Understanding Iran and Why It Distrusts Britain

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Understanding Iran and Why It Distrusts Britain

Getty Images
Getty Images

The English Job by Jack Straw

The subtitle of Jack Straw’s new book promises to help the reader in “understanding Iran”. However, what one gets in 390 pages might best describe as a misunderstanding of Iran today, a misunderstanding that has prevented Britain, along with other Western powers, to develop a realistic Iran policy and has helped prolong the crisis caused by the Islamic Republic unorthodox behavior in the international arena.

Straw’s misunderstanding, perhaps caused by his “absolute infatuation” with his imaginary Iran, has three aspects.

The first is that he thinks that because Iran, as he reminds the reader, is an ancient civilization, has produced great poets, weaves exquisite carpets and offers one of the world’s hautes cuisines, deserves indulgence for its weird activities in other domains such as hostage-taking, hate-mongering, human rights violations and the export of terror in the name of revolution. It is like offering indulgence to Stalin because one appreciates Pushkin and Tchaikovsky and enjoys a dish of borscht with a glass of “little water’ on the side. In another register, what would you say if we gave Hitler a pass because we like Schiller, Beethoven and potato salad? That Cyrus the Great was a great king and, arguably, even the founder of human rights, as Straw suggests, does not justify, citing just one example, the mass murder of Syrians by a mercenary army led by the Iranian mullahs.

The second “misunderstanding” concerns Straw’s strange belief that the Khomeinist ruling elite includes a “reformist” faction that craves close relations with Western democracies, and must, therefore, be supported to weaken and eventually get rid of the “ hardline” faction led by “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei. But, who are the “reformists” Straw claims to have discovered in Tehran? He cites a number of names among them former Presidents Hashem Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami, the current president Hassan Rouhani, former presidential candidates Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Kariba, under both house arrest, and lower rank current or former officials such as Muhammad-Javad Zarif, Kamal Kharrazi whom Straw calls “ my old friend”, and Mostafa Tajzadeh.

The trouble is that Straw is unable to cite a single reform proposed, let alone carried out, by his “reformist” faction in Tehran. Worse still, he forgets that there have been more executions and political arrests under Khatami and Rouhani than during the supposedly “hardline” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency.

The third misunderstanding is that in dealing with the Islamic Republic, all choice is limited to just two options: swallowing whatever Iran does or launching a full-scale war against it.

Straw was one of the most zealous advocates of the war to destroy Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, asserting that the Ba’athist regime was beyond reform.

However, when it comes to the Islamic Republic, the former British Foreign Secretary becomes a dyed-in-wool peacenik. The only sane way is to use diplomacy to change Tehran’s behavior. In an elliptic manner, Straw claims some credit for what we now know as the Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the “Iran nuclear deal” concocted by the Obama administration. Straw first sold the ideas to President George W Bush’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2006 just before his boss, Prime Minister Tony Blair, moved him to another post.

In the past two decades, Straw has visited Iran seven times, five as Foreign Secretary. In one visit he was part of a British parliamentary delegation with Lord Lamont and, the current Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn then working for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s Press TV channel. In one private visit, he and his wife, along with a couple of friends, were harassed and in the end hounded out of Iran by one of the nine security agencies operating in the Islamic Republic.

Straw is critical of President Donald J Trump for rejecting secret diplomacy when Tehran’s leaders see any public attempt at rapprochement as humiliating for their regime. He claims that the “nuclear deal” would have been completed with further secret talks about other issues of interest to Western powers, including the Islamic Republic’s intrusion in the internal affairs of several Arab countries. The first JCPOA could have been followed by other JCPOAs, even dealing with human rights issues, with the ultimate aim of marginalizing and eventually clipping the wings of the “Supreme Guide”.

Nevertheless, Straw offers no evidence than any deal made with the Islamic Republic in the past 40 years has had a long-lasting impact on the Khomeinist strategy and behavior. The Khomeinist rulers of Iran have perfected the art of diplomatic cheat-retreat-advance. Whenever their bones began to creak, they offered some concessions, which were subsequently withdrawn once the pressing of the bones ceased. More importantly, perhaps, Straw fails to realize that his “moderates” including Rouhani and Khatami, lack the popular support base needed to marginalize Khamenei let alone get rid of him.

Straw has adopted several erroneous assumptions, commonplace among so-called “Iran analysts”, including the division of authorities in the Khomeinist system between elected and un-elected officials. In that context, we are invited to believe that Khamenei, supposedly un-elected, enjoys less legitimacy than, say Rouhani, who is elected. However, the fact is that the Assembly of Experts, itself elected by popular vote, elects Khamenei. At the same time, Rouhani, like his predecessors, could not become president without an edict (hukm tanfizi) from the ”Supreme Guide”. In other words, it matters not one farthing who is or isn’t elected in a system in which all elections must either be regarded of equal value or rejected as fake from the start.

Straw is also wrong in believing that the Islamic Majlis, which he wrongly calls “The Iranian Consultative Assembly”, is subordinate to the Council of the Guardians which he calls, again wrongly, a solely “a creature of the Supreme Guide”.

