Thursday, March 28, 2013

Myanmar's president: 'Instigators' escalated private dispute into violence

A partially-destroyed mosque in Gyobingauk, Bago division on March 28, 2013.
A state of emergency in Myanmar was put in place to stop "attempts by a small number of people to spread ... violence to other parts of the country," President Thein Sein said Thursday.

In his first speech since making the emergency declaration last week in response to clashes between Buddhists and Muslims, he accused "instigators" of escalating a private dispute into sectarian violence that killed at least 40 people last week.
"We did not resort to the use of force immediately mainly because we do not want any possible endangerment of our ongoing democratic transition and reform efforts," the president said. "That said, I am firmly committed to use the power vested in me by the constitution to deploy our security forces and to use existing laws to prevent and protect the life, liberty and security of my fellow citizens."

READ: Tensions persist between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar

READ: Myanmar police fire rubber bullets at rioters

-Channel News Asia (March 28, 2013)

Thailand begins peace talks with southern rebel group

Thailand is holding peace talks with Muslim insurgents aimed at curbing violence in the south.

Government officials are meeting representatives of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebel group in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.

The talks follow a deal reached in February with the group, which is one of several operating in the area.

More than 5,000 people have been killed since a separatist insurgency reignited in the Muslim-majority region in 2004.

The Muslim militants, who are fighting for greater autonomy from Buddhist-majority Thailand, carry out almost daily gun and bomb attacks against civilians and security forces across three southern provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.

Hours before the talks, police said suspected militants killed three soldiers in a road-side bomb attack in Narathiwat.

Sizing up

"Today's main focus is to reduce violence. Today we will focus on building mutual trust and good relations," Thai National Security Council head Paradorn Pattanatabut said in Kuala Lumpur.

"I am confident that they will communicate our message to their militants but because BRN is a large organisation we have to give them some time."

On Wednesday he told AFP news agency that negotiators would seek a halt to attacks on civilians as proof that rebel leaders had influence on the ground.

But it is not clear how much influence the BRN has or the extent to which it speaks for other groups involved in the insurgency.

The insurgents are being represented by Hassan Taib, a veteran campaigner for autonomy, whose authority over the armed militants who carry out the attacks is questionable, reports the BBC's South East Asia correspondent Jonathan Head.

He has asked Thailand to withdraw troops from the south, to give an amnesty for insurgents and to declare the area a special administrative zone.

The Thai side, which does not yet include representatives from the army, has said it will not discuss any of these demands yet, our correspondent adds.

Instead, in these first talks the two sides will be sizing each other up, to assess whether either is really able to deliver the concessions needed to end the conflict.-British Broadcasting Coporation (March 28, 2013)

US sends nuclear-capable B-2 bombers to SKorea

U.S. Air Force B-2 stealth bomber, left, flies over near Osan U.S. Air Base in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, March 28, 2013. A day after shutting down a key military hotline, Pyongyang instead used indirect communications with Seoul to allow South Koreans to cross the heavily armed border and work at a factory complex that is the last major symbol of inter-Korean cooperation. (AP Photo/Lee Jung-hun, Yonhap) KOREA OUT
The U.S military says two nuclear-capable B-2 bombers have completed a training mission in South Korea amid threats from North Korea that include nuclear strikes on Washington and Seoul.

The statement Thursday by U.S. Forces Korea is an unusual confirmation. It follows an earlier U.S. announcement that nuclear-capable B-52 bombers participated in ongoing U.S.-South Korean military drills.

The U.S. says the B-2 stealth bombers flew from a U.S. air base and dropped munitions on a South Korean island range before returning home.

The announcement will likely draw a strong response from Pyongyang. North Korea sees the military drills as part of a U.S. plot to invade and becomes particularly upset about U.S. nuclear activities in the region.

Washington and Seoul say they the annual drills are routine and defensive.-Yahoo News (March 28, 2013)

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Fitch ratings upgrades Philippines to investment grade

Fitch Ratings today declared the Philippines “Investment Grade,” the first-ever such rating achieved by the country from a major western credit rating agency. 

In a statement, the credit rating agency upgraded the Philippine sovereign’s long-term foreign currency rating to ‘BBB–’ from ‘BB+’, and its long-term local currency to ‘BBB’ from ‘BBB–’, with a ‘stable’ outlook on both ratings. 

