10 December 2011

Vienna's 4th Human Rights Film Festival - This Human World

In the age of giant multiplexes, it is always a pleasure to discover independent film houses where young ushers actually wish you a "wonderful projection"! Although a great fan of independent film, it is a love that sort of developed abroad and as such, it was the first time that I actually set foot in any of Vienna's indie (and actually oldest) cinemas like Topkino, Stadtkino and my personal favourite so far, the Filmhauskino which is ideally located at one of the most beautiful and intimate Christmas markets each year.

Comrade Duch [pronouced Doyk]
… is a portrait about the high-level Khmer Rouge commander who was the head of the internal security branch and in charge of torture and execution at the infamous Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison, basically the Khmer Rouge version of a concentration camp. Today, there are literally not more than 10 living survivors from that prison which is now a museum that eerily reminds me of Mauthausen.

The documentary is sort of told from the perspective of author Nic Dunlop (the author of The Lost Executioner: A Story of the Khmer Rouge) who drove from village to village in rural Cambodia to track down Duch who had been living in hiding under a different name after the regime fell. It is terrible and revolting to learn that he used to work for the ARC, the American Refugee Committee without them knowing who he really was.

The movie also shows clips from the televised UN-backed tribunal to prosecute war crimes from the genocide and also interviews with Duch's French co-defense lawyer (whom he sacked on the last day of the trial). Tearful witness accounts of Cambodian survivors who relived the worst moments in their lives, of expat witnesses whose friends were tortured for being considered 'foreign spies', and of Duch himself whose remorse is doubtful. And of course, the uproar by many people in Cambodia at the verdict which would set the now 69-year old Duch free after a reduced sentence of 19 years.
The film was a bit unevenly paced and the cutting seemed a bit disorganised to me. Since I couldn't find a trailer either, I assume this is not the final version of the movie but apart from that a quite interesting documentary.

Im Jahr des Hasen
… is a touching portrait of a bright, kind and reflective young man whose fragmented identity drifts between Cambodia (where his biological parents are from and which he visits for the first time in the course of the movie), Paris (where he grew up after he was adopted by a French couple out of a refugee camp in Thailand; he is now estranged from his adoptive mother), Finland (where he lived for a while), Oslo (where he spent several years with his girlfriend; he hates Oslo), and Vienna (where he meets his biological parents again for the first time in his twenties; they have been living here since the mid-1970s).

I definitely recommend the movie and also voted for it to get the audience prize (a cash reward of 2000€ for the winner). In the movie, there is a scene where Arnaud (the young man) watches Titanic, is caught crying on camera and is asked why. Elaborating from his actual answer, he reiterates the whole underlying question of the film about him, namely: can one be so touched by and connected to something that isn't part of one's own life?

And indeed, I thought to myself how bizarre it is that as I watch Arnaud (basically a stranger) and learn about his life, I realise I actually want to meet him in person because something about him echoes in myself, his (worse) uprootedness somehow resonating in my own deterritorialised, transnational, bicultural identity, in my own discontent in the place I am now and my own family issues.

I am not the only one. An Asian-looking woman in the audience in her early 30s perhaps with an Austrian accent who later revealed she was from Steyr (in rural Upper Austria) where she was the only foreign-looking kid in her class, agreed that she felt the movie was very accurate in displaying the identity issues and that she could relate to it very well herself.

Even more surprising was for me that the director was actually an Austrian woman who had the idea for the movie when she was on a plane back from Angkor to Vienna and befriended two Cambodians in the plane who live in Vienna and who are now her 'two best Cambodian friends'. In the cozy and insightful Q&A, she said that she initially wanted to shoot a movie about the Cambodian community in Austria, then only two people and finally it was just Arnaud. It nearly didn't happen as her sponsors preferred her to make a movie about the African or Eastern European community instead. Needless to say, I am glad she got the funding anyway and that Southeast Asians finally get represented in Austrian media – part of the reason why I tried to see many movies about Southeast Asia was to demonstrate that there is demand in the audience to see those movies and acknowledge them through royalties as much as I can (apparently, 'underpaid intern' is not a category that merits discounts for cinema tickets).

Amnesty! When they are all free

As a former volunteer for AI, it was of course very interesting for me to watch the movie. Since I had bought and read SOAS lecturer Stephen Hopgood's book about Amnesty as soon as it got out, I was a bit doubtful as to whether the film would actually tell me anything new. I didn't quite like the visual style of the movie and the narration (it seemed rather 1990s and even doomsday-like to me, like a documentary about WWII) but the historical video footage was intriguing nonetheless: Early video recordings of Amnesty's HQ back when it was still a tiny office in Covent Garden where everyone ran and assembled around the Telex (the height of technology back then) as soon as it started typing and making noise, and important markers in history where Amnesty was present: Haiti, Cairo, Pinochet.... It also showed exclusive witness accounts of the early members and volunteers that contributed to what would become the biggest human rights movement world-wide and Stephen Hopgood himself.

Great was of course that the film was followed by a discussion with the Head of Amnesty's Austria 'Section' (as the country offices around the world are referred to internally) and Manfred Nowak, Head of the University of Vienna-based Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Human Rights and former UN Special Rapporteur for Torture.