To buttress his assumption that the mullahs have an almost natural claim to ruling Iran Straw exaggerates the role played by Shi’ite clerics in Iranian politics over the past five centuries. A fatwa issued by an obscure ayatollah to forbid smoking tobacco is blown out of proportion as an earth-shaking event. Clerics did play a role in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 but only as second fiddle. The mullahs also supported the Shah in dismissing Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq in 1953, an event that Straw dubs a “coup d’etat” plotted by British Intelligence and the CIA. The fact

that the Shah had already appointed and dismissed Mossadeq as prime minister on two occasions without anyone talking of coup d’etat is conveniently ignored.

Straw hates the Pahlavi Shah and tries hard to present them in as bad a light as possible, possibly to justify the mullahs’ revolt in 1979.

Straw also exaggerates the role the British played in Iran. Iran’s own corrupt ruling elite, especially in the final decades of Qajar rule, used intervention by Britain and Russia, the two imperialist enemies of Iran at the time, as an excuse to explain away their own corruption and ineptitude.

No foreign power could impose its will on even the weakest nations without the assistance of at least some elements in that nation’s ruling elite. True the Persian expression” It’s all the work of the English!” reflects abiding resentment about the role played by Britain in Iranian affairs for over a century. However, the expression is more often used as a joke rather than a serious comment on history. There was never a major British human presence in Iran few Iranians ever saw even a single specimen of the vilified “Inglisi”. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was operating in less than one per dent of Iranian territory and , at its peak, employed under 200 non-Iranians, most of them Sikh guards and drivers from Punjab. Also, Britain never featured among Iran’s top five trading partners and couldn’t compete with France and Germany, and from 1960 onwards the United States, as poles of attraction for Iranians seeking higher education abroad.

The British did invade Iran, in conjunction with the Soviets, in 1941, not 1942 as Straw says, but did not “occupy the whole of Iran” as he seems to believe. In fact, the British Expeditionary Force, largely consisting of recruits from colonial India, was stationed in five localities in Iran and from 1943 onwards were put under US command until total withdrawal two years later. The myth of “The English Job”, like its French equivalent “perfide Albion” is designed to perpetuate enmity between two nations that, when all is said and done, experienced the attraction-revulsion that marks many human relatio0ns in history.

The popular novel “Dear Uncle Napoleon” by Iraj Pezeshkzad uses the “this is an English job” as a joke. Incidentally, it was written in 1970 not in the 1940s as Straw asserts.

Straw’s book, an enjoyable read, includes too many factual errors and dicey speculations to be cited here. I doubt if Ayatollah Khamenei’s second son Mujtaba has any chance of succeeding him as “ Supreme Guide”, even if the regime survives. Straw also exaggerates the status of Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi and Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani who now heads the Expediency Council. Straw may be admiring of Larijani because he speaks “fluent English” but the fact is that he lacks a genuine status within the Shi’ite clergy.

Khamenei’s mother tongue is not “Turkic”, a non-existent language, but Persian as his mother hailed from Isfahan and claimed descent from the poet Kamaleddin Ismail. Khamenei’s father was from Azerbaijan and spoke Azeri, an Altaic language.

The late Ayatollah Khomeini couldn’t have extensive knowledge of Greek philosophy as most works by the Greeks, including Plato and Aristotle cited by Straw, are still not translated into Persian or any other languages of the Muslim world.

Some of Straw’s assertions are too weird to merit comment. For example, he says: “Iran is the most secular of societies, people laugh at what the mullahs have to say.”

And, yet, he believes that mullahs are bound to rule Iran seemingly forever. But even then he is not sure of his analysis. He writes: “Just below the surface, Iran is far from calm, the regime {is} going one way, the majority of the population another.”

From an apologist for the Islamic Republic, this is something!



190 Guests from 25 Countries Set to Enrich Young Minds at SCRF

The Sharjah Children's Reading Festival (SCRF) logo
The Sharjah Children's Reading Festival (SCRF) logo
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190 Guests from 25 Countries Set to Enrich Young Minds at SCRF

The Sharjah Children's Reading Festival (SCRF) logo
The Sharjah Children's Reading Festival (SCRF) logo

The Sharjah Children's Reading Festival (SCRF), renowned for its ability to unite global literary enthusiasts and bring the undeniable power of reading to the youth, is making a comeback next month, Emirates News Agency (WAM) reported.

Organized by Sharjah Book Authority (SBA) and set to take place from May 1 to 12 in Expo Center Sharjah, the region’s largest event dedicated to nurturing the imaginations of young minds, carries the theme ‘Once Upon a Hero’ this year.

There will be 190 guests from 25 countries. Leading the pack is Jerry Craft, a distinguished American cartoonist and children's book illustrator, whose syndicated comic strip "Mama's Boyz" and graphic novels such as "New Kid" and "Class Act" have earned him widespread acclaim.

Joining Craft is Raúl The Third, a New York Times bestselling illustrator and author, celebrated for his evocative portrayals of the contemporary Mexican-American experience.

