The gunslinger state of Laos

On December 15, on his way back from work, the Laotian director, activist and award winner, Sombath Somphone, mysteriously disappeared. The last people to see him, according to leaked surveillance footage, were the Laotian authorities at a police control post, where he was pulled over, and then driven away in a different car.

Despite that, the Laotian government still went out with a full denial of any knowledge as to why Sombath Somphone was detained…by their own officers. Since then, there has been no sign of the director, and no explanation as to why he disappeared.

Just weeks before, another activist had a run-in with the Laotian authorities – the director of the Swiss NGO Helveta, Anne-Sophie Gindroz, were expelled with a 24-hour warning for writing a critical letter.

The Laotian government explained that she “dismayed” the government with her “improper behavior.” Whatever that means – a quite surprising argumentation for throwing a peaceful activist out of a country.

Somehow , though, Laos has still managed to successfully present themselves as a charming little nation with a slow pace and idyllic farm life for the ever-smiling population. Relaxation, leisure and spirituality are key words in any glittered tourist brochure on Laos.

Truth is that the life in Laos is far from idyllic, and the pace is very, very far from slow. Since the 90s, the Laotians have built dams, constructed hydropower plants and made deals with neighbors Thailand, China and Vietnam so efficiently that the economy is today the fastest growing economy in ASEAN.

The country has recently joined the World Trade Organization, hosted an ASEM-summit – the biggest diplomatic event ever to take place in the country – and they have co-signed a range of international agreements, putting them into a world market that they could only dream of entering just a few years ago.

The main reason for the excellent economical performance is the energy sector. 30 percent of the country´s BNP comes out of natural resources converted into energy, mainly hydro electricity from plants and dams on Mekong and it´s many tributaries.

And while making this profit and shining in the spotlight of international recognition, Laos – quite on par with the behavior in the cases of Somphone and Gindroz – ignores that there are people living on and off these rivers.

Right now, Laos is constructing a dam called the Xayaburi Dam. Since the proposal of the project in 2007  it has been met with protests from experts, governments, activists, NGOs…pretty much everyone, who knows anything about water: It will hurt the migration of fish, it will endanger a number of species of fish – including the rockstar of Mekong; the Mekong giant catfish – and it will affect crops cultivated in and near the river. WWF estimates that a whopping 60 million people will be affected by the dam in its present form.

Naturally, there are negotiations going on, both with international experts and with the neighboring countries, on how to construct the dam with minimal damage. Both Vietnam and Cambodia have officially called for a halt in construction.

The Laotian response? Well. They ignore all the fuss and carry on building.

Laos has risen from dirt-poverty into a flourishing trading nation, and the fact that it will hurt some groups in the population – namely the poor and the minorities – seems to be of minor importance. The logic is: You cannot make an omelet without breaking some eggs.

But you know what, Laos? Economy is not an omelet and people are not eggs. There are ways to have economic growth without shattering the lives of the most vulnerable groups in your nation.

It is so, though, that the cases of horrible governance, the breaches of basic human rights, the bypassing of negotiations and good advice – all these things factor in, when you new lucrative, international friends are to do business with you.

You don´t seem to realize it, but the spotlight is on you now, Laos. What are you going to do with it?


Anya Palm, Journalist and NIAS Associate

Palm Writings



Iqbal’s Pakistan! – The Country Ahead?


The term ‘Iqbal’s Pakistan’ is frequently used in the Pakistani media – both electronic media such as television and radio, and Pakistani daily newspapers. If you search on the internet, you will come across several results under the term ‘Iqbal’s Pakistan’ in online papers, articles published in local journals or magazines and on sites reviewing seminars and conferences held in the country. You will find the term on YouTube and other similar websites where video recordings of talk shows, sitcoms, and Urdu plays are posted with the theme – Iqbal ka Pakistan – the Urdu term for Iqbal’s Pakistan.

