Forever in chains: The tragic history of Congo

congo crisis

 

One of the Belgian hostages during post-independence Congo Crisis in 1960.

 

Misfortunes appear seemingly associated with the history of Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC as we now preferably call. Even its geographical existence itself, in agonizing terms, is a ‘colonial wound’, already carved by the personal ambitions of King Leopold of Belgium more than a century prior. Firstly known as ‘Congo Free State’, King Leopold brutally exploited his approximately all his subjects, mutilating their hands for failing to fulfill quota required by his private company. It was estimated that 10-30 million people died from 1885 to 1908, the year the colony was taken over by Belgian government directly. Renamed ‘Belgian Congo’, the colony underwent rapid economic growth, and near its independence in 1960, it became the most industrialized colony in the whole continent. Nonetheless, skills and technology transfer were virtually nearly non-existent, as bulk of the expertise was managed by a tiny white Belgian community, no more than 90,000 strong, against more than 16 million Congolese people, of whom only a few dozens had ever accomplished higher education.

As independence came, anti-Belgian sentiment was overwhelmingly terrifying; thousands of businesses were ransacked and looted, and the entire economy came into a complete stoppage. Another three-decade authoritarian rule by Mobutu Sese Seko, meanwhile, foresaw a relative political stability and a stronger Congolese identity under another more authentic African name, Zaire, but corruption remained severe in nearly all aspects. With his downfall in 1997, the whole nation plunged into an African-sized ‘World War’, by which more than 5 million civilians and soldiers died until 2003. Right now, the country ends up on the lowest bottom of the world’s poorest, desperately dependent on its mineral resources. It’s not to say the future remains bleak, but at the very least, the country needs a serious leader to unify the population, shed a light and cast a new hope on its own people, otherwise the country will not survive long, and simply end up as ‘a mere colonial wound’.

Read the whole article, published in 2006, in The Independent.

 

Excerpt:

 

Other testimony disclosed how Belgian officers ordered their men “to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades, also their sexual members, and to hang the women and the children on the palisade in the form of a cross”. This blood-curdling business carried on for more than 12 years before word leaked out. One of the first to blow the whistle was the captain of one of the riverboats that transported the ivory and rubber downstream to port. His name was Joseph Conrad, and eight years later he wrote a book that has shaped the emotional language in which white people discuss Africa.

It was called Heart of Darkness. The atmosphere it conjures is of fetid fever-ridden ports in an Equatorial river basin surrounded by dense tropical rainforest. It is a climate of persistent high temperatures and humidity, as enervating to the soul as to the body. It is a world of madness, greed and violence, centred on a charismatic ivory trader called Kurtz who turns himself into a demigod to the local tribes and gathers vast quantities of ivory. Eventually, he dies – “The horror, the horror,” his last words.

When the book was published in magazine serial form in 1899, it did not just expose what Conrad was to call “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience”. It also gave backing to the writings of a man whose campaigns on the Congo the public had been reluctant to believe.

ED Morel was a clerk in a Liverpool shipping office who began to wonder why the ships that brought vast loads of rubber from the Congo returned carrying no commercial goods, but only guns and ammunition. He began to investigate the Force Publique and concluded that Leopold’s well-publicised philanthropy was in fact “legalised robbery enforced by violence”. He wrote: “I had stumbled upon a secret society of murderers with a king for a croniman.”

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Revisiting history – the Hong Kong handover

hk handover

 

The handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule in 1997, which anniversary will be commemorated tomorrow, presented two important features into the world’s political reality today: firstly, it signaled the end of centuries-old British Empire, once regarded as the most influential, most overpowering, and geographically largest global hegemony, holding on that title for almost two hundred years. British government, to this day, still partakes great responsibility for its 14 remaining overseas colonies (merely a large chunk of Antarctica and a few rocky islands spread on the world’s seas), whose strategic importance is now hardly matched to that of its last, most vibrant sprawling colonial metropolis. Secondly, the return of Hong Kong also becomes an early signal of what, slowly, will become of its people: that slowly but surely, this city will encounter a gradual phase of ‘total integration’ with Mainland China, one by which has become increasingly obvious recently. Feelings of anti-Chinese resentment run greatly high, and tensions, unsuccessfully curbed by the British administrators on its last days, slowly emerge on the surface.

