News & Current Affairs

December 1, 2008

Empty aircraft fly from Bangkok

Empty aircraft fly from Bangkok

Stranded passengers at Suvarnabhumi airport, Bangkok

Thousands of passengers have been stranded by the protests

About 40 empty planes have flown out of Bangkok’s international airport after authorities reached a deal with protesters camped there for seven days.

Thousands of travellers have been stranded since anti-government groups took over two airports last week.

The deal allows a total 88 planes to be flown out to other Thai airports, where it is hoped they can evacuate some of the blockaded tourists.

The crisis has economically damaged the country since it intensified last week.

Thailand’s deputy premier for economic affairs is reported to be meeting senior figures in commerce, industry and tourism today to discuss the damage being done.

As the backlog of stranded foreigners grows with each day, foreign embassies are beside themselves with frustration.

Foreign airlines

A spokeswoman for Airports of Thailand said: “Thirty-seven aircraft have left Suvarnabhumi (international airport) since the first aircraft of Siam GA (a regional airline) took off on Sunday evening.

“International airlines will have to contact us to take those stranded aircraft out of Suvarnabhumi.”

Twelve planes belonging to foreign airlines are stranded at Suvarnabhumi, as well as 29 from Thai Airways, 16 of Thai Airasia, 15 from Bangkok Airways, and 22 aircraft from other airlines.

With thousands of British citizens among the estimated 100,000 travellers, a spokesman for the UK’s Foreign Office said: “Bangkok’s two main airports remain closed but airlines have been able to arrange flights and transfers to and from alternative airports.

An anti-government protester outside Bangkok airport

“Some British nationals have been able to fly out but not in the necessary numbers.

“We have continued our consultations with airlines and Thai authorities…and action is being stepped up to enable people to travel in greater numbers, for example via Chiang Mai.”

Chiang Mai, in the north, is 700km (435 milies) by road from Bangkok, while the other option – Phuket, a resort in the south – is 850km (530 miles).

France has said it will send a “special plane” to fly its citizens out of Thailand on Monday, with “those in the most pressing situations…given priority,” AFP news agency reported.

Air France-KLM has already said it would fly travellers out of Phuket.

A few airlines have been using an airport at the U-Tapao naval base, about 140km (90 miles) south-east of Bangkok.

On Sunday more than 450 Muslim pilgrims stranded at the international airport were taken by bus to the base where they were to board a plane for the annual Hajj in Saudi Arabia.

Spain and Australia have been arranging special flights to evacuate their citizens.

Thailand’s tourist industry is losing an estimated $85m (£55.4m) per day, and the government warns that the number of foreign tourists arriving next year may halve, threatening one million jobs.

The protesters from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) are a loose alliance of royalists, businessmen and the urban middle class.

They opposition want the government to resign, accusing it of being corrupt, hostile to the monarchy and in league with exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.


Are you stranded in Thailand or do you have family affected by the protests? What are your or their experiences? Send us your comments

Advertisements

September 29, 2008

Maoists’ ugly view of Miss Nepal

Maoists’ ugly view of Miss Nepal

missnepal.com)</i>
I feel like we are under a dictatorship more than being a republic or democratic
Pranayna KC

Would-be beauty queens in Nepal have expressed their disappointment after the postponement of the Miss Nepal contest for the sixth time this year.

It should have been held at the weekend but local authorities banned it after pressure from the Maoist party which heads the government.

Contestants due to have taken part have complained of being “victimised”.

The Maoists say that the contest discriminates against certain ethnic groups and demeans women.

It is not often that a beauty pageant is scheduled to take place at the army’s headquarters.

But that is where the organisers, event management company Hidden Treasure, had planned to hold the contest – such were the sensitivities it raised.

At the last moment they got a letter from Kathmandu’s district government. “Keeping peace and security in mind, do not let this event take place,” it said.

The event’s antagonist is the women’s wing of the Maoist party, the All Nepal Women’s Organization (Revolutionary). Last month it stormed the offices of the pageant’s Indian sponsor, Dabur Nepal, and locked out its staff.

missnepal.com)

Protesters say beauty contests are anti-women

The Maoists’ most senior woman, Pampha Bhusal, told the BBC the contest discriminated against certain ethnic groups and against shorter and darker women, and that it demeaned women by using them to advertise toothpaste and shampoo.

