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Anna Forsberg and Afghan craftsmen
Migrant Lives
Ric Wasserman

When Afghan Refugee Weavers Meet Swedish Designers

For Afghan asylum seekers arriving in cold Sweden, the transition isn’t always simple — but a new project is aiming to ease the way.

STOCKHOLM — A tightly packed showroom and workspace in the Swedish capital is filled with textile designs. Afghan and Swedish patterns combine to make entirely new and unique creations.

This is Stage One of the "Craft and Integration" project — An initiative that is partnering newly arrived young Afghan rug and textile makers with Swedish designers and rug experts.

"We should work with young people coming to Sweden who bring a lot of knowledge from their home countries and they can also teach us something about patterns, traditions, and techniques," said Anna Forsberg, the Swedish project director.

Forsberg saw lots of untapped potential here, both artistically and as a business. Young refugees have brought with them incredible skills in centuries-old Afghan weaving traditions.

"When so many refugees came to Sweden in 2015 I thought that maybe I should do something in Sweden as well that connects to textile and design," Anna recalled.

Thirty-five thousand unaccompanied children and adolescents sought asylum in Sweden in 2015. Half of them are young boys from Afghanistan. Many have little formal education. But some of them are talented textile and rug craftsmen.

Back in her shop, Forsberg shows Abedin Mohammedi how to use a Swedish loom. Now 18, Abedin arrived in Sweden two years ago. He's been involved in the Craft and Integration Project for the past six months. Back in Afghanistan, Abedin sat by his mother on the kitchen floor, and learned to make rugs from the age of 11.

He effortlessly gets the hang of the Swedish loom, and is confidently weaving within five minutes. But he's not convinced this is for him. Making a handwoven rug is time consuming.

"I know how to make Afghan rugs and that's pretty boring," he told me. "I was a child making rugs which took three to five months."

Forsberg has just ordered a loom from Afghanistan. And when Abedin hears that, he brightens up. It's something he knows about: "I can do that. If they get an Afghan loom I can teach others," he says.

The Craft and Integration project — Photo: Ric Wasserman

Stina Lanneskog is a textile designer and concept developer, and Forsberg's partner in the project. She tells me that young men like Abedin might surprise themselves once exposed to new approaches. "I can teach them through the design process and being creative that you can do so much more than you know," she said.

Lanneskog tells me they started the creative process with an experiment: The Swedes drew typical traditional Swedish patterns on paper, while the Afghan boys drew patterns from their own tradition. Then they cut them out, and mixed them up.

"Everyone had their shape and then we placed it on this black paper together. It's a quick and quite visual way to see how it will become in the end," she explained.

At the project launch I noticed people looking at the Afghan-Swedish textile mix. They looked pleasantly puzzled. "It's a mix that you can't really put your finger on," Lanneskog noted. "You know it, but you can't understand where you've seen it. So it's like a known and an unknown."

That's the whole idea: to create an entirely new design, spanning two very different cultures.

With his creations in the public eye, Abedin is looking rather proud. Far from his family, surrounded by a new language and culture, he has faced plenty of challenges since arriving. Despite all that, he tells me that he hopes he'll be allowed to stay. "Sweden is a good country. There's freedom of movement, I can go to school," Abedin says. "I can work. It's good for me here."

The ritual has been performed every day since 1959
Bismillah Geelani

Wagah The Dog? The Daily Paradox Of Pakistani-Indian Border Ritual

WAGAH — Here at the India-Pakistan border, thousands of men, women and children have gathered to watch a stunning ritual: On either side of the border, military march back and forth, as music roars and crowds cheer.

Known either as the Wagah border ceremony, the lowering of the flags, or "Beating Retreat" ceremony, the ritual has been performed every day since 1959, as flags are lowered around sunset. "Summer, winter or in any kind of storm, whatever the weather or political conditions, the parade doesn't stop," said Sumer Singh, former Deputy Inspector General of India's Border Security Force (BSF).

The ceremony has survived despite very tense relations between the two countries, as the violent partition of 1947 and the continuing conflict in Kashmir have permanently embittered the south Asian neighbors.

Still, the atmosphere is festive with loud music and patriotic slogans filling the air. On this side of the border, people have painted the Indian tricolor on their faces. They wave small flags, and break into dance as patriotic and Bollywood songs blare over loud speakers. The crowd cheers them on. The commander on the Indian side shouts a battle cry and about a dozen armed soldiers follow him to the iron gates that separate India and Pakistan.

Wearing Khaki uniforms and red-fanned turbans, the soldiers are forceful and aggressive — swinging their arms, stomping the ground vigorously and performing high kicks that nearly bring their legs to their foreheads.

Singh says the soldiers are specially selected and groomed for the job. "They are put through a rigorous training and it takes up to two years to bring a soldier into the required rhythm where he can match the steps and be fit for the drill," he explained. "They are also asked to grow moustaches. Only the best get the chance to represent the country whether on our side or the Pakistani side."

As the border gates on both sides are thrown open, the Pakistani rangers in black uniforms and matching fanned turbans appear performing similar moves.

