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Why do mobile phone numbers outnumber humans in Cambodia?

An impoverished nation awash in SIM cards
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A Cambodian man talks on his mobile phone in Phnom Penh on June 24, 2011. (TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images)

Cambodia is among Southeast Asia's most impoverished nations where, according to the United Nations, the majority of the population gets by on just $1 a day.

But that hasn't stopped them from buying mobile phones like mad. As the Phnom Penh Post reports, the country has somehow managed to reach 20 million sales in SIM cards, the little chips inserted into cell phones that are encoded with unique phone numbers.

That's a wild statistic considering that the population stands at 14 million.

How is this possible?

For starters, SIM cards in Cambodia sell for just $2. Basic cell phone models run for about $20 and users can simply pop their SIM into a new handset when they upgrade.

Those prices aren't just a reflection of Cambodia's meager incomes. They're the outcome of intense competition among Cambodia's service providers. The loosely regulated and oversaturated market had, at one point, a whopping nine providers jockeying for customers.

And, finally, Cambodia's mobile phone mania is also owed to its decrepit infrastructure. As the CEO of the Cambodian provider Hello recently told the Phnom Penh Post, the "fixed line infrastructure in Cambodia is quite poor. So, this country has sort of leap-frogged technologies and gone straight to mobile."

All of that amounts to a telecommunications landscape marked by $2 cell phone numbers, effortless handset upgrades and cheap rates. Now don't you despise your U.S. carrier just a little more after reading this?


India: Is the justice system broken?

Rampant human rights violations, dismal conviction rates, skyrocketing crime, and nearly 400,000 inmates in prison--only a third of whom have actually been convicted. Justice, Indian style.
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Is India's justice system broken? Its prisons house nearly 400,000 inmates, only about a third of whom have ever been convicted of a crime. And more than 1,000 have spent five years in jail without ever seeing the inside of a court. (AFP/Getty Images)

A wag once remarked that a trip through the Indian court system is as near to experiencing eternity as a living soul can get. But it's not just slow. Despite well-written laws and legions of well-intentioned cops, lawyers, judges, and activists, the Indian justice system is abusive, arbitrary, and above all ineffective.

In short, it's badly broken. And the only answer that seems to gain any traction is to make it tougher, or more arbitrary.  

The current arguments run that the death penalty to be meted out to rapists, or that juveniles should be tried as adults, or, as a cop friend pointed out, that the police must be freed from petty concerns about human rights, to strike fear of law and order into the hearts of criminals.

But consider some stats put together this week by the Wall Street Journal's Real Time blog, as part of a seris on the justice system.


India's rape protests reflect disenchantment with democracy

Indians feel betrayed by a democratic system that has entrenched extortion of its citizens, argues Prem Shankar Jha
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Anti-rape protests in New Delhi, following the vicious gang rape of a 23-year-old student, reflected a growing disenchantment with India's failing democracy, argues Prem Shankar Jha. (AFP/Getty Images)

They weren't really protesting against rape, Prem Shankar Jha argues in a persuasive and thought-provoking column in Tuesday's Hindu.  They were really protesting extortion.


"Barring a few lapses, the Central and State governments acted promptly, and with commendable efficiency," Jha writes. "The Delhi police captured the alleged rapists within hours and the government spared no expense in its attempt to save her life."

So why were people so angry?

"The answer is that the rape acted as the trigger for an older, and deeper, anger in people — one that has been smouldering for years in their hearts. This stems from a profound sense of betrayal. Democracy was meant to empower them. Instead, in a way that few of them understand even today, it has done the exact opposite."

I'm not entirely convinced. But as I wrote in my article on the protests, it does seem clear that anger over violence against women dovetailed with disgust over corruption and the government's many failures in service delivery.

More importantly, Jha draws out some interesting observations in arguing his point.

(1) Indians aren't mad about bribery, they're mad about extortion

Every Indian worth his salt has paid a bribe to get preferential treatment. But extortion isn't voluntary.

"It requires no contract; no negotiation; and therefore no element of consent. It is a simple exercise of brute power by an employee or representative of the state over the citizen. Its commonest form is to deny the citizen the services to which he is entitled until he agrees to make a ‘private’ payment to the functionary in whom the power of the state is vested. Every act of extortion is a fresh reminder to the citizen of his or her impotence. This becomes complete if he or she is denied redress for the abuse of power."

