Road thrills that kills

Road traffic in Phnom Penh is a bit like a slow boat ride through a haunted tunnel. Most of the time you know that nothing exciting is going to happen because most drivers don’t speed. There’s hardly any room for speeding due to bad road condition, combined with swarms of motorbikes encroaching on narrow lanes, making it impossible to breeze through traffic at more than 60kmph.

At the same time, your heart can’t help but skip a beat or two whenever a motorbike seems to appear out of nowhere and often at high speed. It’s a time when you feel that something could go wrong and it’s beyond your control.

Yes, car drivers hardly speed but some motorbike riders do and they don’t stop at that. Very much like our very own Mat Rempits, these riders try hard to terrorise other road users by weaving along traffic without any concern for their safety or others. The scariest part of all, they often don’t wear helmets.

On 3 January this year, police began enforcement of helmet law in Cambodia. It came at a time when fatal road accidents involving motorcyclists are on a rise due to increasing number of vehicle users with extremely low driving skills and even lower respect for traffic laws.

When you take a tour of the city, it’s easy to sight images such as the one shown below. This picture, taken by Dr. Sok Long, Director of the Health Development Department of the Cambodian Red Cross, is called Motorbus for the obvious reason that a lot of motorbikes are often used to transport a whole family. Sometimes, I cringe when I see a baby cradled between the driver and passenger(s) on a motorbike. Very often, I also see young toddlers being held carelessly by the waist while balancing precariously on two feet. Such images are the ones that make the horror tunnel ride heart-gripping and nerve-wrecking.

Cambodia Motobus 

It has been 5 months since the start of the helmet law but the way I see it, the law is getting nowhere as I see more motorcyclists without than with helmets on their heads. Many people complain and justify that they can’t afford the helmets, which cost around USD1 each. But how do you explain many motorcyclists who ride around with helmets, not on their heads, but dangling around their shoulders like handbags? Perhaps, the scorching heat is preventing them from wearing them, or perhaps the helmet causes too much discomfort particularly on their vision? Most importantly, perhaps law enforcement officers are just not doing their jobs?

I think the answer lies on the high level of corruption within the law enforcement authorities. What boggles the mind though is how many Cambodians are willing to pay a bribe to escape penalty than buying a helmet.

I often wonder why Cambodians are not able to understand the importance of road safety. Does it not matter to them that lives are being compromised here? When I suggested to my husband, who is assisting the Cambodian Red Cross in its road safety campaign, that public exhibitions of graphic pictures of road fatalities are effective methods to shock and scare people into submission, he thought it might be too traumatizing for people who have lived a violent past. Then, someone who has lived in Cambodia for a long time told me that those pictures will do nothing to change the mindset of the people here. Apparently, they are used to violence and death here.

I remember when I was in primary school, we were forced to attend a road safety exhibition in school. Until today, I am not able to shake off the images of disfigured faces, crushed skulls and severed limps from my mind. Yes, it was traumatizing and perhaps not the best method for a child to witness such graphic images, but I honestly thought that the exhibition has left such a huge impact on my classmates and I that we are very careful when it comes to road safety.

Whether this would have provided the same impact on Cambodians or not, the more pressing issue is for the government to make a conscious effort to study the factors which are preventing the people from observing road safety regulations. As a start, there is a need to find out how to get the people to understand that these are not just rules, but something which is created for their own safety and the protection of their lives and the lives of their families.

I also think that economic conditions play a huge role in deterring people from obsessing about their safety on the road. Not many people can afford to buy a car here and hence, have to rely on a motorbike to transport their whole family. Cambodians are practical people. If the only way for a whole family to get from one point to another is by motorbike, then so be it. As such, I think the government needs to take this into consideration and starts to think of ways to provide safe and affordable public transportation. There are not many buses in the city. Some do resort to tuks-tuks but the same problem presented itself when eight to ten people pile into one.

Road accidents is one of the biggest killer today. If Cambodia wants to develop, it needs to think about the high rate of people that are being killed in the country every single day and this includes their future generation.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Mother’s Day – A time for reflection

Mother's Day

I can’t believe that I have forgotten about Mother’s Day but then again, I haven’t celebrated Mother’s Day with my Mother for a long time. I know that this note came a day too late but as they say, better late than never.

In the past few years, when I could, I would send a Mother’s Day card to my Mother from wherever I was. Otherwise, I tend to believe that the best way for me to pay tribute to my Mother is by not giving her unnecessary grief or any reason to be worry about me. I hope that I have succeeded in doing that and this is the least I can do for her.

