Matthieu Ricard

B. R.  Ambedkar once said that “a great man is different from an eminent one in that he is ready to be the servant of the society”. Matthieu Ricard definitely fits the definition. Born in 1947, the French doctor, photographer and Buddhist monk, has dedicated his life to others through a very unorthodox path.

After getting his Ph.D. degree in molecular genetics under French Nobel Laureate François Jacob, Ricard decided to settle in the Himalayas so he could concentrate on the practice of Tibetan Buddhism, where he has lived since 1972. 

He has translated into French numerous Tibetan masterpieces, and became in 1989 the French translator of the Dalaï-lama. Additionally, he has published dozens of photographic books, showing life in Tibetan monasteries and some marvelous Himalayan landscapes and day-to-day events. 

Ricard spreads his lessons and thoughts through numerous vehicles, among which this fantastic Ted talk. Amidst other advices, he gives five very simple lessons of wisdom. First, to cultivate altruistic love. Second, to distinguish and overcome emotions. Third, to develop good will and wisdom (for instance, he refuses to fell hatred even before the worst of massacres). Fourth, to search the cure for pain. And lastly, to develop the skill of cooperation. 

The completeness of his property rights are donated to the Karuna-Shéchèn organization, an entity founded by Ricard and which handles over a dozen humanitarian projects in Tiber, Nepal and India, in the areas of health, education and environment. 

Since 2000, he integrated the Mind and Life Institute, an organization favoring the dialogue and the sharing between Buddhism and science.

Today, he lives in Nepal at the Schéchèn Monastery, devoting much of his time to the preservation of the Tibetan culture. 

Learn more about Matthieu Ricard on The Independent, and read his article in The New York Times.

Abu Sayyaf

Introductory note: This post, on a terrorist group, follows my last one on the Tamil Tigers. I had several friends that visited Sri Lanka in the past few weeks, which made me curious about the country and the Tigers. While investigating them, I came across several other terrorist groups in the region, with similar claims and tactics which I found it interesting to share.

Like most Arab names, Abu Sayyaf carries a powerful meaning. It means “bearer of the sword”. The name symbolizes de group’s violent ways, inscribed into its name and its purpose and, as always, designed to instil fear.  Abu Sayyaf was borne   in 1991, of a split from the Moro National Liberation Front.

After decades of insurgency and unrest, as several separatist Muslim groups tried to create an independent Islamic State in the southernmost islands of the archipelago, with no results, Abu Sayyaf was the answer for many who thought Manila was not listening. The group brought more radical and violent means to the negotiating table and started its own campaign against the Philippine government and, if necessary, the world.

Abu Sayyaf’s first publicly known attack happened in 1991, when the group killed two American evangelists with a grenade, and by 1995 the organization was operating full scale all over the Philippines. The group kept its focus on the southern islands of Mindanao and Sulu. There are also a few cases of attacks outside this area and even abroad.  All in all they are a very prolific terrorist group and some areas in the Philippines where their presence is felt, are still not recommended for national and foreign tourists.

In their fight for an Iranian-style Islamic State, the group has been involved in bombings, assassinations, extortion and kidnappings for ransom. The last two serve the purpose of financing the groups war effort and they account for a great percentage of the money Abu Sayyaf raises every year. Unlike other more organized terrorists groups, the organization’s logistics platform is quite limited. They have kidnapped hundreds, including several foreign citizens, the latter guaranteeing their much wanted TV coverage (as seen below).

One of the more high profile cases was that of the kidnapping of 20 tourists from the Dos Palmas resort, on May 2001. Among the hostages were two American citizens, which drew international attention to the situation, the group and its objectives. In the following 12 months, 5 of the hostages died, two were killed – one of them, the American Guillermo Sobero, was beheaded by the group. Fighting between Abu Sayyaf and Philippine military was bloody and ended with the death of 22 Philippine soldiers and an unknown number of casualties on the terrorist side.

As for arms, Abu Sayyaf relies on home made bombs, mortars and automatic weapons, while at the same time using the Philippine jungles as cover. Their elusiveness has been one of the key difficulties by each of the governments that sat in Manila, for the past 23 years.

In the past few years, the group has been pushed back by the Philippine Marines (known for training with US military stationed in the region) and its numbers have shrunk. In 2002, at the height of its power, Abu Sayyaf had more than a 1,000 combatants, a number that has been reduced to something between 200 and 400  militants. The group has struggled to fight back and its military arm has lost some of its power. Abu Sayyaf now resorts mostly to kidnappings for ransom as it tries to survive. It currently holds 4 people, including two European birdwatchers hostage.

The Philippine government has been successful in targeting the organization’s leadership, by jailing or killing its most charismatic leaders and thus, splitting Abu Sayyaf into several factions. Despite its decline the group remains active and continues to fight for its goal, even if today the question is more about their survival than about their success.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

They are, or were, one of the world’s most organized terrorist groups and you probably know Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam by their shorter name, the Tamil Tigers.  The separatist organisation, born in 1975 and composed of Sri Lankans of Tamil ethnicity, has been fighting for an independent state in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, called Tamil Eelam, since then.

Tamils represent over 10% of the country’s population and they feel persecuted by Sri Lanka’s ethnic majority, the Sinhalese. Differences between the two range from language to religion (the Sinhalese are mainly Buddhists whereas the Tamils are mostly Hindu) and their grudge has its roots in British colonialism. When the Island was called Ceylon, the Tamils were favoured by the colonial overlords and as soon as independence was achieved, the Sinhalese majority decided that the country’s official language and religion were to be its own, excluding the Tamils from any discussion.

The fight between the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government started soon after (circa 1980) and has been one of the longest and deadliest in Asia and the World. Acknowledging its inferior numbers, the group pioneered a number of techniques that have become common practice among  terrorist groups. They perfected suicide bombings by introducing the suicide belt and pioneering the use of women.

The means produced the intended ends and, since 1980, an estimated 80,000 civilians have lost their lives in the confrontation between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. The separatist group has been responsible for 200 suicide attacks, a dozen of high level assassinations, including two world leaders (1991 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and 1993 assassination of Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa)- they are the only terrorist group to have done so.

They are known to have contacts with several criminal groups in Asia, and, reportedly, received military training from the Palestine Liberation Organization. They have also been said to have an operational alliance with Al-Qaeda, a tie that experts believe to be false.

Behind the fierceness of the Tamil Tigers is a complex organisation that manages and finances the guerilla effort. The group has separate departments responsible for procuring arms and explosives for the military branch (which has between 8,000 and 15,000 troops) but the economic side has not been forgotten. The group relies of donations from Tamils living in Western Europe and Canada, as well as on criminal activities (such as drug, arms and human trafficking to the UK and parts of Europe). It also owns a series of stocks and real estate investments in various parts of the world, and a large number of Asian grocery stores throughout the planet.

In 2009, the group was disbanded after a government offensive killed the Tigers’ founder and leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, but many believe that the group will respond and return in the near future. Among those that feel that way is the Sri Lankan government. Commemoration of Prabhakaran’s death and displaying the Tamil Tigers’ flag have been prohibited throughout the country, a clear sign that the government still fears the apparently extinct separatist movement.

Vellupillai Prabhakaran

Getting to the Roof of the World

If you have ever climbed a mountain, you know how it feels. As you go up, your body starts to feel heavier, your lungs have less and less air, and it may even happen that your head gets a bit dizzy. Yet, the feeling of accomplishment after a great effort, and the happiness of being able to grasp the world from a little bit higher, are even more breathtaking – in a good sense. Being able to exceed oneself and also to defy nature, while being more in contact with it, motivates many people to climb mountains. 

Today, the ultimate destination for this type of adrenaline-seekers remains Mount Everest, in the Himalayas, despite the fact that this mountain range has other incredibly difficult peaks, such as the K2 or the Lhotse. 

Rising 8 848 meters above the sea level, only those who have made it to the top can imagine the effort that it takes to get there. Research says that the risks that one faces while climbing the Everest are as high as traveling to space… Faced with the mountain, we understand how little we are.

It is thus no wonder that many do lose their lives while trying to get to the top, something which is more and more shown by the media. Today, getting to Mount Everest is not as hard as it was thirty years ago. If you have money (knowing that an expedition can cost between 50 000$ to 100 000$) and have already climbed other peaks, it is quite normal that you attempt this adventure, regardless of your actual skills and strength to endure the journey. 

While in 1980, around 200 people attained the Base Camp (which reaches around 5 000 meters, depending if your are climbing the North face or the South face) per year, today, around 1 000 people get there. Half of those are generally able to get to the top. After 8 000 meters you enter the “Death Zone”, where oxygen is only 33% of that available at sea level. You can use oxygen masks, but even so it is not an easy task.

If the number of deaths per climb has not increased since 1980 (it has decreased), there are still far too many risks and most of them are actually caused by excess of people on the mountain. You can only climb Everest during a certain period of the year. Thus, hundreds of people make the toughest climb in the world in a very short period of time, something which is not sustainable for the mountain itself and carries great risk for those involved. Many deaths are caused by simple accidents due to excessive weight in sensitive areas, or avalanches and other natural causes, as was recently the case with the 16 Nepalese sherpas who died, in the most deadliest day ever on Mount Everest. This accident is even more a shame because these sherpas were trying to help less-experienced climbers to get to the top, and it is not the first. When bad weather strikes, people have to wait to make the final climb, which leads sometimes hundreds of people to make the final meters at the same time when the weather clears up. 

Climbers going to the top (Source: National Geographic Magazine)
Climbers going to the top (Source: National Geographic Magazine)

Beyond this, the mountain is more and more polluted by the debris that these expeditions leave behind. From oxygen tanks to simple garbage, to human bodies (because you can hardly recover the bodies of those who die after the Base Camp), Everest has become a wasteland (there are up to 10 tons of waste in the mountain). Besides the work that is already done by some sherpas, Nepalese authorities are now demanding that climbers come down with a few kilos of trash.

Sherpas cleaning Mount Everest (Source: Asia News)
Sherpas cleaning Mount Everest (Source: Asia News)

As some claim, as it is, Mount Everest is a mess

If we are to preserve this amazing beauty and richness for future generations, climbing mountains (particularly the Everest) ought to have more regulation and restrictions. Not only for the sake of the mountain, but also for the sake of the people who depend on it for a living, and of those who want to explore it.

Colonizing Mars by 2024

Virgil Grissom, the second American astronaut to fly in space, once said that “the conquest of space is worth the risk of life”. By the time we are writing, it seems that thousands of men would agree with him. 

Through this video, we discovered the megalomaniac, the grandiose, and at the very least, the disturbing project called ‘Mars One’. 

‘Mars One’ is a Dutch non-profit foundation that will establish the first permanent human settlement on planet Mars in 2022. Founded in 2011, the ‘Mars One’ team launched its Astronaut Selection Program in 2011 and 78,000 people have applied to it. By now, this 6 billion dollars project has preselected around 700 potential candidates. 

The most troubling part of the mission? The ‘Mars One’ project offers only a one-way ticket to its astronauts. As there is no technology to come back, the departure will represent the end of life in earth for the astronauts. 

By 2015, six teams of four individuals will be selected to start a eight-years training program. Their “ability to deal with prolonged periods of time in a remote location will be the most important part of their training”. Moreover, they will learn to grow food, to repair components of their future habitat and train medical procedures. 

In 2024, the first group of four people will leave earth to land in Mars in 2025 and live there forever. The journey to Mars will be a tough one. The flight will take between seven to eight months, where astronauts will be confined to a very small place, where showering will be impossible and canned food the only option. Why do they want to go? Hear it first hand here in Korum Ellis’ interview.

