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

November 4, 2008

Indian Moon probe pictures Earth

Earth (ISRO)

The terrain mapping camera will eventually help compile an atlas of the Moon

India’s Chandrayaan 1 spacecraft has sent back its first images.

The probe was launched on 22 October to embark on a two-year mission of exploration at the Moon.

Ground controllers in Bangalore instructed the probe to take pictures with its Terrain Mapping Camera as the spacecraft made a pass of the Earth.

Chandrayaan also fired its engines for three minutes to carry out an orbit raising manoeuvre which takes the probe closer to the lunar body.

That was the fourth manoeuvre of its type made by the spacecraft, extending its orbit to more than half the distance to the Moon.

Just one more like it is required to take Chandrayaan into the Moon’s vicinity, at a distance of 384,000km from Earth.

Keeping up

The first images, taken at an altitude of 9,000km, show the northern coast of Australia while others, snapped at a height of 70,000km, show Australia’s southern coast.

Earth (ISRO)

The camera takes black and white images at a resolution of 5m

The Terrain Mapping Camera is one of the eleven scientific instruments aboard Chandrayaan 1. The camera takes black and white pictures at a resolution of about 5m.

Once Chandrayaan reaches the Moon, it will slip into orbit to compile a 3D atlas of the lunar surface and map the distribution of elements and minerals.

The mission is regarded as a major step for India as it seeks to keep pace with other spacefaring nations in Asia.

The health of Chandrayaan 1 is being continuously monitored from the ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC) in Bangalore with support from Indian Deep Space Network antennas at Byalalu.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) – the country’s space agency – says that all systems have been performing well.

September 24, 2008

Kidman hails ‘fertile waterfalls’

Kidman hails ‘fertile waterfalls’

A pregnant Nicole Kidman at an awards ceremony with husband Keith Urban in May 2008

Kidman already has two children, but both were adopted

Nicole Kidman has credited a waterfall with bringing about a flurry of pregnancies – including her own – on the set of one of her films, Australia.

The actress said seven babies had been conceived during production of the film in a small town in Australia’s outback.

“There is something up there in the Kununurra water”, in which she and six other woman swam, she told The Australian Women’s Weekly.

Kidman, 41, gave birth to her third child, Sunday Rose, in July.

She is married to country music singer Keith Urban and has two children – both adopted – from her previous relationship with fellow star Tom Cruise.

‘Fertility waters’

Kidman filmed Australia, directed by Baz Luhrmann, in Kununurra, a small town in the far north of the state of Western Australia.

“I never thought that I would get pregnant and give birth to a child, but it happened on this movie,” she said in the interview.

“Seven babies were conceived out of this film and only one was a boy. There is something up there in the Kununurra water because we all went swimming in the waterfalls, so we can call it the fertility waters now.”

September 18, 2008

Australia MPs oppose uranium sale

Australia MPs oppose uranium sale

Undated BHP Billiton photo of the Olympic Dam copper and uranium operation in Roxby Downs, Australia

Australia has 40% of the world’s known uranium resources

Australia should not sell uranium to Russia, a parliamentary committee says.

It said the $800 million deal should not go ahead until Russia assuaged doubts about the separation of its civilian and military uses of uranium.

The deal was signed by former Prime Minister John Howard and Russian leader Vladimir Putin last year.

The committee said assurances were needed on Russia’s compliance with, and long-term commitment to, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Opposition members of parliament supported the uranium sales. They argued Australia would benefit from the trade, and said safeguards against any future military use of the uranium were adequate.

But the report presented to parliament on Thursday recommended that “further consideration is given to the potential ramifications for this agreement”.

The committee said any facilities taking Australian uranium should be inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Russia has insisted that it would only use Australian uranium for civilian purposes, to generate power at home, and would not export it for use elsewhere.

Some reports of the committee’s findings suggested that opposition to the deal was strengthened by Russia’s recent incursions into Georgia.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Stephen Smith warned earlier this month that if Russia failed to withdraw its troops from neighboring Georgia, Australia might withhold approval of the new agreement.

Australia has 40% of the world’s known uranium resources and exports the product to more than 30 countries under strict conditions.

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 15, 2008

Melbourne jury convicts militants

Melbourne jury convicts militants

Breaking News

A Muslim cleric and five of his followers have been convicted of belonging to a terrorist group which allegedly planned attacks in Australia.

A jury in Melbourne found Abdul Nacer Benbrika guilty of leading the group.

The cell was accused of planning to stage “violent jihad”, targeting the prime minister and major sports events.

Four other men were acquitted. Charges are pending against two others, in what is being described as Australia’s biggest-ever terrorism trial.

September 12, 2008

Obama win preferred in world poll

Obama win preferred in world poll

Sen Barack Obama in Flint, Michigan, on 8 September 2008

Most thought US relations would get better under a president Obama

People outside the US would prefer Barack Obama to become US president ahead of John McCain, a BBC World Service poll suggests.

Democrat Mr Obama was favored by a four-to-one margin across the 22,500 people polled in 22 countries.

In 17 countries, the most common view was that US relations with the rest of the world would improve under Mr Obama.

If Republican Mr McCain were elected, the most common view was that relations would remain about the same.

The poll was conducted before the Democratic and Republican parties held their conventions and before the headline-grabbing nomination of Sarah Palin as Mr McCain’s running mate.

The results could therefore be a reflection of the greater media focus on Mr Obama as he competed for the presidential candidacy against Hillary Clinton.

