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India's motivation problem: From the Kumbh Mela to the Jaipur Foot

The World Bank sees reason for hope in the 'pop-up megacity' built for the Kumbh Mela. Here's why it just confirms my despair.
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ALLAHABAD, INDIA - FEBRUARY 12: Hindu pilgrims walk across a pontoon bridge as others bathe on the banks of Sangam, the confluence of the holy rivers Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati, during the Maha Kumbh Mela on February 12, 2013 in Allahabad, India. The Maha Kumbh Mela, believed to be the largest religious gathering on earth is held every 12 years on the banks of Sangam, the confluence of the holy rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. The Kumbh Mela alternates between the cities of Nasik, Allahabad, Ujjain and Haridwar every three years. The Maha Kumbh Mela celebrated at the holy site of Sangam in Allahabad, is the largest and holiest, celebrated over 55 days, it is expected to attract over 100 million people. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images) (Daniel Berehulak/AFP/Getty Images)

Everybody from Harvard researchers to the World Bank (not to mention the World Hindu Council) found reason for hope at this year's Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. Here's why their findings just drove me deeper into despair.

As the Financial Times points out, Onno Ruhl, the head of the World Bank in India, observed in Allahabad that the otherwise incompetent authorities of Uttar Pradesh are able to build an efficient "pop-up megacity" every three years for the massive religious festival. This year, for instance, they built a tent city for 2 million people in less than three months, "complete with hard roads, toilets, running water, electricity, food shops, garbage collection and well-manned police stations."  All things that the government has by and large failed to provide the population of its permanent cities, towns and villages over many decades.

Inspiring? To me, not so much.

The conclusion that Ruhl and others draw from this experience is that India is capable of solving its notorious infrastructure problems. But that is self-evident. Anything that America can do, India can do. The issue is not one of ability, but of will. And that's where I get depressed. India CAN solve problems, but it WON'T. And the reason is hidden in the throwaway "explanation" that the bureaucrat in charge of the project gives for its success.

"First, the authorities ensure that all those working on the project are accountable for their actions and the money they spend. Second, those involved are highly motivated," the FT cites Allahabad divisional commissioner Devesh Chaturvedi as saying.

“They feel it’s a real service to all these pilgrims who have come here, the sadhus [holy men] and the seers, so it’s a sort of mission which motivates them to work extra, despite difficult working conditions,” Chaturvedi says.

This is the same non-explanation that I have received time and again when I've visited "success stories" like the cleanup of Surat, Gujarat -- which was inspired by a bout of the plague in 1994 to reinvent itself of one of India's cleanest cities. Things happen because somebody actually cares and takes responsibility. Or, what is the more depressing flip side, apart from an occasional blip on the radar, every public activity in India is a complete and unmitigated failure because nobody cares and everybody would rather, for example, steal from the public distribution system than ensure that starving people get food.

Take the Jaipur Foot, a remarkable low-cost prosthetics project profiled in this month's Forbes India. Again, everybody from Harvard Business School on down has examined the project to see how they've managed to provide prosthetic limbs to 1.3 million people for free. But all they've been able to come up with is that it is the result of the efforts of a single man, a former bureaucrat named Devendra Raj Mehta. And now that he's getting up in years, the very real fear is that the project may well die with him.


Philippines: Rogue "Sultan's Army" says US obligated to support its militants

You helped crush our sultanate in the 1900s. Now you owe us.
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Jamalul Kiram, sultan of the southern Philippine island chain of Sulu, tells reporters that his armed followers who have crossed over to Malaysia will continue to demand land that historically belonged to his sultanate. (NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images) (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

You'd be hard pressed to find much about this in an American high school history textbook. But, exactly 100 years ago, US forces violently subdued Islamic militants in the modern-day Philippines and the fighting left upwards of 10,000 dead.

That war was the last gasp of the Sultanate of Sulu, an Islamic kingdom that once ruled a large portion of the Philippine tropics. The conflict ended in American colonial victory and the sultanate drained of its power.

Well, guess who's back?

It seems the sultanate -- kept alive mostly in name only -- now has a new self-proclaimed "Royal Army."

And according to the contemporary sultan, a descendent of the ruler quelled by the US long ago, Americans are obligated to support his forces in a crusade to recover lost soil.

As the regional press has furiously reported, a group of roughly 200 militants -- a portion of them armed with assault rifles -- sailed two weeks ago from the Philippines to a lush corner of Sabah, a province of Malaysia. Their claim in a nutshell: though the land has been "rented" and bandied about between regional and colonial powers since the 19th century, it rightfully belongs to the sultan. They earned the territory fair and square, they say, as a prize for helping the Sultan of Brunei quell an insurrection in 1704.

The Philippine Star has a photo of the "Sultan's Army" in uniform here.

Though little reported in the West, high drama surrounds this endeavor, which is an armed invasion in the eyes of Philippine and Malaysian officials.

