News & Current Affairs

July 21, 2009

Asia set for total solar eclipse

Asia set for total solar eclipse

Total solar eclipse photographed in Egypt, 2006 (Darren Baskill)

Stargazers will travel long distances to see the eclipse

Millions of people in Asia will see the longest total solar eclipse this century on Wednesday as swaths of India and China are plunged into darkness.

Scores of amateur stargazers and scientists will travel long distances for the eclipse, which will last for about five minutes.

The eclipse will first appear in the Gulf of Khambhat just north of Mumbai.

It will move east across India, Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China before hitting the Pacific.

The eclipse will cross some southern Japanese islands and will last be visible from land at Nikumaroro Island in the South Pacific nation of Kiribati.

Elsewhere, a partial eclipse will be visible across much of Asia.

The previous total eclipse, in August 2008, lasted two minutes and 27 seconds. This one will last six minutes and 39 seconds at its maximum point.

Alphonse Sterling, a Nasa astrophysicist who will be following the eclipse from China, scientists are hoping data from the eclipse will help explain solar flares and other structures of the sun and why they erupt.

“We’ll have to wait a few hundred years for another opportunity to observe a solar eclipse that lasts this long, so it’s a very special opportunity,” Shao Zhenyi, an astronomer at the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory in China told the Associated Press news agency.

Solar scientist Lucie Green, from University College London, is aboard an American cruise ship heading for that point near the Japanese island of Iwo Jima, where the axis of the Moon’s shadow will pass closest to Earth.

“The [Sun’s] corona has a temperature of 2 million degrees but we don’t know why it is so hot,” she said.

“What we are going to look for are waves in the corona. … The waves might be producing the energy that heats the corona. That would mean we understand another piece of the science of the Sun.”

The next total solar eclipse will occur on 11 July next year. It will be visible in a narrow corridor over the southern hemisphere, from the southern Pacific Ocean to Argentina.

TOTAL SOLAR ECLIPSE
Infographic (BBC)
In the area covered by the umbra (the darkest part of the shadow), a total eclipse is seen
In the region covered by the penumbra (where only some of the light source is obscured) a partial eclipse is seen

solar

July 20, 2009

Enduring allure of Egyptian belly dance

Enduring allure of Egyptian belly dance

Ahlan Wa Sahlan belly dance festival

The Ahlan Wa Sahlan festival has been a big hit this year

Hundreds of women of all nationalities sway their hips and twirl in time to the beat of a drum in a hotel ballroom by the pyramids in Cairo.

Belly dancing is said to have been practised in Egypt since Pharaonic times and now it has caught on around the globe.

It is well-established in Europe and the US and has recently spread to Asia. This year dozens of dancers travelled from China for the Ahlan Wa Sahlan belly dancing festival.

“Because this is the land of dance, women have to come!” declares Raqia Hassan, the festival organiser.

“When she comes she can meet famous dancers and musicians. She can see the pyramids. Anyone who comes to Egypt one time, she cannot stop coming back.”

Japanese belly dance fan

Safa Bakr’s shop attracts women from all over the world

Raqia, who has taught many belly dancing celebrities, leads her large class through the basic moves of the dance putting together a routine.

“It’s fun and you can do this at any age,” says Ewa Horsfield from London. “You can express your own personality. It’s an individual dance. You just listen and respond to the music.”

Many speak of the fitness benefits of belly dancing.

“In China all ladies like for their health,” says Angel from Shanghai.

“This kind of dance began here. Here teachers [are] very, very good so all Chinese ladies want to come.”

Contradictions

Belly dancing is big business in Egypt thanks to the global market.

Designer, Safaa Yasser Bakr, runs a belly dancing costume shop in the historic Khan el-Khalili bazaar.

She helps a Brazilian woman try on a sky-blue sequinned bra and a matching skirt with a split up one side.

“In one show big stars change costume many times,” she tells her. “You need maybe five different pieces.”

Nowadays Safaa sells most of her alluring outfits to foreigners.

Safa Yasser Bakr

Safa sells her wares in Khan el-Khalili – Cairo’s Islamic heart

“I see people coming from France, Italy, United States, Argentina, Spain, Japan,” she says.

But in Egypt at large, many experts fear the dance is losing its appeal.

Society has become more religious and conservative over the past generation and belly dancing is not considered a respectable profession.

