Sri Lanka has always been an island shrouded in mystery.
According to journalist William McGowan:
Even those living in Sri Lanka for many years felt its fundamental impenetrability; the longer you lived there, the more you realized you’d never really know it…
It was a country, after all, that Arab traders had once named Serendip, for its aura of accidental good fortune…If serendipity were to strike the island now, I’m afraid the dose would have to be massive.” (Only Man is Vile, 1992)
Actually, the word serendipity comes from the old name for Sri Lanka (Serendip), not the other way around. “Serendip” derived from the words Sinhala, “dwelling place of lions”, and dwipa, or “island”.
An ancient Persian fairy tale known as The Three Princes of Serendip told the story of three wise princes of the region whose collective intelligence led to good fortune, but only when they weren’t looking for it.
The English word was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole, in a letter to a friend. His friend had sent him an unframed portrait of Bianca Capello that Walpole had admired. Walpole happened across the Capello coat-of-arms in a book of Venetian arms, which he used to help frame the portrait:
…This discovery indeed is almost of that kind which I call serendipity, a very expressive word…I once read a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of…
McGowen is right though. Sri Lanka is long overdue for some good karma. In addition to the devastation of the December 26, 2004 tsunami, the small island nation has been plagued with civil war ever since its independence, which it won from the British on this day in 1948.
Sri Lankans believe the Lord Buddha visited the islands three times:
“In Lanka, O Lord of Gods, shall my religion be established and flourish.”
Lord Buddha, The Mahavamsa, 6th century AD
Every summer, Sri Lankans display the Sacred Tooth — believed to be the Buddha’s left canine — in an elephant procession known as Perahera.
“Nauru survives by the mining of the natural fertilizers that were produced over many millennia by the interaction of bird droppings (guana) with marine sediments exposed at the surface. Essentially depopulated during Japanese occupation in World War II, about 8,000 Nauruans now live on 1,100 of the 5,236 acres that are not mined to produce fertilizer for markets in Japan, New Zealand, and Australia.”
“When the resource is gone and mining ceases, currently estimated to occur in the year 2000, there will be no exportable product for Nauru except stamps and weight lifters. Even with reclamation, Nauru is unlikely to become a major tourist stop since there will be little of the island left that has not been stripped of every pound of exportable phosphate rock.”
Aware of their finite resources, Nauru’s leaders used profits to diversify their assets, including the 52-story Nauru House, Melbourne, Australia’s tallest building when it was built.
The history of Naura goes back 3,000 years, when the peoples of Polynesia and Micronesia settled the island. The 12 “tribes” of Naura remained cut off from outside society other until the end of the 18th century. In the 1830s contact with the Western shipping and traders increased, allowing islanders to trade resources for popular imports: alcohol and firearms. Both, unfortunately, exacerbated the bloodshed of the 10-year Nauru Civil War during the 1880s. The population fell from 1,400 to 900.
After Germany annexed the Island at the end of the 19th century, they discovered and began mining phosphate.
Australia captured the island in World War I and it was governed by the UK, New Zealand, and Australia.
During World War II the Japanese captured the island, turning it into one big airstrip, while deporting 1,200 inhabitants for hard labor for the war effort. Australia retook the island in 1945.
On January 31, 1968 Nauru was granted independence.
True to predictions, the export that had sustained the island since 1907 was depleted. The nation with one of the world’s highest per capita GDPs at the time of its independence became one of the world’s poorest. Its fertile land, now destroyed by a century of mining, is uninhabitable and unable to be restored.
Naura House in Melbourne was sold for $140 million to clear the nation’s growing debts. The island encouraged offshore banking as a tax shelter, and soon became a beacon of hope for money launderers everywhere.
Nauru cracked down on money laundering due to international pressure. Today Naura exports less than $600,000 in phosphate–its only export–and imports $19 million.
And the island, once cut off from the world and self-sufficient for thousands of years, is now completely dependent on Australian aid.
“One of the most important battles in Europe’s modern history was fought and won in Vilnius 16 years ago.”