Further enhancing the festival's agenda is Dr. Caroline Leaf, a world-famous communication pathologist and neuroscientist from the United States. Renowned for her research on the mind-brain connection, Dr. Leaf's expertise in mental health and memory formation promises to enlighten and inspire attendees.

Hailing from Malaysia, Stacy C. Bauer and Ying Ying Ng bring their unique talents to the forefront. Bauer, a prolific writer known for her humorous anecdotes and relatable storytelling, is set to regale audiences with tales of childhood adventures. Ng, with over three decades of experience in music education, offers invaluable insights into the world of creativity and learning.

Malaysia's David Chek Ling Ngo rounds out the top tier of distinguished guests, bringing his wealth of knowledge in leadership and academic excellence to the fore. Recognized as one of the Top 2 percent Scientists Worldwide by Stanford University, Ngo's contributions to the fields of education and institutional growth are nothing short of exemplary.

According to WAM, the festival will also play host to a diverse array of luminaries from around the globe. From Georgia, Lia Shalvashvili, an esteemed author and educator, joins the fray with her extensive repertoire of children's literature. The United States contributes Dr. Al Jones, a distinguished psychologist specializing in educational and gender psychology, further enriching the festival's intellectual discourse.

Not to be overlooked are the notable guests from India, including Mamta Nainy, Bethany Clark, and Sohini Mitra, each bringing their unique perspectives on children's literature and publishing to the table.

Other noteworthy figures include Cathy Camper from the US, Joanne Steer from the UK, Dr. Sandy Zanella from Mexico, Toyin Akanni from Nigeria, Deeba Zargarpur representing Afghanistan and the US, Liam Kelly from Ireland, Hannah Moushabeck from the US, Lauren Tamaki also from the US, Leila Boukarim, Jane Mount, and Zelmaré Viljoen.


King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Royal Reserve Festival to Kick Off in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Qurayyat

The King Salman bin Abdulaziz Royal Reserve Development Authority logo
The King Salman bin Abdulaziz Royal Reserve Development Authority logo
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King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Royal Reserve Festival to Kick Off in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Qurayyat

The King Salman bin Abdulaziz Royal Reserve Development Authority logo
The King Salman bin Abdulaziz Royal Reserve Development Authority logo

The King Salman bin Abdulaziz Royal Reserve Festival, organized by the Reserve Development Authority, will take place from April 14 to 18 at the Cultural Center in Al-Qurayyat Governorate.

The festival aims to showcase tourist and recreational sites within the reserve and encourage local community involvement in reserve activities.

The festival offers a variety of events that will take visitors on a fun journey through recreational, cultural, artistic, and awareness activities. These include a children's area with games and drawing, an afforestation and planting area to promote afforestation culture and vegetation development, an artisan's market that celebrates Saudi heritage and traditional crafts, a wildlife area, and a performing arts theater.

The theater will present cultural shows and segments highlighting heritage, history, poetry evenings, theatrical performances, and folk arts.

The King Salman bin Abdulaziz Royal Reserve is the largest wildlife reserve in the Middle East, spanning over 130,000 square kilometers. It has archaeological sites registered with the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).


Royal Commission for Makkah Launches ‘Makkah Greets Us’

The event will host the Revelation and Route to Makkah Exhibitions - SPA
The event will host the Revelation and Route to Makkah Exhibitions - SPA
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Royal Commission for Makkah Launches ‘Makkah Greets Us’

The event will host the Revelation and Route to Makkah Exhibitions - SPA
The event will host the Revelation and Route to Makkah Exhibitions - SPA

In celebration of Eid Al-Fitr, the Royal Commission for Makkah City and Holy Sites launched the second annual “Makkah Greets Us” event in the Hira Cultural District.
The event, taking place until Monday, April 15 is expected to attract more than 15,000 visitors daily.
Visitors will enjoy more than 14 diverse programs tailored for all societal segments, including cultural, entertainment, and historic programs, SPA reported.
The event will host the Revelation and Route to Makkah Exhibitions, which display visual presentations of the descent of revelation and the Hajj routes over history.
Additionally, the event will feature folk art performances, falcon shows, and sound and light shows. It will host a dedicated area for the crafts market, children's activities, and various entertainment options.
Makkah Greets Us is held by the Royal Commission for Makkah City and Holy Sites, in cooperation with the Pilgrim Experience Program (PEP), the Holy Makkah Municipality, the Makkah Chamber, KIDANA development company, and AlBalad AlAmeen company.


Saudi Arabia Announces Inaugural Protected Areas Forum ‘HIMA’

The site at Hima, the sixth to be enlisted in Saudi Arabia, is home to one of the largest rock art complexes in the world and ancient wells. (SPA)
The site at Hima, the sixth to be enlisted in Saudi Arabia, is home to one of the largest rock art complexes in the world and ancient wells. (SPA)
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Saudi Arabia Announces Inaugural Protected Areas Forum ‘HIMA’

The site at Hima, the sixth to be enlisted in Saudi Arabia, is home to one of the largest rock art complexes in the world and ancient wells. (SPA)
The site at Hima, the sixth to be enlisted in Saudi Arabia, is home to one of the largest rock art complexes in the world and ancient wells. (SPA)

Saudi Arabia announces the Inaugural Protected Areas Forum ‘‘HIMA’’, a groundbreaking event in the region dedicated to the conservation and preservation of natural habitats and wildlife, SPA reported.

