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Authoritarian Desires: Kenzaburo Oe on Masturbation and the Japanese Right

Review of Kenzaburo Oe’s Seventeen & J: Two Novels (OR Books 2016).

Reading in Thai, Thinking in Japanese

This combination of two stories by Kenzaburo Oe entitled Seventeen & J: Two Novels has disturbed me. I wish this disturbance upon you as well.

Why? Well because it turns out that this is a fantastic set of stories from a time when Oe was at the start of his publishing career in the late 1950s and early 1960s. What is so mesmerizing is how apt they feel to the times today in late 2016, as well as how well they travel beyond the sea-wet shores of insular Japan.

Read this book. Read it now before the American elections.

Recommended to me by a Japanese-speaking friend, this early work by the Nobel Laureate has been translated only once into English by Luk Van Haute. Because I cannot speak, read, or write Japanese myself, I always try to search out a translation into the only Asian language I am any good at in order to get somewhat “closer” to the language and culture in which the book was originally composed. For me, that’s in Thai.

And, indeed, it may sound silly for an American to be reading Japanese in Thai, but I still remember the first time I read a nonfiction piece by Haruki Murakami not in English, but in Thai. The effect was amazing, and in many ways the author’s voice shone through in a way that it never had in any English translations I had consumed before. What had been a trip to the Thai book store and an encounter with a Thai-translation of Murakami—where I thought to myself, why bothering to wait for the English translation when you can already do Thai well enough?—later became a general rule of mine when reading something originally done in Japanese: to always find the Thai translation first.

For one example out of many: Thai has a way of reproducing the rich variety of pronouns of hierarchy, of class, of family, of gender and so on found in Japanese that burrows toward some delightful, extra depth of meaning. Every wail and whine of a protagonist weighs heavier than it would be if the prose were translated into English.

Alas, though a few of Oe’s texts have been put into Thai, the vast majority of his works have not been, including these two shorter tales. Thus, English translation it was! Below is an interview with the author at Berkeley in 1999.

An Ode to Onanism

Has there ever been a work of fiction dedicated to a protagonist’s journey, which was purely mediated through an exploration of teenage masturbation? I’m almost embarrassed to say that I cannot think of one. Almost. Nevertheless, until I do find such a text, I will allow for the novella-like tale of Seventeen to stand in for that book.

The whole bit about playing with one’s self as a subject of a story is something of a stretch—particularly in its youthful form. But Oe’s genius here is how the act of onanism is combined with sentiments of pubescent, far-Right politics. This is also why I think others, particularly Americans at this moment, should have a go at this story.

The protagonist is an honest enough, though confused, little Japanese boy, who putters about his high school and homestead, arguing with his older sister and parents about the mundane and occasionally pestering them about the political situation of a postwar Japan. Peppered about this narrative are sticky episodes of the most imaginative and picturesque scenes of a seventeen-year-old hurting himself through private exultation.

In one scene, he’ll be alone jerking it. In another scene, he’ll be in a political diatribe against someone in his social circle.

In one more scene, he’ll be at it again, in some spiteful, self-hating-yet-self-loving beating of his manhood. And again in another scene, he’ll be joining an authoritarian, war-hungry Japanese political party—to which will be followed by yet another round of self play.

The interchange and abrupt bouncing back and forth between Japanese Imperialist thought and angst-ridden wanking is transfixing. The combination of youthful fascism with male masturbation hits the reader at some political psychological level that one may have never even known existed.

This is political psychology of the far Right, presented in a form that no one thought could be so stirring for a reader’s intuition.

Universal, Yet Shaded Differently

In this age in the West, masturbation is, perhaps, something of a ho-hum topic for many. Many guys do it. Many girls do it. We all do it, especially if you are young. Though I would assume the frequency is higher for the male of our species. We just don’t go around talking about it like we do the weather.

Though despite the act’s universality in terms of something found in most political societies across time and space, some differences probably persist in how one sex (gender?) or the other may go about their masturbation. This is neither a recognition of the difference in physicality of it (ha!) nor an understanding of the functional differences in how it helps to keep alive the sexual when we are alone. No, rather, this is a difference in the psychology behind the act.

