News & Current Affairs

July 20, 2009

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 25, 2008

Bangkok protesters fire on rivals

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 3:47 pm

Bangkok protesters fire on rivals

Thai anti-government protesters have opened fire on government supporters during clashes in Bangkok which left at least 11 people injured, officials say.

The incident came after the People’s Alliance for Democracy blocked the road to the city’s old airport in a renewed attempt to unseat the government.

The PAD said on Sunday it had begun a “final battle” to achieve the goal.

Meanwhile, PAD supporters have stormed Bangkok’s main international airport, leading it to suspend outgoing flights.

Witnesses said hundreds of yellow-shirted members of the group managed to break through police lines and enter the main terminal of Suvarnabhumi airport, to the bewilderment of passengers.

Anyone who wants to overthrow or resist the government is attempting a rebellion
Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat

The airport’s manager, Serirat Prasutanon, said the authorities had tried to negotiate with the protesters, “but to no avail”.

“For the safety of passengers, we have to stop flights out of the airport temporarily until the situation returns to normal,” he told the Associated Press.

Exactly what the protesters hope to do there is not clear, the BBC’s Jonathan Head in Bangkok says, but they may be hoping to prevent Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat from returning from the Apec summit in Peru on Wednesday.

Mr Somchai told reporters in Lima: “Anyone who wants to overthrow or resist the government is attempting a rebellion.”

‘Final battle’

Earlier, Thai TPBS television broadcast pictures of the violence on the main road to the capital’s old airport. The footage showed shots being fired from a truck into crowds after rocks were thrown.

Protesters block the road to Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport (25 November 2008)

Thousands of people are taking part in anti-government protests

At least two handguns could be seen and people standing with the gunmen raised up a picture of the revered Thai king, whom the PAD claim to be supporting.

Protesters could be seen running across the empty multi-lane road and setting fire to a motorbike.

A man was also seized by pro-government supporters and what appeared to be a large knife was held to his throat.

TPBS said its cameraman had been threatened at the scene and that PAD personnel attempted to seize his tape.

On Monday, PAD protesters converged on Bangkok’s old Don Muang international airport, from where the cabinet has been operating since its offices were occupied three months ago.

Organisers say the protest is a “final battle” to bring down the government.

Our correspondent says the government appears to have followed a strategy of allowing PAD to attack government buildings while avoiding clashes, in the hope that it will wear the protesters down.

The government has so far resisted calling in the army. Analysts says it is a thinly disguised aim of the PAD to provoke such a move.

The PAD are determined to create drama but many ordinary Thais are sick of the unrest and the protesters appear to be losing steam, says our correspondent.

November 20, 2008

Fatal blast hits Bangkok protest

Fatal blast hits Bangkok protest

Protesters react after the explosion in Bangkok, Thailand, 20 November 2008

The pre-dawn blast rocked an area where demonstrators had set up camp

An explosion in Bangkok has killed at least one anti-government protester and wounded more than 20.

The pre-dawn blast rocked an area where demonstrators had set up camp in the city’s Government House compound.

Protesters from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) group have occupied the area since late August.

They are demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat’s government, saying it is too close to ousted former PM Thaksin Shinawatra.

The demonstrators said a grenade had exploded near the main stage of their protest site at about 0330 (2030 GMT Wednesday).

The protests have seen some of the worst street violence since pro-democracy activists challenged Thailand’s army in 1992.

Abuse of power?

The PAD has proved a remarkably resilient movement, forcing the resignation of a prime minister and two cabinet ministers, and nearly provoking a military coup.

Anti-government rally in Bangkok on 30/10/08

Anti-government rallies have been held in Bangkok for months

While the protesters have been targeted by small bomb attacks in recent weeks, the latest explosion could herald the start of more aggressive efforts to dislodge them, our correspondent adds.

An alliance of conservative and staunchly royalist academics, activists and business people, the PAD accuses Mr Somchai and his recently-ousted predecessor, Samak Sundaravej, of simply being proxies for Thaksin.

