Politics

Foolhardy Test with a Faulty Reactor — Chernobyl 30 Years Ago

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September 2016

While driving north from Kiev, could not help of thinking the bus convoys from Pripyat coming opposite direction 30 years ago. A test in Chernobyl reactor #4 had gone horribly wrong, and had triggered series of events that still resonate today. 49 thousand people living in Pripyat were elite workers of Soviet famed nuclear industry, and their families, a prestigious position that guaranteed better living compared to average Soviet citizens.

IMG_20160917_093235Soviet era photo of reactor inspection.

After being exposed to high levels of radiation for a day without knowing about the danger, they were told few hours in advance to gather most important belongings and board on busses. Not much else were known by anyone inside and outside Soviet Union, except the political elite in Moscow and specialists that were hurriedly dispatched to the nuclear plant.

001_Ukraine_Chernobyl_1701Road to Chernobyl.
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Quotes bellow are from World Nuclear Association website.

Quote: On 25 April, prior to a routine shutdown, the reactor crew at Chernobyl 4 began preparing for a test to determine how long turbines would spin and supply power to the main circulating pumps following a loss of main electrical power supply. This test had been carried out at Chernobyl the previous year, but the power from the turbine ran down too rapidly, so new voltage regulator designs were to be tested. A series of operator actions, including the disabling of automatic shutdown mechanisms, preceded the attempted test early on 26 April. By the time that the operator moved to shut down the reactor, the reactor was in an extremely unstable condition. A peculiarity of the design of the control rods caused a dramatic power surge as they were inserted into the reactor.

042_Nexus5_2287Schematic model of RBMK1000 (High Power Channel-type Reactor), Chernobyl Museum in Kiev.

Quote: For this test, the reactor should have been stabilised at about 700-1000 MWt prior to shutdown, but possibly due to operational error the power fell to about 30 MWt at 00:28 on 26 April. Efforts to increase the power to the level originally planned for the test were frustrated by a combination of xenon poisoning, reduced coolant void and graphite cooldown. Many of the control rods were withdrawn to compensate for these effects, resulting in a violation of the minimum operating reactivity margin (positive void coefficient) by 01:00 – although the operators may not have known this. At 01:03, the reactor was stabilised at about 200 MWt and it was decided that the test would be carried out at this power level.

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Quote: At 01:23:43, the power excursion rate emergency protection system signals came on and power exceeded 530 MWt and continued to rise (Wikipedia: the last reading on the control panel was 33,000 MW, ten times the normal operational output). Fuel elements ruptured, leading to increased steam generation, which in turn further increased power owing to the large positive void coefficient. Damage to even three or four fuel assemblies would have been enough to lead to the destruction of the reactor. The rupture of several fuel channels increased the pressure in the reactor to the extent that the 1000 t reactor support plate became detached, consequently jamming the control rods, which were only halfway down by that time. As the channel pipes began to rupture, mass steam generation occurred as a result of depressurisation of the reactor cooling circuit. A note in the operating log of the Chief Reactor Control Engineer reads: “01:24: Severe shocks; the RCPS rods stopped moving before they reached the lower limit stop switches; power switch of clutch mechanisms is off.”

003_Ukraine_Chernobyl_1714Moon rover from Soviet space program that was used during cleanup efforts. It was only equipment that could sustain the levels of radiation, all other remotely controlled equipment stopped working after few hours. Most of cleanup effort were done by army reservists, that have since been called as bio-robots.

Quote: Two explosions were reported, the first being the initial steam explosion, followed two or three seconds later by a second explosion, possibly from the build-up of hydrogen due to zirconium-steam reactions. Fuel, moderator, and structural materials were ejected, starting a number of fires, and the destroyed core was exposed to the atmosphere.

007_Ukraine_Chernobyl_1746Radiation level today, next to Reactor #4 is above normal background radion. About the same as in passenger jet in cruising altitudes.