According to ‘Mars One’, “the one-way mission to Mars is about exploring a new world and the opportunity to conduct the most revolutionary research ever conceived, to build a new home for humans on another planet”.

Crazy? Amazing? Unrealistic or visionary? 

Learn more about it here and tell us your thoughts ! 

Chernobyl, 28 years later

On the 26th of April 1986, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and particularly Chernobyl, a city in the North of Ukraine, was the stage of one of the major nuclear catastrophes ever witnessed. Its nuclear plant, located 16 kilometers from the city, had one of its four reactors explode, and due to several malfunctions there was no way to contain the radioactive wave which came out of it. 

Releasing hundreds of times more the amount of radionuclides that were dropped by the two nuclear bombs in 1945, millions of acres of land were contaminated and more than 300 000 people had to be evacuated.

The aftermath of Chernobyl. (source: BBC News)
The aftermath of Chernobyl (Source: BBC News)

Beyond these figures, this accident continued (and continues) to have extreme consequences for people, with thousands having been infected by the waste of Chernobyl, many having eventually died. Indeed, in high doses, radiation is lethal for living organisms, by changing cells and even DNA. Until today, an area of around 2 600 square kilometers is designated as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, where access is highly restricted.

While some of us might imagine Chernobyl as a dark place full of weird, radioactive species, this region has developed a quite unique ecosystem. For years now, researchers have pursued field trips in Chernobyl, to explore the biological changes radioactivity has caused.

Though it has many abandoned infrastructures, the most affected area is full of a green and resilient vegetation, which turns it into a post-apocalyptical, yet, quite beautiful scenario. 

Abandoned bumper cars (Source: BoredPanda)
Abandoned bumper cars (Source: BoredPanda)

Although nature has undoubtedly suffered, as this The New York Times short film shows, several species have been able to adapt and live in areas of exposure which would be impossible for humans. 

Yes, biodiversity (from spiders to birds, to even trees) has been severely hit and has experienced mutations induced by radisation. It is undeniable that it has taken many years to be able to thrive again and big animals are seldom spotted in the region. Yet, hope is not lost. Chernobyl fortunately shows that despite what we, humans, might do to our environment, it will be always more resilient than us…

Nevertheless, Chernobyl remains a threat for human lives. While in 1986, a dome of concrete and steal was built around the exploded reactor to try to contain the contamination, this one is no longer safe. Hence, the Ukrainian authorities are now highly investing on a new structure that could definitely stop the spread of any other remnants of radiation. There are hopes that in a not-so-distant future, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone will disappear, but we will have to wait and see. In the meantime, the efforts to clean the area continue.

You can read this very good piece by The New York Times, which will give you some insight about the Chernobyl catastrophe and its aftermath, or have a look at these amazing photos.

Angola: Public transport is The place to be . by Pedro F. Neto

Angola lived of one of the longest conflicts in recent history. For more than forty years, from 1961 to 2002, the country experienced a devastating war. The highly damaged infra-structure, the vast mined territories and the unpredictability of warfare meant that the country remained closed to researchers until very recently. Yet, even nowadays, undertake academic research in Angola may be a troublesome and often dangerous task. The regime seeks to control all aspects of society  thereby nourishing a permanent atmosphere of suspicion. In spite of a decade of peace there is still a long road towards full democracy and to attain certain civil rights, – particularly with regard to freedom of expression and assembly. It is in this context that the Angolan public transport is an interesting case study. In fact, even though the army, the police and its informants, are everywhere, they seem to turn a blind eye on what happens in public transport. 

