Democracy Day – Nepal

February 18

The Nepalese flag, the only non-rectangular national flag in the world, symbolizes the two religions of Nepal---Buddhism and Hinduism---and the peaks of the Himalayas.

For most of the half-century or so since Democracy Day was established in Nepal, the actual practice of democracy has been stifled or totally repressed.

Ironically, Democracy Day marks the return to power of a monarch, King Tribhuvan, in the early 1950s. The country had been run by a succession of despots known as the Rana dictatorship. For generations the Rana allowed the monarchy to remain but used the king as a puppet. In 1950 the pro-democratic King Tribhuvan fled the country with most of his family to India. The Rana declared the king’s 3 year-old great-nephew Gyanendra as the new king, as he was the most senior member of the family left in the country.

For whatever reason foreign powers refused to recognize the new king, and Tribhuvan, with support from India was able to topple the Rana rule.

Soon after, Tribhuvan’s son increased the monarch’s power, virtually taking over Parliament. The power of the monarch waxed and waned over the next half century.

In 2001 the Crown Prince Dipendra went on a shooting rampage, killing the entire royal family and then himself. Gyanendra, the former 3 year-old monarch, was once again the most senior member of the royal family left in the country. He reclaimed the throne, now at age 53.

On Democracy Day in 2004 King Gyanendra encouraged all Nepalese “to unite for making multiparty democracy meaningful through people-oriented politics.” (Democracy Day in Nepal)

The next year King Gyanendra celebrated Democracy Day by dissolving Parliament and seizing control of the entire country, ostensibly to curb Communist factions.  (BBC)

The Parliament regained control in 2007 and voted to abolish the monarchy once and for all. King Gyanendra’s reign, and the two and a half century old monarchy, is set to end in April this year [2008] after national elections are held.

[originally published Feb. 2008]

King Gyanendra’s Democracy Day Speech 2008

Proposal to change Nepal’s flag

Lithuanian Independence Day

February 16

“The Council of Lithuania in its session of February 16, 1918 decided unanimously to address the governments of Russia, Germany, and other states with the following declaration:

“The Council of Lithuania, as the sole representative of the Lithuanian nation, based on the recognized right to national self-determination, and on the Vilnius Conference’s resolution of September 18-23, 1917, proclaims the restoration of the independent state of Lithuania, founded on democratic principles, with Vilnius as its capital, and declares the termination of all state ties which formerly bound this State to other nations.

“The Council of Lithuania also declares that the foundation of the Lithuanian State and its relations with other countries will be finally determined by the Constituent Assembly, to be convoked as soon as possible, elected democratically by all its inhabitants.”

These short paragraphs are what the nation of Lithuania celebrates today, February 16, as its independence day. A declaration that declared an end to over a century of Russian occupation.

Lithuania was first united in the thirteenth century by the enigmatic Mindaugas. (No, he was not a Harry Potter character, that’s Mundungus.) Mindaugas was the first and last King of Lithuania. He converted to Christianity to attain the support of the Pope and the Livonian Order, but reverted back to Paganism after. He and his wife Morta were crowned King and Queen in 1253. When she died ten years later Mindaugas made the fatal mistake of taking Morta’s sister as his wife. She was already married to a former ally of Mindaugas, Daumantas. Mindaugas was used to annexing numerous lands, but Daumantas did not take the annexation of his wife so readily, and helped Mindaugas’s nephew assassinate the King along with two of the king’s sons. Never again was there crowned a king of Lithuania.

By the end of the 1300s Lithuania was the largest state in Europe. Its land included parts of what is now Belarus, Ukraine, Poland and Russia.

Lithuania on steroids

One gift the Lithuanians bestowed upon Eastern Europe during the 16th century was the codification of its laws in the Three Statutes of Lithuania. The Sobornoye Ulozheniye, the first complete code of Russian law, was based in part on the Lithuanian codes.

A political bond with Poland endured in various manifestations through the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries until the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was eaten up piece by piece by the superpowers growing around it: Prussia, Austria, and mainly Russia.

Catherine II of Russia’s attitude was: “Polotsk and Lithuania have been taken and retaken about twenty times, and treaty was ever concluded without one side or the other claiming part or all of it, depending on circumstances.