Manfred Nowak revealed that he co-founded or joined an Amnesty group in New York where he was studying at Columbia at the time. Back then, it was the Cold War and Amnesty was kind of seen or branded in the US as a Communist organisation. Therefore, most meetings and activities took place in sort of Marxist underground restaurants.

A second interesting fact I learned was that he used to call up the International Secretariat (IS) a lot when he was preparing a fact-finding mission in times when he was still Rapporteur and he was always amazed how they always compiled a very accurate list, sometimes within two hours (!) and not just any material they had but a list specifically tailored to him: Prisons or other places which he should be looking at, names of people who were missing/potentially disappeared/held incommunicado. Given that I happened to defend Amnesty's standards of research earlier this week, it was immensely gratifying to have someone like him acknowledge and praise that.

Some of the other interesting comments and questions from the audience revolved around the dangers of raising awareness (a young Iranian girl who grew up in Austria and was doing Facebook and leaflet campaigning and got into quite a bit of trouble when she visited family in Iran last time; some of her family in Iran who had been active of their own accords had been detained for days, weeks even), an elderly yet lively guy who wanted to know more about Amnesty's ways of navigating neutrality when say, commenting on Israel and Palestine. He referred to criticism against Israel often being dismissed as 'anti-Semitist', a woman in her thirties who asked about global population growth, poverty, climate change and the universal applicability of human rights. Strangely, she also conceived Amnesty as a US-American (!) organisation for some reason ("Freedom und so... das scheint mir ein amerikanisches Konzept" were here words, I believe). Finally, there was a guy who works in child protection for the UN and basically came to harass Nowak about omitting something in a report on drugs the latter wrote.

Halaw (Ways of the Sea)

Cinemalaya 2010 Winner for Best Director, Best Actor, Best Film and Best Editing and winner of several other awards, including Special Mention at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2011.

It is not everyday that a native movie about the Philippines is screened in Vienna (or any non-Asian film festival for that matter) or that my mother displays interest for movies off the popular Filino mainstream script of boy meets girl or the other popular genre featuring notions of reconciliation and forgiveness between the wayward sheep in the family and its elders.

Several characters are literally in the same boat when they pay smugglers to take them from the Southern (predominantly Muslim) Philippines to Malaysia bearing hopes for a better life abroad. A brother and his child sister who hope to reunite with their mother; an old woman; a female 'commuter' in high heels, suggestive clothes, gold jewellry and Louis Vuitton bag and a young woman who gets raped by one of the smugglers in the middle of nowhere on one of the islets along the way, to the fury of the other "What where you thinking?? You have now reduced her value!". You also see some of the common persuasion tactics to trick young girls into taking the trip which often ends in forced prostitution: Images of prosperity ("There are so many jobs in Malaysia! You're gonna get a job INSTANTLY once you arrive and can send money to your family in the Philippines!"), promising a more exciting life ("Here, you're gonna get married, have children, live in your family's house. You will grow maize and sweet potatoes and will sell that at the market every day for the rest of your life. Do you really want that?"), talking them into guilt ("Oh my, you changed your mind? The guy who was so generous and helped you pay for your trip will be angry. You're putting me in a tough spot. What am I supposed to tell him?"). The dynamics among the smugglers are also explored to some extent.

The joy of introducing my mother to another visual angle to explore her country and (sort of) my own, was a bit dampened by the fact that the screening took place at the Schikaneder which revealed itself as a dingy student bar with equally decadent clientele, the kind of which I hadn't seen in a long time. I was slightly amused yet also concerned to scare my mother off future indie film screenings by this unlucky first experience. My mother took it all with grace at first and remarked that this place looked like the kind of shady bar in the Philippines where people met for sex and that the toilet like where people exchange drugs. Once we entered the cinema, she commented loudly that the cinema smelled awful and the carpet looked all dirty. If they ever cleaned the place at all?! While I silently wished for her to relax and take it with humour instead of making a scene, she started itching all over and said that there probably were bugs and cockroaches everywhere and not even the worst Filipino cinema were that infested. She couldn't sit still and for the first 30 minutes just shook herself or shuffled with her feet. Although the place didn't look exactly like satisfying health and safety standards to me either, I thought she was overdoing it until I indeed spotted a fruit fly on her collar (I didn't tell her though). She again associated the filth with "you know, the kind of cinema where people have sex!" As if on cue, a girl in front of us jumped onto her boyfriend's lap as soon as the lights went back on after the screening and started making out with him as if it was the most natural thing in the world to have foreplay in public in front of people who could be your parents. I can only imagine what went through my mother's mind.

Aung Sang Suu Kyi – Lady of No Fear

Finally, the above is a really really promising trailer for a documentary about Burma's recently (re-)released leader. It features interviews with her, her friends from Oxford, footage from her husband and I hope, interviews with people who used to know her from her SOAS days (I've heard she used to have the reputation of being an 'ice queen'). Sadly, I was ill but I hope to get my hands on a DVD. By the way, there is a very active Facebook group for the movie.

