Surveillance Camera

Big Brother wants to be your Facebook friend

Now that we have all those Twitters and Facebooks, the Man can no longer tell us what to think.

We own the media, so we own the information…except when we don’t. And that happens more often than you’d think, as discussed in my latest Listverse article: 10 Underhanded Ways Governments Use The Modern Media.

Go read…but then close your browser and never open it again. You never know what’s out there.

Ukraine Map With Cities

5 Russian myths about Ukraine (it’s time to let go of) Myth #5: Junta

As Russia’s information space rapidly barrels toward becoming some absurdist la la land, the rest of the world struggles to keep up. And while it’s fun (well, “fun”) to mock Russia for its phantasmagorical claims of child crucifixions by Ukrainian troops, or MH17 being filled with already-dead people when it was shot down, it’s important to remember that these outrageous stories are part of a massive, largely successful disinformation campaign.

You see, the West is used to the news media being relatively sane (if not always completely unbiased). So a natural instinct for most foreign viewers is to gravitate toward a “the truth is somewhere in the middle” interpretation. That’s usually a perfectly reasonable approach. Usually. There are indeed two sides to every story. But when one side of the story is “Russia is fomenting unrest in Ukraine” and the other is “European Union and Ukraine are building concentration camps for their opponents and poisoning their water supply,” the truth isn’t quite somewhere in between. Using Russia’s account of events as a benchmark isn’t “listening to both the Ukrainian and the Russian side of the story.” It’s more like “listening to the Ukrainian side of the story and the ravings of the town’s crackpot who believes that flying space monkeys are stealing his lunch money and also haberdash donkey-poop *hissing sounds*.”

Unfortunately, the Russian narrative has slowly permeated the Western information space. Even though reality has long caught up with and disproved many of the Russian myths about Ukraine, a few persistent tenets keep resurfacing with striking regularity. Let’s see if we can put some of these myths to rest for good. Today, we cover Myth #5:

5. Ukraine’s government is a bloodthirsty “junta”

Russia says:
The current Kiev government is a genocidal junta that came to power through an armed coup. They are engaged in a “punitive operation”—methodical and targeted genocide of Russian-speakers—because they want to…because…shut up, that’s why!

Sample headlines (I’m not linking to wacko sources, but they can be found via Google search):

CIA, FBI agents dying for illegal junta in Ukraine

Moscow: UN report on Ukraine distorts facts to justify punitive operation

The grain of truth:
There are plenty of things to criticize Ukraine’s government for. You’ll find very few people who see Ukrainian government as altruistic angels that were beamed down to Earth by a benevolent God to impart world peace upon everyone. (If you do find some people who believe that, maybe ask whether their medicine has exceeded its expiration date.)

Corruption is deeply embedded in Ukraine’s political system. It will take years to flush it out. Many of the current politicians are unwilling to make any real effort to fight corruption, instead resorting to populist statements (hey, saying things is like, so much easier than doing them, you guys). The parliament still relapses into bar brawl mentality and has scuffles that occasionally get recognized as pure art:

Ukraine Parliament Art Fight

Finally, and most tragically, Ukraine’s military is indeed involved in an armed standoff with the separatists in the Donbass region, which is costing civilian lives. It’s a sad, largely inescapable fact of any armed conflict. This is the first such conflict in the country’s history and is the apparent terrible price Ukraine will have to pay for its true independence.

But let’s get real:
Semantics first.

Junta: “A military group controlling a government after taking control of it by force.”

First, let’s look at the “taking control by force” part.

Following the atrocious events of February 18–20, 2014, where almost 100 protesters were killed in bloody clashes, former President Yanukovich signed a compromise deal with the opposition. Then he promptly made like The Road Runner and mbeep-beeped the hell out of Ukraine. Allegedly, after promising to officially resign, he ended up refusing to do so, while still leaving the country in a power vacuum, seeing how he wasn’t physically there to, you know, run it. On February 22, the parliament voted 328-0 to impeach him. Legal technicalities aside, I’d say a vote of 328 against “fucking nothing at all” is pretty indicative. The parliament subsequently elected an interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Parliament speaker, Oleksandr Turchynov, became acting president until the scheduled early presidential elections.

