January issue 2009
The World in 2008: Hope Amid the Carnage
By any standard, 2008 was a year marked by instability and violence. From Mumbai and Kabul to Europe and Africa, terrorism, riots and crises reared their ugly heads. But amidst all the devastation, there were uplifting signs. The Olympic spirit was evident in all its glory as the summer games went off without a hitch and the hosts dazzled the world. Then, in November, American voters ushered in a new era as they voted for Barack Obama in a stark repudiation of the Bush era. Hope and change were the buzzwords of the year. But with wars raging, divisions widening and economic calamity threatening to make everything worse, fear and hope were neck and neck by the end of the year.
India’s 9/11: Terror struck India’s financial capital, Mumbai, as 10 gunmen took over eight sites, including the landmark Taj Mahal hotel. Nearly 200 people were killed. The Indian government was quick to blame Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) for the attack. This Pakistani link was played up by the media in India, resulting in a rapid deterioration in bilateral relations. War talk flourished as rumours of troop movements along the Indo-Pak border spread and India invaded Pakistani airspace. Eventually, the UN placed sanctions on the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, believed to be a front for the LeT. There were also suggestions by the Indians and the international community that the ISI might have been involved. Despite demanding concrete proof that Pakistani elements were involved, the Pakistan government responded by banning the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, freezing its banks accounts and arresting its leaders.
The Audacity of Hope: Barack Obama made history when he became the first African-American to ascend to the US presidency after winning the November 4 election by a landslide. The key states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia sealed the deal for the Democrat over his Republican candidate, John McCain, in an election that saw the highest voter turnout since 1960. Obama’s rise to the most powerful post on the planet was groundbreaking in a multitude of ways as he inspired Americans with his eloquent speechmaking: he spurred young voters to the polls in record numbers, raised $1 million a day during his two-year campaign and took the Republican stronghold states of Iowa and Virginia.
Brother, Can you Spare a Dime? Investment bankers betting on and selling the idea that US real estate prices would go up forever have caused the worst economic crisis to hit the world since the Great Depression. As US financial markets started to slide amid the worsening subprime mortage crisis, mounting bad loans and failing financial institutions like Lehman Brothers, money markets in the largest economy in the world froze up. Almost every bank seemed at risk of bankruptcy, as trillions of dollars of mortgage-backed securities collapsed in value and became impossible to price. The contagion quickly spread elsewhere and bank failures in Europe followed. The resulting job losses and credit crunch combined with an already weak global economy to throw world stock markets into a freefall. World leaders scrambled to limit the economic chaos by racheting down central bank lending rates and promising unprecedented bailout packages. But by the year’s end, consumer and investor confidence had been shattered, as the future looked more uncertain than ever.
Youth Revolt: Several Greek cities erupted into chaos as riots raged following the police shooting of a teenage boy on December 7. Youths threw petrol bombs at police, burned dozens of cars and smashed shop windows. The nation’s worst civil disturbances in years quickly spread to Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki, and other towns in northern Greece. Police used over 4,600 tear gas canisters in the first week of the riots, depleting their stock, and then looked outside for help. While the murder of the teen may have sparked the unrest, many commentators have dubbed the Greek unrest as the the first “credit-crunch” riots. Unemployment in Greece for 15-24 year-olds is estimated to be between 22-30%, three to four times the national average.
Pirates of the Indian Ocean: Somali pirates attacked and hijacked the giant Saudi-owned oil tanker Sirius Star off the Kenyan coast on November 15. The supertanker was the largest ship ever to be captured by pirates. The ship is estimated to be worth approximately $150 million, the cargo is worth at least $100 million and the ship’s crew continues to be held hostage onboard as of December 20. It was part of a worsening trend. The International Maritime Bureau reported that at least 83 ships have been attacked near Somalia since January, of which 33 were hijacked. Of those, 12 vessels and more than 200 crew are still in the hands of pirates.
Exit Stage Left: After half a decade in power, Cuban president Fidel Castro stepped down on February 19. El Comandante made his announcement in a letter published in the Cuban Communist Party’s newspaper, Granma, stating he would not accept another term in office as president given his deteriorating physical condition. Five days later, the National Assembly elected Fidel’s not-so-young younger brother, Raul Castro, 77, president. The less flamboyant Raul was also a commander in the Cuban Revolution, but 50 years later, he could take Cuba in a different direction, perhaps following the Chinese model of a communist state mixed with free-market economics. In fact, he has already relaxed import and travel restrictions. Still, Fidel will not disappear from the scene entirely, as he has promised to continue fighting as a soldier of ideas: “I will be one more weapon in the arsenal that you can count on.”