Carl Bildt, Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister, January 2007
In the late 1980’s a “Singing Revolution” swept through the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
Thousands of citizens coalesced night after night in each of the republics to sing national songs that had been banned under the Soviet regime. (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, as well as half of Poland, had been annexed by the Soviet Union in accordance with a secret corollary of the Nazi-Soviet Pact between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin a week before the outbreak of WWII.)
On the Pact’s 50th anniversary 2 million people participated in a human chain across the Baltic States to protest the occupation.
The Lithuanian Communist Party seceded from the Soviet Communist Party, and in its first free election Sajudis, the newly formed pro-independence party, won a majority. The Lithuanian Legislature declared its independence from the Soviet Union in March of 1990.
The leaders of the Soviet Union were not too keen on this. Soviet troops entered Vilnius on January 11th and seized control of strategic posts such as the Defense Department, railway office, and Press House.
By January 12th the news had spread through the country and throngs of Lithuanians gathered at the capital to protect other locations such as the Vilnius TV tower. In the wee hours of January 13th, Soviet tanks attacked the TV tower, plowing through crowds of unarmed people. Fourteen civilians were killed.
“a small TV studio from Kaunas came on air unexpectedly. A technician of the family program that usually broadcast from Kaunas once a week, was on the air, calling for anyone who could help to broadcast to the world in as many different languages as possible about the Soviet army and tanks killing unarmed people in Lithuania. Within an hour, the studio was filled with several university professors broadcasting in several languages. The small studio in Kaunas received a threatening phone call from the Soviet army division of Kaunas. By 4 in the morning this studio received the news that Swedish news station finally saw the broadcast and will be broadcasting the news to the world.”
At the 15th anniversary of the January 13th revolution, Arturas Paulauskas, Speaker of the Lithuanian Seimas said:
“In January 1991 there was no country in the world the people of which did not help us. Every uttered word defending our freedom at that time was an invaluable contribution into our victory, especially the words by the Russian people…Just the way they won here, in Vilnius, in January 1991. And here in Lithuania, and there in Riga, Tallinn, later in Kiev, other countries. Most importantly they won in Moscow: The country that attacked and enslaved no longer exists…
“FREE is stronger than FREER and stronger than the FREEST M. Gorbachev offered us to be FREER, but all we wanted was simply to be FREE.”
Paulauska’s final thoughts explained why the Lithuanian people must remember this relatively new holiday. Yet his speech echoed the sentiments of leaders throughout history as to why we celebrate holidays:
“It is a real joy to see young people…who were not yet born in January 1991…gathered at the fire and signing patriotic songs. However all this does not yet mean that this young generation knows what to do with freedom defended in 1991.
“Our generation still has to hand down to them Lithuania with alive spirit of freedom and true values. From hands to hands, from minds to minds, from hearts to hearts…Let us never forget this responsibility. In the name of those who were killed 15 years ago. And in the name of those still to come.”
It is not power that corrupts but fear. — Aung San Suu Kyi
The people of Myanmar–formerly Burma–are in a difficult spot while celebrating January 4, the anniversary of their independence. The public secretly reveres the country’s national hero, but cannot utter his name outdoors.
The main force behind Burma’s independence was Aung San. During World War II Aung San was Commander of the Burma Defense Army. He opposed British rule in Burma and saw an alliance with Japan as the way to independence. However, San soon saw that the thin veneer of independence achieved from the British was a sham. For the nation was now under the thumb of the more-controlling Japanese.
Aung San founded the Anti-Fascist Organization in Burma, and led the Burma National Army with the help of the British against the Japanese, whom they ultimately defeated.
In 1947 Aung San negotiated the “Aung San-Attlee Agreement” with the British, which guaranteed Burma’s independence the following year.
Aung San would not live to see the free Burma. He was assassinated along with six other Councillors at an Executive Council meeting in July 1947. He was 32.
Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, is and has been for twenty years, an outspoken critic of the current Burmese (Myanmar) government.