(2) Democracy hasn't empowered the people

"One set of figures illustrates the impunity with which civil servants can break the law. According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s annual report Crime in India 2007, between 2003 and 2007 citizens filed 282, 384 complaints of human rights abuses against the police. Of these only 79,000 were investigated; only 1,070 policemen were brought to trial and only 264 — less than one in a thousand — were convicted."


Myanmar air strikes creep closer to Chinese border

As mortars rain down, president hails military's "sacrifices in blood"
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Unverified locations of Myanmar military air strikes around the nation's northern border with China. The image, created by the Kachin News Group, details alleged positions of government strikes against the Kachin ethnic group's guerrilla army, known as the Kachin Independence Army. (Image created by Kachin News Group) (Screengrab)

So much for peace in Myanmar.

Though lightly reported in the West, air assaults appear to be intensifying along the remote Myanmar-China border -- a mountainous zone where ethnic guerrillas and state forces are locked in combat.

These are scenes government leaders claim they want to leave behind: mortars lobbed into a populated insurgency town (Laiza, a stronghold located right on the Chinese border) and helicopter gunships firing munitions into guerrilla camps.

As I've written previously, hard facts from this region -- populated by the largely Christianized Kachin ethnic group -- are hard to come by. But several air strike locations on this map, created by a Kachin news outlet, are backed up by independent sources.

Myanmar's leaders -- eager to spotlight their grand new reforms -- have finally admitted to using attack aircraft on guerrilla forces that have none of their own.

That doesn't mean the nature of these attacks are entirely clear. Example: while the Kachin fighters claim to have shot down a chopper, the government reports a helicopter's "emergency landing due to engine failure" in which three crew members "sacrificed their lives for the country."

Meanwhile, President Thein Sein is lauding the "sacrifices in blood and sweat" made by Myanmar's military, according to Agence France-Presse. An op-ed in a Kachin news outlet warns that the government is "enouraging Balkanization" and that "there is no choice but to rebel."

Though failing to capture many headlines in America, this intensifying war at China's border could very well portend the course of a nation growing closer to the U.S. while continuing to suffer all-out ethnic conflict both in its mountains and on its coast.


India: Life of Pi, a touch of frivolous whimsy

Here's why I haven't seen Ang Lee's latest, and don't plan on it.
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Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (R) and Swedish actress Alicia Vikander (2nd R) pose next to cast members during a photocall to present his film 'A Royal Affair' (En Kongelig AffÊre ) at the Berlinale International film festival on February 16, 2012 in Berlin. The film was nominated in the Best Foreign Film category for the 2013 Oscars. (GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Booker choice all at sea
Life of Pi, By Yann Martel.

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared the Far Eastern Economic Review in November 2002).

LIFE OF PI, the winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize, is a delightful little book--and I mean that in the worst possible way. Author Yann Martel and the British-based committee that chose the winning book made much of the novel's supposed religious overtones. But Martel's claim that this is a book that will make you believe in God, or at least question why you don't, is a gross exaggeration.

Life of Pi is no Moby Dick. By choosing to award the Commonwealth and Ireland's highest literary prize to Life of Pi, the Man Booker committee has rewarded the most irritating characteristic of contemporary literary writing: whimsy.

The plot summary is itself discouraging. A young Indian boy, Piscine Molitor Patel--named after a Parisian swimming pool--cutely adopts Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. A shipwreck strands him on a lifeboat in the Pacific with a 205-kilogram Bengal tiger. Relying on nothing but his wits and an amusingly frank survival guidebook, "Pi" must find a way to collect water and catch fish. Pi must also tame the tiger, which has its own name to inspire a collective groan, Richard Parker (which was also the name of a victim in a notorious case of cannibalism at sea in the 1870s).

Reviewers and publicists have described this story as a boys' adventure for grown-ups and as a fable of magical realism. But it lacks the seriousness to rank among either. Because the tale is told tongue in cheek--precluding readers' suspension of disbelief--it fails as a boys' adventure story. Nor does the novel have the historical sweep and philosophical depth on which magical realism depends. Life of Pi gives you the feeling the author is just fooling around. Moreover, and this is its worst failing, Pi's sojourn in the lifeboat--with no speaking companions--feels about 50 days too long.