Lithuania remained under Russian control for over a century. During World War I the Lithuanian government exploited the weakness of the Russian Empire and the animosity between Russia and Germany. A Council of Lithuania passed a series of Acts starting in late 1917 and early 1918 which repudiated Russian rule. Germany, which occupied parts of Western Russia, was happy to see pieces of the Russian Empire break away, thinking they would pick up the crumbs. However, when Germany began losing the war in 1918 their position to negotiate declined. And with the Act of Independence of February 16, 1918, Lithuania achieved independence from both Russia and Germany.

The 20 Signatories of the Act of Independence

The celebration was short lived. During World War II Lithuania was overrun by Soviet tanks on their way to Poland, followed by German tanks on their way to Russia, and again by the Soviets on their way to Berlin.

January 13, 1991, the Soviet Union, fearful of increasing nationalist sentiment in Lithuania invaded the city of Vilnius and attacked the TV tower and other buildings. Images of the attack spread throughout the world, and were influential in the eventual fall of the Soviet Union eight months later.
The short Act of Independence of 1918, with its emphasis on democratic principles, was cited by Lithuanians as the inspiration for and the basis of the rebirth of their sovereign state.

Blogs of note:
EU Newcomer Lithuania celebrates 90 years of Independence

Waitangi Day – New Zealand

February 6


New Zealand’s national holiday celebrates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on this day (February 6) in 1840.

The word ‘celebrate’ is disputed though. The treaty was the original agreement between representatives of the British Crown and the Maori chieftains, and its signing is considered the birth of New Zealand. However, to many Maori—the indigenous descendants who make up about a sixth of New Zealand’s population—the Treaty represents the country’s ‘original sin’.

The problem with the Treaty of Waitangi stems from discrepancies between the English and Maori translations (translated by a well-meaning but less-than-fluent English missionary in a single night) so the chieftains and the British never precisely agreed on the same stipulations. The New Zealand government solved this dilemma by, when in doubt, not honoring the Maori version. This didn’t sit well with the Maori, whose protests against the loss of their lands fell on deaf ears for over a century.

Once heralded as a symbol of victory for indigenous rights, the Treaty has become the cornerstone of a growing awareness of social injustices committed against the Maori, who protest each Waitangi Day.

But as Tariana Turia, co-leader of the Maori Party, said:

“It’s critically important that people understand that the Treaty is not about settlement, it’s not about grievance. The Treaty was a document of unity, and all of us should understand it.” – New Zealand Herald

Marae, Waitangi, © 2009 Alison MacCallum

And if there’s one thing that unifies the New Zealand people, it’s that nobody outside New Zealand understands them. Here are some “Kiwi-isms” to help you better communicate with these fun-loving but linguistically-challenged people:

A into G: arse into gear (to get going)

Box of birds: cheerful, very good

Carked it: kicked the bucket

Cellotape: scotch tape

Cotton buds: Q-tips

Dag: an amusing character

Dunny: toilet

Eketahuna: the NZ “Timbuktu”

Fanny: you don’t need to know, just never say “fanny pack”. It’s called a”bum-bag.”

Guts for garters: in big trouble

Ice block: popsicle

Judder bar: speed bump

Kia ora: “hello” in Maori

Money for jam: easy money

Off yer face: intoxicated

Pavlova: tasty dessert named for a Russian ballerina who visited NZ (though Australians try to claim it)

Rattle your dags: hurry up

Throw a wobbly: become angry

Your shout: your turn to buy drinks

More at the official NZ-to-English Dictionary

Oh, and Waitangi is the name of the river that was the site of the Treaty’s signing. It means “noisy” or “weeping river”.

Sri Lanka Independence

February 4

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.

Bianca Capello
Bianca Capello

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.

Sacred Tooth Temple, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Sacred Tooth Temple, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Republic Day – India

January 26

Today is Republic Day in India.

Although India gained independence from Britain in 1947, the Constitution was officially adopted on January 26, 1950, marking the Republic of India as a sovereign nation with complete autonomy.

The date January 26th was chosen in remembrance of “Poorna Swaraj Diwas,” when the Indian National Congress declared independence on January 26, 1930.

Guests of Honor at recent Republic Days have included King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Russian President Vladimire Putin, and Nicholas Sarkozy, President of France.

The Republic Day parade in New Dehli is a combination of cultural pride and military strength, symbolized by three fighter jets that fly over the ceremony each year.

Republic Day is for all Indians, regardless of religion or region. Still, sectarian tensions are high on Republic Day and security is heightened throughout the country.

