Country Reviews – Weeks 5-8

CAMBODIA
Khmer Empire, which lasted from 802-1431 AD, spanned Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnsam. And Angkor Wat, which was built in the empire’s capital, is the world’s largest religious monument. I read a lot about women’s rights during this time, because it was astonishingly progressive. For one, Angkor Wat’s many sculptures feature mostly women. Commerce throughout the empire was almost exclusively handled by women. And the king was attended by an all-female bodyguard.

SAO TOME AND PRINCIPE
ST&P is to Portugal what Australia is to England. The country was first colonised by Portuguese convicts in the 1400s. They held the country well into the 20th century, with clashes becoming more and more violent towards the end of Portugal’s settlement. In 1953, Portuguese rulers killed hundreds of African laborers in what is known as the Batepa Massacre.
The country now relies on cocoa and coffee exports and hopes to begin exporting oil soon. Also, very interesting social dynamics here. There are absolutely no higher education institutions in the country. And its people are very accustomed to the idea of open marriages and any kids that result from those marriages.

TAIWAN
I understand that it’s a little controversial for me to even have Taiwan on this list, since it’s technically not even recognized by the UN as a country, but that in itself made it a region of intrigue for me. It’s been mostly autonomous since 1949, though Taiwan and China still engage in verbal spats from time to time, and can be a source of tension in the U.S.-China relationship. Taiwan’s newly elected president is its first female head of state, and she’s an opposition figure expected to possibly ruffle some feathers on mainland China. Worth watching out for.
Also, fun fact- Taiwan was home to Asia’s largest LGBT festival ever last October.

MACEDONIA
Right on the border with Greece, Macedonia has been at the center of the Europe refugee crisis for the past few weeks. They’ve closed their border, leaving thousands stranded on the Greek side. But Greece’s issues with Macedonia go back to the latter’s inception. The two have a conflict over Macedonia’s name because the Greeks are concerned that the country wants to annex a region in Northern Greece by the same name. For a while there, Greece even persuaded the UN and NATO to refer to the country as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

RWANDA
So of course there was the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. And there’s been a lot of debate lately about President Kagame being allowed to run for a third term. I’ve read a lot about both of those though, so I tried to focus on culture/geography instead. One of the most bizarre things I found was imimigongo, or cow dung art, traditionally made by women. It’s often dyed red, white or brown and painted on walls and pottery in geometric or spiral patterns. These pieces can be really beautiful – take a look.

SIERRA LEONE
Tragically the departure point for most African slaves coming to the New World, and the source of millions of blood diamonds which were at the root of civil war from 1991-2002. Then there was ebola, which killed more than 400 people, and a third of the international funds set aside to help Sierra Leone with the health crisis are missing.


JORDAN
It’s located at the crossroads of the the Abrahamic religions’ holy lands. Also, there are more Palestinian refugees than ‘original Jordanians’ in Jordan. And there’s no oil, which is unique for a Middle Eastern country. The economy survives mostly on tourism and foreign aid, primarily from the U.S.

JAPAN
It’s the 3rd largest economy, but is very removed from the world stage. For example, Japan rejected 99% of asylum seekers last year. It’s extremely insular. And until recently, that’s extended to its defence policy as well. From 1633-1853, it was illegal for foreigners to come to Japan and for Japanese citizens to leave. Obviously, things have lightened up a bit since then, but after its shenanigans in WWII, Japan adopted an isolationist policy under which it does not interfere in external conflicts in any way. It’s now starting to reconsider that, under Prime Minister Abe’s leadership.

ITALY

Home to Europe’s only three volcanos. Country with the most UNESCO heritage sites. Most wine exports. Lots of fun superlatives here. Also, lots of corruption. In the 1990s, there was an operation called ‘mani pulite’ (clean hands) which exposed corruption at the very top of government, includiong former Prime Ministers. That led to the demise of what was called the ‘first republic,’ a group of corrupt elites. And many of them committed suicide after being exposed. But corruption is still very much a problem in Italy’s government, for example Silvio Berlusconi who was PM from 2008-2011.

CANADA
The name comes from Kanata, which is Iroquois for village or settlement. Canada is the world’s 2nd largest country, but 90% of its population lives on or near the border with the United States. The U.S.-Canada trade partnership is also the world’s largest. Though they have territorial spats over the Arctic, with Denmark as well. Also, the province of Quebec has pushed for sovereignty in 1995 and 2006, but failed to achieve it both times.

PANAMA
One of far too many Central American countries where the U.S. has been a tad over-involved. That’s because America has always wanted control over the very strategically placed Panama Canal (15,000 ships traverse it every year), and the U.S. did have exclusive control over it from 1914-1999. Part of that ‘overinvolvement’ included the U.S. invading Panama in 1989 to depose the military ruler (Manuel Noriega) who had lost their favour. Fun fact: He ended up evading capture by hiding in the Vatican diplomatic mission, where the U.S. did not have jurisdiction. They flushed him out of there by blasting metal and rock & roll music.

MALAWI
Formerly called Nyasaland. Lots of poverty – 40% of the country lives on less than $1 a day. I read a lot about the country’s first president – Hastings Banda. He seems to be a bit of a controversial figure – head of the country’s nationalist movement and jailed by the British colonialists, but then had great relations with South Africa’s white minority apartheid government after he became president in 1963. Actually, Banda had great relations with the Western world in general, but that might have been borne largely due to need for foreign aid.

MONTENEGRO
Was part of Yugoslavia for 90 years, and after that fell apart, Serbia & Montenegro were a union state from 2003-2006. But at that point, Montenegrins voted for independence and created their own state. That said, the populations of the two countries are still very mixed. 33% of Montenegro’s population are ethnic Serbs. Random fact: The Tara River Canyon in Montenegro is the deepest and longest canyon in Europe.