The crowds go berserk and chants of "Hail to Mother India" on the one side and "long live Pakistan" on the other, grow louder and louder. After the show of strength and an exchange of menacing looks, soldiers from both sides lower their respective flags.

The parade was initially intended as a gesture of goodwill between the governments. But it has turned bitter and aggressive over the years — a true reflection of the declining relationship between the two neighbors. The fierce competition, rivalry and mistrust between soldiers is visible both during the parade and afterward.

"It is a question of national honor," said Ravi Dubey one of the Indian soldiers."If we show any signs of weakness it will be seen as India's weakness and we can't afford doing this when the other side is Pakistan. We have to remain a step ahead of them in everything."

We must come out of this cycle of hatred.

Ironically though, as Sumer Singh explains, the ceremony is truly a joint venture, shared and agreed upon by the two countries.

"It is the element of aggression in the drills that attracts the audiences," he notes. "When on a zero line a soldier stomps and shows his courage it gives the audiences a thrill and it is not as if Indians are doing it or Pakistanis are doing it arbitrarily, we practice it daily jointly and if there are any changes to be made, any step to be added or removed, the decision is taken with mutual consent and it is done with a view of making it more attractive and better synchronized."

But the way the parade is used to arouse nationalistic passions and promote jingoism is causing concern among those who strive for better relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.

"This site is also a reminder of what we chose not to recognize along with our independence and emergence as separate nations," said Devika Mittal coordinator of a group called Aghaz-e-Dosti, or the beginning of friendship.

The crowd watching the ceremony — Photo: Arian Zwegers

"Our separation or partition came at a heavy human cost," she explains. "Millions of people were displaced on both sides. People were killed, raped and they separated from their families. At that time there might have been no border gates but the space was the passage for the migrants and it continues to mark those memories."

Back at the border parade, after the last bit of powerful stomping, twirling of moustaches and exaggerated rolling of eyes, the soldiers shake hands and the border gates are again slammed shut.

The choreographed show of aggression comes to an end, just like a fiercely fought India-Pakistan cricket match.

With strong political will on both sides, Devika argues the same ceremony could be used to sow the seeds of lasting peace and friendship between the two neighbors. "Why can't we accept the fact that we were and are the same people? Why can't this ceremony be used for peace building?" she asked. "We cannot undo the past but we must come out of this cycle of hatred."

Writing in Afghanistan
Mudassar Shah

Afghanistan's Female Poets Secretly Share Forbidden Words

Safe from the disapproving eyes of their families, women writers gather secretly in Jalalabad to immerse themselves in poetry.

JALALABAD — Mursal, 22, reads her poetry. It's a patriotic verse, dedicated to young people who have made sacrifices in war for Afghanistan. But even with that subject, she is taking a risk: As a woman in Afghanistan, writing is dangerous.

"I never share my poetry with my family because they disapprove," says Mursal, clutching her notebook as if she's holding something stolen and dangerous, her eyes furtive and fearful.

Mursal — whose name means "messenger" — has been writing poetry for four years, but it's a closely guarded secret. And she says some subjects are completely off-limits. "I avoid writing romantic poetry because society does not encourage women to express love, even in the form of poetry," she explains. "Some female poets have been tortured for writing romantic poetry."

When Afghan women write about love, they are often accused of adultery, and of compromising the honor of the entire family. In 2005, Afghan poet Nadia Anjuman was killed by her husband after a book of her romantic poetry was published. Mention of her death still strikes fear among women. But it hasn't stopped them from putting pen to paper.

I never share my poetry with my family because they disapprove.

Najiba Paktiani is another female poet in the eastern city of Jalalabad. The 51-year-old has been writing for more than a decade. She calls it an antidote to the difficulties of life. "My life used to be in turmoil, full of sadness," she says. "I tried expressing my sorrow through poetry. That's how I started."

For centuries, poetry has been an important part of Pashtun culture, and it is often passed down by women through songs sung to children and at weddings. But Najiba tells me she's frustrated that women are now cut out of poetry. And even when they do manage to write, they're judged harshly, while male poets are widely respected.

A third female poet, Toor Paikay, says it's considered a great sin for women to want an education, or to want to make decisions for themselves. Toor is a keen writer, but she too keeps it a secret from her family.

Translation of Nadia Anjuman's poetry — Photo: Mudassar Shah/KBR

"The lack of security in my country, gender-based violence and murders of women — those are the main themes that I explore in my poetry," she says. "I focus on women's issues because women face many challenges, and their rights are rarely recognized. I want to be their voice. I want to highlight women's issues through my poetry."

Pashto poetry and culture often make reference to Malalai of Maiwand, a female independence fighter who died in 1880 resisting British colonization. She continues to be celebrated as a national hero. And yet, more than a century later, Afghan women are still struggling for their own independence.

Even when they do manage to write, they're judged harshly, while male poets are widely respected.

Under Taliban rule, from 1996 to 2001, public life was completely closed to Afghan women. They were confined to the home, and punished for minor indiscretions. After the fall of the Taliban, women began to make their way back into society, though serious limitations remain.

Still, a few female poets have gained acceptance — and even have the backing of their families. One of them is Zar Lakhta Hasini, who is now preparing her second book of poetry for publication.

