News & Current Affairs

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

September 3, 2008

Thai army chief rules out coup

Thai army chief rules out coup

At least four of the dozens wounded were said to be in serious condition [EPA]

Thailand’s army chief has ruled out the possibility of a military coup, hours after Samak Sundaravej, the prime minister, declared a state of emergency in the capital.

“There is no possibility of a coup. We must turn to the  parliamentary mechanism,” General Anupong Paojinda told reporters on Tuesday.

The army chief also vowed not to use force against protesters following the declaration of the state of emergency.

Protesters are demanding the resignation of Samak’s government which they say is a proxy of Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s former prime minister, who was ousted in a coup in September 2006.

Samak declared the emergency after one person was killed and dozens were injured in Bangkok as police and both pro- and anti-government protesters clashed overnight on Monday.

New crisis

Shortly after Samak spoke, a new crisis confronted his government.

The election commission recommended that his People’s Power Party (PPP) be disbanded for alleged electoral fraud committed during the elections in December.

The commission forwarded its findings to the attorney general’s office to decide whether to submit the case to the constitutional court for a final ruling.

This process could take months.Samak and other party leaders would be banned from politics for five years if the ruling is upheld.

Al Jazeera’s correspondent, Selina Downes, reported many were saying that the unanimous vote by the five-member commission could be the beginning of the end of the PPP.

Tuesday’s move was reminiscent of the court dissolving of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party last year. The party later regrouped under the PPP flag.

Thai newspapers have reported that the PPP is preparing for the worst and is lining up a new “shell” party to admit all its MPs, who could try to cobble together another coalition government.

Kudeb Saikrachang, the PPP spokesman, told that party MPs already had another party in mind in case the PPP were to be dissolved.

Soldiers deployed

Under the sweeping emergency powers announced on television and radio, all public gatherings in the capital are banned and restrictions have been imposed on media reports that “undermined public security”.

“There is an urgent need to solve all these problems quickly. Therefore the prime minister declares a state of emergency in Bangkok from now on,” the announcement read.

Around 400 soldiers armed with batons and shields were sent to back up police struggling to contain the street battles in the worst violence since the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) launched its street campaign against the prime minister in May.

Kudeb told Al Jazeera that the PPP had “no part” in the violence.

“We don’t support violent means whatsoever,” he added.

By sunrise on Tuesday, General Jongrak Jutanond, Bangkok’s police chief, said “the situation is now under control”.

Some schools were shut in Bangkok on Tuesday, but morning rush-hour traffic was flowing as normal and the airport, the main gateway for foreign tourists visiting one of Asia’s top holiday destinations, remained open.

‘Soft option’

Samak called emergency rule the “softest means available” for restoring calm.

In a nationally televised news conference on Tuesday, he gave no timeframe for how long the decree would stay in effect but said it would be over “moderately quickly”.

The protesters have vowed to force out Samak’s government [EPA]

The prime minister had said last week that he had hoped to avoid declaring an emergency, but said he was left with little choice after violence erupted.”I did it to solve the problems of the country,” he said. “Because the situation turned out this way, I had no other choice.”

Correspondent Downes said the emergency law gave the prime minister absolute control over the situation, as he had made himself defense minister when he was elected in January and was therefore in charge of the military.

Under a state of emergency, Samak has special powers outside of the constitution to deploy police and soldiers on the streets to quell protests.

Our correspondent said there had been mounting pressure on the government to get a handle on the increasingly chaotic situation.

The PAD had been in the driving seat after storming and occupying the Government House compound a week ago.

Many analysts said there appeared no other way out of the situation.

Strike threat

On Monday, the PAD had announced that its supporters in state enterprise unions would cut off water, electricity and phone service to government offices as part of a “general strike” set for Wednesday.

“There are not enough jails to put us all into”

Chamlong Srimuang, anti-government protest leader

Alliance supporters said they also would delay departures of flights of the national airline.They were already disrupting rail service and planned to cut back public bus transportation as well.

Samak has repeatedly said he would not be bullied by a mob into resigning or dissolving parliament and calling fresh elections.

Leaders of the anti-government protest movement that has occupied the prime minister’s official compound for the past week said they would not budge.