Quote: Fires started in what remained of the unit 4 building, giving rise to clouds of steam and dust, and fires also broke out on the adjacent turbine hall roof (bitumen, a flammable material, had been used in its construction). A first group of 14 firemen arrived on the scene of the accident at 01:28. Over 100 fire-fighters from the site and called in from Pripyat were needed, and it was this group that received the highest radiation exposures. Reinforcements were brought in until about 04:00, when 250 firemen were available and 69 firemen participated in fire control activities. The INSAG-1 report states: “The fires on the roofs of units 3 and 4 were localized at 02:10 and 02:20 respectively, and the fire was quenched at 05:00.” Unit 3, which had continued to operate, was shut down at this time, and units 1 and 2 were shut down in the morning of 27 April.

002_Ukraine_Chernobyl_1710Monument for the firemen that were first to arrive the plant after accident. Not knowing what they were dealing with, they were unprotected against the massive levels of radiation released from reactor.

After the accident, several investigations have been conducted to find causes of the accident. The first one still during Soviet Union laid all the blame on operators of the plant. Second one after couple years in turn blamed the reactor design. Consensus today seems to be combination of both:

  1. Errors done by the reckless and inexperienced control crew. Even with quirks of reactor that delivered the final blow, operators demonstrated that they didn’t fully control the reactor, and created conditions for the accident. For example the inability to stabilise the reactor at 700-1000 MWt before starting the test, power level dropped to measly 30MWt in their hands, and led to extremely unstable reactor configuration. Another example is manually overriding several automated safety systems, to be able raise the reactor output that had plummeted.
  2. Reactor design, described earlier.

Several contributing factors have also been identified, for instance:

  • Bad luck. Inexperienced night shift was doing the test, instead of day/evening shifts as originally planned. Kiev power grid controller needed power until 23pm, which postponed the test later than expected.
  • General lack of respect to safety procedures and wider operating margins, as well as withholding important information can be attributed as products of paranoid, totalitarian and dysfunctional society of Soviet Union after decades of Brezhnevian stagnation. For instance same type reactor had already demonstrated its tendency for power spikes in Ignalina nuclear plant (Lithuania), four years prior Chernobyl 1986. This important information was not spread anywhere, and Chernobyl operators were unaware of it.

011_Ukraine_Chernobyl_1757Pripyat town center today.

Two days after the accident, radiation detector alarms went on in Swedish Forsmark nuclear plant, over 1200 kilometers away from Chernobyl. After checking their own plant several times, without finding the cause of high levels of radiation, Swedish started to look causes abroad and contacted Soviet authorities (link for more info). This finally forced Moscow to admit to the rest of the world what had happened.

022_Ukraine_Chernobyl_1830Pripyat town center today.

All resources of super power were employed to contain the radiation, disconnect reactor from atmosphere and prevent even larger damage. Superheated core was slowly eating its way to lower sections of destroyed building, which risked yet another explosion if it reached large water pools under. Helicopter pilots from Afghan front were rushed to Chernobyl and drop sand, lead, clay, and neutron-absorbing boron onto the burning reactor. Miners from Russia were brought to dig tunnel under the reactor and replace water in pools under the reactor with cement. Thousands of army reservists were used as bio-robots because equipment available broke down. They had to clean the highly radioactive debris and destroyed buildings. Large sarcophagus to seal reactor from air was hurriedly designed and built in highly radioactive environment.

027_Ukraine_Chernobyl_1854Ghost town of Pripyat is touching place to visit and see.
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019_Ukraine_Chernobyl_1818Pripyat.
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039_Nexus5_2373Abandoned Duga radar near Chernobyl, nicknamed “Russian Woodpecker”. It was a Soviet over-the-horizon radar system, used as part of the early-warning network of oncoming American ballistic missiles. Two operational Duga radars were deployed, one near Chernobyl and Chernihiv in Ukraine, the other in eastern Siberia.

038_Ukraine_Chernobyl_1723Starting in 1976 a new and powerful radio signal was detected worldwide, and quickly dubbed the Woodpecker by amateur radio operators, due to its sounding like a sharp, repetitive tapping noise at 10 Hz. In late 1980’s Duga system was made irrelevant by satellites. The satellite system provides immediate, direct and highly secure warnings, whereas any radar-based system is subject to jamming.

