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Reading Blog - (Late) September 2023

Tags: books

I wrote the September rather early, and finished two shorter reads while on planes and trains. So here those are:

Peace in Aceh: A Personal Account of the Helsinki Peace Process (Damien Kingsbury, 2006)

I was doing some Malaysia / Indonesia research and stumbled on discussion of Aceh/Atjeh's separatist movement (GAM).
Aceh separatism traces back to its existence as a sultanate and resistance to Dutch colonialism. From 1999, military occupation of the region became increasingly visible through protests, failed cease fires, and assassinations. The national government, coping with the independence of Timor-Leste and other separatists in Sulawesi and West Papua, jailed Aceh negotiators on their way to the airport, imposed martial law, and restricted foreign visitors:

The author, an Australian professor who had researched abuses by the Indonesian military, got welcomed by GAM to advise them in negotiations. This makes for a unique book where the author is participant, activist, and academic. At one point he claims that the government saw him as "the main impediment" to negotiations. Kingsbury portrays the Indonesian military as more of a mafia empire which provokes conflicts to center itself as savior of the country. During the post-tsunami negotiation, hundreds continued to be killed in Aceh, and he vocally protested this and warned against an ongoing military presence in the agreement.

We get an unpolished look behind the scenes. GAM initially kept their foreign advisors secret, meeting after hours at a hotel. Finland's then-president Martti Ahtisaari, who would win the Nobel Peace Prize, could be yelling and banging the table. The author believes that Ahtisaari was inexperienced with the region and bungled wording (special autonomy vs. self-government). Only one woman was at the negotiation table. Government officials would make public promises and be reluctant to continue discussing those issues. Payment for the meeting came from a Finnish NGO and businessman, the plane tickets were a bit shady, and initial progress was leveraged to win EU funding for talks. An NGO circulated a "framework agreement" to somehow poach negotiations away from CMI? Wild stuff.

Some things went right. In addition to the renewed urgency of peace for post-tsunami Aceh, there was a new president and several negotiators hailing from Sulawesi (rather than Java / Jakarta). Kingsbury found Ahtisaari's methods to be effective. By avoiding minor steps such as another cease-fire, the parties could be pushed to find longer-term agreement. Aceh could agree to stay within Indonesia's trade, currency, immigration, and political systems. The difficulties were more about oil money, policing, removing restrictions on candidates, and reparations for previous action by the military.

I thought it was interesting that Indonesia requires political parties to have a national presence to foster unity; according to Wikipedia even today local parties exist only in Aceh. In Myanmar circa 2015 there were over 90 parties because many had localized and ethnic constituencies.

The EU had observers in Aceh from 2005 to 2012.

Despite optimism at the end of this book, Aceh did not lead to a similar agreement in West Papua, which remains under its 2002 autonomy agreement.

After writing this book, Kingsbury monitored elections in Timor-Leste (multiple times) and Myanmar (2015). We may have mutual acquaintances? Earlier this year he sent messages between New Zealand and West Papuan separatists who had taken a hostage.

A GoodReads reviewer suggests that Kingsbury missed perspectives of the Stockholm-based GAM leaders at the conference vs. fighters on the ground in Aceh. The author instead portrays a conflict between GAM and civil society groups who might not respect GAM as representative, or as one where Stockholm GAM was unaffected by dragging the conflict on.

The book could have used a round of edits for errors, less academic words, and generally better flow. The content includes contemporaneous notes, memos, and draft agreements (probably useful to a political science student). The "epilogue" is more of a discussion of political Islam, Sharia law, gender equality, and how to place GAM within this space. This may have been intended to stave off some 2006-era Islamophobia? But it can seem naïve as Aceh continues to be discussed in terms of Sharia law.

A Practical Guide for Genetic Management of Fragmented Animal and Plant Populations (Richard Frankham, 2019)

As part of my search into intriguing grad courses, I looked into "conservation genomics". The course that I saw used a textbook by Frankham, and this is a more accessible book by this author for conservation managers.

Over time, disconnected populations of plants and animals divide into subspecies. Traditionally it was inappropriate for conservationists to cross these populations, because they represent diversity of nature, are adapted to their location, and offspring have reduced fitness when crossed from too-distant relatives. By looking at the full genome, scientists can measure how long ago these populations divided, which groups have issues of inbreeding or still connect with others, and predict cross-breeding issues.

If natural populations separated in the past 300–500 years, this can be attributed to humans occupying their connected habitat, and Frankham supports "genetic rescue" to bridge these populations. An intervention may be as small as moving eight males per generation, or physical changes such as wildlife corridors / overpasses. The practice remains rare and controversial - the book estimates 30 programs. The book criticizes hesitant projects for Blanding's turtles across Chicagoland being treated as isolate populations, or Isle Royale's heavily-studied wolves nearly dying out before scientists imported wolves (2023 update).

The latest methods improve on old practices which used taxonomy, or mixed haphazardly (a family of koalas were sent into other populations, so these populations are now all related). The book warns against studying only mitochondrial DNA or chloroplast DNA - these are transferred in full and not recombined from parents, but they offer an incomplete picture for conservation planning.

I'm reminded of Catalina Island, where the island cannot feed the number of bison it would take to be genetically sustainable, so they will continue to import bison and apply birth control indefinitely. Conservationists also seriously discuss genetic rescue for island foxes. The news coverage of foxes has been spotty, with a university's "genetic rescue" study in 2016 drawing many articles, yet that 2023 USC article mentioning only "conservation efforts by the federal government" and that genetic diversity is still worrying low. Wiki cites a (long-gone) 2010 article where an archaeologist suggested that mixing island fox populations would match how indigenous people brought foxes to the islands and intermixed them.

Updates to Previous Reads

David Golumbia, the author of Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism, has died of cancer. In the years since, he proved prescient - there are a lot of Twitter users with XRP or other crypto signifiers getting blue checkmarks and mouthing off about covid or lasers or something.

It was interesting hearing how many people work in the Sears Tower overnight (United Airlines, high pressure law firms)

Someone on Hacker News brought up Kiva's attempts to form a microcredit / cryptocurrency space: