I was expecting a quiet start to my Christmas holidays, but this weekend a lot of blog-worthy stuff has flashed across my telly. Therefore I find myself back at the keys, having thought I had time for a break.
A tropical storm caused flash floods in the Philippines, which devastated coastal towns and killed 650 people. Whole villages were washed away, which means there are now thousands of homeless. More than 800 people are still missing. A massive aid operation is desperately needed; the US and China have already pledged support.
This weekend marked the anniversary of the death of Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit seller who set himself alight having been refused a permit for a stall by the authorities. The horror at the scale of his disillusionment triggered protests that led to the Arab spring. It is almost impossible to say whether popular anger in the Middle East would have exploded without this catalyst, but Bouazizi will be remembered forever for changing the politics of an entire region.
A sombre presenter on North Korean state television announced to the nation the death of Kim Jong-il, the Communist dictator who had ruled the country since 1994. Under his leadership the country became completely isolated, as it developed nuclear weapons and continued its war with the South. The country was subjected to sanctions that crippled the economy, and several badly handled natural disasters led to mass starvation. Most North Koreans live in poverty, especially when compared with their Southern counterparts. Politics in the country has always been a secretive and dodgy affair, and with the death of Kim Jong-il more doubt has arisen. The Kim family is the only Communist dynasty in existence, and Jong-il was in the process of handing over power to his son, Jong-un. Almost nothing is known about him, but there are rumours that he is ‘unready’ to rule. Western leaders will be keeping a close eye on this mysterious country over the next few months of uncertainty. They will be hoping, but not expecting, that the new leader will open up his country and improve the lives of his people.
And as if all that was not enough news for one weekend, Sunday also marked the end of America’s war in Iraq. Nine years ago, the war started with the ousting of Saddam Hussein. Since then, troops have been fighting a guerrilla war with both Sunni and Shia militia – who have also been fighting each other. Media reports vary, but it is accepted that more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died since 2003, along with 4,487 American and 139 British troops. In America, people have conditioned themselves to believe that the war has been a success. And yes, a brutal regime has fallen. However, the plight of civilians has worsened. They have endured years of daily bomb attacks, militant Islam has grown and the government is a mess. Even as the last vehicles of the last American convoy rolled across the border into Kuwait, the main Shia faction pulled out of Parliament, lurching the country into political crisis. Most importantly, women have lost freedom and equality – the percentage of girls in education is now just above sixty. This is not likely to increase – especially as the government’s main priority is security. Politics in Iraq may be more pluralistic, but the liberal democracy the Americans envisaged when they first bombed Baghdad nine years ago is no where to be seen.