037_Ukraine_Chernobyl_1865Duga radar can be easily seen from higher buildings of Pripyat, so it was hardly a secret for civilians living there. What was secret though was its purpose. Locals were told it being television antenna!

Just two years after Chernobyl, Gorbachev government found itself again at odds with harsh realities of Soviet system. December 1988 an earthquake 6.8 Ms magnitude, rocked northern regions of Soviet Republic of Armenia. Casualties have been estimated 25000—50000 dead. Much of casualties were attributed to substandard construction of buildings during Breznevian decades, such as excess amount of sand used because cement had been stolen or sold to black market. Also the Soviet war in Afghanistan was going wrong big time, and eventually they would have to recognise the defeat and withdraw. These hardships were used by Gorbachev as evidence that Soviet system needed fundamental changes, enter the glasnost and perestroika reforms. However as history then witnessed, it was too little too late. In November 1989 Berlin Wall fell, and dominoes started to fall for Soviet block.

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Statue of Lenin still stood at firmly in Kiev, September 2012. In public view it had transitioned from being Communist monument, to a symbol of Ukraine’s linkage to Moscow. After EuroMaidan protests in 2013-2014, old gentleman finally had to step down from his podium.

008_Ukraine_Chernobyl_1748Chernobyl today: the New Safe Confinement is getting ready. It is a structure intended to contain the destroyed nuclear reactor #4. Besides better prevention of radiation leaks, secondary goal is to allow partial demolition of the old sarcophagus built 1986. The total cost of the project is estimated to be around 2.15 billion Euros. November 2016, NSC moving has started: Link.


Interesting clip about starting and stopping a scientific nuclear reactor.

Gorgeous Georgia

(the country of Georgia in Caucasus)

Title came to mind when I set way out of capital Tbilisi. Marshrutka (minibus) didn’t have to drive more than an hour when Greater Caucasus mountain range was already providing stunning views.

June 2016

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@ Stepantsminda. Night descends to a small town in a deep mountain valley. Cows are leisurely walking in yards and roads, in their never ending quest for something to munch. Its mid summer, and snow rivers are still visible but quickly fading, glaciers at mountain tops withdrawing. Evenings even now are pretty chilly, but afternoon sun combined with exhaust of trekking is sweaty affair in the mountains. Glancing up from village, silhouette of Gergeti Trinity Church at 2200 meters starts to fade away as light diminishes, and behind, the mighty 5000 meter tall Kazbegi shines in orange and purple hues of sunset. I climbed today to see the church and surroundings, two hour ascend is tedious exercise for leg muscles, and one hour tap dance down is hard on knees. But it was well worth the trouble, views overlooking the mountain, the ancient church and the views back to town were gorgeous.

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Photos do pale justice to the scenery visitor can see in real life.

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My guesthouse had lovely old gramophone and some records. Wonder when machine delighting listeners last time?

@ Borjomi. Am sitting on a porch of my guest house. Its been exhausting hot day, as I visited Vardzia, near Turkish and Armenian borders. Vardzia was medieval stone town carved to a side of steep cliff. Famous Georgian Queen Tamar who presided over golden age of her kingdom, sent off her armies for conquest from here. Wikipedia:

The chronicler of Tamar describes how the army was assembled at the rock-hewn town of Vardzia before marching on to Basian and how the queen addressed the troops from the balcony of the church.

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Borjomi is famous for its healthy mineral water and springs. Health tourism started already in early 1800’s, when Tsarist Russia started developing the infrastructure. Town is situated in charming narrow valley, surrounded by lovely lush jungle growing on both sides of narrow river valley.

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In its early years, Borjomi was reserved for blue blooded. Nowadays the attractions has been democratised for everyone interested.

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@ Mestia and Ushguli. Scenes of Svanetia region in north west of Georgia are like from Hobbit movies. For centuries, region was protected by its difficult accessibility. Even Mongol’s weren’t interested in spending resources to capture it, easier targets were elsewhere. Svanetia is famous for its tower houses, green valleys and beautiful white capped mountains.

