April 15, 2014
The Last Two Days of Taiwan’s Sunflower Revolution

My recent family visit to Taiwan coincided with the last two days of national protests against a trade agreement between Taiwan and Mainland China that was railroaded through the national legislature in March. Protests erupted when the ruling Nationalist Party (KMT), which controls both the legislature and the presidency, reneged on its earlier commitment to a clause-by-clause review of the omnibus Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA).  

The pro-Independence opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had tried to use this vetting process to delay passage of the trade pact. But all parliamentary jockeying came to an abrupt end on March 17th. That’s when KMT lawmaker Chang Ching-Chung walked out of the chamber with the 170-page draft legislation and returned a mere 30 seconds later to announce that the CCSTA had just been signed into law by President Ma Ying-jeoh; the bill’s 90-day review period had expired, so it could now bypass the legislature altogether and take effect with just executive order. (For a blow by blow of the CCSTA’s fortunes since June of last year, check out the comprehensive summary in The Diplomat e-zine).

March 18th, Taiwanese students stormed the gates of the national legislature, starting what would end up as a three-week-long occupation. From the very beginning, they really had their act together. They expounded their case from two lecterns that they’d set up adjacent to the parliamentary hall. There were press releases, translated into multiple languages. Academics, politicians and doctors rallied to support the demonstrators with teach-ins, and donations of food, cash and medical care. The students even drew up a draft bill of their own stipulating an open access review of the CSSTA and all future agreements with Mainland China before such pacts could become law.

Such rules are sorely needed. Even now, the full 170-page CSSTA text has not been made public. This is a common, albeit increasingly resented, feature of “free” trade agreements in general, as witnessed by the stiff opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership from the U.S. Congress and civil society. But in Taiwan the anxiety is far more acute when it comes to trade deals specifically with China, which are seen by many as a dominating neighbor keen on annexing their country.

The CSSTA would open up 64 of Taiwan’s service sectors to Chinese investment, including real estate, telecommunications, advertising, print and retail. The prospect of mainland control over telecommunications, advertising and print raises fears of increased censorship and a pro-Unification propaganda blitz. Many are concerned that allowing Chinese to invest in real estate and retail could open the door for mass mainland immigration, potentially tilting the island’s demographics and electorate in China’s favor. 

These fears are the qualms of protesting students alone. Eventually, half a million Taiwanese from all walks of life gathered around the legislature building to show support – incredible in a country of just 23 million. The demonstration is considered to be the largest in Taiwan during the last 20 years. 

Finally, on the 20th day of protests, the speaker of the parliament, Wang Jin-pyng of the KMT, met with students in the legislature chamber and committed to creating an advance oversight mechanism for the CSSTA and all future trade agreements with China. The demonstrators took him at his word, despite equivocations from Ma’s presidential office and other KMT big shots, suggesting a major rift within the ruling party leadership.  The students decided to evacuate the legislature building three days later, reserving the right to  return if the KMT again went back on its commitment.

Here are some pictures I took of the students’ evacuation of the building (To see pictures from the last day of the occupation encampment, check my next post). 

A Taiwanese nativist sells betel nut and t-shirts. The slogans read “This is my own country, I’ll save it myself” in Chinese and “Fuck the government” in English.

Two supporters chat before joining the rally to cheer students as they leave the building. The sign in front indicates that this is day 24 of the students’ occupation.

Girls photograph police barricades hung with lilies and sunflowers. Lilies were the symbol of a 1990 student movement urging establishment of multiparty democracy in martial-law Taiwan. The sunflower came to be a symbol of the current movement the morning of March 18th when students occupying the legislative hall woke to find a box of sunflowers –a regular delivery from a florist. Police barricades were all over the premises during this protest. Some were even bolted right into the tarmac so that they could not be removed.

A mother brings a shirt to get spray painted for her daughter who is studying abroad. Thousands joined international rallies overseas in support of the Taiwanese student movement.

A man checks messages left by protestors.

News media set up in the streets to report on the event.

A Taiwanese heavy metal star took the podium to cheer on the demonstrators.

Two Tainan art students gather material for an art project. Their artist statement says that they want to “document the spirit of the protestors within the sunflower movement.”

Police watch over a student conclave in the courtyard in front of the legislature building. The police response, as documented by demonstrators, has been marked with intermittent outbursts of extreme brutality. A lady was boxed in the face; another old lady was thrown to the ground and kicked in the stomach by a policeman yelling, “I own you.” (For a comprehensive write up on police brutality at the protests, check out this post by New York-based magazine, n+1).