Under the patronage of Engineer AbdulRahman Al-Fadli, the Minister of Environment, Water, and Agriculture and Chairman of the Board of the National Center for Wildlife (NCW), this forum organized by the National Center for Wildlife will be held in Riyadh from April 21-24, marking a significant milestone with both local and international participation.
The forum will feature a comprehensive agenda filled with panel discussions and presentations by renowned experts in the field of protected areas from around the globe.

Attendees will include representatives from protected areas, educational institutions, major projects, companies, and the non-profit sector, reflecting a growing commitment to environmental conservation and sustainability.
Dr. Mohammed Qurban, CEO of the National Center for Wildlife, emphasized that the organization of the "HIMA" forum stems from the Kingdom's leading position in global environmental initiatives and closely aligns with NCW's mandate as the
national authority for the wildlife sector. This initiative is part of a strategic plan to enhance the national system for protected areas, setting a clear direction for the Kingdom's efforts to safeguard vital natural sites for biodiversity.
Dr. Qurban highlighted the Kingdom's ambitious 30×30 initiative, aimed at protecting 30% of Saudi Arabia's land and sea area by 2030. This initiative, announced during the Green Saudi Initiative, underscores the Kingdom's dedication to
global biodiversity goals and environmental sustainability. The roadmap includes specific targets for the protection of land and marine areas by 2025 and 2030, demonstrating a proactive approach towards conservation.
The forum serves as a platform for global leaders in protected area management to exchange knowledge and best practices, fostering collaboration and ensuring alignment with international standards.
Since its establishment in 2019, the National Center for Wildlife has been dedicated to implementing strategic plans to address the challenges facing wildlife and marine ecosystems. With a vision for flourishing and sustainable wildlife
and biodiversity, the NCW is committed to preserving environmental systems and enhancing community engagement to achieve long-term environmental sustainability and maximize societal and economic benefits.


Janbiya Demand Surges During Eid at Souq Khamis Mushait

The souq caters to every taste and budget - SPA
The souq caters to every taste and budget - SPA
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Janbiya Demand Surges During Eid at Souq Khamis Mushait

The souq caters to every taste and budget - SPA
The souq caters to every taste and budget - SPA

Eid Al-Fitr witnesses a surge in demand for janbiyas -- short, curved daggers -- as they are considered a symbol of festivity and adornment during this Eid.
Souq Khamis Mushait, a bustling marketplace in Khamis Mushait city, southern Saudi Arabia, is a haven for traditional janbiyas. Visitors from across the region come to explore this treasure trove, a captivating glimpse into the Kingdom's rich heritage, SPA reported.
The janbiya, a symbol of pride and honor, is a cherished part of Saudi culture. Worn during celebrations, it is a reminder of the country's deep traditions.
The souq caters to every taste and budget, offering intricately crafted silver janbiyas alongside rare antiques. Prices depend on craftsmanship, materials, engravings, and rarity, ranging from SAR1,000 to over SAR100,000.
Khamis Mushait's commercial roots run deep, with the city serving as a major trading center for centuries. Beyond janbiyas, the souq offers livestock, dates, and a variety of other goods.


Dining Hall with Trojan War Decorations Uncovered in Pompeii

FILE PHOTO: Tourists visit the archaeological site of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, Italy, April 27, 2021. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Tourists visit the archaeological site of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, Italy, April 27, 2021. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca/File Photo
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Dining Hall with Trojan War Decorations Uncovered in Pompeii

FILE PHOTO: Tourists visit the archaeological site of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, Italy, April 27, 2021. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Tourists visit the archaeological site of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, Italy, April 27, 2021. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca/File Photo

A black-walled dining hall with 2,000-year-old paintings inspired by the Trojan War has been discovered during excavations at the Roman city of Pompeii, authorities said on Thursday.
The size of the room - about 15 meters long and 6 meters wide - the quality of the frescoes and mosaics from the time of Emperor Augustus, and the choice of characters suggest it was used for banquets, Pompeii Archaeological Park said.
"The walls were painted black to prevent the smoke from the oil lamps being seen on the walls," Gabriel Zuchtriegel, head of the park, said, according to Reuters.
"People would meet to dine after sunset, and the flickering light of the lamps had the effect of making the images appear animated."
Pompeii and the surrounding countryside was submerged by volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius exploded in AD 79, killing thousands of Romans who had no idea they were living beneath one of Europe's biggest volcanoes.
The site has seen a burst of archaeological activity aimed at halting years of decay and neglect, largely thanks to a 105-million-euro ($112 million) European Union-funded project.
The dominant theme of the newly discovered paintings is heroism and fate.
One fresco depicts Paris and Helen, whose love affair caused the Trojan War, according to classical accounts. Another one shows doomed prophetess Cassandra and the Greco-Roman god Apollo.
According to Greek mythology, Cassandra predicted the Trojan War after receiving the gift of foresight from Apollo, but no-one believed her. This was because of a curse Apollo put upon her for refusing to give herself to him.