In essence, I wish that everyday is Mother’s Day because mothers who really care hardly relinquish their role and they’re not mothers only on the first Sunday of every May. They are mothers every single day and many until the day they die.

I was reminded of Mother’s Day when I read Susan Loone’s blog entry bearing the title, “Not Everyone Wants A Mother’s Day”.  I thought it was a courageous and refreshing article. It provides a completely different perspective, shying away from the usual “airy-fairy” tales paying tribute to Mummy Dearest.

Since I am lucky to have a Mother who devotes her whole life to protecting my interest and was brought up in a circle of relatives and friends who have the same kind of mothers, my first encounter with “bad mothers” came about when I was in Afghanistan.

I was then working as a Human Rights Officer with the United Nations and came across a case where a woman was hung to death after she was accused of adultery. The facts presented to me were both shocking and sad. In order to redeem the family’s honour, the woman’s mother had sent her to the gallows with her own hands.

The thought of a mother giving up her daughter for death is inconceivable and against the law of nature as I thought it is the primal instinct of all mothers to defend and protect their offspring at all cost. As much as I question how a mother could have done that, I also wonder how a daughter would have felt knowing that her own mother is responsible for her death.

I’ve also read many stories where mothers have allowed their husbands or lovers to rape their daughters. What about mothers who abuse their children? In Cambodia, I’ve encountered cases where mothers sell their daughters to slavery and prostitution.  These are things which I can never understand and in some ways, I do wonder whether these mothers have themselves being victims of abuse when they were young.

Luckily enough, not all mothers are bad and in fact, a lot of the mothers I’ve known are simply amazing. They each try to bring up their children the best way they can.

Not too long ago, I managed to catch up with a friend who is taking care of her two young children; all by herself without the help of a maid or nanny. I am often amazed by how much energy she has because attending to the needs of two young children is not an easy feat and she seems to be managing it well on her own. She told me that there is a deep sense of satisfaction knowing that she could impart life skills and values to her children. Not many people are able to see or understand that motherhood is not just about feeding, bathing and providing shelter to their children. It’s much more than that and above all, it’s about bringing up children who will become responsible and independent adults.

To end this note, I think Mother’s Day should be a day for reflection. It’s a day for mothers to think about how much they have contributed towards shaping their children’s lives in a positive manner. It’s also a day for children to think about how much they have done in return for all the sacrifices their mothers have done for them.

Friday, May 8, 2009

“Our World. Your Move” Campaign: Celebrating World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day

“All can, in one way or another, each in his own sphere, and within his own limitations, do something to help move the good work forward.”

These powerful words were uttered by Henry Dunant following the Battle of Solferino 150 years ago. The founder of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement was one who believed that individuals have the power to make a difference and why not? He was a living example of how one person managed to change the ethics and conduct of warfare which is enshrined in the Geneva Conventions.

On 24 June 1859, Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman arrived in a small town in Solferino while on his way to Algeria. He witnessed the Battle of Solferino (part of the Austro-Sardinian war) which resulted in 40,000 soldiers on both sides dead or wounded in a single day. They were left on the battle field with no medical assistance. Horrified by the sight, Dunant abandoned his business plan and instead devoted to care for the wounded. He mobilized the local population to distribute aid to wounded soldiers without discrimination and this became the basis of humanitarian law.

This year is particularly special for the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, IFRC; International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC; and National Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies, NS) because it is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Solferino, 90th anniversary of the IFRC and 60th anniversary of the “modern day” Geneva Conventions and most significantly the 4th Convention.

I will not attempt to provide the historical background of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement in detail. Instead, I would like to focus on the National Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies, IFRC and my own experience with them.

It wasn’t until five years ago when I first heard about the IFRC. When we talk about the Red Cross, we often think about the ICRC and since I met my husband who works for the IFRC, I began to understand more about the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement.

There is a Red Cross/Red Crescent society in almost every country today. In Malaysia, we have the Red Crescent society and as a child, I remember being a member of the society in primary school. Unfortunately, I associated the society with marching in the sweltering heat of our tropical climate. I did not learn first aid, neither did I volunteer to raise fund for any victims of natural disaster. At that time, AIDS did not exist yet and I was definitely not aware of any food insecurity situation in the country, if there ever was. I hope that things have changed since then because being a member of the Red Crescent society is not about engaging oneself in boot camp activities.

