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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.

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.

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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.
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.
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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

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. 

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Vietnam: girl suspended over Ho Chi Minh joke

"Never shall we have to take the exam again. We have to stand up!"

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?

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Myanmar: how the regime sees its widely condemned war

State-aligned press depicts guerrilla forces as brutal, duplicitous

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.

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Malaysia: much ado over "Allah" bibles

Some Muslim leaders begrudgingly accept Christians sharing holy word

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.

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Cambodian transport minister: what billion-dollar railway deal?

Questions surround Cambodia's largest-ever project

Cambodia's latest approved mega-project is a doozy: an $11.2 billion China-funded endeavor to build a steel mine in the country's north linked to a coastal port via 250 miles of railway tracks.

It's difficult to overemphasize this project's scale, which amounts in dollar figures to nearly 90 percent of the country's current annual GDP. As an Asian Development Bank official tells Reuters, it "must be the largest-ever project in Cambodia."

Cambodians and the world at large have reason to wonder about the project's impact: building a 250-mile railway is likely to trigger home evictions, which have a reputation for violence and abuse in Cambodia. The government also acknowledges that they haven't completed an assessment of the mine's potential environmental damage.

The entire project is surrounded with questions. You might assume that Iv Tek -- Cambodia's transport minister, who presided over the deal's preliminary approval -- would be the man with the answers.

But when the small-but-aggressive Cambodia Daily newspaper confronted the minister with questions, they found that "he did not know a great deal about the project."

“I don’t know what the companies will do," he told the newspaper. "Let’s wait and see all together."

Is he really that clueless? Is he playing dumb to ward off tough questions? Either way, these are not so comforting words from an official holding the reigns of a project that will drastically shape lives and Cambodia's already ailing environment.

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Myanmar: war skirting Chinese air space?

Reports of air strikes against Kachin guerrillas

There are growing reports of Myanmar military choppers and jets buzzing above Kachin State, where a mountain-dwelling resistance force (the Kachin Independence Army) has long defended terrain against state-backed incursions.

That helicopters and jets are circling above this war zone is not in dispute. The government, according to the AP, says its aerial fleet is simply resupplying zones struck by rebels. The guerrillas insist they're being bombarded by airborne munitions and they've circulated grainy video to support their claim. A pro bono, anti-government medic squad, the Free Burma Rangers, has some unverified shots of choppers and jets as well.

But geography makes this uptick in fighting doubly interesting

All of these attack aircraft are whizzing above an area that's right next to China. Sending jets and attack choppers into this air space without at least notifying China -- a stalwart economic and military benefactor in Myanmar -- would be outlandishly bold. Myanmar generals would most likely prefer China's blessing.

As Myanmar-focused journalist Francis Wade writes, the Kachin fighters' insistence that the aircraft are dipping into Chinese air space is plausible.

This amounts to an escalation in a seemingly intractable conflict -- with an added international twist. Hardly the brightest New Year's beginning for a nation hoping to overcome a war-ridden past.

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India: Why "vested interests" might not be so bad

Lifting India's ludicrously low limits on campaign finance could drum rapists out of politics, argues India's business press

Americans often lament that the massive campaign contributions of the tobacco lobby or arms manufacturers stack the deck against our politicians passing certain types of legislation. But India's experience with drastic limits on these documented campaign contributions tells a different story, according to the local business press: When you keep big business out of politics, you let (alleged) criminals and gangsters in.

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Myanmar's first-ever New Year's countdown

At last, a big, messy and joyous countdown

Focusing on the long toil for big-issue freedoms in Myanmar -- free elections or freedom from land-grabbing army battalions -- can sometimes overshadow the small pleasures that were forbidden by the former military regime.

Like getting tipsy and joining thousands of compatriates in a New Year's countdown.

But last night, at Yangon's resplendent Shwedagon Pagoda, the citizens were allowed to do just that, the Associated Press reports. One organizer told news outlet The Irrawaddy that roughly 50,000 were expected to turn out. (GlobalPost has posted a slideshow of the gala.)

Large and uncontrollable gatherings on this scale have long been prohibited in Myanmar, an authoritarian nation on the mend.

This giant New Year's bash, standard fare in most countries, is just one of many signs that the nation is swinging towards normalcy. Still, given Myanmar's odd time zone, which is 30 minutes off from its neighbors, the nation was largely alone in celebrating at the stroke of midnight. Only Australia's remote Cocos Islands -- population 600 -- share the same time zone.

It's impossible to neatly sum up Myanmar's 2012, a year that saw draconian laws relaxed and U.S. President Barack Obama's historic visit along with intense ethnic violence both in the mountains along China's border and the tropical coast. This year may prove whether Myanmar's reform movement is really powerful enough to tame the nation's worst abuses.

But here's to a less bloody and more free Myanmar in 2013.

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