French Artist in Race Against Time to Finish Monumental Piece

French artist Baptiste Chebassier poses in the middle of a part of his artwork, made from rolls of recycled paper on which names of 30,249 Olympic medallists will be written, at the Chebassier workshop in Saint-Ouen, near Paris, France, April 5, 2024. REUTERS/Noemie Olive
French artist Baptiste Chebassier poses in the middle of a part of his artwork, made from rolls of recycled paper on which names of 30,249 Olympic medallists will be written, at the Chebassier workshop in Saint-Ouen, near Paris, France, April 5, 2024. REUTERS/Noemie Olive
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French Artist in Race Against Time to Finish Monumental Piece

French artist Baptiste Chebassier poses in the middle of a part of his artwork, made from rolls of recycled paper on which names of 30,249 Olympic medallists will be written, at the Chebassier workshop in Saint-Ouen, near Paris, France, April 5, 2024. REUTERS/Noemie Olive
French artist Baptiste Chebassier poses in the middle of a part of his artwork, made from rolls of recycled paper on which names of 30,249 Olympic medallists will be written, at the Chebassier workshop in Saint-Ouen, near Paris, France, April 5, 2024. REUTERS/Noemie Olive

A couple of months ago, Baptiste Chebassier quit his consulting job to fully focus on his art project - writing the names of all the 30,249 medalists in modern Olympics' 128-year history before this year's Games start in Paris.
Using a marker pen, the 27-year-old writes the names on a rolling piece of paper that should end up being 120 meters (131 yards) long.
Chebassier said he had the idea for the project three years ago and started from the 1896 Athens Olympics, the first modern games. But progress had been slow since he could only write before or after work or on weekends, he told Reuters.
He now is into the 1980s.
"Then, I quit my job a month and half ago, and with the start of the Olympics in late July, I have to finish it whatever happens. I will finish it before the start of the Olympics, and if I can't sleep doing so, then I won't sleep."
Chebassier, who was inspired by Polish artist Roman Opalka's work on passing time, also travelled to see some former Olympic athletes and wrote their names on his piece in their presence.
In southern France, for example, he met Perrine Pelen, who a won a bronze medal in Alpine skiing at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic and a bronze and silver at the 1984 winter Games in Sarajevo.
"I'm very honored to see my name. There is great joy in looking back, and I'm very honored to be among all these medalists," Pelen told Reuters.
"And this is a chance for me to say that we know how much of an impact an Olympic medal can have."
Chebassier said he had yet to find a place where to display his artwork.
"I would like to be able to share this photography of all the Olympic medalists during the 2024 Paris Games in a place where it could be seen by athletes, so that they can see their names and maybe their family members', as well as by attendees, because it's also their heroes' names that are written here," he said.


Cambodia's Relocation of People from UNESCO Site Raises Concerns

A view of Bayon temple at Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap province, Cambodia, Tuesday, April 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
A view of Bayon temple at Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap province, Cambodia, Tuesday, April 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
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Cambodia's Relocation of People from UNESCO Site Raises Concerns

A view of Bayon temple at Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap province, Cambodia, Tuesday, April 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
A view of Bayon temple at Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap province, Cambodia, Tuesday, April 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