Suu Kyi was 2 years old when her father died and Burma gained its independence. She lived most of the next 40 years in peace and quiet. At 43 she was “leading a quiet life in England as a housewife and academic.” http://www.webcom.com/hrin/magazine/jan97/burma.html
She returned to Burma to care for her mother who was gravely ill at the time. A month before her visit in 1988, riot police shot and killed 200 demonstrators, mostly students. In August they killed close to 3,000.
I could not, as my father’s daughter, remain indifferent to all that is going on.
— Aung San Suu Kyi
Martial law was declared in 1989. Ang San Suu Kyi became head of the opposition party, the National League for Democracy. Due to her rising popularity she was placed under house arrest. She would not see her children in 2 1/2 years.
Aung San Suu Kyi should have taken office when her party won the national election in 1990. However, surprised by their overwhelming loss, the military junta refused to acknowledge the election.
According to the BBC, Suu Kyi “has spent more than 11 of the past 18 years in some form of detention under Burma’s military regime.”
As a result “Aung San’s name has been dropped from official speeches. His boyish face has disappeared from Burmese bank notes. His grave has been closed to the public for years.” — time.com
In 1991 Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize while under house arrest. When she was released in 1995, she was told if she left the country she could not return. Thus she did not leave even when her husband in London was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997. She never saw him again. He died in 1999.
She was placed under house arrest again in 2000, where she has remained for most of the past decade.
The irony of imprisoning the daughter of the father of national independence has not been lost on the military junta. Its military chief Than Shwe has called for a “discipline-flourishing democratic state.”
Whether Aung San Suu Kyi will, unlike her father, live to see the promise land, a democratic Burma, remains to be seen. She still fervently clings to a non-violent approach to regime change, despite knowing that peaceful change may take longer. She believes it is a precedent that must be set.
1. A person having a speaking, reading, or writing knowledge of several languages.
2. A book, especially a Bible, containing several versions of the the same text in different languages.
3. A mixture or confusion of languages.
Today the people of the Philippines mourn the death and celebrate the life of their national hero Jose Rizal.
“I die without seeing the sun rise on my country. You who are to see the dawn, welcome it, and do not forget those who fell during the night.”
This eerily self-fulfilling prophecy was spoken not by Rizal, but by Elias, a character in Rizal’s great novel Noli Me Tangere, written almost a full decade before Rizal’s own execution.
Rizal wrote Noli Me Tangere (literally, “Touch Me Not”) at age 25. By that time Rizal had earned his Bachelor’s degree (at 16) in the Philippines; he had studied medicine at the University of Santo Thomas, but after witnessing discrimination against Filipino students, he sailed to Spain to complete his studies at the University of Madrid; he specialized in ophthalmology, due to his mother’s worsening blindness; and he earned a second doctorate at the University of Heidelberg.
“I spend half of the day in the study of German,” Rizal wrote, “and the other half, in the diseases of the eye. Twice a week, I go to the bierbrauerie, or beerhall, to speak German with my student friends.”
Rizal spoke at least a dozen languages–some sources say 22–including, Spanish, French, Latin, Greek, German, Portuguese, Italian, English, Dutch, Japanese. He translated works from Arabic, Swedish, Russian, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, and Sanskrit into his native tongue of Tagalog. While in Germany, he was a member of the Anthropological Society of Berlin, for which he delivered a presentation in German on the structure and use of Tagalog.
But it was his novel Noli Me Tangere that would earn him fame in the Philippines and infamy in Spain.
Noli Me Tangere exposed the hypocrisy of the Spanish clergy in the Philippines and the injustices committed against native Filipinos. And his follow-up non-fiction work demonstrated that contrary to 300 years of colonialist teachings the Filipino people had been an accomplished nation before the Spanish set foot in the country. That in fact, colonization had resulted in a ‘retrogression’.
In response to Noli Me Tangere, clergy members circulated pamplets warning Catholics that reading the novel was equivalent to “committing mortal sin.”