“There are not enough jails to put us all into,” Chamlong Srimuang, one of the leaders of the PAD that is leading the anti-government protests, told thousands of supporters inside the compound camped in behind makeshift barricades of razor wire and car tyres.

Samak’s announcement blamed unnamed people for “wreaking havoc” and undermining the economy and national unity.

Thais Al Jazeera spoke to were angry and frustrated that they were “back to square one” two years after Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a military coup after weeks of street protests against the then prime minister.

August 22, 2008

Zardari nominated to be president

Zardari nominated to be president

Pakistan People’s Party leaders Asif Ali Zardari (L) Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (C) and ex-PM Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad on Tuesday 19 August 2008

The coalition must decide who will be Pakistan’s new president

Pakistan’s biggest party, the PPP, has nominated its leader, Asif Zardari, to be the country’s president.

Pervez Musharraf resigned from the post on Monday in the face of the threat of impeachment by his political enemies.

Mr Zardari’s main coalition partner, Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N, is not in favor of Mr Zardari getting the job.

The two men are also deadlocked over how many of the judges sacked by Mr  Musharraf during emergency rule last November should be reinstated.

Twenty-four hours

PPP spokeswoman Sherry Rehman told reporters in Islamabad that senior PPP members had come to a unanimous decision to nominate Mr Zardari.

“Mr Zardari thanked the Pakistan People’s Party of which he is the co-chairman and said he will announce his decision within the next 24 hours,” she said.

The PPP and the PML-N have been discussing ways to reduce the power of the presidency. But if Mr Zardari gets the job, it is not clear if such reforms will go ahead.

He took over as PPP leader after his wife, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December.

The president is chosen by the two chambers of the national parliament and the country’s four provincial elections. The election will be held on 6 September.

Mr Sharif prefers what he calls a consensus president.

Wednesday deadline

Earlier on Friday Mr Sharif agreed to let parliament hold a debate next week on how to reinstate the judges sacked by Mr Musharraf.

He had threatened to pull out of the coalition government unless it was agreed on Friday that all the sacked judges be restored.

The PPP fears that if former Supreme Court judges, including ex-Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, are reinstated, they could overturn a controversial amnesty that Mr Musharraf granted Mr Zardari Ms Bhutto last year that paved the way for them to return to the country.

That would open up Mr Zardari to prosecution on long-standing corruption charges.

Mr Sharif pulled back from his threat to withdraw his PML-N party from the governing coalition after talks with other coalition parties in Islamabad.

But Mr Sharif is still hoping the resolution will result in Mr Chaudhry and the other judges getting their jobs back.

“Wednesday should be the day for reinstatement of judges,” he told journalists.

Squabbling

The coalition was elected in February but analysts say it has failed to find solutions to Pakistan’s economic crisis and to the militants in its north-western tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.

Pakistani security officials examine the site of the suicide bombing in Wah

The politicians’ squabbling is hindering any possible plan for tackling militant violence.

The Pakistani Taleban claimed responsibility for Thursday’s suicide bombings on an ordnance factory in the town of Wah, near the capital Islamabad. It was the deadliest attack on a military site in Pakistan’s history.

The militant group promised more attacks in Pakistan’s major urban conurbations unless the army withdrew from the tribal areas.

On Tuesday, 32 people were killed in a suicide attack on a hospital in the northern town of Dera Ismail Khan.

On Friday the Taleban said at least 16 of their fighters were killed in clashes with security forces in the north-western district of Hangu.

In the Bajaur tribal region near the Afghan border, reports said at least one person was killed and eight others were injured when army helicopters fired at a convoy. Locals said the vehicles were carrying civilians who were fleeing the fighting in the area.

Mr Musharraf, a key ally of President George Bush’s “war on terror”, stepped down this week after nine years in power to avoid being impeached.

He sacked about 60 Supreme Court judges during a state of emergency in November to prevent them from overturning his re-election as president.

Analysts say that although the PPP and PML-N worked together to hound Mr Musharraf from office, there is a history of intense rivalry and mistrust between the two main parties.

The parties differ over the future of Mr Musharraf, who has been replaced by a caretaker president, the speaker of the Senate.

Mr Zardari’s party has said it believes Mr Musharraf may have immunity from prosecution.

