Thailand’s Rap Against Dictatorship

Prathet Ku Mee (Which is my country), is a 2018 protest song by 10 Thai rappers called ‘Rap Against Dictatorship’. The music video targets the country’s military regime, corruption and legal double-standards in a pounding and defiant delivery reminiscent of late 80s and 90s American hip-hop. Uploaded in October 2018, it has over 89 million views. In May 2019 the Human Rights Foundation awarded them the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissen.

Thailand has had the most coups of any country. The military seized power in 2014 and has yet to relinquish it, despite promises of a return to democracy.  

The song is viciously critical – a bold move in a country where censorship is strong and offending the wrong people can put you in jail. Some wear masks, others do not. Under aliases, the rappers criticise the military for interfering in politics and ruling through fear and the conformity of Thai society. It mentions:

  • construction tycoon getting away with poaching and eating an endangered black leopard in February 2018
  • the heir of Red Bull getting away with vehicular manslaughter
  • judges building estates in a sacred national park
  • the Prime Minister’s Rolex collection

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha condemned the song for inciting unrest and violence, and being ‘un-Thai’. In November he commissioned a government rap video in response. It is as bad as you might expect.

Despite their objections, the Thai government did not block Rap Against Dictatorship. Doing so would involve shutting down the whole of Youtube and causing public scandal – more trouble than it was worth. Thailand’s economy and politics are closely tied to the West and it lacks the state capacity China enjoys to build its own internet. They did, however, threaten to jail anyone who shared the video for 5 years.

Hip-hop serves an apt vessel for the frustration and resentment of these young men against injustice in their home. 

The video is shot in black and white, the rappers performing on a backdrop of a cheering crowd. The only colour to feature is red white and blue of the Thai flag, emblazoned on the guitar playing near the end. It is revealed the crowd are cheering not the men rapping, but a man beating a limp corpse hanging from a tree with a chair.

This grisly scene is from the 1976 Thammasat Massacre, where conservative paramilitaries slaughtered 200 pro-democracy activists. It shows a counter-demonstrator beating a student’s corpse with a chair as it hangs from a tamarind tree. The photograph was caught by American Neil Ulevich and won the Pulitzer Prize. Amongst activists today, ‘chair’ is slang for establishment brutality.

Rap Against Dictatorship say nothing has changed. The soldiers still control the state, and ‘fuck the law with a machine gun’. What’s worse, the ’76 Thammasat massacre is taught nowhere in Thailand and the government is doing its best to disappear it from collective memory – an Orwellian move reminiscent of Tiananmen Square.

In February 2019 the Thai government held elections, on the precondition the military hold half the National Assembly’s seats in reserve. Prayut Chan-Ocha won with 99% of the vote. Echoing those of 1976, student protests erupted in August 2020.

Sources: Khaosod English, Bangkok Post, New Mandala

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Conn Iggulden – The Falcon of Sparta

Book Review: The Falcon of Sparta by Conn Iggulden – THE ...

The Falcon of Sparta (2018), by English author Conn Iggulden, is a fictionalised account of Xenophon’ Anabasis: a story of ten thousand Greek mercenaries stranded in the heart of the Persian Empire and their journey home. It features such characters as Xenophon, Socrates, Artaxerxes of Persia and the rebel prince Cyrus.

The book’s first half deals with the campaign of the charismatic Cyrus the Younger to take the throne from his scholarly elder brother Artaxerxes under a falcon banner. To do so he assembles a Persian army and hires mercenaries from across the Greek cities, including their old enemies the Spartans. Even before the battle, he faces struggles. Dissension, bankruptcy and mutiny plague his campaign. The date is 409 BC, roughly between the Battle of Thermopylae and the conquests of Alexander.

Leaderless in the desert and hopelessly outnumbered, the Greeks must confront the impossible. Iggulden focuses just as much on the logistics of moving an army and the challenges that come with it, as combat itself. The Greeks must assail long deserts and snowy mountains to get to the Black Sea.