When one is not in the company of others, with no one watching, it is difficult to accept that the thoughts and internal whispering of the mind of men and women are the same when they engage upon this play. The way guys go about it and the way girls go about it—up there, hidden in the psyche and the soul—cannot be the same.

Forsooth, a She Bop will never be a Blister in the Sun.

Oe’s protagonist is male and because of it the story takes unanticipated turns that would be nearly impossible to guess at if the character had been female. Some of these turns were so wild that the second part of Seventeen, where the main character is purported to assassinate a Left-leaning parliamentarian, has actually never been translated into English! Trust me, mix political psychological into the act, and this quickly becomes guy’s-stuff-only territory.

(Seriously, someone translate Part II of the story into English or Thai for me so I can read it. I’m looking at you Jay Rubin of Harvard and/or you เดือนเต็ม กฤษดาธานนท์ of Chulanlongkorn; let’s get cracking on this to help the non-Japanese-speaking peasantry like me confront our demons.)

Right or Left?

If you are of the Left yourself (what is mis-termed “liberal” for you Americans), then you may be smirking to yourself right now. For surely, if one were to mix masturbation with any political sentiment it would have to be the intuitions that traverse the mind of the far-Right or the fascistic. Correct? Conservatives with an authoritarian bent like to wank it when no one’s looking. Right?

Not so fast. And I suspect that Oe may agree with me on this one.

The protagonist male could just as easily been composed as some milksop, easily-offended, weakling of a Leftist and enjoyed masturbating twelve times a day. That is, the solipsistic act of male onanism could have as easily been paired with the political psychology of Right-wing jingoism as it could have with the political psychology of Left-wing statism.

Does not the awkward, mamma’s-boy communist also enjoy a wank from time to time? Who really goes at it more often?

Now that is a topic worth pursuing a Ph.D in.

Wonderful Read

Again, if there ever were a time and a place for those of you of the West to consider reading Kenzaburo Oe’s Seventeen & J: Two Novels, the fall of 2016 is the time to do so.

I highly recommend this delightful tale of Japanese political psychology and adolescent self–(destruction)-gratification.

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*Reviewed by T. F. Rhoden. Any image-photo credit for the top of this post via Kotaku. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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All the Single Men: Rebecca Traister on Single Women

Review of Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (Simon & Schuster 2016).

Pungent Demographics

Demographics, when gone sour, degrade into identity politics.

Anything that places the tribe above the individual is troublesome at the very least. By tribe, I simply mean any grouping: nation, gender, race, ethnicity, sex, class, religion, caste, cult, and so on.

Take any one of these group identifiers to an extreme and tribalism proves, yet again, to be toxic to political society. Moderation in all things…tribalism and identity politics are not.

Yet, on that note of moderation, I sometimes worry that individualism can be taken to an extreme as well. Thus to challenge the notion of individualism at times is very important. Though I still maintain it as something of a political axiom—that the continuance of individual freedom is about as good as it can get in any polity—when an opportunity comes to either intelligently challenge this or at least provide a new perspective, we would do well to avail ourselves of it.

Watching Rebecca Traister make a pitch for her new publication All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation on Real Time with Bill Maher, I realized that reading over her perspective and maybe internalizing some of her argument would be a great opportunity to challenge assumptions.

It Raises the Bar on Men’s Behavior

And if we learn anything in this very readable and enjoyable book, it’s that the bar on men’s behavior has risen over the half millennium—more specifically past century—in all realms of our political society.

The first few chapters provide a quick, yet pointed, history of some of the ways in which men have institutionalized social customs that cage “the fairer sex” into unequal partnerships. This review of past idiocies claimed in the name of gender over individual freedom should serve as a reminder of how much better we all have it today in advanced industrial liberal democracies.

Some salient points for me were that I hadn’t realized coverture had lasted so long in some areas of the United States. Though I often joke about the “patriarchy” when someone asserts that it still exists in America in 2016, these bits of institutionalized political and legal discrimination against women of the past serve as empirical evidence that once, indeed, something like a patriarchy did very much pervade the American polity.

(Note to self: finally get around to reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s history on the French revolution!)

Throughout All the Single Ladies, Traister is always quick to point out that the identity of the female also “intersects” with other identities—the most “problematic” of them being where one is not only female, but also “black” and/or “poor.” The challenge of less-than-voluntary marriage options faced by a middle-class “white” woman were not always the same faced by poor black females. There are numerous examples of this throughout the text.

Stadtluft Macht Frei nach Jahr und Tag

It is on this point of empirics that Traister shines for this reader. She does a wonderful job of bringing up and reviewing an array of contemporary statistics.

Evidence that more and more women are waiting longer to get married, or even more important, opting out of the civil institution altogether, are on display here. These numbers go into the larger aggregate average that in the United States there are today simply more people who have not gotten hitched than there are people who are married.

And where can all these single people be found? Well if it’s single females, look to the city!

The in-depth interviews Traister peppers throughout the text go to show that not only are there demographically more single women than married women living in American cities like New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and so on, these single women also feel freer in the city. The image Traister paints of her and her colleagues lounging about in fashionable cafes and bars in downtown Manhattan is vividly captured and reinforced by these interviews.

This actually surprised me. And I almost wish that I had spent more time in America’s largest metropolises when I was younger and single myself as opposed to loafing around Europe and Asia for the past fifteen years. If you are a hetero male on the right side of thirty, are able to maintain a job, and know how to tuck in your shirt, the odds really are in your favor in the bigger cities.

Granted, you may not get hitched immediately if you’re into that type of thing, but rather one ought to be able to stumble upon a phone number or two without too much difficulty…if only I’d known. (And here’s some proof, guys! Jeez.)

Feeling Good

One odd element of this text for any reader that doesn’t have a yoni is how important feelings are in general for the non-male.

Perhaps I’m not putting this right, but as a reader who happens to be a man, one is tempted to ask oneself again and again, “Why do women care what others think about them so much?” On every third page, another episode or interview or example is provided showing how much the interviewee or respondent is worried about how they are being perceived. I wish to ask, “Why do they take corporate-funded media stereotypes so seriously?”

Again, this may not be a fair admission on my part, but I hadn’t realized how much this sense of “I’m a woman” and “The world sees me as a woman” can pervade the feelings and self-identity of what would otherwise just be an individual who happens to be a female.

I do not know the answer to this, but I find it perplexing and fascinating at the same time: Does this mean that if an individual is an female, she sees herself or rather feels herself to be female first, and individual second? Really? This cannot possibly be the case for everyone. But either way, the book leaves the reader who happens to be male with the impression that women (in terms of sex, gender, or whatever) are in some sense wedded to the idea of being “a woman” more than being a person or “an individual” who, again, just happens to be female. This also makes me wonder how many people purchased this book in order to make themselves feel better because they happen to be women who liked the title? 

If I ever have a child who turns out to be born female—if I teach her nothing else it will be simply to not take one’s gender too seriously and always see herself as a free individual, with her own agency and own path to blaze forward, and to live life without any pathology that asserts tribe over person.

Solutions, Thank You!

Because the book is written more in a journalistic than academic style, much of the overly wordy brooding misunderstood as “Theory” with a capital T is avoided. (Note: Bruce Bawer is insightful on this last point.) That is not to say that the book does not offer up a critique, but rather it does more than this.

Toward the very end Traister provides a list of solutions. I am thankful for this and I wish more writers would do this because it is not an easy thing to do. Never forget that to “problematize” and “critique” some newly spotted sociopolitical inequity is not the same thing as offering a solution.

She provided thirteen specific (and bullet-pointed!) policies and attitudes “that must be readjusted and readjudicated as the swelling numbers of unmarried American women move forward into the world.” I cannot reproduce them all here but only say that some are easier to accept than others.

Many of the solutions seem to call for government having a larger role in everyone’s lives. To read “readjust” and “readjudicate” as anything other then an invitation for the state to meddle even further into the lives of individuals is difficult to do.