"My school teachers encouraged me when I first shared my poetry with them. Then my family started supporting me. They helped me publish my poems in local newspapers and magazines," says Zar, who is now using her platform to push for women's rights so that others can also write openly and freely.

Sulemi spent 15 years in jail for his alleged role in the events of 1965.
Muhamad Ridlo

When Suharto Came Knocking, Revisiting Indonesia's Darkest Day

Sept. 30, 1965, is a night that changed Indonesia forever.

The events of that night led to Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, being ousted from office, as military General Suharto assumed control of government — Suharto went on to rule the country for 32 years, until 1998.

In Central Java, Indonesia, KBR journalist Muhamad Ridlo spoke with a man who was at the heart of the action that night, and who says a fake version of events has been remembered in Indonesia.

JAVA — The man in front of me is tall and thin. He's 77 years old, with a vivid memory, clear mind and strong spirit. Sulemi is a former soldier, who served with Cakrabirawa, the security forces of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno.

Sulemi was 25 years old in 1965, when his life was turned upside down transformed from an honorable soldier into political prisoner.

Sulemi swears he will be honest with me about what happened on the bloody night, Sept. 30, 1965. But what he tells me is very different from the official version of events that most Indonesians have come to know.

Millions of Indonesian school children were made to watch the terrifying film, Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (Treachery of the Communist Party), which depicts the events of that day. In the film, Cakrabirawa troops, are shown kidnapping and killing six generals. The army accused the Communist Party, or PKI, of masterminding the kidnappings. And General Suharto used the events to justify his take over as president.

Sulemi admits he was involved in the kidnappings, and he spent the following 15 years in jail for it. "I've told the truth," he says. "But they still punished me, that's the fact."

More than 50 years later, Sulemi still claims he is innocent. He says he was following the orders of his commanders, and was told that he was preventing a coup that six generals were planning. "There was an instruction from the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Untung. He said the situation was urgent, there was a coup planned for October 5," he told me.

Sulemi believes General Suharto knew and approved of what they were doing. Three of his commanders met Suharto the night before, and left the meeting glowing. "After they returned to our vehicle, they said all was settled, that Suharto was willing. That's crazy, right? Those are the facts."

On the night of Sept. 30, Sulemi and 35 other Cakrabirawa soldiers went to the home of General Nasution, intending to arrest him. But General Nasution ran, and escaped by jumping over fences. The troops searched the house, and in the chaos, Nasution's 5-year-old daughter, Ade Irma was shot. The film portrays the troops as cruel monsters.

Better to die telling the truth

"It is remarkable to say his daughter, Ade Irma was deliberately shot. That's crazy. Why would we do that?" Sulemi continued. "The child had nothing to do with it. That's unbelievable slander. She was hit by a bullet when we were inside the house, I don't know whose bullet it was."

Sulemi says he later learned the bullet was fired by a solider trying to force open a door. The troops were sent to jail. There, Sulemi was tortured and interrogated twice a week, in the attempt to force a confession. "If I was tortured until I died, that was the risk," he says. "Better to die telling the truth than to live a lie."

Sulemi never confessed to being a communist, or being part of a plot to bring down President Sukarno. "It was impossible for me to confess," he said. "At my age, at that time, why would I want to get involved in ideology and party politics? We were military men, we couldn't be in a party, at least not at the lower levels. I don't know about officers, majors and higher levels, maybe they were involved in politics."

After the events of 1965, the PKI became public enemy number one. In the space of a year, half a million to one million suspected communists and communist sympathizers were killed. After two years in prison, those involved in the events of 1965 faced a court martial. Sulemi was given a death sentence, which was eventually reduced to life imprisonment, and after 15 years in prison, he was granted a pardon.

On the outside, Sulemi lived as an outcast, with neighbors refusing to talk to him and unable to find work. His wife had long ago divorced him.

It's now over 50 years since that night. But it continues to haunt Indonesia. Communism is still feared and hated in the country. For years, people accused of communist sympathies and their children were banned from the army and public service. Public discussions about these events are often shut down, and in September, a peaceful discussion on the topic sparked a riot in Jakarta.

Sulemi has since remarried. But his wife Sri Murni tells me he carries the trauma of torture to this day. "He screams in his sleep," she told me. "We sleep separately."

Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak is commonly known as Toilet Man
Jasvinder Sehgal

A Sitting Mission, Meet India's Toilet Man

An estimated 2.3 billion people worldwide live without toilets. Nearly two-thirds of them are in India. Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, a sociologist and NGO founder, is determined to do something about it.

NEW DELHI — There's a celebration taking place in the small town of Marora, in the northern state of Haryana. Dozens of school girls sing. Boys shout out slogans. And at the center of it all is a huge squat toilet brought here by India's Toilet Man himself, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak.

Measuring six-by-three meters, the massive toilet is far too big for use by any human. But it does have a purpose: It's an educational tool, a difficult-to-ignore reminder of how important it is to use toilets. That's the message that Dr. Pathak, a sociologist and founder of the NGO Sulabh International, is working hard to spread in India, where according to a recent national census, one in every two people defecates in the open.

"We have constructed 1.5 million toilets in households, in both urban and rural areas," he says. "And in public spaces we have built about 9,000 toilets."

