Category Archives: democracy

Burma’s Own Trouser People

From The Trouser People: A Story of Burma in the Shadow of the Empire, by Andrew Marshall (Counterpoint, 2003), pp. 78-79:

At the far end of the carriage sat the soldiers: armed, sleek, hostile. I guessed that some were recent graduates of Maymyo’s military academy. Earlier I had watched them on the platform. Some had stood alone, while others had grouped into silent conspiracies of khaki; none of them had mixed with the civilians. I wondered what the academy had taught them. ‘They spend four years getting brainwashed, and when they come out they expect all civilians to behave like soldiers,’ a Burmese dissident told me later. ‘But of course we don’t want to behave like soldiers. That’s why we chose to remain civilians. But they think they are the greatest people in Burma. They think they know what’s best for the rest of us. They don’t.’ Casual visitors to Burma are unaware of the visceral hatred most people have for the military, particularly among ethnic minorities. The same dissident told me how a group of Kachin farmers stood by and watched as six young Burmese soldiers writhed in agony in the wreckage of a crashed army truck. When the dissident’s sister, who had witnessed the crash, pleaded with the farmers to do something, one of them chillingly replied, ‘Why should we? They will only live to make our lives worse. It is better to let them die.’

As far as I could work out, the military seemed utterly unaware of its unpopularity, although its guardians were alert to any potential blots on its escutcheon. I had heard, for example, that Burmese cartoonists working for newspapers or magazines were forbidden to draw men in trousers. This was because the only Burmese men who worse trousers were soldiers, and soldiers could not possibly be allowed to appear in such an undignified and dangerously satirical art form.

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Comanche Attacks and the Texas Revolution, 1830s

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 198-199:

By the mid-1830s, it was clear that the Indian policy of Texas was a complete failure. The decision to open the province to American immigrants had backfired. Rather than moving to the interior to shield the province’s core areas around San Antonio from Comanche attacks, most Americans stayed east of the Colorado River, beyond the Comanche range and within an easy reach of Louisiana, their main commercial outlet. The result was a splintering of Texas into two distinct and increasingly detached halves. The Anglo-dominated eastern half experienced steady growth, developing a flourishing export-oriented cotton industry and spawning nearly twenty new urban centers by 1835. This half was part of Mexico only in name. It main economic and political ties extended eastward to the powerful mercantile houses of New Orleans, and its settlers often spoke no Spanish, held slaves in spite of a widespread aversion toward the institution in Mexico, and harbored separatist sentiments.

The Tejano-dominated western half, meanwhile, descended into underdevelopment. As raids and violence engulfed vast portions of western and southern Texas during the early 1830s, basic economic functions began to shut down. Villages and farms were stripped of livestock and the reviving ranching industry faltered once again. Agriculture deteriorated as farmers refused to work on fields where they were exposed to attacks. Laredo on the lower Rio Grande lost one-sixth of its population between 1828 and 1831 to Comanche raids, nearly expiring during a cholera outbreak in 1834. Settlers lived in perpetual fear and near-starvation even in San Antonio, where, in the words of one observer, “nothing can be planted on account of the Comanches and Tahuacanos [Tawakonis] who frequently harass the city even in time of peace.” Villages curled inward and grew isolated, for settlers “seldom venture more than a mile from town on account of the Indians.” Major roads leading to San Antonio were frequently cut off, and Berlandier traveled on deserted roads lined with crosses marking places “where the Comanches had massacred travellers or herdsmen.” The road from Coahuila to Texas crossed “an uninhabited country” where Indian raiders ruled, and commercial and political links between New Mexico and Texas existed only on paper. When assessing the long-term impact of Comanche raids on western and southern Texas, Berlandier depicted a decaying, psychologically disfigured captive territory. …

