Thursday, April 16, 2009

Searching for Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He) Ship Off Oman Coast

My family tree has a direct link to China (Yunnan) and I have been very much interested on certain Chinese heroes, one of them is Laksamana Cheng Ho, who was coincidentally hailed from Yunnan.

Oman to search for 600-year-old ship
Zheng He led China's most ambitious voyages of discovery. (GETTY IMAGES)

Oman will send out its navy ships tomorrow in search of a famous Chinese vessel that is believed to have capsized and sunk off the Omani coast nearly 600 years ago, the media reported yesterday.

The Omani ships will sail from Saeed bin Sultan naval base on the country's eastern coast of Batina northwest of the capital Muscat in search of the Chinese ship that was commanded by Zheng He, a well-known Muslim sailor in the imperial Chinese Ming Dynasty that ruled during 1368-1644.

"The Sultanate will launch a search operation tomorrow for the Zheng He ship, which is believed to have been lost off the Omani shores between 1405 and 1433," the Omani Al Watan Arabic-language newspaper said.

"This search is within the joint desire by Oman and China to enhance co-operation for their common interests."

According to Chinese and other records, the Ming Armada weighed anchor in Nanjing 600 years ago, on the first of seven epic voyages as far west as the Gulf of Aden and Africa. The anniversary of those trips is being widely celebrated inside and outside China with exhibitions and articles.

Zheng He was a remarkable commander whose voyages of trade, exploration and goodwill led to the exchange of knowledge and goods as far a field as Yemen and the east coast of Africa. As the "Admiral of the Western Sea", Zheng He led China's most ambitious voyages of discovery.

Ordered by the Ming Emperor to sail to "the countries beyond the horizon" and "all the way to the end of the earth", under his command, the royal fleet of the Ming Dynasty set off for South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, heading for Gulf and East Africa.

His armada of giant junks was believed to be several times bigger than any of the fleets Columbus commanded nearly a century later.

With more than 300 ocean-going vessels and a crew of nearly 30,000 men, Zheng He helped transform China into the region's, and perhaps the world's, 15th century superpower, according to those records.

Order Time Regions along the way[13]
1st Voyage 1405-1407 Champa, Java, Palembang, Malacca, Aru, Sumatra, Lambri, Ceylon, Kollam, Cochin, Calicut
2nd Voyage 1407-1409 Champa, Java, Siam, Cochin, Ceylon
3rd Voyage 1409-1411 Champa, Java, Malacca, Sumatra, Ceylon, Quilon, Cochin, Calicut, Siam, Lambri, Kaya, Coimbatore, Puttanpur
4th Voyage 1413-1415 Champa, Java, Palembang, Malacca, Sumatra, Ceylon, Cochin, Calicut, Kayal, Pahang, Kelantan, Aru, Lambri, Hormuz, Maldives, Mogadishu, Brawa, Malindi, Aden, Muscat, Dhufar
5th Voyage 1416-1419 Champa, Pahang, Java, Malacca, Sumatra, Lambri, Ceylon, Sharwayn, Cochin, Calicut, Hormuz, Maldives, Mogadishu, Brawa, Malindi, Aden
6th Voyage 1421-1422 Hormuz, East Africa, countries of the Arabian Peninsula
7th Voyage 1430-1433 Champa, Java, Palembang, Malacca, Sumatra, Ceylon, Calicut, Hormuz... (17 states in total)

In Malacca

According to the Malaysian history, Sultan Mansur Shah (ruled 1459–1477) dispatched Tun Perpatih Putih as his envoy to China and carried a letter from the Sultan to the Ming Emperor. Tun Perpatih succeeded in impressing the Emperor of Ming with the fame and grandeur of Sultan Mansur Shah. In the year 1459, a princess Hang Li Po (or Hang Liu), was sent by the emperor of Ming to marry Malacca Sultan Mansur Shah (ruled 1459–1477). The princess came with her entourage 500 male servants and a few hundred handmaidens. They eventually settled in Bukit Cina, Malacca. The descendants of these people, from mixed marriages with the local natives, are known today as Peranakan: Baba (the male title) and Nyonya (the female title).