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Svaneti region, north west of Georgia.

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Svaneti girl.

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Katski Pilar near city of Kutaisi.

Today, traveler comes first Mestia as its better connected with the rest of country. Ushguli is further 40km by the road. Mestia has more modern infrastructure, paved roads, shops, banks, restaurants and cafes, but its remoteness is still evident especially at winter time. I personally liked more of Ushguli, mainly because of its originality. Chatted with fellow traveler, an Austrian alpinist. We both agreed that region was under rapid transformation and in five-ten years time Ushguli could hardly be recognised from its past or even current self. Unpaved jumpy road would be paved. Hotels, restaurants would spring up to cater growing numbers of visitors. Rusting Soviet era equipment of trucks, tractors that still stand in where they broke off, would be cleared out of sight. Some of the magic of remoteness and originality would no doubt be lost. This writer also describes the changing situation in Svaneti.

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Pigs, horses and cows are bumming around everywhere.

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Georgian driving culture can be rough experience for new comer. Drivers often straighten the curves even when there is no clear visibility of opposing traffic. Speed limits are nonexistent, and cows can be standing middle of road in curves and dimly lit tunnels.

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@ Gori. Day started with sweaty train ride from Kutaisi, aircon in wagon just wasn’t sufficient enough against the sun and 35-40 Celsius outside. As we approached the Gori, rain front started to grow in horizon. Am writing this in my room at darkening evening, its still pouring rain outside. Couldn’t help but comparing the weather with thunderous son of the city. Joseph Vissarionovich Jughashvili was born in Gori 18 December 1878, to a poor family of drunk father and devout Orthodox mother, Keke. Parents regularly beat their children, and following quote is telling of what kind of childhood the son had: Wikipedia: “N. Kipshidze, a doctor who treated Keke in her old age, recalled that when Stalin visited his mother in October 1935, he asked her: “Why did you beat me so hard?” “That’s why you turned out so well”, Keke answered.”
Two years later when Ekaterine Geladze died in Tbilisi, her son was too busy orchestrating the Great Purge in Moscow, and couldn’t or wouldn’t attend the funeral.

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Grave of Keke, Stalin’s mother, in Tbilisi.

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Stalins armored train wagon he used to travel to three famous conferences during WW2: Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam. The Generalissimo was afraid of flight and paranoid about sabotage, so he traveled on land even as far as Iran.

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Stalin museum of Gori.

Visited Stalin museum in city center was one of most rewarding museum visits I’ve done for a while. It was this because of contemporary Stalin-cult era information. Iron Joe, as many other dictators, built a personality cult around him. Gori was one of pilgrimage sites for diehard Stalinists. City’s main avenue is named after him. Stalin museum is in best place in the city, and from its park can be found humble birth home of Stalin, protected by neoclassic columns and covering. Photos, paintings and items of the dictator have long since disappeared from displays elsewhere, but here museum preserves and displays them as before. Visitor can grasp how seriously the man was taken in his time. Museum can also give a rare glimpse of nowadays-disappearing mindset of Soviet people.

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Stalins cap and overcoats.

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Stalin supermarket in Gori.

@ Tbilisi. Back in capital after tiring but very eye opening and rewarding trip around the country. Met many nice travelers from Poland, Austria, Korea, Japan. Tasted Georgian traditional foods like khinkali (meat dumplings) and khachapuri (cheese-filled bread). Country had a shady reputation during its first years of independence after collapse of Soviet Union, but since the Rose Revolution in 2003, new governments have managed to root out corrupted officials and mafia from hardening peoples lives. Like many former Soviet countries, Georgia is still in transition phase from this past, but things are changing rapidly. For travelers Georgia can provide experiences of beautiful nature, fascinating history and friendliness of local people. Wikitravel describes it better:

The Georgians have exceptionally strong traditions of hospitality, chivalry, and codes of personal honour. They believe that guests come from God. Friendship is prized highest among all the virtues. … The Georgians are proud, passionate, and fiercely individualistic, yet deeply connected with each other by a shared sense of belonging to a greater Georgian family.

