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by Peter Moskos

January 24, 2014

The strange and wonderful world out there...

I'm back. It's cold. Rwanda was great, Addis Ababa interesting, and Bangkok was as nice as always.

Stop 1: Rwanda

If you don't know Rwanda (and we didn't), you wouldn't know what to expect. I knew nothing about Rwanda except for a history of genocide, the Iwawa Island reform school (not, I should point out, a prison), a ban on plastic bags, and a certain Hotel Rwanda. Then, in 2011, I met Police Officer Rogers Rutikanga at Britain's National Policing College (AKA: NPIA, Bramshill). I never actually expected I would visit Rwanda, but it all worked out this January. And how nice it was!

The genocide, let's not forget, happened just twenty years ago. And this was an actual genocide and not just a euphemism for "a whole lot of violence." In a genocide one side systematically kills all of the other. It's not a war or a battle or gang/tribal violence. It's a genocide. There's a difference. The Hutus set out to kill each and every Tutsi they could get their hands on. And over 100 days they got their hands on a lot. Today those who were meant to be on receiving end of genocide (but managed to hide or escape) are now basically in the driver's seat. And to their credit, Rwanda has *not* gone down the path of vengeance, retaliation, and retribution. It's really quite impressive, especially when you consider Rwanda's neighbors.

Of course a lot has changed since 1994. And for the better! Today Rwanda is peaceful, progressing, and clean. (And how nice to be in a litter-free country!)

The people are friendly. As the Ugandan-American woman next to me on the flight in said, "Of course it's poor, but you'll see happy people. People are much more angry and less happy in America." Despite all we have.

You can safely walk down the street day or night. There are very few beggars or no street urchins (thanks to Iwara Island). There is no litter. The weather is great. Rwandan food (and coffee) is delicious. The beers are large and cold. Also, we hear there are gorillas in the mist.

So did we drink the Kool-Aid? Perhaps. Is everything in Rwanda a bed of roses? Of course not. It is poor country. There is repression of the press and political opponents. But it's hard not feel for President Kigami given how far the country has come. There's something to be said for good governance, rule of law and progressive leadership. But we love their beautiful country!

Rwanda (mad thanks to Rogers and Eric) was the highlight of our trip. And that's saying a lot for a trip that ended in Thailand.

The only downside as a tourist in Rwanda is that the country isn't actually that cheap (for the middle-class visitor). At least not compared to Ethiopia and Thailand. But we did feel like our money was well spent and going to good people in a good country.

My one niggling fear comes from nobody being able to answer a rather simple democratic question: "...and who might be the next president?"

(Also, Kigali will soon have a horrible traffic problem. Right now the country is still borderline pre-car.)

All my Rwanda pics here.

Stop 2: Addis Ababa

All my life I've wanted to go to Ethiopia. Something about the wonderful food and the wonderful Ethiopians I've met who have served me that food. (I fashion myself as an expert injera maker, for what it's worth, having done so at least three times.) So I've always had rose-tinted glasses which picturing Ethiopia. And let me tell me, you need extra rose in your tint when you're viewing Addis Ababa. Especially when you're coming from Rwanda.

Addis is a dusty city with a shocking amount of abject sleeping-in-the-street poverty. There is some persistent begging. Our friend and traveling companion got his phone pick-pocketed by a clumsy street urchin (clumsy because the little thief then dropped the phone and our friend grabbed it back). Addis also suffers a bit from the legacy of overly wide boulevards that were all the rage of communist planning. And because the telecoms system is a corrupt monopoly, we actually had a tough time finding working wi-fi. Bad internet... how quaint. Also, not only does Ethiopia have it's own calender (we arrived on Jan 7, Christmas Day) but it's own clock. That sh*t is crazy, man.

Still, I don't want to be too negative. It was a fun visit. Ethiopian food is indeed delicious (and they eat it all the time)! And the coffee and beers are top notch. And funky Ethiopian music didn't disappear in the 1970s -- not at all (on Ethiopian Airlines, even the soothing boarding music is rockin'!).

Alas, as were only there for three days, we didn't get out of Addis Ababa at all (plus, we like people and cities). Also, I got to speak at Addis Ababa University, the largest university in Africa (thanks to Susanne Epple and the fine Department of Social Anthropology).

More Addis pics here.