It's been more than a year since Yem Srey Pin moved with her family from the village where she was born on Cambodia's Angkor UNESCO World Heritage site to Run Ta Ek, a dusty new settlement about 25 kilometers (15 miles) away.
A tattered Cambodian flag flaps gently in the scorching midday sun on her corner lot, its depiction of the Angkor Wat temple barely still visible, while her brother scoops water from a clay cistern onto a neighbor's cow that he tends during the day.
Hers is one of about 5,000 families relocated from the sprawling archaeological site, one of Southeast Asia’s top tourist draws, by Cambodian authorities in an ongoing program that Amnesty International has condemned as a “gross violation of international human rights law.” Another 5,000 families are still due to be moved.
The allegations have drawn strong expressions of concern from UNESCO and a spirited rebuttal from Cambodian authorities, who say they're doing nothing more than protecting the heritage land from illegal squatters, The Associated Press reported.
Yem Srey Pin's single-room home, its reused corrugated steel siding perforated by rust and old nail holes, is a far cry better than the makeshift tent she lived in with her husband and five children when they first arrived, which did little to protect from the monsoon rains and blew down in the winds.
And their 600-square-meter (6,500-square-foot) property is significantly bigger than the 90-square-meter (1,000-square-foot) plot they occupied illegally in the village of Khvean on the Angkor site.
But the 35-year-old is also in debt from building the new house. Her husband finds less construction work nearby and his wages are lower, and there are no wild fruits or vegetables she can forage, nor rice paddies where she can collect crabs to sell at her mother's stand.
“After more than a year here I haven't been able to save any money and I haven't earned anything,” she said, as her 12-year-old son rocked her 8-month-old daughter in a hammock in front of a fan to take the edge off midday heat nearing 40 degrees Celsius (topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit).
“Living here is just hand to mouth because the income we do have goes to pay for the rice, food and my children's school.”
The Angkor site is one of the largest archaeological sites in the world, spread across some 400 square kilometers (155 square miles) in northwestern Cambodia. It contains the ruins of Khmer Empire capitals from the 9th to 15th centuries, including the temple of Angkor Wat, featured on several Cambodian banknotes, such as the 2,000 riel note depicting rice farmers working fields around the temple, as well as the country's flag.
UNESCO calls it one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia, and it is critical to Cambodia’s tourism industry.
When it was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1992, it was named a “living heritage site” whose local population observed ancestral traditions and cultural practices that have disappeared elsewhere.
Still, UNESCO at the time noted that Angkor was under “dual pressures” from some 100,000 inhabitants in 112 historic settlements who “constantly try to expand their dwelling areas,” and from encroachment from the nearby town of Siem Reap.
Cambodia's answer was a plan to entice the 10,000 families illegally squatting in the area to resettle at Run Ta Ek and another site, as well as to encourage some from the 112 historic settlements to relocate as their families grow in size.
“People got married, they had children, so the number of people were on the rise, including those coming illegally,” said Long Kosal, deputy director general and spokesperson for the Cambodian agency known as APSARA that's responsible for managing the Angkor site.
“What we did was that we provided an option.”
Cambodia began moving people to Run Ta Ek in 2022, giving those who volunteered to leave their homes in the Angkor area plots of land, a two-month supply of canned food and rice, a tarp and 30 sheets of corrugated metal to use to build a home. Benefits also included a Poor Card, essentially a state welfare program giving them around 310,000 riel (about $75) monthly for 10 years.
In a November report, Amnesty questioned how voluntary the relocations actually were, saying many people they interviewed were threatened or coerced into moving and that the relocations were more “forced evictions in disguise.”
The rights group cited a speech from former Prime Minister Hun Sen in which he said people “must either leave the Angkor site soon and receive some form of compensation or be evicted at a later time and receive nothing.”
Amnesty also noted Hun Sen's track record, saying that under his long-time rule Cambodian authorities had been responsible for several forced evictions elsewhere that it alleged “constituted gross violations of human rights.” It said Run Ta Ek — with dirt roads, insufficient drainage, poor sanitation and other issues — did not fulfil international obligations under human rights treaties to provide people adequate housing.
That has now changed: Homes with outhouses have been built, roads paved, and sewers installed. Primitive hand pumps made of blue PVC piping provide water, and electricity has been run in.
There's a school, a health center, a temple; bus routes were added, and a market area was built but is not yet operating, Long Kosal said, according to AP.
Hun Sen's successor, his son Hun Manet, traveled to Run Ta Ek in December to meet with residents and highlight infrastructure improvements in an attempt to allay the growing international concerns surrounding Cambodia's most important tourist site.
He reiterated his father's contention that if the squatters are not removed, the site risks being delisted by UNESCO — something UNESCO has never threatened.
Amnesty itself concedes life has gotten better for the residents of Run Ta Ek, but maintains there are major concerns.
Families have had to take on heavy debt to build even their basic houses, there is little work to be found, and the village — without any significant tree cover — is swelteringly hot during the day and has little shelter from winds or monsoon rains, said Montse Ferrer, the head of Amnesty’s research team investigating the Angkor Wat resettlements.
“People no longer have income,” she said in an interview in Geneva. “They had a clear source of income at the time — tourism — but also other sources of income linked to the location at Angkor. They are now at least 30 minutes away from the site and can no longer access these sources.”
Following Amnesty's scathing report, UNESCO moved up the timeline for Cambodia's submission of its own report on the state of conservation at the Angkor site, specifically asking for the allegations to be addressed.
In that report, submitted to UNESCO in March, Cambodia said it had not violated any international laws with the relocations, saying it was only moving people involved in the “illegal occupation of heritage land” and that in Run Ta Ek many were now property owners for the first time in their lives.
UNESCO said it would not comment on the situation until it has been able to analyze Cambodia's response, but referred The Associated Press to previous comments from Lazare Eloundou Assomo, director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center.
Speaking after Amnesty released its report, he stressed the agency had “always categorically rejected the use of forced evictions as a tool for management of World Heritage listed sites.”
“Since the Cambodian authorities announced their population relocation program in 2022, UNESCO has repeatedly and publicly recalled the importance of full respect for human rights,” he said.
Ferrer said Cambodia's response avoids addressing many of the issues raised by Amnesty, and that UNESCO — even though it says it has little ability to change national policies — has not yet used the significant leverage it does have.
“They could decide that the site is in danger, which they haven't. They can advise the World Heritage Committee, which is the ultimate body that can decide to take specific action against the state of Cambodia,” she said. “It can also conduct its own investigation and make public recommendations about what the state can be doing.”
Run Ta Ek resident Chhem Hay decided in June to take the opportunity to move from the village where she'd lived since she was a young teenager to the new settlement, enticed by the prospect of owning her own land, and a larger property than she'd ever had.
Her situation has improved since the austere early days living with her husband and teenage daughter in a tent on a dirt lot surviving on rice and prahok — a fermented fish paste that is an inexpensive staple for many Cambodians — paid for by charity handouts from Buddhist monks.
“I didn't dare eat anything much,” she said. “I tried to save money to buy bricks and sand.”
She was able to get a bank loan for $1,000 for the materials for a house, and now lives in a single-room brick structure built by her construction-worker husband and other family.
The income from the government Poor Card is enough for the monthly payments on the high-interest 2-year loan, which will have cost her almost double the principle when it's paid off. She has four chickens and some newly hatched chicks, though had to kill six others to feed the men building her house.
But the 37-year-old lost her work as a garbage collector in her village, and her husband has to drive in to Siem Reap for construction work, setting out at 5 a.m. to make it on time and spending about a third of his 35,000 riel ($8.70) daily income on gas for his motorbike.
She's looking forward to the day when the village market is opened, and hopes the government will establish a factory or similar business that will provide jobs.
“I don't know what will happen at the moment,” she said, standing in her doorway. “I'm just living day by day.”
For residents like Chhem Hay, Cambodia plans to offer vocational training, but does not envision further financial compensation, Long Kosal said.
“Once you have education, once you have a vocational skill, you can find a job easily,” he said. “Where you just remain there waiting for support, then you're not going to go anywhere. You're not going to make it.”
Meanwhile, villagers say many have already given up on Run Ta Ek, putting padlocks on their new homes and moving away — presumably back closer to Siem Reap and the Angkor site where it is easier to make a living.
Yem Srey Pin said even though Run Ta Ek has slowly improved since she arrived in February 2023, and her new home will be paid off fairly soon, she'd rather return to her village if it were possible.
But the village of Khvean is already slowly being reclaimed by the jungle, with grass growing through the foundations of houses, all that remains of the former homes. A hair curler, tattered blue playing cards and a trampled baseball cap lying on the ground are among the last vestiges of the lives left behind.
With almost all of the village's 400 families moving out, aside from a few who work at a neighboring military facility, Yem Srey Pin says there's nothing left for her there, even if APSARA would let her return.
“I can't live in my old village alone,” she said.