The book was banned in many parts, and one anonymous “Friar” wrote to Rizal, “How ungrateful you are…If you, or for that matter all your men, think you have a grievance, then challenge us and we shall pick up the gauntlet, for we are not cowards like you, which is not to say that a hidden hand will not put an end to your life.”
Rather than give in to harassment, Rizal followed it up with a sequel, El Filibusterismo. Rizal’s novels became a rallying point for nationalists in the Philippines. In Spain he continued to fight for equal rights and representation for his countrymen. Rizal returned to the Philippines in 1892. After a rebellion broke out, Rizal was arrested and sent into 4 years of exile.
While in exile in Dapitan he managed a hospital, provided services to the poor, taught language classes, and worked with soldiers to improve the area’s irrigation and agriculture.
In 1896 the Philippines Revolution broke out. Though Rizal emphasized non-violence in his works, he was again imprisoned, and this time sentenced to execution.
Just before his death, Rizal wrote his final poem, which he ‘smuggled’ out to his sister by hiding it in the stove in his cell. The poem has no title, but is often called “Mi ultimo adios”…My last good-bye.
“My idolized country, sorrow of my sorrows,
Beloved Filipinas, hear my last good-bye.
There I leave you all, my parents, my loves.
I’ll go where there are no slaves, hangmen nor oppressors,
Where faith doesn’t kill, where the one who reigns is God.”
–from Mi ultimo adios
He was executed by firing squad at 7:03 am on December 30, 1896, and buried without a coffin.
His tragic death only strengthened Filipino resolve for self-determination.
In April 1898, the fight for independence, led by Andres Bonifacio and Emilio Aguinaldo, received a boost from an unexpected party: the United States. The Spanish-American War, which had begun in Cuba, soon stretched to all of Spain’s remaining Pacific territories.
That summer the Philippines Army, headed by Aguinaldo, defeated Spanish troops, and handed over 15,000 Spanish prisoners to U.S. forces, along with valuable intelligence. Aguinaldo declared the Philippines an independent nation on June 12, 1898.
The Philippines soon found they had rid themselves of a demon only to make a deal with the devil. In defeat Spain ‘ceded’ the Philippines to the U.S., which immediately rejected Philippine independence. Whereas the Spanish had sought to bring Catholicism to the Philippines, the U.S. sought to bring “freedom” and “civilization”. The war that followed, the U.S.’s first overseas experiment in nation-building, took the lives of over a quarter million Filipinos (a low estimate), the overwhelming majority of them civilians. Disease and famine were a prime cause of civilian deaths. But torture, mass executions, internment camps, village-buring, and other atrocities against civilians were also staples of the war.
The war officially ended in 1902, but fighting continued until 1913. English, spoken by a minority of Filipinos, was declared the official language.
The Philippines would not see independence until after World War II, fifty years after the death of Jose Rizal. Through that time and even to the present, Rizal and his writings continue to symbolize the Filipino spirit and their long fight for equality and self-determination.
Our Mother Tongue
The Tagalog language’s akin to Latin,
To English, Spanish, angelical tongue;
For God who knows how to look after us
This language He bestowed us upon.
As others, our language is the same
With alphabet and letters of its own,
It was lost because a storm did destroy
On the lake the bangka in years bygone.
You border on the Adriatic
Your land is mostly mountainous
And your chief export is chrome
— Albanian National Anthem
Ok, the above lyrics are not from the Albanian national anthem. They’re from that episode of Cheers where Coach demonstrates how it’s easier to learn factoids when they’re set to music. (Sung to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In“.)
Albania is one of the most overlooked countries of Europe, yet one of the most beautiful. And Albanians are fiercely proud of this fact. On no day is Albanian pride more evident than on November 28, Albania’s Flag Day, Independence Day, and just about everything else all wrapped up into one.