16 November 2011

UNHCR Director of International Protection Volker Türk in Vienna

Volker Türk

One of the great things of being an intern is that you are always in the loop about exciting events. In this case, I was over the moon when I read that Volker Türk, incumbent Director of International Protection for UNHCR who used to represent UNHCR in Malaysia before he moved to Geneva, was stopping by in his native Austria to deliver a talk at the local UN Association reflecting on the 60 years of the Geneva Convention. True, the topic is fairly vague and a 'safe' structured stub for kicking off the Q&A after. After all, there is the whole North Africa situation to talk about, the Australia-Malaysia deal* or at least the context of the Geneva Convention in Austrian and/or European law. I was therefore a bit disappointed, if not surprised as anyone who has read a lot on UNHCR's balancing act in global politics can confirm it is in line with UNHCR's typical diplomatic communication policy towards the public (he got a bit criticism from some people in the audience for that). 

Nevertheless, the debate on whether the '51 Convention is still up to date (it was drafted with the Holocaust and Communist defectors in mind) and appropriate for contemporary issues (climate change, internal displacement, statelessness, persecution because of sexual orientation or gender identity) is one that probably should be kept alive even if some scholars argue that revisiting the 1951 Convention would more likely be used as an opportunity to create a stricter migration regime rather than an impetus to adapt the Convention for the 21st century.

The Q&A therefore was quite a lively exchange with some candid questions (the answers to which I must withhold due to the Chatham House Rules) from an audience that clearly encompassed practitioners who work in the field of asylum counselling and campaigning, students, staff from various multilateral organisations and the Austrian Press Agency (APA).

The audience at the UNA in Vienna

For weeks I had marked the date in my diary. I was even more excited to learn that Volker Türk (who by the way is from the state of Upper Austria) was not only going to talk about 'refugees' in the 'conventional' sense but would also be joining a panel on internal displacement at the Diplomatic Academy with no-one less than Walter Kälin himself!!! I must be a real geek if neither of the two names mean anything to you! 

From left to right: Kälin, Tichy-Fisslberger, Türk, Fanizadeh (Vienna Institute of International Dialogue and Cooperation, moderator) and Beyerlin

Since one of my interests in migration is the protection gap in internal displacement, meeting Walter Kälin is like meeting the Stephen Hawking of internal displacement discourse: He is a renowned Swiss legal scholar with a Doctor of Law from the University of Bern and a LL.M from Harvard Law School who has published extensively on human rights and any law regarding displacement. From 2004 to 2010, he has served as Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons. In the 'who's who' of internal displacement, he's right up there with Francis Deng (his predecessor) and Roberta Cohen (Deng's No. 2) as well as Catherine Phuong (from the University of Newcastle) and Thomas G. Weiss (from the City University of New York). He also used to consult for the UN in relation to human rights mechanisms in Indonesia in 2000 and in East Timor 2001-2002 AND, most importantly, as its chair he was an integral part of the group of legal experts who drafted the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in Vienna, at the invitation of the Austrian government, in 1998. 
Walter Kälin
The talk on Internal Displacement: Nearly 30m IDPS need protection event was co-hosted by UNHCR Austria, the Austrian Ministry of European and International Affairs and the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. According to their official figures, UNHCR estimates that there are 27.5m people internally displaced of which they say they protect some 15m. Around 16% of their annual budget is dedicated to assisting internally displaced people. 

Click on the image to enlarge

Kälin elaborated on possible legal protection mechanisms for IDPs based on human rights and regional instruments but also believes that a special international convention for IDPs (who are not covered by the 1951 Geneva Convention) is politically difficult to bring into being. He explained that in addition to the challenges mentioned by the other panellists, it is often hard to actually reach the dispersed IDPs in hiding when they mistake the sound of the approaching four-wheel drives of the UN jeeps for hostile militant groups that sends them running into hiding wherefrom they need to be convinced that there is no danger.

Beyerlin, the third expert on the panel, is another legal scholar with special expertise in (public) international law and environmental law, based at the University of Heidelberg (Germany) who elaborated on 'climate refugees' and those displaced through natural disasters. According to his view, the lack of consensus in defining different kinds of internal displacement in discourse is an impediment to taking effective action for the protection of internally displaced people. 
The final member of the panel was Ambassador Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, head of the legal and consular department at the Ministry of European and International Affairs and national coordinator for the fight against human trafficking, who by now I have seen chair at nearly event there is on forced migration in Austria. Slowly but steadily, I am getting an overview of the people and organisations involved in the Austrian migration context!

*watch his interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on 25 July 2011 on the deal between the governments of Australia and Malaysia here.

13 November 2011

Christmas Wish List 2011

Since you all know that I am a great fan of indie movies and documentaries, I decided to theme this year's requested wish list around five DVDs you would really make me happy with!

Please vote for me (2007)

"Wuhan is a city about the size of London located in central China. It is here that director Weijun Chen has conducted an experiment in democracy. A Grade 3 class at Evergreen Primary School has their first encounter with democracy by holding an election to select a Class Monitor. Eight-year-olds compete against each other for the coveted position, abetted and egged on by teachers and doting parents. Elections in China take place only within the Communist Party, but recently millions of Chinese voted in their version of Pop Idol. The purpose of Weijun Chen's experiment is to determine how democracy would be received if it came to China."
- From the official website.

The movie won numerous awards and it is amusing, yet slightly disconcerting that voter manipulation is alive and well among these eight-year-olds!

Strangers No More (2010)
Academy Award Winner for Best Documentary Short! I already blogged about the moving movie in my post on "Winning Documentaries"!

Sergio Vieira De Mello - En Route to Baghdad (2004)
Award-winning documentary about the charismatic UN diplomat.

