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Is Australia part of Europe?

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Phnom Penh street sceneOne day, our Cambodian driver asked us, whether Australia was part of Europe. At first, I thought I’d misunderstood him and answered that Austria was, but Australia wasn’t.

“Oh,” he said, “that’s a shame. Then I got that one wrong on my test.”

It seemed he’d written a geography test at his university, in which he had to list European countries.

Next he wanted to know whether France and England were in Europe. “Yes,” I said. He was glad that he got these two right.

“And how about the United States?” Surely they were part of Europe?

I was stunned by the question.

“No, sorry,” I said, “the U.S. isn’t part of Europe.”

“But then what about Egypt? That’s part of Europe, right?”

“No, sorry.”

Our driver was heartbroken that he’d made so many mistakes on his geography test.

Looking at it from his point of view…

At first, I was mildly shocked by our driver’s concept of Europe and the rest of the world. But then I remembered, that not everyone knows how to read a map. Certainly not everyone in Cambodia.

Since I had the good fortune of growing up in the West, map-reading is a skill that I learned in geography class and from my parents.

Cambodian village sceneBut if you grow up in some remote Cambodian village, you’re pretty far removed from globes, maps and learning about other parts of the world.

And looking at it from our Cambodian driver’s point of view, most foreigners must look alike. What difference does it make to him if one of them is from the U.S. and another says he’s from Italy, Germany, France – or Australia.

All those places are so far removed from the daily lives of the average Cambodian.  His (or her) life in the Cambodian backwaters circles largely around the family, the village, and maybe the province.

He (or she) will never have a chance to visit far-away countries.

So who cares whether those foreign countries are east or west, north or south of Cambodia.

Or whether they’re part of Europe or not.

Written by Thorsten

October 21, 2009 at 8:54 pm

Posted in asia, observations

Tagged with , , , , ,

Nobel Peace Prize laureate speaks out on Iran

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Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi Photo: deutsche welle / flickr

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi Photo: deutsche welle / flickr

I heard the Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi talk about the situation in Iran on Monday (July 13, 2009). What she said was very impressive.

Shirin Ebadi said many more people have been killed in Iran in the aftermath of the elections than we know now. “What happened in Iran is an obvious human rights violation”, she told a Deutsche Welle journalist.

Ebadi described the first day of demonstrations in Tehran after the Iranian elections: “When the Iranian people demonstrated peacefully, there were no problems – not even a window was broken. But towards the end of the demonstrations shots were fired from office buildings. Some died and many more were injured. That was the beginning to the state’s crackdown. That night at 3 a.m., a student residence was attacked, five students were shot dead and several were injured.”

Journalists attending Shirin Ebadi's press conference Photo: deutsche welle / flickr

Journalists attending Shirin Ebadi's press conference Photo: deutsche welle / flickr

Shirin Ebadi said the government’s actions were neither in line with the Iranian constitution, nor with Islam, nor with human rights.

Ebadi said the Iranian people would continue their demonstrations. But the protest would take on new forms because of the government crackdown on the street demonstrations. Ebadi added that this continuing protest and the criticism from within the Iranian clergy will further destabilize the government.

The Iranian human rights activist called on Germany and Europe to increase the pressure on the Iranian government.

But Ebadi made it very clear that she’s opposed to military intervention and economic sanctions. Those, she said, would only hurt the people of Iran.

Shirin Ebadi criticized the West for only concentrating on the nuclear dispute in its negotiations with Iran. “You wonder,” she said, “whether the Europeans only care about their own security and not the security of the people in Iran.”

She also criticized companies like Nokia and Siemens, saying they had delivered technology to Iran, which is now being used to monitor and control the citizens.

Ebadi is an outspoken human rights activist

I was impressed with Shirin Ebadi’s courage to speak out. Some of her co-workers in Iran have already been imprisoned by the regime. But that doesn’t deter her from fighting for human rights for the people of Iran.

Shirin Ebadi giving a radio interview Photo: deutsche welle / flickr

Shirin Ebadi giving a radio interview Photo: deutsche welle / flickr

When asked whether giving interviews to foreign journalists in the West could cause problems for her in Iran, she replied “That’s not that important to me. I consider this a task that has to be done.”

What surprised me was that Shirin Ebadi had left Iran shortly before the elections and has not been back since then. She said that her co-workers had urged her to stay in Europe and raise awareness for her cause there. She’s in constant contact with her colleagues back home, who keep her informed about the situation in Iran.

Of course, she’s freer to talk and to take action when she’s in Europe than when she’s in Iran. But it’s risky for her, nevertheless. After all, her husband and her family are still in Iran. They might have to suffer the consequences of her actions abroad.

But despite the risks, Shirin Ebadi expressed confidence that she would be able to return home “after I have finished my job here.”

Love thy Neighbor, Love thy Enemy, Love thy Self

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Hold your flag up high

I came across a BBC study the other day, in which participants in 34 countries were asked about the image of their own and other countries. All in all, 17.000 people were polled. They were asked about their views of countries like the U.S., Israel, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Germany, the UK and the European Union.

US no moral authority any more

Most news media that have reported about this study commented on the fact that views about the United States are slowly improving globally. While this may be so, I think it will take a long, long time to re-establish the U.S. as a moral institution in the world. The days, when the USA stood for high moral standards, democracy and human rights are long gone. Abu Ghoreib, Guantanamo, the whole unstoppable “War against Terrorism” have ruined the image of the U.S. in many countries around the world.

The deplorable image of the USA is something I’m often confronted with when I work abroad. I used to be proud to say “I lived in the U.S. for many years and it’s a great place” – I can’t really say that any more. I’ll immediately catch flak and be confronted by all the injustices that have been committed in the name of fighting terrorism. That’s what sticks in people’s minds.

The atrocoties of Abu Ghoreib or the attempts to legitimise torturing prisoners are what people in many countries think of first, when they think of the USA. And not the fact that the U.S. is still a country where people enjoy freedoms and prosperity that are unthinkable in many other places. Or the fact that the political system, the media and the blogosphere in the U.S. are still able to expose wrongdoings and make sure that those responsible will face the consequences – things unthinkable in many other regimes.

Improving images

But if we get back to the BBC study now, all that seems to be changing slowly. The image of the U.S. is improving. Gradually. Slowly. Recovery will take a long time…

Of course, for me as a German, the results for Germany were stunning: in this international poll, Germany was the most positively rated country of all. I wonder if the champagne corks popped in Angela Merkel’s office…

Perception and self-perception

When you look at the study, another interesting aspect is how countries see themselves. Not surprisingly, countries with a free press – one that is critical and self-critical of what’s happening in the country – have a mixed self-image. In the U.S., for instance, 56 percent of the people see their country mainly positive, 36 percent mainly negative. In Germany, 75 percent of the citizens have a positive image of their country, 10 percent have a negative impression. In the U.K. the ratio is 60 to 27 and in France 63 to 16.

But then look at China: 90 percent of the Chinese have mainly positive views of their country, only four percent have mainly negative views. That’s quite a contrast.

I wonder why that is so. Is it the effect of the propaganda media? Or is it the general mentality of the Chinese, who are extremely proud of their country and might sometimes even consider themselves superior to others? Or is it a combination of these factors?

BBC Study Global Views

World Views US ‘more positively’

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