A modern Moscow mule

A Russian proposal to try to create artificial life receives Hollywood backing

The actor Steven Seagal once said “I have made a lot of mistakes. But I’ve worked hard. I have no fear of death. More important, I don’t fear life.” Lately he has become an enthusiastic supporter of a futuristic aim to secure exceptional advancements in human immortality. If it succeeds, he may not even have to face death, let alone fear it. Seagal is so taken with the plans that he recently wrote an open letter to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

‘Russia 2045’ is a movement established by a combination of fantasists and scientists with huge ambitions. They want to address what they see as an inexorable degradation of the concept of human life that we have at the moment. Amongst their proposals is the challenge of creating a ‘hologram body’.

Many scriptwriters and novelists have hypothesised over the possible ingredients of the ‘elixir of life’ and the notion of ‘living forever’ has simply been a romantic but unattainable projection of human achivement. Until now. Those believers gathering in Moscow are determined to produce an ‘immortal brain’, arguing that it is a natural course of research for progressive scientists of this day and age. They have set a deadline by which to create the make-up that a regular passer-by would need in order never to die. Some eager fans of the project are even predicting a competition similar to the ‘Space Race’ – but this time with Russia the undisputed champion.

Of course, the mission has its detractors and the scheme has come under fire from many in the Church. Alexey Osipov, a professor at the Moscow Spritual Schools announced that “[the human being is] a unity of body and soul, and separating one from the other is unthinkable from the point of view of Christianity and is vicious.” In response, the founder of the Russia 2045 movement, Dmitry Itskov, said that the ‘cyborg’ idea “[is not] running against anyone’s religious ideals or values.”

In his 2002 film, Half Past Dead, Seagal plays an undercover cop who gets shot and is declared ‘medically deceased’. If this scheme turns out to be a success, the idea that a person could ever have truly died might eventually become the stuff of legend.

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Getting rough in the South China Sea

Tensions are rising across the region and politicians must keep their heads

On Saturday 30 April seven Thai soldiers were killed in a double bombing by suspected rebels. A day later insurgents shot dead two Buddhists in a drive-by in the southern region of Yala. In total, more than 4,500 people have died in the last seven years in the south of Thailand, as suspected Malay Muslim militants fight for greater autonomy. It is a number that has gone unnoticed across much of the world, in a region quietly infamous for violent but sporadic insurgency and politico-religious strains. Also calling for more devolution are Vietnam’s Hmong ethnic minority, from a mostly Christian area up in the far north-west of the country and very close to the border with Laos. A recent protest was fiercely quashed by soldiers.

Another worrying situation that has been brewing for decades between Thailand and Cambodia had its most recent twist in the story at a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Sunday 8 May. The area up for debate was the Preah Vihear temple which stands in the Dangrek mountain range that straddles the Thai-Cambodia border. In 1954, Thai troops stormed the temple but withdrew eight years later. The ancient Hindu complex then fell into the hands of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. And this year forces from both sides have exchanged fire, with reports suggesting that two Thai soldiers died in the incidents.

An unhelpful sideshow to the event is the fact that Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai prime minister who is wanted back in Bangkok on corruption charges, has been appointed as an economic adviser to the Cambodian government. Because of their reluctance to tell member-states how to run domestic affairs, the ASEAN leaders failed to come to an agreement on what to do about the temple issue. This is not surprising, however, seeing as the matter has been simmering away since France left as colonial power at the turn of the last century.

There are some positives. The ASEAN hopes to form a single economic community by 2015 and already has lots of free trade agreements in place. Indonesia is growing in stature and is taking up the role of the region’s mover and shaker on the world stage. Late last year Burma held its first national elections for 20 years.

But the Philippines is wobbling: corruption is rife and political assassinations continue. Malaysia has to take the lead on the other Indo-China nations’ religious shoot-outs. A regional stand-off would heavily affect the commercial arrangements the ASEAN has fought hard to secure. India and China stand quietly in the background and the region must be careful not to split along superpower allegiance lines. But for now, the tourists still have faith in the Thai beaches and the Indonesian surf and they must not be dissuaded from visiting the temples in the mountains as well.

The wars on what?

The similarities between the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘war on drugs’

A commentator writing in The Daily Telegraph, a British conservative newspaper, simply said that ‘a man has died in a war’. The truth is that Osama bin Laden was often considered, by both supporters and opponents, as more than just a man. Some have seen him as a mysterious sage who loved honey and the BBC World Service at the same time as being a scourge of mighty Western powers. And the circumstances both preceding and following his demise are certainly more than just a war.