Well-Founded Fear (2007)
Documentary about the asylum procedure in the US that was in the Sundance Official Selection and is also shown to Immigration Officers in training.

Shake Hands with the Devil (2007)
Acclaimed feature film about the failure of the UN or Western powers to act in Rwanda with Roy Dupuis (the Canadian actor from the TV-series Nikita) in the leading role as General Roméo Dallaire. Not to be confused with the 2004 documentary by the same name.

You'll probably be delighted to hear that nearly all are already available on Amazon. "Strangers no more" has not been released on DVD yet but will be screened on HBO for the first time in TV on 5 December 2011!

The guidelines are the same as last year: To let others know that you are already onto one item, post an anonymous comment or if you want to opt for surprise, post nothing at all!

18 October 2011

EU Anti-Trafficking Day - Annual Conference at the Diplomatic Academy Vienna

I just returned from an amazing event at the Diplomatic Academy on the occasion of human trafficking day. A truly intriguing crop of distinguished speakers came together on a ten hour talkathon to discuss some of the (Austrian) dimensions of human trafficking, present their own activities in the field and raise awareness of some of recent policy developments.

The whole day was kicked off by four Ministers as joint keynote speakers, including the ones for the Interior and the Foreign Ministry.

The event was then divided into three discussion panels:

The fight against human trafficking in Austria – successes, goals and challenges
Some of the findings of GRETA (Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings), a peer review mechanism of the European Council, about Austria were presented. Although the report is said to generally give good feedback on Austria, one of the things it recommends is that human trafficking should carry sentences of more than three years (if I'm correct, cases involving minors are punished with up to ten years imprisonment).

The Landesgericht Wien (Regional Court of Vienna) now has a Sonderstelle für Menschenhandel (special office for trafficking in human beings). I tried to find more info about what it does on the internet but without success so far. On 1 June, survivors of trafficking have been given access to the Austrian labour market.

It was quite interesting to hear a case about three Filipino domestic workers who were travelling along with their Middle Eastern employers to a popular holiday resort in Austria (the speaker didn't say which one but I assume Zell am See as it has quite a lot of tourists from the Middle East) and used the opportunity to run away from their slave-like working conditions.

Ms Wagner from the UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (based in Vienna) talked about some of the Private Sector Partnerships UN.GIFT engages in. They developed special E-Learning tools for the private sector to raise awareness about trafficking in supply chains. ECPAT Austria (End Child Prostitution and Trafficking, based in Bangkok) already launched one specifically for the tourism industry.

As for awareness campaigns in the supply chain industry, it is notable that Schwarzenegger passed a new law about a year ago (the Supply Chains Act 2010) for all companies operating in the state of California (this includes foreign companies who only have branches in California but are registered elsewhere) that not only allows courts to seize any property used to facilitate human trafficking but also requires major retailers and manufacturers doing business in California to disclose on their websites any steps they take to ensure their product supply chains are free of slavery and trafficking.

Another issue in private sector partnerships are CSR campaigns to raise awareness among consumers. There generally were a lot of positive responses from businesses but some are less interested (i.e. they require statistics to 'sell' human trafficking as a campaign to their bosses and executive boards, which due to the invisible and covert nature of human trafficking are obviously hard to come by). In a positive example from Qatar Airways (an airline also popular with Filipino overseas workers), leaflets are distributed to passengers training of flight attendants to identify victims of trafficking. American Airlines had already been running a successful CSR project like this.

She concluded that according to her opinion, the topic was visible enough yet there was not enough public awareness.

Among the topics discussed by the judges in the panel were compensation for victims of trafficking, in particular for their emotional distress, held back wages (in cases of labour trafficking) and corporate loss (ie property). Some of the questions were also regarding evidence, i.e. what legally constitutes 'rape' and 'sexual contacts'. They were happy to report training of defense counsels who did things like use arguments like 'victims of trafficking cannot be victims because they returned to work with their employers'.

There have also been cases where domestic helpers of diplomats were involved. Obviously it is hard to prosecute the employers because of their diplomatic immunity but apparently, there now is a requirement in place that domestic helpers have to be paid by bank transfer.

Other issues discussed were difficulties in prosecuting these cases because of the waiting time until a case is investigated sufficiently and comes to court or because of the 30 day window period survivors of trafficking have before making a statement in order to recuperate a bit from the traumatic experience. However, in practice this window period often works against the victims because sadly but realistically, victims tend to appear more 'credible' in court in the state they are found in and because rom a forensic point of view, the faster a witness gives testimony, the more details they remember.

Human Trafficking as a Human Rights Violation – Protection and Support for Victims
Goodey from the EU's fundamental rights agency (FRA). continued on the topic of the protection of irregular migrants. She also suggested that people who have been trafficked for reasons of labour in slave-like conditions (as opposed to say, the more widely discussed issue of trafficking for sexual exploitation) had access to health care and trade unions should be ensured and that in turn, trade unions increase their efforts to expand their outreach work for this group. FRA and Frontex have been working together on providing training for border guards.

There was a judge from Graz (the capital of the state of Styria) who reported from her experiences in respect to trafficking within her jurisdiction. She reported around 250 cases a year of which only 18-30 (!) lead to convictions. Some of the reasons are that some women decided not to testify on human trafficking but on other other charges, i.e. bodily harm.