“I don’t like belly dancing. I don’t like to see a woman half-naked dancing and moving her body like that,” says one man on the street in central Cairo.

“It has a kind of sexual movement. That’s why I don’t like to watch it,” adds his friend.

An older passer-by remembers the famous dancers of the 1960s with affection but says he would not let his wife or daughters dance in public today.

“I liked the old belly dancer because you could not see a lot of her body,” he remarks. “They were very respectable – not like the new ones now.”

Enduring art

Dance historian, Mo Geddawi, accepts belly dancing is facing a challenging time in Egypt but says this must be seen in perspective.

“Forget about different governments and religion,” he says. “When Christianity and then Islam came the dance was taboo, but people continued to dance.”

“Sometimes in public it is less but the dance never died.”

For now though international devotees help to ensure the dance goes on.

Diana Esposito from New York came to Cairo on a scholarship to study the social and economic reasons for its decline but has become an accomplished belly dancer herself.

“The first time I saw it I thought the movements were so sensual,” she says. “I decided to try something new and it became an addiction.”

“I don’t see the dance being done properly anywhere else in the world. That’s why everyone flocks here – this is the capital of belly dance.”

October 1, 2008

Senate urged to back crisis bill

Senate urged to back crisis bill

Wall Street, file pic

Shares remain volatile ahead of Wednesday’s key vote

Democratic and Republican Senate leaders have appealed for a new version of a $700bn (£380bn) Wall Street bail-out to be approved in a key vote.

Republican Mitch McConnell said it would shield Americans from “shockwaves of a problem they didn’t create”.

The plan needs support in the Senate and House of Representatives, which rejected a similar bill on Monday.

Senate Democrat Harry Reid said he hoped a strong show of bipartisanship would “spark the House to do the same”.

President George W Bush has been speaking to senators ahead of the vote. The White House said it hoped to see “strong support for the bill”.

“It’s critically important that we approve legislation this week and limit further damage to our economy,” said spokesman Tony Fratto.

US presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama are returning from the campaign trail for the vote, which is due to begin late on Wednesday.

Revised proposal

Global shares were mixed in Wednesday trading ahead of the vote.

By early afternoon on Wall Street the Dow Jones was down 0.2% or 30 points.

CHANGES TO BILL
Raises government’s guarantee on savings from $100,000 to $250,000
Tax breaks to help small businesses and promote renewable energy
Expansion of child tax credit and help for victims of recent hurricanes

But hopes that enough changes had been made to get the bill through saw shares close up strongly in Asia on Wednesday.

In Europe, the UK’s FTSE 100 finished 1.1% higher at 4,959.6 points, France’s key index added 0.6% while German shares fell.

Changes to the rescue plan involve lifting the US government’s guarantee on savings from $100,000 to $250,000 and a package of targeted tax breaks.

They are designed to answer critics who felt the original plan was weighted too much in favour of Wall Street while not enough was being done to help struggling American families.

To get through the Senate, the bill will require backing by 60 of the 100 senators. It would then return to the House of Representatives for a vote on Thursday or Friday.

Some members of Congress continue to press for more fundamental changes to the bill.

President Bush has warned of “painful and lasting” consequences for the US should Congress fail to agree a rescue plan.

The House’s rejection of the earlier version of the plan on Monday led to sharp falls on world stock markets.

In other developments:

  • The European Union outlines its own proposals for reforming banking regulation which, if approved, could see dramatic changes to the way in which banks operate
  • Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin says the “irresponsibility” of the US financial system is to blame for the crisis
  • Ireland’s government discusses a move to guarantee all bank deposits with the EU Competition Commissioner

‘Painful recession’

In election campaigning on the eve of the vote, Mr McCain and Mr Obama urged politicians of both parties to work together to pass the emergency legislation.

Speaking in Reno, Nevada, Mr Obama warned that without action by Congress “millions of jobs could be lost, a long and painful recession could follow”.

John McCain campaigns in Iowa, 30 Sept

John McCain said inaction by Congress was putting the US at risk

He added: “There will be a time to punish those who set this fire, but now is the moment for us to come together and put the fire out.”

Mr McCain, who campaigned in Des Moines, Iowa, said inaction by Congress had “put every American and the entire economy at the gravest risk” and that Washington urgently needed to show leadership.

“I am disappointed at the lack of resolve and bipartisan goodwill among members of both parties to fix this problem,” he said.