Simply put, toilets save lives, because without them, human waste is left in the open, spreading killer diseases like diarrhea and cholera, Dr. Pathak explains. They're also a priority for Indian women, offering them safety and dignity, which they lack when forced to defecate in the open, he adds.

Dr. Pathak, or Toilet Man, as he's commonly known, says decades of hard work is now making an impact, especially now that the national government, as of 2014, has committed to a "Clean India" campaign. "We have cleaned up this country," he says. "We have helped. Now the prime minister of India has this program to stop defecation in the open by 2019. Using our technology, the government has built about 70 million toilets."

Dr. Pathak's technology is what's called a "two pit pour-flush" toilet. They are ecologically sustainable, composting devices that don't even need to be cleaned. "One pit is used at a time and the other is kept stand by," he explains. "If the first one is full, we switch over to another one."

After time, the material collected in the first pit can be used for manure or fertilizer, or even used to generate energy. "The human excreta goes to a biogas digester and that is used for burning lamps or cooking food," Dr. Pathak explains. "That way it's fully recycled. We don't allow methane to go to the atmosphere, we burn it. So it helps to reduce global warming and thus prevent climate change."

Dr. Pathak is determined to share his knowledge of toilets far and wide. And he's set up a very unique place to do just that: a toilet museum, in the capital New Delhi. The museum traces the 4,500-year history of the toilet, and features exhibits from 50 countries.

"In 2014, Time magazine carried out a global survey to list the world's 10 weirdest museums. And this museum came in third," Dr. Bagheshwar Jha, the toilet museum's head curator, tells me.

The giant squat toilet in the village of Marora will eventually be displayed here, along with all kinds of replicas. Assistant curator Shikha Sharma points out her favorite one: the throne toilet, once the property of the French emperor Louis XIV. "The king had a constipation problem," Sharma explains. "He used to sit right here."

The toilet museum draws thousands of visitors every year. One of the museum goers, Raju Singh, 28, shows me his personal highlight. "It's a hilarious letter written in broken English to the colonial railway authorities," he explains. "The writer was traveling by a train, and had a strong urge to defecate but there was no toilet. His letter compelled the British authorities to put toilets on Indian trains."

India's Toilet Man has picked up where the colonial-era train passenger left off. Except rather than furnish trains, he wants to put a toilet in every single Indian home.

At India's Pushkar camel fair
Jasvinder Sehgal

Where Indian Camels Are As Sacred As Cows (But Vanishing Fast)

In the northwestern state of Rajasthan, camels have long been worshipped as the main source of transport . But their numbers are rapidly dwindling.

Two camels adorned with orange saddles, nose pegs and tiny bells tied to their legs are pounding their hooves to the beat of drums. A 35-year-old-local performer Kanjo leads them in a clamorous dance. "I am just like a prop for these camels," she tells me. "For me they are like a God. I love, respect and worship them. And I can't live without them." She also relies on them to make a living.

Like many people in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan, she reveres camels the way that Hindus worship cows. Many who have brought their camels here are Raikas, a special caste of camel breeders, who believe they were created by Shiva to be camel guardians. They worship the camel god Prabuji.

Some 80% of all of India's camels are in the state of Rajasthan. The camel is crucial to the area's art and culture, with hundreds of folktales, stories and poems dedicated to the animal.

At the agricultural market, more camel owners arrive with various breeds of domesticated camels in tow. Jagdeesh Raibari, 56, has been rearing camels since childhood. Today, he shares the concerns of many people here. "My family used to have 150 camels, but today we have far fewer. Camel rearing is not lucrative anymore," Raibari said. "Our young people are searching for new jobs, because they can't earn a living anymore with camels."

The young Raika will continue to move to the cities

Deforestation, urbanization and climate change have encroached on grazing land, while new diseases have had a big impact on camel populations. Once integral to transport across the arid climate, they were the ships of India's deserts, and kings kept royal herds. But in recent decades, like horses elsewhere, camels have been replaced with scooters, cars and trucks.

Until the 1990s, there were around one million camels in Rajasthan. According to current estimates, their numbers have fallen to fewer than 200,000. In the hope of saving camels, the state government of Rajasthan has made it illegal to slaughter and export camels – elevating them to a similar status to India's holy cow. Penalties of up to five years can be imposed for their slaughter.

But camel owners say the law hasn't had the desired effect. Camel numbers are continuing to drop. "We are demanding that the State government at least allow the export of male camels, if not, their numbers will keep dropping. Camel owners will stop rearing them because they are not economically viable," stated Hanwant Singh Rathore, the director of the League for Pastoral Peoples.

Photo: Jasvinder Sehgal

Rathore argues if camel exports remain banned, rearing camels won't be economically sustainable, and young Raika will continue to move to the cities and find other work. He has suggested new strategies, like selling camel milk and other camel products.

Back at the market, the air is filled with the sweet smell of tea brewing on an old stove. Camel rearer Seeta Devi is giving out camel milk tea, and preaching to people about its health benefits. "Camel milk has immense therapeutic value. It is beneficial for asthma, tuberculosis, diabetes and regulating blood sugar levels," she tells passersby.