The Executive Director from ECPAT Austria discussed the Youth Partnership Project that has been designed for minor survivors of sexual exploitation and trafficking. She also reported a good practice from ECPAT UK which integrated survivors into their work: they provide training, work as peer educators and even deliver speeches in parliament.

"Not My Life – Slavery in our Time"
We had the chance to get a sneak preview of the documentary "Not My Life – Slavery in our Time" by Robert Bilheimer, supported by UN.GIFT and narrated by Glenn Close. The movie has been shot over the past four years on four continents and follows children sold to fisheries at Ghana's Lake Volta and minor girls who are or have experienced sexually exploitative conditions in Cambodia, India and the US. It features expert interviews with FBI Special Agents, with some of the survivors, with NGO workers and also some high level politicians involved in one way or another in raising awareness on the issue of human trafficking.

Official website of the movie: http://notmylife.org/

The panel was cut short because it was already very late and most people left for home at the end of the screening but just so consumers of sexual exploitation are mentioned too: They are convicted along with the traffickers in Sweden and Norway. On the other hand, there are men to men campaigns like in one Canadian example. They are peer projects from men who use the services of sex workers to raise awareness about sex trafficking among other men who do.

The full programme of the event with the full list of speakers can be found here:

13 October 2011

Moving to Mars

"Moving to Mars follows two refugee families from Burma over the course of a year that will change their lives completely. Forced from their homeland by the repressive military junta, they have lived in a Thai refugee camp for many years. A resettlement scheme offers them the chance of a new life, but their new home, in the British city of Sheffield, will be different to everything they have ever known.

With intimate access, this feature-length documentary from Mat Whitecross (The Road to Guantanamo) depicts the families' moving and sometimes humorous struggles with 21st century Britain. Their stories give us a unique insight into the experiences of displaced people throughout the UK, whilst showing the human consequences of Burma's political unrest."
- from the official website

Doing what I do, I get to learn about all these amazing events that I (am about to) blog about, such as the screening of "Moving to Mars" - a movie I have wanted to see for AGES! - by UNHCR and the UN Information Service (UNIS) at the Vienna International Centre. UNHCR even set up a refugee tent in the rotunda, the main entrance for most people working in the complex. Although the tent wrongly suggests that most refugees live in camp settings when most actually are so-called "self-settled refugees", it's fine with me as long as it gets people to stop for a moment and think about the experience of being displaced.

The documentary itself was very interesting. It contrasted very well two entirely different worlds. You get a culture shock just by watching how two families from rural Burma resettle to Sheffield. The head of one household holds a degree in Civil Engineering and has to go to back to university because his diploma was in his house when it was burned down. I cannot imagine having to redo my studies... In any case, the documentary is not too dark and has its light moments. You want to watch this movie!

10 October 2011

Asia in the Eyes of Europe - Public and Media Perceptions of Asia in Europe: Challenges and Opportunities for External Relations with Asia

I admit I assumed it would be a boring evening with under-funded Austria-based researchers regurgitating eurocentric conceptualisations of Asia. It also isn't promising to know that most Austrian research on Asia tends to focus around China or Japan - the usual suspects (as you might know, the University of Vienna, Austria's largest university, does not have a Southeast Asia department but three on East Asia). But lo behold! It turned out to be an exciting presentation of quite a vast aggregation of data from a huge multi-year project across several countries where thousands of people were surveyed!

The research was conducted on three levels:
  • Public opinion (through telephone surveys by native speakers and localised questionnaires for each national context of the respondents)
  • Media analysis (counting the times key words were mentioned in the daily media and then analysing in which context (ie particular European politicians) or a particular topic (politics, sports) or a particular organisation (ie EU bodies)
  • Expert interviews with established journalists
It was probably thanks to my being starved for stimulating debates on Asia, my curiosiity to explore the Austrian institutional landscape that I went anyway - and I am glad that I did. It is not everyday that you get to meet members of a global research consortium involving partners in some twenty countries taking on the gigantic tasks of interviewing thousands of people over a considerable period of time. Besides, if I'm back in the country where most regional research is intra-European, I might as well take any opportunity I can get to seek bridges to my beloved Asia and get to know the local who's who of Asia scholars.

You can find the Media Reports for each country here.

The panelists consisted of:
  • Mr. Otmar Höll - Director of oiip who delivered the welcome remarks
  • Ms. Anjeli Narandran - Assistant Director for Intellectual exchange at the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) who chaired the discussion
  • Ms. Melanie Pichler - Researcher for oiip (= the Austrian Institute for International Politics)
  • Mr. Sebastian Bersick - Research Coordinator, „Asia in the Eyes of Europe“ and Associate Fellow DGAP (German Council on Foreign Relations)
  • Ms. Natalia Chaban - Deputy Director NCRE (National Centre for the Research on Europe at the University of Canterbury, NZ)
  • Mr. Bernhard Zimburg - Representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (who spent quite some time stationed in Asia)
The fact that the event took place at the House of the European Union (basically, the EU 'embassy' in Vienna) made for an equally interesting mix of participants apart from East Asia professors from the University of Vienna: The representative from the Japanese embassy for example lamented the fact that local knowledge about Japan tends to revolve around stereotypes such as popular culture (ie mangas, martial arts) and calligraphy. Referring to the project's earlier sister project Europe in the eyes of Asia, the representative from the Philippine embassy on the other hand suggested that the European Union needed to "market itself better" in the Philippines, as people there usually associate Europe with particular countries rather than a democratic political entity.

