Without words for concepts, do they still exist?

burma-mapI’m always fascinated by the way language and available terminology shapes our worldview — literally causing us to view the world fundamentally differently from our fellow people if they grew up with a very different language. In international politics, these differences crop up from time to time in the news.

In recent years, after many decades of broad cultural-political integration, the differences and resulting gaps in mutual understanding have generally become smaller, even borderline mere curiosities.

Examples: German using the same word for debt and guilt. Or, the Greek translation for the Wikipedia page for “Roman Republic” is just “Roman Democracy” because Greek lacks a word for Republic — and Greek government documents can’t use the word “republic” except when translated. Or, ISIS terrorists bitterly disputing the translations of its own various and oft-changed names, and the global media struggling to choose one.

But then there are the truly isolated holdouts, the places that have sealed themselves off from the outside world and kept their language from cross-pollinating.

According to a great new article in the New York Times, the dictatorship of Myanmar — still struggling under new management with a transition into democracy — has been one such place. The consequences of that linguistic-political isolation are now catching up as “Those Who Would Remake Myanmar Find That Words Fail Them”.

The Burmese language doesn’t yet have a native word for democracy, only the borrowed English word with an accented pronunciation. However, it turns out the problem is much larger than one missing word: The country lacks Burmese words for most of the new political and policy concepts of the past four decades (like “computer privacy”)…or even many old concepts like “institution” or “federalism.” The Myanmar military regime attempted to ban even English words for political ideas — and then corrupted the understood meaning of any that remained, such as “rule of law.” An estimated 10-50% of the meaning of any given conversation between Western diplomats and Myanmarese leadership is hopelessly lost in translation.

And it may not just be a failure to understand the literal words. It’s hard to adopt and promote the ideas in a substantive way when the conceptual meaning behind them doesn’t carry over into the worldview-informing culture and language.

This, to my mind, should then pose a much bigger question, affecting many more countries in Asia as well as Africa — and one vastly beyond my pay grade:

Has the West been too quick to fault democratic shortcomings and state failures in post-colonial developing nations as a whole, if we accept that these Western Enlightenment-derived concepts from philosophers and leaders speaking inter-entangled European languages might have to some degree been imposed onto existing cultures with poorly compatible linguistic-cultural frameworks?

Obviously there would still be the usual factors sharing the blame. But it might play a role.

The Burmese political translation challenges now playing out in public should also, once again, raise legitimate questions about the very premise of “universal” values.

Things to think about as Sri Lanka votes

Early presidential elections in Sri Lanka — between the incumbent (increasingly dictatorial) president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his former Health Minister, Maithripala Sirisena — have unexpectedly become a nail-biter race.

Some of the Western coverage has focused on the frivolous and bizarre. (For example, the New York Times’s “As Vote Nears, Astrologer for Sri Lanka’s President Faces Ultimate Test of His Skills”.) Some has focused on the president’s troubling alliance with extremist Buddhist/Sinhalese nationalism.

But most importantly, there are reflections on President Rajapaksa’s appalling war crimes during his decisive but extremely violent conclusion to Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war:

By the first few months of 2009, with the [Tamil] Tigers in hopeless retreat, the government declared a series of what they called “no fire zones”, into which they encouraged as many as 400,000 Tamil civilians to gather “for their own safety”.

Government forces then relentlessly shelled these zones
and, as a later UN report concluded, systematically denied them food and humanitarian supplies. The UN estimates that there were “as many as 40,000 civilian deaths in a matter of weeks, most as a result of government shelling. There was also a World Bank estimate that 100,000 civilians were missing after the war.

 
It takes a special kind of monster to urge civilians into safe zones and then direct military to shell those zones.

President and Mrs. Obama in an official photo with President and Mrs. Rajapaksa at the September 2013 UN General Assembly in New York. (White House Photo)

President and Mrs. Obama in an official photo with President and Mrs. Rajapaksa at the September 2013 UN General Assembly in New York. (White House Photo)

Thailand’s food-robot army is nearly ready

Pre-coup and post-coup, Thailand’s leadership can agree to remain committed to one thing: Shaming overseas restaurants for insufficiently authentic Thai food. And now their food-tasting (killer?) robot is doing well in testing and may soon be sold to high-end restaurants in southeast Asia and beyond:

The government-financed Thai Delicious Committee, which oversaw the development of the machine, describes it as “an intelligent robot that measures smell and taste in food ingredients through sensor technology in order to measure taste like a food critic.”

In a country of 67 million people, there are somewhere near the same number of strongly held opinions about Thai cooking. […] But there does seem to be some agreement on one point at least: Bad Thai food is a more acute problem overseas.

Thais, who can establish an immediate bond discussing where they will get their next meal or the merits of particular food stalls, complain that Thai restaurants overseas cater to non-Thai palates by pulling punches on spice and not respecting the delicate balance between sweet, sour, salty and four-alarm spicy.

 
For designing and building a robot from scratch, the project has a very low price-tag overall and will supposedly be earned back by sales of the robot.