It is hard to define the limits of the ‘war on terror’. Far from the traditional battlefield scrap, this challenge has relied heavily on intelligence gathering, multi-national cooperation against a moveable enemy, pre-emptive drone strikes, increased border security and the launching of two military interventions in Muslim countries.

There are similarities between the fight against terrorism and another ‘war’ which only loosely fits the customary definition of belligerence. The ‘war on drugs’ is much closer to home for the US and this blog first looked at possible links between al-Qaeda and the Mexican drugs gangs in February 2011 (see ‘Jihad in Juarez‘ – 20/02/11) .

This other ‘war’ has also required more cross-border teamwork, the need to adapt to a changeable and, at times, faceless enemy. It too has called for the use of drones, although at the moment the unmanned aircraft have been surveying Mexico for gang hideouts and signs of activity rather than taking out human targets, as they have been directed to do in Pakistan. The use of drones against the gangsters in the future cannot be ruled out.

There is another similarity between the two ‘wars’: the culture of celebrity. In Mexico, the aura of myth and legend surrounds many key gangsters as it did around bin Laden, and none more so than Joaquín ‘Chapo’ (Shorty) Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa organisation. He is rumoured to eat regularly amongst normal diners in Sinaloa, picking up the tab for everyone in the chosen restaurante and in 1993 he was smuggled out of jail in a laundry basket. Huge multi-million dollar bounties have been placed on his head, along with other main celebrity criminals like Héctor Beltrán Leyva (Beltrán Leyva gang), Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (Juárez organisation) and Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano (Los Zetas).

But although ‘the head of the al-Qaeda snake has been cut off’, the organisation is, as the UK Defence Secretary said recently, still “alive and well”. The same can be said for the gangsters in Mexico. For as more and more are either captured or killed by the police and military, more and more are ready to fill empty shoes and continue their lucrative and violent trade. As Mexico is starting to discover and as the US has realised, these new ‘wars’ with the new type of assailants are long-term struggles against mobile enemies who, as bin Laden had said in the past, ‘love death as much as Americans love life’.

A universal throne

How monarchies cross religious and political boundaries

All you have to do is glance at the guest list for the British royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton on 29 April.

45 different members of foreign royal families were invited; from 25 different countries. There were representatives from absolute monarchies (Swaziland, Saudi Arabia), constitutional monarchies (Sweden, Spain) and excommunicated monarchies (Yugoslavia, Romania). Different European Christian denominations were on show: Lutheran (Queen Margrethe II of Denmark) and Eastern Orthodox (King Simeon II of Bulgaria). From Africa, there were Muslim (Moroccan Princess Lalla Salma) and Christian (Prince Seeiso of Lesotho) royals. And as for Asia, there were the Muslims from absolutist nations (Emir of Qatar) and Muslims from democracies (the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and Raja Permaisuri Agong of Malaysia), along with the Buddhist Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand and Christian King of Tonga.

Far more countries have scrapped their palaces, tiaras and curtseys. But what can we learn from the ones who haven’t?

They span a broad politico-cultural spectrum, showing us that the monarchical system can be applied to differing extents across separate countries (think of the differences between Malaysia’s take on Islam and the Sunni teachings of Saudi Arabia: both Muslim monarchies, but with very different political agendas).

Monarchies can be a stabilising force for good in restive nations but this stability needs to be tempered by a willingness not to tamper with a country’s politics. Despite this, at times they can be wonderful mediators – think of the steady hand Spain’s King Juan Carlos provided during the rocky transition to democracy following the death of Franco in 1975. But sometimes the stability can become an overriding control and this is where the absolutist regimes suffer to maintain international credibility.

More trustworthiness is vested in those families which have taken a constitutional step-back. One area where they generally succeed is on the global stage. They act as patriotic symbols of their nation and can negotiate interests, discuss deals, or, seeing as many countries are more than ready to don rose-tinted glasses and think back to a former age, simply try to whip up attention for the oft-lampooned idea of a monarchy.

European monarchies have survived in more recent times by branching out from their inter-regal and cross-crown breeding. Mette-Marit Tjessem Hoiby, a single mother, met Norwegian Prince Haako at a rock concert before marrying him in 2001. In 2004 Australian Mary Donaldson married Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik. And last week’s British royal wedding continued a tradition kicked-off in style by Grace Kelly’s marriage to Monaco’s Prince Rainier III in 1956.

Royal families have shown they can cross international political and religious boundaries. They also seem to have realised that they truly need to modernise and to understand and break down the remaining boundaries that still exist at home.