In Malaysia today, many people believe it was Admiral Zheng He (died 1433) who sent princess Hang Li Po to Malacca in year 1459. However there is no record of Hang Li Po (or Hang Liu) in Ming documents, she is known only from Malacca folklore. In that case, Ma Huan's observation was true, the so-called Peranakan in Malacca was in fact Tang-Ren or Hui Chinese Muslims. These Chinese Muslims together with Parameswara were refugees of the declining Srivijaya kingdom, they came from Palembang, Java and other places. Some of the Chinese Muslims were soldiers and so they served as warrior and bodyguard to protect the Sultanate of Malacca.

On his return trip from China, Parameswara was so impressed by Zheng He that he converted to Islam and adopted the name Sultan Iskandar Shah. Malacca prospered under his leadership and became the half-way house, an entrepot, for trade between India and China.

China's Great Armada @ National Geographic Magazine
China's Great Armada @ National Geographic Magazine
By Frank Viviano
Photographs by Michael Yamashita

Six centuries ago a towering eunuch named Zheng He commanded the Ming dynasty's fleet of immense trading vessels on expeditions ranging as far as Africa.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Viewed from the rocky outcropping of Dondra Head at the southernnmost tip of Sri Lanka, the first sighting of the Ming fleet is a massive shadow on the horizon. As the shadow rises, it breaks into a cloud of tautly ribbed sail, aflame in the tropical sun. With relentless determination, the cloud draws ever closer, and in its fiery embrace an enormous city appears. A floating city, like nothing the world has ever seen before. No warning could have prepared officials, soldiers, or the thunderstruck peasants who stand atop Dondra Head for the scene that unfolds below them. Stretched across miles of the Indian Ocean in terrifying majesty is the armada of Zheng He, admiral of the imperial Ming navy.

Exactly 600 years ago this month the great Ming armada weighed anchor in Nanjing, on the first of seven epic voyages as far west as Africa—almost a century before Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas and Vasco da Gama's in India. Even then the European expeditions would seem paltry by comparison: All the ships of Columbus and da Gama combined could have been stored on a single deck of a single vessel in the fleet that set sail under Zheng He.

Its commander was, without question, the most towering maritime figure in the 4,000-year annals of China, a visionary who imagined a new world and set out consciously to fashion it. He was also a profoundly unlikely candidate for admiral in anyone's navy, much less that of the Dragon Throne.

The greatest seafarer in China's history was raised in the mountainous heart of Asia, several weeks' travel from the closest port. More improbable yet, Zheng was not even Chinese—he was by origin a Central Asian Muslim. Born Ma He, the son of a rural official in the Mongol province of Yunnan, he had been taken captive as an invading Chinese army overthrew the Mongols in 1382. Ritually castrated, he was trained as an imperial eunuch and assigned to the court of Zhu Di, the bellicose Prince of Yan.

Within 20 years the boy who had writhed under Ming knives had become one of the prince's chief aides, a key strategist in the rebellion that made Zhu Di the Yongle (Eternal Happiness) emperor in 1402. Renamed Zheng after his exploits at the battle of Zhenglunba, near Beijing, he was chosen to lead one of the most powerful naval forces ever assembled.

Six centuries later I left China with photographer Michael Yamashita in search of Zheng He's legacy, a 10,000-mile (16,093-kilometer) journey that would carry us from Yunnan to Africa's Swahili coast. Along the way I came to feel that I had found the man himself.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

RTM - milik dan untuk rakyat Malaysia!

BERBANDING dengan stesen lain, Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM) memainkan peranan yang sangat penting sebagai `suara kerajaan' dan menyampaikan informasi kepada masyarakat selaras dengan fungsinya sebagai stesen nasional.

Datuk Tiger

Mungkin belum terlewat untuk mengucapkan selamat bertugas sebagai kepada Ketua Pengarah RTM yang baru. Sebagai salah seorang yang pernah bersama di TV3 satu ketika dahulu, perlantikan ini memang dibanggakan.