The Battle of Cunaxa is described in an epic and near-legendary tone. It is hard to imagine that the greatest armies in the world did clash in such numbers but Iggulden does a good enough job in describing the fight from the perspective of the combatants in as historically accurate terms as possible. Aspects of the second half, such as the Greeks’ battle with the Carduchi mountain tribes, seem a little rushed but are compelling enough.

Prince Cyrus, and his Spartan general Clearchus, are well portrayed as characters. Xenophon, who wrote the story in real life, is somewhat of a self-hating Athenian, associated with the Thirty Tyrants, a Spartan puppet regime and preferring the Spartan system to his own. Beginning the story as an intelligent but resentful young man, it is Socrates who persuades him to head east and make something of himself. Tissaphernes, the conniving former tutor, makes an easy to hate villain.

Though the story is told largely from the Greek perspective, I liked how it begins with the Persians and portrays the Greek culture as alien and strange, rather than the other way around. The story occurs at a time when the Greeks were more busy fighting each other than the Persians, who cooperate with powers like Sparta.

The Sunday Express called The Falcon of Sparta Iggulden’s ‘finest work to date’ and that quote made me buy the book. While better than his Roman series, I still prefer his Conqueror books about the Mongol khans, if only because the murkier history allowed more creative liberties.

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Cambridge Analytica

cambridge analytica

Cambridge Analytica was a ‘data analysis firm’ who interfered in 200 elections from 2013 – 2018, including Trump and Brexit. Whistleblowers spoke in 2018 and engulfed Cambridge Analytica and Facebook in a scandal that revealed the hold big tech now has over the democratic process.

The internet data industry is worth over $1 trillion dollars a year. In 2018 it surpassed oil as the world’s most lucrative market. ‘Data’ includes one’s internet search history, GPS movements, photos, social media likes and private communication. While platforms like Facebook and Google sell users’ data to companies for targeted advertising, Cambridge Analytica used it for politics.

Parent company Strategic Communications Laboratoriesformed in 2004. First, a private defence contractor employed to win hearts and minds for clients, it since expanded into elections. In 2013, SCL’s Alexander Nix (right) founded Cambridge Analytica with conservative lobbyist Robert Mercer and Breitbart’s Steve Bannon to support the populist right in upcoming elections.

Cambridge Analytica uses data mining and behavioural psychology to profile voters. From personal data, it records one’s hopes and dreams, fears and privately held beliefs then exploits that profile with propaganda; targeted adverts, youtube videos, posters, memes and suggested articles to, over time, have them abstain or vote– whatever suits the client.

From 2014, Cambridge Analytica harvested information on US citizens. ‘This is Your Digital Life’, a Facebook personality quiz, collected information on users and their Facebook friends then sold it to Cambridge Analytica. By 2016 they had profiles on over 87 million US voters. While quiz takers agreed to turn over their data through terms and conditions, Cambridge Analytica broke the law by harvesting their friends’.

do so.jpg

Trinidad and Tobago, 2010: SCL’s mission is Cambridge Analytica’s blueprint. Trinidad and Tobago has two, roughly even, populations – Indians and Afro-Caribbeans, each represented by a political party. The Indian UNC contracts SCL. Through social media, they engineer the  ‘Do So!’ movement to encourage young Trinidadians to opt-out of politics as an act of defiance. Even celebrities get involved.

Alexander Nix:

“And the reason why this was such a good strategy is because we knew, and we really really knew, that when it came to voting, all the Afro-Caribbean kids wouldn’t vote, because they ‘Do So’. But all the Indian kids would do what their parents told them to do, which is go out and vote. And so all the Indians went out and voted, and the difference on the 18-35-year-old turnout is like 40%, and that swung the election by about 6% – which is all we needed!”

Britain, 2016: The Brexit Campaign hires Cambridge Analytica to ‘map the British electorate’. They steal data from Facebook and funnel donations from foreign donors.

USA, 2016: Cambridge Analytica takes Ted Cruz from last place in opinion polls to number two Republican nominee. Trump’s team then hires them. ‘Project Alamo’ gathers 5,000 ‘data point on every US voter and spends over $1 million a day on  5.9 million advertisements. Cambridge Analytica identifies and isolates ‘persuadables’ in swing states then firehoses them with pro-Trump propaganda. They popularise ‘Crooked Hillary’ and stoke fears on immigration and other hot button issues. As in Brexit they channel foreign donations.