About twenty years later, I learned that the IFRC is a federation of all the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. Unlike the ICRC, the IFRC is represented by the National Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies from each member state, very much like the United Nations and each country can only have one National Red Cross/Red Crescent Society (based on one of its seven fundamental principles of unity).

Although the IFRC carries out all the activities one would expect; disaster management, food security, health, etc., one of its main functions is also to provide capacity building and support to local national Red Cross/Red Crescent societies. As such, a huge bulk of its mandate is to work closely with local NSs.

When my husband received a job placement in Ethiopia, I volunteered for the Ethiopian Red Cross Society (ERCS). It was then when I first learned about the dynamics of the Red Cross Movement having lived and worked with those who were either involved with the IFRC, ERCS or ICRC. I would say that the experience was invaluable as it broadens up my own scope of understanding in terms of human rights as well as institutional operations.

Some would like to define humanitarian law as the human rights aspects of war and what this essentially means is that even during a civil or international conflict, the basic rights of soldiers and civilians must be observed regardless of political, religious, gender, racial or other forms of orientation. Although this is more or less what the ICRC’s mandate is, the IFRC and NSs often concentrate on humanitarian relief during times of war and peace.

In many ways, I find that working for the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement provides instant satisfaction when compared to the United Nations, which I worked for as a human rights officer several years ago. For instance, when there is a natural calamity, swift responses and actions are taken. There is no long discussion on diplomacy, international relations, politics or law. The main concern that triggers the whole movement is to save lives.

At a lower level where natural disasters are not the main issue, the Red Cross Movement concentrates on more basic needs such as health care, food distribution and over the past few years, tackling issues concerning climate change. Issues such as religious, political, cultural or criminal convictions are never in question. Neutrality is by far the most important principle which governs the whole Movement. To me, this is the essence of human rights.

Having said this, the intricacy of institutional relationships between the three entities (IFRC, NS and ICRC) can be a challenge and if so, it is mainly due to the issue of independence (they are all essentially independent bodies).  Nevertheless, due to their guiding principles of neutrality and humanity,  it is less complicated than the UN which is governed by State Members where politics often become the main issue of contention. The NS itself is independent from its own national government and hence should not be influenced by state policies.

As we slowly move into an era where human rights have become a major topic of concern, I would assume that many people often find it too daunting and dangerous to join in the struggles of activists who are often threatened by arrests and prison convictions in countries where civil and political rights are considered as devious forms of activities. If so, I would strongly encourage you to take up a humanitarian cause instead. While it is less “controversial”, the impact is not any lesser.

Providing basic needs to victims of natural disaster, learning first aid to save lives when it is needed, sensitizing people on HIV/AIDS and climate change, encouraging breastfeeding, educating people on road safety, etc. are all heroic acts that count towards sustaining humanity. You don’t have to become a champion for human rights by marching on the street in protest of government frailties, but you do need to take actions against other threats.

In conjunction with this year’s World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day, let’s remember what Henry Dunant said 150 years ago:

“All can, in one way or another, each in his own sphere, and within his own limitations, do something to help move the good work forward.”


p/s: For more information, please refer to and

Monday, May 4, 2009

Proselytization by the US Military Forces in Afghanistan poses death threats to many

This is an updated version of the post bearing the same title.

“Just as the Special Forces are hunting down al-Qaeda, we’re hunting down people for Jesus.”

I shuddered as I listened to a uniformed man (who appeared to be leading an evangelical worship session in Baghram where the US military force is based in Afghanistan) said in firing enthusiasm to his congregation on TV today. What’s worrying is the fact that the congregation is made up entirely of US military personnel. This video footage taken a year ago was released on Al-Jazeera news recently.

According to Al-Jazeera, a group of US military evangelists are proselytising in Afghanistan by giving out free copies of translated bibles to the local people while on duty. While I am a strong supporter of the freedom of religion, I feel that this group of soldiers are threading on very dangerous ground. For a start, as a military personnel, any religious activity should never be part of their mandate; may it be for personal or professional reasons.

The US Military Code of Conduct for Afghanistan specifically prohibits proselytizing of any religion, faith or practices and it’s shocking that these group of evangelists have boldly ignored and violated this code, also known as General Order No.1. When asked whether the soldiers are aware of this code, an officer who is set to become a chaplain answered, “you can’t proselytize but you can give gift.” He added, “I bought a carpet and then I gave the guy a bible after I conducted my business.”