On May 25, Petro Poroshenko was elected President, receiving 55% of the votes. The election was monitored by over 1,000 OSCE observers from 49 countries—OSCE’s largest-ever election observation mission. Despite the separatists in the East doing their best to fuck up the vote in the areas they controlled, OSCE deemed the elections a success. Now can we please move past the “coup” rhetoric?

Second, let’s briefly check out the government’s impressive “military” credentials:

Prime Minister Yatsenyuk: economist and lawyer. “Economist and lawyer”? Why, that almost sounds like “Major-General,” if you suffer from a crippling form of dyslexia.

Chairman of the Parliament Oleksandr Turchinov: screenwriter and economist. Also? A goddamn Baptist preacher. Truly terrifying in his militarism.

President Petro Poroshenko: one of Ukraine’s richest men. Made his fortune mainly in the confectionery business, hence the nickname “Chocolate King.” Judging by his bulky physique, the only battle he’s ever fought was the one against delicious-yet-unhealthy food. The food won.

Poroshenko Black Suit

Here he is holding an imaginary oversized burger.

Maybe it’s time to stop calling these gentlemen military junta? Unless you have a fetish for being wrong, huh Russia?

Finally, each of them made every effort to de-escalate the conflict at various points. At each point, they were completely ignored by the separatists.

March 18, on the day Russia was busy annexing Crimea, Yatsenyuk addressed the residents of Ukraine’s south-east. His main message was, quote: “We need peace and tranquility, and we have a huge chance to change our country for the better.” Specifically, he guaranteed unchanged status of the Russian language, decentralization of power, and maintaining good neighborly relations with Russia. You’ll notice that these are all the things the separatists are now supposedly fighting for. Confused? Well, you shouldn’t be, as long as you acknowledge the artificial nature of this conflict and the fact that these demands are a smokescreen. Have always been. Stay tuned for Myth #1.

On April 6, after the separatists seized regional buildings in Donetsk and Lugans, Turchinov reiterated the government’s commitment to regional autonomy. Moreover, he even offered them amnesty from prosecution.

Finally, on June 21, Poroshenko announced a unilateral, one-week ceasefire. Ukrainian army stopped its advance against separatist-held towns. Poroshenko once again offered amnesty to those who didn’t commit serious crimes. He once again reiterated the message of decentralization. He again stressed that the Russian language will retain its current status. All the separatists had to do was to put down their weapons and release the dozens of hostages they were holding against their will. If you’re going to click on one hyperlink in this article, make it this one, and read Poroshenko’s address. A total warmongering lunatic, isn’t he?

The ceasefire was later extended by three additional days, despite the separatists consistently ignoring it and repeatedly attacking Ukrainian positions. At least 27 Ukrainian soldiers were killed during the 10 days of the ceasefire. All while trying to give peace yet another chance. Junta? What the fuck are you smoking, Russia?

As final proof that Ukraine government’s end goal is peace and not the complete eradication of all sentient life, let’s look at two recaptured cities: Kramatorsk and Slovyansk. Both were considered key strongholds of the separatist resistance. Both were recaptured by Ukraine’s army in early July. Here’s how the Russian-friendly media described these cities prior to Ukrainian forces liberating them:

Ukraine—Kiev’s Genocide: What’s Happening in Slovyansk

Kiev junta punishers began to shoot Kramatorsk with heavy artillery in the area of Stankostroy

Now let’s fast-forward to August 24—Ukraine’s Independence Day—in each of those cities.


Slovyansk Independence Day


Enough said, Putin?

Stay tuned for Myth #4.

Loudspeaker Black

Vietnam 2011: General Observations (Part II)

You may recall that a few days ago I’d started the process of converting my Vietnam travel notes into blog posts. 85% of my 3 currently active subscribers were overjoyed and screamed “more please!”. Since in all the years of high school I’ve never truly learned to resist peer pressure – here goes the second instalment. It will pick up right where Part I left off, so if you haven’t read that part yet you may want to do it first. While my blog isn’t strictly a travel one, you’ll probably see these Vietnam posts pop up rather frequently over the next months – for better or worse, but mostly for better. Onwards…

Observation 4 – Rats

Granted, Vietnam is home to a lot more exotic and noteworthy animals than good old common rats. However, it’s the rats that live in shadows close to most bodies of water. They come out at night in swarms to hunt human prey…or just, you know, hang out and mind their own business.