But the organizers say it is open to all and that the women have been helping flood victims and working in socially useful campaigns.

Different visions

One contestant, 19-year-old Pranayna KC, said the Maoists were violating young women’s rights. The women and the organizers have been in constant dialogue with the former rebels but to no avail.

“The way they talk to us, they always think they are right. Everything they say is right, every view that they say is right,” she said. “I feel like we are under a dictatorship more than being a republic or democratic.”

missnepal.com)

The Maoists’ attitude towards beauty pageants is not consistent

The organizers and contestants say that there have been anonymous and threatening telephone calls against them, some in the middle of the night.

The Miss Nepal pageant personifies the quarrel between groups of people with very different social visions.

On the one hand are those who say beauty pageants are a force for good and for the promotion of what is beautiful. On the other are those like the Maoists who say they are un-Nepalese and do nothing to improve the lot of women.

In the middle are many more. Another Nepali woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, said she did not like the Maoists’ attempts to control people’s lives but on the other hand felt there were better causes than Miss Nepal to fight for.

Opponents of the ban say the pageant builds up women’s skills and profile in all sorts of fields. But Amrita Thapa, head of the Maoist women’s organization, says the contest should decide whether it is about physical beauty or about professional skills and that it cannot be both.

The Maoists have not been entirely consistent about their own reasons for opposing the pageant. Until recently they based their argument on gender, saying the contest demeaned women.

But Pampha Bhusal now says they support certain such pageants including one called Miss Tamang, open to members of one populous but traditionally marginalized ethnic group. Several similar pageants have continued to take place amid the current controversy.

The row has increased the perception of the Maoists, now Nepal’s biggest elected party, as being somewhat puritanical and preoccupied with social control. But they say that just because other countries hold such contests, that is no reason for Nepal to do so.

Meanwhile 17 young women’s hopes of becoming Miss Nepal and taking part in Miss World in South Africa in December look increasingly bleak.

September 27, 2008

McCain and Obama spar in first debate

McCain and Obama spar in first debate

US presidential rivals Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama have attacked each other over foreign policy and the economy, in their first debate.

Mr Obama said a $700bn (£380bn) plan to rescue the US economy was the “final verdict” on years of Republican rule.

He said Mr McCain had been “wrong” on Iraq and tried to link him to President Bush. The Republican senator described his rival as too inexperienced to lead.

Neither landed a knockout blow but polls suggested Mr Obama did better.

An immediate telephone poll by CNN and Opinion Research Corp found 51% said Mr Obama had won, to 38% for Mr McCain.

A poll of uncommitted voters by CBS News found that 39% gave Mr Obama victory, 25% thought John McCain had won, and 36% thought it was a draw.

Both campaigns claimed victory, with Mr McCain’s team saying their candidate had shown a “mastery on national security issues” while Mr Obama’s aides said he had passed the commander-in-chief test “with flying colours”.
All things considered, it’s about a draw
Matthew Yglesias, Think Progress

First presidential debate scorecard
Analysis: McCain wins on points
Send us your comments
US voters’ views

Tens of millions of Americans were expected to watch the debate on TV, with only about five weeks to go before the 4 November elections.

Senator McCain said he did not need “any on-the-job training”.

“I’m ready to go at it right now,” he added.

But Senator Obama said Mr McCain had been “wrong” about invading Iraq and that the war had led the US to take its eye off the ball in Afghanistan, where it should have been pursuing al-Qaeda.

Mr McCain argued that as a result of the “surge” – which involved sending some 30,000 extra US troops to Iraq – US military strategy was succeeding.

“We are winning in Iraq and we will come home with victory and with honour,” he said.

The televised debate in Oxford, Mississippi, focused largely on foreign policy but began with discussion of the economic crisis gripping the US.