Reacting to the announcement, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) Governor Amando M. Tetangco, Jr. in a statement thanked Fitch Ratings for the credit rating upgrade. The Governor said “the upgrade is a landmark achievement for the Philippines and is a recognition of the gains from the structural economic, financial and good governance reforms that have been implemented in the past several years.“ 

Fitch credited various factors as key drivers of the upgrade, foremost of which are the strong external balance sheet, a persistent current account surplus underpinned by remittance inflows, and the overall resilience of the Philippine economy. The agency also cited as additional factors improvements in fiscal management, and the favorable macroeconomic outturns, supported by a strong monetary policy framework under the BSP. 

Finance Secretary Cesar V. Purisima lauded Fitch’s decision which has successfully reversed a decade of decline in the Philippines’ credit ratings. 

“President Aquino’s tuwid na daan has led us to investment grade rating, another historic first under the President’s stewardship.” 
Secretary Purisima expects the investment grade rating to open up more sources of financing for Philippine businesses, lower the cost of borrowing, and encourage more investments in the country. This in turn will lead to more jobs and greater incomes for Filipinos. 

Governor Tetangco added “The upgrade to investment grade status should inspire the entire government bureaucracy and the Filipino people to capitalize on the opportunities that will arise from this positive credit rating action. We should continue to work together not only to achieve higher credit ratings but also to ensure that the gains from these benefit most of our people. From our end at the BSP, we remain committed to our mandate of maintaining a stable inflation environment supportive of economic growth, and on enhancing governance standards of financial institutions in line with the national priority of good governance,” Governor Tetangco said. 

Secretary Purisima further said “The Philippine Government remains determined to pursue tuwid na daan and to ensure that these reforms are irreversible. This is the only way we can maintain inclusive economic growth over the long-term and achieve our developmental goals.” 

Meanwhile, Claro Fernandez, Executive Director of the BSP’s Investor Relations Office (IRO) pointed out that “the straight upgrade to “BBB-“ is a testament that we have restored the confidence and trust of the market in the viability of doing business in the Philippines. Through good economic governance, which is the core of the Aquino Administration’s philosophy, we aim to sustain this momentum and continuously improve our credit profile.” 

Fitch Ratings is the first of the three major western credit rating agencies to upgrade the Philippines to investment grade status. Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s currently rate the country just a notch below investment grade. 

The Philippine government acknowledges the support of its credit ratings advisors, Standard Chartered Bank, in particular Philippe Sachs (Global Head of Public Sector), Scott Wong (Director, Sovereign and Supranationals Debt Capital Markets) and Tom Lu (Associate, Sovereign & Supranationals Debt Capital Markets).-Philippine Information Agency (March 27, 2013)

China 'fired flares' at Vietnam boat in South China Sea

China says it fired flares, not weapons, at a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea last week.

The defence ministry said the flares were fired after four boats near the disputed Paracel islands did not heed warnings to leave, Xinhua reports.

Vietnam on Monday said a Chinese boat had set one of its fishing boats alight after firing on it.

Both nations claim the Paracel islands, which China has controlled since a short war with South Vietnam in 1974.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman had said on Tuesday that action was taken, but did not elaborate.

A subsequent Xinhua news agency report - carried on the defence ministry website - quoted an unidentified Chinese navy official as calling the firing allegations "sheer fabrication".

"After the dissuasion by means of whistle-blowing, shouting and hand-flag guiding was of no avail, the Chinese naval vessels fired two red signal shells into the sky as a warning, and the signal shells burned out and extinguished in the air," Xinhua quoted the official as saying.

"There is no such things that Chinese vessels fired with weapons or the Vietnamese fishing boats caught fire."

China says the Vietnamese boats were illegally fishing in what it says is its territory when the incident occurred on 20 March.

Vietnam has lodged a formal complaint with the Chinese embassy in Hanoi, with its foreign ministry calling the incident "very serious".

'Patrol missions'

Meanwhile Chinese state media also reported that the country's navy has visited the southern-most shoal it claims in the South China Sea.

Four ships reached James Shoal - located south of the Spratly islands around 80km (50 miles) from Malaysia's Sarawak - as part of what Xinhua said was a "patrol mission" in the disputed Spratly islands.

The Chinese navy "are determined to safeguard the country's sovereignty with their services on the South China Sea", said Xinhua.

The ships, which left Hainan province on 19 March, "conducted patrol and training missions" over eight days, it added.

In recent years tensions over over-lapping territorial claims in the South China Sea have been rising, amid a more assertive stance from China.