Muslims Celebrate Eid Al-Fitr with Family Reunions, New Clothes, Treats and Prayers

 A drone view shows Indonesian Muslims attend mass prayers on the road outside Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin Jayo Wikramo Great Mosque during Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of holy fasting month of Ramadan, in Palembang, South Sumatra province, Indonesia, April 10, 2024, in this photo taken by Antara Foto. (Antara Foto/Nova Wahyudi/ via Reuters)
A drone view shows Indonesian Muslims attend mass prayers on the road outside Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin Jayo Wikramo Great Mosque during Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of holy fasting month of Ramadan, in Palembang, South Sumatra province, Indonesia, April 10, 2024, in this photo taken by Antara Foto. (Antara Foto/Nova Wahyudi/ via Reuters)
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Muslims Celebrate Eid Al-Fitr with Family Reunions, New Clothes, Treats and Prayers

 A drone view shows Indonesian Muslims attend mass prayers on the road outside Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin Jayo Wikramo Great Mosque during Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of holy fasting month of Ramadan, in Palembang, South Sumatra province, Indonesia, April 10, 2024, in this photo taken by Antara Foto. (Antara Foto/Nova Wahyudi/ via Reuters)
A drone view shows Indonesian Muslims attend mass prayers on the road outside Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin Jayo Wikramo Great Mosque during Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of holy fasting month of Ramadan, in Palembang, South Sumatra province, Indonesia, April 10, 2024, in this photo taken by Antara Foto. (Antara Foto/Nova Wahyudi/ via Reuters)

The Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan was celebrated by Muslims on Wednesday with family reunions, new clothes and sweet treats.

In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, nearly three-quarters of the population were traveling for the annual homecoming known locally as “mudik” that is always welcomed with excitement.

“Mudik is not just an annual ritual or tradition for us,” said civil servant Ridho Alfian, who lives in the Jakarta area and was traveling to Lampung province at the southern tip of Sumatra island. “This is a right moment to reconnect, like recharging energy that has been drained almost a year away from home.”

Before the Eid al-Fitr holiday, markets teemed with shoppers buying clothes, shoes, cookies and sweets. People poured out of major cities to return to villages to celebrate the holiday with their loved ones. Flights were overbooked and anxious relatives weighed down with boxes of gifts formed long lines at bus and train stations for the journey.

For Arini Dewi, Eid al-Fitr is a day of victory from economic difficulties during Ramadan. “I'm happy in celebrating Eid holiday despite the surge of food prices,” said the mother of two.

Former Vice President Jusuf Kalla was among Jakarta residents offering prayers at the Al Azhar mosque yard. “Let’s celebrate Eid al-Fitr as a day of victory from many difficulties... of course there are many social problems during fasting month of Ramadan, but we can overcome it with faith and piety,” Kalla said.

On the eve of Eid al-Fitr, Jakarta residents set off firecrackers on streets that were mostly empty after city residents traveled home.

On Wednesday morning, Muslims joined communal prayers shoulder-to-shoulder on the streets and inside mosques. Jakarta’s Istiqlal Grand Mosque, the largest in Southeast Asia, was flooded with devotees offering the morning prayers.

