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

Independence Day – North Korea

September 9

Each Fall over 100,000 participants perform and compete in the Mass Games, one of the few public events in the otherwise tight-lipped nation of North Korea. The Games coincide with North Korea’s Independence Day on 9-9.

Korea was ruled by the Joseon Dynasty from the 14th century on. In 1897, the king thought it would be a good idea to make Korea an empire, and became Korea’s first–and last–Emperor.  The Empire that succeeded the 500 year-old Dynasty lasted only 13 years.

Aiding its demise was the Taft-Katsura Agreement between the U.S. and Japan. Japan recognized the U.S.’s sphere of influence in the Philippines in return for recognition of Japan’s sphere of influence in the Korean peninsula. At the end of the Russo-Japanese War, in which Russia and Japan vied for territory, Japan came out on top, and pressed Korean Ministers to sign the Eulsa Treaty. (The Korean Emperor and Prime Minister never signed the treaty, and in fact implored other governments not to recognize its validity.) Over the next five years, Korea fell increasingly under the thumb of Japan.

Two million Koreans participated in the independence demonstrations of 1919 and 1920; 46,000 were arrested and 7000 were killed.

During World War II, Korea faced brutal conditions under Japanese occupation. Millions were conscripted into wartime labor. Tens of thousands of women, known as “comfort women”, were forced into sexual slavery for the military.

After Japan’s defeat, Korea was split along the 38th parallel, to be administered by the Soviet Union in the north and the U.S. in the south. The 38th parallel would form the front line of the Cold War in the 1950s, as well as an ideological border between capitalism and communism into the 21st century.

In May of 1948, elections held in South Korea led to the independence of the Republic of Korea on August 15.

In the North, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was proclaimed on September 9 of that year.

“Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il normally attends the annual Mass Games on the country’s independence, but foreign observers speculate he may be ill, citing doctors’ visits and Jong-Il’s absense from the spotlight.

One Japanese professor theorizes that the North Korean big cheese has actually been dead for 5 years. That one of his ‘stand-ins’, who were used as decoys when he was alive to ensure his safety, has been playing the part since 2003.

[published 2008]

Brazil – Independence Day

September 7

Had the Pope’s arm slipped just an inch that day in 1494, the people of Brazil might be speaking Spanish right now. But the vertical line in the Treaty of Tordesillas that split the world outside Europe between Spain and Portugal held steady. The Pope alloted the easternmost chip of the Americas to Portugal, while Spain got the rest.

The history of Brazil would unfurl quite differently from the rest of its neighbors, and indeed from all of the Americas.

As Portuguese explorers pushed eastward that chip of South America soon became the largest colony on the continent. A land that contained vast jungles, endless rivers, and bountiful resources unimaginable to the Europeans back home in Portugal.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleon of France invaded Portugal.

The King of Portugal, João VI, fled to Brazil and declared Rio de Janeiro the new capital of Portugal and its possessions. (Imagine King George III coming to America and declaring New York the capital of Great Britain.)

Napoleon then did an about face and turned his troops on Spain. (This wasn’t hard to do, since the French army was already in Spain. Spain had given Napoleon permission to cross through to attack Portugal.)

As a result, South America was a scene of pandemonium for the next two decades. The Spanish colonies refused to answer to the French and declared their autonomy one at a time. Even when Spain kicked the French out of their homeland, the people of South America maintained their independence, leading to several lengthy wars between Spain and its colonies. From Buenos Aires to Santiago to Lima and beyond, the wars were hard fought and costly, both in terms of resources and human lives.

Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro

The situation in Brazil was different. João VI fell in love with Brazil, and when the French were booted out of Portugal in 1815, he refused to come home. João made Brazil its own kingdom, an equal partner with Portugal. But the folks back home were not so thrilled about this. They demanded that the royal family return to Portugal and that Brazil be made a colony again.

Eventually the king was forced to return home to maintain order in Portugal; his 23 year-old son Pedro stayed behind and became regent of the Kingdom of Brazil.

Pedro defied orders to return to Lisbon. The Portuguese Parliament limited his powers, and attempted to make Brazil a subservient colony once again. Upon hearing this news at the bank of the Ipiranga River, Pedro famously declared: “Independência ou Morte!” (Independence or Death!) The Grito do Ipiranga (Shout of Ipiranga) took place on September 7, 1822.

Grito de Iparanga
Grito de Iparanga

Pedro was proclaimed Emperor of Brazil on October 12, his 24th birthday.

In 1831, Pedro abdicated the throne to his 5 year-old son, Pedro II and returned to Portugal. Pedro II ruled as Emperor for nearly 50 years. In 1889 the Emperorship was abolished and Brazil became a republic.

Young Pedro II
Young Pedro II

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!

Ukraine Independence

August 24

Today is the sixtieth birthday of Ukrainian activist, writer, agitator and politician Levko Lukyanenko. But Ukrainians aren’t celebrating the man, they’re celebrating the document he wrote on this day in 1991, Ukraine’s Declaration of Indpendence:

In view of the mortal danger surrounding Ukraine in connection with the state coup in the USSR on August 19, 1991,

Continuing the thousand-year tradition of state development in Ukraine,

Proceeding from the right of a nation to self-determination in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and other international legal documents, and

Implementing the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine,

the Verkhovna Rada of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic solemnly declares Independence of Ukraine…

Levko Lukyanenko
Levko Lukyanenko

Back in 1959 Lukyanenko had helped to form the underground organization “Ukrainian Workers and Peasants Society”, for which he wrote the party program. For his involvement, he was sentenced to execution, a sentence that was later mitigated to fifteen years hard labor in the Gulag. His time didn’t dim his revolutionary fervor, but cemented it. After his release, he helped found the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Group.