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Tbilisi views.

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Tbilisi views.

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Tbilisi views.

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Tbilisi views.

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Wind Of Change: Myanmar, Iran, Cuba

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Posts in the series:

Back in late 1980’s when I was a teenager, Berlin Wall, East European Communist satellites, and finally Soviet Union itself collapsed within time of only few years. Media, adults, everyone, were commenting and speculating what comes next. Scorpions recorded their famous song Wind Of Change, to portray the epic changes that profoundly changed lives of millions of Europeans. Me included, although completely clueless about it, but I liked the song.

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In this decade we’ve seen the news, ministers, presidents, envoys shuffling back and forth to three countries: Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Islamic Republic of Iran and lately Barak Obama was first American president in 90 years to travel Havana, capital of Republic of Cuba. All the high level work has been about ending economic blockades, sanctions and trade embargoes. These countries are far apart with different histories. Issues in negotiations have local nuances, and remains to be seen wether actual changes continue like the wind of change, or stale air of empty words. These events nevertheless represent similar dawn-of-new-era moment for the people of these countries, similar of what was happening in Europe earlier. To people who have been waiting for a long time, in many cases their entire lives. People who want more open, prosperous and predictable future.

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Spring 2015 I was finishing my assignment in north Thailand. While land border to Myanmar was always close by, crossing was limited to air travel mainly. So after my work was finished, flight to Yangon was awaiting and journey started from there. Friends also recommended two other countries, and the plan expanded from there.

Here’s the journey so far:

History: Armenian Genocide — What Prompted It?

This year that is soon ending, marked 100 years since Armenian Genocide. According to Wikipedia, around 800000 to 1.5 million Armenians died in 1915, during World War One. Although the term was familiar, I kind of leaned common thinking that tragedy was result of war surfacing wrong people to power, who created horrible conditions with terror, famine and freezing winters. How wrong was I…

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Genocide Memorial in Yerevan center

In 1915, genocide developed in three phases. First was drafting Armenian and other Christian men to take part in Ottoman armies, at the wake of war. After disastrous campaign against Russians, these men were made as scapegoats for the losses. Had the war gone any better for Ottomans, who knows if later events had happened in their severity? Men were disarmed and put on hard labor companies, and gradually exhausted and murdered. Second phase was spring 1915, when 200-300 Armenian intellectuals (priests, artists, business and other noteworthy people) were executed throughout the empire, and especially in the capital Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). In last third phase, targets were the leaderless and helpless women, children and older men. They were forced to death marches in Syrian deserts, tortured, starved, murdered. These stages were planned and organised by Young Turk government at the head of Ottoman Empire, and were not impulsive and improvised violence by armed thugs.

Besides events of 1915, similar though smaller atrocities happen over the decades. Several Ottoman/Turkish governments, often hostile to each other, followed the same policy consistently: last Sultan still wielding state power, Abdul Hamid II (Hamidian Massacres 1894–1896, Adana Holocaust 1909). Sultan was deposed by Young Turk movement that drove Ottoman’s to war. And lastly the Kemalists, after the war (Smyrna Fire 1923).

Atrocities resulted population transfers and immigration through the years. For example, California today has significant Armenian population living as Americans. Similarly France and other European countries received multitudes of Armenian refugees. After Greco-Turkish War (1919–22), both sides agreed of population transfer. Muhacirs from Balkans transferred to now depopulated West Armenia and elsewhere in modern day Turkey. Anatolian Greeks and Macedonians in turn moved to Balkans.

So back to question, what was the reason behind tragedy?

In late 1800’s, new ideals such as Nationalism and Communism not only undermine traditional order, but inspired a rifts between ethnicities and religions. People had earlier just one ruler, the Sultan, to worry about. Now they were forming new ideas how their future should be shaped, where their loyalties should be, and who their allies were.