Malaysian forces have showed restraint but a standoff drags onward. The Philippine president, according to The Star, has told the sultan that "these times require you to use your influence to prevail on our countrymen to desist from this hopeless cause."

Instead, the sultan is prevailing on the US government.

Through a spokesman, the aging sultan said he intended to reach out to President Barack Obama to remind the US that, when America overran the sultanate, it promised "full protection" should a problem arise with foreign powers. He referred specically, the Inquirer reports, to a 1915 agreement between an occupying U.S. governor and his ruling sultan predecessor.

You can read the agreement here. I'm no lawyer but it doesn't appear to promise anything about protection. It states that, in return for accepting America's sovereignty, the sultan is assured that the US won't strip his nominal title or undermine his religious gravitas.

In short, it's a lousy deal for a ruler who just lost a very bloody conflict and has scant bargaining power.

What are the odds of Obama siding with a ragtag "army" of 200 over two sovereign nations with which it enjoys good relations?


But the ensuing conflict is a reminder of how America's largely forgotten colonial wars can to continue to reverberate into the modern news cycle.


What’s the most critical and under-appreciated issue in international security? World peace

Commentary: Wars between countries are rare, a fact that may predict long-term trends.
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Belarussian soldiers and oficers dressed in Soviet Army and Wermacht wartime uniforms perform a show reproducing a World War II battle at the place called "Stalin's line" in the village of Goroshki, some 35 kms from Minsk, on Nov. 19, 2011. (VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images)
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The very phrase “world peace” has become something of a synonym for naiveté. Yet in recent years, compelling evidence has emerged to suggest that at least one important aspect of world peace, the absence or rarity of war between countries, may in fact be close to a reality.

China's knick-knack diplomacy

Pushing sovereignty on the sly
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A Filipino activist burns a Chinese flag during a protest in Manila on July 27, 2012, amidst the heightening tension between the Philippines and China over the disputed South China Sea. (TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)

Introducing China's latest tools of political subterfuge: chintsy globes and paper lanterns.

Both the Philippines and Vietnam are irate over knick-knacks produced in China and exported into their soverign territories.

Why? Because they bear maps or titles that depict Asia as China's government sees it, i.e., with almost all of the oil-rich South China Sea belonging to China.

Both Vietnam and the Philippines claim large swaths of the sea, which lies in their aquatic backyard.


The Face of Fanaticism emerges again in Timbuktu

Commentary: Muslim extremism will take a long time to burn out.
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A man walks on Jan. 29, 2013 in the ruins of the Sidi Moctar shrine, which was destroyed by Islamists in July, in a cemetery of Timbuktu. (ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
Commentary: Muslim extremism will take a long time to burn out.

Myanmar: Kachin guerrillas turn down Suu Kyi's offer to broker peace

Why help from one of Asia's best-known dissidents isn't always welcome.
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Kachin Independence Army (KIA) 3rd Brigade soldiers stand guard as they secure an area on Hka Ya mountain in Kachin province on Jan. 20, 2013. Fighting in Myanmar continues between Myanmar’s military and the KIA — a rebel group which occupies territory along the Chinese border. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
A full 20 months into a civil war inside her homeland, dissident-turned-parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi says she'll help ethnic guerrillas and government officials broker peace. The guerrilla army's response? No, thanks.

India's hanging judge: President lays foundation for flurry of executions

Recently inducted Indian President Pranab Mukherjee has already okayed more executions than his predecessors did over 15 years -- and he's just getting started.
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All India Anti Terrorist Front (AIATF) activists shout slogans as they celebrate the execution of Mohammed Afzal Guru, in Amritsar on February 9, 2013. A Kashmiri separatist was executed Saturday over his role in a deadly attack on parliament in New Delhi in 2001, an episode that brought nuclear-armed India and Pakistan to the brink of war. (AFP/Getty Images)

With fat-frame spectacles and a cherub's face, India's president doesn't look like a bloodthirsty killer. But in his first seven months in office, he's already set the local speed record for sending prisoners to the gallows, and it looks like he may just be getting started.

According to the Times of India, Mukherjee has already presided over more executions than his predecessors managed in 15 years.

In November 2012, Mukherjee quietly okayed the secret dawn execution of convicted Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab, caught on camera during the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Earlier this month, he approved the secret dawn hanging of convicted Kashmiri terrorist Afzal Guru, who was convicted of plotting the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament based primarily on a confession made in police custody. On Thursday, Mukherjee reportedly rejected the mercy pleas of four associates of the famous bandit Veerappan -- clearing the way for the execution of the men, who were convicted of killing 22 people, including policemen, in a landmine blast in 1993. And there are reportedly eight more convicts whose mercy pleas are pending.