Oscar nominations: watch announcement live (VIDEO)

Seth McFarlane and Emma Stone announced the eagerly-anticipated 2013 nominations, which included foreign film candidates from Austria, Chile, Denmark, Canada and Norway.
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Tourists take snapshots outside the Kodak Theatre on May 1, 2012 in Hollywood, California, the venue that hosts the annual Oscars show which was renamed the Dolby Theatre on May 1, 2012, after the audio pioneer gained naming rights previously held by the bankrupt camera company Kodak. (Robyn Beck /AFP/Getty Images)
The 2013 Oscar Nominations will be announced today by actors Seth McFarlane and Emma Stone in an 8:35 livestream — an announcement that marks the first time since 1972 that an Oscars host has released the list of contestants.

India: Has Mediocracy already convicted Delhi gang rape 5?

India's high-profile gang rape case has parallels with New York's Central Park jogger case
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New York City Councilman Charles Barron (R), from Brooklyn's district 42, leads a protest outside of Manhattan's Criminal Court September 30, 2002 in New York City. The group was protesting what they feel has been the wrongful conviction of five Harlem men in the 1989 rape of a Central Park jogger. All of the men have served from seven to twelve years in prison. Prior to the men's conviction, the case sparked a media frenzy similar to the one elicited by the December 16, 2012 gang rape of a 23-year-old physical therapy student in New Delhi. (AFP/Getty Images)

Can the five adults and one juvenile suspects in the notorious Delhi gang rape case expect a fair trial? Probably not.

On paper, the men accused of the vicious assault will enjoy all the advantages of India's liberal justice system, apart from the high-priced, influential lawyers that only the wealthy can afford. But cases are not tried on paper, and this one exhibits every sign that it will not be tried in the Saket district court where they made their first appearance on Monday. Instead, like so many court cases, government policies, and bureaucratic actions, it will be decided by the country's real rulers: The Mediocracy.

"This is a media trial," senior Delhi High Court advocate Rajinder Singh told me in a Q&A yesterday. "Even the judges who are going to be responsible for these trials are motivated by the media and what is going on in the country."

In almost every story I've reported, whether it's about poor people starving because of government corruption or a city cleaning up its act after an unhealthy dose of the plague, somebody will say it: All this is only happening because of the media attention. And if the media attention goes away too soon, "all this" stops happening, too.  (Consider the Wall Street Journal's neat encapsulation and the Washington Post's history of "high profile" Indian rape cases and the policies they engendered, such as an innovative and effective Delhi Police outreach program called Parivartan, which began in 2006 after a sensational case and then quietly died as the media attention to the issue waned, according to the Economic Times).

Call it the power of the press, and it's a good thing. The government isn't functioning -- it's failing to feed the hungry, or failing to curb corruption (the main cause of the first failure), and the journalists step in.  But the short attention span of the news cycle isn't enough to initiate real change--consider the country's revolving door elections--and as the Delhi gang rape case indicates to some degree, what makes news is often connected with caste- and class-related biases. (Rape and humiliation is a daily reality for women from the castes once known as "untouchable," for instance, yet the media's sporadic coverage of the problem has never gained much traction, as Badri Narayan pointed out for The Hindu). 

On Wednesday, a high-handed New York Times editorial cautioned that "there are disturbing aspects to the way the case is being handled." They're right. But the editors might have a look at the newspaper morgue before they get TOO snippy: There are several parallels (as well as contrasts) here to the brutal New York City rape and beating of the so-called "Central Park jogger" in 1989-- which ignited a similar media frenzy. 


Vietnam: girl suspended over Ho Chi Minh joke

"Never shall we have to take the exam again. We have to stand up!"
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A Vietnamese girl holds a flag during a ceremony at a local elementary school in downtown Hanoi on September 5, 2012. (HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)

Stuffy Vietnamese authority figures: 1, middle-school humor: 0.

An eighth-grade Vietnamese girl has been suspended for one year over a Facebook post parodying a 1946 speech by revered freedom fighter Ho Chi Minh, the news outlet Thanh Nien reports.

It's a decent parody, especially for a middle schooler. It adopts Ho Chi Minh's revolutionary tone and, in lieu of stoking an uprising against the colonial French, vows resistance against exams.

