Sunday, July 31, 2011

Country of the Week: INDONESIA

On the left is Sukarno (d. 1970), Indonesia's first president. He is talking with Suharto (d. 2008), the military leader who would later oust him and rule the country for more than thirty years. [The kind of cap worn by Sukarno is called a "peci" by Indonesians].

Japan occupied Indonesia for most of World War II. Independence from the Netherlands was achieved in 1949.

By 1965, with the encouragement of Sukarno, the Communist Party was becoming more and more powerful, and showing its influence at all levels of government. The army was deeply split. In late September there was a coup attempt in which half a dozen senior generals were kidnapped and killed. General Suharto led the fightback, eventually taking the governmental reins of power, and had more than half a million leftists executed. "As a result of the purge, one of Sukarno's three pillars of support, the Indonesian Communist Party, was effectively eliminated by the other two, the military and political Islam."

As America ramped up the war in Vietnam, the evidence was clear that one of the biggest dominoes was not going to fall... The march of scientific socialism turned out to be a bit less inevitable than the Soviets and Chinese claimed.

[When Suharto came to power, all Indonesian students studying overseas were called home. Among them was the stepfather of Barack Obama -- so from age 6 to 10 he went to school in the capital city of Jakarta, before returning to Hawaii in 1971.]

Indonesia is the world's largest archipelago, with more than 17,000 islands straddling the equator -- about a third of which are inhabited. The two largest are Java (the world's most populous island) and Sumatra. Indonesia is roughly halfway between Australia and Vietnam.

Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population (over 200 million of 245 million total). Its northern neighbor Malaysia is also Muslim but had a British colonial history. Its most eastern neighbor East Timor is one of Asia's two majority-Catholic nations. In late 1975, East Timor declared its independence; but later that year was invaded and occupied by Indonesia, and was declared Indonesia's 27th province the following year. In 1999, East Timor became independent. The war for independence was bloody. The active Catholicity of the island owes more to the role of the Church in that conflict than its Portuguese history.

Though Indonesian Chinese make up just 4 percent of the population, they have traditionally dominated the economy. In recent years they have been subjected to many violent attacks.

Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas.

There are more active volcanoes in Indonesia than any other country. The most famous is Krakatoa, which in August 1883 exploded with such a bang that people heard it three thousand miles away.

The Komodo dragon -- the largest species of lizard -- is found on several islands of Indonesia. The males can grow as long as ten feet. They eat wild pigs and buffalo, deer, snakes, and dead fish.

Muslim traders worked their way eastward across Asia, journeying from India -- but there were no large conversions to Islam until the end of the 13th century in northern Sumatra. The Islamization of Indonesia was very slow, with much adaptation and syncretism. By the time the Dutch arrived at the start of the 17th century, though, most of Indonesia was Muslim (the only Hindu area was the island of Bali; east of Java, it is today the most popular tourist destination in the nation).

'La Serenissima' -- the serene Republic of Venice -- enjoyed a stranglehold over the spice trade in Europe from 1200 to 1500. (They were supplied by Arab traders who never revealed the exact source.) Everyone else of course was irascible at having to hand over so much lucre to the Venetians, which finally led to the Age of Discovery: "We'll find our own bloody route to the Spice Islands!" In 1512 Europeans began making contacts with Indonesians. The Portuguese explorer, Francisco Serrao, tried to take over the control of nutmeg and other spices in the Maluku Islands (Moluccas). [At the time, the small Banda Islands there were the world's only source.] Serrao's letters to his cousin, Ferdinand Magellan, helped persuade the Spanish king to finance the famous circumnavigation. In the 17th century the Dutch forcibly took control of the spice trade.

Today Indonesia still produces 75 percent of the world crop of nutmeg. The nutmeg tree provides both mace and nutmeg (slightly sweeter.)

UPDATE -- From a George Will column years ago on the subject of Krakatoa's 19th-century explosion: "Three months after the eruption, firemen in Poughkeepsie, New York, scrambled in search of what they thought was an immense conflagration that caused the sky to glow. Actually, the glow was light refracted by Krakatoa's debris."

Monday, July 25, 2011

Country of the Week: INDIA

"[India] is America’s most natural strategic ally in the 21st century, but most of the people in the two countries have only the vaguest ideas about their prospective new partners. This vast and diverse country with its thicket of cultures and religions is in some ways more like a continent than a nation state." (Walter Russell Mead)

With approximately 1.6 million employees, Indian Railways is the world's single largest employer.
Q: What's your preferred mode of travel?

Travel writer Paul Theroux: "The train—because I can read, walk around, sleep, talk to people, enjoy a sort of cultural experience, and get off anywhere I wish."

Q: In your writing, you tend to focus on individuals that you meet. Why?

Theroux: "I can't describe places in great sweeping generalizations. I need to speak person-to-person. I describe India and other places as having 'the accessible poor.' This is not the case in many other places. America, among others, has inaccessible poverty. I often ask Indians and Thais and Burmese and others: What's your name? Where do you live? How many children? How much money do you make? And so forth. Try asking those same questions in Appalachia; Jackson, Mississippi; East St. Louis; or areas of Los Angeles or Brooklyn."

An Indian school bus

The average age of people living in India is 26 (in Japan it is 45).India is mostly Hindu (80 percent), with Muslims making up 13 percent of the population. Buddhism, even though it originated in India, has less than one percent. [Thailand and Cambodia are about 95 percent Buddhist].