Ada banyak perkara mengenai RTM yang sejak dahulu lagi tidak pernah mencapai prestasi memuaskan. Dengan kehadiran syarikat penyiaran swasta seperti TV3 dan Astro, RTM menjadi pilihan terakhir dalam banyak program untuk penonton.

Saya telah meninggalkan tanahair sejak tahun 2000 dan jarang sekali berkesempatan untuk menonton apa-apa siaran TV dan radio Malaysia walaupun pulang bercuti. Bukan sahaja kerana tiada masa, tetapi sudah menyampah dan muak dengan propaganda murahan berlebihan, terlalu komersil serta kejumudan pemikiran bawah tempurung mereka yang mengendalikannya.

Begitupun, selama berada di Dubai saya pernah terlibat dengan penubuhan Dubai Media City, serta pemindahan stesen penyiaran besar Arab, Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) dari London ke Dubai, selain penubuhan Samacom, teleport atau stesen bumi untuk khidmat satelit kebanyakan stesen penyiaran di Dubai Media City, termasuk CNN dan Reuters.

Pengalaman ini membuka ruang minda mengenai keterbukaan media dan kesungguhan kerajaan Dubai dalam mengubah persepsi media tempatan yang selama ini sekadar ejen propaganda seperti RTM yang masih berjenama begitu sehingga kini.

Selain itu, saya melihat transformasi hebat sebuah stesen TV kerajaan Dubai, dubaitv dari sebuah stesen kampung seperti RTM kepada bertaraf antarabangsa, walau masih tidak sepenuhnya bebas dari propaganda, tetapi cuba me’rakyat’kan program mengikut acuan kosmopolitan Dubai.

Kerana itu, Datuk semestinya menjadikan RTM sebagai ‘suara rakyat marhaen’ bukan ‘suara kerajaan BN’ seperti yang Datuk perkatakan dalam akhbar Metro.

Kita mungkin berlainan fahaman politik, sesuatu yang biasa dalam demokrasi. Tetapi paling utamanya, RTM adalah milik rakyat Malaysia, bukan kerajaan BN atau UMNO semata-mata. Tidak seperti Media Prima dan Utusan yang dikuasai oleh UMNO sepenuhnya, RTM hakikatnya dimiliki oleh setiap rakyat Malaysia, biarpun kalau satu hari nanti ‘kerajaan’ hari ini bertukar tangan.

Peruntukan perbelanjaan, pembelian peralatan canggih termasuk gaji saraan, elaun petugas RTM adalah dari kantung rakyat Malaysia tidak kira fahaman politik mereka. Pendapatan melalui cukai kerajaan menanggung kos operasi RTM seperti agensi ‘rakyat’ yang lain.

Tentunya Datuk mempunyai misi dan visi untuk mengubah RTM ke arah yang lebih baik untuk rakyat Malaysia, bukan untuk kerajaan BN semata-mata. Kalau PM baru sendiri membawa mesej ‘rakyat didahulu’kan dalam misi Satu Malaysia, maka RTM sendiri juga, yang menjadi milik rakyat mesti mendahulukan rakyat, bukan terus menerus mendahulukan propaganda kerajaan BN yang tidak semestinya mendahulukan kepentingan rakyat!

Itu sahaja luahan pertama saya kerana pihak Menteri serta Datuk tentu lebih berkuasa untuk membawa arah RTM, yakni UBAH atau REBAH, sama ada masih ditakuk pemikiran jumud atau mahu bertaraf BBC yang seimbang dalam lapuran.

Selain peringatan ikhlas termasuk kepada diri sendiri, di hari kebangkitan nanti (bukan sekadar 'Bangkitlah Melayu' seperti kata Utusan semalam), setiap orang akan dipersoalkan dengan tanggungjawab yang diberikan, maka, apakah ‘suara kerajaan’ (baca: propaganda) yang Datuk perjuangkan itu akan mempunyai nilai di sisiNYA?