But because this section is only three or four pages of the book, I would prefer to wait until a fuller argument from her that really fleshes out how one goes about putting all these solutions into operation. Perhaps this will be Taister’s next book?

Wonderful Read

Less critique and more next steps would make a natural followup publication to this book. I suspect that there would be much more for this reader to argue against if such a work were composed.

However, for this book, I found that All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation to be an informative and enjoyable read. And again, unlike my own silly, stilted style above, Rebecca Traister’s prose flows easily.

Like all works that have a feminist edge to them, I always learn something new, as well as occasionally cringe in disbelief as befitting any free individual who happens to be linga-endowed. There is so much about the experience of being an individual who happens to be a woman that I shall never understand. But texts like these help in no small way to provide perspective; they are always an exercise in “consciousness raising” and that is a good thing!

So whether raised, or lowered, or knocked about a bit by new ideas, my free conscious self can very easily recommend this book to others.

In an effort to further strengthen any moderate political position, read this book!

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*Reviewed by T. F. Rhoden. Any image-photo credit for the top of this post via Fieldnotes From Catie. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Migrant Labor Activists Plan for the 2020 Election in Myanmar

Over two million Burmese migrants in Thailand were left out of Myanmar’s 2015 election. Will it happen again in 2020 ?

The Union Election Commission of Myanmar reported turnout at 69 percent for the historic 2015 elections within the country. Outside of the country, the story was very different. Fewer than 20,000 external voters engaged their political right at the ballot box abroad. This amounted to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the over four million people who compose the Burmese diaspora.

“We labor migrants and refugees were simply considered not important enough by the previous Burmese government to be involved in the elections last year,” says a Bangkok-based migrant and labor rights activist from Myanmar, who wishes to stay anonymous due to her illegal status in Thailand.

Burmese migrant activists have begun meeting to plan for the next election four years away. They want a much higher rate of turnout for absentee voters for the next election.

A recent example of this foresight was an open letter from a network of migrant associations operating in Bangkok to Aung San Suu Kyi, state counselor of Myanmar. The open letter was meant to coincide with her official June 2016 visit to Thailand. Though the majority of recommendations were about more immediate concerns of migrant labor rights for Burmese citizens who make the trek to Thailand for work, the letter also included important recommendations for an extension of absentee suffrage. Migrant associations specifically requested guarantees for inclusion in future national elections.

Suu Kyi did not publicly address the absentee suffrage challenge during her visit like she did other migrant labor problems. Yet the fact that politically active Burmese in Thailand included this in their letter already demonstrates their concern with “not losing this opportunity again” for potential external votes to be counted in the next general election.

Lowering Costs for Migrants

In terms of Myanmar’s… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in The Diplomat by T. F. Rhoden; image-photo credit for this post via Channel NewsAsia. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Who Would Voters with No Votes Vote For?

An exercise in extending absentee suffrage for Myanmar’s citizens abroad.

The 2015 election in Myanmar marked a major milestone in the country’s political transition and return to democracy. But some people were left out of the historic vote.

The reasons to not allow an individual to vote are as much a part of the history of all our great liberal democracies as they are a continual reminder to remain vigilant for those of us who may have lost that right somehow. In the past, some of us did not own property, were not the right kind of ‘white’ (Northern European), were not men, a tad too tanned or rather much too noir, or simply too young to vote — yet not too young to make the ultimate sacrifice in “foreign war.”

If the above reflects too much of the Western experience, then one could also include reasons like class, religion or lack of, language or dialect, caste, cult, ideology, marriage status, education level, sexual preference, and on and on.

Think of some ridiculous social cleavage, some cultural hang-up of yesteryear, and the astute comparative political scientist will ultimately be able to pluck another tawdry example from an even more exotic, backward republic. Give the polity an election and it will collectively vomit out some new excuse for democratic exclusion come election day.

But how does one analyse the individual who once had a political right and has now lost it? How about the individual who lost the right to vote for no reason other than not being at the right place at the right time on election day? A loss on grounds of a technicality—of logistics?