This is an excerpt from Ho Chi Minh's original 1946 speech: "We have made concessions. But the more concessions we make, the more the French colonialists press on. Never shall we be enslaved. Our resistance war will be hard and protracted but certainly successful."

Here's the girl's Facebook post via Thanh Nien: "As we desire peace, we have made concessions. But the more concessions we make, the more the teachers press on, for they are bent on failing us once again. No, we would rather sacrifice all than be dismissed."

It gets better: “All students, whether boy or girl, good or stupid, tall or short have to find ways to get good marks in the exam. Those who have health will use their health, those who have heads will use their heads. Those who have neither health or head have to copy or use cheat sheets.”

The school's authorities tell Thanh Nien the girl is guilty of “insulting her school and teachers” and “distorting history.”

But isn't this the sort of kid you wanted to sit next to in home room?


Myanmar: how the regime sees its widely condemned war

State-aligned press depicts guerrilla forces as brutal, duplicitous
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A soldier from the All Burma Students Democratic Front - Northern Burma, an ally of the Kachin Independence Army, holding his weapon in September, 2012, as he looks out from an outpost near Laiza. (AFP PHOTO/ Soe Than WIN) (SOE THAN WIN/AFP/Getty Images)

The ongoing air strikes lobbed by Myanmar's military at resistance forces along the Chinese border is drawing predictable condemnation.

The U.S. State Department calls the attacks on the largely Christian guerrilla fighters -- the Kachin Independence Army -- "extremely troubling," the New York Times reports. Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations head honcho, has also urged the military to cease the conflict, according to Reuters.

But how is the conflict playing out in the government-aligned press?

Look no further than the New Light of Myanmar, an often-mocked source of government propaganda that, in recent years, blasted Western media for its "killer broadcasts" and "sowing hatred."

From yesterday's edition, we learn that the Kachin guerrillas "sabotaged railroads and motor roads" all while "extorting money" from a local ethnic group and "planting land mines near villages ... to generate misunderstanding" between villagers and the government.

On January 6, New Light readers were told the guerrillas "blasted trucks, abducted local women, sabotaged railroad and bridges and planted mines in urban area."

And in the New Year's Day issue, the government alleges that the Kachin soldiers "committed 101 mine attacks in Kachin State" since late May, 2011.

Is any of it remotely true?

We first must consider that totally independent, on-the-ground reporting out of Myanmar's conflict zones is notoriously hard to come by. Typically, the only witnesses to these conflicts are the combatants themselves and nearby villagers. Among Western media outlets, writing negative copy about guerrilla resistance factions -- which often defend villagers from army abuses and land grabs -- is uncommon and taboo.

But given the government's long track record of abuse -- and the New Light of Myanmar's penchant for pro-state hyperbole -- these stories of sabotage and abduction can't be afforded the benefit of the doubt.


Malaysia: much ado over "Allah" bibles

Some Muslim leaders begrudgingly accept Christians sharing holy word
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A Malay Christian prays on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur on November 20, 2012. (SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

There are signs that influential Muslim leaders in Malaysia are finally coming to terms with a long-standing gripe against Christians.

The dispute? To some Muslims' dismay, Malay Christians also prefer to use the word "Allah" when describing their god.

Given Islam's deep influence on the Malaysian peninsula and the Malay language, many Christians see "Allah" as the go-to word for their maker. Some Muslims, however, feel the word should be reserved exclusively for their God.

This is no gentle debate over semantics. Just two years ago, authorities blocked the import of "Allah" bibles and relented only after customs officials adhered stickers reading "FOR CHRISTIANS" to every cover. And in 2010, when courts ruled in the Christians' favor, irate Muslims torched several churches.

But, as the Malaysian Insider reports, even one of Malaysia's most conservative religious parties -- the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party -- is acknowledging that Christians are within their rights to use the word "Allah." A spokesman with the fundamentalist party had urged Christians to forego "Allah" in a Christmas statement but was overruled by the party's leader who, according to the Insider, quickly cleared up the party's official stance.

There are plenty of Islamic fundamentalists in Malaysia who will never grow comfortable with non-Muslims using "Allah."

But an agreement to share the word by one of the nation's bastions of fundamentalism suggests that, just maybe, Malaysians can overcome this semantics quarrel that has drawn out for far too long.