Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Brave New Worlds: Digital Freedom in East Asia by Nathalie Olah

Jo Glanville with Gigi Alford, Giles Ji Ungpakorn, and Gus Hosein
Photo: Rebekah Murrell
The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival in London has just hosted Brave New Worlds: Digital Freedom in East Asia.  Nathalie Olah reports.

If surveillance is a major sticking point of political debate in the West, it’s a reality for thousands whose lives have been transformed at its hands in South East Asia. Far from being a hypothetical threat - the subject of column inches whose affects are rarely felt - governments in China, Vietnam, Thailand and of course, North Korea, are using surveillance software not just in the name of upholding national security, but to police and doctor freedom of expression.

Last week, the Asia House Literature Festival brought together three pivotal spokespeople to discuss the issue of spy software and surveillance in East Asia. Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a former professor at the Faculty of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, who was forced into exile after staging a protest in opposition to the military coup of 2006. Today he works as an administrative clerk at a hospital in Oxford, while writing extensively on the injustices of the Thai political system and rallying resistance to the country’s oppressive censorship laws amongst its student population. Gigi Alford of Freedom House, a US-based NGO advocating freedom of expression, democracy and human rights, joined him, as well as Gus Hosein of Privacy International. The talk was chaired by Director of English PEN Jo Glanville.  

For the audience whose knowledge on this subject seemed varied, Alford began by outlining the ten possible forms of surveillance: firewalls; attacks against regime credits; lawmaking to prevent political speech online; paid pro-government commentators; physical attacks; take-down requests; forced deletions; blanket blocking of domains; campaigns to ‘clean the web’ and the threat of shutting down mobile Internet services. All ten techniques are being used in China where conformity to the government’s ethos is so pervasive that it has engendered a climate of self-censorship as widespread and as damaging to transparency as that which is imposed.

And while the suppression of feeling contrary to a government agenda is a flagrant assault on democracy, more shocking are instances of entrapment. As in the case of Vietnamese human rights lawyer Nguyen Bac Truyen, who gave free legal assistance to victims of land grabs, and campaigned for multi-party democracy before realising too late that his private correspondence with clients had been hacked. Bac Truyen was attacked on his way to the Australian embassy in Hanoi and his house subsequently surrounded by the city’s Dong Thap police.

Vietnam is second only to China in the number of bloggers targeted in one form or another by authorities. Since Decree 72 came into effect last year, citizens have been banned from discussing current affairs online.

To Alford’s initial list, Hosein added three more techniques that are currently being developed by software companies in the West and exported to Asia.  These included National surveillance centres, capable of monitoring information being shared within and across a country’s borders; as well as IMSI-catchers – wearable, fake mobile towers that act between the service providers’ own and target devices to collect data. At just over US$ 8,400 it is one of the more widely available forms of surveillance hardware on the market.

Finally Hosein cited FinFisher, the software made notorious by Wikileaks and developed by Lench IT solutions, with a UK branch Gamma International based in Andover. It enables users to access calls, as well as switch on the microphone and camera of target mobile phones. That the use of this software is being justified by governments as a means of chilling dissident speech is frankly absurd, given users remain entirely oblivious to the fact they are being targeted.

While the UK has granted asylum to activists such as Ungpakorn, its role in the widespread use of surveillance technology not just on home turf, but in the East, is considerable. And the same goes for other Western states. After all, it is here that most surveillance software was pioneered and continues to be developed, and it is here that the precedent of questionable surveillance policies is being set. Think back to Nokia issuing the Iranian government technology to monitor phone calls in 2009 and you’ll be reminded of how Western techniques have been exported to the detriment of innocent civilians across the world.

At the present moment, few solutions exist to the problem of surveillance. Amazon web services offer users the possibility of privacy with their ‘https’ service, although this is only permitted while the company does not have a physical presence inside a given territory. With the arrival of Amazon’s first China-based office later this year, it’s safe to say that the services availability inside the country will soon be diminished.

“Nobody’s a good guy anymore.” Gus told us. “Intelligence agencies in the UK, in America, and soon elsewhere, can now mimic the user interface of companies such as Facebook and Linkedin without users knowing."

Then there’s the worry of tech-savvy activists eventually applying their expertise to exacerbate the situation further. Let’s not forget, that many of those who set up the Stasi, went on to create the sorts of companies that they once fought to resist.