Stop 3: Bangkok

This was our fourth trip to Bangkok in five years. Why? Because we love Bangkok and now we have some friends there. That said, a bit of the magic was gone this time. Bangkok wasn't any worse. Not at all. But the novelty wasn't there. I was reminded of this by first-time visitors with us. They loved all the things we too were shocked by in our previous visits. These things are just as cool/heartwarming/delicious as there were. But for us the novelty wasn't there. Still, how can you not love walking around in a city where every day can end in $8 one-hour foot massage.

Now about those "emergency measures" just declared. Well here's my summary of the situation in Thailand:

The current leader, a woman, Yingluck Shinawatra, is the sister of a former leader, a man, Thaksin Shinawatra, who is accused of running the country from Dubai, where he is in exile to avoid a jail sentence for corruption. Their supporters, based among poor rice farmers in the north, are called Red Shirts. They are the majority. They have won all the recent elections. That is why they are in power.

The main objection to the ruling party seems to be that they buy rice from poor farmers at inflated prices. The opposition calls this "vote buying." In the US we call this "farm subsidies." At least in Thailand this money actually goes to poor farmers.

Meanwhile, back in Bangkok, this ruling party is not popular. Bangkok is not a Red Shirt stronghold. Support for the opposition comes mostly from people in Bangkok and in the south (not including the Malay Muslim opposition, some of whom are in active armed revolt). Among the opposition are many rich people who are used to calling the shots. But now they are not in power and they don't like that. Rather than expand their base to win elections, they have taken to the streets (a limited analogy could be made the US Republicans failure to recognize and gain the support of a growing number of Mexican immigrants).

The opposition elite still have a lot of influence in the military and to a lesser extent the police. The opposition that used to be in power (and may be again) were known as the Yellow Shirts (though these shirt color labels have faded among the current anti-democratic protests which are led by Suthep Thaugsuban, who has a history of corruption.

All sides are pro-monarchy (but the opposition implies that the Red Shirt ruling party is secretly anti-monarchy).

So the opposition can't win an election and doesn't like the populist policies of the government. Instead of expanding their base and winning an election. These elite decide to "shut down Bangkok" and overthrow democracy. That is their stated goal. They want to establish a vague unelected commission (think General Sisi in Egypt) to "reform" the constitution. Somehow they claim this is all in the name of democracy. It is not.

The opposition has money. Meanwhile the ruling party has shown a shocking amount of patience towards an openly treasonous demonstration. Major intersections are shut down (like eight of them in a city that has few alternative routes) in a party/streetfair kind of way. Food stands set up shop. As do people giving foot massage. There are many whistles. There is talk of "capturing" the prime minister. Occasionally government officers are stormed, but generally peacefully.

Life in the city goes on. The city is less polluted than usual thanks to fewer cars, and it's great to be able to cross streets that are normally jammed with traffic. For the average tourist, life is more pleasant with the protests.

The protesters (mostly likely) have actually bombed themselves (the route of a march was moved at the last moment to go by a vacant building out of which a was is thrown... and then police are kept out of the building by the protesters who fail to catch the suspect?!).

Why would they do this? To create instability that would lead to a coup and the end of democracy. The response from western press? Surprisingly sympathetic, coming from the same people who considered Occupy a crazy radical country-threatening movement!

We didn't leave Bangkok except for one night. And we make no apologies for that. No more than one would apologize for not leaving New York, Paris, or Berlin. Current issues notwithstanding, Bangkok is still a fabulous city and the Hotel Atlanta is one of the best hotel bargains in the world.

My Bangkok pics here.


It's all a bit strange to come back to America and hear so much kvetching (also it's cold!). Republicans complaining about Democrats. Upper East Siders complaining their snow wasn't plowed fast enough. Trains were delayed for a few hours. People on the radio are worried about being "labeled" and "offended." There are real (non-significant) first-world problems.

We have much to be thankful for. How lucky we are to have idle time and be able to take such trips. And how very lucky -- some might even say blessed -- to be born and live in a country with relatively little poverty, a stable democracy, a roof over our head, and plenty of clean food and water.


Mordanicus said...

In a democracy people should have freedom of speech, even if they happen to be anti-democrats. As long as demonstration are peaceful, the government should tolerate those. However, if demonstrators turn to violence they have to knocked down.

PCM said...

I agree, but what about when protesters peacefully shut down the city and take over government buildings? What happens when they turn to violence against themselves to provoke instability and a coup?

Mordanicus said...

I would not call shutting down a city "peacefully", and taking over government buildings is and should be a crime since it is clearly an undemocratic move, and it has nothing to with freedom of speech.