The findings of Asia through the eyes of Europe are going to be published in June 2012.
You can find the 2nd edition of the sister study Europe through the eyes of Asia if you click on its cover below:

You can also find more information on the project here.

About ASEF:
Founded in 1997, a year after the inaugural Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) between 25 European and East Asian countries and the European Commission, the Asia-Europe Foundation promotes greater mutual understanding between Asia and Europe through intellectual, cultural and people-to-people exchanges. Through ASEF, civil society concerns are included as a vital component of deliberations of the ASEM. ASEF is the only established institution of ASEM and is funded by voluntary contributions from its partner governments and shares the financing of its projects with its civil society partners across Asia and Europe. Since its inception, ASEF has implemented over 500 projects, engaging over 15,000 direct participants as well as reaching out to a much wider audience in Asia and Europe. - From the ASEF website.

About oiip:
The Austrian Institute for International Affairs is an independent, non-profit think-tank. The oiip was the first institute in Austria to focus on globalization, European integration, comprehensive security, and the comparative study of international affairs. Established in 1978 by the then Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, the Institute has advised on public policy, conducted primary scientific research, supported the international academic exchange and played a key role in hosting international conferences and as a venue for second track-diplomacy. Members of the Institute publish widely, are consulted by the government, and regularly feature in the national media. The Institute maintains a number of publications, and works closely with other national and international research institutions.

09 October 2011

Heidiwitz - Five years on!

"The real act of discovery is not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes."
Marcel Proust

The time for this blog post that I have been looking forward to for weeks, even months has finally arrived! I had hoped that when the day came to write it, I would have a(nother) "major milestone" to report, like a "successful" transition from student to working girl. Alas, life is what happens when you had other plans and at this moment, I am writing from a state of professional limbo, doing yet another internship after finishing my degree.

No matter if I have good news or bad news, I am glad to have my blog and people who know me are aware of how much I thoroughly enjoy taking the time to draft my blog entries to keep everyone up to date and let them take part in my cultural and personal discoveries while abroad. Writing also happens to be a relaxing and cathartic hobby for me. Even after long stressful days at work in KL, I would sit down two or three hours in a cafe and write. I just wish that being (hopefully only temporarily) back in Austria and being immersed in a German-speaking environment again would not affect the spritzy and energetic style exhibited in previous entries as much as it does. I actually confided in friends that I felt as if I had lost my voice ever since I returned to Vienna, kind of like a blogger's block. This is one part of the reason for the drop in new posts in the past few months. The other part is that I experienced comparatively less exciting stuff over here.

Although I moved to London five years ago, I remember it as if it was yesterday. Apart from the occasional day trip from my English language summer camps some 15 years before that, London had been pretty much a mystery to me. And yet, I was super excited throughout the flight, sensing that this would be a new and important chapter in my life that would change me forever.

Little did I know that I would not spend two but almost five years in a metropolis I now call a home (I believe a person can have more than one and I hope to add another one eventually). Many urban dwellers will nod in agreement when I describe it as a complicated relationship nurtured by the promise of personal freedom that comes with diversity, and scarred by the common frustrations characteristic of urban life which can exacerbate any personal hardship you might experience. Nevertheless, every time I meet someone new and they ask me about my time in London, they can instantly tell by the light in my eyes that it has a very special place in my heart: London is colourful, vibrant, fast and has something to offer to anyone. No matter how obscure your hobby, you will find a group! No matter how eccentric your personality, you will belong! You become a Londoner quicker than you can swipe your Oyster card! The allure and the invigorating challenge of everyday life but also the way a big city shapes your identity are hard to convey to people who have not lived in a fast-paced city like London, New York or Paris before. Sadly, I haven't quite figured out yet how to share this part of me with new people I meet.

Although it's been months since I've been back, I think of London almost every day, particularly on murky days or when it is Sunday and I want to buy something from the (closed) store. Or if I catch myself waiting for an Amazon delivery on a Saturday. Or when I get out of the U-Bahn (lit. "underground train") at the very last stop, just missed the connecting bus home and have to wait 30 minutes (!) for the next one. Or when I open a stationery cupboard at work and find someone's Clipper Tea bought on their last business trip to the UK. Or when the U-Bahn crosses the Danube river and I remember how much I always loved strolling down London's Southbank and how stunningly beautiful the city looks from London Bridge in the sunset.

When I look back on the past five years spent both in London and Asia, I consider them the most exciting time of my life: I had an amazing university experience (if you exclude all the troubles I had at the end because of funding), made friends from around the world who all share nostalgic memories of SOAS, discovered a lot of interesting places in London, worked with some of the most inspiring people (refugees and non-refugees alike, fellow interns) and sadly also with the most dispiriting, learned how to problem-solve in the hectic daily life in the UK (i.e. the guaranteed breakdowns of EVERYTHING – ATMs, trains, toilets, lifts, printers, ticket machines, Oyster readers, fire curtains, fire alarms, houses, even the electricity supply of entire streets), walked the corridors of social activism, attended some of the most exciting events while in London (i.e. at SOAS, LSE, the Overseas Development Institute, the Houses of Parliament, the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford. I have also attended a Star Wars convention, the BFI London Film Festival and the hilarious Great Gorilla Run), learned two Southeast Asian languages (Malay and Indonesian) and picked up some of the idiosyncrasies of others, learned to sing in Swahili, Maori, Swedish and Romanian (SOAS World Music Choir), survived the olfactory onslaught of Durians my flatmate stored in our Kuala Lumpur home, flew to a fantastic AIDS congress in Bali, dived with fish bigger than my head (so-called bump-headed parrot fish) in Pulau Perhentian (Malaysia), swerved on motorcycles through Vietnamese (!) traffic...