Speaking about the financial bail-out plan under discussion by the US Congress, Mr Obama said: “We have to move swiftly and we have to move wisely.”
NEXT DEBATES
2 Oct – vice-presidential rivals. Topic: Domestic and foreign policy
7 Oct – presidential contenders. Topic: Any issues raised by members of the audience
15 Oct – presidential contenders. Topic: Domestic and economic policy

Mr McCain said he believed it would be a long time before the situation was resolved.

“This isn’t the beginning of the end of this crisis,” he said. “This is the end of the beginning if we come out with a package that will keep these institutions stable and we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Mr McCain attacked Mr Obama over his record on finance, saying he had asked for millions of dollars in so-called “earmarks” – money for pet projects – as an Illinois senator.

The Republican also suggested a spending freeze in many areas apart from defence, but Mr Obama likened the proposal to using a hatchet when a scalpel was needed.

Both candidates agreed that the bail-out plan would put massive pressure on the budget of the next president and mean cuts in government spending.

‘Serious threat’

Asked about Iran, Mr McCain stressed that Tehran was a threat to the region and, through its interference in Iraq, to US troops deployed there.

He outlined a proposal for a “league of democracies” to push through painful sanctions against Tehran that were presently being blocked in bodies like the United Nations because of opposition from Russia.

He criticised Mr Obama for his previously stated willingness to hold talks with the leaders of Iran without preconditions.

Mr Obama rejected that criticism, saying he would reserve the right as president “to meet with anybody at a time and place of my choosing if I think it’s going to keep America safe”.

However, he said he agreed with his Republican rival that “we cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran” and the threat that that would pose to Israel, a staunch US ally.

‘Safer today’

Mr McCain accused Mr Obama of “a little bit of naivete” in his initial response to the conflict between Georgia and Russia.

“Russia has now become a nation fuelled by petro-dollars that has basically become a KGB [former secret services name] apparatchik-run government. I looked in [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Mr Putin’s eyes and I saw three letters – a K, a G and B,” McCain said.

Speaking about the so-called war on terror, Mr McCain said he believed the nation was safer than it had been the day after the 11 September 2001 terror attacks but there was still a long way to go.

Mr Obama pointed to the spread of al-Qaeda to some 60 countries and said that the US had to do more to combat that, including improving its own image as a “beacon of light” on rights.

“One of the things I intend to do as president is restore America’s standing in the world,” Mr Obama said.

Mr McCain sought to distance himself from President George W Bush’s administration, which has very low public approval ratings.

“I have opposed the president on spending, on climate change, on torture of prisoners, on Guantanamo Bay, on the way that the Iraq war was conducted,” he said.

“I have a long record and the American people know me very well… a maverick of the Senate.”

Mr McCain had earlier vowed not to attend the forum in Mississippi until Congress approved the economic bail-out plan, but he reversed his decision after some progress was made towards a deal.

September 22, 2008

Pakistan to target rebel hotspots

Pakistan to target rebel hotspots

Pakistan’s government has pledged to take targeted action against militants, a day after a suicide bomb killed 53 people in the capital, Islamabad.

Interior Ministry adviser Rehman Malik said raids would be carried out in some “hotspots” near the Afghan border.

Earlier, the authorities revealed that a truck laden with 600kg of high-grade explosives had rammed the Marriott Hotel security gate before blowing up.

Rescuers have been combing the wreckage for survivors and bodies.

The blast left 266 people with injuries.

Although most of those killed were Pakistani, the Czech ambassador and two US defense department workers were among the dead.

The attackers had disguised the truck well as it was covered with a tarpaulin and loaded with bricks and gravel
Rehman Malik

A Vietnamese citizen was also killed in the blast, in which at least a dozen foreign nationals were wounded.

The Danish Foreign Ministry said one of its diplomats was missing.

No group has taken responsibility for the attack, but Mr Malik suggested responsibility lay with al-Qaeda and Taleban militants based in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) on the Afghan border.

“In previous attacks, all roads led to Fata,” he said.

The attack might have been retaliation for army bombardments of suspected Taleban targets with jet fighters.

Room-by-room search

The heavily-guarded hotel was attacked at about 2000 (1500 GMT) on Saturday.