The PAD wants to replace Thailand’s one-man, one-vote system with one in which some representatives are chosen by professions and social groups rather than the general electorate.

Thaksin, Mr Somchai’s brother-in-law, was forced from office in a military coup in 2006 and remains in exile overseas.

The new government says it wants to start negotiations with the PAD. But it is also pushing ahead with controversial plans to amend the constitution – a key grievance of the protesters who see it as part of a plan to rehabilitate Thaksin.

It accuses him of corruption and abuse of power while he was in office, and has suggested he and his allies have a hidden republican agenda – a serious charge at a time when the country is beset by anxiety over the future of the monarchy.

Thaksin was last month convicted in absentia of violating conflict of interest rules, and still faces several other charges.


Are you in Bangkok? Have you seen the protests? Did you witness the blast? Send us your comments

September 10, 2008

Thai coalition looks for new PM

Thai coalition looks for new PM

Thai deputy PM and finance minister Surapong Suebwonglee (C) sits next to deputy PM Somchai Wongsawat (L) and justice minister Sompong Amornwiwat (R) during a meeting in Bangkok on 10 September 2008

The mood in Thailand was reportedly tense as the coalition met

Thailand’s political parties are meeting to discuss who should replace Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, a day after he was stripped of office.

Mr Samak has not been seen since the Constitutional Court ruled he broke the law by appearing on a TV cookery show.

Parliament is due to elect 73-year-old Mr Samak’s successor on Friday.

His People Power Party (PPP), the biggest in the six-member coalition, appeared to back away from an earlier pledge to re-nominate him as PM.

“What the party spokesman said yesterday was not the party’s resolution. Our resolution is the next prime minister must come from the People Power Party,” Reuters news agency quoted finance minister and PPP secretary general Surapong Suebwonglee as saying.

‘Fuel the fire’

Now that the dust has settled after the Constitutional Court’s astonishing decision on Tuesday, the bargaining has begun, according to the correspondent in Bangkok, Jonathan Head.

Party factions have been holding meetings throughout the day; some have been in contact with the exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is still influential because of his continued financial support.

POLITICAL CRISIS
26 Aug: Protesters occupy government buildings, demand the government step down
28 Aug: PM Samak promises no use of force against the protesters
30 Aug: Samak rules out resignation, after meeting with Thailand’s king
1 Sept: A late-night clash between pro- and anti-government groups leaves one dead. Samak declares a state of emergency
4 Sept: Samak proposes a national referendum
9 Sept: Court orders Samak to resign for violating constitution

The PPP insists any replacement for Mr Samak must come from within its ranks, but its coalition partners are angling to get one of their own into the seat.

The second-largest of the partners, the Chart Thai Party, said the PPP should not re-nominate Mr Samak.

But Chart Thai’s leader, Banharn Silpa-Archa – who as prime minister a decade ago presided over a currency collapse that triggered an Asian economic crisis – told Reuters he had ruled himself out.

The opposition Democrats are proposing a new government of national unity as the best way out of the crisis – with the clear hint that their party leader should get the job.

Bangkok dangerous?

For the past two weeks, the Thai government has been paralysed by thousands of protesters who have occupied its headquarters, demanding Mr Samak quit.

Anti-government protesters at Government House in Bangkok on 10 September 2008

Protesters are still laying siege to Government House

They accuse him of being a proxy for Mr Thaksin, who was ousted in an army coup in 2006 amid accusations of corruption and abuse of power.

The demonstrators said they would continue to besiege Government House while waiting to see who parliament selects as the new prime minister.

They have already warned that they will continue their protests if Mr Samak or anyone else closely associated with Mr Thaksin is chosen.

The caretaker administration has anticipated the continued protests by proposing that ministers move their offices to the old international airport.

Deputy PPP leader Somchai Wongsawat is acting as a caretaker prime minister until the new premier is named.