Pie chart

The margin of those in favor of Mr Obama winning November’s US election ranged from 9% in India to 82% in Kenya, which is the birthplace of the Illinois senator’s father.

On average 49% preferred Mr Obama to 12% in favor of Mr McCain. Nearly four in 10 of those polled did not take a view.

On average 46% thought US relations with the world would improve with Mr Obama in the White House, 22% that ties would stay the same, while seven per cent expected relations to worsen.

Only 20% thought ties would get better if Mr McCain were in the Oval Office.

The expectation that a McCain presidency would improve US relations with the world was the most common view, by a modest margin, only in China, India and Nigeria.

But across the board, the largest number – 37% – thought relations under a president McCain would stay the same, while 16% expected them to deteriorate.

In no country did most people think that a McCain presidency would worsen relations.

Sen John McCain in Sterling Heights, Michigan, on 5 September 2008

Some 30% of Americans expected relations to improve under Mr McCain

Oddly, in Turkey more people thought US relations would worsen with an Obama presidency than under Mr McCain, even though most Turks polled preferred Mr Obama to win.

In Egypt, Lebanon, Russia and Singapore, the predominant expectation was that relations would remain the same if Mr Obama won the election.

The countries most optimistic that an Obama presidency would improve ties were US Nato allies – Canada (69%), Italy (64%), France (62%), Germany (61%), and the UK (54%) – as well as Australia (62%), along with Kenya (87%) and Nigeria (71%).

When asked whether the election as president of the African-American Mr Obama would “fundamentally change” their perception of the US, 46% said it would while 27% said it would not.

The US public was polled separately and Americans also believed an Obama presidency would improve US ties with the world more than a McCain presidency.

Forty-six per cent of Americans expected relations to get better if Mr Obama were elected and 30% if Mr McCain won the White House.

A similar poll conducted for BBC World Service ahead of the 2004 US presidential election found most countries would have preferred to see Democratic nominee John Kerry beat the incumbent George W Bush.

At the time, the Philippines, Nigeria and Poland were among the few countries to favor Mr Bush’s re-election. All three now favor Mr Obama over Mr McCain.

In total 22,531 citizens were polled in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria, Panama, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Singapore, Turkey, the UAE and the UK. A parallel survey was conducted with 1,000 US adults.

Polling firm GlobeScan and the Program on International Policy Attitudes carried out the survey between July and August.

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.

September 1, 2008

Australia WWII wreck probe begins

Australia WWII wreck probe begins

HMAS Sydney, pre-1941

The wreckage of the Sydney was found earlier in 2008

An inquiry into Australia’s worst naval disaster is to begin hearing evidence from former war veterans.

Some 645 sailors died when HMAS Sydney was lost in a battle with a German cruiser off Western Australia in 1941.

HMAS Sydney was regarded as the pride of the Australian navy and defense officials say the investigation is “important unfinished business”.

The inquiry will be run by Sir Terence Cole, who presided over a hearing into Australia’s AWB oil-for-wheat scandal.

He is trying to uncover the truth behind one of Australia’s most enduring wartime mysteries.

HMAS Sydney perished after being attacked by a German ship, the Kormoran, which was disguised as a Dutch merchant vessel.

It too sank but the majority of its crew survived.

Australian War Memorial]

None of the Sydney’s crew survived, but the Kormoran’s crew did

But all on board the Sydney were lost and over the years various theories about their demise have emerged as the nation became fascinated with this naval tragedy.

Historians have been unable to unlock the secrets of that day in November 1941.

They have provided no explanation as to why such a superior vessel was sunk by a German boat sailing under a false flag.

There was speculation that the Australian cruiser was really sunk by a Japanese submarine – even though Japan had not yet entered the war.

The wrecks of both HMAS Sydney and the Kormoran were finally located by divers earlier this year.

This week the inquiry will hear from former Australian navy personnel who sailed with the Sydney before it sank more than 65 years ago.

August 30, 2008

Australia suffering ‘man drought’

Australia suffering ‘man drought’

Lifeguards on Manly beach

Australia’s coastal regions have been hit by man shortages

An analysis of new census figures has shown that Australia is suffering from an unprecedented “man drought”.

The statistics have revealed that there are almost 100,000 more females than males in Australia.

The problem is worse in the coastal cities, where women have moved seeking better jobs and lifestyles, while many men have gone overseas.

Thirty years ago Australia was with flush with men thanks to immigration policies that favoured males.

That position has been reversed because thousands of Australian men in their 20s and early 30s have gone overseas either to travel or to work.

It has caused a gender imbalance that is having far-reaching implications.

Town and country

Major cities in Australia now have concentrated groups of unattached women, along with dwindling numbers of the opposite sex.

Demographer Bernard Salt says the exodus of young men to foreign countries is leaving its mark.

“If you go into the United Arab Emirates census you’ll find there is around 12,000 Australians living in Dubai, mostly male, mostly in the 25 to 34-year age group.

“Here is an example of one country that has drawn out a specific age demographic out of Australia which has contributed to the ‘man drought’.”

But the situation outside of the larger towns and cities is very different.

Vast numbers of women have abandoned the countryside seeking better jobs or education in metropolitan areas. They have left behind communities overloaded with younger males.

In the town of Glenden in the northern state of Queensland there is one single female for every 23 men.

Demographers have compiled a so-called “Love Map” that shows how the various clusters of unattached men and women are distributed across the Australian continent.

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