CCTV footage of the moments before the blast show a six-wheeler lorry ramming the security barrier at the hotel gate.

Rescuers in Islamabad, 21/09

Rescue teams combed the scene for bodies and survivors

Shots are fired and the vehicle starts to burn. Security guards initially scatter, but return to try to douse the flames.

The footage breaks of at the moment of the blast because the camera was destroyed. It created a crater about 8m (27ft) deep, and triggered a fire which engulfed the 290-room, five-storey building for hours.

Officials said the lorry contained explosives as well as grenades and mortars. Aluminium powder was used to accelerate the explosion and added to the ferocity of the blaze.

“I do not believe this is a breakdown in security. The attackers had disguised the truck well as it was covered with a tarpaulin and loaded with bricks and gravel,” Mr Malik said.

Witnesses described a scene of horror as blood-covered victims were pulled from the wreckage and guests and staff ran for cover from shattered glass and flames.

The fire has now burned out and rescue workers have been searching the building room-by-room, pulling bodies out of the blackened debris.

‘Confronting the threat’

Immediately after the bombing, newly-elected President Asif Ali Zardari vowed to root out the “cancer” of terrorism in Pakistan.

Map

He has now flown to New York to attend the UN General Assembly session, where he will meet US President George W Bush on the sidelines.

The meeting comes amid tension between the two countries over US attacks on militants in tribal areas of Pakistan, close to the Afghan border.

In the wake of the attack, President Bush pledged assistance to Pakistan in “confronting this threat and bringing the perpetrators to justice”.

The Marriott is the most prestigious hotel in the capital, and is located near government buildings and diplomatic missions. It is popular with foreigners and the Pakistani elite.

The hotel has previously been the target of militants. Last year a suicide bomber killed himself and one other in an attack at the hotel.

Opposition leads Slovenia’s polls

Opposition leads Slovenia’s polls

Borut Pahor, leader of the opposition Social Democrats

Mr Pahor is a former young communist and one-time male model

Slovenia’s opposition is holding a razor-thin lead over the ruling party of PM Janez Jansa, near-complete results from parliamentary polls show.

With 97% of the votes counted, the Social Democrats had 30.5% of the vote against 29.2% for the center-right Slovenian Democrats, officials said.

But they said the vote was too close to predict the outcome.

Slovenia, the richest of the former Yugoslav states, is a member of the European Union and Nato.

It was also the first east European state to adopt the Euro.

Mr Jansa’s party is claiming credit for the country’s increased prosperity.

But the centre-right government has also frequently been accused of corruption.

Coalition allies

Earlier on Sunday, two separate exit polls gave the Social Democrats led by Borut Pahor a 4% lead over Mr Jansa’s party.

Election poster for  Janez Jansa's Slovene Democratic Party

Mr Jansa is hoping to gain a new four-year mandate

The outcome of the election may be determined by the performance of smaller parties which will be needed as coalition allies in the 90-seat parliament.

The exit polls suggested that two allies of the Social Democrats did well in the polls.

While the economic policies of the two main parties are similar, a left-leaning government could be expected to focus more on the redistribution of wealth to poorer parts of society, our correspondent says.

Polls opened at 0500GMT and closed at 1700GMT. Some 1.7 million people were eligible to vote.

September 21, 2008

South Africa president steps down

South Africa president steps down

Thabo Mbeki has formally resigned as the president of South Africa, a day after accepting a call by the governing African National Congress to quit.

In a televised address, Mr Mbeki said he had handed a resignation letter to the speaker of the National Assembly.

He said he would leave his post as soon as a new president was chosen.

Correspondents say it is not clear who will succeed him, but the ANC appears to favour the parliamentary speaker, Baleka Mbete, as acting president.

Mr Mbeki’s speech followed an emergency cabinet meeting. He is stepping down before his final term expires next year.

I have been a loyal member of the African National Congress for 52 years… and therefore respect its decisions
Thabo Mbeki

The move comes days after a high court judge suggested that Mr Mbeki may have interfered in a corruption case against his rival, ANC leader Jacob Zuma.

But during his address, Mr Mbeki made an impassioned defence of his position.