Dr. Narender Singh, who is in charge of the state government's camel conservation efforts, says that promoting camel products could provide new incentive to continue rearing camels. "Camel milk chocolate is very popular. Handmade paper, woolen mats and rugs, and even mosquito repellent made out of camel dung are finding their way into urban markets," he noted.

Selling new derivative products might be a financial incentive to stay in the camel-rearing business, but the bigger hump to overcome is climate change.

Erdogan poster in Lahore, Pakistan
Naeem Sahoutara

Erdogan’s Purge Stretches All The Way To Pakistan

KARACHI — A Turkish family is rushing out to a weekend protest in this populous Pakistani city; outside the Karachi Press Club, Turkish residents release doves as a sign of peace; 25 Turkish teachers plea for safety in Pakistan. These Turkish families have lived here for over two decades, teaching at a network of international schools led by Fethullah Gülen, a moderate Islamic cleric from Turkey, who currently lives in the United States.

In the last 16 months, 28 Gülen schools and colleges across Pakistan have been shut down under pressure from the government in Ankara. Staff members now face deportation and some say they are feeling unsafe in Pakistan for the first time.

In July 2016, a failed coup attempt sent shock waves through Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed the coup on Gülen, his rival, and on Gülen's followers. In the coup's wake, Erdogan strengthened his grip on power, cracking down on journalists, academics and real or perceived critics. Some 50,000 people were arrested and most are still detained.

"Journalists, activists, teachers, media workers have been prosecuted on allegations of being linked to Fethullah Gülen or the Gülenist movement," explained Saroop Ijaz from Human Rights Watch Pakistan. "And there has been an absence of credible evidence to suggest widespread involvement or complicity of the people being prosecuted in Turkey by the present regime in the failed coup attempt," he said.

At its height, the Gülen network had about 2000 schools around the world, teaching Gülen's brand of Islam, which promotes charity and service. But critics say the schools also raised funds and increased the influence of Erdogan's rival in Turkey.

Exiled Islamic cleric Fetullag Gülen in Aug. 2016 — Photo: AlphaX News screenshot

After the attempted coup, Erdogan pressured foreign governments to shut down the Gülen schools and deport their staff. Pakistan complied and last November, 1,500 Turkish staff members were ordered to return to Turkey.

The wife of one teacher, identified as Ms. Gulmez, said she was afraid of what awaited them there. "There will be some kind of interrogation and maybe arrests because our names are on their list, as we also heard from our embassy," she said.

They put all of us in one basket, though we are not violent.

The teachers have appealed the Pakistani government's decision, stalling the deportation of 78 families, but they are awaiting final verdicts.

Gulmez maintains her innocence. "They put all of us in one basket because of the Gülen group, though we are not violent or mixed in this claimed coup," she said. Some 300 people from 78 Turkish families have registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency and have been granted asylum for a year, until next November.

But Yilmaz's husband, the teacher, says that has offered little safety. "We somehow felt safe in Pakistan, we lived here under the umbrella of the UNHCR," he said. But that changed on Sept. 17, when it was reported that some families had been abducted from their homes. Since then, he said, "the people, the families, the ladies, the kids they feel they are not in safe place anymore."

Mesut Kacmez, a deputy school principal, and his family were allegedly detained by the Pakistani security agencies in the eastern city of Lahore in September. Weeks later, they were deported to Turkey against their will.

Saroop Ijaz, a Human Rights Watch lawyer, says Pakistan has a duty to protect the teachers, instead of giving in to Turkey's demands. Pakistan must not "put its international credibility and its compliance with international obligations at risk" in order to carry out the Turkish government's political objectives, Ijaz says. "I think it's completely unacceptable and also a violation of international law."

A funeral earlier this year for a teenager killed by police in Manila .
Kannikar Petchkaew

Thailand's Lessons To Ease Deadly Crackdown In Philippines

BANGKOK — Luzviminda Siapo is telling me about the day her 19-year-old son was killed — that was just seven months ago.

He was dragged from his home by 14 masked men and shot in the head twice. Witnesses say he was ordered to run for his life before being shot. "He just couldn't run, he had club feet," Luzviminda told me.

I met Luzviminda along with The Philippines Human Rights Commissioner, Leah Tanodra-Armamento. The pair were visiting Thailand last month, sharing stories of Filipinos killed in the country's so-called ‘war on drugs."

It's been 16 months since Rodrigo Duterte became President of the Philippines. Since then, thousands of suspected drug users and dealers have been killed in drive-by shootings and random attacks, in a wave of state sanctioned violence. President Duterte has rejected domestic and international calls for accountability, denying government responsibility for the deaths.

Frustrated by the lack of justice within the country, Filipino human rights campaigners are looking abroad to find solutions, and have recently connected with Filipinos living in Thailand. Marion Cabrera is one such person, part of a group called ANAK, or Advocacy Network Against Killings. They hope that they can learn from the Thai experience.

Striking similarities between the two countries

Thai academic and human rights advocated Sriprapha Petcharamesree also met with the Filipino advocates, explaining that Thailand suffered 2000 extrajudicial killings within just a three-month span in 2003. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had declared drugs the nation's No. 1 enemy, and waged his own bloody campaign.