Correspondents say his new role could fan Thailand’s political flames as he is the brother-in-law of Mr Thaksin.

September 9, 2008

Breaking News: Court says Thai PM ‘must resign’

Court says Thai PM ‘must resign’

Thai PM Samak Sundaravej. File photo

Mr Samak was a TV chef before becoming prime minister

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej has been ordered to resign after being found guilty of violating the constitution over a TV cookery show.

His entire cabinet has also been ordered to step down.

Mr Samak was found to have violated a ban on ministers having outside interests by taking money from a private company to host a TV show.

However, the ruling People Power Party (PPP) has vowed to re-appoint Mr Samak as prime minister.

It is unclear what happens next.

Mr Samak has not been banned from standing again for prime minister, and it will be 30 days before the court’s decision comes into effect.

Thailand has had its fair share of crises recently, but this is one that even the Thais are baffled by, our correspondent says.

September 8, 2008

Thai leader in court over TV show

Thai leader in court over TV show

Thai PM Samak Sundaravej. File photo

Mr Samak was a TV chef before becoming prime minister

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej has defended himself in court for appearing on a TV cooking program.

In the latest of a series of problems to beset Mr Samak, he is accused of violating the constitution by working for a private company.

Protesters have now spent nearly two weeks occupying Mr Samak’s office complex, demanding his resignation.

Mr Samak will have to quit if found guilty in this case, which might indirectly end the impasse.

Possible way forward?

Before taking office seven months ago, Mr Samak hosted a popular TV cooking show called Tasting, Grumbling.

He continued to make a few appearances on the show after becoming prime minister.

BANGKOK PROTESTS
26 Aug: Protesters occupy government buildings, demand the government step down
28 Aug: PM Samak promises no use of force against the protesters
29 Aug: Police try to evict protesters but pull back; crowds blockade two regional airports
30 Aug: Samak rules out resignation, following a meeting with Thailand’s king
1 Sep: A late-night clash between pro- and anti-government groups leaves one dead. Samak declares a state of emergency
3 Sept: Thai FM Tej Bunnag resigns
4 Sept: Samak proposes a national referendum

A group of senators filed a petition against Mr Samak, saying that a prime minister is barred by the constitution from working for private companies.

Mr Samak told the Constitutional Court on Monday that he had been paid for his appearances on the TV show, but was not actually employed by the television company.

The court is due to give its verdict on Tuesday.

Local newspapers have speculated about the case being a possible short-term solution to the current political stalemate in Thailand – although some analysts point out that even if Mr Samak stepped down, his party could always vote him back in again.

For the past two weeks, protesters have been camping outside Government House, refusing to leave until Mr Samak quits, but despite pressure from several military leaders the prime minister has refused to go.

Late last week, Mr Samak proposed to hold a referendum on his rule, but the opposition has rejected the offer.

The demonstrators, from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), say Mr Samak is merely a proxy for former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in an army coup in 2006.

One man was killed in clashes between pro- and anti-government groups in Bangkok last week, prompting the government to impose emergency rule in the capital.

September 4, 2008

Thai PM plans crisis referendum

Thai PM plans crisis referendum

Anti-government protesters react as they watch a TV report about Mr Samak's address

Protesters listened to Mr Samak’s address, hoping he would resign

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej has announced plans to hold a national referendum in an effort to defuse the ongoing political crisis.

An exact date has not been decided, but a referendum can be held 30 days after being approved by the Senate.

In an earlier radio address, Mr Samak said he would not resign or bow to the demands of protesters who have been occupying his offices since last week.

A state of emergency has been in place in Bangkok since Tuesday.

The anti-government protesters – from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) – say Mr Samak is merely a proxy for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006 and is now in exile.

‘Threat of anarchy’

“I am not resigning, I will not dissolve parliament. I have to protect the democracy of this country,” Mr Samak said in his radio address on Thursday morning.