Developments in Ottoman Empire, during its last century was continued struggle from one setback to another. In hands of several incompetent Sultans the empire seemed to fell apart. It was leaving behind militarily to European powers. Due to mismanagement, it also became financially dependant on them. Anatolia was still home of large Christian population. Greeks, Armenians and other Christians influenced local business and spiritual communities. They were often better educated and wealthier than Muslims. If old trend continued, could Turkish Muslims become second class citizens in their homeland? My guess the reason for genocide was simply out of fear that one day, if Anatolia was lost, there would be no place to withdraw anymore. So ethnic cleansing was planned and executed by successive regimes.

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Eternal flame, in Genocide Memorial of Yerevan

Today, this topic today is still full of controversy. It is spurring demonstrations in Turkey and Armenia. Journalists have lost lives, monuments destroyed and defaced. Turkish-Armenian border stays closed from trade and tourism.
Modern day Turkey is more wealthy, mature and educated than ever before. Still its denying the word genocide, to describe what happened to Armenians. Perhaps it would be finally time to acknowledge the wrongs of the past? Armenians will never forget the Great Crime that was done to them, and history wont be going anywhere.

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History: Why did Burma fell into tyranny while India remains worlds largest democracy?

On November 8 2015, general elections will be held in Burma (aka. Myanmar). It’s a chance for a long time to fix some errors of the past. But what the two countries in subject had to do with each other and the question?

Lets start in India. Epilogue from Michael Edwardes book British India 1772-1947:

Implicit in the tenets of liberal democracy is the rule of law. Inefficient courts and the inappropriateness of their procedure often led, and still lead, to travesties of justice, but the basic principle that law controls the limits of government is entrenched in India.

It may seem seem very little after 175 years of direct British rule to have left behind only a system of government and of law, neither of which – according to some critics – work very well. But they were not abstract systems. They were supported by an administration framework which survived the transfer of power. Unlike the other European imperial powers in their Asian possessions, the British deliberately constructed the scaffolding of a modern state in which Indians themselves played an indispensable functional role. When the small British element was withdrawn in 1947 the scaffolding did not collapse, even under the pressures of partition.

Burma was annexed by British in three stages from 1826 to 1886 when Mandalay, the imperial capital, and rest of upper Burma fell to British hands. Burma was province of India (Raj) until 1937, after which administered from Rangoon but still closely linked with India.

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Area of British India. At it’s largest in 1937, Raj was behemoth that covered modern day Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka

Here is where comes the interesting comparison: scaffolding that Edwardes describes, must have been taking form in Burma as well. Both countries gain their independence around same time, India 1947 and Burma next year. So what happened? Here are few points that can explain:

Time — British had 175 years of uninterrupted influence in some parts of India, Bengal in particular. Upper Burma in contrast, this was just over 60 years. Same person who’s birth and childhood in northern Burma was during reign of King Thibaw early 1880’s, could have seen Union Jack lowered and British Governor boarding on ship in 1948.

Border region — Burma was for a long administered from Calcutta and considered a mere eastern border of Raj. Buffer zone militarily, source of raw materials economically. Well before third Anglo-Burman war, British Secretary of State wrote to Governor-General of India (Terence R. Blackburn, The British Humiliation of Burma):

…it is of primary importance to allow no other European power to insert itself between British Burma and China. Our influence in that country (Upper Burma, still independent at the time of writing) ought to be paramount. The country itself is of no great importance. But an easy communication with the multitudes who inhabit Western China is an object of national importance.

This obviously does not automate things one way or other, but goes to show in which kind of hands the development of country was at the time.

Economy — Development of Burmese commerce, industry, education was slow because owned by foreigners. Not just European but largely in Indian as well. Need for civil servants to run state affairs was also different, in times when Burma received it’s orders from Calcutta or Delhi. Peace loving, tax paying, industrious middle class became one of corner stones of modern India, not so much of Burma.

World War Two — Burma became a war zone when Japanese entered the country 1942. They were forced out few years later by Allied army, but the damage was already done. Front lines were moving in Burmese territory. Effects on society and to democratic institutions can be easily be guessed. None of Burma’s major pre-war political parties survived until the independence. In comparison, Indian National Congress (INC) was founded decades before the independence, and is still one of the dominant political parties of the country.