Back in 1443 an Albanian by the name of Giorgios Kastrioti, aka Skanderbeg (Lord Skander) was fighting on behalf of the Ottoman Empire against the Hungarians. Years before, the Sultan had usurped the Kastrioti family’s lands. The family had submitted to his rule, converted to Islam, and young Giorgios and his brothers were conscripted. Giorgios was granted the title “Beg”, or Lord. He even became a general in the Ottoman army, winning several battles against the Greeks, the Serbs and the Hungarians.
On November 28, 1443, during a battle against the Hungarians, Skanderbeg and 300 Albanians fighting for the Ottoman Empire suddenly switched sides. Skanderbeg first raised the double-headed eagle banner that is now the flag of Albania.
Skanderbeg soon united the Albanian princes against the Sultan. Through strategy, trickery, wits and will, his greatly outnumbered forces held the Ottoman Empire at bay for over two decades, even after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The Ottoman army finally subdued Albania in 1479, ten years after Skanderbeg’s death by malaria.
The Ottoman Empire ruled Albania until the early 20th century. In 1908 Albanian fighters sided with the Young Turks, a group fighting to restore constitutional government across the Empire. After the Sultan conceded, the Young Turks loosened restrictions that had banned Albanian language and culture. However, when Albanian nationalism resurfaced, the Young Turk government cracked down harder than before, crushing the Albanian rebellion and enforcing “Ottomanization’.
The tightening of power only inflamed the independence movement. In 1911 Albanian fighters defeated a group of Turkish troops and raised the double-headed eagle flag for the first time since the days of Skanderbeg.
On November 28, 1912, during the height of the First Balkan War, the National Assembly announced that “delegates from all parts of Albania, without distinction of religion, who have today met in the town of Valona, have proclaimed the political independence of Albania…” (Albanian Declaration of Independence)
In 1939 Albania met a new enemy, this time in the West. Italian dictator Mussolini, envious of the ease with which Hitler annexed neighboring countries, tried his own hand as Conqueror. He chose as his victim the mighty kingdom of Albania. King Zog was forced to flee, and Albania experienced 5 years under the Axis. Communist-led nationalist forces liberated the country (Albanians are quick to point out they were liberated not by the USSR but by themselves) on November 29, 1944.
Albania became a communist country, but wasn’t dominated by Moscow. In fact they broke ties with the Soviet Union during the latter’s de-Stalinization. Post-Stalin USSR just wasn’t communist enough for Albania.
On November 28, 1998, Albania voted for a new parliamentary constitution–555 years to the day after Skanderbeg first raised the Albanian flag.
For all these reasons, today, November 28, is Albania’s National Day.
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In American cinema, Albania enjoys a unique status as the country we’re most likely to scapegoat for arbitrary reasons. In Wag the Dog, Robert Dinero and Dustin Hoffman cook up a fake war against Albania to take the attention off the President’s affair…
“What have they ever done to us?”
“What have they ever done for us?”
In Tune in Tomorrow, radio serial writer Peter Falk so offends the Albanian-American population with his random Albanian jokes, that he is forced to pick a new arbitrary target: Norwegians.
Bernardo O’Higgins is known as the liberator and national hero of Chile, but he had humble beginnings.
He was the illegitimate son of an Irish engineer and a young Chilean socialite. His father Ambrosio, had been a servant boy in Ireland. Ambrosio emigrated to Spain as a young man, then to Spain’s colonies in the Americas. He settled in Peru, studied to be an engineer, and eventually worked his way up to becoming the Spanish Viceroy of Peru, the highest office in Spain’s greatest colony.
It’s believed that Bernardo never met his father; he was raised by his mother’s family. But through correspondence Ambrosio made it possible for Bernardo to be schooled in England. Bernardo lived briefly to Spain where he met the future Argentinean liberator Jose de San Martin. When he returned to Chile, Bernardo took his father’s name, O’Higgins, and was determined to fight for an independent Chile.
As with other South and Central American colonies, Chile’s initial declaration of independence can be seen as a bizarre act of loyalty to Spanish royal family. Chile refused to recognize Napoleon’s appointment of his brother to the throne of Spain, after the French emperor had deposed the royal family in Madrid. At a public meeting on September 18, 1810, Chileans demanded that the Spanish government in Chile be replaced with a junta of Chilean citizens.