What is the most populated river basin in the world? The Ganges: the sacred waters for Hindus (but among the most polluted on earth). "The Ganga is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her racial memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India's age-long culture and civilization, ever-changing, ever-flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga." (from the will of Nehru, India's first prime minister, d. 1964)

Take a look at this map of the Ganges -- think northeast India, near Bangladesh. Mother Teresa's adopted city of Calcutta (Kolkata) is situated in its mouth.

The Mughal (Mogul) Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries was the high point of Islamic rule in India. The most famous of the 'Grand Moguls' is Akbar the Great, warrior and patron of the arts, who married a Hindu woman and rolled back some of the strict sharia laws. When Akbar [pictured below] died in 1605 his domain -- which began as a number of fiefs around Delhi -- covered most of northern and central India.

Another famous Islamic emperor in this era was Shah Jahan, who is buried in the Taj Mahal... which he built for the love of his life: dear Mumtaz ('cradle of excellence') who perished in giving birth to their 14th child. "With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven Coveted her and me."

When the first Muslim traders started traveling in the 7th century, they often made landfall in the Gujurat area of northwestern India -- part of the Indus River Valley (one of the world's most far-flung and earliest urban civilizations). The king of Gujurat allowed them to build a mosque there.

Today one of the nation's industrial states, Gujurat is India's fastest growing economy. It is the area where Mohandas Gandhi grew up.

In the summer of 1947 the British Indian Empire was dissolved into what turned out to be a violent partition: India and Pakistan. [Pakistan is now predicted to become the largest Muslim country by 2030.] In 1971 East Pakistan -- separated by a thousand miles -- broke away from the larger West Pakistan. The new nation, assisted militarily by India, called itself Bangladesh ('Country of Bengal.')

Currently, India is the world's leading importer of arms, most of which come from Russia.

[Among the men who served as American ambassadors to India were Daniel Patrick Moynihan and John Kenneth Galbraith. The latter, a few years before his death, told an Indian journalist: "I have no doubt whatever that if you had to have an imperial master, it better be England. It was the good fortune of all the countries that have been part of the British empire." That from a progressive who increasingly viewed 'national sovereignty' as a pejorative...]

Monday, July 18, 2011

Country of the Week: CHINA

"The history of mankind is the history of people and water."

The longest river in China is the Yangtze, beginning in the far western Plateau of Tibet and emptying into the East China Sea just north of Shanghai. It has plenty of rainfall all year round. The most impressive section of the river's 4,000-mile course is the gorges -- stunning precipitous valleys. The Three Gorges Dam, completed several years ago despite social and environmental upheaval, has increased the shipping capacity of the river.

The Yangtze Delta by Shanghai has its own problems; it has been called "the biggest cause of marine pollution in the Pacific Ocean."

The second longest river, the Yellow ("cradle of Chinese civilization"), has always had a high silt concentration; in its lower reaches it is essentially a river of mud. Nowadays it is very polluted as well. The Yellow River ends about 120 miles southeast of Beijing -- its course is much farther north than the Yangtze.

In other words, the Yellow River traverses a region with far less rainfall -- close to the expanding Gobi Desert and subject to droughts. The underground aquifers are no longer sufficient to supply Beijing and the rest of the nearly 500 million residents of the north China plain. A story last month in the 'NY Times' began: "North China is dying."

Almost a third of the land in China is desert, and the rapid industrialization may greatly increase that figure. The per capita water volume is only 1/4 of the world average.

The South/North Project is a massive government effort to divert water from the Yangtze to the Yellow River. One of the ways they will do this is to upgrade the Grand Canal. (Sections of it were built long before the birth of Christ; today it covers more than a thousand miles).

Two troubles which are slowing the South/North diversion project: environmental worries and escalating costs -- so far, twice as much as the massive Three Gorges project.

Take a look at this physical map of China.

Also a map of the Grand Canal showing how it connects the two big rivers and where they empty into the sea.

Below is a statue of the Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci who used the canal on his way to Beijing in 1598, and wrote: "So great is the number of boats that, frequently, many days are lost in transit by crowding each other, particularly when water is low in the canals... During the hot summer season much of the foodstuffs, which are perhaps a month or two in transportation, would spoil before reaching Beijing, so they are kept in ice to preserve them."

(Father Ricci was the first Westerner to be invited into the Forbidden City. He established the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the oldest Catholic church in Beijing.)

[In America we are used to saying "south-west" or "north-east," but in China they put the east or west first -- for instance, "east-south" or "west-north."]

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The four forces of nature

Pence writes --

"There are four fundamental forces in nature:

The strong nuclear --- an attractive force that acts only at very very short distances -- holds together neutrons and protons in the nucleus of atoms.

The electromagnetic force -- the attractive force and repulsive force between unlike charges and like charges. It keeps electrons in discreet energy shells around the positively charged protons of an atom.

Gravity -- an attractive force acting at small and great distances keeps planets orbiting the Sun and drew together Hydrogen and Helium atoms into the stars that populate the universe.

Weak nuclear force -- a force that governs radioactive decay. 

The physicists say all these forces were united in a single force and then broke open at the appearance of energy and matter.  These four forces can explain almost all chemical and physical processes but not the big bang itself and the force needed for the continual expansion of most matter in the universe today. 

Neither do these forces account for the movement toward interiority, agency, and hierarchy we see in life.

I call God the 'Fifth Force.' God explains the fundamental fact of the expanding universe and the obvious countervailing tendency toward life and ultimate cephalization and communal formation of humans.
Men need and seek causes. The 'fundamental' forces give us causes for all the details except the most important. How come all matter is going boom-boom out into the cold lonely outer-space: and what is drawing back some of matter into the interiority of life and human consciousness?"