Scaffolding that Edwardes described is still holding the worlds biggest democracy. In Burma it started collapsing after the independence, and came down entirely in 1962. Military took control of state powers (Dr. Maung Maung, Burma and General Ne Win):

Revolutionary Council (the junta) was deeply disillusioned with parliamentary democracy. In “The Burmese Way to Socialism”, a terse and powerful statement of policy issued by the Revolutionary Council on April 30, 1962, it was pointed out that “parliamentary democracy has been tried and tested in furtherance of the aims of socialist development. But Burma’s ‘parliamentary democracy’ has not only failed to serve our socialist development, but also, due to it’s very defects, weakness and loopholes, it’s abuses and the absence of a mature public opinion, lost sight of and deviated from the socialist aims, …

The last question: does it matter after all this time? Many things have changed and country has been taking few wary democratic steps in recent years. But the fact is that same clan of generals is still pulling the strings on state affairs. Human rights are abused when people try voice out their opinion. Ethnic minorities fight their desperate struggle against Burma Army. Couple examples from newspaper The Irrawaddy earlier this year: here, here and here.

Update after November 8 2015 election: (NLD) National League for Democracy won the landslide victory in election. People voted the only true democratic alternative, as opposed to parties and politicians appointed by military. Today mid December The Irrawaddy reported interesting meeting that take place between NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and former junta leader, Than Shwe. Positive signs, hope they continue to come.

Balkans: Siege of Sarajevo – Two Decades After

Visiting Sarajevo and Mostar in 2012.

October 29 2012 — It’s 9am and am sitting in a bus watching first snow of the winter falling. Bus is heading small town of Mostar, a few hour drive from Sarajevo. Weather in the region can differ a lot from valley to valley, or cantons, as locals call them like in Switzerland. Going up one side of mountain in a thick snowfall. After reaching the peak and start descent, ground color changes from white to green, and snow turns to rain.

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Mostar old center

Mostar old bridge over Neretva River, and surrounding old quarters have been restored nicely. During fighting in -90’s, this UNESCO world heritage site was badly damaged. Many buildings still have war scars, some are bare skeletons. But also big shiny shopping mall has risen to the town outskirts.

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Wikipedia: Stari Most (English: Old Bridge) is a reconstruction of a 16th-century Ottoman bridge in the city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina that crosses the river Neretva and connects two parts of the city

Past days have been cold in Sarajevo, just as it was 20 years ago when the siege on. Fighting erupted 1992 as part of several conflicts that were result of Yugoslavia’s disintegration, and fall of Communism in East Europe. Finally 1995, mortar fire and snipers stopped terrorizing civilians.

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Big cemetery in Sarajevo outskirts, victims of the siege

Back then I was young student, living far away from here. From the cacophony of politics and media circus, it was hard to follow who fought who, why someone attacked someone. Now in peace and with perspective of some time, its easier to try comprehend those years. I visited the siege museum to try to get an idea of how the war was felt by those that lived it. On display was improvised weapons, tools, heaters, kitchenware etc… Aid and commerce were blocked by the guns, so everything had to be self made. Money in general was replaced by bartering, black market was booming.

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Siege Museum in Sarajevo. Typical living conditions during the siege

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Old Sarajevo Olympics sign scarred by bullet holes

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Such building walls are disappearing sight, but could still be found relatively easy at the time of visit

Weather in Mostar was fairly good today. In Sarajevo snow had covered everything while away, and still kept pouring more after return. Now its time for Cevapi dinner. Cevapi is a Bosnian traditional cuisine that makes from meaty sausages, flat bread, and just that. Yoghurt can also be served aside. Simply delicious! @ Sarajevo

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Old friends by the Eternal Fire, Sarajevo center

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This photo remind me of story of Romeo and Juliet in Sarajevo. Wikipedia: “She was a Bosniak, and he a Bosnian Serb. They were killed by snipers on 19 May 1993, while trying to cross the Vrbanja bridge to the Serb-occupied territory of Grbavica.”

Unlike them, this couple can coo in peace