China claims a U-shaped swathe of the sea that extends well into what UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) recognises as the 200-mile-from-shore Exclusive Economic Zones of other claimants.

Last year, the Philippines and China engaged in a lengthy stand-off over another disputed area, the Scarborough shoal, in a spat that left diplomatic ties very strained.-British Broadcasting Corporation (March 27, 2013)

Indonesia to offer shale gas blocks to contractors

Indonesia, currently a net importer of both crude oil and its refined products, will start offering shale gas blocks this year in a bid to unearth the potential of unconventional gas in Southeast Asia’s largest economy.

The Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry’s director general for oil and gas affairs, Edy Hermantoro, told The Jakarta Post on Tuesday that the government would start offering around four working contracts to develop shale gas this year.

State-owned oil and gas firm PT Pertamina, he said, would become the first firm to start the project in its working area in North Sumatra. Pertamina’s contract will be signed in May this year.

Indonesia was also expecting foreign firms from countries such as Australia and Canada to obtain around four contracts this year, he said.

Potential investors are currently conducting joint studies before they tap into the tender process to win contracts on working areas around the northern and central parts of Sumatra.

Shale gas is a natural gas produced from shale rocks and other geological formations by injecting water and chemicals into the rocks through a technique known as hydraulic fracturing. 

Last year, the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry announced that Indonesia had estimated shale gas resources of around 574 trillion cubic feet (tcf) throughout Sumatra, Kalimantan, Papua and Java

Sumatra supposedly had the largest shale gas reserves of around 233 tcf, particularly in the central region, where approximately 86.9 tcf of shale gas resources could be found, according to the ministry’s geological bureau.

Kalimantan had an estimated 194 tcf of shale gas reserves, the ministry said, followed by Papua Island (90 tcf) and Java Island (48 tcf), while the remaining 9 tcf was spread across other parts of the archipelago.

Shale gas is becoming an important source of natural gas, particularly in the United States and Australia, where stories on the shale gas boom dominated news headlines last year.

The shale gas boom in the US is expected to make the country one of the world’s largest gas exporters, although the country currently restricts shale gas exports due to domestic needs.

Indonesia, the third-largest exporter of conventional liquefied natural gas (LNG) behind Qatar and Malaysia, is keeping an eye on unconventional gas such as shale gas and coal bed methane (CBM).

Most of the LNG produced in Indonesia has been exported mainly to countries such as Japan in long-term contracts despite the needs of the nation’s industry sector as well as state utility firm PT PLN.

Recently, Rudi Rubiandini, head of the country’s upstream oil and gas regulatory special task force, SKKMigas, said Indonesia would likely start importing LNG in 2018 to meet the swelling domestic demand.

Rudi, who is also a former deputy energy minister, said that Indonesia’s natural gas production was also unlikely to increase in the near future amid aging hydrocarbon fields.

Deputy Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Susilo Siswoutomo said the government would likely use shale gas to fulfill domestic needs with Sumatra as the pilot project before expanding to other parts of the country.

US-based giant Chevron, which is currently eyeing shale gas potential in Australia and US-based ConocoPhillips, according to Susilo, have expressed its interest to develop shale gas potential in Indonesia.

ChevroFn Pacific Indonesia’s vice president for government policy and public affairs Yanto Sianipar, said the company was open to the possibility of developing shale gas in the country.

“The era of easy oil has passed and the future of energy will look very different. Chevron believes that expanded investment and production is needed across all energy resources to support Indonesia’s economic growth,” he said.-Asia News Network (March 27, 2013)

Aung San Suu Kyi attends Burma's Armed Forces Day

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in yellow, talks with Deputy Border Affairs Minister Maj. Gen. Zaw Win, left, during Myanmar's 68th anniversary celebrations of Armed Forces Day, in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, Wednesday, March 27, 2013.
Burma has marked its Armed Forces Day with a military parade, with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in attendance for the first time.

Ms Suu Kyi's presence is seen as a sign of improving ties with the military since her release from house arrest.

Addressing the gathering, army chief General Min Aung Hlaing told troops the military would maintain a role in national politics.

The event comes ongoing communal violence in central Burma.

Armed Forces Day marks the 68th anniversary of Burma's uprising against Japanese rule.

Over 6,000 troops were in attendance, as military jeeps and tanks took part in the parade in Burma's capital, Nay Pyi Taw.