With the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests now upon us, anti-government feeling is expected to arise in a big way across China. Blocks are inevitable and the feelings of many will be suppressed, hidden and deleted from the annals of micro-blogging sites. Awareness can get people so far, but the systems at work to prevent freedom of expression are becoming increasingly impenetrable. In 2011 Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim said during a CNN interview days before President Mubarak was toppled, “If you want a free society just give them Internet access.”  

Make that a free Internet, for the web is becoming a form of incarceration whose long term effects can likely be predicted by observing the activity that is already taking place across so many Eastern states.

Follow Nathalie @NROLAH

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

500 Words From Ann Bennett

500 Words From...is a series of guest posts from authors, in which they talk about their newly-published books.  Here Ann Bennett explains the background behind Bamboo Heart, published in paperback today by Monsoon Books.

Ann Bennett is a UK-based novelist and lawyer. 

Set in South East Asia both in the present and before and during the Second World War, Bamboo Heart captures the suffering and courage of prisoners of war of the Japanese. It tells the story of Tom Ellis, a prisoner enslaved on the infamous Death Railway in Thailand, and charts the journey of his daughter, Laura, who turns her back on her comfortable lifestyle in eighties London to investigate her father's wartime experience.

So: 500 Words From Ann Bennett

At the end of the Second World War allied intelligence services surveyed newly-released prisoners of war with so-called liberation questionnaires. My novel, Bamboo Heart, started life when I discovered my father’s liberation questionnaire in Britain's National Archives. It was an amazing moment when I first saw it; written in his perfect copper-plate hand, it answered so many questions I would like to have asked. From that moment I knew I had to write about his experiences as a prisoner-of-war on the Death Railway in Thailand.

This discovery was the culmination of a lifetime’s quest to find out what had happened to my father during the war. He died when I was only seven, and growing up I became increasingly interested in his past. He hardly spoke about the war, having started a new life with my mother on his return to England in 1945. I was interested enough to travel to Kanchanaburi to see the railway in 1988. On that trip I fell in love with South East Asia, but found out very little about what had happened to my father there.

I took the tragic events Dad described in his questionnaire as the basis of Tom’s story in Bamboo Heart. I wanted to write about those events from the perspective of one man, within the framework of a fast-moving narrative. My aim was to bring those events alive without it feeling like a history lesson.

The events I was describing were harrowing. So to lighten the mood, I broke it up with flashbacks to Tom’s pre-war life in colonial Penang, where he fell in love. I also introduced a parallel modern plot, the story of Tom’s own daughter’s search for the truth about the war. For Laura’s story I drew upon my own life as a disaffected young lawyer in the eighties, and upon my memories of those times. The novel touches on the Wapping Riots, famous in the UK, which I remember well. Co-incidentally the first day of serious rioting was 15th February 1986, the anniversary of the Fall of Singapore.

I tried to tell a story of hope and survival, to examine the reasons why some survived the worst of ordeals and others sadly did not. I also wanted to show what an important role history plays in all our lives; how powerfully our family’s past affects our own choices and values.

My research for Bamboo Heart taught me so much more about the war in the Far East than I had expected. I had not previously known how civilians suffered; about starvation and massacres, about bravery and sacrifice. It inspired me to explore those events from other angles and through other peoples’ stories. 

Bamboo Heart is the first novel in a planned trilogy. I have just finished writing Bamboo Island, about Juliet, a plantation owner’s wife, who has lived a reclusive life since the war robbed her of everyone she loved. The sudden appearance of a stranger disrupts her lonely existence and stirs up unsettling memories.

I’m also working on a third novel: Bamboo Road, about of the daughter of a member of the Thai resistance which tells how the influx of prisoners-of-war into that remote jungle region affects her life.