But Mr Sharif’s party argues he should stand trial for, among other things, abrogating the constitution.

August 20, 2008

Tropical storm hugs Florida coast

Tropical storm hugs Florida coast

Tropical Storm Fay is continuing northwards, with northern Florida and much of Georgia set for a drenching, the US National Hurricane Center says.

Fay is following an erratic path, hugging the Florida coastline, instead of heading out over the ocean.

Forecasters say this makes it less likely that Fay will strengthen to a hurricane, but parts of north Florida and Georgia are still on alert.

Fay was blamed for at least a dozen deaths in the Caribbean.

Path of storm

A state of emergency had been declared for what is the sixth tropical storm of the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season, but officials dropped the hurricane warning early on Tuesday after Fay made landfall near Naples on Florida’s west coast.The storm brought drenching rain and winds of 65mph (105km/h) across the state.

Several tornadoes were also reported, with one ripping through Brevard County damaging more than 50 homes.

Fay then reached Florida’s east coast at 0200 local time (0600 GMT) on Wednesday, about 15 miles (24km) south-southeast of Melbourne. Its maximum sustained winds remained near 50mph (80km/h).

At 1200 GMT, the centre of Fay was close to Cape Canaveral, moving northwards at 5 mph (8km/h) but its wind speed had lessened to 45mph (70km/h).

However a hurricane watch remained in effect for the east coast north of Flagler Beach, Florida, to Altamaha Sound, Georgia.

In south-east Georgia, Camden County officials sent out teams to clean out storm drains and ditches in preparation for possible flooding.

The Georgia Emergency Management Agency has also started a 24-hour monitoring operation of the storm.

Hope for farmers

A forecast from the National Hurricane Center on Tuesday predicted that the storm’s path would take it through Alabama over the weekend.

However, the heavy rain has not been bad news for everyone. Farmers in drought-hit areas of southern Georgia are hoping for a visit from Fay.

“It’s very seldom we’re hoping for a hurricane, but we are,” said Randy Branch, a cotton and peanut farmer in south-east Georgia. “We need some rain pretty bad.”

Initially, Fay drenched parts of Cuba, but its passage over Haiti and the Dominican Republic was more destructive, with more than a dozen deaths reported.

August 19, 2008

Florida braced for tropical storm

Florida braced for tropical storm

Map

The US state of Florida is braced for Tropical Storm Fay, which is thought to have claimed dozens of lives on its rampage through the Caribbean.

Forecasters warned Fay could reach hurricane force as it approached the Florida peninsula.

The storm’s center has already crossed Florida Key West with winds near 60mph (97km/h), flooding some roads.

Florida’s Governor Charlie Crist warned that Fay threatened a “major disaster”, but he insisted the state was prepared.

With a state of emergency in place, Mr Crist said some 500 national guard members had been deployed, with another 8,500 on standby.

The US National Hurricane Center said the storm still had the potential to top sustained winds of 74 mph (119 km/h) by the time it hits the west coast of Florida early on Tuesday.

Across Florida at least 22 school districts, a number of colleges and a university have canceled classes.

HOW HURRICANES FORM
NOAA satellite image showing tropical storm Fay over Cuba (17 August 2008)
Sea surface temperatures above 26.5C (79.7F)
A pre-existing weather disturbance
Moisture in the atmosphere
Favourable conditions, such as light winds or weak wind shear

Residents of Miami have been stocking up on bottled water, fuel and other vital supplies.

The main highway linking the Keys to the mainland was choked with traffic on Sunday as thousands of tourists evacuated.

But not everyone was hunkering down – hundreds of surfers flocked to Miami beaches to take advantage of the huge swells created by the storm.

In Cuba, Fay caused some flooding and damaged a number of homes, although no deaths were reported.

But a number of lives were lost in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

The worst incident was in Haiti, where a truck carrying up to 80 passengers plunged into a swollen river.

Officials there said more than half the passengers were missing, with many feared drowned.

Fay is the sixth tropical storm of the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season.

Two of the tropical storms so far, Bertha and Dolly, have reached hurricane strength.


Has Tropical Storm Fay affected you? Are you in Florida preparing for the storm to hit? Send us your comments

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.