“All in all, Levko Lukyanenko spent twenty five years in prison and concentration camps and five years in exile, his crime being not murder or armed assault, or robbery but something the soviet regime considered to be the most grievous offence–having views and ideas inconsistent with the soviet ideology.”

Maria Vlad – Levko Lukyanenko, Indomitable Champion of the National Cause

Lukyanenko was released during the Soviet prestroika reforms of the 1980s. In 1990 the former enemy of the state was elected to the Ukrainian parliament.

Oh, and it’s Ukraine, not The Ukraine. It means “Borderland”.

Ukraine also gave us St. Nestor the Chronicler (c. 1056 – c. 1114), the monk who spent twenty years writing the great Russian and Ukrainian history “The Tale of Bygone Years”, or “The Chronicle”.

Independence Square, Kiev
Independence Square, Kiev

Independence Day – Indonesia

August 17

We, the Indonesian people, hereby declare the independence of Indonesia. Matters concerning the transfer of power, etc., will be carried out in a conscientious manner and as speedily as possible.

Jakarta, 17th day of the 8th month, 1945

Just two days after Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan, Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, proclaimed Indonesia’s independence, in what has to be one of the shortest Declarations of such in the world. (Full text above.)

The Second World War brought tragedy to Indonesia, but it also brought an end to hundreds of years of European colonialism. The Japanese invaded Dutch-controlled Indonesia in 1942, eager to utilize the island colony’s abundant natural resources, such as oil. There was little Holland could do in the matter, being an occupied nation itself. The Germany army had invaded Holland in 1940.

Better to the Hell than to be Colonized again
"Better to the Hell than to be Colonized again"

The Japanese fueled the flames of Indonesian independence, and replaced Dutch colonial administrative and economic infrastructure, making self-governance feasible in a way it had not been prior to the occupation. Sukarno’s cooperation with the Japanese during the war earned him the ire of many enemies, but his position was vindicated when Japan announced its intention for Indonesia’s independence in 1944.

The date of independence had not been determined when the Japanese surrendered on August 15, 1945. After the surrender, Sukarno and other pro-Independence leaders wasted no time. They met at the house of Rear-Admiral Maeda Tadashi and scratched out the declaration on the night of August 16.

The Declaration however, did not mean an end to the struggle, but the beginning of a new one. British troops arrived in Indonesia to stave off the revolution until the Dutch–recently liberated themselves–could reassemble their military. By 1947 the Dutch had over 100,000 troops stationed in the area, and the battle was on its way to becoming one of the bloodiest revolutions of the 20th century.

The Dutch emphasized Sukarno’s connection with the Japanese, declaring him an enemy collaborator against the Indonesian people, but it became clear that the fight for independence was not comprised solely of isolated guerrilla groups and political extremists, but was a widespread movement with national support. Also, diplomatic efforts by Indonesian independence leaders increased international support for the nationalist cause

The Netherlands recognized Indonesian independence in November 1949.

Today, Indonesia is the fourth largest nation by population, after China, India, and the United States, and it is the most populous Muslim nation in the world.

Independence for Indonesia

Indian Independence

August 15

The Twentieth Century witnessed over 140 countries gain independence. [35 of them in the years 1960 and 1991 alone]. But few, if any, stirred such emotion, involved so much conflict, changed and disrupted so many lives, inspired so many future leaders, and so fundamentally altered the world we live in, both politically and philosophically, as the independence of India.

A hundred-year struggle against imperialism and colonization came to a climax as Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru addressed his people on the eve of India’s long-awaited independence:

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long surpressed, finds utterance.

Nehru during his Tryst with Destiny speech
Nehru's "Tryst with Destiny" speech

India found that, like so many other countries, while freedom and self-determination solved some ills, other problems were exacerbated. The partition of India into two separate, independent nations disrupted millions of lives and led to a bloody conflict that has not healed to this day.

Less than six months after independence, the Pakistani-Indian conflict would take the life of Mohandas Gandhi himself, the Indian former-lawyer who used civil disobedience to combat racial injustice in South Africa and who raised peaceful resistance to a new level to free his own countrymen in India. On January 30, 1948, Gandhi was shot by a Hindu radical, who was angry at Gandhi’s cooperation with Muslim Indians and Pakistanis.

Indian flag rises above Red Fort, Delhi

Despite the death of its greatest leader, the story of Indian independence showed the world that the principles Gandhi preached, concepts of non-violence and the power of peace, were not mere religious dogma, not words spouted by the powerful to keep the powerless meek and compliant, but were weapons capable of ending an Empire.

Swami Vivekananda was once asked by an Englishwoman, “What have you Hindus done? You have never even conquered a single nation.” To which the Swami replied…

That is true from the point of view of the Englishman…but from ours it is quite the opposite. If I ask myself what has been the cause of India’s greatness, I answer, because we have never conquered.

The gift of India is the gift of religion and philosophy, and wisdom and spirituality. And religion does not want cohorts to march before its path and clear its way. Wisdom and philosophy do not want to be carried on floods of blood. Wisdom and philosophy do not march upon bleeding human bodies…but come on the wings of peace and love, and that has always been so.

Swami Vivekananda Vedanta Lecture – Spirituality, the Gift of India