This appears to be their modus operandi as a video footage showed copies of bibles being taken out from underneath a box of supplies that were distributed to the local community in Parwan province. The Provincial District Governor expressed her shock when she discovered six bibles at the bottom of what would appear as innocent military aid supplies. She said that she hastily burned five of the bibles out of fear and handed one to the local police authority.

Having lived and worked in Afghanistan, I know for a fact that military soldiers rarely take off their uniform even when they are conducting personal commercial transaction. It is common to see soldiers strolling along the local markets with their rifles strapped on their backs while haggling with Afghans over carpets and other knick-knacks. Even if a bible is intended to be a personal gift, it will not be perceived as such.

The US’s highest ranking military officer confirmed that it is not the US military’s position to promote any specific religion. The US Military Spokesperson told Al-Jazeera that they have confiscated bibles from those who were involved in such activities and some soldiers who appeared in the video have been reprimanded. The US Pentagon, however, has not issued any statement on this.

Three years ago, Abdel Rahman, an Afghan, was sentenced to death when he converted to Christianity. In 2007, twenty-three South Korean missionaries were held hostage by the Taliban and two were killed. A local journalist was sentenced to death last year for spreading information against Islam. A few years ago, cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad published in Denmark and allegations of US troops mistreating the Quran in Guantanamo Bay sparked off violent and bloody demonstrations which killed hundreds of civilians. All this clearly indicates the intolerance of religious conversion and blasphemy in Afghanistan. What the US military force is now doing, is to increase and reinforce the vulnerability of local Afghans and foreigners to further threats by religious fundamentalists.

As a UN Human Rights Officer in Afghanistan several years ago, I know that fundamental human rights are issues which have to be dealt with delicately, if not cautiously. It’s not just about serving a prison sentence if one is convicted of adultery, spreading information which is against Islam or apostasy. The penalty is usually death and because there is no proper rule of law system, chances of getting a sentence overturned or obtaining justice is close to zero. Even if such a system is in place, religious fundamentalists will not hesitate to take matters into their own hands.

Shortly after the release of this news on Al-Jazeera, the Taliban released a message on their website; threatening “harsh reprisals” targeting Pope Benedict XVI and Christians if the former does not intervene to stop Christians from proselytizing in Afghanistan.

There is an urgent need for the US to tackle this issue immediately for five reasons.

Firstly, it is necessary for its military force to re-gain credibility and trust from Afghans when its reputation has been sorely compromised over the last few years with the increasing cases of civilian deaths during military operations. Confirmation of torture and countless number of human rights violations on Guantamo Bay prisoners do nothing to increase the respect of the Talibans towards the US.

Ahmed Shah Ahmedzai, a former Afghan Prime Minister told Al-Jazeera that such activity is damaging for the diplomatic relations between the two country. He urged the US to conduct a serious investigation now that this information has come to the public’s knowledge. If the US military force wants to remain in Afghanistan to help restore peace and security, proselytizing activities will only serve to counter the objectives of its operation.

Secondly, such proselytizing activity will only jeopardize the lives of Afghans who may or may not be influenced by it, but the mere possession of bibles will automatically increase the suspicion of religious fundamentalists. And let’s face it, the Talibans have no qualms in taking any drastic actions against those who are suspected of going against Islam, even when it comes to killing.

Sayed Aalam Uddin Asser of the Islamic Front for Peace and Understanding in Kabul told Al-Jazeera, "It's a national security issue ... our constitution says nothing can take place in Afghanistan against Islam. If people come and propagate other religions which have no followers in Afghanistan [then] it creates problems for the people, for peace, for stability.”

Thirdly, hardcore religious fundamentalists like the Taliban reserve no room for reasoning nor negotiations. Any US citizen or those who have any association with it; may it be appearance, political, social or cultural in nature, can be considered as an enemy. As such, this poses a threat to those who may not necessarily have anything to do with proselytizing.

The message posted on the Taliban website claimed that dozens of Christian missionaries are proselytizing in Afghanistan under the guise of humanitarian non-governmental organizations. It also claimed that these groups are collaborating directly with American and other foreign troops in Afghanistan. According to them, “They are taking advantage of the war and of needy Afghans, who are driven towards the religious deviance of these groups.”

