Iceland National Day

June 17

“So weareth summer: Uspak rideth to the Leet and halloweth it; and when harvest comes, he fares to the fells when men go after their wethers, and they were brought in well, for the searching was careful, and no sheep were missing, either of Odd’s or any other man’s.” — The Story of the Banded Men, ancient Islandic saga

Summer is here, and few appreciate that fact more than the Icelanders. On June 17, one of the longest days of the year, Iceland celebrates its independence from Denmark in 1944.

That’s right, the Icelanders left Denmark during its darkest hour, when the mother country was on its knees, occupied by Nazi Germany in World War II.* That just shows how sneaky Icelanders are.

In fact Iceland was founded on sneakiness. It was named “Iceland” despite its volcanos and steaming geysers to convince tourists to try someplace “sunnier.” Like Greenland.

And the ploy worked. Today Iceland has a population of only 320,000. Meaning if Iceland were a U.S. city, it would be vying with Riverside, California for the coveted “60th biggest city in the nation” spot.

Despite its diminutive size, Iceland is was an economic powerhouse. It ranked #1 in the UN Human Development Index in 2007/2008, and is consistently one of the wealthiest countries in the world, per capita. Or at least it was until 2008 when the global financial crisis decimated the Icelandic economy. When the smoke cleared, it turned out the three largest banks in the country had nursed a combined debt equal to six times Iceland’s annual GDP.

The crisis hasn’t put a damper on this year’s celebrations though, which are set to include parades, dancing, singing and merry-making as usual.

June 17 was chosen as the day to officially break away from Denmark back in 1944 because it was the birthday of Jón Sigurðsson, the leading proponent for Icelandic independence back in the 19th century.

“He who lives without discipline dies without honor.” — Icelandic proverb

“Two men need one money, but one money needs no man. One is on one’s knees, loses one’s head, except maybe a delicious demon. Hee how!” — Bjork

*At the time of its independence, Iceland was occupied by the Allies. British troops landed in 1941; U.S. troops took over soon after. And left in 2006.

Independence Day – Western Sahara

February 27

Independence does not mean PeaceA common theme in decolonization. When Western powers depart from their former colonies, old claims over the newly-independent territory resurface, and neighboring powers assert that the new nation was a territory prior to its European annexation.

Morocco and Western Sahara are neighbors but their history is like night and day.

Morocco was an independent nation back when America was still a colony of Britain. Morocco was one of the first nations to recognize the fledgling United States in 1777, and the Moroccan-American Friendship Treaty remains the U.S.’s longest unbroken treaty.

Morocco’s colonial days were relatively brief. Morocco’s status as a French protectorate was finalized in 1905, but it became one of the first African nations to gain independence in 1956.

African Nations by Independence, 1950-1993

Western Sahara is another matter. Its borders are disputed even today. The region has been claimed by Morocco, Mauritania, Spain, and France, and wasn’t granted ‘independence’ from Spain until 1975. It wasn’t really independence though. Morocco was granted the top 2/3’s of Western Sahara. Mauritania received the remaining third.  Spain’s formal mandate expired on February 26, 1976.

The following day a political faction known as Polisario announced themselves as the true government-in-exile of the country, occupied by Morocco.

The fighting rages on to this day. Donald MacDonald writes, “Since my visit to the camps in June 1993, the political stalemate has dragged on, “disappearances” of Saharawi citizens have continued, and the refugee camps have been devastated by flooding.”

The Moroccan press claims, “The Shrawis, who arrived in three groups to El Karkrat, fled the Tindouf Camps (southwestern Algeria) where thousands of Moroccan-Sahara natives are held against their will by the Algerian-backed separatist movement Polisario.”

Currently “158,800 Sahrawi refugees live in camps in the Algerian desert where malnutrition is widespread.”

Journalists covering the independence movement in Western Sahara have been assaulted, detained or expelled. One journalist who referred to the Sahrawis (Western Saharans) living in Algeria as “refugees” (rather than as “captives” of the Polisario) was taken to court, fined, and barred from journalism for 10 years.

“Media criticism of the authorities is often quite blunt, but is nevertheless circumscribed by a press law that provides prison terms for libel and for expression critical of “Islam, the institution of the monarchy, or the territorial integrity” of Morocco (a phrase understood to mean Morocco’s claim to the Western Sahara.”

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

Myanmar Independence

January 4

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.

Aung San
Aung San

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.”

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.” —

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.

Update: Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest on November 13, 2010.

Mexican Independence – Grito de Dolores

September 16

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.

Alhóndiga de Guanajunato
Alhóndiga de Guanajunato

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.

Independence Day – Central America

September 15

After 300 years of Spanish rule, the Captaincy General of Guatemala cut ties with the Old World in a declaration of Independence on September 15, 1821. The Spanish colony consisted of what is now Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The proclamation was made in the capital, Guatemala City, in the northwestern corner of the isthmus. But Costa Rica, in the southeast, didn’t learn of its independence until a month later.

Today the five nations celebrate their collective independence. One relatively new tradition is the Torch of Independence relay across hundreds of miles of the Pan-American highway. The relay follows the symbolic path by which word of independence was spread from Guatemala to Costa Rica.  Across Central America, schoolchildren in towns and cities take part in parades and processions, dressed in traditional attire and performing regional dances.

The 5

Guatemala is the Heart of the Mayan Empire. The country’s large indigenous population speaks 23 Mayan-based languages. Guatemala Antigua was once the capital of the entire region, stretching from the southern border of Mexico down to the tip of South America. It was founded in 1542 after a mudflow from the Agua Volcano flooded the previous capital, now called “Ciudad Vieja” (Old City). In 1773, Guatemala Antigua was mostly destroyed by earthquakes, and the current city of Guatemala was built nearby.