Aung San Suu Kyi's attendance is a striking symbol of the reconciliation between her and the institution that locked her and so many of her supporters up for many years, the BBC's South East Asia correspondent Jonathan Head reports.

In the past she was a strident critic of the military's grip on Burma. Today she is making conspicuous efforts to build good relations with the armed forces, which still hold an automatic quarter of the seats in parliament, our correspondent adds.

'Leading role'

Elections in November 2010 replaced decades of military rule with a military-backed civilian government, which has since initiated a series of reforms.

Ms Suu Kyi was freed from years of house arrest in late 2010. Her NLD party, which boycotted the polls, now has a small presence in parliament after rejoining the political fold and contesting subsequent by-elections, which resulted in a landslide win.

But the military-backed party has a much larger presence in Burma's new chamber.

"While the country is moving toward modern democracy, our military plays a leading role in national politics," General Min Aung Hlaing said at the parade.

"We will keep on marching to strengthen the democratic path wished by the people."

The army chief also addressed the anti-Muslim clashes in central Burma that have led to 40 reported deaths and made an estimated 12,000 Muslims homeless.

"Our independence came from all Burmese people, including every ethnic minority - therefore we have to protect it," he said.

"The conflict that is going on now, the army never wants that to happen again."

The violence broke out after a reported argument at a gold shop in Meiktila in Mandalay region last week which sparked clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in the town.

Mosques and other buildings were razed, and a state of emergency has been imposed in Meiktila.

Overnight curfews have also been imposed on three other Burmese towns as the clashes have spread closer to Rangoon.

The conflict is the worst since violence in Rakhine state last year, where nearly 200 people were killed and tens of thousands forced from their homes.

The communal conflict that erupted in the western state involved Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, who are not recognised as Burmese citizens. Scores of Rohingyas have fled what they say is persecution in Burma in recent months.-British Broadcasting Corporation (March 27, 2013)

North Korea cuts military hotline with South

North Korea says it is cutting a military hotline with South Korea, amid high tension on the peninsula.

The hotline is used to facilitate the travel of South Korean workers to a joint industrial complex in Kaesong.

Pyongyang has been angered by fresh UN sanctions following its 12 February nuclear test and US-South Korea military drills.

In recent weeks its habitually fiery rhetoric has escalated, with multiple warnings issued.

On Tuesday, it said it had ordered artillery and rocket units into "combat posture" to prepare to target US bases in Hawaii, Guam and the US mainland.

It has also threatened a "pre-emptive" nuclear strike against the US in recent days and told the South it has scrapped the Korean War armistice agreement.

US Pentagon spokesman George Little said on Tuesday that North Korea's threats "followed a pattern designed to raise tensions" and that North Korea would "achieve nothing by these threats".

'No need'

North Korea has already cut both a Red Cross hotline and another used to communicate with the UN Command at Panmunjom in the Demilitarised Zone that divides the two Koreas.

The military hotline is used by the two sides to communicate over travel to the Kaesong joint industrial zone, inside North Korea.

"Under the situation where a war may break out any moment, there is no need to keep up North-South military communications," a senior North Korean military official was quoted by KCNA news agency as telling the South before the line was severed.

An inter-Korean air-traffic hotline also exists between the two sides.

The move came as South Korean President Park Geun-hye set out policies towards the North "designed to establish peace and a foundation for reunification by building and restoring trust".

"Without rushing and in the same way that we would lay one brick after another, based on trust, (we) will have to develop South-North relations step by step and create sustainable peace," Yonhap news agency quoted her as saying.

She has spoken in the past of a desire for more dialogue with North Korea but current tensions are obstructing movements to improve ties.

In a statement on Wednesday carried by KCNA, North Korea told Ms Park that a "wrong word" from her could entail "horrible disaster at a time when the North-South relations are being pushed to the lowest ebb".

Late on Tuesday, North Korean state-run media also reported that its top political bureau would soon hold a rare meeting to discuss "an important issue for victoriously advancing the Korean revolution". It did not specify the issue, or the date of the meeting.

Overnight, meanwhile, South Korea briefly placed a border military unit on its highest alert, in an indication of the heightened tensions.

The alert happened early on Wednesday after a South Korean soldier discovered a "strange object" at the border, military officials said. The alert prepares troops for a possible incursion from North Korea.

The soldier, who was at a military post in Hwacheon, in South Korea's north-eastern Gangwon province, threw a grenade at the object at around 02:30 local time (17:30 GMT), officials said. The alert was lifted at 09:20 local time.-British Broadcasting Corporation (March 27, 2013)

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

U.S. warns citizens in Myanmar amid deadly sectarian unrest

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U.S. authorities have issued a warning to U.S. citizens in Myanmar amid unrest between Buddhists and Muslims that has left at least 40 people dead in the past week.

The violence that began last week in the city of Meiktila, in the central Mandalay region, has spread to other towns and fueled fears in the commercial capital, Yangon, that prompted stores to close in a popular shopping district Monday.

The U.S. Embassy has responded to the violence and unease by warning U.S. citizens to avoid the Mingalar Market and Yuzana Plaza part of Yangon, the same area where the stores were shuttered Monday.

"A fight broke out in that area today as a result of ongoing tensions, resulting in a heavy police presence," the embassy said in a statement Monday. It said, though, that there were "no known specific threats against U.S. citizens."

Authorities clearing up the wreckage from last week's riots in Meiktila have found eight bodies among the debris, increasing the number of dead from the previous total of 32, the New Light of Myanmar, a state-run newspaper, reported in its Tuesday edition.

During the clashes in Meiktila, which were reportedly set off by a dispute between a Muslim gold shop owner and two Buddhist sellers, rioters set fire to houses, schools and mosques, prompting thousands of residents to flee their homes.

A state of emergency

The government declared a state of emergency in the city Friday, allowing the military to help reinstate order. But as the situation there appeared to calm, authorities reported arson attacks by groups of Buddhists in other towns in the region over the weekend.

The unrest highlights the fragility of ethnic relations in Myanmar as it emerges from decades of military repression. Authorities have released thousands of political prisoners and pursued peace talks with rebel groups in the past two years.
President Thein Sein, who has overseen the country's initial moves toward democracy, vowed Monday "to take action against those who led the violence and got involved in it and to expose those who flamed the conflict under the pretext of religion," the New Light of Myanmar reported.

Thousands displaced

The U.N. humanitarian agency said Monday that the Myanmar government estimates that more than 12,000 people have been displaced by the unrest.

"They're barricaded in schools and in a monastery," said Ashok Nigam, the U.N. resident coordinator in Myanmar. "They're currently receiving humanitarian assistance provided by the government."

A Buddhist monk was reported to be among those killed when the violence initially erupted in Meiktila last week. But Win Htein, an opposition lawmaker for the area, has said that he believes the majority of the victims were Muslims.

"Most of the Muslims' houses were destroyed and burnt down," he said Tuesday. "Very few are left."

Police confiscated weapons such as swords and machetes from groups of Buddhists -- some of them monks -- who were roaming the streets last week, officials said.

Win Htein said Tuesday that the situation was improving in Meiktila, but that he was concerned that some young Buddhists were "organizing their own security" despite government warnings not to carry weapons.

Meanwhile, unsubstantiated rumors of unrest in other parts of the country such as Yangon are spreading via text messages and social media, stoking fears among residents.

In one example, Si Thu, a Buddhist employee of the United Nations who lives in a mainly Muslim neighborhood of Yangon, said Tuesday he was moving his family to stay at a relative's home elsewhere in the city.

"I can't think of any political or religious aspects now," he said. "I only know about how to protect my family."
The New Light of Myanmar suggested that such rumors are being "circulated by those with ill will who want to harm peace and stability."

Concerns after previous unrest

The clashes in Meiktila and elsewhere have drawn expressions of concern from U.N. and U.S. officials.

The sudden boiling over of tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in central Myanmar follows sectarian troubles that killed scores of people in the west of the country last year.

Those clashes, in Rakhine state, took place between the Buddhist majority and the Rohingya, a stateless ethnic Muslim group.
Most of the victims in that unrest were Rohingya. Tens of thousands more were left living in makeshift camps, and many of them have since joined those who attempt each year to flee to Thailand and Malaysia in flimsy boats.-Cable News Network (March 26, 2013)

Lao trade services to be modernised

The Lao government plans to set up an electronic system that will enable businesspeople to obtain a business and trade licence online.

Deputy Minister of Industry and Commerce, Khemmani Pholsena, yesterday presided over a meeting to consider and adopt a roadmap to simplify and harmonise trade services in Laos, as part of efforts to facilitate trade and improve the business and investment climate.

Speaking at the opening of the meeting, Khemmani said such a system would enable businesspeople to obtain import and export permission easier via the Internet, which would significantly improve the business and investment climate in Laos.