What does the term ‘Iqbal’s Pakistan’ mean? And what is the relationship between Iqbal and Pakistan? Dr. Muhammad Iqbal, popularly known as ‘the spiritual father of Pakistan’[1] and leading Persian and Urdu poet of undivided India, presented the idea of “the Punjab, North-West Frontier Province, Sind and Baluchistan amalgamated into a single State” in his presidential address to the 25th session of the All-India Muslim League held in Allahabad on 29 December, 1930.[2] He also stated that: “Self-government within the British Empire, or without the British Empire, the formation of a consolidated North-West Indian Muslim State appears to me to be the final destiny of the Muslims, at least of North-West India”. This idea presented by Muhammad Iqbal was later adopted by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan as a proposal for the establishment of a separate homeland for the Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent. Mohommad Iqbal has ever since been revered in Pakistan as a national hero just like his political counterpart Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-philosopher, was born in Sialkot (now in central Punjab, Pakistan) on 9 November 1877. Iqbal was engaged in the study of Arabic and Persian in his early years but later on the advice of Sir Thomas Arnold, his teacher of philosophy at the Government College of Lahore, he travelled to Cambridge in 1905 to continue his studies. He also studied at Heidelberg and Munich universities in Germany. Upon his return to India, he both taught at the Government College and worked as a lawyer in Lahore. In 1922, Iqbal received the knighthood from the British Crown. In 1928, he delivered a series of lectures in various universities in India which was later published under the title The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, a work that provides significant context and guidelines for his ideas expressed in his poetry. Written in both Urdu and Persian, Iqbal’s poetry continues to inspire Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent and beyond. Iqbal died on April 21, 1938 in Lahore and his mausoleum beside the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore is visited by many today[3].

Iqbal’s poetry has been used in several national contexts. Muhammad Iqbal claims admiration among intellectual Pakistanis, both intelligentsia and young students. To this day, in Pakistani schools, each morning students, teachers and other staff assemble and sing one of Iqbal’s famous poems written for children ‘Lab pay aati hai du’a ban ke tamanna meri’ (My longing comes to my lips as supplication of mine-O God! May like the candle be the life of mine). Similarly, speech contests related to Muhammad Iqbal and his vision of the Indian Muslim state are held in Pakistani schools and colleges while his poetry is frequently quoted in public talks. Pakistani politicians, leaders and other professionals often quote Iqbal’s poetry to support their own progressive ideas. Iqbal’s poetry has also been frequently used by religious scholars and Islamic hardliners to articulate their own religious views. His works have been translated in several regional languages of South Asia as well as several European languages, among others English, German, and Spanish.

Annemarie Schimmel, a famous scholar, pointed out that Muhammad Iqbal “… has been regarded as the unsurpassable master of every virtue and art; he has been made a forerunner of socialism or an advocate of Marxism; he was anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist; he was the poet of the elite and of the masses, the true interpreter of orthodox Islam and the advocate of a dynamic and free interpretation of Islam, the enemy of Sufism and a Sufi himself; he was indebted to Western thought and criticized everything Western mercilessly. One can call him a political poet, because his aim was to awaken the self-consciousness of Muslims, primarily in the Indian Subcontinent but also in general, and his poetry was indeed instrumental in bringing forth decisive changes in the history of the Subcontinent. One can also style him a religious poet, because the firm belief in the unending possibilities of the Koran and the deep and sincere love of the Prophet (in both his quality as nation-builder and as eternal model for man) are the bases of his poetry and philosophy”.

The question is – why do the Pakistanis use the term ‘Iqbal’s Pakistan’? What would be Iqbal’s Pakistan like?

A large part of Muhammad Iqbal’s poetry is dedicated to the youth. He wished to see the Muslim youth vibrant in its ideals, determined in its actions and high-aiming in its approach to life. He said,

“I have love for those youngsters who pull the stars down.”[4]

Using the analogy of ‘Shaheen’ (the Urdu/Persian terminology used for an eagle) in his poetry, Muhammad Iqbal draws his readers’ attention to the qualities of an eagle ‘the king of birds’. An eagle, Iqbal says, has a sharp vision, it does not live on the prey that has been hunted down by other birds or animals, it lives on the peaks of high mountains and finally, it does not build a nest. These qualities of an eagle that Iqbal describes in his poetry symbolize a life of independence, dignity, freedom, and self-reliance. By using the symbol of a ‘Shaheen’ in his poetry, Iqbal attempts to inculcate in the Muslim youth an approach towards life that contains high ideals followed by action. In addressing the youth he wrote,

“You can only claim a universe to be yours that is created by you

Do not consider this world made of stone and wood that is in sight, your universe!”[5]

Muhammad Iqbal attempted to create self-consciousness among the Muslims of India so that they might free themselves from the British control on the one hand and the domination of Hindus on the other.  In his poem, ‘Shaheen’, Iqbal expresses his ideas using the example of an eagle:

East and West these belong to the world of the pheasant,
The blue sky—vast, boundless—is mine![6]

This symbolism in Muhammad Iqbal’s poetry is not merely an expression of his mystical thoughts but, he invokes the Muslim youth, these ideals can be and must be achieved through a transformed knowledge about the Self. Many of Iqbal’s poems talk about the Self: “…the system of the universe originates in the Self, and that the continuation of the life of all individuals depends on strengthening the Self”[7]. The human identity, according to Iqbal, is boundless, if realized to its true worth. Iqbal challenges the youth to realize their real worth by tapping into the qualities that belong to al-insaan (the perfect human) present in each human being. Iqbal’s concept of mard-e-mo’min (a man of conviction, belief) which he uses a number of times in his poetry seems to have become an ideal for the Pakistani youth.