The day of the final rally, as students emerged from the legislature building, their line of march along Ji Nan Street was so packed with supporters that movement organizers had to tape a narrow strip of white parchment along the tarmac to eke out a path for the departing occupiers.

A holiday mood prevailed as two MCs entertained onlookers ahead of the students’ scheduled emergence. Near me an elementary school math teacher finished up some grading.

A few minutes before the students marched down the aisle, the MC handed out sunflowers to the people in the front row and, over the loudspeaker, called on “Everyone that has a flower, to please pass it back to the people behind you.” The object was to disseminate these symbols of the movement right through the crowd, into greater Taipei and onward to down-island compatriots… “To Taichung, Kaohsiung, Pingtung; to every corner of Taiwan – to light up all the areas still in darkness.”

The idea sounded corny and was slow to catch on, but soon more and more sunflowers got passed along. “Everyone, thank your neighbor as you pass the flowers,” the MC intoned. And, sure enough, everyone was presently passing flowers, nodding to each other in solidarity. A lady in yellow to my left started tearing up. The eyes of a five-year-old up front lit up as she reached out again and again for flowers.

And just then the parade of students emerged from the legislature along the make-shift white paper aisle through the crowd. They were crying. So were many of the onlookers.

So it only remained to roll the credits. The MC proceeded to list all the NGOs, professors and philanthropists who helped with the movement – over 70 names in all. “This wasn’t created by just the two guys that the media keeps referring to, Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-tin,” he stressed.

And well I could believe it, just judging from incredibly smooth coordination. Food, sleeping bags, tents, extension cords, cleaning supplies all somehow appeared right in time. Monetary donations, online and in-person, were raised to feed the demonstrators, pay for electricity and cleaning supplies, reimburse travel expenses for out-of-town supporters, even take out a page-ad in the New York Times.

The impressive level of organization suggested that this wasn’t really a spontaneous movement but a political moment that all the 70 names mentioned really worked hard to make matter; the Sunflower Revolution and its 24-day-occupation of the legislature was a major litmus test for gauging whether there was enough support for changing Taiwan’s political status quo.

January 20, 2014
Melati reports from Jakarta on Indonesia's ore export ban for Al Jazeera

Law requiring minerals to be processed domestically has some fearing job losses and worsening air pollution.

January 2, 2014
Grounding Down in Jakarta (beware of pythons)


Two weeks ago we moved into a boarding house in a kampung in central Jakarta not so far from the one in which Melati was born. In its narrow alleyways, toddlers and “free-range” chickens rove past chain-smoking grandpas spritzing their caged birds. Gossping Bu-s (the Indonesian equivalent of Mrs.) congregate around tempeh hawkers balancing vats of simmering oil on rickety food carts.

Here, not ten minutes from five-star hotels and busy boulevards, we feel like we’re in a village.The other living option are sanitized high-rise apartments towering above shantytowns like our kampung. For now at least, kampung living just seems more fun.

It’s true that rats, which scramble in and out of the fetid drains lining both sides of our daily walkway, outsize the scrawny cats. But here we are grounded, literally, in this mess of a city we have chosen to live in.

To get out of the neighborhood and onto the main road, we use a footbridge over a muddy canal. Here, the other day, I saw three young guys neck deep in the murky water scrounging for plastics, metal, and glass—which they sell to scrap recyclers by the kilogram. These amphibious pemulungs store their finds on Styrofoam pallets tied to strings around their waists.


“We come through this canal once a week,” said one of the scrappers, a bright-eyed 24-year-old who greeted my curiosity with a smile.

“The other days, we collect from other waterways in the area,” he said. “I have been doing this for five years.”


Just downstream, a row of toilets leak excrement into the river. Across the water three middle-aged men laze with fishing rods in hand, waiting for a bite.

“Is there anything worth catching here?” I ask.

“Oh yea. Big ones!” one of the fisherman exclaims while gesturing between his pinky and elbow to demonstrate the size of fish he has caught here. “Tasty?” I inquire, with a glance to the block of toilets across the narrow canal. “Enak!” [delicious], he replies. “Same ones as you eat there”, he says with a nod towards the roadside seafood barbeque tent advertising pecel lele, or catfish.

Later in the morning, we shop for watermelon at a market a short ways upstream. On our way back, we join a small collection of people on another footbridge over the same river. A dead, bloated python is snagged on rocks near the water’s edge. It’s wrapped around itself, but seems to be at least a dozen feet long.

When I mention the python spotting to Billy, the thirty-something year-old single father who is the middle generation of the wonderful Indonesian family we live with, he’s unsurprised. “There’s small crocodiles and komodo dragons in there as well”, he says.