RTM untuk rakyat Malaysia!

Dubai, UAE

The Arab Revival from years of slumbers

Bombs away

Many jihadist groups are undergoing a process of “revision”, in which violent methods are being largely eschewed. Lynsey Addario / Corbis

Across the Arab and Muslim world, jihadists are beginning to renounce violence as a means to change their societies – and not just because they lost, writes Nathan Field.

The need for revival has been a central theme in recent Arab history: for more than a thousand years, Arab countries dominated (or at least saw themselves as dominating) their western rivals. But in the last two centuries, colonialism and globalisation made it painfully clear to Arab thinkers that their countries had fallen behind politically, economically and technologically. The region’s intellectuals have therefore long been preoccupied with devising ways to revive Arab society from its slumbers – and to return it to its previous glory.

Some looked outward in search of answers: for the great Egyptian writer Taha Hussein, who had studied in France, mimicking Western Europe was the key to revival since, in his view, Egypt had always been more Mediterranean than Eastern or Islamic. Like many in his era, Gamal Abdel Nasser looked favourably at how Soviet-style socialism had transformed Russia, a backwards agriculture-based economy, into an industrial super power in the span of two decades, and tried to apply that approach to Egypt.

For Islamists, most prominently the Muslim Brotherhood, the path to revival required a more inward -looking approach. In their view, countries like Egypt and Algeria had declined and fallen prey to colonial dominance because they had minimised the significance of Islam, the source of the society’s original greatness. Rather than copying non-Islamic models from the West, the Islamist approach has been to attempt a re-Islamicisation of Arab society, to rid it of corrupting western influences.

The majority of Islamists have always taken a peaceful approach to this reform process. But radical elements are a feature of most political movements, especially those aiming at reform; everywhere Islamist movements have flourished, small minority factions have seen violence – usually framed in the language of jihad – as a legitimate tool to change society. In Algeria and Egypt during the 1980s and 1990s, radical groups of this sort engaged in prolonged and bloody clashes with their governments – and similar, if smaller, battles, took place in Saudi Arabia, Libya and Morocco. To many outside observers, this violence appeared random and irrational, but we must understand it as the jihadists themselves did: as part of the same movement for reform that has been the dominant strain in Arab intellectual thought throughout the modern era.

During the last decade, however, this local violence has declined dramatically. In Egypt violence from organised militant groups has disappeared. The country’s two main jihadist groups, al Jihad and al Gama’a al Islamiyya, have both published books denouncing their past actions, usually referred to as the “Revisions”, and most of their members have since been released from jail. In Algeria, the overwhelming majority of the violent Islamists of the 1990s have embraced the National Reconciliation project and returned home. And in Saudi Arabia, several hundred arrested jihadists have passed through “rehabilitation” or “re-education” and been reintegrated back into society.

These developments have generally been regarded as separate and distinct events. There are differences, to be sure: in Egypt the shift came from within the jihadist movement, while in Saudi Arabia the state funded and sponsored the “re-education” programmes. But we must begin to understand them as local versions of a broader regional trend resulting from sustained religious reflection, in which jihadists have recognised the mistakes of their violent attempts at reform and begun to formulate non-violent alternatives. In the last three decades, small factions within the Islamist movement shifted decisively toward violence, but today we are seeing a reversal of this intellectual trend.

Some observers contend that the departure from violence has been caused not by internal reflection but by harsh treatment at the hands of the state. Egyptian intellectuals I have interviewed – many of them harsh critics of their government – tend to emphasise the brutality of the security forces as the critical factor driving the change. It is true, of course, that everywhere jihadists fought their governments they lost, and it cannot be denied that such defeats – and the long jail terms that followed – must have encouraged radicals to rethink their approach.