With massive protests being planned tomorrow, in addition to other campaigns of civil disobedience and a large-scale occupation on the way in immediate effect (despite Beijing’s silent threat by means of ‘white paper’ and other pro-China’s anti-Occupy Central editorials), something the world has hardly heard even two or three years ago (there were huge protests, also, but with little international coverage), Hong Kong, tomorrow officially celebrating its 17th anniversary of Chinese retrocession, will be faced with an increasingly problematic question about the future, and its eventual existence.

And things have started to change after the videos you’ll see below:

 

 

Bonus: Former British PM, Margaret Thatcher, reflected on her decision to return Hong Kong to China, one by which she eventually, a few years later, ‘regretted’. View the video below:

 

How an MLM scam triggered a country into a civil war

1997 albanian crisis

 

 

An in-depth story about how Albania dragged itself into ‘a period of statelessness and complete chaos’ after a series of massive financial collapses of multilevel marketing (MLM) businesses in 1997, ending up with nearly 4,000 casualties, a brief military intervention from UN peacekeeping forces, and numerous brutal massacres on both the civilian and security apparatus.

May this dark historical experience, despite its tragic consequences, serve us a priceless lesson that wealth never comes rapidly.

Read the complete article in Wikipedia.

 

Excerpt:

 

In 1992, the Democratic Party of Albania won the first free elections in Albania, and Sali Berisha became president. In the mid-1990s, Albania was becoming a liberalized economy, after years under a controlled economy. The rudimentary financial system became dominated by Ponzi schemes, and government officials endorsed a series of pyramid investment funds. By January 1997, the schemes (actually fronts for laundering money and arms trafficking) could no longer make payments. The number of investors who had been lured by the promise of getting rich quick grew to include two-thirds of Albanians. It is estimated that close to $1.5 billion was invested in companies offering monthly interest rates ranging from 10 to 25 percent, while the average monthly income was around $80. People sold their homes to invest the proceeds, and immigrants working in Greece and Italy transferred additional resources to the schemes back home.

 

 

‘We want our country’

south_rhodesia_land_1979

 

 

Of all British colonies in 20th century, Southern Rhodesia (later known to be Rhodesia, and lastly, after 1980, Zimbabwe) was considered one to be politically ‘very defiant’, in that other than adopting a system of majority rule, it unilaterally violated the agreement, reinstated a new government dominated by white settlers, and fought a costly, and uneasy, guerrilla war with black African combatants for nearly two decades, which would later significantly hamper its economic and social progress.

This was Rhodesia. When it proclaimed its Unilateral Declaration of Independence, abbreviated as UDI, in 1965, its population hardly exceeded 4 million. White settlers were even a smaller minority, with a number barely surpassing 220,000 (in a climax, it once reached slightly above 300,000, as many Britons migrated there in hope of more promising incomes, but now, under Mugabe’s terms, the figure is hardly above 50,000). An apartheid-like system was afterwards implemented in nearly all aspects of the country, with exclusive preferences for white people. Economy was nearly completely controlled by white-owned enterprises and commercial farms scattered across the country. Despite the  sanctions imposed by United Kingdom, United States, and numerous other UN member-states, Rhodesia remained an economically thriving nation, but one with extremely fragile social stability, thanks to its close relationship with apartheid-era South Africa at that time.