Last year, the river flooded, and the water entered the house where we’re staying. If it happens again this year (January is the heaviest monsoon month), we’ll stand vigil with long spears to ward off the riverine beasts.

March 16, 2013
New Year’s under house arrest: Nyepi in Lombok


Suranadi, West Lombok—Wind rustles the palm fronds lining the paddy field below. Across the valley, a rooster tentatively crows. Even for village Indonesia, the scene is oddly quiet. Not a bad spot for some enforced reflection.

And that is exactly what I’m in for, this Nyepi – the so-called ‘Day of Silence,’ the first day of the Saka calendar that determines the yearly Balinese ritual cycle. No cooking is allowed. No electricity is used. Everyone in Suranadi, including me, must stay at home. Religious policemen patrol the lanes to fine violators.

That’s okay with me. After living a year in chatty, clangorous Indonesia, I don’t mind this rare, calm day filled with nothing but sunshine and birdsong. As a young reporter launching a career in a new country and about to be married, of course I have anxieties to reflect upon.

Then too, this silence is all the more welcome after the day I spent yesterday: following giant, day-glow parade floats, amidst crushing crowds, in sunstroke-inducing heat to the din of gongs and cymbals. The float imagery is all fangs and claws and disemboweled guts, vaguely drawn from traditional Hindu iconography, with a sprinkling of more contemporary social commentary – an enormous diapered baby to represent over-population, a rat in a necktie to depict corrupt officialdom.


These demons, or Ogoh-ogohs, are not real monsters but rather reminders of the many distractions that keep us from self-reflection, explained one local Brahmin priest, Ide Bagus. And in that way, the Ogoh-ogoh parade and silence of Nyepi are paired like Halloween and All Saints’ Day—a purge of evil followed by a day of holiness.

None of this looks much like the Hinduism I saw growing up in South India which was chaste and vegetarian. But what would you expect from a country that considers Hindu cuisine to be pork sate.

Some Balinese themselves are bothered by this disjunction. At the edge of the parade route, a group of Hare Krishna devotees huddled around an altar where three tonsured Brahmins wafted incense with a peacock feather fan. Down the road, a thirty-year-old Hindu evangelist sold copies of the Bhagvad Gita. “Balinese Hindus today have lost their way,” he said. “They get drunk, they gamble, they eat meat and eggs.” An ex-cock-fighter, he mended his ways to bring himself “closer to the original text of the Vedas.”

But by-the-book Hinduism doesn’t get much traction in Indonesia. In fact, over the last twenty years, the eclecticism and gaudiness of the Ogoh-ogoh tradition has only gotten more lavish. This trend is unlikely to fade either as the artistes behind the effigies come from banjars or neighborhood Hindu youth groups.

As Brahmin Bagus put it, “art is for young people to make and old people to support;” making the month-long process of ogoh-ogoh building a religiously sanctioned riff on the meaning of evil and distraction. And the arts and craft exercise instills a good dose of religious pride, if not co-opting of Hinduism by the young.

On the day of parade, the uninitiated might mistake the event as a multi-kilometer mosh pit. Teenagers decked with heavy eye-liner and bleached blonde hair sport shirts that proclaim them ‘Hindu.’ In bold Helvetica, other shirts beg ‘God Please Blessing Me.’ Pre-teen gamelan players use soda straws to exaggerate their spiked hairdos, head banging as they clang cymbals and gongs. Even the closing burn of effigies is left to just neighborhood youth. At dusk, mothers in more traditional sarongs head home. The young are left to stare on alone as their Styrofoam creations evaporate into the plumes of fire.

Yet there is something truly edifying about the practice of making and purging the world of Ogoh-ogohs, as I learned when I sketched out my own personal demon to burn. The process of linking multiple issues together into one problematic creature to depict gave me a lot of clarity. It also offered the rare adult moment to draw. Burning the painting under the dark, star-lit night sky was a rapid tutorial in detachment.

This morning, I woke with more confidence and clarity about the world.

By afternoon, the religious police relaxed their monitoring. Kids ventured into the empty paddy field to fly kites in the frond-rustling wind. Mothers carried bundles of laundry to the temple spring. They are ready for the New Year to begin.

This piece was written March 12th. The Mataram Ogoh-ogoh parade was March 11th. My parents and I are traveling through the east Indonesia island of Lombok. These are updates from our trip in no particular order.

January 24, 2013
Word of the Day: Suberdosa

Nope, this is not a nouveau cusine version of the Tamil dosa flatbread.

It’s Bahasa Maluku for “sinner”.

I heard it a lot in the week and a half I spent on Seram Island. It applies for a lazy man, or for a man who has just given a woman a once over with his eyes.