El Salvador is the home of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero. Romero was assassinated in 1979 and though not yet a saint, is sometimes called the patron saint of the Americas. The brutal 12-year civil war that erupted following his death took the lives of an estimated 75,000 El Salvadorians.

Honduras is the only volcano-less country of the five and is the only one that is totally self-sufficient in terms of electricity. Though spared the bloodshed and violence of the civil wars that rocked its neighbors, Honduras and El Salvador clashed in the 100-hour “Soccer War” of 1969, and Honduras was used as a base and training ground for U.S.-backed forces against Nicaragua in the 1980s. In 1998 Hurricane Mitch killed 5000 Hondurans and wiped out 70% of the country’s crops.

Of the five, Nicaragua has arguably been most effected by U.S. interests, beginning in 1855—when Tennessee entrepreneur William Walker hired an army of mercenaries, overthrew the Nicaraguan government and set himself up as President—all the way up to the Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s, and the CIA mining of three Nicaraguan ports in 1984. According to the World Bank, as of 1995, Nicaragua’s per capita GDP was the same as in 1945.

Costa Rica is the only country in the Americas not to have a military, and is one of the most eco-friendly countries in the world. Covering only .03% of the earth’s land surface, Costa Rica contains 5% of the world’s biodiversity.

Timeline of U.S. Intervention in Central America

Vietnam Independence Day

September 2

On this day in 1945, Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence of the newly-proclaimed Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

To sum up the prior 2000 years of Vietnamese history in an internet-friendly morsel:

Vietnam was ruled by China for nearly a thousand years, until 938 AD, when a Vietnamese Lord defeated the Chinese at Bach Dang River. The Vietnamese then enjoyed 900 years of autonomy (though not necessarily peace), after which the Europeans moved in, first as allies against neighboring armies, then as conquerors. The French gained control of the region known as Indochina in a series of conflicts in the 19th century and maintained control until World War II when the Japanese invaded.

At the time, France was occupied by Japan’s ally, Germany, and an uneasy alliance of power developed between Japan and Vichy France, the French puppet government that Germany had installed. French authorities in Indochina were thus able to maintain the illusion of sovereignty.

However, in March 1945 the Japanese staged a coup, kicking out the French and dispelling any notions of European dominance.

The Japanese surrendered to the Allies in August of that year, and British and Chinese troops were sent to Vietnam to quell the growing independence movement. But by that time, Vietnam had already proclaimed its independence. Ho Chi Minh became the head of the provisional government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

The First Indochina War would last nine years.

Ho Chi Minh declares independence, September 2, 1945
Ho Chi Minh declares independence, September 2, 1945

The Declaration of Independence that Ho Chi Minh read on September 2, 1945, began with a familiar ring:

All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.

The Declaration of the French Revolution made in 1791 on the Rights of Man and the Citizen also states: “All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.”

Those are undeniable truths.

Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow-citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice…

They have built more prisons than schools. They have mercilessly slain our patriots; they have drowned our uprisings in rivers of blood….

After the Japanese had surrendered to the Allies, our whole people rose to regain our national sovereignty and to found the Democratic Republic of Vietnam…

Our people have broken the chains which for nearly a century have fettered them and have won independence for the Fatherland. Our people at the same time have overthrown the monarchic regime that has reigned supreme for dozens of centuries. In its place has been established the present Democratic Republic…

We are convinced that the Allied nations which at Tehran and San Francisco have acknowledged the principles of self-determination and equality of nations, will not refuse to acknowledge the independence of Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh’s northern-based government did not receive the support it had hoped for from the U.S. The Second Indochina War began not long after the first had ended. The U.S. supported the South Vietnamese government against Ho Chi Minh’s Communist government in the North; the Second Indochina War took the lives of millions of Vietnamese as well as 58,000 Americans. The U.S. withdrew completely in 1975 and North and South Vietnam unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

With over 86 million people, today Vietnam is the 13th largest country in the world by population.

Full Text of Declaration of Independence

Independence Day

August 31

Name that country:

Until just a few years ago, it was home to the two tallest buildings in the world, the Twin Towers.

Its flag boasts over a dozen horizontal red and white stripes and a blue rectangle in the upper left corner displaying certain celestial objects.

It won its Independence from Great Britain.

(Got it yet? Okay, one more…)

Its head of state is the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, and its official religion is Islam.

That’s right! Malaysia!

Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur
Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur

The Petronas Twin Towers were completed in Kuala Lumpur in 1998 and were opened on this day in 1999. At almost 1,500 feet, they’re taller than the Sears Tower by 33 feet, and were they were the tallest buildings in the world up until 2004 when they were surpassed by “Taipei 101”. (They’re still there, they’re just not the tallest buildings in the world anymore.)

The Malaysian flag contains 14 red and white stripes which symbolize the equal standing of the country’s 13 states and its federal government. The 14-point “Federal Star” represents Malaysia and its monarchy, while the yellow crescent moon represents Islam.

Though the official religion is Islam, Malaysia has significant populations of Buddhists and Hindus as well as a smaller Christian population.

And today is the biggest civic holiday of the year. Malaysians celebrate Hari Merdeka, (Independence Day), which marks Malaysia’s formation as a unified modern state and its independence from Great Britain over half a century ago, on August 31, 1957.

Happy Birthday Malasia! And Selamat Hari Merdeka!