Nevertheless, Rhodesia suffered its first blow when Mozambique, its neighboring country, and also its strategic export-import location, announced secession from Portuguese rule, which later suffered from decades-long civil war. South Africa, its long-time trading partner, already worsened by its own internal problems after waves of sanctions, refused to assist the country any longer. Guerrilla war became increasingly deadly, with many white settlers’ commercial farms being their primary targets for ambushes. Many whites were killed in the middle of the battlefields fought between Rhodesian army and the rebels. It changed after 1980 election, by which Robert Mugabe, who, as they had long feared of his possible retaliation, became the president of the country later renamed as Zimbabwe. And it turns out Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is even, in countless times, much worse than Rhodesia had ever been.

 

This Time article, released in November 1965, provided us an in-depth understanding about Rhodesia, and the underlying problems resulting since its establishment. You can read the article in British Empire, a history blog specially dedicated to the history of the world’s largest colonial empire.

 

Excerpt:

 

The Rhodesians are determined that the blacks will never rule. Deep in their hearts, they believe that the first African government would murder them in their beds and drive them off the land. As Africa’s former colonies have been granted their freedom, the settlers have shaken their heads in dismay. They talk of the violence of the Congo, of the autocracy of Ghana, of Communist penetration everywhere, and of the fate of their cousins in Kenya. If the blacks get more freedom in Rhodesia, says one leading supporter of Smith, “there will be a Mau Mau here.”

The white man’s fate in the new black African nations has not been all that bad. Kenya’s Mau Mau terrorism stopped at the first signs that independence would be granted, and the brutal slaughters of the Congo are so far the exception in Africa rather than the rule. The initial period of white panic and black exultation is past –a period that saw wholesale departures of colonial civil servants who took their “lumpers” (severance pay) when their jobs were “Africanized,” or the thousands of European farmers who pulled up stakes and fled, out of some misbegotten sense of guilt and impending bloodshed.

The fact is that the whites who have remained are still working and raising their families in every one of Africa’s 29 new black states–if for no other reason than that they are needed. For all his anticolonialist bluster, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah depends heavily on the 5,000 Britons (and scores of Americans) who live in his country, engineering dams and power projects, running factories and keeping trade channels open. Despite the horrors of the past, there are now 60,000 Belgians spread throughout the Congo (which once had 90,000), and the nation’s industries, commerce and transport systems could not work without them. Last week the Congo’s President Joseph Ka-savubu went out of his way to assure “all foreigners living in the Congo” that “this is their country; they have their investments here.”

Throughout Africa, many departed whites have returned, or else have been replaced by newcomers from Europe. British railway workers, fired by the Kenya government at the demand of its labor unions, were back on their jobs a year later at much higher pay; too many trains had been going off the tracks. In the Congo’s fertile Kivu region, deserted Belgian farmlands have been snapped up by eager Italians who are now making money hand over fist. Attracted by high salaries and a booming, open economy, the French population of the Ivory Coast has doubled in the past five years.

 

Bonus: I’ll include an additional profile of Ian Smith, founder, and prime minister of Rhodesia (1965-1979). Read it in Wikipedia.

MacDonald House bombing

macdonald house bombing

 

Indonesia-Singapore relations have never been generally smooth. There are moments of glory, there are moments of gloom. But let us see in brief the points of contention that prevail for the bilateral relation among the two countries.

Majority of the Indonesians will complain the overwhelming control of Singaporean companies on Indonesian economy – take Temasek Holdings, for example, which has significant stakes in our country’s major banks and telecom giants. Or the giant haze caused by, local businesses aside, either Malaysian or Singaporean palm oil companies operating in Sumatra and Borneo. Or the refusal of Singapore’s government to extradite some corruptors who took away tens of billions of dollars during the climactic periods of 1997 Asian financial crisis. Or the fact that Indonesia’s tax-evading money, worth hundreds of billions of dollars, is sitting safely in Singaporean banks.