It was this divided Texas that in 1835 rebelled against the central government and in 1836 became an independent republic with close ties to the United States. The Texas Revolution was the product of several long-simmering problems, which came to a head in 1834 and 1835 when the military strongman Antonio López de Santa Anna assumed dictatorial powers in Mexico City and imposed a conservative national charter known as Las Siete Leyes. Las Siete Leyes ended the federalist era in Mexico and ushered in a centralist regime bent on curtailing states’ rights and sovereignty. The momentous shift galvanized Texas, turning the smoldering tensions over slavery, tariff exemptions, and immigration (further immigration from the United States had been banned in 1830) acute and then violent. When centralist forces marched into Texas in fall 1835 to rein in the renegade province, they faced unified resistance that included the vast majority of Anglo colonists and many prominent members of the Tejano elite. In November, delegations from twelve Texas communities met in San Felipe de Austin, declared allegiance to the federalist constitution of 1814, and cut off ties to the centralist regime.

Texas independence may have been predetermined by geography—Texas was simply too far from Mexico City and too close to the United States—but the event can be fully understood only in the larger context that takes into account the overwhelming power and presence of the Comanches in the province in the years leading to the revolt.

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Filed under democracy, Mexico, migration, nationalism, North America, U.S., war

Albright Deaf to Cambodia, 1997

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 1906-1950:

Phnom Penh was growing increasingly tense. By the spring of 1997 gun battles on the streets were becoming commonplace. Senior government officials from both the CPP and Funcinpec built sandbag bunkers around their houses; guards stood behind them, their automatic-rifle muzzles pointed toward the street.

Both Hun Sen [head of CPP] and Ranariddh [head of Funcinpec] had personal bodyguard forces that now numbered in the thousands. Not infrequently the two sides exchanged fire. Some soldiers and bodyguards were routinely killed. Just outside Phnom Penh both sides reinforced encampments for large numbers of their personal militia members. “The place was stirred up,” Quinn said, and he made a practice of driving around the city in the evening to “look at the guards outside the houses. Were they slumped down, smoking a cigarette, or maybe asleep?” If so, Quinn knew he could relax for the night. “Or did they have their helmets on, standing behind the sandbag with weapons out?”

It was obvious: A war was about to begin. Diplomats from Europe, Asia, and elsewhere began arriving to talk to Hun Sen and Ranariddh. Don’t do it, they would say. Call it off. But no one was listening.

The embassy looked at all the intelligence and made an estimate of when the fighting would start. They placed the date on or about July 1. But then, out of the blue, Washington told [Ambassador Kenneth M.] Quinn that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wanted to stop by for a visit at the end of June, as part of a larger visit to the region. The country was tumbling toward violence, but “she wanted to talk about a success story, and see Angkor Wat,” Quinn said.

Albright was an inveterate tourist. Whenever she could she would visit countries that also gave her an opportunity to see major attractions. Of course, she did plan to meet with Hun Sen and Ranariddh, as other visiting diplomats had, and warn them not to squander the advances Cambodia had made, thanks to the UN occupation and the $3 billion the world had invested in the state. So she was planning a two-day visit, one day in Phnom Penh for business and the second day at Angkor Wat.

Quinn had been sending regular cables telling the department about the deteriorating situation. But he had no way to know who actually read them. A few days earlier three influential senators—John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts; William Roth, Republican of Vermont; and Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee—had written Albright a letter, saying that despite receiving almost $3.5 billion in international aid in recent years, Cambodia “has become the single fastest-growing narcotics transshipment point in the world; scores of journalists, human-rights workers and political activists have been killed in political violence; the government has failed to establish critical constitutional bodies or pass some of the country’s most basic laws; and corruption has infested and overrun almost every government institution.” Was this really the nation that everyone had spent $3 billion to create?

But these concerns fell on deaf ears. Albright was coming to celebrate a new democracy—though, in Washington, she also said, “I will make very clear that it is important for them to proceed down the democratic path.” But Quinn could see that major violence was now inevitable. He told the State Department she shouldn’t come. “People will set out to embarrass her,” he wrote. “There will be violence. That will make her look weak.” He feared that a bombing, grenade attack, or some other violent act by someone trying to embarrass the government would force her to flee. He was looking out for his secretary, but the department “reacted badly,” Quinn said. The tenor was, “What’s wrong with the ambassador? He isn’t on the team. She’s already announced she is coming.”

