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Raffique Shah


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The message, not the messengers

By Raffique Shah
September 30, 2007

Being a journalist, writer, voracious reader and student for life, I cringe when I hear people say: I no longer read newspapers. News, they argue, is predictable (four more murders, ten robberies, politicians talking "tatah"). Many confess to not even looking at television newscasts or listening to radio. They are fed up with "bad news", especially from the local scene. They then cuss Trinidad, vow to leave the country because, they swear, it's the worst place on earth. I stand in my sneakers and wonder. And I remember Pretender's lines from one his best calypsoes, "Always remember it have somebody suffering more than you."

Last Friday, for example, I was jolted by a story in the Guardian (UK) that addressed poverty in Japan. Yes, you read correctly, Japan-a developed country, ranked second in economic prowess to the USA, and looked upon as a symbol of success. The story tracked the lives of Japan's increasingly poverty-stricken citizens, many of whom spend their nights at internet cafes. They cannot afford to rent even squalid one-room apartments. Many don't have regular jobs. So they trek into these cafes at around 10 p.m., eat a greasy meal costing around TT$40, then pay another $50 to spend the night in a computer booth. There, besides accessing the internet if they wish, there's a couch on which they can sleep-until next morning when, having showered (one luxury in these cafes), they then go out into Tokyo looking for a day's work.

Imagine this happening to thousands in Tokyo, a city of glitz and glamour, and no doubt elsewhere in the mighty Japan. Think, too, of an almost equal number of Japanese who choose suicide over having to face this quality (?) of life. A UNICEF report on child poverty in the world's 29 richest nations in 2000 showed that around 16 per cent, or 47 million, suffer in poverty.

It said, "The United States, Canada and the United Kingdom have the highest percentage of full-time, low-paid employment, and also have some of the highest child poverty rates, while the opposite is the case with Finland, Belgium and Sweden."

Compiling data from other reports, the global poverty-picture is damning. Consider the following startling facts:

- Half the world-meaning around three billion people-live on less than US$2 a day each.

- The three wealthiest people in the world control more assets than the combined GDP of the world's 48 poorest nations.

- According to UNICEF 30,000 children die every day because of poverty-related conditions.

- In the US, the richest one per cent control 40 per cent of that country's wealth; the top 20 per cent control 80 per cent, leaving the remaining 20 per cent to be spread among 80 per cent of the population.

- Globally, ten per cent at the top control 85 per cent of the world's household wealth, while the remaining 90 per cent struggle to survive on 15 per cent.

These numbers are mind-numbing. They tell of a world that is fast sinking into a crisis that is far worse than anything we have experienced before, world wars included. Today it has exploded into open confrontation in one of the world's worst military dictatorships in Myanmar, formerly Burma. While issues like human rights and repression and unfettered corruption among generals in the junta are key issues, below them lies a mournful, now defiant, cry from the masses for their fair share of that country's wealth.

Interestingly, US President George W Bush hastened to impose sanctions on Myanmar, sensing an opportunity to sound sanctimonious. But back in 1966 the USA helped install a similar junta in Indonesia, headed by General Suharto: those generals murdered tens of thousands of its citizens who dared oppose dictatorship. The US armed and backed the despotic Suharto for almost as long as Rangoon's goons have been in power. It was the people who finally drove Suharto from office, much the way they chased Marcos out of the Philippines.

In Myanmar, my guess is the masses will string up the generals on lamp-posts sometime soon, but not before rivers of blood flow.

These few topical issues show whether news comes out of Macaulay or Mandalay, it's mostly bad news: poverty, repression, death, war, starvation. Here in Trinidad and Tobago, besides having to cope with poverty that affects around 30 per cent of the population (never mind the official numbers...they refer to starvation, not poverty!), we have to face a kind of barbarism that is unprecedented. True, we older geezers had Mano Benjamin, Boysie Singh, the Poolool brothers, Samuel Jacob and a few more sadists to face. They were fearsome, but they were few.

Today, the mindless are all around-bashing in heads, raping young and old, man and woman, robbing and killing at will. But while the news here may be "bad", it's little different to what's happening in countries as rich as the US (look at the state of New Orleans) or poor as Myanmar. For those who still read, understand the messages, don't shoot the messengers.