BRAZIL
Lots of labour issues here. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to formally abolish slavery (in 1888), and poor people are still exploited and forced into labour there. That’s because of the vast poverty and therefore desperation. 1/3 of the population of Rio de Janeiro live in favelas (slums). Child labour and sexual exploitation are also very prevalent in the city. Meanwhile, they’ve got a political crisis as the government runs out of money and corruption is becoming harder and harder to ignore.

BRUNEI
First East Asian country to implement Sharia (Islamic) law, and the similarities with Middle Eastern countries go on. Brunei has tons of oil, its citizens don’t pay taxes, and they each get a share of the oil money from the government. That’s lead to a very rich, high standard (and cost) of living, similar to that of the GCC countries. And the Sultan’s lifestyle/assets certainly represent that standard of luxury.

LATVIA
I feel like former Soviet states go one of two ways – they either end up loving Russia, or hating it. Latvia is one where ethnic Russians, who make up about 25% of the population, have gotten the short end of the stick. There’s a lot of resentment against then in the post-USSR era, and it manifests itself in laws like one passed in 2004 that restricts the use of the Russian language in school. And to further promote their own culture, students who fail the Latvian language test three times are denied citizenship.

KINGDOM OF TONGA
Made up of 170 islands, Tonga is the last Polynesian monarchy left. But even that is fading away. After 165 years of feudal rule, Tonga elected its first parliament in 2010, and its first non-nobel Prime Minister in 2015. The royal family ended up losing hold on its power because the citizens became aware of its gross mishandling of funds. For example, one king hired American Jesse Bogdonoff as both a court jester and investment manager in 1999. Bogdonoff lost 26 million dollars belonging to the Tonga government, and many citizens still blame him and his sponsoring King for the country’s failing economy.

CHAD
The country is mainly divided into an Arab/Muslim North and a Christian/Animist South, and the two halves have struggled to get along since independence in 1960. That’s recently been exacerbated by Boko Haram attacks, as Chad has pledged to help fight the group in Nigeria. Chad is rich in gold, uranium and oil reserves, but as a recent of the constant conflict, there’s both high poverty and bad infrastructure. And fun fact – there’s only one movie theater in the whole country.

TOGO
Tiny country in West Africa that was colonised by the Germans, French and Brits at different times, but it seems like the French have had the most influence there. The current president is Gnassingbe Faure, son of Gnassingbe Eyadema who led the country for 38 years, died in office, and was promptly succeeded by his son. The opposition has cried foul at the last two elections (in 2005 and 2010), but the European Union has deemed both free and fair.

IRAN
There’s of course a lot to know about Iran regarding its place in the world – most recently, its place in the conflicts in Yemen and Syria, the Nuclear Deal signed last year, the Iraq Iran War, the Iran Hostage Crisis, the U.S. overthrowing the Shah.. on and on. But it’d be too much for me to delve into in a short paragraph. SO instead – I bring your attention to Zoroastrianism, which was founded in Iran in 224. It’s one of the oldest monotheistic religions in the world, and was one of the most powerful religions when it was first founded. Today, there are believed to be less than 200,000 followers globally.

JAMAICA
Name comes from the indigenous name for the islands – Xaymaca, which means land of springs. And what sounds to Americans as ‘Jamaican slang’ is actually the primary language of the country – Jamaican Patois. Seriously, check out that video. She breaks down the terms and they sound like abbreviated versions of English phrases I’m familiar with, and then when she says them quickly, it’s completely incomprehensible to me. But super cool. Also, I hadn’t realized that Rastafari is actually considered an Abrahamic belief based on the reverence of former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, crowned in 1930. And true Rastafari apparently find the term ‘Rastafariansim’ really distasteful.

POLAND
I am absolutely fascinated by Poland’s behind-the-scenes kingmaker. Jaroslaw Kaczynski is a former Prime Minister, now officially just a member of parliament, who pretty much runs the country from the sidelines. He’s got the ears of both the Prime Minister and President, and steers them towards his right-wing, catholic, Euroskeptic ideologies. The man is also just very strange. He is obsessed with cats, only accepted his salary in cash when he was Prime Minister, and has worn only black since his twin brother Lech (who also was President at some point) was killed in a plane crash in 2010. There was also a period of time when the twins ran the country side by side, as PM and President.

INDONESIA
Home to the largest Muslim population in the world. Also, as part of my study of this country, I watched filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s movie ‘The Look of Silence’, and his interview with Talk to Al Jazeera. Both focus primarily on the massacres that took place in Indonesia around 1965 and 1966. The government rounded up all ‘communists’ (which included everyone they felt didn’t cooperate with the regime) and had them slaughtered, often in gruesome ways. Oppenheimer’s movies include some of the perpetrators of the violence reenacting the murders they committed, often with shameless pride. Something I also found really interested was that despite their obvious hatred of communists, some of the policies of the Suharto regime directly mirrored policies taking place in communist China around the same time. For example, the ‘transmigration programs’ that shuffled landless farmers to less inhabited lands at the end of the 1970s  sounded a lot like the Cultural Revolution that took place in China just a few years earlier.

HONDURAS
One of many Latin American countries where the United States did a ton of damage. The U.S.’s fear of communism taking root in Central & South America led to decades of interventionist policy that made it difficult for democracy to develop in many of those countries. The result in many cases, particularly here, is extreme poverty and gang violence. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, and youth gangs called maras rule the streets in poorer areas. To be fair, the poverty isn’t solely the fault of the U.S. of course. Lack of strong leadership at home is also to blame, and the environment in some cases. For example,  Hurricane Mitch in 1998 destroyed 70% of crops in Honduras.

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