Petcharamesree said that an official investigation in 2007 found that "more than half of those killed had no connection whatsoever with drugs."

Hearing such information, Filipino activists see striking similarities between the two countries. In both Thailand and the Philippines, strongmen leaders with strong popular support have encouraged extrajudicial killings. Few have been charged with the killings.

But in Thailand, Shinawatra eventually caved to domestic opposition against the killings. Thailand's former Minister of Justice Paiboon Koomchaya believes Thailand's harsh crackdown was a total failure. "Massive arrests and harsh punishment, it just lead to a massive loss of lives," he said. "And now every country faces the same problem: overcrowded jails."

Even though the killings have ended in Thailand, the problem isn't over. The number of inmates jailed for drug convictions in Thailand has almost doubled over the past decade.

Thailand now has the eighth-highest incarceration rate in the world according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, with a prison population of more than 300,000, and some 70% doing time for drug-related offenses.

Jewelry district in Seoul
South Korea
Jason Strother

Gift Or Bribe? New South Korean Graft Law Treads On Tradition

SEOUL — Stella came to South Korea on a government scholarship to do a PhD. She says when she arrived from Europe, she found that the degree came with some "unofficial" costs. "I heard that there should be some kind of payment every time that my committee of professors would meet to discuss my thesis."

Stella did not want to reveal her real name since she works for that same university now. She says she confronted her professors about these payments, but it didn't go well. "I was explicitly told by one of the members of my committee that I should pay this money," she said. "This was Korean custom and I should take this as normal."

So every time she met her advisors, she handed over envelopes, stuffed with cash. Stella says this custom cost her about $900 over a six month period. Her professors graciously accepted her "gifts' and she got her degree.

South Korea has a tradition of gift-giving that some people take advantage of, notes Joongi Kim, a law professor at Seoul's Yonsei University. "The key issue is when there's an authority relationship," he notes. There are some hopeful signs that the practice of small and large bribes is declining since a sweeping anti-graft law after a probe of the 2014 sinking of the Sewol ferry, which killed around 300 passengers. Investigators blamed corruption for allowing the ship to sail despite inadequate safety.

The sunken ferry in 2014 — Photo: South Korean Coast Guard

The anti-graft law is meant to keep educators, journalists and public officials on the straight and narrow. It places restrictions on the monetary value of presents that they can give and receive — violations are a criminal offense.

Since it came into effect a year ago, government data shows that 188 violators have been penalized.

That might seem like a small number, but law professor Joongi Kim says the law has created an atmosphere where people with authority are now scared to ask for gifts. He adds, though, that in some cases the expansive law seems too strict. "If a elementary school student gives a flower to a teacher that they like, if the teacher accepts that flower it would be illegal under the law."

The law may actually even be hurting the florist business. Ms. Yang, who only wants to give her surname, runs a flower shop in downtown Seoul and says many of her customers were civil servants. Ever since the law took effect she says orders have plunged, especially for large bouquets that are given as gifts at weddings and funerals. "I'm desperate," she said. "I've been running my shop for 10 years and I'm seeing other florists that have been in this part of town for 20 or 30 years close because of the law. I know it's good for our society, but its killing small businesses. Giving gifts, like flowers, is just a way Koreans show how much they care."

Aside from flower shops, tokens of appreciation are picked up at supermarkets, too. Hwang Yeop, who heads the Hanwoo or Korean Beef Association, says the anti-graft law also hurts his industry. Assortments of Korean beef are traditionally given during the lunar new year and the Chuseok-thanksgiving holiday in the fall. "I support the law in principle," he said. "But there needs to be some exceptions made for gifts like these."

Prices for flowers and Korean beef were artificially high.

There's a roughly $50 limit on gifts you can give to civil servants, professors and reporters. There's also a cap on how much government officials can spend on wining and dining guests, Hwang says fewer people are ordering Korean beef at barbeque joints. The maximum is about $30 per meal.

The law has popular support, according to polls here. And its making South Korea less corrupt, says You Han-beom of Transparency International Korea.

He admits that it's negatively affecting some industries, but says the price for flower bouquets and gift packs of Korean beef were artificially high to begin with in part because government officials weren't using their own money to buy them.

"A lot of taxpayer money was spent on things like flowers and Korean beef. It was substantial, so it needed to be stopped," he stated. "Yes, this is going to cause some pain for small businesses at first, but in the long run they will find ways to meet normal consumer demand."

Still, You Han-beom says the anti-corruption law won't kill Korea's tradition of gift giving.

On my way out of his office, he hands me a small, wrapped box. I remind him that as a reporter in Korea, I can't legally accept presents over $50. He says it's just a tube of toothpaste, so I'll be alright.

Jeong Kwan says she feels a spiritual connection with the food she prepares
South Korea
Jason Strother

Cooking Is Like Praying, When A Buddhist Nun Becomes A Celebrity Chef

The South Korea nun's culinary philosophy has influenced chefs and foodies around the world.

BUKHA-MYEON — When I arrived at Baekyangsa temple in South Jeolla province, 270 kilometers south of the South Korean capital of Seoul, I was met with rain sliding from tiled roofs.