Death in the Time of Cholera: Nearly 500 people died in just five months, as an outbreak of cholera spread across Zimbabwe. Controversial Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe blamed western sanctions, imposed after Mugabe was accused of massive electoral fraud in the country’s presidential election, for the epidemic. Zimbabwe’s economic woes continued to worsen throughout the year, with inflation peaking at 231,000,000% and unemployment reaching 90%. Many felt that the situation would improve after Mugabe agreed to a power-sharing deal with rival Morgan Tsuangirai in September. That, however, has done nothing to provide relief to Zimbabweans, who are leaving the country in droves, usually seeking refuge in neighbouring South Africa.
Swifter, Higher, Stronger: China showed the world how to host the Olympics in 2008. After the mesmerising opening ceremonies which were perhaps the biggest, most intricate and most artistic ever presented, the country meticulously welcomed millions of visitors and managed hundreds of events in gorgeous sports venues like the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube. Athletes soared too, as the games boasted 43 new world records and set 132 new Olympic records. Swimmer Michael Phelps became a household name after winning the most gold medals in one Olympics, while the flamboyant Usain Bolt dazzled the world with his seemingly effortless speed. Bolt crushed his competition in the both the 100m and 200m sprints to take the title of World’s Fastest Man, setting new world records in both races. China headed the gold-medal tally, bagging 51 gold medals, followed by the USA, Russia and Great Britain. However, all was not perfect. The fatal stabbing of an American during the first day of the competition at a Beijing landmark shocked visitors and cast a shadow on what was otherwise the best Olympic games in recent memory.
In the Line of Fire: In the deadliest terrorist attack since the fall of the Taliban, a suicide bombing at the gate of the Indian embassy in Kabul on July 7 killed 58 people and injured another 141. Afghan and US officials, as well as the Indian government, hinted at the involvement of Pakistan’s ISI in the attack, an allegation that was strongly denied by the Pakistani government. Amidst all the chaos, the blast reconfirmed that, in Afghanistan, everyone is a target.
Power to the People: On November 25, anti-government demonstrators swarmed Bangkok’s international airport, as opponents and supporters of Thailand’s government clashed in an escalation of the country’s long-running political crisis. All flights were cancelled from the country’s main airport when the demonstrators — some masked and armed with metal rods — broke through police lines and took control of the terminals, camping out with food and blankets, and even setting up first-aid stations. During the seven-day standoff, hundreds of thousands of travellers were stranded and cargo halted, costing the country nearly $100 million a day, while the long-term costs to the Thai tourism industry were projected to be billions more. The airport was handed back to authorities when the high court ruled that the sitting PM be banned from politics for five years and that the ruling party be disbanded because of electoral fraud.
Feuding Neighbours: On the evening of August 7, Georgia launched a military attack on South Ossetia’s capital, Tskhinvali. In response, Russian naval forces blocked Georgia’s coast and Russian and Abkhazian forces invaded western parts of Georgia. After five days of heavy fighting, Georgian forces were ejected from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, after the cities of Poti and Gori, among others, had been sacked by Russian troops. Russian troops remain stationed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, including areas under Georgian control before the war, under the pretext of being considered foreign troops stationed in “independent states,” under bilateral agreements with the respective governments.
Disaster Strikes: Hours after the Olympic torch was carried through the city of Beijing, on May 12, a deadly earthquake hit the Sichuan province of China, killing 69,000 people and leaving another 400,000 injured. Reports stated 19,000 people were missing and 4.8 million were left homeless. The massive quake measured 7.9 on the Richter scale, with a depth of 19km. Its effects rippled all the way to Beijing and Shangai, 1,500km and 1,700km away, respectively, from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. Within 10 minutes of the seismic shift, tremors even reached parts of northern Pakistan. Fear was slow to abate as between 64 and 104 aftershocks, ranging between 4.0 and 6.1 in magnitude, shook the region within 72 hours of the main quake.
Related: Pakistan in 2008