There had been no effort at all to meddle with the judicial process, he said. And Mr Mbeki dismissed any suggestion he had been trying to shape the judgement for his own political ends.

This was a very measured and reflective speech.

Mr Mbeki began by saying that the ANC would decide the date of his leaving.

“I have been a loyal member of the African National Congress for 52 years. I remain a member of the ANC, and therefore respect its decisions,” he said.

This was a very clear signal that he like so many others is keen to make the transition as smooth as possible, our correspondent says.

Mr Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela as president in 1999, thanked the nation and his party, the ANC, for giving him the opportunity to serve in public office.

He went on to list some of his achievements, notably the country’s solid economic growth.

He said there was still much to be done in South Africa, and he urged the incoming leadership to continue to combat poverty and social injustice.

“Trying times need courage and resilience. Our strength as a people is not tested during the best of times… For South Africa to succeed there is more work to be done and I trust that we will continue to strive to act in unity,” he said.

‘For stability’

Parliament is likely to meet in the coming days to formalise his resignation, and select a caretaker leader.

Jacob Zuma (file photo)

Mr Zuma is widely expected to succeed Mr Mbeki in scheduled elections next year.

The decision to call for Mr Mbeki’s early resignation was taken at a meeting of the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC).

The ANC’s secretary general said the decision to seek Mr Mbeki’s early departure as president had been taken for “stability and for a peaceful and prosperous South Africa”.

This was not punishment for Mr Mbeki, Gwede Mantashe told reporters on Saturday, adding that the president would be given the chance to continue his role as mediator in Zimbabwe.

ANC cabinet members are being urged to remain in government to ensure continued stability.

Political interference

Mr Mbeki fired Jacob Zuma as deputy president in 2005 after his financial adviser was found guilty of soliciting a bribe on his behalf.

But Mr Zuma returned to the political stage to topple his rival as ANC leader in bitterly contested elections last year.

Earlier this month a High Court judge dismissed corruption and other charges against Mr Zuma, saying there was evidence of political interference in the investigation.

In his ruling the judge said it appeared that Mr Mbeki had colluded with prosecutors against Jacob Zuma as part of the “titanic power struggle” within the ANC.

The accusation was strongly denied by Mr Mbeki.

Mr Mbeki became leader of South Africa in 1999 and won a second term in 2004.

Perhaps his biggest policy success has been South Africa’s rapid economic growth since the end of apartheid and the rise of a black middle class – but to the anger of many, wealth is more unevenly distributed than ever before.

He has failed to convince the trade unions and the poorest South Africans that the government has acted in their interest – providing space for Mr Zuma to mobilize a powerful constituency.

Domestically, his government’s handling of the HIV/Aids crisis and failure to stem violent crime in the country also weakened his hand.

September 19, 2008

China tainted milk scandal widens

China tainted milk scandal widens

Baby treated in Hefei, in eastern China's Anhui province

Four infants have died and more than 6,000 are sick

The scandal of tainted dairy products in China has widened, with liquid milk now found to be contaminated.

Inspectors found that 10% of liquid milk taken from three dairies was tainted with melamine.

The scandal first came to light in milk powder that killed four infants and sickened more than 6,000 others.

Suppliers are believed to have added melamine, a banned chemical normally used in plastics, to diluted milk to make it appear higher in protein.

Public trust

China’s quality watchdog, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, tested liquid milk from three dairies.

Baby treated in China

Its website said 10% of the milk from the country’s two largest – Mengniu Dairy Group and Yili Industrial Group – contained up to 8.4 milligrams of melamine per kg.

Products from Shanghai-based Bright Dairy were also contaminated, it said.

The watchdog said it would “strictly find out the reason for adding the melamine and severely punish those who are responsible”.

All the batches that tested positive were being recalled, it said.

However, officials insisted most milk was safe to drink – in an attempt to rebuild public trust in dairy products.

It is not being suggested that anyone has fallen ill from drinking liquid milk contaminated with melamine.

But he says people are extremely angry to learn that more and more products have been found to be unsafe.