The venerable Jeong Kwan was waiting for me in front of the Chunjinam hermitage. Like all Buddhist monks and nuns, Jeong Kwan's head is shaved. She looks grandmotherly in her grey robe, but she won't tell me how old she is. Then again, age is just a number. The nun has lived at the temple since she was 17, and she's been cooking for even longer.

She says she feels a spiritual connection with the food she prepares. "Humans are like seeds. You plant a seed in the soil and it grows," she told me. "Just like the way we come from our mothers' bodies. This is how we are all connected to the universe. Nature takes time to grow all things. I can be a cucumber, I can be cabbage. When I cook, I become that ingredient."

Jeong Kwan speaks mostly in Buddhist spiritual terms — it's a little over my head. But this perspective on food and life is what has made her a celebrity, philosopher chef. Last year, she was featured in the Netflix documentary series The Chef's Table. Now food lovers from far and wide make the pilgrimage to Baekyangsa to learn from her.

But Jeong Kwan says her new celebrity status has not changed her. She is a monk first, chef second. Inside a sanctuary, Jeong Kwan shows me how to pray in front of a large Buddha statue. She says there is no difference between meditating here and cooking in the kitchen.

"To me, cooking is like praying. When I enter the kitchen, I enter without thoughts. It's just like I am bowing to Buddha. I concentrate only on myself and what I'm doing at that moment. I hope that those who eat what I've cooked feel happy and at peace," she says.

The kitchen is where Jeong Kwan says she can best communicate with others. Standing in front of the stove, she's preparing seaweed soup. Next to her are bowls of diced kimchi, persimmons and noodles. All ingredients are grown on or near the temple grounds.

Unlike a lot of Korean cuisine, which relies heavily on salt, pepper paste and other sauces, Jeong Kwan says she keeps her dishes simple.

"It's like if you put on too much make up, you don't feel free. So when I cook, I avoid using too much sauce or marinade. I want to maximize the original taste of the ingredient. I seek the emotional flavor of a vegetable"

She says you need to taste the food with your entire body. But most people don't understand that what they put in their mouths affects them in ways they never expect. "These days people eat too much fast food, especially those who live in cities," she says. "When you eat this kind of food, your mind also rushes. It makes you angry, or violent. I think by eating slow food, it transforms you as well, but in a positive way."

And don't cook when you're angry either, Jeong Kwan adds. It poisons the food and will make those who eat it angry, too.

When dinner is served, we eat soybean stew, shitake mushrooms and multigrain rice. It is a delicious feast, but Jeong Kwan doesn't think it's anything special. She says food is just fuel for her meditation. She never actually craves anything.

"All human beings have three desires. The desire to sleep, the desire to eat and the desire to live for a long time," she tells me. "But if you can't relinquish these desires, then you'll never become free or enlightened. Giving up the desire to eat is the most difficult. I think if we all could end this desire then we'd all feel more comfortable"

Giving up wanting food? I find that hard to swallow. I also can't believe she doesn't crave anything from outside the temple. So before I said good-bye to Jeong Kwan, I had to ask if she had any guilty pleasures. What she told me was, well, enlightening.

"Well, sometimes, not too often, I enjoy ice cream, or maybe chocolate. Especially after I've been meditating all day," she says with a giggle. "I feel ice cream really refreshes my body and energy."

Vanilla and green tea flavored ice cream to be exact, she adds.

Burmese workers in Thailand
Kannikar Petchkaew

In Thailand, Migrant Workers From Myanmar Find Common Ground

Refugees in the border town of Mae Sod are uniting across ethnic lines to defend their rights against unscrupulous employers and Thai authorities keen to send them back.

MAE SOD — Moe Swe was one of the hundreds of thousands of students who, in 1988, took to the streets of Yangon, Myanmar hoping to end three decades of military rule. But the military met their protest with guns. The movement was quickly crushed. Many were killed. Others survived but had to flee.

Like so many of his country's refugees, Moe Swe ran to Thailand, where he began as an unregistered migrant worker in factories and on construction sites. Conditions were poor. He often worked without pay. And with no proper housing, he lived in a shelter that was often targeted by immigration and army officers. To avoid arrest or deportation, he had to bribe officials.

After 10 years, he was fed up. And so, in 1999, Moe Swe set up the Yaung Chi Oo Workers' Association to fight for the rights of migrant workers like himself. "When there's a conflict between employers and employees, we tell the workers to negotiate and we try to mediate," he explains. "If they cannot get the agreement they want, we take them to the professional legal office."

Of Thailand's country's approximately 3 million migrant workers, an estimated two-thirds are undocumented. The majority come from Myanmar, where a long-running conflict between ethnic minority groups and the military continues to produce refugees.


Burmese workers in Thailand — Photo: Kannikar Petchkaew/KBR

In the border town of Mae Sod, there are nearly 100,000 migrant workers from Myanmar. They are spread across hundreds of factories, working in labor intensive industries like garment manufacturing.

Thailand's minimum wage is $15 a day, but here workers tell me they are paid much less than that. Registered workers earn $5 a day, and unregistered workers are paid just half of that, about $2.50 a day.