But there is ample evidence to suggest that jihadists reached this conclusion on their own, without being coerced into doing so. In Algeria, for example, there has been a spate of recent defections from the al Qa’eda-linked Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) with militants “coming down from the mountains” to surrender. When al Gama’a announced its initial ceasefire in 1997, it took Egyptian authorities, who viewed it as a trick, entirely by surprise. Several reports in the Arabic-language media have presented evidence of a non-violent turn inside al Jihad even before the group’s one-time leader, Sayyid Imam – also known as Dr Fadl – published his “Revisions” in 2007.

It seems likely, in fact, that religious reflection has been the most important factor in the move away from violence. Even violent radicals require some imprimatur from religious authorities, and in Algeria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, at least in the past, there were some among the ulema (the scholars who are the arbiters of Islamic law) who were ambivalent or approving – just enough legitimacy for a jihadi seeking it. There was also, at least initially, some degree of social support among the population for their actions.

But in each of these countries, the situation has changed as society – and more importantly, religious scholars – have turned strongly against violence. Given the emphasis on religious conformity in Islamic societies, no group claiming to act in the name of Islam and the people can retain support if both denounce its actions.

A recent Al-Hayat interview with Hassan Hattab, the founder of the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, but now a major advocate of reconciliation, demonstrates this clearly. Asked why he embraced reconciliation after such a violent past, he pointed to the change in the ulema’s position: “We noticed that the ulema turned against the continuation of violence and this was an essential factor in our decision to stop operations. There wasn’t a single cleric who supported our fight against the government. Where previously they were silent about what was happening, now they take a clear position against the violence.”

Some commentators have argued that the retreat from violence is insincere, a ploy by jihadist factions to get themselves out of jail or obtain lenient treatment. In certain cases this may be true, but given that few of those released from jail have returned to violence, until they do, it is necessary to give them the benefit of the doubt.

We can measure the depth and seriousness of a group’s conversion by studying their efforts to formulate alternative strategies for reform. For while some jihadists have renounced violence as a means to reform, the conditions that drove them to violence in the first place have not changed.

Egypt’s al Gama’a al Islamiyya has gone the furthest. Not only did they denounce violence as a tool of change, outlined in several books published in 2002-2003, but it is trying, despite being prohibited from doing so, to enter mainstream politics. On its website, the group issues statements on current affairs not dramatically distinct from those of the Muslim Brotherhood or other groups considered mainstream. When Barack Obama was elected president in November, the group posted a statement congratulating him and called on him to repair relations with the Muslim world – hardly the type of behaviour associated with hard-core religious fanaticism.

Dr Fadl’s vaunted 2007 “Revisions” are not as significant as al Gama’a’s moves toward reform, as they do not lay out a formula for dealing with the conditions that drove the group to violence in the first place. Fadl merely says that trying to overthrow the ruler is wrong if the group does not have the ability to do so – which seems to imply it would be right if they did. Meanwhile, according to a recent article at Islam Online, the Libyan Armed Fighting Group, nominally affiliated with al Qa’eda, is on the verge of issuing its own “Revisions”, supposedly based on an even more far-reaching formula for reform than that of Egypt’s al Gama’a. If true, this would be extremely significant.

There are, of course, significant caveats to temper excess optimism about the end of jihadist violence. The trend toward non-violent means has included organised groups but not necessarily individuals or smaller factions. Most Egyptian analysts argue that violence has “stopped” but not “ended”: the underlying conditions remain unaltered and there is no predicting the actions of isolated violent individuals.

These revisions, furthermore, are relevant only to “near enemy” violence – against Arab states and populations – and may have little bearing outside of tactical readjustment on al Qa’eda actions against the United States or its allies. The revisions in Egypt, the Saudi re-education programme and the Algerian reconciliation are concerned only with the morality of Muslim-on-Muslim violence inside Muslim countries.

In every country there are some holdouts who refuse to accept this change, but they are a very small minority of the total number who once embraced violence. The broader trend – across the Arab world – reflects the firm position of Arab publics and Islamic scholars against internal violence, and it would appear a formidable obstacle to future groups who seek to affect change with violent means.

Nathan Field is a journalist who writes about Egyptian politics.