By the time Spain regained control of its homeland and expelled Napoleon’s forces from Iberia, the South American colonies had already tasted independence, and it tasted good.
Bernardo served as a soldier, an officer, and then as one of three leaders of the Chilean rebel forces. But he was defeated by the Spanish, and was forced to retreat east to Argentina. He crossed the Andes to combine forces with his old friend San Martin. After liberating Argentina, he and San Martin made the most spectacular military maneuver in South American history. The entire army crossed the Andes mountains, fell on Santiago from above, and drove out the Spanish.
San Martin took the army north to drive the Spanish out of their stronghold in Peru. O’Higgins remained in Chile to become that country’s first leader. Five years later, when political elements demanded his resignation, he stepped down without a fight, and went into voluntary exile in Peru, where he lived the rest of his life.
“Since my childhood I have loved Chile; and I have shed my blood on the battle-fields which secured her liberties. If it has not been my privilege to perfect her institutions, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I am leaving her free and independent, respected abroad, and glorious in her victories.”
The Chileans celebrate Dieceocho with a slew of Fiestas Patrias, parades, feasts, and open-air dances that go on for days. The day after Independence Day is Armed Forces Day, the main event of which is a large military parade through the capital.
Over a hundred years ago a territorial dispute over the Argentina-Chile border in the Andes nearly led to war between the two nations. The conflict was settled diplomatically. Soon after, a statue of Christ was erected between Argentina and Chile, atop the mountains O’Higgins and San Martin once scaled together. The plaque reads:
“Sooner shall these mountains crumble into dust, than Chileans and Argentines shall break the peace to which they have pledged themselves at the feet of Christ the Redeemer.”
Before dawn, on the morning of September 16, 1810, townspeople of Dolores, Mexico, heard the church bells ring violently. They approached to find the parish priest, 57 year-old Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla. But the speech the criollo Father shouted was far from the sermon they had in mind.
Father Hidalgo had just learned that a plan to overthrow the Spanish rulers had been betrayed. Soon the Spanish would arrest all those involved and quash the independence movement. The exact words of the priest’s plea to the townspeople to bring an end to hundreds of years of European rule over the mestizo inhabitants, were not written down. It is said he raised the image of the dark-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe and concluded with a shout: Mexicanos, viva Mexico!
Mexico was still called “New Spain” at that point. Just addressing the crowd as Mexicanos, and willing into existence a land of “Mexico” was revolutionary. Father Hidalgo’s plea is called the Grito de Dolores, the “Cry of Dolores”, after the village in which it was made. But, as Dolores also means ‘sorrows’, it can also be interpreted as the Cry of Sorrows.
Just after dawn, the infant rebel army marched to San Miguel. By the time the rag-tag force reached Guanajuanto at the end of the month, it had swelled to 20,000 men. Though the men were poorly armed and insufficiently trained, their sheer numbers overpowered the small force of Spanish soldiers holed up at the Alhóndiga (public granary). Rebels stormed the Alhóndiga and most of the Spanish, as well as wealthy criollos, were massacred.
Hidalgo and three other Mexican leaders were captured the following year on March 21, near the U.S.-Mexican border. They were convicted of treason, executed, and decapitated. Their heads were placed atop the four corners of the Alhóndiga in Guanajuanto as a message to the Mexican insurgents. There the heads remained for ten years.
On February 24, 1821, Mexican leaders signed the Plan de Iguala, which put forth the principles on which the country would be based, if the independence movement succeeded. Partly inspired by the Plan, conflicting Mexican forces joined together and defeated the Spanish army. The Treaty of Corboda assured the country’s long sought independence.
Father Hidalgo’s body was reburied in the country’s capital.
Today Mexicans celebrate their independence on the day of Father Hidalgo’s fateful shout for the autonomy, freedom, and equality for the Mexican people.