He said he was a defender of democracy against a movement that threatened to bring “anarchy” to Thailand.

“The PAD is an illegal group who have seized the Government House and declared their victory. How can that be correct?” he said.

After his address, Mr Samak summoned his cabinet for an emergency meeting, and they agreed to hold a referendum to try to resolve the crisis.

BANGKOK PROTESTS
26 Aug: Protesters occupy government buildings, demand the government step down
27 Aug: Authorities issue arrest warrants for nine protest leaders
28 Aug: PM Samak promises no use of force against the protesters
29 Aug: Police try to evict protesters but pull back; crowds blockade two regional airports
30 Aug: PM Samak rules out resignation, following a meeting with Thailand’s king
31 Aug: Parliament meets for a special session on the protests
1 Sep: A late-night clash between pro- and anti-government groups leaves one person dead
2 Sep: PM Samak declares a state of emergency
3 Sept: Thai FM Tej Bunnag resigns

A government spokesman said the referendum could take place by early October if the Senate quickly endorsed a bill to organize the vote.

Culture Minister Somsak Kietsuranond said the referendum would ask a range of questions including whether the government should resign, whether it should dissolve parliament and what people think about the ongoing protests.

After hearing Mr Samak’s radio broadcast, one of the PAD’s leaders, Sondhi Limthongkul, told the French news agency AFP: “His speech only increased my confidence that what we are doing is not wrong. We will not go anywhere as long as he stays.”

The PAD has a passionate following in various parts of the country, especially Bangkok, and some powerful backers among the elite.

But it has little support in most of rural Thailand, which voted strongly for Mr Samak, and Mr Thaksin before him. Thai society remains deeply divided over the issue.

As the standoff has developed, some unions have begun supporting the protesters. However, a strike called by an umbrella group of 43 unions on Wednesday appeared to have failed – one piece of good news for the government.

But the prime minister’s attempt to contain the PAD protests with a state of emergency seem to have fallen flat.

The army has refused to exercise the extra powers he gave them, arguing that the conflict is a political one that cannot be solved by military intervention.


Are you in Thailand? Do you believe a referendum will diffuse the political crisis? Send us your comments

August 25, 2008

No leads on Thailand disappearance

No leads on Thailand disappearance

Courtesy BBC News

Danny Hall on The Weakest Link

Danny Hall is a former winner of TV quiz show The Weakest Link

How can someone disappear without trace on a small island?

That is the question nagging the family and friends of Danny Hall, a British backpacker who went missing in the southern Thai resort of Koh Pha Ngan six months ago.

The disappearance of the 36-year-old – last seen on 25 February – has baffled investigators and loved ones alike.

A roadie and former winner of TV quiz show The Weakest Link, Mr Hall had been on his third trip to Thailand when he was last seen after the island’s world-famous Full Moon Party.

Every month, it is estimated up to 25,000 revellers descend on Koh Pha Ngan for the all-night beach rave.

For most of the party-goers their worst experience is likely to be waking up with a hangover.

But the British foreign office website warns that incidents of date rape have been reported at the event.

Danny Hall
I’ve kind of accepted I’m never going to see him again. But someone must have seen something, someone must know something
Roy Twemlow
Danny Hall’s friend

The Bangkok Post reported in April that a Koh Pha Ngan police chief had recently been transferred amid a rising crime rate and complaints about visitors’ safety.

Meanwhile, a number of accounts of tourists being attacked on the island can be found on internet travel chatrooms.

Mr Hall’s friend, Roy Twemlow, was one of the last people to speak to him when he rang Mr Twemlow from a bar, in the afternoon following the Full Moon Party.

The pair became friends at Birmingham University, where Mr Hall, from Norwich, England, graduated with an honours degree in history.

The 36-year-old said: “It was about 2pm when [Danny] rang me and he sounded fine, he didn’t sound panicked. It’s just not like him to vanish without trace.

“I’ve kind of accepted I’m never going to see him again. But someone must have seen something, someone must know something.

