News & Current Affairs

July 19, 2009

US soldier shown in Taliban video

US soldier shown in Taliban video

The Taliban have released a 28-minute video showing a US soldier captured in Afghanistan last month.

In the video, the soldier, in grey clothes and with shaved head, says being a prisoner is “unnerving”.

He says the US public has the power to bring troops home to be “back where we belong and not over here, wasting our time and our lives”.

The US military identified him as the missing soldier and named him as Pte Bowe Bergdahl, 23, from Ketchum, Idaho.

The spokesman condemned the Taliban for issuing “propaganda” footage.

‘Against international law’

Pte Bergdahl, who went missing on 30 June in Paktika province, eastern Afghanistan, says in the video the date is 14 July and that he was captured as he lagged behind while on a patrol.

Please bring us home. It is America and American people who have that power
Quote from video

It is not possible to verify the time and date the video was made.

Pte Bergdahl, interviewed in English, says he has “a very, very good family” in America.

“I miss them and I’m afraid that I might never see them again, and that I’ll never be able to tell them that I love them again, and I’ll never be able to hug them,” he says.

When asked about his condition he replies: “Well I’m scared, scared I won’t be able to go home. It is very unnerving to be a prisoner.”

A voice off camera asks if he has a message for his “people”.

“To my fellow Americans who have loved ones over here, who know what it’s like to miss them, you have the power to make our government bring them home,” he says.

Map

“Please, please bring us home so that we can be back where we belong and not over here, wasting our time and our lives and our precious life that we could be using back in our own country.

“Please bring us home. It is America and American people who have that power.”

US military spokesman in Kabul, Capt Jon Stock, condemned the use of the video.

He told Reuters news agency: “The use of the soldier for propaganda purposes we view as against international law.

“We are continuing to do whatever possible to recover the soldier safe and unharmed.”

Leaflets have been distributed and a reward offered for his safe return.

The US military said the soldier disappeared after walking off base with three Afghan colleagues.

He is believed to be the first soldier seized in either Iraq or Afghanistan for at least two years.

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Sink or swim in modern China

Sink or swim in modern China

Chris Hogg heads to the small Chinese village of Zhushanxia, 200km from Shanghai, to see how lives have been shaped by the economy under communist rule, the recession and the country’s economic recovery.

A farmer sells vegetables at a wholesale market on March 22, 2005 in Hefei of Anhui Province, China

China’s economic roller-coaster has divided communities and villages into those who have sunk financially, and those who managed to swim

Huang Jiao Ling lives at the end of a long dusty road.

Mobile phone numbers are daubed all over the walls of her home and those of her neighbours.

It is like a strange kind of mathematical graffiti, but the numbers are, in fact, advertisements for people offering goods and services.

In modern China, it seems everyone has something to sell.

Huang Jiao Ling, too, is an entrepreneur. She is in her 50s, but she looks younger.

In her front garden, where others might have planted vegetables, she has built a small workshop.

Inside, the walls are unfinished and the floor uneven, but there is just about enough room for a work-bench and a handful of basic machine tools.

Churning out widgets

On the floor are cardboard boxes filled with piles of tiny metal widgets.

They are simple to make – her husband sits at the bench turning them out rapidly by hand.

Fruit seller in China

Many Chinese run their own small businesses in order to get ahead

A few feet away, his bicycle-taxi is parked just inside the front door of the house.

The machine work is a lot less tiring than pedalling passengers around, but he still keeps the bike.

It is useful, he says, to supplement their income in leaner times.

The Huangs sell the boxes of widgets to the factory where Huang Jiao Ling has a full-time job.

For a while this year they had to shut the workshop as demand dropped, but now the machines are humming again.

They have two children, because if you live in the country and your first child is a girl, you are allowed to have another one.

The girls go to very good schools, the best Huang Jiao Ling can afford.

She spends more than half her income on school fees.

“We have to think of their future,” she tells me.

“It’s a Chinese tradition. Parents always think of their children, and when the parents get old, their children will look after them. It’s the same for every generation.”

Yu Feng Guo is Huang Jiao Ling’s brother-in-law.

She is doing well for herself in China’s new modern market economy, but he has been left behind.