Click here for Ann’s website.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Published Today: Singapore Noir edited by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

Akashic Books in New York publishes a series of City Noir books, each a multi-author anthology of crime short stories. Today, the Singapore-based company, Monsoon Books, is publishing for the local market the latest title in the series, Singapore Noir.
Beneath Singapore’s sparkling veneer is a country dark with shadows rarely revealed in literature.  Singapore Noir explores the city-state’s forgotten back alleys, red-light districts, gambling dens, and kelongs  - floating, off shore fishing platforms with a shady reputation.  The anthologised authors include: US-based director, writer and illustrator Colin Goh; UK-based author of novels depicting the experiences of gay men, Johann S. Lee; Bangkok-based author Lawrence Osborne; Hong Kong-based author of the Feng Shui Detective series, Nury Vittachi.  Of the Singaporean authors, three are past winners of the Singapore Literature Prize: Simon Tay; Colin Cheong; Suchen Christine Lim. Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, the editor, is a US-based Singaporean.
The anthology is divided into four sections: Sirens; Love (Or Something Like It); Gods & Demons; The Haves & The Have-Nots.  Each story is set in a particular location in Singapore, so, for example, Colin Goh’s Last Time is set in Raffles Place, and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s Reel is set at Changi
Singapore Noir is published in paperback. It is available from all leading bookstores in Singapore, and the South East Asia region.  Priced in local currencies. 

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival has just opened in London, and runs until May 21.  This is the only festival in the UK dedicated to writing about Asia and Asians. The theme this year is changing values across Asia.  

For the past 8 years Adrienne Loftus Parkins has been the Director of the Festival.

After a successful career in marketing, Adrienne left her native Canada and started living, working, and reading in Bombay, Bangalore, Singapore, and Shanghai.  She then moved to London, where, in 2002 she established a literature programme at Asia House. In 2006 she founded the Asia House Festival of Asian Literature, now sponsored by the Bagri Foundation. Adrienne also co-founded Anamika, a women’s educational group in India, and works closely with the Pan Asian Women’s Association to promote Asian women writers.  

After 8 years in the role, Adrienne has decided to step down as Director of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival, although she will stay involved as an advisor and looks forward to seeing the Festival grow.

Adrienne gave me an interview via e-mail, from London.

How and why did you come up with the theme changing values across Asia? How do you think the theme is reflected in the programme?

I moved to India in 1992, when the economy of that country was just starting to open up to foreign investment.  While there we often heard colleagues and associates tell us that globalisation wouldn't work in Asia because their lives and businesses were conducted according to Asian values. These, they said, were never going to be compatible with the Western values that made multinational companies work.  Asians in general built their societies around working for the benefit of the family, holding true to tradition, and repressing the desires of the individual. 

Now, 22 years later, those companies that we saw open throughout Asia in the ‘90’s are still there and they have been joined by many more.  The globalisation of business, manufacturing, retail and communications has reached unprecedented levels.  Financial growth gave birth to the term Asian Tigers and many of those Asian friends who were so sceptical have thrived amidst the new realities that these businesses have brought with them.

With this growth has come a sea change in societal values.  To the outside observer there appears to be more emphasis on making money, on owning Western status symbols like cars, designer clothes, glamorous vacations and the latest electronics. Across the world, political upheavals have overthrown despotic regimes, giving a new confidence to citizens that want to overthrow governments and dictators that are holding them back.

Over the years that Asia House has been producing the Literature Festival, the number of books addressing the conflict between traditional values and modern ideas has grown. We decided to explore what has happened to values through focusing on writing that looks at these changes and how Asian values have reconciled with Western ones, and vice versa. 

Some events such as the Yiyun Li / Tash Aw conversation, Changing Sexual Mores, Burma: a work in progress, and Brave New Worlds: digital freedom in East Asia address changing values as expressed in writing in a straightforward way, while others like North Korea: threat or bluster, Cracking Up: the evolution of British Asian humour, The Shroud and New Pan-Asian Fiction, touch on the theme more indirectly. Changing Sexual Mores is one I'm particularly looking forward to as it will directly address a topic that until now has not generally been discussed in literature.

Do you try and present writing from all of Asia, or do you focus on specific countries, or regions, within the continent?

The Festival has always focused on a broad expanse of Asia. The 2013 Festival had events highlighting writing from Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, China, South Korea, Nepal, Burma, Malaysia, Palestine and the Middle East as well as South Asian and British Asian writing. In 2104 we've added to that list:  Vietnam, Thailand, Kazakhstan and North Korea. Each year we endeavour to discover writing about a broad spectrum of Asian countries. We are still the only festival in the UK dedicated to writing about Asia in the broadest context, from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Pacific.

Asia House participated in the British Council Korean Cultural Focus. (Click here for the relevant blog post.) Could you comment?