The vote comes a day before a TV debate between vice-presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin.

Mr Biden, Mr Obama’s running mate, is also expected to take part in the Senate vote.

Meanwhile, ex-President Bill Clinton is to hold his first rally for Mr Obama.

Mr Clinton, whose wife Hillary lost to Mr Obama in a fierce primary contest for the Democratic nomination, is due to appear in Florida, where he will encourage people to register as voters before a deadline on Monday.

September 24, 2008

Which direction for Turkey now?

Filed under: Latest, Politics News, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 5:24 pm

Which direction for Turkey now?

Guards at Ataturk's Mausoleum in Ankara

The US had feared Turkey was facing too much towards the East

Not so long ago the question of “who lost Turkey?” seemed to dominate US think tank discussions and conferences.

Turkey’s refusal to allow US troops to use its territory to open a second front against Saddam Hussein provoked the worst crisis in relations between Ankara and Washington that many commentators could remember.

Worse, the arrival into power of the Justice and Development Party (the AKP) with its Islamist roots, which then embarked upon a new foreign policy of outreach towards the Middle East, seemed to confirm the fears of many in Washington.

Turkey, they felt, was inexorably being drawn back into the Middle East and Asia and away from its long-standing anchorage in Nato and the West.

With the US presidential election fast approaching, and with the multiplicity of problems in the Middle East set to be at the top of the next administration’s agenda, I came to Turkey to try to answer the question – was this staunch Cold War ally being lost to the West?

Surely things were more complicated? Was Turkey’s new orientation being misunderstood by some in Washington? And what did Turkey itself want from the next US administration?

‘Meaningful contribution’

My first port of call was a pavilion in the grounds of the last sultan’s palace on the edge of the Bosphorus. It is now the Turkish prime minister’s Istanbul office.

There I met Ambassador Ahmet Davutoglu, a quietly spoken academic who is widely acknowledged as the architect of the Turkish government’s new foreign policy.

Ambassador Ahmet Davutoglu (February 2008)
Turkey’s diplomatic power is an asset for our western orientation
Ambassador Ahmet Davutoglu

His 2001 book, entitled Strategic Depth, sought to chart a new course for Turkey in the aftermath of the Cold War.

“There was a need to reinterpret the geographical and historical context of Turkey,” he told me.

“The aim was to reintegrate the country into its surrounding region.”

Nonetheless, he was at pains to point out that these new relationships were compatible with Turkey’s long-standing Atlanticist and European tilt.

“If you have more influence in your own hinterland, you will be a more meaningful contributor to the EU or to Nato,” he told me.

“Turkey’s diplomatic power,” he said, “is an asset for our western orientation.”

There is no doubting the extent to which Turkey has played upon its extraordinary geographical position to develop new diplomatic and trading links.

Today it is as friendly with Syria as it is with Israel. It has close ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia. It has good relations with both Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah.

It has developed a strong relationship with Russia and it maintains its strong links with the US and western Europe.

Iraq concern

 

Mr Davutoglu is now the Turkish prime minister’s chief foreign policy adviser.

Turkey, he told me, was looking to play an ever-greater role in the Middle East, and despite all of the ups and downs between Ankara and Washington, ties between them were firm.

A Turkish youth holds a PKK flag (file image)

The US views the Turkish separatist PKK as a security threat

“The Turkish-American relationship is not an ordinary relationship,” he told me.

“It is well-established, it is well-institutionalised, and very sophisticated. Whoever comes to power in Washington, that institutionalised framework will set the basic parameters for the new president.”

It is certainly true that the Bush administration’s decision to view the Kurdish separatist organisation, the PKK, as a threat to US security interests as well as those of Turkey has gone some way to restoring trust between the two governments.

Iraq though, and especially the circumstances of any US troop withdrawal by a new US president, is a major concern for the Turkish authorities.

Veteran commentator Professor Iltar Turan told me that Turkey fears Iraq might simply break up if there is a too hasty US withdrawal; it might degenerate into full-scale civil war.

“Iraq needs to be integrated better,” he told me, “before a full US withdrawal can be entertained.”

We expect and hope that the new US administration will be more supportive of Turkey, but we will have to see
Suat Kiniklioglu
MP

There is also a strong sense here that Turkey’s diplomatic initiatives have not been fully understood or welcomed in Washington.