He used to work in a state-owned brick factory.

Different lifestyles

When the economic reforms began 30 years ago he watched as some of his co-workers left their jobs to start up their own small businesses, many of them selling prawns or fish by the side of the road.

He decided to do what he thought was the right thing, what the communist party would expect of a loyal worker in a state-owned enterprise – he stayed.

Eventually, the brick factory went bust and he was out of a job.

Rice paddy field

Agriculture provides an income for many rural Chinese

Now, dressed in a shabby khaki jacket, he works as a security guard in an open-air food market.

Those early entrepreneurs who had left his factory to try their luck in the fledgling market economy are now much richer than him and to his family this seems unfair.

“Thirty years ago everyone in the village was poor,” his son tells me.

“Now the difference in lifestyle between the rich and the poor in our village is huge.”

There is an implicit bargain in modern Chinese society between the leaders and the led.

Beijing tells its people “we will give you opportunities” – to earn more, to enjoy a better standard of living than your parents did.

But you, in return, will behave yourself.

Back on track

In Zhushanxia village quite a few cars can be seen bumping along past the fields, something you would not have seen 30 years ago.

If you have got used to having more, whether it’s a car, or a bigger house, or a more expensive school for your child, you have more to lose when times get tough.

That is why it is so important for the government to get the economy back on track.

When it first faltered, when factories started laying off workers, there was a risk that they would start to feel the government was no longer keeping to its side of the deal, so why should they?

So in Beijing, of course, there will be relief that a recovery appears to be under way.

But the next challenge for the government will be to do more to try to ensure that everyone shares the benefits.

Huang Jiao Ling is happy her workshop is busy again, but still nervous about the future.

So she, like most other Chinese, is saving as much of her income as she can.

Her brother-in-law Yu Feng Guo, has no idea how he will be able to save enough to secure a state pension on his meagre wages from his unstable job.

He and others like him will be looking to their leaders for reassurance that they will be cared for as they approach old age.

But that will costly and complicated. Fixing the economy may prove to have been the easy part.

June 30, 2009

Challenges loom as Iraqis celebrate

Filed under: Latest, Politics News, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 11:33 am

Challenges loom as Iraqis celebrate

Iraqi celebrate 29 June 2009

Iraqis celebrated US troop withdrawals from cities in a way that has not been seen since the invasion

There was a pop concert and celebrations in the Baghdad zoo park, fireworks in the night sky, and jubilation in the streets.

Security forces were everywhere, all leave cancelled, for fear that the bombers might strike again.

But even the checkpoints were garlanded with flowers and flags, and many had music blaring.

They were marking the arrival of the last day of June, the deadline for US forces to be out of Iraqi towns and cities.

It’s been named Sovereignty Day, and declared a public holiday. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has said it is a huge victory for Iraq.

But the fact is that for most people in Baghdad and elsewhere, 1 July will look very similar to 30 June or 29 June.

‘A few miles away’

American troops have rarely been seen on the streets in many areas in recent months.

Most of the tasks involving contact with the public have been taken over by Iraqi security forces.

But the withdrawal process did see the US troops either dismantling some 86 bases in the capital or handing them to Iraqi forces.

At one such base, Joint Security Station Comanche on the edge of Sadr City, American soldiers were toiling last week in the baking heat to meet the deadline.

People have tasted democracy, they have worked on democracy… Nobody can enforce dictatorship again on this country
Haidar al-Obadi
Shia MP

Huge concrete blast-walls were taken to pieces and trucked away in the dust to another base outside the city.

The US soldiers from the 1st Cavalry’s Ironhorse Brigade were packing their kitbags and backpacks, stashing them in MRAP armoured vehicles, and being driven away.

“Since we came here in February, our 2,300 men haven’t suffered a single fatality,” said the position commander, Capt Chris Clyde.

“We’re moving to another base a few miles away outside the city, and will continue working with our Iraqi partners from there.”

JSS Comanche is already a thing of the past.

It is no longer a military position. It has been totally dismantled. The building used as its command centre was handed back to its original owners, the Iraqi Agriculture Ministry.

‘Sacrifices’

On Monday, there was a symbolic ceremony at the old Iraqi Ministry of Defence building in the centre of Baghdad, the last US-held position to be handed over to the Iraqi authorities.

At another big ceremony and parade on Tuesday, Mr Maliki paid tribute to the “increasing credibility” of the Iraqi security forces.

Iraqi soldiers on parade 29 June 2009

He said the US withdrawal from the cities vindicated the position taken by Iraqi negotiators in the tough talks with the US that led to the agreement under which American troops should be entirely out of Iraq by the end of 2011, and that the withdrawal timeline would be adhered to.

As far as the towns and cities are concerned, while US forces remain on call outside city limits, their role in urban areas now changes to one of training and advising.

“This is a huge day both for the American and Coalition forces and for the Iraqis,” said the chief spokesman for the US-led Multinational Forces, Brig Gen Steve Lanza.

“This is the culmination of much hard work and sacrifice over the years, as Iraqi security forces now have primacy and control in this country.”

Election test

Much now depends on whether Iraqi forces can prevent the upsurge of violence which heralded the approach of the US withdrawals from triggering another spiral of sectarian violence – the clear aim of a series of deadly bomb attacks directed almost exclusively against Shia neighbourhoods and markets.

It was just such attacks which provoked Shia militias to take brutal revenge against Sunnis in 2006 and 2007, taking the country to the brink of civil war and disintegration.

US soldier in Baquba

More than 130,000 US soldiers remain in Iraq, with full withdrawal due in 2011

“Iraqi society, two years and more ago, looked into that abyss and rejected it, and that is the trend now,” said British ambassador in Baghdad Christopher Prentice, looking ahead to key general elections scheduled for January.

“The concentration and effort across Iraq now is on a very vigorous political campaign. Six months from a landmark election, this is almost unique in the region, a country that is focusing on coalition building, on real politics, and the question is which politicians can win the trust of the electorate to deliver better services and build on the improving security in the way that meets the national needs.”

The period leading up to the elections will be a real test for the Iraqi forces.

They still have 131,000 US troops standing by to help if they run into trouble.

But if they do have to call them back in, it will be seen as a reverse for the Iraqi government, and for President Barack Obama’s hopes of getting all of his forces out of Iraq by the end of 2011 without leaving chaos in their wake.

Changed society

Last January’s provincial elections set an impressive model of democracy in action, with powerful parties in some cases losing out, but accepting the results with good grace.

Will they do so in future elections, when the Americans are no longer around to stiffen the resolve of security forces? Is democracy now sufficiently rooted that it will survive the US withdrawal?

Haidar al-Obadi, a Shia Member of Parliament and close adviser to the prime minister, believes it is.

“There is no going back to a dictatorship or a one-party system in the country now,” he said.

“People have tasted democracy, they have worked on democracy, it is an operation not only at the centre, but also in other areas, in the governorates and in the regions. Nobody can enforce dictatorship again on this country.”

June 24, 2009

Somalia MPs flee assassinations

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 6:01 pm

Somalia MPs flee assassinations

Hardline Islamic fighters in Mogadishu on 23 June 2009

Hardline Islamists have been battling pro-government forces since 7 May

Scores of Somali politicians have fled the war-torn Horn of Africa nation in the last month amid escalating clashes.

As few as 280 MPs remain, with 250 needed to make a quorum in the 550-seat assembly, based in the capital.

One MP quit on Wednesday warning the chamber was doomed and 20 others have gone to Kenya in the last week after several high-profile assassinations.

Meanwhile, casualties of recent unrest have had to be flown to Kenya because hospitals in Mogadishu cannot cope.

About 56 patients, mainly government forces, wounded in fighting over the last week have been flown to Nairobi for treatment.

Since 7 May, an alliance of militant Islamist hardliners, which controls parts of the capital and much of southern Somalia, has been locked in ferocious battles with pro-government forces in Mogadishu.

New radio station
It also emerged on Wednesday that the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, Amisom, is to set up a radio station in Mogadishu.

map

The station will support embattled President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s fragile transitional government.

Somalia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists and many reporters faced with death threats have either fled or will not risk working in the country.