Cambridge Analytica whistleblower says more Facebook users ...In 2018, whistleblowers Chris Wylie and Brittany Kaiser revealed the extent of Cambridge Analytica’s operations. Kaiser, a high up executive, testified with Nix’s private memos and communications.

A tribunal charged Alexander Nix with illegally harvesting personal information and keeping data he told Facebook he’d destroyed. 35,000 articles a day covered the scandal and Facebook’s shares fell by $100 billion. Mark Zuckerberg testified but avoided implication. Cambridge Analytica has dissolved, but successor firms Auspex International, Data Propria and Emerdata Limited continue their work.

Sources: The Guardian, Netflix – the Great Hack, OpenDemocracy, 

From the Parapet Turns Two

2018.pngA year ago I hoped would still be blogging now and here we are. Time flies. From the Parapet is now two and in that time I have written 86 posts averaging at 600 words – 52,010 in total.  Followers and views have increased at a slow, but somewhat steady pace.

Some highlights:

  • being cited by Rationalwiki
  • getting two posts to #4 on google
  • finishing National Novel Writing Month (not strictly blog-related, but announcing it helped)

My most viewed posts are similar to last year’s:

  1. The Caliphate of Cordoba
  2. Green Eyed Devils
  3. The Moor’s Last Sigh
  4. The Laotian Civil War
  5. The Historical Context of Cheddar Man

Laos and Cheddar Man have replaced Babylon and Haitian zombies.  What does the list have in common? They are not my best but they are evergreen (5/5), over a year old (5/5), historical (4/5) and about Spain (2/5). Most importantly, they rank high on Google, my main referrer.

In September 2018 my monthly views doubled. From there they plateaued. They jumped in March 2019, then fell in June when Google rejigged its search algorithms.  Since then, my posts have slowly returned to their places on Google.

I love writing, but a blog gobbles up time. I don’t know how people can post every day. Nevertheless, to watch your blog slowly build is satisfying. I find curating small pieces weekly more effective and gratifying than spewing out rambling drafts. I believe my writing has improved, if only because earlier posts make me cringe. As such, I will rewrite one from 2017 to gauge how my style has changed.

July’s experiment was sticking to one topic: the Eurasian steppe. I could do this again; sometimes I try but then a news item steals my attention, and the next post is something completely different.  Other topics, like ancient migrations or hunter-gatherer societies, have sprawled across the year. I might do a month on Greater Iran, or little known cultures before the year’s end, but we’ll see.

There are over 75 million WordPress blogs. Saturated is an understatement. How can you make yours stand out?  I try to write the blog I would want to read. Anything else would be inauthentic.

So how to increase exposure? Some ideas:

  • writing guest posts
  • writing for an established website (eg. Ancient History.com)
  • making YouTube videos (a bit of a departure, but could be fun.)

I have faith ‘From the Parapet’ will turn three. Until then there is no shortage of possible topics – see you in the new decade!

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The HU

‘The HU’ (2016-) of Mongolia fuse nomadic folk music with heavy metal, a style they call Hunnu Rock.  Throat singing with double kick. I usually don’t listen to metal, or Mongolian folk for that matter, but combined it is something else. Over a heavy and hard hitting rhythm, they sing lyrics from Mongolian poetry and battle cries of old. Hey traitor, bow down!

The band:

  • Gala – lead throat singer and morin khuur (horsehead fiddle)
  • Enkush – lead morin khuur and throat singer
  • Jaya – tumor khuur (jaw harp), tsuur (Mongolian flute) and throat singer
  • Temka – tovshuur (two stringed, horsetail lute)

All four instruments date back to at least the 1200s. Four extra musicians provide backing vocals, drum and bass.

‘Wolf Totem’, their first single, was released in November 2018. It shot to number one on iTunes and garnered 14 million views on Youtube. Their second single, ‘Yuve Yuve Yu’, has 20 million. A third, ‘Shoog Shoog’ was released in June, and their debut album Gereg is upcoming. Since 2018 the Hu have played 23 shows in Europe and met the Mongolian Prime Minister.  They are the most successful act to ever come from that country.