Anyway, the way it works is that it performs a rapid chemical analysis of a food sample, teasing out both the constituent ingredients used and the ratios used, and then it compares it to a database of ingredients and ratios used in a sample “ideal” recipe for that meal — with the ideal as determined by the ratings of a small research study with a hundred or so ordinary Thai people (not food critics).

But I’m pretty sure we all know it’s going to end up chemically analyzing mankind and find us insufficiently spicy to remain alive. And just as Thailand was one of the few countries in the world to resist Western colonialism (more or less), Thailand’s robots will no doubt be the first to take on humanity successfully.

terminator-thailand

Why Brunei? How a tiny, anti-gay monarchy became a U.S. ally.

brunei-map-ciaSecretary of State John Kerry and the Obama Administration are now (justifiably, I’d say, at this point) taking huge heat for trying to cement a major alliance with the podunk Southeast Asian absolute monarchy of Brunei.

President Obama himself had been scheduled to travel to Brunei last fall during the trip to Indonesia, which the government shutdown canceled. Last year, he called the Sultan “a key leader in the Southeast Asia region and also widely respected around the world.”

Outrage has been stirred up with the long-planned launch in April by the government of a phased rollout for an elaborate new penal code with extreme religious conservatism based in hardline Sharia Law interpretations. In particular, U.S. LGBT activists in California are furious over the draconian anti-gay provisions and have been organizing boycotts against local Brunei state investments.

But the anti-gay problem is just the tip of the horrible, no good, very bad legal iceberg for the monarchy with fewer residents than Boston. At least a fifth of the country’s population is non-Muslim, which is now punishable with death by flogging. Interfaith marriages are now adultery, punishable with death by stoning. Breaking the laws of Brunei while outside the country (i.e. in neighboring Malaysia, also located on the island of Borneo) is also to be punishable under Brunei rules.

So why has the U.S. State Department been trying so enthusiastically to secure a partnership with the Sultanate of Brunei and its ironically named Abode of Peace?

Because it’s got a ton of natural gas and oil relative to its size (35th biggest oil exporter and 26th biggest gas exporter in the world), it’s an original member of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, it’s strategically located on the South China Sea coast, it’s been a counterterrorism partner since 2001 … and I guess they weren’t expecting it to go way off the deep end suddenly like this.

But really, I think the warning signs should have been there. Generous oil-funded social welfare policies aside, Brunei has not been cool people for quite some time now. Their human rights abuses, near total lack of civil rights, and obvious authoritarianism were pretty well known before now. The former British protectorate and past regional sea empire has been ruled by one dynasty with a pretty ironclad fist for six centuries.

Some of the pretend constitution’s provisions have been ignored for so long by the monarchy that the country hadn’t even gained independence (1984) at the time they were suspended formally, in the 1960s. The safe money would have been on further regression, not a dramatic improvement, for all the signs the world has been picking up from Brunei in the past decade.

One of those signs? According to the Boston Globe, it should have been the 2013 global human rights report from… drumroll please… the U.S. State Department:

…the State Department’s 2013 global human rights report criticized Brunei for its restrictions on religious freedom; exploitation of foreign workers; and limitations of the freedom of the press, assembly, and association as “the most prevalent human rights problems.”

It went on to mention the adoption of the new legal code based on religious Sharia law but noted that “the effect of the law will not be clear until it is implemented, which was scheduled to begin in phases starting in April 2014.”

 
Nobody could have predicted…

But it seems that finishing a free trade deal with such a pivotal player was too much to pass up. It’s interesting that nearly 600 years after Brunei rose to power by controlling water trade and coastal ports in the dense commercial shipping zone not far from the Spice Islands, it’s leveraging the exact same strategic economic power to do whatever it wants. I guess it’s true what they say!

Dear The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board,

I read with interest your recent assertion that “China has its eyes on Japanese islands.”

Although under the terms of surrender signed by Japan at the end of World War II these islands in fact belong to China

Reflecting the long and terrible suffering of the Chinese people in that conflict, the Cairo Declaration pledged to put unrelenting military pressure on Japan until it agreed to unconditional surrender.

It insisted that Japan be stripped of all the islands it had seized or occupied in the Pacific Ocean since the beginning of World War I in 1914. And it made it very clear that all the territories Japan had seized from China in nearly half a decade of aggression since 1895 should be restored to China.

When Japan surrendered to the Allied powers on September 2, 1945, it specifically accepted the terms of the Potsdam Proclamation of July 26, 1945, which incorporated by reference the terms of the Cairo Declaration. Under the terms of the Cairo Declaration and the Potsdam Proclamation, sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands was returned to China.

…it’s good of you to deed them over to Japan arbitrarily for the sake of explaining why the United States must go to war with Russia forthwith (hint: to prevent China from taking Chinese islands).

I’m sure this decisive editorial position will strengthen our partnership with unarmed Japan against the world’s second-largest economy and the largest active-strength military on the planet. This will help unify unlikely allies Russia and China against us in the World War III you are desperately hoping for.
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