The Bush administration has been at best indifferent to Turkey’s major initiative in the region – its efforts to broker a peace deal between Israel and Syria.

Four rounds of indirect talks have been held in Istanbul, mediated by Mr Davutoglu himself.

He refused to touch on any detail, such were the sensitivities, but, he assured me, the progress had been remarkable.

Security matters

In Ankara, I went to see one of the AKP’s most prominent foreign policy experts, Suat Kiniklioglu, an MP and spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Committee.

On Syria, he said that the US administration “had been very distant”.

But he believed that the US was belatedly coming around, though he acknowledged that Turkey’s ties with Iran were something that the Bush administration would not favour.

“We expect and hope that the new US administration will be more supportive of Turkey. But you know,” he mused, “we will have to see – there are two very different candidates and there could be two very different Americas, depending upon who will win in November.”

 

So who do the Turks want to see as the next US president?

Not surprisingly, opinions differ.

I think a McCain presidency – especially with Ms Palin as vice-president, would be nothing short of catastrophic
Soli Ozel
Writer and academic

Prof Turan told me that Senator Barack Obama’s inexperience in foreign policy worries many Turks, along with some of the things he has said on issues that matter greatly to Turkey.

“Many of us,” Prof Turan told me, “think that the election of Senator John McCain who is familiar with security matters – and the US-Turkish relationship is to a large extent based on security concerns – is better.”

The leading writer and academic Soli Ozel took a different view. He told me that he favours Mr Obama.

“I think a McCain presidency – especially with Ms Palin as vice-president – would be nothing short of catastrophic,” he said.

“A white man of 72 years of age who is a Republican – I don’t think that is what the world looks to in order to mend relations with America around the globe, so I think that whatever is going to be good for the world, ought to be necessarily good for Turkey.”

Official spokesmen obviously do not want to be drawn into the political fray.

But Mr Davutoglu told me that Turkey wanted greater US attention to the crisis around its borders.

“The Turkish foreign agenda is like the United Nation’s agenda”, he argues.

“What do you have on UN agenda today? The Palestinian question, the Iraqi question, the Iranian question, the Caucasian question, the Kosovo question – they are all on Turkish foreign policy agenda too,” he said.

“Without Turkish involvement,” he went on, “it is going to be difficult to solve any of these crises. So Turkish strength, in terms of hard power, of soft power, in terms of economic relations, is an asset for any American administration.”

‘Derivative policies’

 

To get the perspective of someone with a foot in both countries, I went to see Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

He heads their Turkish research programme and is currently in Istanbul teaching for three months.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana (R) welcomes Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan at the EU headquarters in Brussels (15/09/2008)

Turkey can look elsewhere if it is rejected by the EU

“Turkey policy in Washington,” he says, “has always been a derivative of other policies – of Iraq policy, of Afghanistan policy and maybe now even of Georgia policy.

“Turkey is important as a secondary partner, not as a primary partner, with which the US envisions its big foreign policy debate.”

Whoever takes over in Washington, he says, needs to take a view of Turkey from 30,000 feet up; to realise that it is important when the US plans policies, not only when it is implementing them.

“This,” he argues, “would probably give the Turks the sense of importance they are trying to find in the region, and it would be one way for the next US president to counter Turkey’s ongoing rapprochement with Russia and Iran.”

In my week shuttling between Istanbul and Ankara, it seemed clear that Turkey was proud and confident of its considerable diplomatic achievements .

It wants these to be seen as an asset by the West too.

Turkey’s new regional aspirations are not to be seen as being in conflict with its anchorage in the western camp.

But if the West rejects Turkey – and by this Turkish commentators generally mean the European Union – then Turkey does have other cards to play.

No wonder then that the EU’s ambivalence towards Turkey creates so much unease in Washington.

September 17, 2008

Investors edgy as US stocks fall

Investors edgy as US stocks fall

A trader reacts to news in the Philippines

Investors are concerned that financial markets will remain volatile.

US stock markets sank in early trade on fears the bailout of insurance giant AIG would not be enough to dispel the gloom engulfing the financial world.

AIG’s rescue and a potential takeover of UK lender HBOS had earlier boosted confidence in Asia and Europe.

But markets were volatile as nervous investors tried to make sense of the dramatic events that have unfolded in recent days.

The widely watched Dow Jones industrial average was down 1.9% at 10,849.