In mid-June 1997 real fighting broke out between the two bodyguard units in Phnom Penh. Both sides fired assault rifles at each other and tossed grenades. Explosions rattled the city. Thousands of residents locked their doors, closed their shutters, and huddled together, trembling. One rocket landed in the yard just beside Quinn’s house. It happened to be Quinn’s birthday. “My family had arrived” for the celebration, he said. “They stayed in the States while I was there because there was no high school for my kids in Phnom Penh. We were watching a video, The Thin Man, when we heard a click. I asked, ‘Did you hear that?’ Then a big boom. We threw the kids on the floor. My wife and I lay on top of them.” No one was hurt, and damage was minimal. But he called the State Department Operations Center to advise them of what had just happened.

Quinn was vindicated. The next day the department announced a change in plans. Yes, Phnom Penh was a dangerous place. Perhaps Ranariddh and Hun Sen could come out to meet Secretary Albright at the airport and have their talk. Then she could fly on to Angkor.

Needless to say, Ranariddh and Hun Sen were not talking to each other. They spoke with their guns. But they did manage to agree on one thing: There was no way two heads of state were going to drive out to the airport to meet with a foreign minister—even the American secretary of state. What were they, her supplicants? Ranariddh was a prince, heir to the throne, and the head of state. Hun Sen had been the nation’s undisputed ruler for a decade—and obviously planned to assume that status again, very soon. If she wanted to see them, she would have to drive into town, come to their offices. No, they told her. We won’t do it. Ranariddh showed considerable tact when he explained the decision. “She wanted us to come to the airport,” he told reporters, “but Hun Sen and I agreed that if we just met her at the airport, we would be breaking the principles of protocol.” But then he couldn’t seem to help himself and added, “It’s insulting.”

Using the missile assault on Quinn’s house as the pretext, the department canceled Albright’s stop in Cambodia. She’d have to visit Angkor some other time. Nevertheless, the debate over her visit threw off the American Embassy’s carefully calculated time line. Rather than starting on July 1, as expected, the violence would begin five days late.

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Filed under Cambodia, democracy, military, NGOs, U.N., U.S., Vietnam, war

UN Occupies Cambodia, 1992

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 144-165, 1178-1197:

In fact, the Cambodian “war” had ended in 1979, more than a decade before the UN occupation began. An old leader had regained his strength while new ones had emerged. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the consummate self-interested monarch who was extremely popular with most of the Cambodian people, had ruled Cambodia since 1941, until a military coup deposed him in 1970. The Khmer Rouge brought him back as their titular head of state—though he was imprisoned in his palace during their reign. Then, as the UN troops began arriving in 1992, they made him honorary king again. But he wanted nothing less than his old job back—the all-powerful monarch, just like the kings who had ruled Cambodia since the beginning of time. Now, however, he had competitors.

During the Vietnamese occupation, from 1979 to 1989, a young Khmer Rouge officer named Hun Sen was named prime minister. He was barely educated, but clever and utterly ruthless—as one might expect of a young man trained by the Khmer Rouge and then the Vietnamese military. The prime minister’s job was handed to him in 1985; he was not about to give it up.

A third competitor arose, Norodom Ranariddh, one of Sihanouk’s sons. He had led a hapless guerrilla organization, funded by the United States. Its goal was to drive the Vietnamese and their appointed government, including Hun Sen, out of the country. After Vietnam pulled out, Ranariddh coveted power too. He seemed to know or care little about governance. But as prime minister, he knew he would be able to enrich himself. Ranariddh was not as clever as Hun Sen, but he was of royal lineage, which gave him a strong advantage.

So, past examples like Germany and Japan—even South Korea—simply were not useful models for this grand experiment. In fact, the Cambodian venture was unprecedented. Even before the UN troops left, the three aspiring leaders were grappling for power, as if the UN election had never taken place. Their contest lasted many years.

The troops may have left, but the United Nations was still there, running a phalanx of charitable organizations—UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Food Program (WFP), and the rest. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank, and other major relief agencies from around the world worked alongside the UN. In fact, in time, 2,000 different donors and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) set up shop in Cambodia. As the power struggles grew heated, even violent, the government grew ever more corrupt, and the donors began pushing the leaders to live up to their promises, to serve their people.

