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new internationalist
issue 320 - January-February 2000

The New Internationalist welcomes your letters. But please keep them short.
They may be edited for purposes of space or clarity.
Include a home telephone number if possible and send your letters
to the nearest editorial office or e-mail to : [email protected]

Simplistic view
Cover of the NI Issue 318 I confess to some disappointment on receipt of the issue on Indonesia (NI 318). It is easy for someone coming from an established, largely monocultural democratic state to see independent states for all minorities as the panacea for the future happiness and well-being of their peoples, but this is a simplistic view when applied to the vast majority of developing countries – and even many first-world states.

It would be of more value to examine how in general (though not absolutely) an Asian nation such as India has managed to satisfy its many linguistic and ethnic groups.

The cohesion of Indonesia was a product of Dutch colonial rule and the nationalists who overthrew the Dutch were pan-Indonesian in their outlook.

It would be a tragedy if this broad vision were eroded and replaced by petty tribalism because of the excesses and corruption of the recent Indonesian governments. The successor governments to British and French colonial rule in Africa have consistently maintained that political boundaries are not to be altered on the grounds of ethnic uniformity. Once started, there would be no end to such a process.

This should not mean that the persecution or exploitation of minorities should be ignored, but more positively that our moral pressure should be designed to get all the peoples a fairer deal, whether Javanese, Balinese or Sumatran. East Timor was never part of the Dutch East Indies and its justifiable return to independence should not and does not provide a precedent for secessionist movements elsewhere in the archipelago.

C David Smith
Whitby, England

Repeating history
I was reading the ‘Update’ on the nuclear disarmament protesters found not guilty (NI 317) and it reminded me of how history repeats itself. On 12 September 1972, I was one of 12 people arrested on the Burlington Northern train tracks for a protest against arms being shipped from Bangor Naval Ammunition Depot headed for Vietnam.

Similar to the case reported by Jeff Shaw, a jury in the Kitsap county found in favor of the protesters in spite of the fact that they were clearly involved in the acts with which they were charged, ‘trespassing on railroad track and obstructing or delaying a railroad train’.

I say ‘they’ since I was living in New York at the time and had to separate myself from the group, mainly people from the University Friends in Seattle. I went to court and paid my fine and returned home.

The remaining eleven pled ‘entrapment’ since we/they had been told prior to the event, that we would be given a warning that we were breaking the law. We would then be given an opportunity to vacate the tracks, leaving only those who were prepared to be arrested. Instead of the promised warning, we were all summarily arrested and jailed for the night.

(As a side line, I was arrested by one of my former students from East Bremerton High School where I had taught in 1962-63.)

Julia Normand
Klawock, US

Debt and interest rates
Thank you for your terrific issue dedicated to the debt crisis (NI 312). While leaders of G8 nations have since agreed to provide modest debt relief to the world’s poorest nations, this is no cause for complacency.

Rather, these nations must be convinced of the need and justification to go much further than current proposals – for which the NI makes a strong case. I would only like to suggest that in addition to the four listed on the cover, another central pillar in the argument for a complete cancellation of poor-nation debt is the role which soaring interest rates have played in its explosion, given that they are rooted almost entirely in economic activities in the North.

Much of the debt poor nations now owe can be directly linked to rising interest rates in the world banking system during the 1970s and 1980s (together with falling currencies), which were largely a product of the boom in speculative activities (particularly currency gambling) that followed the collapse of the gold standard in 1973. The agents and beneficiaries of this speculative boom reside overwhelmingly in wealthy nations, while poor nations victimized by rising interest rates struggle to meet ever-increasing interest payments, much less pay down their debt principal.

Tony Weis
Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Illustration by VIV QUILLIN
Illustration by VIV QUILLIN

Every month I turn first to the ‘Country profile’. It is an opportunity to read about parts of the world that don’t often make the news, although sometimes they should. However, in the NI 315 the study of Azerbaijan contains a number of misleading statements and omissions that require correction.

Independent Azerbaijan is the poorest of all the former Soviet republics. It is today the only state, in recent decades, which has been attacked and invaded by a neighbour, Armenia, which in 1994 captured and annexed 20 per cent of the entire territory of the state including the mountainous territory of Nagorno-Karabagh and its Armenian population (2.3 per cent of the total).

This has created an expelled population of close to a million Azeris ‘cleansed’ from their homes and living in tent cities in a country too poor even to feed them.

It is misleading to describe this breach of international law and the UN charter as an unresolved ‘war’ and the present suffering as a ‘ceasefire’. For some reason we have not reacted to this travesty, and are unlikely now to do so. The world is full of ethnic enclaves, and if this form of ‘liberation’ becomes acceptable, the twenty-first century will be a bloody one.

The US has cut off all aid to Azerbaijan until they acquiesce in the loss of their territory to Armenia. Azerbaijan remains the only former Soviet republic to be so treated. In the meantime Armenia remains the fourth-largest recipient of American aid.

The NI assessment at the end of the profile observes that ‘Genuine democracy may slowly emerge over the next decade’. It may take longer than that if the Azeris learn from the way they have been treated by other ‘genuine democracies’.

