KAMPAR — He wouldn’t give his full name or his age — except to say that he had vivid childhood memories of Japan’s World War II occupation of Malaysia — but Lee, a Chinese-Malaysian shopkeeper in Kampar, a onetime tin-mining hub in the northwestern Malaysian state of Perak, didn’t hold back. “Politics in this country is about this: money politics,” he said, using the local shorthand for corruption. “The BN” — Barisan Nasional, or National Front — “is clever at it, and that means it is difficult for the opposition to win in this country,” he added. Sure enough, the parliamentary election held May 5 resulted in the BN coalition maintaining its nearly six-decade hold on power, which dates all the way back to Malaysia’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1957. The BN fended off a strong showing by Pakatan Rakyat (PKR, or People’s Alliance), the opposition coalition, which ran a campaign focusing on alleged government graft — the “money politics” — and the BN’s perceived ethnic favoritism toward the country’s 60 percent Malay majority.
DALHAMIEH, Lebanon – Rolling up a green dress sleeve, 12-year-old Syrian refugee *Reina murmurs “chemical, chemical.” Her arm, what’s left of it, is distorted, wrinked and swollen – looking more more like a fossilized tree root than a human limb. Inside her family’s shelter, a grimy hut made from a frame of uneven-sized timbers nailed together and covered in plastic sheetings and tarpaulin, others gather round. Most decline to have their full name quoted out of fear of reprisals. “Look, look,” says Safaa, 16, pulling down a snot-covered sleeve from her baby daughter Noufa’s arm. Scabs and blotches cover the infant’s wrist and foream. Clasping the child to her chest, she stoops to reveal shins covered in rotten wounds, greying at the edges and crusted over in between. Over the course of Syria’s two-year civil war, both the government and rebels accuse each other of using chemical weapons, a charge both sides deny.
L’AQUILA, Italy – The three bottles of red wine sit corked on the table, exactly where they were that night almost four years ago when a deadly earthquake hit this mountainside town in central Italy. Circling his gaze around to the cracks in the white plaster walls of his house, which he’d moved into just 10 months before the disaster and is still paying for, Lucio Paolucci says that he has no idea when – or even if – he can move back in. “I hope so, I hope, but by now it is four years, and nothing much has changed,” he says. Mr Paolucci’s house, like many other buildings in the hilltop old town of L’Aquila, has a long history, dating back to the 1300’s. The earthquake, which struck around 3.30 am on April 6, 2009, killed 309 people and left 65,000 more homeless. Pointing to the bottles, Mr Paolucci says they are a relic of the days before the disaster. “I keep them there like that as a reminder, a keepsake,” he says.
BANGKOK – Hundreds of thousands of Thais lined the streets of Bangkok on Wednesday to see King Bhumibol Adulyadej make a rare public speech to mark his 85th birthday. “My heart feels so good today seeing His Majesty,” says Penpat Thaweekul, one of the vast royal-supporting yellow-clad crowd waiting under a hot sun to catch a glimpse of the now-frail king speaking from a distant balcony. The world’s longest-sitting monarch is portrayed as a widely-revered apolitical father-figure – but even with this representation, there are lines Thailand’s elected politicians cannot cross. Though the royal institution once enjoyed a near-universal respect, recent polarization has raised questions about that role and about the country’s future after his reign. After the king’s reign, “the royalist domination in politics will be in disarray, for sure,” says historian Thongchai Winichakul. The rest, he says is unclear, wondering, “Will their power decline or will they take a tighter control during the transition?”
SEKSAK, BATTAMBANG — On the back 7 to 10 percent growth over much of the last decade, Cambodia’s government insists it is trying to build what it calls a sustainable land policy, including reclaiming fertile terrain lost to landmines and bombs — legacies of the country’s years of civil conflict. But others say a corrupt and Chinese-influenced administration is trampling the rights of citizens in the name of economic development in what remains a country still recovering from long-finished wars. Until six months ago, the fields behind Ly Susmat’s house in Seksak village in the western Battambang province were not safe to walk. That was before the NGO Mines Advisory Group pitched down in the village to clear mines and unexploded ordnance, a dangerous and economically-debilitating legacy of civil war in a country where around 80% of the people depend on farming for a living. He has got some land to farm safely now, but that’s just a start. “I need capital to rent a plough, I want to grow highland rice here,” Ly Susmat says, waving an arm toward an 8,000 meter square plot of land outside Seksak, a former Khmer Rouge stronghold in the west of the country.
EDINBURGH – Outside on an ancient stone plaque on the wall of Scotland’s parliament building, lines penned by Sir Walter Scott reminisce about an independent Scotland, lamenting rule from London. Inside, on Sept. 27, opposition leaders and Scotland’s Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon fired off salvos at each other in a debate reminiscent of Westminster exchanges, all jeers and catcalls bouncing back and forth. If Scottish nationalists have their way, such discussions will soon be a feature of an independent Scottish state, as per Scott’s wistful lines etched on the wall outside. Ms. Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) is campaigning, on the back of a big 2011 election win, for Scotland to secede from the United Kingdom.
DILI — The party of East Timor’s prime minister won the majority of seats this weekend in peaceful parliamentary elections, paving the way for him to form another coalition government as the country faces its second major transition a decade after independence. The elections come at an important juncture for the impoverished half-island country, which celebrated its 10th birthday May 20. The United Nations mission and police are slated to withdraw by 2013, by which time Australian and New Zealand troops who have been stationed there on a separate peacekeeping mission will have departed. These changes will leave the young democracy standing on its own feet, and perhaps in a better position to pursue its goal of joining the regional bloc known as ASEAN, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. “The next five years are crucial for us,” says former President Jose Ramos-Horta.
KOLKATA — On the outskirts of India’s third-largest city, 5,000 partly blackened chimneys stand 100 feet high, belching smoke into the sky over millions of reddened bricks below. Some of the bricks are stacked neatly into huge square-cornered stacks, and still more, innumerable, are piled roughly – some broken, some chipped and cracked, as if tipped wantonly from a wheelbarrow. Here around 1.25 million low-caste migrant workers and their dependents spend six months each year dredging clay from nearby lakes or molding bricks under the scorching sun, or lugging back-breaking hods. It is seasonal work, done by India’s lowest castes, or in some cases, dirt-poor immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Ram Dayal, whose home is in Gazpar in Uttar Pradesh, a 24-hour train ride away, says has worked the kilns for 25 weather-beating years. Asked his age, he laughs and says he doesn’t know exactly. “I have a son about your age though,” he says.