The first time we started paying attention was one evening in Hue. Katka was taking some night shots of the Truong Tien Bridge. The bridge had been wired with more lights than a Christmas tree at Central Park, which made for a pretty mesmerizing sight. Somewhere between setting up the night program and trying to find a good angle Katka let out a muffled shriek and jumped a few good metres to the side (Olympic athletes – take notes!).

Because she wasn’t in the habit of performing this sequence of actions on a regular basis, I figured that something was wrong. Oh yeah, I’m excellent at spotting subtle behavioural patterns. Upon a more thorough inspection, i.e. walking closer to the water and squinting my eyes against the dark, I discovered dozens of rats running sporadically back and forth along the shore.

Since then we have noticed this being the norm anywhere around lakes and rivers during dark hours. Once while sitting in an outside cafe in Hoi An and then later again in Dong Hoi. Here we were in a somewhat fancy restaurant, which had its own artificial lake around the perimeter. Rats were sneaking near this lake and paid occasional visits to our table. They were basically co-existing peacefully with the restaurant staff, Ratatouille style!

“Hmmm, is it just me or are these eggs a tad undercooked? Anyways, what brings YOU to Vietnam?”

Observation 5 – Propaganda Speakers

Mostly in the Northern part of Vietnam you still find propaganda speakers scattered around. Some of them don’t seem to serve any function at all, other than looking like outdated relics that they are. But in certain places the speakers are very much alive.

On several occasions we were woken up at around six in the morning by monotonous chatter of some anonymous dude. I assume he was talking about the latest achievement of the Vietnamese government and encouraging people to work harder for the common good. However, I know very little Vietnamese. Now that I think of it, “arigato” might actually be Japanese, which means I know zero Vietnamese. So the “propaganda man” may actually have been telling jokes, in which case he may want to work on his delivery.

These speakers were even present in a tiny village of Viet Hai tucked away on a remote part of Cat Ba Island, reachable only by boat or a super-human trek. We had rented a basic bungalow there, in the hope of having some peace and quiet for a few days, but the joke-telling speaker guy had other plans in store for us. Each morning he launched into almost one-hour tirades and every 15 minutes his comedy routine was interrupted by a song, usually involving a high pitched female voice singing something vaguely patriotic.

“All day, all night, all day, all night, all day, all night…..WHAT THE *BEEP*?!”

And speaking of singing stuff…

Observation 6 – Karaoke

No Asian stereotype is complete without an image of a man/woman singing on stage at the top of their lungs in a crowded Karaoke bar. It’s as typical as the image of a Russian/Ukrainian wearing a fur coat, fur hat, felt boots and zig-zagging through the streets drunk with a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka sticking out of the coat’s pocket. Now, this may be exactly how I look on some festive occasions, but that doesn’t mean it applies to all of us all of the time. What I’m saying is – beware of putting people into boxes or putting labels on them (Not literally of course. If you’re literally putting people into boxes and putting labels on them, I’m quite sure the police will catch you soon enough, you sick bastard).

However, it seems Vietnam is quite happily living up to this particular stereotype. We’ve seen a multitude of places with live Karaoke performances during our three-week long visit. Our hotel room in Hue was actually right next to a massive multi-floor Karaoke establishment. That specific night was “amateur night” of some sort (when is it not “amateur night” when it comes to Karaoke?) with many hours of performances from audience members. Performances ranged from “utterly tone-deaf” to “almost not horrible”, with the audience cheering for each and every one of them. I’m guessing the winner was whoever made others bleed from their ears the least.

Above: NOT a typical Vietnamese Karaoke singer

Although I must admit there’s something heartening about so many people coming together to celebrate out-of-tune singing (this also goes for Katy Perry’s live performances). I dare you to find a Karaoke bar with a depressing atmosphere and lack of energy in the air. It’s impossible! You have better chances of seeing a Justin Bieber concert that doesn’t end with bottles being thrown at his head.

In Dong Hoi, a city that is otherwise nondescript, there was a street with no less than five Karaoke bars right next to each other. I’m no expert, but it sure seems like overkill, even if you’re really into Karaoke. It would be like having a coffee shop on ever damn corner, it just doesn’t make…wait a minute…well played Starbucks, well played!

The final part of the general observations is now available here. Remember to check out Katka’s awesome pictures from this equally awesome trip! Also, remember to follow me on Facebook or Twitter or even subscribe via email, if you want to stay updated on all of the latest.