Since the latest bout of fighting began last month, 130 lawmakers, including several ministers, have fled to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
About 20 legislators have made their way there in the last week alone, during which time a fellow MP was gunned down, a security minister was killed in a suicide blast, and Mogadishu’s police chief was died in battle.

On Wednesday, Abdullah Haji Ali, an MP for Somaliland, resigned, predicting the parliament was doomed to fail amid the deteriorating security situation and that nine of his colleagues were also ready to go.

Dozens of other Somali MPs are abroad – some in neighbouring Djibouti and others in Europe and the US – with only about 50 on official visits, according to Reuters news agency.

Refugee crisis

The BBC Somali Service says one cannot rule out the possibility of the parliament losing so many MPs it will lack a quorum – threatening the UN-backed government’s ability to function formally.

People rush a wounded civilian to hospital in Mogadishu, on 20 June 2009

Civilians have borne the brunt of the recent violence and many are fleeing

But analysts reckon the president’s position will probably remain safe, as long as the African Union’s 4,300 troops stay in Mogadishu.

At the weekend, Somalia’s interim government urged neighbouring countries to send troops to help.

The Kenyan government says it has not yet decided whether to intervene.

Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga has said if Mogadishu falls to the radical Islamists, the consequences would be very grave.

Kenya has a 1,200-km (745-mile) border with Somalia and every day hundreds of refugees try to cross into Kenya.

BBC world affairs correspondent Adam Mynott says Kenya already has more than 300,000 displaced people in camps close to the border.

Ethiopia, another neighbour, which pulled its troops out of Somalia in January after two years, has said it will not intervene again unless it has a “firm international mandate”.

President Ahmed, a moderate Islamist, took office in January but even his introduction of Sharia law to the strongly Muslim country has not appeased the guerrillas.

Somalia has been without an effective government since 1991.

June 21, 2009

Greece urges return of sculptures

Greece urges return of sculptures

Greek President Karolos Papoulias has renewed his country’s call for Britain to return sculptures removed from the Parthenon in Athens 200 years ago.

At the opening of the Acropolis Museum, Mr Papoulias said it was “time to heal the wounds” of the ancient temple.

The new museum, opened five years behind schedule, houses sculptures from the golden age of Athens.

Britain has repeatedly refused to return dozens of 2,500-year-old marble friezes housed in the British Museum.

“Today the whole world can see the most important sculptures of the Parthenon assembled, but some are missing,” said Mr Papoulias.

“It’s time to heal the wounds of the monument with the return of the marbles which belong to it.”

‘International context’

The sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, originally decorated the Parthenon temple and have been in London since they were sold to the museum in 1817 by Lord Elgin.

He had them removed from the temple when he was visiting Greece, then under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.

After several adventures, obstructions and criticism, the new Acropolis Museum is ready
Antonis Samaras

The British Museum long argued that Greece had no proper place to put them – an argument the Greek government hopes the Acropolis Museum addresses.

The opening ceremony was attended by heads of state and government and cultural envoys from about 30 countries, the UN and the EU.

There were no government officials from Britain, but the most senior British guest, Bonnie Greer, the deputy head of the board of trustees of the British Museum, said she believed more strongly than ever that the marbles should remain in London.

She argued that in London they are displayed in an international cultural context.

She said a loan was possible, but that would require Greece to acknowledge British ownership, something Greece refuses.

The British Museum holds 75m of the original 160m of the frieze that ran round the inner core of the building.

‘Act of barbarism’

Their reconstruction in the Acropolis Museum is based on several elements that remain in Athens, as well as copies of the marbles in London.

The modern glass and concrete building, at the foot of the Acropolis, holds about 350 artefacts and sculptures from the golden age of Athens that were previously held in a small museum on top of the Acropolis.

The structure is Greece’s answer to the British argument that there is nowhere in their country to house the Elgin marbles
Razia Iqbal, BBC arts correspondent

The £110m ($182m; 130m euros) structure, set out over three levels, also offers panoramic views of the stone citadel where they came from.

The third floor features the reconstruction of the Parthenon Marbles.

The copies are differentiated by their white colour – because they are plaster casts, contrasting with the weathered marble of the originals.

Museum director Prof Dimitris Pandermalis said the opening of the museum provides an opportunity to correct “an act of barbarism” in the sculptures’ removal.

“Tragic fate has forced them apart but their creators meant them to be together,” he said.

Bernard Tschumi, the building’s US-based architect, said: “It is a beautiful space that shows the frieze itself as a narrative – even with the plaster copies of what is in the British Museum – in the context of the Parthenon itself.”

March 30, 2009

US to consult Pakistan on strikes

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 2:35 am

US to consult Pakistan on strikes

US President Barack Obama has said he will consult Pakistan’s leaders before targeting militants in that country.

“If we have a high-value target within our sights, after consulting with Pakistan, we’re going after them,” Mr Obama told CBS television.

But Mr Obama ruled out deploying US ground troops inside Pakistan.

On Friday, the US leader announced a major policy review on Afghanistan and Pakistan, saying the situation on their border was “increasingly perilous”.

Kabul and Islamabad have welcomed the review, but Pakistan has urged the US to halt recent cross-border missile strikes by unmanned Predator drone aircraft.

Pakistan accountability

Mr Obama told CBS television’s Face the Nation that the main thrust of US policy was “to help Pakistan defeat these extremists”.

He noted that Pakistan was a sovereign nation and added: “We need to work with them and through them to deal with al-Qaeda. But we have to hold them much more accountable.”

US drone

Unmanned drone strikes have triggered fury in Pakistan

Senior US military officials have alleged links between Pakistan’s military intelligence, the ISI, and militants on the country’s borders with both Afghanistan and India.

The BBC’s M Ilyas Khan in Islamabad says Mr Obama’s remarks suggest the US may be willing to take the one-year-old Pakistani civilian government on board regarding a highly sensitive issue.

On Saturday Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari said his country would not allow anyone to violate its sovereignty, although he did not specifically criticise the US missile strikes as he has done in the past.

He also said Pakistan would not allow use of its soil for militant activity.

Meanwhile, gunmen killed five people, including a district police chief and former local mayor in the troubled North-West Frontier Province, Pakistani officials said.

Abductions

The incident occurred in Lower Dir, near the Afghan border, as militants attacked police chasing them after an attempted kidnapping, said a government official.

In a separate attack in the same province, officials said 11 police officers had been abducted from a checkpoint in the Bara area, near the Khyber Pass.

Tribal areas map

It came a day after Pakistan’s army said troops, backed by artillery and helicopter gunships, had killed 26 militants in the Mohmand area of the restive province.

Earlier on Saturday, the Taleban destroyed 12 parked trucks laden with supplies for Nato personnel in Afghanistan – the latest in a series of similar attacks – near Peshawar, capital of North-West Frontier Province.

Broadcast on Sunday, Mr Obama’s CBS interview was filmed on Friday as he unveiled his new strategy for the region.

He said the border area was a haven for al-Qaeda and Taleban fighters and the most dangerous place in the world.

The strategy includes plans for 4,000 more troops to be sent to Afghanistan, as well as increased development aid for border areas of Pakistan.

It also sets out what analysts say is an ambitious goal of boosting the Afghan army from 80,000 to 134,000 troops by 2011.

September 18, 2008

Jews lose hold on Antwerp diamond trade

Jews lose hold on Antwerp diamond trade

There used to be tens of thousands of diamond cutters in the Belgian port of Antwerp. Now there are only a few hundred.

A Jewish diamond cutter in Antwerp

Traditional methods are coming under threat from globalisation

It is within the city’s Jewish community that most of the jobs have been lost – particularly among the Hasidic Jews who adhere strictly to religious laws.

Out of about 2,000 Hasidic families in Antwerp, 1,000 are now headed by a man who has no job.

Unemployment of 50% would cause great hardship among any group of people. But for Hasidic Jews it brings special problems.

Women do not usually work – they raise large families, with nine children on average – and the children are often given private religious education.

Jobs move abroad

In fact, diamonds still make a lot of money in Antwerp – but it is shared among a small elite.

Setting up as an independent dealer has become almost impossible.

But Alan Majerczyk, a director of the Antwerp Diamond Bourse, denies there is any prejudice against any particular group.

“It’s a multi-racial environment and we all get along well – it’s an example to the outside world,” he says.