Moe Swe says that at first, no one took the Workers' Association seriously. "The local labor protection and welfare office think we're trouble makers. But now they understand. Because we also try to mediate between employers and employees," he explains.

The organization set up safe houses for workers, a day care center for their children, and a mobile clinic. They filed law suits against several employers, and won compensation for about 200 underpaid workers. Now, it is one of the most respected organizations for migrant workers in Thailand.

There's no room for anger or hatred.

But the challenges they face have been evolving too. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth says he is determined to push unregistered workers back to their country of origin. Harsh new penalties announced in June could mean fines of up to $25,000 for employers, and jail time of up to five years for workers.

On the other side of Mae Sod, I meet Aung Aung, leader of the advocate group Arakan Labour Camp. With the new penalties facing unregistered workers, Aung Aung says their situation is more vulnerable than ever. But he proudly tells me that while ethnic divisions have divided Myanmar for decades, here workers are uniting across ethnic lines, to fight for their rights.

"I have never thought of turning anyone away," he says. "I help people whether they're Burmese or from any minority group. They come to us because they believe we can help. And if we can't help, we ask for help from other organizations that can."

Aung Aung fled fighting in Rakhine state, in western Myanmar, in 2008. In Thailand, he worked for six months in a garment factory — without pay —before seeking help. He says he has a lot to be angry about: His home town has been stormed by the army time and time again, turning it into a war zone. For a long time, he blamed the Rohingya, Myanmar's Muslim minority.

But here in Thailand, living as a migrant worker and fighting for the rights of other workers, his perspective has changed. Against this new threat — having to flee perhaps from the place that they fled to — there's no room for anger or hatred, Aung Aung says.

"I used to feel angry about what had happened and I really hated them, he says of the Rohingya. "But I learnt that anger doesn't help solve any problems. I told myself to concentrate on the problems at hand, instead of focusing on how I felt."

The siege of Marawi claimed more than 1,000 lives
Madonna Virola

ISIS In Philippines, City Decimated By Five-Month Siege

The southern city of Marawi was liberated last week after months of fighting which left some 1,000 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.

ILIGAN — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared the liberation of the southern city of Marawi last week, bringing an end to a five-month deadly siege by the Islamic State (ISIS) that claimed more than 1,000 lives.

The siege ended after Philippine forces killed two leading Islamic militants, Isinilon Hapilon and Omar Maute, along with 50 other militants and hostages. Nearly 400,000 residents, 90% of the city's population, had been displaced by the fighting, many fleeing to neighboring cities. The refugees have been living in cramped makeshift camps, sleeping on cement floors covered in cardboard boxes, sheltered only by donated plastic sheets.

In Saguiran, the town closest to Marawi, long lines extend for food and basic supplies. Women who fled their homes with nothing are forced to sell the meager provisions they get in order to buy milk and diapers for their babies.

We need to make sure that the youth in Arabic schools are taught the right principles of Islam

Sahara, 32, cries as she recounts the strain of living on the run in temporary shelters. "My husband abuses me. He hits me physically and shouts degrading insults at me," she says. "I reported this to the police but they only warned him. I want to leave him but I don't have money and my three children are still small."

Humanitarian organizations have helped by providing for immediate needs like water, food, shelter and sanitation. But after five months, other problems have emerged. Thousands spent the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan on the run. Since then, many women have given birth in the evacuation centers.

Anefel Granada, an aid worker, says humanitarian groups have done their best to accommodate evacuees. "We had to provide things that were not in the approved proposal, like plywood for flooring, especially for pregnant women and mothers who say their children are cold. We also distributed newborn kits because there are several pregnant women with small babies at the evacuation center," she said.

The Al-Mujadilah Development Foundation or AMDF, a Marawi-based women's NGO, set up a temporary office in Iligan, some 40 kilometers north of Marawi. First its members fled their own homes and found shelter for their families, then they dedicated themselves to helping others. But Noraisa Sani, an AMDF project officer, says the community faces big challenges ahead. "We need to make sure that the youth in Arabic schools are taught the right principles of Islam and are not being recruited into terrorism," she said.

It's always a strategy to control the urban center that is predominantly Muslim

Ahmed Harris Pangcoga, of the UN Refugee Agency office in Iligan, says ISIS and its local ally, the Maute group, targeted the mostly Muslim city of Marawi in a strategic attack aiming at expanding their hold in Asia.

"Marawi was targeted by the extremist group because if you look at precedents in the Middle East, in Africa, it's always a strategy to control the urban center that is predominantly Muslim in the hope of getting the sympathy of the Muslim population there," Pangcoga said.

Fighters were joined by jihadists from Indonesia, Malaysia and even Chechnya. After the fighting, Pangcoga says, a much effort will need to be invested in deradicalizing Marawi and other cities where the majority of the population is Muslim.

When the battle broke out in Marawi in May, President Duterte declared martial law in the entire Mindanao region and threatened to apply it to the whole country.

The battle is now over, but martial law is still in place with no sign that it will soon be lifted. Back at the evacuation center in Saguiran, women and girls say they just want to go back to school, their jobs and normal life. But with Marawi in ruins, a massive task of rebuilding lies ahead and normal life looks far-off.