Adrian Adamson
Toronto, Canada

Bad for your ethics
My home city of Hull has produced its own alarming variant on the ‘Coca Cola classroom’ (NI 315). The Local Education Authority (LEA) has entered into a close association with British Aerospace (BAe), which is a major employer in the region. BAe is both the official partner for the design and technology courses in Hull schools and the main private-sector partner in the city’s recently inaugurated Education Action Zone.

The attraction of these partnerships to an LEA desperate to lift its underfunded schools from the bottom of national league tables is obvious. The company provides high-tech equipment such as video-conferencing suites, and technical expertise – resources that would be beyond the means of schools if they relied on state funding alone.

For its part BAe claims a benign self-interest: it is simply helping to train the engineers of the future. How far this impartiality will continue remains to be seen. Would a company with such an overwhelming reliance on ‘defence’ sales be tempted to stifle classroom discussions about the moral implications of the arms trade, for example?

Even if such direct intervention does not occur, BAe will certainly benefit from what is an excellent public-relations exercise. As one head teacher put it, BAe will be seen as the company that provides the computers, not the company that exports arms.

It seems that ill-conceived educational partnerships can be bad for your ethics as well as your health.

Stephen Walsh
Hull, England

The views expressed in these letters are not necessarily those of the New Internationalist

Letter from Lebanon

The perfect art gallery
Reem Haddad meets Khalil, a militia member turned artist.

[image, unknown] Like many former militia members I had met, Khalil was bitter about the years of his youth spent fighting an unknown enemy for an undetermined cause. As suddenly as it had started, the war ended in 1990, leaving thousands of young men unable to fit back into society.

Most had dropped out of school to join militias and few – after 16 years of fighting – felt compelled to join vocational schools. Some ended up joining the police force or the army and others spend their days roaming the country searching for employment.
But for 30-year-old Khalil, there was only one option.

‘I am an artist,’ he said proudly.

When I urged him to share some of his war stories with me, he refused.

‘That’s over. Now I’m an artist,’ he repeated and eagerly began telling me about his love for art. Watching him, I couldn’t imagine the bespectacled, soft-spoken and constantly smiling artist as a hard-core militia fighter carrying arms and firing shells at his enemy.

As soon as the fighting ceased, Khalil hung up his guns and began working on his paintings.

Two years later, the budding artist felt he was ready to exhibit his work. But to his disappointment, he was turned away.

‘It’s because I’m a beginner,’ he said. ‘They didn’t think I had earned the right to exhibit in galleries.’

Undaunted, Khalil searched for ways to exhibit his art. The chance came last spring when a friend offered him a small room in an old and shabby part of town to set up a workshop. To reach the room, Khalil had to climb a flight of stairs surrounded by several old traditional Lebanese houses with high arches and red terracotta tiles. He realized that he had found the perfect art gallery.

But the challenge ahead of him was great. The stairs were broken and bridled with huge amounts of trash. The stench from an open sewage pipe was overwhelming.

Khalil set to work. He bought paint, brushes, cement and parts for the broken sewage pipes. Under the watch of bemused nearby residents, he began to work. After days of shovelling the trash, he set to work repairing the stairs and the sewage pipes.

‘It was awful at first,’ he said. ‘There was so much trash and dirt, dripping water pipes, filthy walls, holes in the ground and sewage. Neighbours had sealed their windows with plastic sheets. There was one big tree, but no birds. That always bothered me.’

At the beginning passers-by and residents gave Khalil strange looks. Friends dropped by to tease him about it.

‘But one day, after I had been working for a month, something strange happened,’ he said. ‘People started stopping by and offering to help. There was a lot to do, so I immediately accepted. I guess word went around because suddenly I had more helpers than I knew what to do with. Some were my friends, but most I had never seen before. I bought a bunch of paintbrushes, T-shirts and trousers, and handed them out.’

Altogether, a hundred people joined Khalil at different times. For over two months, they cleaned, fixed, and painted the stairs and the first floors of surrounding houses.

Neighbours soon removed the plastic sheets from their windows, and shouted encouragement – and offers of lunch – to the artist. One resident who had planned to pull down his old house decided not to do so after the small neighbourhood was transformed.

Other neighbours joined in and offered the use of their premises as part of the art exhibition. An electrician came by and donated lighting equipment.

Finally, the exhibition area was ready. The lights were set up and the paintings displayed. At the opening, Khalil was surprised when a delegation of the area’s residents presented him with the Holy Qur’an as a token of gratitude for renovating their neighbourhood.

The exhibition was an instant hit. Since it was a public stairway, the ‘gallery’ remained for 24 hours throughout the 10 exhibition days.

‘I slept the entire time on the stairs,’ said Khalil. ‘I thought somebody would steal or harm the paintings. But no-one did.’

And almost all the paintings were sold.

‘I am an artist now,’ he told me once more. ‘Life just began again.’

Reem Haddad is a reporter on the Daily Star in Beirut.

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New Internationalist issue 320 magazine cover This article is from the January-February 2000 issue of New Internationalist.
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