Top UK mortgage lender HBOS, which has faced heavy selling this week, fell as much as 50% before recovering after it emerged that it was in advanced talks to be taken over by Lloyds TSB.

HBOS shares were down 13% at 160 pence in London, the biggest faller in the FTSE 100, after being the top gainer at one point.

It has been a tumultuous week on financial markets, with significant changes in the financial landscape.

Key events on Wednesday included:

  • Beleaguered HBOS in merger talks with Lloyds TSB after a steep fall in its share price
  • US insurance giant AIG being bailed out by the US government
  • Volatile stock markets as global investors remain nervous
  • Trading on the Russian stock exchange being suspended
  • Barclays snapping up key assets from Lehman Brothers after its bankruptcy

I don’t think anyone has got any or much confidence in market direction for more than a few days
Darren Winder, Cazenove

The FTSE 100 index of top UK shares was down 0.48% at 5,001.4, reversing earlier gains, with some banking shares hard hit.

Shares in Barclays were up 9.8%, Lloyds TSB climbed 7.9% while Royal Bank of Scotland was down 2.6%.

Topsy-turvy trade

Trade is likely to remain rocky amid concern that financial system instability will continue after the dramatic events of the past few days.

“I don’t think anyone has got any or much confidence in market direction for more than a few days,” said Darren Winder, a strategist at Cazenove.

AIG’s bail-out follows the collapse of US investment bank Lehman Brothers, which caused share prices to plummet across the world’s financial markets.

Another investment bank, Merrill Lynch, has been sold off to Bank of America.

France’s Cac 40 share index was down 0.24%, while Germany’s Dax index was 0.64% lower, reversing earlier gains as Wall Street opened.

Russia’s stock exchange suspended trade following steep falls in shares.

Asian shares had a mixed session. Stocks in Tokyo, Taipei, and Seoul all rose, although prices in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Australia lost ground.

Japan’s Nikkei 225 index ended up 1.2% at 11,749.79, having risen by as much as 2.3% earlier in the day. The index had hit a three-year low on Tuesday.

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index ended down 3.6% at 17,637.19 points.

September 7, 2008

Global economy woes shake markets

Global economy woes shake markets

Japanese stock market trader

Japanese shares felt the force of the economic uncertainty

Fears about a global economic slowdown, heightened by worsening US job figures, have continued to undermine stock markets around the world.

London’s FTSE 100 index lost 2.3% – taking its weekly decline to 7% – its biggest since July 2002.

Markets in Paris and Frankfurt fell by 2.5% as economy concerns spread.

On Wall Street the Dow Jones index clawed back early losses to edge higher despite figures showing the US economy shed 84,000 jobs last month.

But the benchmark US index still had its worst week since May.

Earlier, Japan’s main share index fell nearly 3% while markets in Hong Kong, China, Australia and India all slid 2%.

‘Ugly’ data

The US labor market figures – which showed the unemployment rate rising to 6.1% – were a further jolt to investors who have had to swallow a slew of poor economic data in recent days.

Economists had been expecting 75,000 jobs to be lost while the government also revised upwards.

“This was an ugly number that pretty much confirms that our economy continues to trend downward,” said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer of Harris Private Bank.

“This just knocks the legs out of any hope of seeing much economic improvement right now.”

‘Uncertainty’

Amid the uncertainty, few investors are willing to buy
Masayuki Otani, Securities Japan

The FTSE 100 closed down 2.3% at 5,240.70 points. The last time it lost so much value in a week was more than six years ago in the wake of financial scandals such as Enron and WorldCom.

Markets in Paris and Frankfurt continued their recent downward trend, both the Cac-40 index and the Dax-30 dropping about 2.5%.

The Dow Jones index, which lost 3% on Thursday, rose 32.73 points, or 0.3% to 11,220.96, but still ended down 2.8% on the week.

“Given the fact we were down so much yesterday we’re seeing a bit of a reflex rally with investors wanting to take advantages of some of the bargains,” said Bucky Hellwig, senior vice president at Morgan Asset Management.

The Nasdaq index slipped 3.16 points, or 0.1% to 2,255.88, ending the week 4.7% lower.

Earlier Japan’s benchmark Nikkei index fell 361.54 points to 12,196.12 amid a widespread sell-off of shares in Asia.

The Hang Seng index fell more than 3% in Hong Kong while markets also fell sharply in China, Australia and India.