From a perspective of those in the thick and thin of it (commentary by unnamed source), it is felt that there is a right and responsible time and place for proselytizing and this (in a country like Afghanistan) is not the right time or place. Such activities and news place all civilians working in Afghanistan in greater danger. As the Taliban or Anti-Government Elements (AGE) do not make a distinction between international military forces, UN or NGOs, all of which are regarded as “international entities”, such reports make all foreigners a potential target. Also, in this regard, civilians are more vulnerable as by their very nature, they do not carry arms (rightly so) and do not travel in huge military convoys. This does not mean that they should be carrying arms but it means that civilians are easier targets and hence more vulnerable towards being kidnapped and killed – there has been an escalation of security incidents against NGO workers by AGEs in the past few years.

Fourthly, one cannot dispel the harms that have been caused by the US military’s engagement in proselytizing on genuine efforts and work by humanitarian organizations. While engagement in humanitarian activities to “win the hearts and minds” of local population by military operations has been a common practice to gain the trust and acceptance of local civilians (in essence, such activities are prohibited by the UN Security Council and handbooks of military coalition forces), the way these activities have been conducted, not to mentioned the boundaries that have been crossed by whatever hidden religious agenda; have all contributed to the shrinking of humanitarian space in Afghanistan. The US military force has not only reduced the integrity of humanitarian workers, but also rendered them as dangerous enemies who must be eradicated by all means.

Finally, when the US decided to send more troops into Afghanistan, it should keep in mind that its main objective and priority is to restore peace and security and this includes reducing civilian casualties during its military operations. With the increasing number of incidents and controversies surrounding the deaths of civilians; in which the US has often denied responsibility; indirectly contributing to further threats on civilians through proselytizing activities will not reduce the onus. The US must start to make serious effort to protect the security of civilians and not just pay lip service.

If the US does not wish to aggravate the already fragile state of security in Afghanistan, President Obama needs to do something about this immediately. If none of the above arguments holds any form of persuasion, proselytization is still a violation of any military code of conduct and for very good reasons too. Any religious belief or activities should never be associated with military operations.

These evangelists are in Afghanistan as soldiers of the United States of America, not God.

11 May 2009

Friday, May 1, 2009

Reasons to be nervous when meeting FB buddies for the first time


This post is inspired by my night out with a friend whom I haven’t met for a long time, her adorable daughter and three other new Facebook (FB) friends tonight. I must confess that I was a tad nervous meeting this new group of people for the first time. We have debated and shared quite a lot of opinions on FB on various issues and I have to say that they are definitely interesting and intellectually stimulating lot.

Anyway, here are some reasons to be nervous when meeting Facebook buddies for the first time. Feel free to add on to the list.

1) You can’t pretend to be smart since you can’t google every single unfamiliar terms being discussed.

2) You actually have to pay attention to the conversations. You can’t scroll back to read who said what and what was being said.

3) You can’t turn up being naked or dressed in your PJs.

4) You can’t choose which poses make you look  good and use photoshop to help hide any undesirable flaws on your person.

5) When you try to say something witty or funny, you have to be very convincing. There’s no time for you to think, write and edit. Don’t be surprised if you receive weird looks instead of blanks when you fail to execute your lines well.

6) You cannot have different conversations with different individuals simultaneously (this includes gossiping behind their backs) because that would be rude.

7) You can’t actually say w-t-f, f-asterisk-hash-percentage, etc. you get the gist.

8) You actually have to show your emotions and expressions; emoticons won’t save your life if you have no personality. For instance, you do know that you can’t fake a laugh by saying l-o-l exclamation mark.

9) You can’t simply ignore someone if they say something or invite you for something because that would be rude too.

10) You can’t keep updating someone about your status or state of being every few minutes because that would be weird, not to mention a tad too self-obsessed.

11) You have to be on top of things when it comes to what you are allowed to say or not to say and to whom since there is no exclusive message groups/threads to guide you.

12) You can count on people noticing your funny voice or any other strange characteristics you might have.

13) Of course, you do know that you will have to speak at some stage.

14) Poking/bitch slapping/tickling/annoying/throwing your knickers at someone, etc. is generally considered as socially inappropriate behaviour (in this country at least). This applies to rolling-on-the-floor-and-laughing-out-loud too.

15) You can’t instantly de-friend someone if he/she is a loser.

16) Just because you’ve finally met your cyber buddies for the first time, it doesn’t mean you will remain as their 305th friend in real life.