Although the context and contours may change according to the city or region, the truth is that public transport is a place of a deep ethnographic richness. In the capital Luanda the so-called candongueiros (the Toyota Hiace blue vans for urban transport) are the best way to discover new music in town. Musicians and music producers outside the formal distribution market, with or without a political slant, use the blue vans to promote their work. Along the way, the candongueiros repeatedly play the new hits and the compiled cd’s are for sale on the bus. But the means of transport are not only a way to portray the vibrant culture in Angola, they are moving cocoons where a mass political culture is hatching. In the regions of Moxico and Huambo, intercity public transport, – namely buses, mini-buses, vans (the so-called gafanhotos), 4×4 (the LandCruisers), and trains (the Benguela Railway),- are places of storytelling and remembrance, of acting and performance, but above all they are places of public gathering, assembly and debate. During my long travels within the country, I witnessed people engaging in fierce political discussions presenting their points of view for and against the everlasting government. It is possible to scrutinize some reasons behind its exceptional status. Mobility makes it difficult to the security forces to monitor and control, at the same time, people enter and leave along the way allowing a certain degree of anonymity.  Likewise, G. Pirie* noted that public transport played an important role on fighting South Africa’s apartheid. During the 1980s and 1990s the commuter trains to and from the townships were places of political gathering and mobilization.

Can public transport in Angola be an effective mean for a real political change? Only time can answer that. Yet, in the meantime, for anyone willing to take the pulse of Angolan civil society or only to know which will be the next musical hit in the country, public transport is the place to be.


*Pirie, G. H. 1992, « Travelling under Apartheid »;  in Smith, David M. (ed.), The apartheid city and beyond: Urbanization and social change in South Africa, London/New York: Routledge, pp.172-181

PEDRO F. NETO is an Architect and Anthropologist currently pursuing a PhD in Anthropology at ISCTE-IUL (Lisbon) and EHESS (Paris). His research focuses on the relationship between space and identity, as well as on borders and forced migrations, mainly in African contexts. He lives between Lisbon and Paris.

Game of Thrones and International Politics

I trust most of you have already heard about Game of Thrones, HBO’s hit TV show based on a series of epic fantasy novels, written by George R. R. Martin. The show is well established within popular culture, as are the books, and now everyone knows the author and his work, nearly 20 years after the release of the first book.

Among the several differentiating aspects of the show and the books, are the violence, nudity, and intricate social and political connections. It is the political side of a fictional story that has specialized publications such as Foreign Policy or Foreign Affairs (the links will lead you to several articles on the subject), trying to explain what kind of world is the one portrayed in Game of Thrones, after having already tried to explain the world we live in. It also has veteran political journalists interviewing some of the actors.

Even if we don’t dwell into political theory, it is hard not to make parallels between our world and our history and Game of Thrones’ middle age based fantasy world, which happens to contain dragons, demons, dire wolfs, sorcery and ice zombies (they look as scary as they sound).


In this story, the civilized world is composed of a giant country that comprises seven kingdoms, most of which, at one point fight for the right to sit on the Iron Throne, which is the seat of the King. The King rules over all of the seven, which do have some autonomy, similar to the way Washington rules over all the states in the USA, even though each state has its own constitution and government. The scramble for power can be compared to what happened in Europe from middle age until World War II, when several countries / nations fought to expand their domains in Europe and the newly discovered continents (mostly Africa and America).

Besides power politics, there is also the other side of international relations in Game of Thrones. The alliances, the sanctions, the backstabbing and deceit. It is politics on a big level and on a small one, and it is fascinating to compare our world to the one we get to see on TV. Once we set aside the obvious fantasy aspects of that world, and the natural technological differences, it is interesting to understand that not much differentiates us from that ruthless planet. Class struggles, corruption, bribes, poverty, war and famine are all present and that should stifle some reflection on our own path, and on the evolution we ought to have achieved by now.

It is hard for me to dwell more into the subject more without revealing too much about the show. So, for those that have not seen it yet, I encourage you to watch it and read the above mentioned articles. For those that already do watch Game of Thrones, try to look at its political intricacies because you will probably find it interesting. The main reason being that it is rare to see such a complex and accurate portrait of how ruthless the world of politics really is.