Archive for December, 2012
New York- In the summer of 1999 I embarked on an ambitious backpacking trip attempting to travel from London to Lahore entirely overland/water. The second to last leg of this rambling adventure was securing a visa for the Islamic Republic of Iran, the preferred exonym of the country’s post-1979 clerical revolutionary rulers. I anxiously applied for a transit visa (a tourist visa would’ve been much harder to come by at the time) at the Iranian embassy in Ankara and was gruffly informed the process could take as long as several weeks-which seemed like an eternity at that age.
In the interim I travelled extensively around southeastern Turkey/Kurdistan, skirting along the Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian, Azeri, and Armenian borderlands. I was just scratching the surface of both Eurasia’s utterly complex, divisive histories and my interest in photography. For I wanted not to be a photojournalist showing the world bursting at the seems, but a photographer using gorgeous imagery composed of diverse human and physical geography that emphasized man’s commonalities.
If I had envisioned myself as a war correspondent then I would have gotten myself into Kosovo that summer, rather than giving the Balkan conflict a very wide berth in circumambulating through the Italian peninsula when traveling from Budapest to Athens. To me at the time, wars were transitory events and historical epochs seemed eternal.
After 15 days of traveling through vast swaths of Turkey completely devoid of the hordes of ANZAC backpackers frolicking in Istanbul and its party-all-the-time West on the notorious Fez Bus circuit, I was finally granted an Iranian visa. But with my fall university semester quickly on the horizon back out in San Diego and having already traveled to Doğubeyazıt on the Turkey-Iran border, I had to fly to Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport in order to save time and have enough days to travel through nearly all of Pakistan afterward and return to California in time to sign up for that fall’s classes.
Arriving in Tehran, I then embarked on a massive road tour via the country’s bus network that would eventually have me riding in a Balochi smuggler’s Toyota Hi-lux truck to the Mirjaveh/Taftan border and crossing a mind-blowing civilizational boundary separating the Iranian plateau from South Asia on foot. There are richer elements to this story but I am leaving them in my long form, as yet unpublished book project. I stumbled on these photos while working on another project and felt like throwing up a few images to remind myself of this hopeful time period if nothing else.
New York- I have a piece in today’s edition of Asia Times Online about Russia, Chechnya and the Russian view of Syria. Russia, like it’s red-headed authoritarian stepchild China, constantly asserts an inviolable concept known as “national sovereignty” which is essentially a brutal policy used to suppress ethnic questions within present day borders.
Being schooled in the West, it is easy to believe that an empires had two distinct traits that defined them: they began with death defying, deep sea voyages that emanated from western and northern Europe and that after the immense devastation European societies incurred during the second world war, they had no choice but to abandon their colonies in Africa and Asia whose upkeep and administration was no longer viable as Europe’s shattered nation-states were forced to turn inward in order to rebuild themselves from the ground up.
Beginning with the Netherlands’s withdrawal from Indonesia in 1949 and Britain’s exit from Libya in 1951 and largely ending (at least in a formal sense) with the collapse of the recalcitrant Portuguese empire in 1975, Europe’s last remaining maritime colonial power, Americans and other Westerners have been under the impression that the Age of Empire is a dusty relic of a best forgotten time period that long predated the political correctness revolution that began in the early 1990s.
But what this unfortunate view of history largely obscures though is that broader Eurasia today remains a continent of present-day land-based empires who have very much yet to embrace “the end of history” as it were. Russia’s never-ending struggles to contain ethnic rebellion in the Caucasus and even ensure that a restless Republic of Tatarstan remains in the Kremlin’s fold and a China still very much wrestling with the Tibet question while trying to turn Xinjiang Province into some sort of a living cultural museum run by ethnic-Han migrants, indicates that the still subjugated populations in these regions often view Moscow and Beijing as colonial powers in the post-modern Oriental sense of things.
So sure, at points you will have people abroad advocating for human rights in these places in order to serve an anti-authoritarian agenda but the post-war Western powers with their own unaccounted for, sordid history of collective rape and colonization, combined with half-hearted diplomacy that is doomed to fail from the start and hampered by both conservative isolationists and anti-imperialists at home, means that there are no worthwhile mechanisms for resolving these conflicts.
So in essence, Chechnya and Tibet, Tatarstan and East Turkestan can have no realistic hope of achieving an independent statehood because the very IDEA that they are presently under the yoke of empire has been suppressed. When the British Foreign Office issues weak kneed statements like “Tibet is part of China. Full stop” and when President Bill Clinton characterized the then ongoing ethnocide in Chechnya as an “internal affair” for the Russians alone to resolve, Whitehall, the White House and others abet expansionist authoritarianism with Eurasian characteristics.
Russia, and to a somewhat lesser extent China, have extended this hardened concept of non-interventionism to the unwilling inhabitants of Syria. Today, we the world have let the ancient, stunning city of Aleppo be transformed into another Grozny. When will it stop?
New York- I had a piece out in Friday’s edition of Asia Times Online about the massive diplomatic row belatedly caused the Chinese government’s new biometric passport. In one fell swoop, Beijing managed to ruffle feathers from the remotest corners of the South China Sea to the Himalayas. I did my best to write a long-ish piece within reason discussing most of the disputes highlighted by the passport as well as some that either were not or have not yet been discussed in the mainstream press.
There seems to be a now ingrained conventional wisdom that the era of large scale land wars between state powers is dead and that from the 1990s onward conflicts will be either state versus non-state or sub-state groups as in Lebanon 2006 or states fighting via non-state proxies versus discredited regimes as in Syria today. But as the short but hot August 2008 Russian invasion and brief occupation of the Republic of Georgia illustrated, a conventional land war in Eurasia or a maritime one in the cases of the East and South China Seas is far from out of the question.
China and India fought a brief but symbolic land war in 1962 when the PLA invaded Arunchal Pradesh and permanently occupied Aksai Chin while acquiring the Shaksgam Valley from Pakistan the following year in a quid pro quo arrangement with the Pakistani regime at the time (the Sino-Indian War). Then China invaded Viet Nam in 1979 as retribution for Hanoi forcibly deposing the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge and subsequently occupying neighboring Cambodia the previous year (the Sino-Vietnamese War). [It should be said that both of these conflicts can be discussed in the broader context of the Sino-Soviet split]
To young post-Cold War kids, these events may as well be consigned to ancient history but they are very much alive in the minds of the military strategists and foreign policy Mandarins of the aforementioned states. A lot has changed since 1962 in that India has attempted to form a nuclear balance against China-which had the deleterious diplomatic side effect of spawning a nuclear arms race with erstwhile China ally Pakistan. Viet Nam, meanwhile, pulled out of Cambodia in 1989, lost its Soviet patron in 1991, and is in the awkward process of drawing closer to the United States-and its ASEAN ally the Philippines-partly in reaction to its varied and sundry islet disputes with China to the north (even though both Hanoi and Manila have claims on the Spratlys).
One point I want to quickly clarify is that the so-called ‘nine-dash’ line that encompasses much of the South China/West Philippine Sea predates the Maoist takeover of China in 1949-but just barely. The New York Times has alluded to this pre-Communist cartographic assertion here and here. The line was originally drawn by the Kuomintang regime in 1947 and then adopted by Mao beginning in 1953 according to a Singaporean publication, Energy and Geopolitics in the South China Sea: Implication for ASEAN and Its Dialogue Partners. Some sources say the original U-shaped line was comprised of 11 dashes and later reduced to nine.
On a much lighter, soulful note, check out this Nina Simone gem I found on Youtube: