Thursday, 24 April 2014

Thai politics: No end in sight

Nguồn tin:

SUCH is the distrust and rancour pervading Thai politics that a meeting on April 22nd merely to pick a date for an election quickly descended into chaos. A poll on February 2nd was nullified by a court order, so the election commission had convened a meeting of over 50 political parties to plan for a new one. But they could not agree on a date, and Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the main opposition Democrat Party, did not even show up, citing a threat to his safety. The Democrats boycotted the February election and are demanding reforms before they agree to take part in a new one.

So Thailand remains stuck in political limbo. The eruption of anti-government street protests by the self-styled People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) nearly six months ago first brought Thai politics into deadlock. Since the February election was overturned, the current caretaker government, headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, is gradually exhausting its constitutional powers to raise the money it needs for even basic administrative tasks.

Central authority is withering away, damaging the economy and the long-term political health of the country. Extremists on both sides of a yawning political divide are flourishing. The “red-shirt” supporters of Ms Yingluck’s ruling Pheu Thai party, mainly from the north of the country, remain loyal to her and her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister ousted in a military coup in 2006. They are sounding increasingly aggressive. Thousands have joined militias, training in martial arts to protect the government from the PDRC mobs or the courts, should they try to bring it down.

The other side of the divide is occupied by “yellow shirts” representing the Bangkok establishment and claiming legitimacy as defenders of the Thai monarchy. A PDRC stalwart has set up the “Rubbish Collection Organisation” (RCO), to “exterminate” those involved in anti-monarchical activities. Thailand has scandalously strict lèse-majesté laws, but even these, apparently, are not robust enough for the RCO. The mood in Bangkok is now as divisive and intimidating as many can remember. A prominent red-shirt activist was shot dead by unknown assailants on April 23rd. Politics “is beyond logic and reason now, it’s about faith”, argues Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist.

Ms Yingluck herself seems ever less likely to survive the turmoil. She faces two court cases for abuse of power. Either could lead to her resignation or impeachment. One, before the anti-corruption commission, concerns her government’s administration of a disastrous rice-subsidy scheme. The other, before the Constitutional Court, is more technical but potentially more threatening; it relates to the way she moved the former head of the National Security Council to make way for her own appointee. If that goes against her, some argue, not only she but all her ministers would have to resign.

Even if she survives these legal challenges, she may not stand as Pheu Thai’s leader in the next election, whenever it is held. Having no Shinawatra as leader would be an obvious way to defuse some of the tension. Prasert Patanaponpaiboon of Pheu Thai says many in the party think she should step down temporarily in favour of a leader less close to Mr Thaksin.

The rural vote in the north and north-east has won Pheu Thai five successive elections since 2001. Ditching Ms Yingluck, a main demand of opposition parties calling for reform to precede the election, might oblige those parties to take part. So if it won again, Pheu Thai would have a stronger mandate and greater legitimacy. The protesters would have achieved the very opposite of what they intended.

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Japan and its neighbours: Springtime in Tokyo?

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ON THE face of it, conditions are hardly propitious for an improvement in Japan’s strained relations with its East Asian neighbours. This week over 150 Japanese lawmakers paid their respects during the spring festival at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo (pictured above), which honours not only Japan’s war dead but also convicted war criminals. South Korea and China were duly incensed.

Then, on the eve of a state visit to Japan (he goes on to South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines), Barack Obama became the first American president to assure Japan that the Senkakus, a clutch of uninhabited islands also claimed by China, fell squarely under America’s defence obligations to its treaty ally. On arrival in Tokyo on April 23rd, he met informally with Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, at a famous sushi bar before an official summit the following day.

Other barriers to better regional relations include a military radar station Japan has started building this month on Yonaguni, its westernmost island; and the court-ordered impounding of a Japanese merchant ship in a Chinese port in lieu of two Chinese vessels expropriated by Japan in the 1930s.

Yet growing diplomatic activity suggests relations may soon become more constructive than all this acrimony suggests. Until recently leaders in South Korea and China said that they could not deal with Mr Abe, a nationalist who thinks Japan has apologised enough for its wartime aggression. Now both are putting out feelers to him. His government, in turn, is recognising the costs to Japan of strained ties.

In theory, Japan and South Korea have much in common. They are prosperous democracies and American allies in a fraught region. Yet Mr Abe’s own visit to Yasukuni last year and his belief that Japan does not need to apologise for the past, combined with a hypernationalist press in South Korea, inhibits rapprochement. Nonetheless, in late March President Park Geun-hye agreed to a meeting with Mr Abe in the presence of Mr Obama in The Hague. Ms Park says that to demonstrate goodwill, Japan must make clear that it will not reopen issues of history, while showing sincerity on the issue of those whom the Japanese refer to as “comfort women”, who were duped or forced to perform sexual services for the Japanese armed forces in the second world war.

On both counts, Japan appears to have passed the South Korean president’s test. Mr Abe recently made it clear that he stands by Japan’s previous expressions of remorse for the war and towards comfort women in particular. On April 16th senior diplomats from both sides met in Seoul to discuss how Japan could more fully make amends. Some 55 Korean former comfort women survive. Both individual apologies and compensation are at issue (though Japan has offered both before).

Regular monthly meetings between the two sides are now planned. In order for them to remain low-key, Japan has sought—and received—reassurances that the South Korean government will no longer inflame matters by openly endorsing anti-Japan protests in South Korea or anti-Japan grandstanding by third countries such as China. Both sides also want to find ways to kick their territorial dispute—Japan claims the Korean island of Dokdo, which it calls Takeshima—into the long grass.

They have reason to co-operate. The 50th anniversary of the two countries’ friendship treaty looms in June 2015. It would be a diplomatic disaster if they had nothing to celebrate, especially for Ms Park—it was her father, Park Chung-hee, South Korea’s former dictator, who signed the treaty. If things go well in the coming months, Ms Park might even extend an invitation to Japan’s emperor, Akihito.

China’s dispute with Japan seems less tractable. China has challenged Japan’s control over the Senkaku islands (which China calls the Diaoyus), even though they have been part of the Japanese realm for over a century. China’s declaration of an “air-defence identification zone” over the East China Sea in November seemed further to suggest that it was out to challenge the status quo in the region.

Recently, though, China’s leaders have quietly peddled a softer line. Japanese officials report noticeably fewer incursions by Chinese coastguard vessels in recent weeks. On the diplomatic front, earlier this month an informal Chinese emissary, Hu Deping, son of a late reformist leader, Hu Yaobang, and a close friend of the Communist Party’s general secretary, Xi Jinping, came to Tokyo. He did not just meet former Japanese prime ministers and the foreign minister. In secret, he also met Mr Abe.

Crucial signals from China will come in early May, when an all-party group of Japanese parliamentarians heads to Beijing. Last year the trip was cancelled when the group was told no high Communist Party officials would meet it. This year, one of its members, Katsuya Okada, a former foreign minister, is optimistic. He says the group may meet China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, or even the prime minister, Li Keqiang. Whoever is wheeled out, Mr Okada says, will say much about China’s intentions.

As for the thorny problem of North Korea, Mongolia recently brokered an official meeting, the first in years, between North Korean and Japanese officials. North Korea’s desire to get closer to Japan may partly be because of alarm that its sponsor, China, appears to be getting on famously with South Korea. But it is chiefly because of a need for cash.

The chief topic of the talks is the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by the rogue state in the 1970s and 1980s. The Japanese government believes that of 17 officially recognised abductees, a number may still be alive. It wants a proper accounting. In return, it may ease commercial sanctions.

Being seen to improve relations with North Korea carries political risks in Japan. But Mr Abe’s hardline credentials will stand him in good stead. He longs to claim a breakthrough over the abductees, and may seek progress even if North Korea conducts a fourth nuclear test.

The prognosis for better relations extends to other countries, too. Opinion polls suggest a majority of South Koreans want better relations with Japan. Scope for their government, and China’s, to pursue that depends in part on Japan’s leader. Mr Abe the private man is a nationalist ideologue who harbours weirdly revisionist views about Japan’s past. But Mr Abe the prime minister is a pragmatic internationalist who understands that pushing his private ideology is not always in Japan’s interest. Mr Abe did not visit Yasukuni during this spring’s rituals. So long as the prime minister remains ascendant over the private man the thaw may continue.

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Journalism in Pakistan: The silencing of the liberals

Nguồn tin:

Mr Mir’s most famous interviewee

THERE was a time when Hamid Mir, Pakistan’s most famous journalist, had little reason to fear his work might put his life in danger. In a country where his trade has long been a dangerous game, he kept on the right side of the media’s two deadliest foes: Pakistan’s militants and its security establishment. He had good contacts with both after making a name for himself as a chronicler of the state-backed jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir in the 1980s and 1990s. He is perhaps best known for interviewing Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, just weeks after the attacks on America on September 11th 2001.

But on April 19th gunmen pulled up alongside Mr Mir’s car as he drove into Karachi from the airport, peppering the celebrity journalist with bullets. The attempt to kill Mr Mir, who survived the assault, came three weeks after a similar attack in Lahore on the car of Raza Rumi, a print and television journalist known for his liberal views. More than a dozen other media personalities have been warned their names are on a kill list. Less well-known journalists die all the time: more than 50 have been killed since 2001.

This was not the first attempt on Mr Mir’s life. A bomb was found under his car at his home in Islamabad in 2012, showing that Mr Mir, now the host of a popular political chat show, had made some powerful enemies. Over the years he had become more critical of militants, condemning suicide-bombers and the sectarian murder of Shias. He staunchly supported Malala Yousafzai, a schoolgirl activist who survived being shot by the Taliban for advocating the education of girls.

Mr Mir also criticised extra-judicial killings by security forces engaged in a dirty counterinsurgency in Balochistan, a southern province. Most recently, he insisted that Pervez Musharraf, a former military dictator, should not be allowed to dodge his trial for high treason.

Most journalists in Pakistan instinctively treat discussion of the army and militancy with great caution. Najam Sethi, the country’s most high-profile liberal commentator (and a former contributor to this newspaper), has taken to travelling in an armoured vehicle. In recent weeks at least two outspoken journalists, including Mr Rumi, have fled abroad for safety. There are now barely a handful of journalists prepared to challenge publicly the ideas of the radical religious right.

That is having a chilling effect on national discourse. In January the Express Tribune, the country’s most liberal paper, banned for several weeks all criticism of the Taliban on its pages after a deadly attack on company staff.

While Mr Mir was undergoing emergency surgery, his brother, another journalist, alleged the attack had been planned by the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), the powerful spy agency of the armed forces. Mr Mir’s family are suspicious, because they think only Pakistan’s spooks could have known about his relatively last-minute trip to Karachi. Geo News, the popular station where Mr Mir works, reported the claims with gusto. Pakistan’s armed forces issued a statement denying any ISI role. Other media outlets did not follow Geo’s lead.

The owner of the Express Tribune ordered his staff to print a front-page story denouncing its media rival, which it said had “undermined the safety and security of Pakistan”. The defence ministry, meanwhile, lodged an official request for Geo’s broadcasting licence to be revoked.

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South Korea’s stricken ferry: Lost at sea

Nguồn tin:

Classmates remember the dead

MINUTES after the Sewol, a South Korean ferry, began to list before sinking on April 16th, a schoolboy made its first distress call to the emergency services—before even the crew had radioed for help. “Save us!” he cried. “We’re on a ship and I think it’s sinking.” Divers found the boy’s body a week after the ship capsized off the South Korean coast. They have retrieved dozens of bodies, but the number of survivors, at 174, has not changed since the day the ship sank.

The number confirmed to have died is more than 150, with nearly as many still missing. Most are students from a high school in Ansan, near Seoul. They were on their way to the southern resort island of Jeju when the ferry suddenly turned to starboard, heeled over and began to sink. A transcript of the last ship-to-shore radio communication reveals muddle and indecision. It remains unclear whether an order to abandon ship was ever given. Most passengers were trapped in cabins, having repeatedly been told over the intercom to stay put. Only two of the ship’s 46 lifeboats were deployed. The captain abandoned the ship early. Authorities have now detained 11 of the 22 surviving crew members.

Investigators have ruled out a collision as the cause, instead focusing on a brief power cut before the ship turned. The captain was not on the bridge. A 26-year-old third mate was at the helm, having her first experience of navigating waters known for strong currents. Unsecured cargo may have shifted, causing the vessel to tilt, especially if it was overloaded and did not have enough ballast water onboard, as is now suspected.

The tragedy has kindled a spirit of unity and volunteerism in South Korea, as people have gone to help the victims’ families. It has also engendered soul-searching. Newspaper editorials have bemoaned a perceived gap between South Korea’s first-rate economy and third-rate safety measures. In fact, South Korea has a fairly good record for maritime safety.

President Park Geun-hye denounced the captain’s abandoning ship as “akin to murder”. She also promised to look into whether too cosy a relationship has developed between the shipping ministry and the Korea Shipping Association, the industry’s chief lobby group. Prosecutors have launched a probe into the finances of the family which owns and operates the ferry.

But Ms Park’s administration has also revealed a lack of co-ordination in its response. It took nearly an hour for its disaster unit to mobilise and three days for the first bodies to be retrieved. Angry relatives waiting near the wreckage gathered on April 20th to march in protest to the president’s office in Seoul, 400km to the north, but police blocked their path, one more frustration in a nearly unbearable week.

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L. M. Montgomery

Nguồn tin:

"People laugh at me because I use big words. But if you have big ideas you have to use big words to express them, haven't you?"

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Raymond Joseph Teller

Nguồn tin:

"I really feel as if the things we create together are not things we devised, but things we discovered, as if, in some sense, they were always there in us, waiting to be revealed, like the figure of Mercury waiting in a rough lump of marble."

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Natasha Bedingfield

Nguồn tin:

"No one else can speak the words on your lips Drench yourself in words unspoken Live your life with arms wide open Today is where your book begins The rest is still unwritten"

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