“Like any other industry, we couldn’t afford to pay the heavy labor costs in Europe, so the polishing moved to India and China, but at a certain stage the goods come back. Antwerp gets 80% of all the rough trade and 50% of the polished diamonds.”

Africa, too, has taken some of Antwerp’s jobs. Nations where diamonds are mined, like Botswana, now insist the lucrative cutting process is also done within the country.

The use of lasers to cut the diamonds has also reduced the number of jobs.

Most of the Jews who work in the diamond trade are self-employed, which allows them to observe the Sabbath and religious holidays.

Nowadays, though, the industry is increasingly dominated by huge businesses like de Beers, which made nearly $500m (£280m) profit last year.

Some of the Jewish men who have been left without work are now starting to retrain in other professions.

Sam Friedman believes it is vital for men from his Hasidic community to gain new skills, and so he offers them night classes in accounting, languages and computers.

“Training and education are very important for the Hasidic people to get a job, because in the Jewish schools they only learn about Jewish law and Jewish history but not about general things,” he says.

“So it’s very important after religious school to train some more so that you can find a job.”

Cultural clash

Even among other Orthodox, non-Hasidic Jews, there is a major debate over education.

Tradition-minded parents often do not let their children go to university, partly for fear that its secular environment will taint their religious beliefs.

Marcel Engelstein is a successful businessman in Antwerp who believes the changes in the diamond industry present an opportunity for positive change.

Alan Majerczyk, a director of the Antwerp Diamond Bourse

Alan Majerczyk says Antwerp still has a future in diamonds

“We have here a community connected to Israel – which has developed a lot of hi-tech businesses. We can use our brain power to bring the companies here,” says Mr Engelstein.

“The Hasidic and Orthodox people are using their brains all the time when they are learning the Talmud [religious law and history].

“So it’s very easy to teach them new things. They need a bit of guidance and a bit of will power, of course, but I think we can really get them to do that.”

Some people already have learned new skills – like Daniel Verner, a young man who is making a name for himself locally as an architect.

His father used to work in diamonds and his brothers still do. But he decided to go to university and then set up his own business.

“Twenty years ago people would proclaim you crazy for not going into diamonds, and today it’s just the opposite,” he says.

“When people try to look for jobs outside diamonds they gain respect, because everybody knows the situation is much more difficult today than it was back then.”

Mr Verner believes that loosening the links between the Jewish community and the diamond trade will transform the society.

“Everybody is going to have a different life, different schedules and different interests, so even when we talk together it’s going to be on different subjects. For sure it’s going to change,” he says.

China arrests 12 in milk scandal

China arrests 12 in milk scandal

A child receiving treatment for developing kidney stones after consuming tainted milk formula sleeps in hospital in Wuhan, Hubei province, on Wednesday

Parents are queuing up for health checks on their babies

Police in China have arrested 12 more people in the scandal over contaminated milk powder, which has killed three babies and sickened thousands.

The new arrests bring the total number of people detained to 18, police in the north-eastern province of Hebei said.

Nationwide checks on milk powder are continuing, and police have confiscated more than 200kg (440lb) of melamine.

The additive is blamed for causing severe renal problems and kidney stones in babies across the country.

Of those arrested, six allegedly sold melamine, while the rest are accused of selling contaminated milk.

Suppliers to the dairy companies are believed to have added the banned chemical, normally used in plastics, to watered-down milk to make it appear higher in protein.

Widening crisis

Premier Wen Jiabao held a special cabinet meeting on Wednesday to address the baby milk crisis.

The State Council, or cabinet, admitted that regulations had failed to improve food standards.

“The Sanlu infant milk powder incident reflects chaos in the dairy products market and loopholes in supervision and administration which has not been vigorous,” it said.

Chinese parents who can afford it have been buying imported milk powder, with some in southern China crossing into Hong Kong to stock up on foreign brands.

Anger spreads

The milk scandal has sparked widespread anger among Chinese mothers, many of whom are reliant on cheap baby formula to feed their infants.

Hospital in Shenyang, northeast China

It has also raised questions about China’s ability to police its food production industries after a series of health scares – and fatalities – in recent years.

These have ranged from the contamination of seafood to toothpaste and, last year, to pet food exported to the United States.