“He (mo’min) is mild in speech and wild in action.
Be it battlefield or the assembly of friends, he is pure of heart and action.”[8]


There are examples of constructive criticism in Iqbal’s poetry as a means of creating a feeling of restlessness amidst the youth so that they may become actively engaged in productive contemplation that ultimately leads to action. In several examples of his poetry, Muhammad Iqbal addresses his own son, Javaid (then a young boy below the age of 10) but indirectly he is addressed to the youth in general, an example of which are the following verses,

“Create a place for thyself in the realm of Love

Create a new age, new days, new nights

If God grant thee an eye for nature’s beauty

Create poetry from the silence of tulips and roses (Converse with the silence of flowers, respond to their love)

My way of life is poverty, not the pursuit of wealth

Barter not thy Selfhood, win a name in adversity”[9]

Iqbal’s Muslim hero “…is a man of action and a man of the world, but his approach to the world is non-materialistic. According to Iqbal, it is through love and through a focus on one’s inner self that man can achieve the absolute form of freedom”.[10]

“Unflinching conviction, eternal action, and the love that conquers the world

These are the swords (weapons) of the brave ones that fight the war of life.”[11]

Iqbal considers the knowledge of the Quran, the best knowledge for his youth. This idea is more clearly expressed in the following verses taken from his collection Armughan-i-Hijaz (1938):
Keep the Qur’an as a mirror before you.
You have completely changed, run away from yourself.
Fix a balance for your deeds [so that you may be able to],
Stir a commotion which your forbears stirred in the past.[12]

Iqbal challenges the youth to rise above the national, ethnic and factional groupings and invites them to break loose of these limited references of identity. Whereas Iqbal professed the idea of unity among Muslims in his poetry, he also criticized a series of vices among Muslims. He attacked hypocrisy, sectarian and ethnic divisions. Iqbal’s Mard-e-Mo’min can claim his rule over the universe rather than be overpowered by meager emotions of nationalism or religious fanaticism. Iqbal’s inculcates important values of life through his messages to the youth,

“Here are Indians, there people of Khurasan, here Afghans, there Turanians—
You, who despise the shore, rise up and make yourself boundless.[13]

Muhammad Iqbal considered Turkey a good example for modern Muslim states. In The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam[14], he writes:

“The truth is that among the Muslim nations of today, Turkey alone has shaken off its dogmatic slumber, and attained to self-consciousness. She alone has claimed her right of intellectual freedom; she alone has passed from the ideal to the real – a transition which entails keen intellectual and moral struggle”.

Iqbal also laments about the situation of Muslim countries,

 “Such is the lot of most Muslim countries today. They are mechanically repeating old values, whereas the Turk is on the way to creating new values. He has passed through great experiences which have revealed his deeper self to him. In him life has begun to move, change, and amplify, giving birth to new desires, bringing new difficulties and suggesting new interpretations”.[15]

In his writings, Iqbal attempted to instill amidst the Muslims a need for change in the ways that reflected a backward approach to life and to end all kinds of subjugation for progress. He aspired to see Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent and beyond regain success and revive their glorious past.

Iqbal had widely read and frequently made references to European philosophers, intellectuals and poets such as Hegel, Kant, Goethe, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Shakespeare and others in his poetry. He wrote his famous Persian poem Payam-e-Mashriq (‘Message of the East’) to Goethe’s West-Ostlicher which contains many fascinating remarks about European philosophers and politicians.