In Myanmar’s 2015 election, they had a constitutional mechanism ready to thwart such a possibility. In the 2010 House of Representatives Election Law, a provision exists in Chapter IX, section 45 to 47, which allows for an “advance ballot.” This is meant to assist those citizens who are bedridden, who may be out of the township on business, or who may be even so far away as to be beyond the territorial sovereignty of the state. Though what is legislated through Parliament and what is effected via on-the-ground operations, alas, proved to be very different.

Of those who were registered… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in New Mandala by T. F. Rhoden; image-photo credit for this post via ITV. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Myanmar opens Yangon Stock Exchange

Yangon’s Stock Exchange in Comparative Analysis

Abstract

In the political sphere, the citizens of Myanmar have witnessed and taken part in an expanding and deepening process of democratization and political liberalization in the past few years. In the economic sphere, changes are also underway that indicate a growth of economic liberalism. One part of that process is a slowly increasing financialization as indicated by the new Yangon Stock Exchange (YSX) set to begin trading operations in late 2015.

This paper will analyze what this new stock exchange means for the citizens of Myanmar by placing it within a regional comparative analysis of stock markets across Southeast Asia, including the Ho Chi Minh City Stock Exchange (HoSE), the Hanoi Stock Exchange (HNX), the Lao Securities Exchange (LSX), and the Cambodia Securities Exchange (CSX). The main argument is that despite calculable risks in terms of business transparency and national politics, the potentialities for a successful YSX are in place. The main socioeconomic conditions that warrant investment, both from the domestic as well as international perspective are 1) the depth and diversity of Myanmar’s adult population size, 2) Myanmar’s rallying industrial sector, 3) Burmese businesses’ current lack of bank financing, and 4) Burmese citizens’ little-to-no holdings in financial assets as compared to other non-financial wealth holdings.

The YSX will not be an overnight success for either domestic Burmese investors or for domestic Burmese enterprises seeking new avenues to finance growth and project investment. However, the systemic socioeconomic conditions are in place for the Yangon Stock Exchange to parallel more closely the experience of the Vietnamese HoSE and HNX than that of the other Indochinese exchanges of LSX and CSX.

Keywords: Yangon Stock Exchange, YSX, Myanmar, political economy, finance, wealth

Introduction

For the first time in its nation’s history, Myanmar will soon possess a full-fledged, independent, and computerized national bourse: the Yangon Stock Exchange (YSX). Though a late start has already been announced, a visit to the neoclassical Palladian building on the southeast corner of Sule Pagoda Road and Merchant Street in Yangon, where the old Reserve Bank of India used to issue banknotes during the 1940s, allows one to see the hustle and bustle of construction and renovation—all evidence that a stock market is indeed going up. Entering from the front stairs and into the center of the building, one sees a large square pit in the center of which will be placed a massive LED screen to display trading activities. To the left, a glass-paneled conference room for future investors is being built, whilst to the right, small rooms to be rented for representatives of underwriters, brokers, and advisors are being partitioned. The press corps will also have their own spot in the balcony. And to the very far right, one sees the shell of a future coff ee shop meant as something of a historical tribute and “for good luck since the world’s oldest stock exchange was in a coffee shop.”

But then again, this is just a building. Though it is a good sign that there is active construction, there is nothing here that suggests at first glance that the Yangon Stock Exchange will be a success. Two other grand-looking buildings in Southeast Asia also house exchanges—these are the Lao Securities Exchange (LSX) off Kampheng Meuang Road in Vientiane, Laos; and the Cambodia Securities Exchange (CSX) along Preah Mohaksat Treiyani Kossamak in downtown Phnom Penh, Cambodia. However, neither of these bourses are, by any standard definition, successful stock exchanges. What might indicate that the upcoming YSX will be different?