Thousands of inspectors are checking milk production plants and selling stations across the country.

Parents are lining up for health checks on their babies.

They are also expressing anger at why Sanlu, the company first found to have sold contaminated milk, took so long to make the problem public.

At least 6,244 babies have been made ill by the milk powder, and three have died, but those numbers are predicted to rise.

Tests have shown that 69 batches of formula from 22 companies contained the banned substance.

Two of the companies involved have exported their products to Bangladesh, Yemen, Gabon, Burundi, and Burma, although it is not clear if contaminated batches are involved.

One mother told him that she was angry with both the milk producers and with what she called the “useless” quality inspection departments.

September 17, 2008

Bitter taste over China baby milk

Bitter taste over China baby milk

Hebei People"s Hospital in Shijiazhuang

Parents are queuing at hospitals for check-ups for their children

China’s growing scandal involving milk powder suggests the country is still not able to protect its citizens from tainted food products.

Despite many other recent cases involving sub-standard food, inspectors failed to prevent toxic milk powder being fed to children.

Strict laws but poor enforcement appears to be part of the problem. China also seems to have a number of unscrupulous suppliers.

Chinese consumers are only too aware of the problems, as they have shown by buying more trusted foreign brands of milk powder.

Kidney failure

At the center of this current scandal is the Sanlu Group, a company based in the city of Shijiazhuang in Hebei province.

It has been selling milk powder tainted with the toxic chemical melamine, used in industry to make such things as plastics.

This chemical makes the milk powder appear to contain more protein than is actually the case.

So far, three children have died and more than 6,000 have been taken ill after drinking the powdered milk. Nearly 160 have experienced acute kidney failure.

All the children who became seriously ill drank milk made with powder produced by Sanlu, according to Chinese health minister Chen Zhu.

Wang Wenli
If there is a problem with the milk powder then there is likely to be a problem with fresh milk too
Wang Wenli, mother

But the scandal is not limited to just one company.

In a development that will surely worry the government, inspectors have found melamine in milk powder produced by 22 companies – one out of every five suppliers.

China’s laws do not seem to be the main problem, according to a senior employee at a foreign firm that produces baby products in China.

“There are laws and the laws are very strict. When we want to launch a product, there are so many things we have to do,” said the employee, who did not want to be identified.

Chinese central government officials often complain that these good laws are not heeded, a claim backed up by the industry insider.

“There is a lot of corruption, and Chinese companies can often find ways to carry on producing,” she said.

In order to avoid the problems now facing Sanlu, this foreign firm sends its own inspectors to check products bought from Chinese suppliers.

Rules bent

As well as being prepared to bend the rules, some Chinese suppliers also seem willing to knowingly supply tainted food products.

In this current case, melamine appears to have been added to fresh milk at milk collection stations, before being passed on to Sanlu.

According to the state-run China Daily, one man arrested over the scandal confessed that he had added melamine to milk, despite knowing it was a health risk.

He added that his family never drank the contaminated milk.

As a senior official put it at a press conference on Wednesday, China does not test for melamine because it does not expect anyone to add it to milk powder.

Tian Guangcai

Tian Guangcai only feeds his grandchild imported formula milk

“There are no special requirements on the inspection of toxic chemicals… because these kinds of chemicals are not allowed to be added to food,” said Li Changjiang, head of the country’s quality watchdog.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of the system comes from Chinese consumers, who have to eat and drink the products bought in markets, shops and supermarkets.

“It’s outrageous, nobody can eat anything any more,” said Tian Guangcai, who looks after his four-month-old grandchild.

Mr Tian said the child – like many other Chinese children – only drinks milk powder made by foreign companies.

Those foreign brands are now flying off the shelves.

Wang Wenli, whose three-year-old son stopped drinking milk powder last year, is now even reluctant to let him drink fresh milk.

“Think about it, if there’s a problem with the milk powder then there is likely to be a problem with fresh milk too,” she said.

The government’s reaction to a baby milk scare in 2004 shows just how difficult it is for consumers to judge what is safe to consume.

At that time, parents were told they should select one of 30 approved brands.

This latest check has revealed that products from some of those approved firms contained melamine.

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

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