The event featuring Man Asian Prize winner Kyung-sook Shin and Krys Lee from Korea, along with Qaisra Shahraz from Pakistan, was very well received - we had a sell-out audience and audience and speakers alike seemed deeply interested in the topic.  The discussion took a more personal than political direction with each of the writers either experiencing a personal separation from their home culture because they have moved to a different culture or, in Kyung-sook's case, a separation from the other speakers because she has not left her home country.  Kyung-sook, who was speaking with the help of a translator, felt that language and the translation of spoken and written words creates its own kind of separation.  (The Asia House website has an article about the event, including some audio and video, click here to watch and listen.)

The Korean influence continues when John Everard, former British Ambassador in North Korea and author of Only Beautiful, Please:  A British Diplomat in North Korea,  joins Paul French, author of North Korea: State of Paranoia,  to analyse the threat posed by that country. What are you hoping for from that session? 

This should be a highly topical discussion of the threat that North Korea may pose to its neighbours and the rest of the world.  The speakers have both spent extensive time in North Korea and have studied and analysed the political situation there.  They will be looking at the current state of affairs in the country and, based on their knowledge of the situation, expressing their thoughts on the motives behind what Kim Jong-un has done and said in recent months.

Several authors are launching books at the Festival. Could you give details of new titles beyond what's on the website?  

We're delighted to be able to host 3 authors who will be debuting their novels in the UK. They will provide mini-interviews, in sessions called Extra Words, as a bonus to longer events scheduled with more high profile authors.  

The first Extra Words, on 8 May, will be with Omar Shahid Hamid, whose debut novel The Prisoner was a runaway hit at the recent Karachi Literature Festival.  As a former Karachi policeman, Omar has a unique view of what happens behind the scenes when the force is called upon to solve crimes.  The Prisoner is a gripping read, one that left me wanting to know if he was planning a sequel.  

Nepalese Indian author, Prajwal Parajuly, was part of the 2013 Festival when he spoke about his first book of short stories, The Ghurkha’s Daughter.  This year he comes back with his debut novel, Land Where I Flee, about a family gathering in Gangtok, Sikkum from across the globe to celebrate their grandmother's landmark birthday.  Prajwal was hailed at the Jaipur Literature Festival as one of the brightest young talents coming from South Asia.  His book is thoughtful and entertaining, and he himself has great insight into the clash between traditional family values and the modern world.

Finally, we are happy to have Tew Bunnag as our last Extra Words author. Tew has published several previous books, but Curtain of Rain is the first to be published in the UK, so he is new to our audiences.  His books deal with the contradictions between traditional values and consumerism in modern Thailand.

Censorship is a bigger issue in Asia than in the UK.  What do you think will be the main talking points at the digital freedom event? How do you think events held in the UK, but highlighting free speech in Asia, can help authors in Asia?  

One of the Festival's objectives is to promote understanding of Asia cultures and societies both here in UK communities and in Asia. This discussion of censorship of the Internet in some Asian countries raises awareness and helps Western audiences to understand some of the challenges to free expression that may be present in other societies. I expect the discussion to address how the Internet has opened up communication in some ways, but made it more difficult in other ways, and how writers are working within the parameters set for them, to express their opinions in as free a way as possible without fear of recourse.

To Participate From Asia

If you wish to participate in the Festival from Asia, click around on the following links:

English PEN showcases world literature on new site championing translation

English PEN celebrates the best writing in contemporary international literature with the launch of a new website. English PEN's World Bookshelf is an on-line gateway to some of the most exciting contemporary work in translation – essential reading for everyone who cares about world literature.
The World Bookshelf features more than 100 award-winning books supported by PEN. The site includes profiles of authors and translators, and offers readers the latest news about literary translation and exclusive blogs from veteran and up-and-coming translators from around the world.

Jo Glanville, director of English PEN said:"English PEN has been supporting literature in translation for almost a decade. The new site celebrates the remarkable range of writing that we’ve been proud to champion and is a great introduction for anyone seeking to navigate the thriving scene for international writing."

Author Elif Shafak said:"In a world divided by politics, religion and nationalism, there are goals that only world literature, only the ancient and universal art of storytelling, can achieve. Shortening the distance between Us and Them, and encouraging understanding and empathy are surely among these goals. English PEN has launched an exemplary project to endorse, extend and celebrate fiction in translation. The World Bookshelf brings us outstanding literature from all over the world and promotes, against all odds, a free flow of ideas and stories."