Hun Sen, Ranariddh, and the king offered little more than lip service to those demands, but that seemed to be enough. The donors kept giving money, hundreds of millions of dollars, year after year—even as the nation headed for a military showdown to settle the power struggle once and for all.

If anyone had doubted Hun Sen’s true intentions, he made them clear during the first Paris Peace Conference, in 1989, when he declared, “You can talk about sharing power in Paris, but not in Cambodia.” Vietnam had handed him the nation in 1985. He had ruled it uncontested for seven years. He would not step down or share his throne without a fight. And now, with wide reportage of the bamboo-pole incident [in which UN representatives were turned back at a bamboo-pole roadblock], Hun Sen and everyone else realized that the UN was not to be feared. It was nothing more than a paper force. A correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, reporting from Cambodia at the time, put it this way: “The Cambodian people believed that the UN blue berets were like Jupiter threatening to unleash lightning against the Khmer Rouge. What do people see? UNTAC pulls back.”

The fact remained that the Khmer Rouge had not been defeated. The UN’s deputy military commander, Michael Loridon, a French brigadier general, urged his commander to attack and “deal with the Khmer Rouge problem once and for all.” That never happened, though the debate continued for years, until the last UN officer boarded a plane home. From the first days of the UN occupation, everyone knew that over ten years the Vietnamese army, with hundreds of thousands of troops, had never been able to defeat the Khmer Rouge. So what could the UN possibly do now?

By December 1992, more than a year after the Paris Peace Accords, the United Nations finally had its full force of soldiers and administrators in country. They were too late. Every Cambodian already knew that Jupiter had never climbed up the mountain. Pol Pot and Hun Sen were ignoring the UN and facing no penalty. But the truth was, the UN force offered a great deal more than the prospect of military reconciliation. Most Cambodians loved having them in town.

The visitors spent money, more money, and then more money still—$3 billion in all. Every staffer was given a daily living allowance of $145 on top of his salary—a year’s income for most Cambodians. Contractors had quickly put up apartment buildings and now were taking in $2,000, $3,000 a month—ridiculously high rents for Phnom Penh. Hotels were full, and new ones were under construction. Anyone who’d ever had a fleeting thought of running a restaurant scrambled to open one. Everyone with a car hired himself out as a driver. Brothels worked overtime; UN doctors treated thousands of their men and women for sexually transmitted diseases. Liquor vendors couldn’t keep up with demand; restaurant and bar owners had to replace fixtures and furniture broken in drunken brawls almost every evening. UN vehicles and equipment routinely disappeared in the night, but no one was sure whether the thieves were Cambodian or renegade UN employees.

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Filed under Cambodia, democracy, economics, military, NGOs, U.N., U.S.

Nationalist, not Moralist, Conflict in Asia

From Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2014), Kindle Loc. 322-333, 585-592:

There is nothing romantic about this new front line. Whereas World War II was a moral struggle against fascism, the Cold War a moral struggle against communism, the post-Cold War a moral struggle against genocide in the Balkans, Africa, and the Levant, as well as a moral struggle against terrorism and in support of democracy, the South China Sea shows us a twenty-first-century world void of moral struggles, with all of their attendant fascination for humanists and intellectuals. Beyond the communist tyranny of North Korea, a Cold War relic, the whole of East Asia simply offers little for humanists. For there is no philosophical enemy to confront. The fact is that East Asia is all about trade and business. Even China, its suffering dissidents notwithstanding, simply does not measure up as an object of moral fury.

The Chinese regime demonstrates a low-calorie version of authoritarianism, with a capitalist economy and little governing ideology to speak of. Moreover, China is likely to become more open rather than closed as a society in future years. China’s leaders are competent engineers and regional governors, dedicated to an improving and balanced economy, who abide by mandatory retirement ages. These are not the decadent, calcified leaders of the Arab world who have been overthrown. Rather than fascism or militarism, China, along with every state in East Asia, is increasingly defined by the persistence, the rise even, of old-fashioned nationalism: an idea, no doubt, but not one that since the mid-nineteenth century has been attractive to liberal humanists.