Indian Army - Madras regiment - Republic Day

BBC: India’s Republic Day in Pictures
Kashmir view from 2007
India’s 59th Republic Day

Australia Day

January 26

On January 26, 1808 Major George Johnston led his men to the residence of Governor William Bligh and forcibly relieved him of his post. This remains the only successful coup by force in Australia’s history.

(You may remember Charles Laughton’s portrayal of the lovable, kooky Captain Bligh in 1935’s Best Picture “Mutiny on the Bounty” which portrayed the crew’s slapstick romp through the South Pacific.)

But that’s not why they celebrate. In fact the first recorded celebration of Australia day was 200 years ago, on January 25, 1808, the night before the coup. They called it First Landing or Foundation Day. It marked the 20th anniversary of the landing of British ships in what is now Sydney, with the purpose of setting up a permanent penal colony for the Bad Boys of Britain.

Sydney Bridge
Sydney, Australia

24 year-old George Johnston was the first officer to set foot on Sydney Cove sand that day. According to legend (ie. Wikipedia) he was so ill from the boat trip, he had to be carried on the back of convict James Ruse. Ruse had been sentenced to death back in England for stealing two watches. This was later commuted to 7 years in Australia. Ruse became Australia’s first successful European farmer.

from The Birth of Sydney…<

“The grant of land made to him by Governor Phillip in 1792 was the first act in a tragedy of dispossession for Aboriginal Australia. It would take 200 years exactly for the country to acknowledge that Phillip’s declaration was a sham.”

The 1789 London Morning Herald had a different take on the budding colony:

“The settlement we are making at Botany or rather Jackson’s Bay reminds us of the origin of the Roman Empire, which sprang out of a nest of robbers…The thief colony may hereafter become a great empire, whose nobles will probably, like those of the nobles of Rome and other empires, boast of their blood.”

The report prophesied correctly: Australians are a patriotic bunch, more so in recent years. But even today 1 in 4 Australians was born in another country. And 2 in 5 have at least 1 parent born abroad.

Heavy immigration has not been without conflict. In 2005, riots in the beachside suburbs of Cronulla targeted Middle-Eastern immigrants. It was the first riot to be fueled by text messaging.

This year Australia pays tribute to a couple whose heroism will be remembered for days to come. Lorraine and Robert Steel were honored (I mean honoured) with Order of Australia medals in part for their creation of the Parkes Elvis Festival in western New South Wales.

“January’s been very quiet in Parkes and we thought that we would do something to liven up living in Parkes in January to give us some business and hopefully to give business to our local motels and eatery.”

It’s now the world’s biggest Elvis festival, holding the Guinness World Record for most Elvis impersonators in a single place.
Australia Day History
Survival Day

Niger Republic Day

December 18

The Tree of Ténére, 1961, by Michael Mazeau

Standly quietly in the desert, L’Abre du Ténére was the only tree for 400 kilometers in any direction, earning the reputation as the most isolated tree in the world. It served as a natural lighthouse for travelers and traders crossing the Sahara.

In 1939 a team dug a neaby well to find out where the tree got its water. It determined the trees roots had to descend 35 meters to reach the source.

The Tree of Ténére was the sole survivor of a forest than once dominated the region. In fact this part of the Sahara was a fertile grassland, which ancient artworks depict supporting a multitude of animals. Ten thousand years of “global warming” entirely dried up the grassland.

Giraffes of the Sahara, (c) 2006 Marc Faucher

Today 80% of Niger is covered by the Sahara desert. Most Nigeriens live in the southwest corner of the country, where a small stretch of the Niger River flows in from Mali on the west and out through Nigeria to the south.

For centuries the unusual path of the Niger River baffled European explorers, who assumed its source was an unchartered snow-topped mountain rather than from storm run-off.


“Age after age the lordly stream hath run,
From secret source which mortal ne’er hath seen,
Deep-hidd’n perchance, where never sound hath been
Or sign of life–where tropic summers glow
On silent peaks of everlasting snow;”

William Allan Russell, The Niger

Because of its remoteness, the Niger region–ancient domain of the Songhai–was one of the last casualties of colonization. The French, intent on linking their holdings from the Niger River to the Nile, subdued Tuareg resistance and confiscated tribal lands in 1922.