At SOAS alone – and mind you, these are just a selection of events – I had the privilege to attend debates with Jeffrey Sachs (BBC recording here), former Secretary-General of Amnesty International Irene Khan, (AIDS) epidemiologist and journalist Elizabeth Pisani, former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, Philippine Senator Satur Ocampo, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development at the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs and prominent Malaysian economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram aka Jomo KS, Selangor State Assemblyman and Political Secretary to the Chief Minister of Selangor Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad (Malaysia), exiled Thai-British academic and political activist Giles Ji Ungpakorn (Guardian article here and video of SOAS talk here) and almost, Noam Chomsky (I didn't get into the event because the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy first limited registration for the event to CISD students and told me so when I emailed them anyway. A week or so later CISD secured a larger venue and opened it to non-CISD students, except I only saw the email when all of the highly desired places had been allocated within two hours. They did stream the event live on the web though). Via SOAS, I also got invited to a reception at the Houses of Parliament with former Executive Director of UNAIDS and former UN Under-Secretary General Peter Piot.

At the LSE, I attended public lectures by Thai Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama and by the former deputy PM of Malaysia and current opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

At the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford, I had the opportunity to experience UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres and prominent sociologist Saskia Sassen.

Apart from these more public figures, I got to listen to the experiences of countless individuals like British Red Cross Delegates in Sudan, MSF doctors and nurses who worked elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, an ex-MI5 agent, a UK diplomat in China during the Revolution who later became a BBC journalist and serves as Vice-Chair of the SOAS Governing Body, and a curator of the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore. I heard several globally established academics elaborate on my fields of interest. Last but definitely not least, I listened to the terrible witness accounts of Cambodian, Rwandan and Burmese survivors of violent conflict who spoke at genocide memorial day events lest anyone forget the atrocities human beings are capable of committing against each other.

Needless to say, moving to London and from there around the globe has dramatically changed the way I perceive the world and by proxy, myself. I have grown so much in the past years and am therefore convinced that moving abroad was the best decision I have ever made. It has expanded my knowledge about the societies, languages and politics of Southeast Asia and also other regions. By posting here, I hope to have increased other people's global awareness, too.

When I "flicked" through my previous posts in order to relive and reminisce in my adventures, I felt a little embarrassed when re-reading some of my very first posts, kind of what people feel like when revealing their teenager years. Although I itch to archive those posts, I do leave them in as those experiences are a part of me too and because one of the pleasures of reading or keeping a blog is to see how someone changes over time with what they experience.

I am proud to say that I have taken this blog from a simple blog with a default layout to another level by picking a custom template that reflects the identity of the blog (out of dozens if not hundreds of templates on the web I looked at!), adding social media features, creating a QR Tag, enabling a mobile template for smartphones and most recently, experimenting with a thematic mini-series (ICT in development).

I am sure many of you wonder which ones are the most popular posts to date according to the stats. So without further ado, the most popular posts out of 12600 total pageviews since May 2009 are *drum roll*:

  1. Lat Lover (210)

To all my friends and unknown visitors who have read and reviewed on my blog in the last five years a big and heartfelt THANK YOU for your continued interest, comments and constructive advice! I invite you to keep visiting and hope you'll feel inspired to start a blog today!

"The problem is that most people focus on their failures rather than their successes. But the truth is that most people have many more successes than failures."
Jack Canfield

30 September 2011

Medien.Messe.Migration - The fair on media & migration

Stall featuring the Medien-Servicestelle Neue Österreicher/innen (Media Service Point New Austrians, a portal for journalists) and some other media

As an avid blogger and great fan of media use in development settings, I was super excited about attending the media fair on migration in the Wiener Stadthalle (a venue comparable to the Earl's Court Exhibition Centre that also is THE venue for international performing artists). In its third year, the fair has attracted some combined 3500 visitors (according to their own counts). Having all major broadsheets as well as the British Council and the Austrian Chamber of Commerce as its main partners, the event provides a magnificent platform for representatives of "ethnic" newspapers and magazines.

Particularly fascinating is to learn how media is used to communicate, discuss and negotiate identities, how migrants are represented and portrayed in mainstream media and how these images shape public discourse on migration and integration in Austria.

Bummedia who specialise in "ethnomarketing"

I attended two panels. The first presented the results of a media analysis by Florian Laszlo from Observer GmbH (an Austrian press monitoring company) which tracked the number of times the German terms for "migration" or "migrants" occurred in Austrian mainstream online and print media within a time frame of three months. This was then further broken down into more detailed statistics on the contexts in which these terms were mentioned and, if they referred to individuals as compared to say, articles on law reforms or about the level of integration of labour migrants, the names of those individuals were also recorded (usually public figures in national politics or from the Vienna city council which funds and develops extensive integration projects). The study was commissioned by the diversity management department of the Chamber of Commerce and you can read up on it here.