Truly, in international affairs, behind all questions of morality lie questions of power. Humanitarian intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s was possible only because the Serbian regime was not a great power armed with nuclear weapons, unlike the Russian regime, which at the same time was committing atrocities of a similar scale in Chechnya where the West did nothing; nor did the West do much against the ethnic cleansing in the Caucasus because there, too, was a Russian sphere of influence. In the Western Pacific in the coming decades, morality may mean giving up some of our most cherished ideals for the sake of stability. How else are we to make at least some room for a quasi-authoritarian China as its military expands? (And barring a social-economic collapse internally, China’s military will keep on expanding.) For it is the balance of power itself, even more than the democratic values of the West, that is often the best preserver of freedom. That also will be a lesson of the South China Sea in the twenty-first century—one more that humanists do not want to hear.

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Aftermath in Sarajevo

From Logavina Street, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2012), Kindle Loc. 3246-3271:

There are some positive developments in the region, mostly emanating from Belgrade. Slobodan Milošević was toppled by popular demonstrations in 2000 and died in 2006 in The Hague, where he was standing trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Boris Tadić, Serbia’s president since 2004, is a pro-European liberal who has tried to steer his people away from the belligerent nationalism that was the undoing of Yugoslavia. On May 26, 2011, Serbia arrested sixty-nine-year-old Ratko Mladić, who had been living under an assumed name with relatives. “We have ended a difficult period of our history and removed the stain from the face of Serbia and the members of our nation wherever they live,” Tadić said in announcing the arrest.

Tadić was born in Sarajevo and has come several times as president; a formal state visit to the city in July 2011 raised expectations of better relations. The year before, Tadić had made a tearful pilgrimage to Srebrenica for the fifteenth anniversary of the massacre, July 11, 2010, kneeling at the memorial for victims. (Unfortunately, Tadić has been less conciliatory when it comes to Kosovo, which declared its independence in 2009 and has been recognized by the United States and European Union, but not by Serbia.)

Bosnia’s current leaders are mostly Social Democrats, who inched ahead of the ethnic parties in the general elections in 2010. At Sarajevo’s City Hall, I was ushered in to meet Mayor Alija Behmen, who told me enthusiastically about the various initiatives he hoped would reintegrate Serbs into the city. Working together, he and the mayor of Pale (“a very nice fellow,” said Behmen), had begun a $40 million project to restore the cable car from Sarajevo to Mount Trebević. An even more ambitious proposal would extend Sarajevo’s trams to Pale to make it easier for the estimated ten thousand people per day who commute to the city. “Multiethnicity is the sine qua non of civilization,” said Behmen, a genial man with white wispy hair and pouches under his eyes that reminded me of Frank Morgan playing the Wizard of Oz. “I know everything is still not in the best order, but we are going in the right direction.”

Unfortunately, it’s hard to get things done in Bosnia. The multilayered structure of the Bosnian government almost guarantees paralysis. After the October 2010 elections, it took fifteen months for the Social Democrats to get a coalition government approved. “The reform of public administration is essential,” said Behmen. “Each official has two assistants and each assistant has two assistants and so you have this big pyramid.” With the benefit of hindsight the Dayton pact has been judged a great success insofar as it stopped the war, but it was in essence a cease-fire agreement, not a plan for a functional government.

Bosnia faced an almost-farcical predicament in spring of 2011, when the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) threatened to ban it from competition because there were three presidents of the Bosnian football association instead of just one as required by FIFA. The Bosnian Serb president, Milorad Dodik, put up a fuss, telling reporters he was “against having one president of anything in Bosnia, even a beekeepers’ association.” Although a compromise was reached, it underscored Bosnia’s dilemma: If it barely qualified for international soccer competitions, how could it possibly dream of joining the European Union.