During WWII, the French found themselves similarly occupied, and the Vichy government gave Nigeriens the right to vote. On December 18, 1958, Nigeriens voted to become an autonomous nation within the French commonwealth. Full independence came two years later. December 18 is celebrated as Niger’s National Day.

Niger National Day (c) 2006 Esther Garvi
Niger National Day (c) 2008 Esther Garvi

Watching Nigeriens celebrate National Day, you’d hardly believe the title that the UN Human Development Index bestowed upon the nation in 2006: “Least Livable Country in the World.” Nigeriens are among the most resourceful and spirited people in the world. The nation has navigated for centuries though colonialism, coups, drought, famine and war for centuries.

It has few precious natural resources. No oil like its neighbor to the south, Nigeria. No diamonds like Sierra Leone. No ocean access. A new gold mine started production in 2007, which may help raise Niger’s GDP. The land-locked nation gained notoriety in 2003 for something it didn’t do with its most highly-safe-guarded natural resource: it didn’t sell yellow-caked uranium to Iraq, as U.S. intelligence once suspected.

As for the Tree of Ténéré, it stands no more. According to Henri Lhote, who observed the tree in 1934 and again in 1959:

“Before, this tree was green and with flowers; now it is a colourless thorn tree and naked. I cannot recognise it—it had two very distinct trunks. Now there is only one, with a stump on the side, slashed, rather than cut a metre from the soil. What has happened to this unhappy tree? Simply, a lorry going to Bilma has struck it… but it has enough space to avoid it… the taboo, sacred tree, the one which no nomad here would have dared to have hurt with his hand… this tree has been the victim of a mechanic…’

After hundreds of years of surviving the harshest desert conditions, the lone survivor of the Ténéré forest succumbed 14 years later, not to nature, but to the bumper of a reportedly drunk driver.

Tenere Tree, 1939

L’Arbre du Ténéré

Niger 2006 Solar Eclipse

Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Niger (God is BIG!)

Esther Garvi’s Niger Blog


National Day – United Arab Emirates

December 2


You’ve heard all about the city on its way to becoming the 8th wonder of the modern world, Dubai, but what do you know about the country in which it lies: the United Arab Emirates, or UAE?

According to the World Factbook, the UAE is one of the wealthiest nations on Earth, with the 12th highest GDP per capita. The UAE has come a long way from the collection of sheikdoms striving to recover from the collapse of the pearl diving industry. Today, this tiny stretch of land between the Arabian desert and the Persian Gulf is the 4th largest oil exporter in the world, and has more oil reserves than Russia, China, and the United States combined. [And at this rate will have more Starbucks too! (-: ]

UAE (brown) & Arabian peninsula
UAE (brown) & Arabian peninsula

The UAE’s robust economy stems partly from its leaders decision to reinvest oil and gas revenues in the country’s infrastructure, to diversify the economy, and to attract foreign capital and workers.

Dubai boasts the tallest building in the world, the Burj Dubai. At over 800 meters, it’s nearly twice the height of the Empire State Building.

Burj Dubai ©2009 Imre Solt
Burj Dubai ©2009 Imre Solt

But the capital of the UAE is not Dubai. It’s Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi is the largest of the UAE’s seven sheikdoms, comprising 80% of the country’s land. Combined with Dubai, the two sheikdoms make up the vast majority of the country’s population.

Abu Dhabi holds the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, named after the country’s first President. The mosque can accommodate 40,000 worshippers, and is one of the largest mosques in the world.

The UAE has eight public holidays, of which six are Muslim holidays. The other two are New Year’s Day (January 1) and today, December 2. ( National Day marks the anniversary of the union of the seven sheikdoms to form the UAE after British withdrawal in 1971.

UAE has the world’s highest net migration rate. Only about a fifth of the country’s residents are citizens. Most of the remainder are expatriates from all over the globe.

Though the UAE is one of the Middle East’s great economic success stories, there has been concern during the financial downturn. Recently, the corporation Dubai World — the company famous for its unprecedented housing projects — made headlines for defaulting on half its $60 billion debt. Ironically, for the average UAE resident, there’s no such thing as bankruptcy. If you can’t pay your debt, you go to jail. (The Dark Side of Dubai – Johann Hari, The Independent) Though the UAE government refused to cover Dubai World’s losses, Asian banks have stepped in with a pledge of support. Evidently Dubai World has learned from its Western counterparts. Lose millions = jail. Lose billions = bailout.

Palm Island Resort seen from space
Palm Island Resort seen from space