Iqbal’s poetry is considered to provide a ‘synthesis of both eastern and western thought and art’. He makes comparisons between Muslim and Western scholars in the fields of philosophy, science, and religious studies. Comparisons have been made between Iqbal’s message and Goethe’s ideas as well as interesting parallels are drawn between Iqbal’s and Kirkegaard (the Danish philosopher). Iqbal also compared Nietzsche’s Superman with his own Mard-e-Mo’min (Man of unflinching faith and belief) exemplified by Prophet Muhammad who “in the most exalted state of his ascension, was called ‘abduhu’” [16] His (i.e. God’s) servant’ (Quran 17:1). Similarly, parallels between Muhammad Iqbal and Søren Kierkegaard mainly focus on the idea of ‘the Self’ that both philosophers had presented as their philosophic vision.[17]

In The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Iqbal makes a detailed analysis of the history of Islam and its past glory and compares it with the recurring supremacy of the Western thought in the fields of education, technology and science during the past 500 years. At times, one finds a dispassionate analysis in the writings of Muhammad Iqbal of the downfall of the Muslim empires and the rise of the European empires and Western supremacy.

Iqbal was also subjected to fierce criticism from different sides within the Indian Subcontinent. He has been criticized by Hindu authors who consider him “neither a philosopher, nor a poet nor a politician but only a fanatical Muslim nationalist who has sympathy only with his own nation and his coreligionists”.[18] Iqbal also received strong criticism from the Muslim hardliners for writing poems such as “Shikwa” (A Complaint). However, he countered this criticism by writing a response to his own poem titled “Jawab-e-Shikwa” (Response to the Complaint) from God.

Through talk shows and other media representations under the term Iqbal’s Pakistan, the Pakistani youth look for answers to a variety of questions regarding Pakistan’s future. One finds a diversity of points of view on these online blogs, discussion forums, talk shows and online publications that use Muhammad Iqbal’s ideas for awakening both feelings of national pride in the youth and Islamic values. One can find an element of revolutionary zeal in their ideas and a dissatisfaction with the Pakistani leaders and politicians – in the way that Muhammad Iqbal himself who challenged the oppressive British colonial regime. These young Pakistanis refuse to look up to the west. Instead, they talk about building a Pakistan that has dignity in the community of nations, a Pakistan that moves ahead side by side with the developed nations of the world, not depending on the developed nations for economic aid alone. Voicing Iqbal’s vision of a nation, the Pakistani youth aspire to see a Pakistan where Islam and modern advancement go hand in hand and aspire for democracy not only as a political system but as a social system. They seem to encourage positive ideas and attitudes among the Pakistani youth.

Maybe the term ‘Iqbal’s Pakistan’ does not represent the original idea of Muhammad Iqbal about a separate state combining the Muslim-majority areas within India. However, the youth in the 21st century Pakistan seems to associate the future of Pakistan with Muhammad Iqbal and his vision about a land that provides opportunities for a life with freedom and dignity. In this way the youth in contemporary Pakistan seem to find guidelines in Iqbal’s writings for such a life and aspiration for a bright future of Pakistan,

“Come, so that we may strew roses and pour a measure of wine in the cup!
Let us split open the roof of the heavens and think upon new ways”[19].

Uzma Rehman
NIAS Associate and PhD History of Religion, Copenhagen University

[1] Annemarie Schimmel, Gabriel’s Wing: A Study Into The Religious Ideas of Sir Muhammad Iqbal, Leiden: E.J.Brill, 1963, p.377.

[2] Muhammad Iqbal’s presidential address of 29 December, 1930 available online on

[3] This description about the life of Muhammad Iqbal is taken in a summarized form from Annemarie Schimmel, “Iqbal, Muhammad”, Encyclopaedia Iranica, 2004, available on

[4] Translation taken from

[5] Translation taken from

[6] Translation taken from

[7] R.A.Nicholson, (translation) Iqbal’s poem,  Asrar-e-Khudi  ‘The Secrets of the Self’, 1950, p.9.

[8] Translation taken from

[9] Translation taken from

[10] M.A.Raja, “Muhammad Iqbal: Islam, the West, and the Quest for a Modern Muslim Identity”, The International Journal of the Asian Philosophical Association, 1:1, 2008, p.41.

[11] Translation taken from

[12] Translation taken from

[13] Translation taken from

[14] Allama Muhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Publications, 1996, p. 142.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Annemarie Schimmel, 2004 available on

[17] Ghulam Sabir, Kirkegaard and Iqbal: Startling Resemblances in Life and Thought, 1999, available online on

[18] Annemarie Schimmel, Gabriel’s Wing, p.378.