Preachers in their sermons called on people to pray for Muslims in Gaza who were suffering after six months of war.

“This is the time for Muslims and non-Muslims to show humanitarian solidarity, because the conflict in Gaza is not a religious war, but a humanitarian problem," said Jimly Asshiddiqie who chairs the advisory board of the Indonesian Mosque Council.

In Pakistan, authorities have deployed more than 100,000 police and paramilitary forces to keep security at mosques and marketplaces. People were shopping as usual Tuesday, with women buying bangles, jewelry and clothes for themselves and their children.


Night Tours Spotlight Casablanca Architectural Heritage 

A picture shows a view of a building with distinguished architecture in the city of Casablanca on March 29, 2024. (AFP)
A picture shows a view of a building with distinguished architecture in the city of Casablanca on March 29, 2024. (AFP)
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Night Tours Spotlight Casablanca Architectural Heritage 

A picture shows a view of a building with distinguished architecture in the city of Casablanca on March 29, 2024. (AFP)
A picture shows a view of a building with distinguished architecture in the city of Casablanca on March 29, 2024. (AFP)

For architecture fans, Casablanca offers a visual feast of Moorish tiles, ancient minarets and French colonial facades with Art Deco touches, but much still faces dereliction or is falling apart.

To highlight the rich heritage of the Moroccan economic capital and encourage its preservation, guided walking tours have taken thousands of people on urban explorations on Ramadan evenings.

Normally, "the pace of life in Casablanca is so hectic that we don't take the time to appreciate" the landmarks, said Mehdi Ksikes, 51, a company manager joining one of the "Heritage Nights" tours.

Ksikes said on a tour during the Muslim holy month of fasting that he was seeing the city of his birth with new eyes.

"I live here, but that doesn't stop me from discovering things about my city."

The visitors gazed intently at a facade in central Casablanca as Leila, a volunteer guide with heritage association Casamemoire, pointed out details most of them had missed.

Casablanca's architectural heritage is not limited to its 18th-century walled city, but also includes structures from its urban expansion during the French colonial period from 1912 to 1956.

From the early 20th century, European architects "worked to adapt progressive urban visions to Moroccan particularities", said architect Karim Rouissi, who heads Casamemoire.

They brought the city to "the avant-garde of exploring 20th-century architectural and urban theories".

Architects drew inspiration from different styles, such as "colonial architecture in Algeria and Tunisia" and "new Moroccan architecture", a fusion of classic European architecture and elements of Moroccan craftsmanship, Rouissi said.

Casamemoire was founded in 1995 with the aim of promoting the city's "unique" heritage and preserving it, after the demolition of several historic buildings.

'A different perspective'

Many of Casablanca's historical buildings, such as the Wilaya (province) hall, the court of first instance, the central bank building, and others, are in the old administrative district in the city center.

But traffic and noise there "makes us not usually think about wandering around here", said Bouthaina, a tour participant snapping pictures inside a building open to visitors for the night tours.

"I can now see the city from a different perspective with influences of European architecture mixing with Moroccan techniques," said Bouthaina, who settled in Casablanca because of her work.

The Wilaya hall is an example of this blend, inspired by designs from Siena municipal palace in Italy, with balconies overlooking the exterior -- an uncommon feature in traditional Moroccan architecture.

Inside the building, a small garden sits in the middle of a spacious patio, allowing for natural ventilation, its columns and floors coated with hand-shaped glazed Zellige tiles.

At the central bank building, tour guide Leila pointed to polished stones clinging to the outside windows of the upper floor.

She noted the influence of the minarets of the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakesh and its twin, the Giralda Mosque in Seville which was built during the 12th century Almohad era, and later converted to a cathedral.

The bank building also bears Art Deco features, with a beehive-like glass roof inside and a wide gate resembling the door of a safe.

Keeping 'buildings alive'

While some of Casablanca's architectural gems are well-preserved, others have fallen into disrepair or have been demolished, sparking public outrage.

A total of 483 buildings in the city have been listed as national heritage, and 100 others are expected to be added soon, according to culture ministry official Hassan Zohal.

The owners of national heritage buildings are required to preserve the original architecture of the facades when carrying out renovations or other work.

Wearing a yellow T-shirt with the slogan "Volunteer for my heritage" on the back, Yacine Benzriouil, a Casamemoire volunteer, said that despite official efforts, some buildings remain abandoned or closed.

"The fight today is to show the value of this heritage," said Benzriouil.

"We need to think about how to keep these buildings alive before they are doomed to disappear."

Benzriouil is one of almost 200 volunteer guides leading the "heritage nights".

Near the end of the visit in the administrative district, participants joined Benzriouil's group in Mohammed VI Boulevard, where buildings blend Moorish tilework and arches with Art Nouveau.

Nature or mythological figures are showcased on the buildings' ornate facades.

During the walk, Benzriouil pointed to a statue of the head of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, sitting atop a building facing one of Casablanca's historic bars.

Further down the boulevard, the Lincoln Hotel is undergoing reconstruction, restoring its original 1917 facade after decades of dereliction.

"The conservation battle is half won," he said.