At the same time, majority of the Singaporeans will gripe much about Indonesia’s massive ‘export’ of haze caused by the fires spreading across the archipelago’s lush forests. Or the country’s wanton, oftentimes capricious, legal enforcement, as many of the tourists may squawk. Or Indonesia’s mistreatment of ethnic minorities, in particular, those of Chinese descent (remember the fact that 75% of Singapore’s population is ethnic Chinese). Or lamentation about some of the Indonesians’ excessive displays of wealth (yeah, I remember one taxi driver said, “you know what? All luxury condos in Orchard Road belong to Chinese Indonesians. Even we Singaporeans could not afford them lah!”)

At this moment, though, grievances aside, another war of words occurs: the Indonesian government’s decision to name a navy ship based on two mariners executed for a 1965 bombing in the city-state’s business district – conducted during the heightened tensions between Indonesia and Malaysia (or known as Konfrontasi), where Singapore was still part of the latter – has sent the latter down their deep resentment.

 

What exactly happened in the bombing? Read the full article on Wikipedia to find out the answer.

Bonus: to get even more insight, you can read the complete archive of the bombing report on Singapore’s National Library.

 

The Christmas Truce

xmas_pc_ger_l

 

 

How World War I temporarily ended, one night in December 1914, as soldiers, enemies and allies, were going to celebrate Christmas, which ironically, did not subsequently end the war itself.

Read the full story on First World War, a website wholly dedicated to presenting full-range information about one of the human civilization’s deadliest wars ever fought.

 

Excerpt:

 

As Christmas approached the festive mood and the desire for a lull in the fighting increased as parcels packed with goodies from home started to arrive.  On top of this came gifts care of the state.  Tommy received plum puddings and ‘Princess Mary boxes’; a metal case engraved with an outline of George V’s daughter and filled with chocolates and butterscotch, cigarettes and tobacco, a picture card of Princess Mary and a facsimile of George V’s greeting to the troops.  ‘May God protect you and bring you safe home,’ it said.

Not to be outdone, Fritz received a present from the Kaiser, the Kaiserliche, a large meerschaum pipe for the troops and a box of cigars for NCOs and officers.  Towns, villages and cities, and numerous support associations on both sides also flooded the front with gifts of food, warm clothes and letters of thanks.

Before the Columbus

zhenghe

 

 

Far before Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, a Ming-era Chinese naval commander had led a fleet of full-fledged armada, stretching from Southeast Asia, India, Middle-East, and further into the long-stretching coasts of Africa, and unexpectedly, created a whole new Afro-Chinese tribe in an isolated island in Kenya. This was the story of Zheng He.

Released in June 1999, this long-form article was written by one of the world’s best journalists: the New York Times’ award-winning Nicholas D. Kristof.  Read the full story here.

 

Excerpt:

 

Pate is off in its own world, without electricity or roads or vehicles. Mostly jungle, it has been shielded from the 20th century largely because it is accessible from the Kenyan mainland only by taking a boat through a narrow tidal channel that is passable only at high tide. Initially I was disappointed by what I found there. In the first villages I visited, I saw people who were light-skinned and had hair that was not tightly curled, but they could have been part Arab or European rather than part Chinese. The remote villages of Chundwa and Faza were more promising, for there I found people whose eyes, hair and complexion hinted at Asian ancestry, though their background was ambiguous.

And then on a still and sweltering afternoon I strolled through the coconut palms into the village of Siyu, where I met a fisherman in his 40’s named Abdullah Mohammed Badui. I stopped and stared at the man in astonishment, for he had light skin and narrow eyes. Fortunately, he was as rude as I was, and we stared at each other in mutual surprise before venturing a word. Eventually I asked him about his background and appearance.

”I am in the Famao clan,” he said. ”There are 50 or 100 of us Famao left here. Legend has it that we are descended from Chinese and others.

”A Chinese ship was coming along and it hit rocks and wrecked,” Badui continued. ”The sailors swam ashore to the village that we now call Shanga, and they married the local women, and that is why we Famao look so different.”