Human rights activists have condemned the executions that have already been carried out on moral grounds, disputing the government's right to kill its citizens for any reason. But whatever your views on the death penalty, the timing and manner of these hangings is deeply troubling. 


Thailand: How the cops failed a tortured girl from Myanmar

A maimed 12-year-old mishandled by police
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An image published by Daily News, a Thai-language outlet, of a 12-year-old from Myanmar who was allegedly kidnapped and forced to work for a Thai couple under torturous conditions for five years. (Screengrab)

Old-school newspaper editors call it the "breakfast test."

If an image is vile enough to cause readers to upchuck into their cereal while perusing the paper, it doesn't make the front page.

Well, I hope you're not eating breakfast.

This is the full photo, taken in a rural Thai police station, of a 12-year-old girl -- shirtless and pigtailed -- facing away from the camera. Her back has been boiled to the raw meat. She's surrounded by grown men taking snapshots and it appears she's being examined by a cop.

As the Thai-language "Daily News" reports, the girl hails from the persecuted Karen ethnic group in Myanmar. She's reportedly told police that a Thai couple kidnapped her, forced her tend to their house pets like a slave and tortured her with boiling water. As she told the Daily News, it was "like falling into hell."

For the full details of this sickening saga, I defer to a Thai writer who blogs in English, Kaewmala, who has posted a lengthy account on the Web site Asian Correspondent. Her excellent post explains how this case is reverberating throughout Thailand.

Instead, I choose to focus specifically on Thailand's police.

Last year, GlobalPost published "Seafood Slavery," my investigation into migrants (mostly from Myanmar) duped into servitude on filthy fishing trawlers. As with this girl, those victims were failed by Thailand's police. 

A pertinent quote from the series:

The accounts of former captives portray local police as vultures, not liberators. “The Thai government must address the fact that most Thai police at local and provincial levels are predators of migrants,” said Phil Robertson, the Bangkok-based deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

“Let me use that word clearly,” Robertson said. “Predators. Who will extort and abuse migrants. If a migrant goes to make a report at the local police station, they will not be listened to and, in fact, will likely be arrested.”

Three years ago, this girl slipped away and made her way to the police.

They reportedly returned her to her captors.

There she remained for two more years. When she finally got up the nerve to escape once more, the Daily News reports, she was coerced by local villagers to try her luck with the cops once again.

She's now safe in a government shelter. The couple face serious charges.

But this photo reveals that, while in the hands of the police, she was brought out -- topless and scarred -- before grown men with cameras and inquisitive cops.

A little girl, failed once again, by the police.

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Like? Unfriend? Message? At one homeless shelter, New Delhi street kids use Facebook to live vicariously -- with invented identities. (SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Weird wide web?  Definitely.

The Globe and Mail's Stephanie Nolen reports that India's savvy street kids have taken to Facebook to make new friends -- and new identities.

Yep. It sounds like a scam. But it's not. These are ambitious young homeless kids with big dreams. And they're practicing on Facebook. Here's Nolen:


Thailand up in arms over Saturday Night Live

Culture czar fears Thailand's reputation in peril after a sketch about the Rosetta Stone and sex tourism.
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A screen grab from a Saturday Night Live sketch depicting American men using "Rosetta Stone" language software to study Thai in advance of sex tours. Thailand's Ministry of Culture wants U.S. assistance in removing the video from all Web sites. (YouTube) (YouTube)

NBC's "Saturday Night Live" has aired a throwaway sketch about American losers using Rosetta Stone language software to study Thai.

Why Thai? So they can travel to Thailand and parlay with prostitutes.

I shouldn't know about this video. I stopped watching SNL in eighth grade. But thanks to Thailand's stuffy Ministry of Culture -- forever at war with those who might darken Thailand's image -- the video is circulating through Thai social media and the Thai-language press.

The ministry is aghast that the video depicts Thailand as "a source for sexual services," the TV outlet Thai PBS reports. And as Thailand's largest newspaper (Thai Rath) reports, the ministry plans to file a complaint with the U.S. embassy with hopes that the American government will rid this sketch from the Web.

The sketch's premise is actually quite promising. But the execution is hacky and mediocre at best. You can imagine how it unfolds: a series of dumpy creeps like this guy pore over Thai phrases such as "How much?" and "Is that for the whole night?" And, of course, there's an unoriginal zinger about ping pong balls.

I'm left thinking that far funnier sketch comedy shows -- like this one -- could have twisted this concept into something obscenely hilarious.

In complaining to the U.S. embassy, Thailand's culture ministry is propagating the same misguided beliefs we saw during the "Innocence of Muslims" protests -- that the American government is in the business of ridding the Web of shlocky online videos deemed offensive.

The U.S. government isn't going to take that route. So here's an idea for any Thais intent on a rebuttal.

Film a Rosetta Stone parody of misfit Thais learning English.

Why English? So they can fly to America and purchase assault rifles.