Full Moon Party reveller

“Danny’s very sociable, makes friends easily and is highly intelligent. He’s also very non-confrontational.”

On arriving in Thailand at the end of January, Mr Hall, who had worked as a roadie for The Rolling Stones and at England’s Glastonbury music festival, spent a week in Bangkok at Mr Twemlow’s home.

“He wasn’t moping around or depressed,” recalls his friend. “It was just the same old Danny.”

Mr Twemlow, a teacher who has lived in Thailand for a decade, travelled down to Koh Pha Ngan to investigate after Mr Hall had been reported missing.

He expected to find police on the island in the midst of a full investigation when he arrived at the end of April.

‘Disgrace’

But he says: “When I got to Koh Pha Ngan, the police knew very little about the case, they hadn’t even searched the area where Danny was last seen. It’s a bit of a disgrace really.”

Danny Hall

Mr Hall (right) on the day he was last seen in the Backyard Bar

Mr Twemlow found his friend’s possessions – a backpack and an acoustic Yamaha guitar – left in his accommodation, a hut at the island’s secluded Hat Yao beach. But Mr Hall’s passport and money belt have not been found.

American backpacker Chris Chester, who met Mr Hall on Koh Pha Ngan a week before his disappearance, but did not attend the Full Moon Party, raised the alarm within three of four days of the Briton vanishing.

The 39-year-old said he and his German girlfriend had met up with Mr Hall almost daily, going to the beach, relaxing with a massage and shopping.

“He had been in regular contact with us the whole time, so when we didn’t hear from him for a couple of days I thought it was pretty strange. I started trying to find him and asking around,” he said.

Mr Chester checked hospitals and clinics on Koh Pha Ngan and neighbouring Koh Samui in his search for the missing tourist, but to no avail.

“There was nothing to suggest he was depressed. I really can’t fathom what happened to him,” he said.

‘Totally bizarre’

Mr Hall is known to have joined dozens of party-goers at the Backyard Bar for an “after-party”, on the morning after the Full Moon rave.

Danny Hall

Thai police say Mr Hall’s bank account remains dormant

Niki Kursakul, 45, from Sydney, Australia, who is married to the Thai owner of the bar, described Mr Hall’s disappearance as “totally bizarre”.

The mother-of-two, who has lived in Thailand for 16 years, said: “It’s very, very strange. The bar isn’t near a beach but I suppose it’s possible he could have wandered down to the sea, gone swimming and got into difficulty.

“But a body would usually get washed up if someone drowned. If he’d fallen or had an accident near the bar he would have been found by now.

“There can be the occasional fight [in the Backyard Bar] but no-one saw any argument taking place that day as far as I know.”

Bangkok’s ministry of foreign affairs said the Thai authorities were working closely with Mr Hall’s family and friends and the British embassy to investigate his disappearance.

Danny Hall

Mr Hall’s friends have launched an appeal to help find him on Facebook

Spokesman Tharit Charungvat said: “The safety of tourists in Thailand is a matter of great concern to the Royal Thai Government.”

He said the number of visitors to Thailand was on the rise and that the country’s popularity was “due, among other things, to the hospitality and safety tourists can expect when visiting Thailand”.

Thai Police Colonel Chataree Pandum said Mr Hall’s bank account remains dormant since he disappeared and investigators believe the Briton did not leave the island.

Norfolk Constabulary in England said they were treating Mr Hall as a missing person – as is the UK foreign office – but that officers currently had no plans to travel to Thailand.

In the meantime, the agony for Mr Hall’s loved ones continues.


Have you ever been to Koh Pha Ngan’s Full Moon Party? What was your experience? Tell us

August 8, 2008

Bush dedicates new massive US embassy in Beijing

Bush dedicates new massive US embassy in Beijing

BEIJING – President Bush took another swipe at China’s human rights record Friday, the latest tit-for-tat salvo with Beijing before he put politics on hold and switched to fan mode for the Olympics’ gala opening ceremonies.