Pre-panel buzz (the guy with the laptop is Helga Fahrnberger, the woman Margit Wolfsberger)

The second presentation, entitled "Kritische Medienbeobachtung – damit MedienkonsumentInnen nicht verblöden" ("critical media monitoring – so that media consumers don't dumb down"), was even more interesting as the panel consisted of Helge Fahrnberger, professor at the University of Vienna's Department of Communication and founder of media watch blog kobuk.at (co-run with his students) and Margit Wolfsberger, from the Initiative Teilnehmende Medienbeobachtung (Participant Media Observation Initiative) who is an anthropologist from the Department for Social and Cultural Anthropology, also at Univie. Using examples of misrepresentations of facts in the press which were busted on his blog, he illustrated how media present and spin facts that portray migrants in a bad light. For example, something that happens quite a lot is the criminalisation of "foreigners" by revealing the ethnicity of the (alleged) perpetrators whenever a crime is reported in the news - which obviously suggests to the uneducated reader that foreigners are dangerous. Newspapers do things like these for several reasons: Naturally, they want to increase circulation by playing into the readership's prejudices and/or fears or they want to intentionally create controversy (i.e. stimulate readers to comment on online articles and involve online communities). Sometimes it is also laziness, ignorance or lack of knowledge of the editor. It can also be lack of time to research facts under pressure to meet a deadline. In any case, kobuk.at usually contacts the editor and if they get a response and the consent to do so, they publish that response on the blog (apologetic and defensive statements alike).

To demonstrate how shockingly deceiving newspaper articles can be, take the example of their post, "Wie die Kronen Zeitung das Volk verhetzt (Update IV)" ("How the Kronen Zeitung incites the people"): An article was published by said Austrian tabloid with the headline:

"Moslems fühlten sich gestört, weil sein Gesang wie der Ruf eines Muezzin klang: Geldstrafe für jodelnden Steirer"
("Muslims felt bothered because his song sounded like the call of a Muezzin: Fine for yodelling Styrian")

According to the article, a man from the state of Styria was allegedly sued by his Muslim (Styrian?) neighbour for yodelling in his own garden. As a brief call to the Muslim's lawyer revealed, the Austrian had been harassing his neighbour by yodelling repeatedly on Fridays and during prayers and in sometimes quite creative ways. And apparently, it was actually the police officer who eventually filed suit because he got fed up with the yodelling neighbour himself! You can read the article here.

The Initiative Teilnehmende Medienbeobachtung is a team of (media) anthropologists, mainly from the University of Vienna, which aims to challenge stereotypes and wrong facts purported in Austrian media by sending out op-eds and letters to editors.

Loads of networking at the stalls

Among the exhibitors of the fair were many larger foreign dailies like Hürriyet and Zaman but also large transcultural magazines like Kosmo and my personal favourite, Biber. I discovered Biber a year ago when my aunt and uncle were living in Vienna's diverse 10th district and was instantly taken by the intriguing articles written by editors from migrant communities about topics that would interest other people with multicultural backgrounds living in Vienna. Great stories were the success of skiing trips in schools that have high numbers of kids from migrant communities. I should explain that skiing trips are almost institutionalised in Austrian secondary education. Clothes and equipment hire are expensive though, as is accommodation which is why the school portrayed in the article decided to reduce the usual week-long trip to a one or two day trip. It's not like some of the kids hadn't skied before, after all there are also skiing resorts in Slovakia, the Ukraine, Bulgaria and Turkey). In any case, I told the guy from Biber enthusiastically that I had ALWAYS wanted to meet someone from Biber and also that – I wish it had been around when I was a teenager (I just really wanted to tell them how much it means to me to be able to have a magazine that talks about the kind of issues that I am familiar with from my mixed environment and that I feel really 'gets' me. And of course, I suggested they feature some Filipinos or Asians in general (the magazine mostly focuses on (South) Eastern European communities and the Turkish community) and he pointed out to me that as an 'insider', perhaps I would like to contribute on that topic and made me aware of the Biber Academy, a summer academy for young journalists that also tries to place you with a major newspaper or magazine at the end. A fantastic idea for capacity building in general and for fostering the development of a generation of media professionals from migrant communities! There are only a handful of places every year, so I suggest you guys sign up early for next year's! The link is here and here you can find their latest issues (or sign up for a FREE subscription!).


The whole event was organised by M-Media - Diversity Media Watch Austria, an organisation that has the following commendable aims:

  • Create training opportunities for migrants in Austria and abroad as well as their organisations
  • Editorial assistance for intercultural media and communication items from for and with migrants
  • Media consulting for migrant organisations
  • Increased cooperation with the Austrian media in order the quality of news about migrants and to facilitate and promote migrants' access to mass media
  • Involvement of migrants in Austrian mainstream media as well as promotion of migrants in mainstream media companies
  • Organising symposia, seminars, talks as well as...
  • … workshops for migrants and media professionals
There is a whole list of foreign and migrant media links sorted by ethnic community on their website too.

A great event open to anyone and best of all - it's free! Hope to see you all there next year and that this post will hold up to the scrutiny of any media watch organisations that visit to check who linked to their website!