[19]Translation taken from

A couple of under-reported observations on North Korea’s rocket launch

North Korea’s successful rocket launch on December 12, 2012 predictably spurred worldwide condemnation and media attention. Many of the reports immediately following the launch were remarkably similar and contained few attempts at alternative interpretations of the launch itself and of its implications. In the following text a couple of rather under-reported observations on the North Korean satellite launch will be presented.

  1. North Korea, surprisingly, became the first of the two Koreas to successfully place a satellite into orbit by utilizing solely indigenous technology. South Korea made unsuccessful attempts in 2009 and 2010 and twice postponed a planned launch in 2012.[1] This undoubtedly comes as a slap in the face for researchers in South Korea’s space program, some of which even claimed that North Korean space technology was “at least 20 years behind the South’s”.[2]

  2. 2012 marks the only time North Korea has conducted two launches in the same year, but more importantly the two launches under Kim Jong-un’s rule have shown a significant difference from the launches under the leadership of Kim Jong-il in that the rockets were launched towards the south and not towards the east. Why is this significant? Because it could indicate that Pyongyang is showing an unprecedented wariness of Tokyo’s concerns and warnings of shooting down the rocket were it to pose a threat to Japan. In this context it’s important to note that southward bound launches present a far bigger challenge than eastward bound launches, both financially (more fuel) and technologically (stronger engine). Due to the centrifugal power generated by the Earth’s rotation (west to east) an eastward bound launch would be given a gravitational boost and thus require far less propellants than launches in other directions (the Earth rotates at a speed of almost 1700 kilometers per hour along the equator). Launching towards the south also presents Pyongyang with another disadvantage: the satellite would orbit around the Earth from south to north instead of following the Earth’s rotation from west to east. This means that the satellite will cross North Korea only a limited number of times a year, making North Korea’s satellite practically useless for weather observation purposes.

    By launching the rockets towards the south, North Korea has thus demonstrated a willingness to take a more technologically challenging, expensive and ineffective approach arguably in order to ease Japanese concerns. This is a new development since Kim Jong-un came to power. It could of course also be interpreted as North Korea’s lack of confidence in its own technology and resultant concerns that an eastward bound launch could fall down over Japan and create an unfavorable international environment.

  3. North Korea did indeed place a satellite into orbit. What implications will this have on the language of future references to North Korean rockets? Japan, for example, has up until now consistently referred to North Korea’s launches as “the missile which North Korea calls a ‘satellite’” [北朝鮮による「人工衛星」と称するミサイル ][3], implying that North Korea has had no intentions to place a satellite into orbit, but simply has used the satellite claim as a pretext to test missile technology. This may still be true, but North Korea nonetheless succeeded in placing a satellite into orbit and future references to North Korean launches will possibly be changed. If the international community changes its vocabulary from “missile” to “satellite”, it will perhaps become increasingly difficult to deny North Korea the right to test its rocket technology for use in a peaceful space program, especially as long as South Korea pursues exactly the same goal.

  4. Regarding North Korea’s motives for the launch, there has been a tendency among analysts to over-analyze the reasons for North Korea’s launch. The multiple power transitions in the region might of course have played a role, but what “message” could North Korea possibly have hoped to convey to the various regional actors who all have differing interests and probably interpret the launch in widely different ways? “Don’t forget about us”, could that be it? North Korea hardly needs satellites to prevent its fading into oblivion. If North Korea’s launch was a message, it seems unlikely that it was addressed to other countries than the US. The launch demonstrated once and for all that North Korea has the potential (however limited) to reach US mainland. For Japan and South Korea the launch does not pose a new threat as both these countries allegedly have been within the North Korean missile range since 1993.[4] If this was a message, it was aimed at the US. This also correlates to North Korea’s warning in October that North Korean missiles could reach “not only South Korea and Japan, but also the US”.[5]

    Rather than interpreting the launch as a cry for attention directed at the international community, it seems reasonable that domestic factors were most instrumental this time around. Obviously the launch coincided almost on the day with the one year commemoration of Kim Jong-il’s death on December 17 2011, but 2012 was also the centenary of Kim Il-sung’s birth and North Korea had announced many years in advance that 2012 would mark the watershed moment when North Korea transforms itself into a “strong and prosperous nation”. The international situation notwithstanding, North Korea would probably have conducted some kind of symbolic act in 2012 to showcase its technological prowess in the new “strong and prosperous” era regardless of outside factors. Its spectacular launch failure in April created, if nothing else, a sense of urgency for achieving something grandiose before the end of the watershed year of 2012.

Ulv Hanssen
Fellow, Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation,
The Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI)



[3]See for example the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s homepages,