The HU (not to be confused with the better-known ‘Who’) is the Mongol root-word for ‘human’. In Chinese it means ‘barbarian’ –what their histories dubbed the Mongols, Xiongnu and other steppe peoples.  The Mongols, by the way, called the ancient Xiongnu ‘Hunnu’, yet more evidence they were the Huns.

Music is a key component of life on the steppe. In the 1980s western rock found an audience among the youth of communist Mongolia. When the wall fell, it surged. The Hu seek to preserve and renew the Mongolian musical tradition. They do more than add a Mongol tinge to metal, they make it their own.

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The Sudan Crisis

Sudanese protesters maintain pressure on military regime ...Since toppling its dictator in April, Sudan stands torn between a nonviolent protest movement and an intransigent military regime. On June 3rd authorities fired on pro-democracy activists in capital Khartoum. Government militias ran rampant, accused of murder, theft and rape. At least 138 have died so far. The UN warns that Sudan risks slipping into a ‘human rights abyss’.

Key Figures:

  • Omar al-Bashir, ‘butcher of Darfur’ and dictator of 30 years, was overthrown by the military on April 11th after months of civilian protest. In 2008 the International Criminal Court convicted him of crimes against humanity for his role in the Darfur Genocide (2003 -).  Imprisoned in Khartoum, he stands trial for embezzlement, war crimes and terrorism.
  • Sudan military chief: We'll hand over power when there's ...Abdel Fattah al-Burhan rules Sudan as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and chairman of the Transitional Military Council. He visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in May, receiving support from their governments.Sudan's military to resume civil talks as barricades ...
  • Mohamed Hamadan ‘Hemeti’ Dangalo is commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the junta’s number two. Hemeti earned a brutal reputation as leader of the Janjaweed militias against rebels in Darfur. Allegedly the true power behind the throne.

  • Mohamed Mattar, a martyr of the June 3rd massacre who flew from London to take part.  ‘#blueforsudan’ spread in his honour.

Viral ‘Nubian queen’ rally leader says women key to Sudan ...

  • Aala Saleh, nicknamed ‘Kandaka’ (Nubian queen)became the uprising’s Marianne after a video of her singing went viral.

The people rose in December 2018 after the government tripled the price of bread. Civil war, international sanctions and mismanagement had stifled Sudan’s economy, with inflation reaching 70%.  Led by the Sudanese Professionals Association, thousands of protesters occupied the streets outside the Ministry of Defense in April demanding regime change.

The ten-member ‘Transitional Military Council’ (TMC) replaced al-Bashir. Power now rests with the military, the RSF and the ‘Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces’ (DFCF)– a coalition of trade unions, opposition parties, activists and rebel groups.  A tentative agreement promised elections in three years’ time. Demanding the military cede power to a civilian-led transition government, protesters continued their nonviolent sit-in with numbers swelling.

Survivors of Sudan's Security Crackdown Describe Brutal ...The Khartoum Massacre: On June 3rd RSF gunmen dispersed the protesters with live bullets and pickup trucks.  They killed over 100 and dumped 40 bodies in the Nile, according to Sudanese doctors. At least 70 people were raped by the RSF, who prowled the streets, dismantling barricades, beating and torturing those who resisted and blockading hospitals.  The military put Khartoum in lockdown and arrested DFCF leaders. The African Union promptly suspended Sudan’s membership. 

A health worker commented on the protesters’ camp:

“Everything was destroyed – it’s the same thing when you pass by villages in Darfur where they have shot and killed people and looted property, it’s the same picture.”

Sudan to Deploy Troops in Darfur After Tribal ClashesThe Rapid Support Forces is the new name for the Janjaweed – Arab militias responsible for atrocities in Darfur. Led by Hemeti, the Janjaweed draw from provincial Sudanese nomads, and, though loyal to the government, are notoriously undisciplined and violent. At least 9,000 currently occupy Khartoum.

