Thursday, March 07, 2013

PH 'rising star' in travel, tourism

The government's "Its more fun in the Philippines" campaign has bore fruit as the Philippines advanced 12 notches in the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2013 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index released on Thursday, March 7.

The country's ranking improved to 82nd overall out of 140 countries with a score of 3.93 in 2013, making it a 'rising star' in the industry and the 'most improved' country in the Asia and the Pacific region.

The WEF said the 'rising stars' in 2013 are Panama, which climbed from 56th to 37th, and the Philippines, which climbed from 94th to 82nd on the back of policy improvements supporting the industry.

"The Philippines is the most improved country in the region, ranking 16th regionally and 82nd overall, up 12 places since the last edition," the WEF said. "Government spending on the sector as a percentage of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is now 1st in the world, and tourism marketing and branding campaigns are seen to be increasingly effective."

Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez recently said at the 2013 Philippine Economic Briefing that the government is spending about P12 billion on tourism-related infrastructure that facilitate access to tourism spots in the archipelago's over 7,100 islands. An infrastructure-focused fund for the sector has been set up to reach the goal of increasing foreign tourist arrivals to 10 million by 2016.

Almost 4.2 million tourists visited the Philippines in 2012, breaching the 4 million mark for the first time despite the tourism department's meager budget for marketing and despite the delays in bidding airport projects near tourism spots.

Philippines' edge

The WEF said the country's natural resources, price competitiveness, prioritization of the Travel & Tourism industry, and lesser visa requirements for foreign nationals have also contributed to the improvement in the Philippines' overall performance in the index this year.

Data showed the Philippines' strengths are:

  • Natural resources - 44th
  • Price competitiveness - 24th
  • Prioritization of the Travel & Tourism industry - 15th
  • Few visa requirements for foreign visitors - 7th

"In addition, the country has been ensuring that several aspects of its policy rules and regulations regime are conducive to the development of the T&T sector. Among these are better protection of property rights, more openness toward foreign investments, and few visa requirements for foreign visitors," WEF said.

However, the WEF said the Philippines would do well to address the following to further improve its ranking in the index:

  • Difficulty of starting a business in the country, cost - 94th
  • Difficulty of starting a business in the country, length of the process - 117th
  • Safety and security concerns - 103rd
  • Inadequate health and hygiene - 94th
  • "Underdeveloped ground transport, tourism, and ICT infrastructure are (also) holding back the potential of the economy’s T&T competitiveness," WEF said.

The Philippines expect the tourism sector to account for as much as 18% to 20% of the country's total employment by 2016.

Global ranking

The WEF said the index was topped by Switzerland, Germany and Austria in terms of their travel and tourism industry competitiveness.

The biennial report, published under the theme, Reducing Barriers to Economic Growth and Job Creation, sees considerable movement in the Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index’s top 10 countries.

Alongside Switzerland and Germany, the United States and Singapore maintained their positions, in sixth and 10th places, respectively. Sweden, the only other country in the top 10 to fall, dropped from fifth to ninth.

Among developed economies, New Zealand and Japan improved strongly; the former climbing to12th from 19th and the latter moving up 8 positions to 14th. Emerging market economies reported mixed levels of progress, with India being the only BRIC nation to move up in the rankings. (BRIC refers to the grouping of the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China.)

"Industry resilience has been driven by the growth of the middle class in emerging markets, although advanced economies too are displaying positive momentum. Better policies, harnessing technology and facilitating the movement of people over borders will allow the industry to capitalize on this tailwind and support rising prosperity into the future," WEF Global Competitiveness and Benchmarking Network Head and Chief Economist Jennifer Blanke said.

The Index covers 140 countries and uses a combination of data from publicly available sources, international travel and tourism institutions and experts. It also incorporates the results of the Executive Opinion Survey, a comprehensive annual survey conducted by the WEF and its network of partner institutes (research institutes and business organizations) in the countries covered by the report. - Rappler (March 07, 2013)

Israel says it won't intervene in Syrian-U.N. incident

Israel won't intervene in the Syrian-U.N. hostage crisis, an Israeli official said on Thursday.

About 30 rebels detained 21 U.N. peacekeepers who entered a Syrian village near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Wednesday and refused to let them go. The rebels say they suspect the peacekeepers were trying to aid their enemy, which is defending the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The United Nations has urged their release.

"It's happening in Syria. We are following it very closely," the official said." We can't and won't interfere in the events on the other side of the border. We have offered UNDOF (the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force) any kind of assistance they might require and we hope this ends quickly with no harm to anyone."-Cable News Network (March 07, 2013)

Malaysia rejects ceasefire offer from Filipino group

Malaysian soldiers in Sabah province (7 March 2013)
Malaysia has rejected a call for a ceasefire by a Philippine Muslim clan who launched an incursion into a village in Sabah last month, saying the land belongs to them.

PM Najib Razak said they want the group "to unconditionally surrender".

The ceasefire offer by the group's leader based in Manila came after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for an end to the violence in Sabah.

Since fighting began, 60 people have died: 52 Filipinos and eight policemen.

Malaysian National Police Chief Ismail Omar was quoted as saying that at least 31 Filipinos have been killed this week.

"We want the militants to unconditionally surrender and hand over their weapons," Mr Razak told media during his first trip to the area since violence broke out.

He added that the military would continue to track them down "for as long as it takes to eliminate them" if they did not surrender.

In a statement released earlier, Mr Ban's office said he encouraged all sides to engage in dialogue to resolve the situation peacefully.

"The Secretary-General expresses concern about the impact this situation may have on the civilian population, including migrants in the region," said the statement.

"He urges all parties to facilitate delivery of humanitarian assistance and act in full respect of international human rights norms and standards."


The Manila-based leader of the Filipino clan, Jamalul Kiram III - one of several men who claims the title of Sultan of Sulu - said earlier this week they they were prepared to "fight to the last man".

But on Thursday, Mr Kiram issued a statement following Mr Ban's comments and called for a ceasefire to the violence in Sabah at 12:30 local time (04:30 GMT).

"They will not take any action. They will remain in the place where they are now. They will not expand operations," his spokesman, Abraham Idjirani, told reporters in Manila.

"We hope Malaysia reciprocates the same call for a ceasefire," he added.

The group of some 200 Filipinos landed at a coastal village in the Lahad Datu district of Sabah, on Malaysian Borneo, saying that the territory was theirs.

Calling themselves the Royal Army of Sulu, the clan members said they were descendants of the Sultanate of Sulu in the southern Philippines, which ruled parts of northern Borneo for centuries, and demanded that the Malaysian government pay more money to lease their land.

Initial attempts by both the Philippines and Malaysian government to persuade them to leave failed, and late last week, clashes broke out between the clan and Malaysian police, leaving eight policemen and 19 clansmen dead.

On Tuesday Malaysian troops backed by fighter jets raided the area around Tanduo, where the clan were holed up. On Wednesday they then carried out extensive searches of the area, saying some of the Filipinos could be hiding among the local population.

Peace rally in Manila (6 March 2013)The clan said on Wednesday that none of its members had been killed, but later in the day, Malaysian officials displayed what they said were photographs of 13 bodies they had found in a shallow grave in Tanduo.

It was not clear whether they had died during the assault or in last week's clashes.

Both the Malaysian and Philippines governments are coming under increasing public pressure to end the ongoing crisis.

A rally was held in the Philippines capital, Manila, on Wednesday night calling for a peaceful resolution and expressing concern for the safety of the many Filipinos who live and work in Sabah.-British Broadcasting Corporation (March 07, 2013)

Philippines demand release of UN peacekeepers in Syria

The Philippines has demanded the immediate release of 21 of its nationals working as UN observers who have been kidnapped by rebels in Syria.

The group is being held by armed fighters near the Golan Heights.

They had been monitoring the ceasefire line between Syria and Israel, which captured the Heights in 1967.

The Philippine foreign affairs ministry said the observers were being treated well and that negotiations were under way to secure their release.

"The main concern of the Philippine government at this time is to ensure the safety and well-being of our peacekeepers," said Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, insisting that the UN mission must be respected.

Army spokesman Colonel Arnulfo Burgos told AFP: "We have high hopes that they are going to be released soon."

The UN says the peacekeepers from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (Undof) were on "a regular supply mission" on Thursday when they were stopped near an observation post by the armed men.

UN deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said the post had sustained damage and was evacuated over the past weekend following "heavy combat in close proximity".

The spokesman did not provide any further details.

A video posted on the internet showed men claiming to be Syrian rebels standing next to vehicles with the letters "UN" written on them.

They identify themselves as the "Martyrs of Yarmouk" and are heard saying that the UN personnel would not be released until forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad withdrew from the village of Jamla in the area.

Foothill fighting

The rebels later said they had taken monitors to try to stop the Syrian army from firing on them and civilians in the areas, and said they were being treated as guests.

The video was circulated by the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).

The SOHR is one of the most prominent organisations documenting and reporting incidents and casualties in the Syrian conflict. The group says its reports are impartial, though its information cannot be independently verified.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) - the main rebel fighting force - condemned the seizure of the UN observers.

FSA leader Gen Salim Idriss told the BBC's Newshour programme he would do everything he could to to free them.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also condemned the detention of the observers and demanded their immediate release, as did Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who currently holds the presidency of the UN Security Council.

In a separate development, the New York-based pressure group Human Rights Watch said it was investigating whether the same rebels were involved in the executions of seized Syrian government soldiers earlier this month.

The UN has had its monitors in the area since the 1974 ceasefire between Israel and Syria.

Israel has occupied the Golan Heights since 1967 and later annexed the territory - in a move that is not internationally recognised.

Recently there has been fighting in the eastern foothills of the Golan Heights between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces and rebels.

Israel has said its policy is not to get involved in the Syrian conflict. However, in recent months it has retaliated when there has been Syrian fire into Israeli-controlled areas.

Israel has also reinforced a fence that runs along the armistice line, and officials say Syrian refugees will not be allowed into Israel en masse.

Up to 70,000 people have been killed and a million refugees have fled since the crisis in Syria began two years ago.-British Broadcasting Corporation (March 07, 2013)

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Suu Kyi's Myanmar opposition set for maiden congress

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (C) attends the lower house parliament session in Naypyidaw on July 9, 2012. Suu Kyi made her historic parliamentary debut on July 9, marking a new phase in her near quarter century struggle to bring democracy to her army-dominated homeland. AFP PHOTO / Soe Than WIN
Aung San Suu Kyi's long-suppressed opposition will hold its first ever party congress on Friday, March 8, cementing its new place in Myanmar's political mainstream as it aims to sweep to power in 2015.

Hundreds of delegates will flock from across the country for a meeting aimed at redefining the National League for Democracy leadership, in a major milestone for a group silenced for two decades under the former military dictatorship.

"There has not been a party congress like this in Myanmar's history," NLD spokesman Nyan Win told AFP.

He said the conference, which will draw around 850 representatives for three days of talks, would see the party elect a core leadership executive of 15 people as well as a wider 120-member Central Committee.

Observers are eyeing signs that party head Suu Kyi could revitalize her cabal of advisors to better prepare to steer the country through its myriad challenges -- from a dysfunctional economy to the near-absence of infrastructure, healthcare and education provision.

Many senior party figures are veterans of a massive student uprising in 1988 that was brutally crushed by the then-ruling generals, who ignored an NLD victory in 1990 polls and locked up activists.

This old guard continues to dominate, frustrating younger party members keen for a greater voice.

"The role of young people is essential not only for the NLD but also for the country and for the world," said NLD youth member Yazar, 34.

"We want to see young and clever parliament members."

Ant Bwe Kyaw, of the democracy movement 88 Generation, said the main opposition force must reach out to a wider range of people as it develops.

"The future of the NLD will be brighter if young people and academics with political experience and leadership ability can participate in it," he told AFP.

Nobel laureate Suu Kyi and her party have undergone an extraordinary metamorphosis since a quasi-civilian regime replaced junta rule in 2011. The NLD won 43 parliamentary seats in landmark by-elections in April last year.

"For the first time in two decades there is a robust, formalized and legal National League for Democracy presence the length and breadth of the country," said Nicholas Farrelly, a Myanmar expert at Australian National University.

"The party has money and manpower," he added.

Freed in 2010 from years of house arrest, Suu Kyi criss-crossed Myanmar in an unprecedented by-election campaign last year, drawing massive crowds along the way.

The tour showcased a resurgent NLD, with a network of staffed regional offices, operating under a new recognizable party logo.

It is now Myanmar's largest opposition party -- although parliament remains dominated by the military and its political allies.

Reforms under President Thein Sein -- a former general -- have paid dramatic dividends for Myanmar, with the easing of Western sanctions and expectations of a flood of foreign investment.

The 2015 vote, seen as the ultimate test of Myanmar's democratic transformation, is widely expected to see the NLD sweep to victory, if it is free and fair.

There is still a chance, however, that "a new party of young, technocratic and democratically minded leaders" could alter the electoral dynamic, Farrelly said.

Suu Kyi, 67, has not ruled out presidential ambitions, although a constitutional rule currently bars her from the top job because she was married to a Briton and has two sons who are both foreign nationals.

She has faced flak -- largely from overseas campaigners -- over a perceived weak response to unrest in northern Kachin state and communal violence in western Rakhine, while the party's decision to take funding from cronies of the former junta has also raised eyebrows.

There has in addition been a bitter feud among local NLD members in the central Irrawaddy region, raising accusations of a hierarchy indifferent to grassroots concerns -- a row played down by the party.

"It's nothing but people playing with influence like children with a new toy," said Nyan Win.-Rappler (March 06, 2013)

South Korea says to strike back at North if attacked

South Korean soldiers patrol along a barbed-wire fence near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) which separates the two Koreas in Paju, 55 km (34 miles) north of Seoul, March 6, 2013. South Korea's military said on Wednesday it was fully prepared to strike back at the North if its neighbour uses military force, a day after Pyongyang threatened to scrap the armistice agreement ending the 1950-53 Korean War. REUTERS-Lim Heon-jung-Yonhap
South Korea's military said it will strike back at North Korea and target its top leadership if Pyongyang launches a threatened attack in response to what it says are "hostile" drills between U.S. and South Korean forces.

One of North Korea's top generals, in a rare appearance on state television on Tuesday, said Pyongyang had torn up its armistice deal with Washington and threatened military action against the U.S. and South Korea if the drills continued. The military exercises began on March 1 and run until April 30.

North Korea is gearing up to expand its own military drills and may be preparing to test-fire short-to-medium-range missiles by banning flights and sailing off its coast, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said, quoting South Korean government sources.

"The North's military ... is preparing large-scale combined military exercises so it may have blocked off the areas for nautical firing or fighter jet firing exercises," Yonhap quoted a South Korean government source as saying.

"But the firing of missiles cannot be ruled out."

The South's Defense Ministry and office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff could not confirm that report, but South Korean officials have said the North is conducting military exercises that appear to be larger in scale than in previous years.

Tensions have ratcheted higher across the Korean peninsula since the North, under youthful leader Kim Jong-un who took office just over a year ago after the death of his father, launched a long-range rocket in December.

He followed this with a third nuclear test on February 12, triggering the prospect of more U.N. sanctions that are due to be formally announced on Thursday after the United States and China, the North's one major diplomatic ally, struck a deal to punish Pyongyang.

At the same time, North Korea has stepped up its military threats against South Korea and the United States, prompting the terse warning from Seoul on Wednesday that it would not stand idly by if its territory was attacked.

"We have all preparations in place for strong and decisive punishment, not only against the source of the aggression and its support forces but also the commanding element," Major General Kim Yong-hyun of the South Korean army told a news conference in one of the clearest threats Seoul has made.

North Korea's bellicose rhetoric rarely goes beyond just that, although in 2010 it was widely accused of sinking a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors, and in the same year shelled a South Korean island, killing two civilians.

Stung by criticism it took too long to respond to the island shelling, South Korea's military has relaxed its rules, allowing commanders on the ground to respond to aggression instead of needing permission from top military brass.

South Korea's new President Park Geun-hye had pledged to engage the North if it dropped its nuclear plans but now faces the prospect of a hostile challenge early in her five-year term.

Japan's Kyodo news agency said some people in the North's capital, Pyongyang, were covering up buses and other larger vehicles with camouflage nets in what it said was a possible preparation for war.


The proposed fresh sanctions would explicitly ban the sale to Pyongyang of items coveted by North Korea's ruling elite, such as yachts and racing cars, a U.N. Security Council diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

In 2009, Italian authorities blocked the sale of two yachts worth more than $10 million that they believed were headed for Kim Jong-il, the current Kim's father, who enjoyed copious amounts of luxury brandy and fresh sushi in a country where a third of the population is malnourished.

The new sanctions will target North Korea's financial transactions, which often involve using cash couriers that make them hard to trace, and its criminal activities such as drugs and counterfeiting.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said the new sanctions would target "the illicit activities of North Korean diplomatic personnel, North Korean banking relationships, (and) illicit transfers of bulk cash".

North Korea was slapped with sanctions in 2006 that banned the import of a range of luxury goods from jet skis to Harleys following its first nuclear test in a bid to hit the high-life of the Kim family and its hangers on.

The impoverished country, whose economy is smaller than it was 20 years ago, has been subject to sanctions of some kind from the United States for almost all of its existence and since 2006 has seen United Nations sanctions imposed for its long range rocket and nuclear tests.

Despite the sanctions, Pyongyang now has a nuclear stockpile sufficient for around half a dozen warheads, has made substantial progress in developing a long-range missile and is working towards miniaturizing a nuclear warhead for an intercontinental ballistic missile.


China has backed all rounds of sanctions and fell into line with the latest move in the Security Council, risking relations with its prickly ally.

Its U.N. ambassador, Li Baodong, told Reuters the 15-nation Security Council was aiming for a Thursday vote on a draft sanctions resolution, which was agreed to by Washington and Beijing after three weeks of negotiations.

A spokeswoman for China's Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that the situation on the Korean peninsula was "complicated and sensitive" and repeated its frequent call for all sides to "maintain calm and restraint".

It remains unclear however what concrete action North Korea will take and how much attention it will pay to Beijing's entreaties.

Pyongyang abrogated the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War once before and is seen as unlikely to stage any significant military attack on South Korea.

"The regime's threats are consistent with previous North Korean behavior and are meant to intimidate the United Nations Security Council as it deliberates on additional sanctions against Pyongyang for its February nuclear test," said Bruce Klingner of The Heritage Foundation.

North Korea has frequently bridled at large-scale military drills staged on South Korean soil, especially those involving the U.S. military, which acts as Seoul's guarantor of security.

About 200,000 Korean troops and 10,000 U.S. forces are expected to be mobilized for their "Foal Eagle" exercise, under the Combined Forces Command, which goes until the end of April. Separate computer-simulated drills called "Key Resolve" start on March 11.-Reuters (March 06, 2013)

Singapore national eye center looks to closer ties with Indonesia

An eyeful: Doctor Donald Tan (left) operates on a patient at Singapore National Eye Center. The center is eyeing closer ties with Indonesia. (Courtesy of Singapore National Eye Center)
We happened to bump into Winawati Sutisna from Jakarta who was on a visit to the International Patient Service department at the SNEC to consult with an ophthalmologist about treatment for her 10-year old daughter’s strabismus, or squint-eye.

“I learnt from an ophthalmologist in Jakarta that the SNEC is the best place in the region to treat my daughter’s problem,” Winawati said.

She paid S$90 (US$72.30) for a consultation which she said was not much more than the fees charged by a senior ophthalmologist at a modern private eye hospital in Jakarta.

Winawati is just one of the tens of thousands of Indonesians seeking quality healthcare or simply having health checkups at government or private hospitals in Singapore.

The latest data from the health ministry shows that last year around 18,000 visitors from Indonesia went to Singapore for medical attention. That’s almost 50 percent of the total number of foreigners who travel to there for health services. 

The Indonesian government has been trying to encourage private investment in healthcare, allowing foreigners to hold up to 100 percent equity in private hospitals in the hope that an increased foreign presence will motivate state hospitals to improve their services.

Despite this expansion, Indonesians who can afford it prefer to go abroad. They are the major contributors to medical tourism in neighboring countries, notably Singapore and Malaysia

According to the Mayapada Health Care group, Indonesians spend more than US$750 million annually to travel to Singapore, Malaysia or Australia for medical purposes. 

As the most modern, well-equipped specialist in eye care in the region, the SNEC has become increasingly popular for Indonesians from cities other than Jakarta, which do not have modern eye hospitals.

Since its opening in 1990, the center has steadily expanded and now covers nine subspecialties: in cataract and comprehensive ophthalmology; corneal and external eye disease; glaucoma; immunology and vitreo-; neuro-ophthalmology; ocular inflammation; oculoplastic and aesthetic eyeplastic; paediatric ophthalmology and strabismus; and refractive surgery. 

Last year alone, the SNEC managed 275,000 outpatient visits, 20,000 surgeries and more than 13,000 laser procedures.

Doctor Ho Ching Lin, head of the glaucoma department at the SNEC, said as the local and regional referral center for secondary and tertiary management of glaucoma, her department manages more than 40,000 glaucoma attendances annually.

“About 2,000 of them are visitors from Southeast Asia, including Indonesia,” Ho added. 

SNEC Medical Director Donald Tan, however, did not see the increasing popularity of his center as a zero-sum game with eye care hospitals or clinics in Indonesia.

“The SNEC complements eye hospitals in Indonesia. We are actively involved in clinical trials and research into the causes and treatment of major eye conditions such as myopia and glaucoma.

“Thousands of ophthalmologists from the region, including Indonesia, have participated in SNEC courses and meetings, which are organized annually,” added Tan, who last year was elected as first non-American president of the US-based Cornea Society.

“I myself and several senior ophthalmologists from the SNEC have visited Indonesia often for lectures or conferences with Indonesian eye specialists. We also cooperate with several eye hospitals in Indonesia like the Jakarta Eye Center and the National Eye Center in Cicendo, Bandung,” Tan said.

SNEC ophthalmologists and eye specialists from the region regularly exchange views and best practices through the annual meetings of the Asian Association of Eye Hospitals.

The best competitive advantage of SNEC has is the Singapore Eye Research Institute (SERI), one of the largest eye and vision research institutes in the Asia Pacific region in terms of staff numbers, grant income, research initiatives and innovations and inventions.

SERI director Wong Tien Yin said the multi-ethnic composition of the Singapore population is really an advantage because therapies and diagnoses that have been developed in the West may not be directly 
applicable to Asia. 

“Its ability to test diagnostics and therapeutics with patients of three major ethnic groups positions makes SERI the eye laboratory for the whole Asian market,” Wong added

Research at SERI, which is attached to the SNEC complex, has helped the SNEC develop and apply new eye care services, for example, Lasik, a wonders of modern medicine and technology to improve vision and do away with spectacles or contact lenses.

Cataract extraction and intraocular lens implantation is the most common operation performed at the SNEC with more than 10,000 cataract procedures each year, by a team of over 55 full time ophthalmology specialists. 

“Those who plan to have laser vision correction can now look forward to a new technique beyond LASIK, with the introduction of SNEC ReLEx,” said Cordelia Chan, head of the refractive surgery service.

Chan explained that unlike conventional LASIK which destroys the inner corneal tissues, the new procedure does not create a flap in the cornea and uses only one laser for the entire process, thereby resulting in a much stronger eye and less immediate postoperative discomfort and tearing.

Tan and his team have developed and patented a new technique for cornea transplants, which used to require at least 20 stitches and a recovery of six months. The new technique, called DMEK, already used worldwide, minimizes invasive corneal transplantation, thereby reducing damage to the new cornea’s cell.

An increasing number of middleclass and high-income Indonesians, especially those in the resource-rich provinces with direct flights to Singapore, look for quality healthcare in the city state, well known as providing the best healthcare center in Southeast Asia.-The Jakarta Post (March 06, 2013)

PH continues to press for maximum tolerance

The Philippines will continue to pursue its appeals to Malaysia to ensure the safety of Filipinos in Sabah amid the ongoing conflict between Malaysian forces and the followers of the sultan of Sulu.

"We will continue to press for maximum tolerance. We will continue to press for the requests that we've already made. We will continue to explore all other avenues," Undersecretary Abigail Valte, deputy presidential spokesperson, said in a press briefing on Wednesday.

"We will keep pressing for the full access that we had earlier requested, to be able to have access to those who are there, to treat the wounded, and to be able to ferry anybody who wishes to come home."

The Philippine government had requested that Malaysian authorities exercise "maximum tolerance" in dealing with the Sulu sultanate's forces. The following day, however, Malaysia launched airstrikes targeting them.

The Philippines also asked that a humanitarian ship be allowed to dock in Lahad Datu to provide assistance to Filipinos caught up in the conflict.

So far, the requests continue to be under the Malaysian government's consideration in light of the security situation in Sabah, Valte said.

In the meantime, she said the governmen continues to provide assistance to the families of the Sulu sultanate's followers.

Palace not ignoring Kiram's concerns

President Aquino had no intention of ignoring the concerns of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III on the Sabah claim, one of his spokesperson said.

Valte said that in 2011, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process spoke to the Kirams.

The Kirams were also present in Malacanang during the signing of the framework peace agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, she added.

Valte also reiterated that Kiram's forces should return the Philippines first before he dialogues with them.

Not siding with Malaysia

Valte refuted Nur Misuari's statement that the President is siding with Malaysia and mishandled the Sabah crisis.

"He expressed his concern for the welfare of the 800,000 Filipinos who are already there. From the beginning, it is clear that the President has always been looking out for the interests of the nation and not just a particular set of people."-ABS-CBN News (March 06, 2013 4:44PM)

Malaysia troops hunt Filipino clan amid Sabah violence

Malaysian troops are searching houses and terrain for armed members of a Filipino clan embroiled in a three-week conflict in Sabah on Borneo island.

Police say one gunman was shot in brief clashes early on Wednesday, though it was unclear whether he had been killed.

On Tuesday, Malaysia launched a raid on the group with troops and fighter jets, but the clan said they had escaped.

The conflict has already left at least 27 people dead, and put pressure on both governments to resolve the crisis.

Some 200 Filipinos landed at a coastal village in Sabah's Lahad Datu district last month, saying that the territory was theirs.

Calling themselves the Royal Army of Sulu, the clan members said they were descendants of the Sultanate of Sulu in the southern Philippines, which ruled parts of northern Borneo for centuries, and demanded that the Malaysian government pay more money to lease their land.

A two-week stand-off ensued, but violence broke out in at least two places late last week, leaving eight members of the Malaysian security forces and 19 clan members dead.

The military assault was launched on Tuesday, but Malaysian officials confirmed late in the day that they had not found any of the clan members during the operation.

'No surrender'

On Wednesday, the security forces widened their search, saying there were signs the group had moved elsewhere.

Gunfire was exchanged in a hilly area early on Wednesday, Malaysian officials said, with one clan member believed to have been shot. It is not clear whether the clan member was killed.

"The security forces are tracking down their movements and will take the appropriate action," police inspector-general Ismail Omar told reporters.

Bernama also quoted him as saying that the Filipinos were now "impersonating as members of the public" to evade Malaysian troops.

But he insisted the security forces were "in a good position" and urged people in the region not to panic.

For their part, the Philippines' Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday that they had no information on the number of casualties from the latest assault.

It said the Philippines "continued seeking the exercise of maximum tolerance to avert further loss of lives".

Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario returned to Manila late on Tuesday after holding two days of talks with his counterpart in Kuala Lumpur.

"We did everything, we walked the last mile. We intend to fully continue this effort," local media quoted him as saying.

The Manila-based leader of the Filipino clan, Jamalul Kiram III - who claims to be the current sultan of Sulu - has said they are prepared to "fight to the last man".

On Wednesday, he told AFP he had spoken to his younger brother, who is with the clan in Sabah, and that they would not surrender.

"He was telling me they are eating good food, but the hard thing is they are being chased. So where will they go?" he said.

Kiram's daughter in Manila told Reuters the group were unhurt and insisted: "Malaysia wants us dead, and all we want is to talk."

Meanwhile, residents in the area have spoken of their fears that the conflict could escalate.

"If there are no more negotiations I think more people on both sides will die," Shamsul Bahari told AFP, saying he was too scared to go to his job on a palm oil estate.

The stand-off poses a challenge to both governments. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has come under increasing domestic pressure to end the incursion, while the Philippine government is facing calls to do more to protect the Filipino group.

Sabah formed part of the Sulu Sultanate - which once spread over several southern Philippine islands as well as parts of Borneo - before it was designated a British protectorate in the 1800s.

Sabah became part of Malaysia in 1963, and the country still pays a token rent to the Sulu Sultanate each year.-British Broadcasting Corporation (March 06, 2013)

Chinese chopper patrols over Spratlys - report

A Chinese helicopter patrolled parts of the disputed Spartly Islands in the West Philippine Sea on Monday afternoon, the Chinese government reported.

China's government portal on Tuesday posted a Xinhua report quoting the Guangdong Maritime Safety Administration as saying the chopper monitored part of the Islands.

"The helicopter took off from the Haixun 31, a marine surveillance ship, to monitor maritime traffic in waters near Dongmen Reef of the Nansha Islands," it said.

The administration also said that this was the first time a Chinese maritime helicopter was dispatched to patrol the South China Sea.

China refers to the Spratlys as the Nansha Islands. It is one of six claimants to the islands, the others being the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

Xinhua said the Haixun 31 is one of three Chinese marine surveillance ships that left Sanya Port in Hainan province last Thursday.

China said the patrol seeks to boost China's maritime law enforcement capacity and test the patrol team's response abilities in the South China Sea.

It added the fleet has "covered 800 nautical miles, monitored the navigation environment in waters near the Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha Islands and conducted safety inspections for more than 40 Chinese and foreign vessels."-GMA News (March 06, 2013 7:03AM)

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Taiwan issues yellow travel alert for Sabah, Malaysia

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Tuesday it has raised the level of its travel warning for Lahad Datu, Sabah in Malaysia to "yellow," following an armed clash in the region.

A clash between Filipino followers of a self-proclaimed sultan and Malaysian security forces took place in the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island, causing death and injury to several people and sparking concerns over public security, the ministry said.

The violent stand-off occurred in Lahad Datu near the Malaysian Scuba-diving resort of Sipadan. To ensure the safety of Taiwan's tourists traveling abroad, the ministry decided to raise the level of its travel warning for the Malaysian area to "yellow," while maintaining a "grey" travel advisory for other areas in the country.

A "yellow" travel warning reminds people to pay special attention to personal safety while traveling to affected areas and to reconsider any plans to travel to these areas.

The ministry said it will continue to keep a close watch on the development of the incident and provide updated travel information for local people. Businessmen and tourists in Malaysia are advised to contact Taiwan's representative office in the country if they encounter an emergency. -Focus Taiwan (March 05, 2013)

Marcos tells Aquino: Protect Filipinos first

File photos of President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III and Senator Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr.
The new generation of Aquinos and the Marcoses find themselves on the opposite sides again as the stand off in Lahud Datu, Sabah escalates into an all-out attack from the Malaysian government.
The son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos broke his silence, demanding the son of martyred Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. to protect the follower’s of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III.

“We, as a republic, have a claim over Sabah since the 1960’s, we have historical claim over Sabah and that’s a fact,” Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. said.

“But whatever else the issue there may be, the Sultan of Sulu and his people are Filipino citizens and, by virtue of that fact, they deserve protection from the government of the Philippines,” he added.

Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. said the Aquino administration has the duty to protect all Filipinos who are caught in the middle of crossfire between Kiram’s followers and Malaysian police.

He noted this should be prioritized before the government officials decide to discuss or debate the legitimacy of Kiram’s claim of ownership on the disputed territory in North Borneo.

“Pero bago natin pag-usapan ang claim, protektahan muna natin ang mga Pilipino. We should talk to the Malaysians to spare the Filipinos from harm or harassment and to resolve this matter peacefully,” Marcos said.

The body of one of the followers of the sultan of Sulu is found in Simunul village in Lahad Datu, Sabah after
authorities launched attacks to end the standoff.
“First and foremost, it’s the responsibility of the government to protect its citizens,” he noted.

During the Marcos dictatorship, the Philippine government broke diplomatic ties with Malaysia for rejecting the country's claim over Sabah.

In 1968, President Marcos also enacted a law that delineates the baselines of the Philippines that states that the country has acquired dominion and sovereignty over Sabah in North Borneo.

The former president claimed that the Philippines claim over Sabah has historical, legal and moral grounds.

In the same year, Senator Aquino exposed Jabidah, a unit that was allegedly trained for a mission to destabilize North Borneo that was made by President Marcos.

But in 1977, President Marcos gives up Sabah claim as a step to “eliminate one of the burdens of Association of Southeast Asian Nations. (ASEAN). - Yahoo News (March 05, 2013 6:00PM)

Malaysia soldiers attack armed Filipino clan in Borneo

Malaysia army commandos prepare to board a helicopter to join an assault near the area where a stand-off with Filipino gunmen took place 5 March 2013, in Tanduo village, Lahad Datu, Sabah, Malaysia
Malaysian soldiers have launched an assault on armed members of a Filipino clan in an ongoing conflict that has left at least 27 dead on Borneo island.

The ground troops are backed by fighter jets, with reports of several explosions near Lahad Datu, where the group of about 180 Filipinos are.

The operation to oust the clan began at 07:00 (23:00 GMT on Monday), the Malaysian government said.

Seven army battalions were deployed to the area on Monday to reinforce police.

Among the aircraft used in the assault were an F-18 and a Hawk fighter aircraft, Malaysian state news agency Bernama reports. Helicopters were also seen flying in the area.

Malaysian National Police Chief Ismail Omar said they achieved their targets in the offensive and that there were no troop casualties.

He did not provide any details about the Filipinos, who he said fired at the Malaysian troops. But a spokesman for the group told Philippine television the men were safe, Reuters news agency reports.

The Filipinos landed at a coastal village in Lahad Datu district on the island of Borneo last month, saying that the territory was theirs.

Calling themselves the Royal Army of Sulu, the clan members said they were descendants of the Sultanate of Sulu in the southern Philippines, which ruled parts of northern Borneo for centuries, and demanded that the Malaysian government pay more money to lease their land.

Malaysia refused their demands and urged the group to return home.

On Monday, the Philippine government appealed to Malaysia to exercise maximum restraint and avoid further bloodshed, and sent Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario to Kuala Lumpur for talks.

Officials said he would request that a Philippine navy ship be permitted to sail to Lahad Datu to bring the clan members home.

In the capital, Manila, protesters are outside the Malaysian embassy, urging a peaceful resolution to the stand-off, reports say.

"We've done everything we could to prevent this, but in the end, Kiram's people chose this path," Philippine presidential spokesman Ricky Carandang said on Tuesday of clan leader Jamalul Kiram III.

'Pride and sovereignty'

Eight Malaysian troops and 19 clan members have already been killed in the three-week stand-off.

Twelve were killed along with two Malaysian policemen when Malaysian security forces tried to tighten the cordon around the occupied village on Friday.

The incident sparked violence in another area over the weekend, in which seven clan members and six policemen died.

Mr Kiram's brother has said they are not violating any laws because Sabah is "owned by the Sultan of Sulu" and insisted that they have a right to defend themselves if attacked.

However, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said over the weekend that its forces were authorised to "take any action deemed necessary".

In a statement on Tuesday, Mr Najib said the assault had become necessary because security forces had been killed and Malaysians in Sabah feared for their safety.

"After the first attack, I stressed that the intruders must surrender themselves or the security forces will have to act," he said in comments carried by Bernama.

He said police had held negotiations with the Filipinos in the hope they would leave peacefully, but that "as the intrusion prolonged it was evident to the authorities that the intruders had no intention of withdrawing from Sabah".

"The government has to take the right action in order to preserve the pride and sovereignty of this country," he said in his statement.

Mr Najib has come under increasing political pressure in Malaysia to end the incursion, with the opposition criticising him for allowing it to continue. The Philippine government is also coming under pressure to do more to protect the Filipino clan.

Sabah shares a sea border with the southern Philippines, which is home to a number of Islamic militant and kidnap-for-ransom groups. The journey between the two can take only a few hours.

It formed part of the Sulu Sultanate - which once spread over several southern Philippine islands as well as parts of Borneo - before it was designated a British protectorate in the 1800s.

Sabah became part of Malaysia in 1963, and the country still pays a token rent to the Sulu Sultanate each year.-British Broadcasting Network (March 05, 2013 06:20 GMT)

Japan arrests China boat captain amid island row

Japan's coastguard arrested the captain of a Chinese boat on suspicion of illegal fishing in its exclusive economic zone on Tuesday, officials said, amid a territorial row between the two countries.

The coral fishing boat with a crew of 11 was spotted by a coastguard patrol plane in waters some 44 kilometres (27 miles) northeast of Miyako island in the Okinawan chain, the coastguard official said.

The captain, whose name has yet to be disclosed, was arrested on suspicion of fishing in the exclusive maritime zone without permission from Japan, the coastguard said.

"After receiving information from our aeroplane, three of our patrol boats approached the Chinese ship, and they are now sailing back to Miyako with the Chinese ship," the spokesman said.

The incident occurred amid a simmering dispute over the Tokyo-administered Senkaku islands, which China also claims and calls the Diaoyus.

Miyako is located about 210 kilometres from the largest island in the Senkaku chain.

Chinese government ships have routinely circled the disputed islands in the East China Sea since September, when Tokyo nationalised a number of them.

In early February, the captain of another Chinese boat was also arrested on suspicion of illegal coral fishing in the area. He was released later after submitting a bail guarantee.

Unauthorised fishing in Japan's 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone can be punished by a fine of up to 10 million yen ($109,000) under Japanese law, local media said.-Channel News Asia (March 05, 2013)

Monday, March 04, 2013

162 Indonesian oil palm workers in Sabah evacuated

As many as 162 Indonesians working at oil palm plantations in Lahad Datu, Sabah, Malaysia, have been evacuated to temporary shelter some six kilometers away from the clashes between the police and assailants, which have killed seven, according to the Foreign Ministry.

The workers, who were employed by “Sahabat 17” plantation, were taken to the Embara complex, according to a statement by the ministry made available to The Jakarta Post on Monday.

“They will be sheltered until the situation becomes safe and conducive,” the ministry’s director of media and information, PLE Priatna, said as quoted in the statement.

The Indonesian Consul General in Kota Kinabalu, Soepeno Sahid, said in the statement that all the sheltered Indonesians were unharmed.

“The Indonesian Consulate General has been keeping an eye on the situation and maintains communication with local law enforcement officials,” he said.

The ministry has also asked Indonesian sailors not to sail to the Sabah area until the situation is totally safe.

On Saturday night, five policemen were killed in the ambush by unidentified gunmen, suspected Filipino intruders, in Sabah. Two of the attackers were killed, Malaysian police said.

The shootings occurred about 150 kilometers away from another district in eastern Sabah state where 12 Filipinos and two Malaysian police were killed on Friday after members of a Philippine Muslim royal clan

occupied a village last month, claiming the territory as their own.

The Filipino group is led by the brother of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III of the southern Philippine province of Sulu.-The Jakarta Post (March 04, 2013 5:41PM)

China defends massive growth in military spending

China is defending its booming military spending, saying its vast investments in the armed forces have contributed to global peace and stability.

However, in a break with previous years, no figure for this year's defense budget was presented at a news conference held Monday on the eve of the opening of the annual legislative session. Spokeswoman Fu Ying said the figure would appear in the overall budget to be released Tuesday.

Chinese defense spending has grown substantially each year for more than two decades, and last year rose 11.2 percent to 670.2 billion yuan ($106.4 billion), an increase of about 67 billion yuan.

Only the United States spends more on defense.

Fu cited U.N. peacekeeping and anti-piracy patrols as examples of China's contribution to world peace and stability.-The Jakarta Post (March 04, 2013 11:36AM)

Due to strong economic growth Phl one of SE Asia’s fastest growing markets for appliances – research firm

The Philippines emerged as the second fastest growing market for major home appliances in Southeast Asia last year due to the country’s strong economic growth which resulted in a much  improved purchasing power for consumers, research firm GfK Asia Pte Ltd reported.

Data showed that the Philippines placed second in terms of sales growth for  domestic appliances with a 19.5 percent expansion last year next to Indonesia’s 20.1 percent while Thailand was in third place with a growth of 11.6 percent.

GfK reported that 19.5 million units of major domestic appliances including washers, air-conditioners, refrigerators and microwave ovens worth close to $6 billion – up 13 percent from last year – were sold across Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam.

The research firm attributed the increase to the rising affluence of consumers in Southeast Asia.

For the Philippines alone, the value of appliances sold improved 19.5 percent to $635 million with air conditioners leading the growth with a 27.8 percent growth followed by washing machines with 18.2 percent, microwave ovens with 14.9 percent, and refrigerators with 14.1 percent.

Jasmine Lim, account director for home and lifestyle products of GfK, said a flourishing domestic economy and rising affluence are key reasons for the robust sales of appliances especially air-conditioners, refrigerators and washing machines.

Business ( Article MRec ), pagematch: 1, sectionmatch: 1
“Even as some households in developing markets are installing their first double-tub washer, a proportion of the affluent population is concurrently upgrading theirs to the larger capacity models with enhanced technology,” Lim said.

Air-conditioners posted the highest volume growth at nearly 18 percent with the Philippines and Vietnam as the two fastest growing markets registering more than 20 percent surge in demand from last year.

GfK findings revealed that consumers in the region are increasingly purchasing better and higher end models, which correspondingly upped the average price for air-conditioning units in the region by as much as 12 percent.

In the washing machine category, although single tub remains the dominant segment making up over half of all washing machines purchased, rapid adoption of front load washers was observed across the region with value growth expanding in the range of nine percent and 68 percent in the respective countries.

Washers in four out of six of the countries experienced a marginal fall in their local average price.

“Although front load washers cost more than twice the price of single tub models, consumers are still willing to spend more on such models due to two key reasons. The local government in tandem with manufacturers have been actively educating and promoting front load machines for their greater water efficiency with much success,” Lim added.

Another contributing segment to the major domestic appliance sector is refrigerators which expanded by around 11 and 10 percent in value and volume, respectively.

“At the same time, the rising affluent class will also keep on fueling the demand for more premium appliances, and together, these demand will drive the continued growth of the major domestic appliances sector in the region,” she said.

Earlier, GfK reported that the Philippines booked the fastest growth in flat panel TV (television) sales in Southeast Asia with 26 percent to 8.3 million units in the first 11 months of last year amid the constant evolution and innovation in the world of TV technology.

Data showed that the Philippines posted the fastest growth in volume sales for flat panel TVs with 70 percent followed closely by Indonesia with 67 percent, Malaysia with 17 percent, and Thailand with 10 percent.

On the other hand, Singapore recorded a negative 19 percent growth in the volume of flat panel TV sales while Vietnam registered a decline of four percent.-The Philippine Star (March 04, 2013 12:00AM)

Sabah clashes may escalate with potential flash points

The violence between followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III and Malaysian security forces in Sabah since last Friday threatened to escalate with at least two new possible flash points.

In Manila, a report on dzBB radio early Monday quoted the sultan's camp as saying "sketchy" reports reaching them showed the conflict could reach Kunak and the interior of Lahad Datu.

A separate report Monday on Malaysia's The Star online said the new possible flash points are in the east coast of Sabah, including Kunak.

The Star online's report said the Malaysian army and police are now working on a strategy to storm the group of Kiram's brother Raja Muda Azzimudie Kiram.

It said there had been sightings of at least 10 men in military outfits in Kunak.

Also, it cited villagers' claims they sighted armed Kiram followers in "Kinabatangan and elsewhere," but added Malaysian police have denied such reports.

Tension had gripped the Semporna area as families fled. A lockdown was implemented around Simunul even as a Tiger platoon strike force was sent there.

On Sunday evening, Malaysian police Inspector-General Tan Sri Ismail Omar cited information indicating three of them were armed and wearing fatigues similar to those worn by the group of armed Filipinos at Tanduo village.

The Star online report said the 10 had been seen entering Kampung Long Malor and Kampung Dasar Lama.

But Armed Forces chief Tan Sri Tan Sri Zulkifeli Mohd Zin described the "intruders" seen in Kunak 10 p.m. Saturday as "not strong."

Still, Zulkifeli said he has sent two more army battalions to Semporna and Kunak as a "public confidence builder."

Zulkifeli also described the armed men as "criminals."

He said the men arrived in small boats over a few days from Sibutu island in the Philippines, a 25-minute boat ride from Semporna. Security forces failed to detect them, he said.

“I believe they came in civilian clothes and, upon entering Sabah, they grouped up and put on their military fatigues. We found two bags with civilian clothes," he said.

He said the men could have entered on Feb. 11 or 12.

On the other hand, Zulkifeli downplayed the possibility of an uprising by the Tausugs, known as Suluks in Sabah, if Azzimudie’s group was attacked.

“Even though they are Tausug, they are law abiding people,” he said of the Tausugs.

Communication problems

Meanwhile, a separate report by dzBB's Mao dela Cruz said the sultan is experiencing communications problems with Raja Muda Azzimudie Kiram, the leader of the armed Filipinos in Sabah.

As of Monday morning, Sultan Kiram's wife Fatima Cecilia Kiram said they had not received any update since Sunday.

Their last information indicated Azzimudie was "okay," the report said.-GMA News (March 04, 2013 9:35AM)

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Sabah row spills over online: PHL, MY sites defaced

An ongoing territorial dispute over Sabah —an armed confilct that has so far resulted in the deaths of at least a dozen Filipinos and Malaysians— has spilled over online, with several websites defaced over the weekend.

At least one Philippine website and several Malaysian websites were hacked into on Sunday, March 3, and defaced with messages sympathetic to either side of the armed conflict.

Strike on PHL website

Just before 10 a.m., the online shop of Philippine mobile services provider Globe Telecom was defaced by hackers claiming to be from the "MALAYSIA Cyb3r 4rmy".

"do not invade our country or you will suffer the consequences," the group warned.

In an official statement emailed to GMA News Online, Globe Telecom confirmed that the website had been hacked but assured the public that no sensitive information was stolen.

Globe also explained that the website was being "maintained by a third party partner" and that "the information security team of Globe is closely working with the third party vendor to investigate the cause of this incident".

The Globe Shop went back online at noon.

Malaysian websites hit

In apparent retaliation for the incident, pro-Philippine hackers defaced several Malaysian websites.

In a Facebook post, "Pinoy Vendetta ~hitman" and "Shadow_Haxor" claimed responsibility for attacking the following sites:


The hackers warned Malaysia to "Stop attacking our cyber space! Or else we will attack your cyber world!"

Some of the defaced websites bore the logo of a supposed Philippine offshoot of International hacktivist group Anonymous.

An 'Indonesian female hacker'?

However, as of 4:00 p.m., some of the defaced sites in the list did not appear to be the work of Philippine-based hackers. At least two sites bore a message indicating that the defacement was the work of an "Indonesian female hacker."

Bloody dispute

The territorial issue over Sabah gained national attention anew after the three-week standoff in Sabah last month by followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III.

The standoff resulted in a bloody shootout between the Filipinos and Malaysian security forces last friday.

Malaysia has adopted an all-out stance against the Filipinos, even as President Benigno Aquino III called on Kiram's followers in Sabah to surrender without conditions.

But Kiram's followers rejected the call, saying they chose "honor over life."-GMA News (March 03, 2013 4:05PM)