At present, people who need to import and export vehicles, rice, cement and steel must request permission from the authorities. They then have to see trade officials before they can obtain a business licence.

The new system will make the business licence and import and export approval process transparent and ensure the effective collection and supply of trade data. This information is essential for policymakers to develop appropriate business policies and to help businesspeople make sound plans.

Some business operators complain that it is not easy to obtain a business licence and to get import and export permission. They say they have to give officials a financial incentive so they can get their paperwork processed faster. Businesspeople said corruption is one of the main barriers to doing business in Laos.

They urged the sectors concerned to address the problem before the Asean Economic Community comes into being at the end of 2015, otherwise Laos will be at disadvantage when competing with other countries in the region.

Khemmani said the government views the improvement of trade services as a top priority, adding that Laos has approved a trade facilitation strategy for the period 2011 to 2015. The strategy requires the use of information technology systems to address trade barriers.

The improvement of import and export procedures is also a requirement of the World Trade Organisation. Laos became a member of the global trading body in February this year.

The government considers exports to be a driving force of economic growth, as domestic consumption is very limited. The government is encouraging foreign investment in agriculture so that Laos can produce food for export to world markets.

The government is also considering engaging the private sector as the main engine of economic growth so it is working to improve the business climate, aiming to stimulate investment and create jobs so that more Lao people can rise above poverty.-Asia News Network (March 26, 2013)

Cambodia shuts Australian-run orphanage over abuse allegations

There are an estimated 10,000 orphans in Cambodia, one of Asia's poorest countries.
An Australian-run orphanage in Cambodia suspected of beating and neglecting the children in its care has been shut down by local authorities.

The Love in Action orphanage in Phnom Penh was raided on Friday by local officials and staff from Australian anti-trafficking group South East Asia Investigations into Social and Humanitarian Activities (SISHA), SISHA said.

A government spokesman confirmed to CNN that the orphanage "did not meet requirements" and was under investigation by the country's courts but gave no further details.

Twenty one children, including babies, were rescued but seven remain unaccounted for and the orphanage is now under investigation for human trafficking, child abuse, neglect and running an unregistered institution.

According to its website, the Christian orphanage was run by Ruth Golder, an Australian woman, and received most of its funding from donations.

A statement from SISHA said the woman has admitted to police that her orphanage was not registered and she had no legal authority to care for the children.

Her current whereabouts are not known but a spokesperson for SISHA said she had not been arrested or charged in the case.
The raid came after two groups of children recently fled from the orphanage and reported that they were beaten and neglected.

An official inspection found that "some children were visibly ill and not taken to a doctor, the facility was dirty, sewage was blocked and the living quarters were overcrowded," the statement from SISHA said. In interviews, children said they had been physically abused by staff at the orphanage.

"This marks the first time the Cambodian criminal justice and social services mechanisms have used due process to close an institution on short notice," the statement added.

Steve Morrish, managing director of SISHA, said that many orphanages in Cambodia were unregulated and had a financial incentive to increase the number of children they look after as it means they receive more funding from international donors.

"They call themselves orphanages but in many cases the children are not orphans. They have one or both parents, who are just very poor."

Recruiters are known to approach poor and rural families, saying they can offer their children education, food, clothing and a chance for a better life, he said.-Cable News Network (March 26, 2013)

North Korea threatens Guam, U.S.

AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones
North Korea put its artillery and "strategic" rocket units on combat ready status Tuesday, March 26, with orders to prepare for strikes against the US mainland, Hawaii and Guam, state media reported.

A statement from the Korean People's Army supreme command ordered "all artillery troops including strategic rocket units and long-range artillery units to be placed under class-A combat readiness".

The units should be prepared to attack "all US military bases in the Asia-Pacific region, including the US mainland, Hawaii and Guam", as well as South Korea, said the statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency.

Despite its successful long-range rocket launch in December, most experts believe North Korea is years from developing a genuine inter-continental ballistic missile that could strike the continental United States.

Hawaii and Guam would also be outside the range of its medium-range missiles, which would be capable, however, of striking US military bases in South Korea and Japan.

The supreme command announcement came days after the South Korean and US militaries signed a new pact, providing for a joint military response to even low-level provocative action by North Korea.

While existing agreements provide for US engagement in the event of a full-scale conflict, the new protocol addresses the response to a limited provocation such as an isolated incident of cross-border shelling.