One 31-year-old man queuing at Sanlu offices in Shijiazhuang to get a reimbursement for medical exam payments for his baby told Associated Press news agency: “If such a big company is having problems, then I really don’t know who to trust.”

Arrests

The scandal broke last week after the Sanlu Group said it had sold melamine-laced milk powder.

Of those children made sick, more than 150 are said to have acute kidney failure.

Chinese police have arrested 18 people in connection with the scandal.

Sanlu plant in Shijiazhuang, Hebei

The scandal broke at the Sanlu Group

Twelve were arrested in the province of Hebei on Thursday on suspicion of being involved in the supply of tainted milk.

Hebei is home to the headquarters of Sanlu.

The State Council – China’s cabinet – has held a meeting to discuss the issue.

China’s official news agency Xinhua says that the council has decided to reform the dairy industry.

It says that the tainted milk powder incident “reflected chaotic industry conditions, as well as loopholes in the supervision and management of the industry”.

On Thursday, Hong Kong recalled dairy products made by the Yili group after tests found milk, ice-cream and yogurt contaminated with melamine.

China’s ability to police its food production industries has long been under question.

Health scares and fatalities in recent years have ranged from the contamination of seafood to toothpaste and, last year, to pet food exported to the US.


Are you in China? What is your reaction to the news that liquid milk has also been contaminated? Tell us your concerns

September 18, 2008

Police hold Swazi poll protesters

Police hold Swazi poll protesters

Union and anti-government protesters hurl stones at police during a rally in Manzini, Swaziland, 3 September 2008

Pro-democracy activists held protests earlier this month

Police in Swaziland have detained a number of pro-democracy activists planning a border blockade ahead of parliamentary elections in the kingdom.

Several union leaders were bundled into police vans at the main border crossing with South Africa, organizers of the planned blockade said.

Political parties are banned in Swaziland, one of the world’s last absolute monarchies.

There have been recent protests calling for change and multi-party democracy.

A government spokesman has said the planned blockade was unnecessary.

But the secretary-general of the Swaziland Federation of Labor, Vincent Ncongwane, said protesters wanted to demonstrate that Friday’s elections would not be inclusive.

“We still have in Swaziland this myth that you can have a democracy where there isn’t the participation of other political parties,” he told.

Landlocked Swaziland is almost entirely surrounded by South Africa.

Central banks release more funds

Central banks release more funds

Dollar bills

The extra funds are aimed at easing banking sector woes

Global central banks are pumping billions of dollars of extra funds into money markets in a co-ordinated move to lift the amount of credit available.

The move is the fourth such joint effort since December last year. It will see the US Federal Reserve inject a further $180bn (£99bn).

The Bank of England is releasing $40bn, while the European Central Bank is to provide $55bn.

The Bank of Japan and Swiss National Bank have announced similar moves.

‘Appropriate steps’

“These measures, together with other actions taken in the last few days by individual central banks, are designed to improve the liquidity conditions in global financial markets,” said the Bank of England.

“The central banks continue to work together closely and will take appropriate steps to address the ongoing pressures.”

It does help to release some of those immediate tensions that have been building up in the money market
Ian Stannard, currency strategist, BNP Paribas

The central banks of South Korea, India, Canada and Australia have also released extra funds.

The co-ordinated move comes after four days of almost unprecedented turmoil in the global financial industry.

Firstly, US giant Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection, while compatriot Merrill Lynch lost its independence in a rescue takeover by Bank of America.

The US government has also had to bail-out insurance giant AIG, while in the UK, thousands of jobs are predicted to go at banking group HBOS following its sale to rival Lloyds TSB.

Major problem

Analysts said the latest move by the central banks should help to ease immediate fears.

“Obviously it does not tackle the underlying root causes of the problem, but it does help to release some of those immediate tensions that have been building up in the money market,” said Ian Stannard, senior currency strategist at BNP Paribas.

Koichi Haji, chief economist at NLI Research in Tokyo, said the co-ordinated move “shows how serious the problem has become”.

“I think the root cause was letting Lehman fail,” he said.

“That made investors reluctant to supply funds to their counterparts, particularly to the smaller banks.”

Older Posts »

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.