The past week has seen blunt language from both sides — with China clearly unhappy that its record of repression was being repeatedly aired even as it was seeking to revel in its long-anticipated debut on the world’s biggest sporting stage. But U.S. officials dismissed any suggestion of a widening rift.

“We’ve had these back-and-forths with China for years,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

As Bush opened a massive U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Friday, he prodded China to lessen repression and “let people say what they think.” The communist nation, which tolerates only government-approved religions, has rounded up dissidents ahead of the Olympics and imposed Internet restrictions on journalists that some say amount to censorship, all contrary to Beijing’s commitments when it won hosting rights for the games.

“We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful,” Bush said at the vast American diplomatic complex, built at a cost of $434 million.

His comments came on the heels of a speech Thursday in Bangkok in which he urged greater Bangkok for the Chinese people. Beijing responded by defending its human rights record and saying Bush shouldn’t be meddling in its internal affairs.

But Bush also took care during the embassy ribbon-cutting to praise China’s contributions to society and embrace its relationship with the United States as strong, enduring and candid.

“Candor is most effective where nations have built a relationship of respect and trust,” Bush said. “I’ve worked hard to build that respect and trust. I appreciate the Chinese leadership that have worked hard to build that respect and trust.”

The new U.S. embassy is its second-largest in the world, only after the heavily fortified compound in Baghdad, and Bush said this is symbolic of China’s importance to the United States.

“It reflects the solid foundation underpinning our relations,” Bush said. “It is a commitment to strengthen that foundation for years to come.”

The ceremony took place with a heavy haze engulfing the Chinese capital despite concerted government efforts to slash pollution before the games. It was full of emotional resonance, with those attending including Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, and Henry Kissinger, who was secretary of state during the Nixon presidency when the U.S. began a relationship with China.

It was the senior Bush, as chief of the U.S. liaison office during a critical period when the United States was renewing ties with China, who first brought his son to China in 1975. The current president fondly recalls biking around Beijing when that was the predominant form of transport.

Much has changed since. While there still are lots of bicycles, cars dominant the streets today. Skyscrapers have sprouted like mushrooms. And the proliferation of construction cranes shows the building boom is far from over — evidence of the country’s economic growth — though most of the work has ground to a halt to help the anti-pollution battle.

The American embassy, on 10 acres in a new diplomatic zone, is wrapped in freestanding transparent and opaque glass.

The dedication followed China’s unveiling of its own imposing new embassy in Washington last week. That 250,000-square-foot glass-and-limestone compound is the largest foreign embassy in the U.S. capital.

The number eight is considered auspicious in China — Friday is 8/8/08 on the calendar — so the embassy ceremony began at 8:08 a.m. local time. The opening ceremonies begin exactly 12 hours later at 8:08 p.m.

Bush, the first American president event to attend an Olympics on foreign soil, was to meet with U.S. athletes right before the ceremonies.

“I’m looking forward to cheering our athletes on,” Bush said. “I’m not making any predictions about medal counts, but I can tell you the U.S. athletes are ready to come and compete, in the spirit of friendship.”

Also Friday, Bush attended a lunch for world leaders hosted by Chinese President Hu Jintao in the Great Hall of the People.

His known schedule over the next three days is thin, with large gaps left open for Bush to cherry-pick sporting events to watch with the numerous family members who have accompanied him to Beijing.

On Saturday, he meets with Olympic sponsors and watch women’s basketball. On Sunday, he will attend a government-approved Protestant church and then speak to reporters about religious freedom, mirroring his practice during a 2005 trip to China. He then plans to take in some men’s and women’s Olympic swimming.

Business takes over briefly Sunday afternoon, with talks with Hu as well as China’s vice president and premier. But then it’s back to sports: the much-anticipated U.S.-China basketball game Sunday night and a practice baseball game between the U.S. and China on Monday. He returns to Washington Monday night.

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