To varying degrees, other more successful stock exchanges can be cited in Southeast Asia. Examples include, from newest to oldest: the Hanoi Stock Exchange (HNX); the Ho Chi Minh Stock Exchange (HoSE); the Indonesian Stock Exchange (IDX); the Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET); the Singapore Exchange (SGX); Bursa Malaysia (MYX); and the Philippine Stock Exchange (PSE). The two exchanges in Vietnam, unlike the neighboring LSX and CSX, are the best example of stock exchanges begun in the twenty-first century that are performing at, and in some ways exceeding, what a successful stock market exchange means for a developing country in Southeast Asia. The HNX and HoSE have become invaluable to both companies and investors of the capital market in Vietnam. What might indicate that the exchange in Yangon will follow the example in Vietnam as opposed to the one in Cambodia or Laos?

This article contends that despite the many challenges facing the introduction of a new stock exchange in Myanmar, the Yangon Stock Exchange will likely have more in common with… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in Journal of Burma Studies by T. F. Rhoden; image-photo credit for this post via Frontier Myanmar. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Myanmar’s Stock Exchange: Open For Business And Soon To Foreign Investors

…Still, Myanmar had no market infrastructure to speak with, so Daiwa brought in the Japan Exchange Group as a partner, while the Japanese Ministry of Finance helped the Myanmar government draft up a new law to set up the creation of the bourse. According to Masutomo, JPX’s interest in Myanmar was due partly to the fact the Korean Stock Exchange, which had helped set up the Lao and Cambodian exchanges, was so ahead of them in the region.

Today, however, the Lao and Cambodian bourses are seen as a cautionary tale of what the Burmese exchange could become. Skeptics argue that YSX will likely mimic the fate of its neighbors, which both failed to take off after debuting to much acclaim. Each now holds less than 5 stocks.

For T. F. Rhoden, an independent researcher and doctoral candidate at Northern Illinois University, the comparison is misguided, as Myanmar’s population of 54 million people gives it a potential depth of domestic investors that’s much more comparable to Vietnam than Laos or Cambodia. In addition, Myanmar’s $64 billion economy is over three times the size of its smaller neighbors.

The more important lesson from the Lao and Cambodian exchanges is that their failure to enforce strong disclosure procedures and regulation destroyed their credibility. For emerging markets — whether in Asia or elsewhere — the need for international standards of accounting and disclosure is more than ever crucial.

The Yangon Stock Exchange has tried to push for higher standards by asking applicants to appoint compliance officers and set up systems to prevent insider trading, but without stringent regulation of the capital market, it likely won’t be enough.

“The two companies that have listed so far are… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in Forbes by Fanny Potkin; photo image credit via WTOP. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence.

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L’histoire des Migrations Birmanes en Thaïlande Contredit l’Analyse Actuelle

Le discours prépondérant sur la migration des quelque trois millions de personnes originaires du Myanmar vivant actuellement en Thaïlande est essentiellement binaire. On considère généralement qu’ils sont soit des manœuvres, soit des réfugiés. En termes de causalité, la première catégorie serait incitée à se déplacer « de son plein gré » pour des raisons économiques tandis que la seconde serait « contrainte » pour des motifs politiques.

Une vision simpliste

Cela peut sembler être une rapide simplification des recherches des autres mais plus on se penche attentivement sur les écrits, plus cette vision binaire réfugié vs manœuvre constitue le cadre théorique dans au moins trois disciplines : les politiques migratoires contemporaines, la législation internationale sur les réfugiés et travail, ainsi que les études des organisations non gouvernementale. Je crains que cela ne soit plus une figure rhétorique qu’un élément étayé par des preuves en provenance du terrain.

L’année dernière, Adam Saltsman a expliqué dans The Diplomat que trop de différenciation entre les réfugiés et les manœuvres pourrait en fait nuire à ceux auxquels les analystes et chercheurs souhaitent venir en aide, alors que tant de ceux qui furent autrefois des « réfugiés » sont déjà entrés dans le réservoir de main-d’œuvre en Thaïlande. Il fait valoir que « le plaidoyer pour les réfugiés doit être relié à la défense des intérêts des migrants et du droit du travail » afin d’aboutir à des « solutions durables »… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in Alter Asia by T. F. Rhoden; translated by Édith Disdet; all other written and photo credits appear on Alter Asia. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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