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Women and Markets in North Korea

From Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2009), Kindle Loc. 2445-2482:

For the first time, the markets stocked household goods so cheap even North Koreans could buy them. The results of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms of the 1970s and 1980s were seeping into North Korea. From China came writing paper, pens and pencils, fragrant shampoos, hairbrushes, nail clippers, razor blades, batteries, cigarette lighters, umbrellas, toy cars, socks. It had been so long since North Korea could manufacture anything that the ordinary had become extraordinary.

The clothing was also a revelation, an invasion of alien colors from another world. Pink, yellow, tangerine, and turquoise—colors as luscious as the tropical fruits now on the market, in fabrics much softer and shinier than anything made in North Korea. Occasionally you’d see some better-quality clothes at the market with the labels ripped out. The vendors would whisper that these came from areh dongae, “the village below,” a euphemism for South Korea. People would pay more for clothing from the enemy state.

Every time Mrs. Song went to the market it seemed bigger and bigger. It was no longer just the old ladies squatting over tarpaulins in the dirt; there were hundreds of people laying out merchandise on wooden crates or carts. Vendors brought in tables and display cases and umbrellas to protect their wares from the sun.

The biggest market in Chongjin sprang up in an industrial wasteland near the Sunam River, which cut inland from the port through the center of the city. Behind the pitiful wreckage of the Chemical Textile factory, the Sunam Market would eventually become the largest market in North Korea. It was organized much like markets elsewhere in Asia—several aisles devoted to food, others to hardware, pots and pans, cosmetics, shoes, and clothing. It wasn’t until 2002 that Kim Jong-il belatedly legalized the markets. The Chongjin authorities, however, had recognized their de facto reality years earlier and begun to regulate them. The market authorities charged the vendors 70 won a day rent—about the price of a kilo of rice. The vendors who couldn’t afford the rent set up outside the gates, and so the market expanded further, spilling onto the sloping banks of the river. Mrs. Song’s cookie business never rose to the level where she would get her own booth. She didn’t want to pay the rent. But she did become part of a community of vendors who worked around the edges of a market in Songpyeon, a district west of the port where she moved once she made a little money.

The markets were magnets for all sorts of other businesses. Outside Sunam, along a whitewashed wall crawling with hollyhocks, was a line of crude wooden carts. Their owners usually slept on top, waiting for customers who needed merchandise transported. Chongjin had no taxis, not even the rickshaws or pedicabs of China (the North Korean government thought them demeaning), but people had decided to fill a void by setting themselves up as porters. Hairdressers and barbers trained by the government’s Convenience Bureau, the agency that was supposed to provide all services, set up mobile haircutting services. All they needed was a pair of scissors and a mirror. They worked near the food market, often getting into quarrels with the other vendors, who didn’t want hair wafting into their food. The hairdressers clipped quickly, one eye making sure a razor didn’t nick an ear, the other looking out for the police, who would confiscate their equipment if they were caught engaging in private business. Still, it was lucrative. Women with stomachs growling from hunger would shell out their last won for a perm.

By a market at the train tracks, people set up makeshift restaurants with planks of wood laid across bricks for tables, overturned buckets for chairs. The customers ate quickly, their spoons scraping small metal bowls of steaming soup or noodles. The cooks sweated over cylindrical metal stoves no bigger than paint cans, cranking old-fashioned bellows to fan the fires. It was not unusual to see a woman squatting over the fire with a baby strapped onto her back.

The vast majority of the vendors were women. Koreans accorded a low status to markets, so traditionally they were frequented only by women. This remained the case in the 1990s even as the markets expanded. Men had to stay with their work units, around which all life in North Korea revolved, but women were sufficiently expendable that they could wriggle out of their day jobs. Joo Sung-ha, a North Korean defector from Chongjin who became a journalist in Seoul, told me he believed that Kim Jong-il had tacitly agreed to let women work privately to relieve the pressure on families. “If the ajummas [married women] hadn’t been allowed to work, there would have been a revolution,” he said. The result was that the face of the new economy was increasingly female. The men were stuck in the unpaying state jobs; women were making the money. “Men aren’t worth as much as the dog that guards the house,” some of the ajummas would whisper among themselves. Women’s superior earnings couldn’t trump thousands of years of patriarchal culture, but they did confer a certain independence.

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