“Amid the uncertainty, few investors are willing to buy,” said Masayuki, Otani, chief market analyst at Securities Japan.

“Several bad things happened at once,” he added, explaining the fall.

Gloom

Worries about inflation have prevented central banks in Europe from cutting interest rates to help forestall a slowdown.

But analysts believe this could change soon with economic forecasts across Europe looking increasingly gloomy.

The European Central Bank cut its 2009 growth forecast from 1.5% to 1.2% on Thursday while the UK economy stalled in the second quarter.

In a separate development, the Russian rouble fell against the dollar a day after Russia’s central bank intervened to support the currency amid concerns about a flight of foreign capital after the conflict with Georgia.

The central bank sold up to $4bn in reserves, the Financial Times reported, after the rouble slipped to its lowest level since February 2007.

August 7, 2008

China rejects Bush criticism of its affairs

China rejects Bush criticism of its affairs

Courtesy Yahoo

BANGKOK, Thailand – China rejected President Bush’s criticism Thursday of its human rights record and restrictions on religion, diplomatically telling him to stay out of its affairs even as he flew to Beijing to attend the Olympics.

In a speech outlining America’s achievements and challenges in Asia, Bush pushed for a free press, free assembly and labor rights in China, and against its detentions of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists. He said he wasn’t trying to antagonize China, but called such reform the only path the potent U.S. rival can take to reach its full potential.

He antagonized the Chinese anyway, setting the stage for an interesting reception when he attends the opening ceremonies Friday evening, takes in some events — including the U.S.-China men’s basketball game — and meets with President Hu Jintao on Sunday after attending church.

“The Chinese government puts people first, and is dedicated to maintaining and promoting its citizens basic rights and freedom,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in response to Bush’s speech. “Chinese citizens have freedom of religion. These are indisputable facts.”

He said China advocates discussions on differing views on human rights and religions on “a basis of mutual respect and equality,” then indicated it didn’t see Bush’s criticism in that light.

“We firmly oppose any words or acts that interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, using human rights and religion and other issues,” Qin said.

Bush did offer praise for China’s market reforms. “Change in China will arrive on its own terms and in keeping with its own history and its own traditions,” he said. “Yet, change will arrive.”

Bush has been trying to walk a tightrope in attending the games, wanting to avoid causing Beijing embarrassment during its two weeks on the world stage while also coming under pressure to use his visit to openly press China’s leaders for greater religious tolerance and other freedoms. Chinese officials bristled when he met with Chinese activists at the White House last week.

“With this speech, Bush is trying to address two polar issues: easing the controversy created by those who oppose his visit during the Games and simultaneously maintaining America’s strategy with China,” said Yan Xuetong, an expert in U.S.-China relations at Beijing‘s prestigious Tsinghua University.

Making the repression issue timely, China has rounded up opponents ahead of the Olympics and slapped restrictions on journalists, betraying promises made when it landed the hosting rights.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd urged the international community “to speak with a strong and united voice” to maintain pressure on China over human rights. But he conceded Beijing’s record has improved.

“Remember, it was not all that long ago they were in the middle of the cultural revolution with people getting put up against a wall and basically knocked off,” he told Nine Network television before flying to Beijing.

The White House’s handling of the speech demonstrated the president’s balancing act. Bush’s address containing the criticism of China was delivered outside the country, in Thailand. The White House took the unusual step of releasing the text of it even earlier, about 18 hours before he spoke.

And the speech was followed by a string of events Thursday, by both the president and his wife, Laura, that were clearly aimed at shifting the focus to the repressive military regime in Myanmar, neighbor to Thailand, where Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej regards himself as a friend of Myanmar’s generals. Myanmar, also known as Burma, marks the 20th anniversary of a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy activists on Friday.

The Bush administration has become increasingly vocal about Myanmar in recent months, blaming a corrupt regime for failing to help its citizens after a devastating cyclone in May, in large part by initially failing to accept international help and then only with tight restrictions, and for violently suppressing democracy demonstrations by Buddhist monks in last September’s so-called Saffron Revolution.

Mrs. Bush, the administration’s highest-profile spokeswoman on the issue, flew for the day to northwestern Thailand to visit a border refugee camp. The Mae La camp is home to 38,000 Karen, an ethnic minority that human rights organizations say is the target of an ongoing Myanmar military campaign marked by murders of civilians, rapes and razing of villages. She also stopped at a health clinic run by a woman known as the “Mother Teresa of Burma.”

