Powerful men who like the word “no”

9. Mar 2010

In May 2008, a massive cyclone hit Myanmar. An estimated 1,5 million people were affected and the victims were in dire need of help. However, all foreign aid workers’ visas were rejected and the aid planes, filled with water and food for the people, were stopped in Rangoon and asked to turn back.

In March 2009, the North Korean leadership told five American aid groups to leave the country without any particular reason given and closed down the border to South Korea. As this was the time of the North Korean missile launch, speculations are that this is the reason for the sudden shut-down.

In October 2008, Malaysia’s government froze all immigrant workers and launched a campaign seeking out all immigrants – legal or illegal – and tossed them back to their countries. Around 300,000 people suddenly found themselves kicked back to poverty in Bangladesh and Indonesia in particular. 

These rejections are just a couple of examples. On a smaller scale, authoritarian governments, which outnumber democratic governments by far in Asia, uses the word “no” in cases that affects thousands of people every day. In land cases, in political asylum cases, in refugee cases and in aid collaboration, local news sources report on rejection of important matters so frequently it is not even news anymore.

This constitutes an obvious problem, which is difficult to deal with. Both because it seems to require negotiation methods that are yet unknown – all prior attempts seem unsuccessful when these situations can suddenly occur – and because there may be very little willingness to change the attitude.

This entry is not about that, though. This entry is about what powerful men with fear of new ways and a first impulse to say “no” can cost us all.

It is about a very old fragment of an ape-skull found in Krabi, Thailand.  

The ape-skull – or actually the ape-fossil –was found in 1996 and estimated to be about 35 million years old.  Last November, it was verified that this little piece of jaw with almost all its lower teeth intact was in fact 35 million years old. It was also revealed that the bone belonged to an anthropoid – the forefather of the humans – and that the anthropoid was a higher developed monkey weighing around seven kilos. The found shattered the theory that anthropoids originated in Africa, which scientists have argued so far. According to this verified piece of evidence, apes did in fact originate in Asia and then wandered to Africa, not the other way around.

Anyway, upon finding the jaw in 1996, Myanmar’s skeptical junta decided to revoke a previous “no” and starting in 1997 let foreign paleoanthropologists come in and work in the country.

Over the next ten years, scientists have found over 50 anthropoid fossils of varying size and species, but all from the same period – the Eocene period, 55-33 million years ago – as the Thailand ape.

This is an astronomical high number of finds, when taken into consideration how rare fossils of that period is today and how it was pretty much established that these fossils did not exists at all. Turns out now, that there is overwhelming evidence hidden in particular Myanmar and China, that what we believed until now is flat out wrong. Apes did not originate in Africa.

While the rejection of aid and its consequences are obvious and horrifying, there may be even bigger consequences of authoritarian governments ominous power and their fondness of saying no to pretty much anything they do not fully understand (like science).

This example of a sudden yes from Tan Shwe and company changed the history. What else have we not yet discovered, because we are not allowed to?  


Anya Palm, freelance journalist