The DFCF responded with a three-day general strike from the 9th to 11th of June which paralysed Sudan’s economy.  They demand the TMC step down and an independent investigation of the June 3rd Massacre.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is mediating talks with the TMC and the protesters, who have since suspended their strikes.  With the internet cut, defiant activists now stage night rallies spread by text and word of mouth. The government claims to regret the massacre but denies culpability.

Massacre in Sudan: Revolutionaries vow to fight on despite ...

Sources: The Africa Report, Al Jazeera, BBC, Crisis Group, Foreign Policy, Liberation News, Middle East Eye

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Update 3/7/19: Associated Press confirms 128 killed June 3rd.

Update 4/7/19: The military and protest leaders announce a joint government, with the promise of elections. in three years’ time. 

2018 Predictions Reviewed

Image result for soothsayerOne year ago I made ten predictions for 2018. This is how they turned out.

1. The Democrats will win a senate majority in the 2018 midterms

The Democrats did well, but not as well as I expected. The Republican Party maintained a majority in the Senate but lost the House of Representatives. Wrong.

2. Bitcoin will suppress 20,000 USD

Oh how I was wrong about this one!! The Cryptocurrency market crashed hard in 2018. Instead of growing to 20,000 Bitcoin, which peaked at $10,000 in December 2017, plummeted to 3,200 in December, dragging most other cryptocurrencies down with it. The market has yet to recover. Wrong.

3. The USA will suffer its largest mass shooting in history.

The US suffered a horrifying 323 mass shootings in 2018. Parkland, which took 17 lives, overtook Columbine as the deadliest high school shooting in US history, but did not surpass the 2019 Las Vegas Shooting in deaths. Wrong.

4. New Caledonia will vote no to Independence

 In November the French Pacific colony of New Caledonia voted against independence 56-44. Right

5.Vladimir Putin will win the Russian Election

This one wasn’t much of a prediction. Authoritarian strongman Vladimir Putin won his second consecutive term (and fourth overall) with 77% of the vote. Whether or not the Russian system is truly democratic, no one could have filled his shoes. Right.

6. The Social Democrats will win the Brazillian Election

Not even close. Jair Bolsanaro, the so called Trump of the Tropics’ and his Social Liberal Party won with 50% of the popular vote. The Social Democrats came a distant 5th place. Given the global slide to right wing populism I should have seen this coming – looks like I didn’t do enough research! Wrong.

7. Artificial meat will be available in supermarkets

Cultured meat made leaps and bounds in 2018 but is yet to be commercially available. 20 companies are manufacturing their own cultured meat, which may appear in supermarkets over the next couple of years. Wrong.

8. Bashar al Assad will win the Syrian Civil War.

Not quite. ISIS is all but defeated but regime forces are still fighting rebel groups in Idlib province while Kurdish led militias control the northeast. Wrong.

9. The Islamic State will launch an insurrection in Southeast Asia

Thankfully this did not happen. Philippines forces clashed with Islamist militants in July and an ISIS affiliated faction killed 28 in a church bombing in Surabaya, Indonesia in May. There was, nothing, however,  to the scale of the 2017 Battle for Marawi. Wrong.

10. Bangladesh will declare war on Burma

Though Burma’s genocide against the Rohingya Muslims continues no foreign power has intervened. Wrong.

Only two of my ten predictions were correct. Looks like a career in soothsaying is not for me!

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2018 Goals Reviewed

Image result for blogging

One year ago I listed five goals for this blog in 2018. Here is my evaluation.

  1. Posting once a week: I failed to post every Monday, but stuck to a fairly consistant routine. Sometimes I posted on Tuesday instead. Aside from my holiday in May and Nanowrimo in November I did post once a week. Check.
  1. Diversifying: In 2017 I wrote about history and current events. In 2018 I expanded into book reviews, anthropology and culture. Check.
  1. Style Guide: Unfortunately I never get round to this – maybe this year. Miss.
  1. Nanowrimo: Yes! I managed to write a 50,000 word novel draft in November for the National Novel Writing Month challenge.  If I am not too busy, I will do this again in 2019. Check.
  1. Diligence: One year on and this blog is still going strong. I have far more readers than I did at the beginning of 2018 and am still updating regularly. Check.

All in all I accomplished 4/5 of my blogging goals. Not bad. This year I will stick to the same routine as 2018, blogging once a week on topics which pique my interest. Hopefully by 2020 I am still going. Happy New Year everyone!

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Books I Read in 2018

Image result for booksAside from blogging more, my goal was to watch less TV and read more books in 2018. The books are listed by the date I finished reading them.  Some I have done separate posts on, others I have not.

January

February

  • Maitland Edey – Lost World of the Aegean (1976). The archaeology of the Ancient Minoans and Early Greeks. Dated but informative. 3/5

April

  • Robert Bly – Iron John (1990). An allegorical interpretation of an old fairy tale suggesting what the ancient cultures can teach modern man. 3/5

May

  • Aldous Huxley – Island (1962). The utopia to Brave New World’s dystopia. 4/5

June

  • Barbara Kingsolver – The Poisonwood Bible (1998)A family saga of four girls and their missionary father in the Congo.  5/5
  • Thomas Sowell – Ethnic America (1981). Details the history and experiences of 11 American immigrant groups. Good on facts and figures, less so on future projections. 4/5

July

  • Paul M Handley – The King Never Smiles (2006).  A critical analysis of the modern Thai monarchy. Banned in Thailand. 5/5

August

  • Roland Tye – Weekender (2016). Five very different stories about five very different people one weekend in Edinburgh. The connection is revealed only at the very end. 5/5
  • JD Salinger – Catcher in the Rye (1951). Great American Novel about a rebellious teenager in the late ’40s. 5/5

September

  •  Ian Morris – The Greeks: History, Culture and Society (2010). This old textbook is a good survey of ancient Greece if a little dry. 3/5

October

  • Frederick Forsythe – the Dogs of War (1974). A business magnate hires a team of mercenaries to stage a coup in a fictional African country. Good, but not as good as Day of the Jackal. 3/5

December

  • Jared Diamond – Guns Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies (1997). Explains why civilization arose in some parts of the world and not others. An excellent read for history and anthropology buffs. 5/5
  • Frederick Forsythe – Day of the Jackal (1971). About an assassin hired to kill the president of France and the men chasing him. 4/5

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Nanowrimo 2018

Image result for nanowrimo

Nanowrimo stands for National Novel Writing Month. The aim is to write a 50,000 word draft in 30 days.  The project provides an incentive for aspiring authors to overcome writer’s block and set up a consistent writing routine.  Achieving the 50,000 word mark requires an average of 1,666 words a day – no small feat.

To ‘win’ Nanowrimo you must write 50,000 words – it doesn’t matter whether or not your narrative is finished. The project relies on an honour system where you don’t need to submit your manuscript or even have anyone read it. To compete you make an account and update your word progress on the Nanowrimo website. While there is no reward, you do earn the satisfaction of achieving a personal goal and getting more writing done in one month than many do in years. Nanowrimo is the perfect opportunity for writing the book you’ve always wanted to write but never found the time.

The key to winning is to not look back. Nanowrimo is not about creating a polished and succinct story ready for publishing but getting words down on a page. No first draft is good, after all, and to make a compelling story requires coming back at a later date, editing and redrafting. All this is impossible, however, if you have nothing to work with.

Nanowrimo began in 1999 with a group of 21 writers in the San Francisco Bay Area. November was chosen for its poor weather. The following year it moved online and grew in popularity every year since. In 2017 over 400,000 people from across the world participated. Many schools and libraries offer public write-ins where Nanowrimo participants can work together and discuss ideas while a wide range of forums and pep talks are available online.

Since 2006 over 200 Nanowrimo projects have become fully published novels. Countless more have been self published. Big names include:

  • Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgunestern
  • The Beautiful Life by Alan Averill

As promised in January, this month I will attempt to write a 50,000 word novel.  This project will consume most of my creative energy so there will be few blog posts until December.  When the 30 days are over I will share what I have learnt from the process. Wish me luck!

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