Remaining in Bangkok, the president was briefed at the U.S. ambassador’s residence on recovery from the cyclone that devastated Myanmar’s heartland and killed more than 80,000 people, had lunch with nine Burmese activists and did an interview with local radio journalists in hopes of influencing events across the border.

Bush called the activists “courageous people,” saying he wanted to hear their stories and their advice.

One of the activists, Lway Aye Nang of the Women’s League of Burma, said rape has long been used “as a weapon of war” in Myanmar and thanked Washington for imposing sanctions against her country.

“This is really hitting … the regime and their associates, who have been defiling the country’s natural resources for their own benefit and leaving ordinary citizens in extreme poverty,” she said.

Bush’s speech had been expected to prominently feature Myanmar. But it contained only a brief — though blunt — mention of the reclusive nation.

One of the world’s poorest countries, Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962, when the latest junta came to power after brutally crushing a pro-democracy uprising in 1988.

“We will continue working until the people of Burma have the freedom they deserve,” Bush said, calling for the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners.

Bush also urged North Korea to live up to its promise to dismantle its nuclear weapons, adding: “The United States will continue to insist that the regime in Pyongyang end its harsh rule and respect the dignity and human rights of the North Korean people.”

About 25 people around the convention center where Bush spoke welcomed him. But a Muslim group shouted “Bush, get out. God is great” as the presidential motorcade passed. The protesters handed out leaflets saying “George Bush is a war criminal.”

Bush chides Beijing over rights

Bush chides Beijing over rights

US President George W Bush has expressed “deep concerns” over China’s human rights record in a speech on the eve of the Beijing Olympics.

“The US believes the people of China deserve the fundamental liberty that is the natural right of all human beings,” he said in the Thai capital Bangkok.

He praised China’s economy but said only respect for human rights would let it realise its full potential.

Mr Bush has been criticised by some campaigners for going to the Games.

He was due to fly to Beijing following the speech in Bangkok, a stop on his final trip to Asia before he leaves office in January.

The wide-ranging address, which included criticism of the regime in Burma, was more nuanced than Mr Bush’s past speeches on China.

It is unlikely to cause much offence in China, our correspondent says, and many people will see it more as a valedictory speech for Mr Bush’s record in Asia rather than an outline of future US policy.

‘Firm opposition’

President Bush said he was optimistic about China’s future and said change in China would arrive “on its own terms”.

Young people who grow up with the freedom to trade goods will ultimately demand the freedom to trade ideas…
George W Bush
US president

But his criticisms of China’s human rights record were clear.

“America stands in firm opposition to China’s detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists,” he said.

When it was controversially awarded the games in 2001 by the International Olympic Committee, Beijing promised to make improvements in human rights, media freedoms and the provision of health and education.

But campaigners, such as Amnesty International, say Chinese activists have been jailed, people made homeless, journalists detained and websites blocked, while there has been increased use of labour camps and prison beatings.

In March, China suppressed violent anti-government protests in Tibet. Beijing said rioters killed at least 19 people, but Tibetan exiles said security forces killed dozens of protesters in the worst unrest in Tibet for 20 years.

The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled Buddhist leader, rejected Beijing’s claims he was behind the riots and said he expressed good wishes for the success of Games.

On Thursday, at least 1,500 Buddhists were holding a protest in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu against what they called China’s violation of religious freedom in Tibet. Correspondents say there have been scuffles with police.

In Beijing, police dragged away three US Christians who tried to demonstrate on Tiananmen Square in support of religious freedom.

Four pro-Tibet activists from Britain and the US were arrested and held briefly in the city on Wednesday after a protest close to the Olympic stadium.

Burma refugees

In his address, Mr Bush said the US recognised that the growth sparked by China’s free market reforms was “good for the Chinese people” and the country’s’ purchasing power was “good for the world”.

On foreign policy, he commended China’s “critical leadership role” in the negotiations to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, and the “constructive relationship” between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan.

He also called for an end to what he described as tyranny in Thailand’s neighbour, Burma.

Friday’s Olympic opening ceremony coincides with the 20th anniversary of a democracy uprising in Burma, which was crushed by the military.

First lady Laura Bush flew to the Thai-Burmese border to spend the day at the Mae La refugee camp where about 35,000 refugees live, having fled their homes.

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