Berdosa is the Indonesian action verb “to sin”. Su is malukan slang for already.

Perhaps this is common in all of Eastern Indonesia but Malukan street talk usually means words without suffixes. Their counterparts from the western end of the archipelago drop the s in sudah (already/over) when chatting with friends. Malukans say su.

January 23, 2013
Where Dances Kill


Nunusaku mountain, says the seventy-four-year-old ex-Raja of Waraka. We’re sitting on his front porch, perched on damp velvet day sofas below a silver tinsel Christmas tree. Just a hundred meters off, the Banda Sea rolls soft waves ashore.

The Raja (Indonesian for king) is smoking the second of his three daily packs of cigarettes and telling the origin myth of all the tribes of Seram.

It starts as all good stories do, with a woman. Her name was Rapihainuele, which means Lady of the Moon, and she was the princess of Nunusaku.

She had thigh-length hair and many suitors.

Twelve captains in particular were absolutely smitten with the Moon Lady. And one day, while the king (her father) was out, they tried to impress her with their dancing skills.

Surrounding her in a loose circle, they twirled. Each put on a display more beautiful and flamboyant than the other so as to win over the princess’s heart.

Their toes kicked deep into the earth in passion. Dust flew in a rising storm around their beloved. So deep in their own frenzy were the captains that they did not realize that the footprint of their collective promenade had imprinted a lake, a pool of water deep enough to sink the princess.

When the king came home, he asked where his daughter was. And only then, did the astonished suitors realize that Rapihainuele was gone. She had disappeared below the surface of their frenzy, their display. She had drowned.

In embarrassment and fear of the king’s wrath, the captians fled, Each chose a different direction and found themselves starting tribes of their own in separate corners of Seram island.

The captain who became the founding king of Warakah followed a river down to the ocean and there set up this spot with where his descendants would one day retire to chain smoking before tinsel Christmas trees.

A visit to the current Raja’s is even stranger. Here, tall doorways are hung with golden curtains. The ancestral loincloth emblem graces the ceiling trim.


Be careful to not offend the royal court (pictured here in the village ceremony house. The head of the traditional police system is on the younger man on the right).

Robbers, adulterators and anyone else deemed to be in the wrong by the village court system gets lashed five times with a stingray tail. 

The last person to receive punishment had slandered the king in 2011. 


December 25, 2012

A Christmas note from Seram—one of the islands in East Indonesia’s Maluku or Spice Island cluster.

I spent two weeks here, directly north of Australia, where sago is the staple diet; the largest animal looks a short blue ostrich; And old men spend the evenings on the porch discussing pygmies in the forest.

Between my work as part of a video production team and patchy internet, I couldn’t get these blogs up till now. Though not “current,” I hope they prove entertaining.

Pictured above are local girls practicing a traditional fire dance for a Christmas performance.

Below are two of the three wise men from a local nativity scene.

December 1, 2012
Catching Birds to Keep From Falling Asleep

Squatting in the path between tree groves, the man peers in at the song thrush he has just captured.

Kerja untuk biar tidak tidur,” he explains with a half grin. Work that keeps me from falling asleep.

A farmer by trade, usually he works the slopes of Gunung Salak but December is the offseason. During this time, he catches wild birds and sells them in the local market.

Mist drifts down the mountain behind us. By motorbike the hullabaloo Bogor traffic is only a half hour ride, but from here it seems a world away. His seems a pretty tension-free way to make a living.

Another hour along a forested path, at the base of a 20-foot waterfall that creates its very own gusty weather is another man. He explained his job similar to the way the bird catcher does.  A warung [food stall] owner, he carves stone amulets while waiting for customers to feed roasted corn, or instant noodles and coffee.

Santai [relaxed], Indonesians call this lifestyle. Tranquilo in Costa Rican Spanish. Just a step away from boredom, work to do to keep from falling asleep. A reason to justify sitting in the woods.

November 29, 2012
Jakarta Post article: Indonesia’s for-profit conservationists

Agus’s soaring vision for the future goes beyond cap and trade. He urges Indonesian concession holders to see beyond mere carbon sequestration. “Water, biodiversity, ecotourism, these are things that can be capitalized. If we just focus on carbon, we ignore these other values.”

November 22, 2012
Immobile Cica

This gecko sat on our kitchen floor for a full 12 hours.

After a poke, it registered alive but perhaps too young to move.

A quick internet search revealed nothing about the age at which geckos start walking but it looked similar in size to a photograph of a ten-minute-old one raised in captivity.

*Cica is indonesian for gecko.