It guarantees US support for any South Korean retaliation and allows Seoul to request any additional US military force it deems necessary.

North Korea shelled a South Korean border island in November 2010, killing four people.-Rappler (March 26, 2013)

Vietnam accuses China over South China Sea clash

Vietnam has accused a Chinese vessel of firing on one of its fishing boats in disputed waters in the South China Sea, setting it alight.

The foreign ministry said the "very serious incident" took place on 20 March near the Paracel islands.

Its statement did not specify what kind of Chinese vessel was involved.

Vietnam and China both claim the Paracel islands, which have been controlled by China since a short war with South Vietnam in 1974.

"Vietnam strongly protests, urging China to investigate and seriously deal with the wrongful and inhumane act, and compensate Vietnamese fishermen for their loss," foreign ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi said.

A formal complaint had been lodged with the Chinese embassy in Hanoi, the statement released late on Monday said.

The news of the incident adds to already tense anti-China sentiment in Vietnam, reports the BBC's Nga Pham in Hanoi, but was not met with surprise.

Earlier this month, two Vietnamese fishing boats were chased out of disputed waters by Chinese marine surveillance ships, local reports said. Vietnamese officials have also reported increased patrolling by China in recent months.

But the use of firearms, if confirmed, points to a more forceful approach from Beijing in protecting what it calls China's sovereign waters, our correspondent says.

There has so far been no comment from Beijing on the issue.

Philippine spat
In recent years tensions over territorial claims have been rising in the South China Sea, amid a more assertive stance from China.

China claims a U-shaped swathe of the sea that extends well into what UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) recognises as the 200-mile-from-shore Exclusive Economic Zones of other claimants.

As well as Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan have overlapping claims with China.

Last year, the Philippines and China engaged in a lengthy stand-off over another disputed area, the Scarborough shoal, in a spat that left diplomatic ties very strained.

Both the Philippines and Vietnam have sought to raise the issue through the Asean regional bloc, but claim Chinese pressure has forced the topic off the agenda.-British Broadcasting Corporation (March 26, 2013)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Philippines, Thailand to discuss tobacco row in Bangkok--DFA

Philippine and Thai trade officials will meet in Bangkok to resolve the remaining issues in their cigarette tax dispute, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said.

Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for international economic relations Laura Q. Del Rosario said the Philippines’ permanent mission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) asked its Thai counterpart to schedule a meeting in Bangkok to discuss the remaining concerns on the tobacco case.

“The request came from Ambassador [Esteban B.] Conejos,” Del Rosario said, noting that the Philippines wants Thailand to fully comply with the WTO ruling, hence it was Manila that requested for the meeting.

In a March 14 status report, the Thai WTO mission said “Thailand is currently in the process of scheduling additional informal consultations requested by the Philippines with several Thai government agencies.”

Thai officials told their Philippine counterparts that the meeting may be held next month, Del Rosario said.

A meeting between the two country's trade officials next month, however, may not push through as Trade Undersecretary Adrian S. Cristobal Jr., who is handling the WTO dispute, is on sick leave until April, several government sources said.

In 2011, Thailand lost the tobacco case lodged by the Philippines before the WTO in behalf of the Philippine unit of cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris. Manila had alleged that Bangkok slapped discriminatory taxes on cigarettes imported from the Philippines.

Thailand has yet to fully comply with the WTO ruling even as the reasonable period of time to comply lapsed last year.

The Philippines had been telling Thailand that Manila may hale back Bangkok into arbitration, but Del Rosario said bilateral discussions will be exhausted first. “Arbitration can be complicated. It can also be costly,” she said.

To comply with the WTO ruling, Thailand last year adopted a royal decree abolishing the value-added tax (VAT) exemption enjoyed by resellers of locally-made cigarettes, making them at par with imports, which were not VAT-exempt.

But a few stumbling blocks remain in the way of Thailand’s full compliance with the WTO decision. For one, the November ruling of the Thai Customs’ Board of Appeals (BOA) on certain customs valuation entries of imported tobacco from 2002 to 2003 is inconsistent with WTO rules, the Philippine mission had said.

“Thailand’s reference to additional guidance from its Revenue Department concerning amended VAT rules also raises questions of WTO-consistency,” the Philippine WTO mission said in January.

The Philippine-Thai tobacco row is on the agenda of WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) meeting on March 26.-Interaksyon (March 25, 2013)

Indonesian Chamber of Commerce is calling for a new approach to sustainable growth

Indonesia’s costly fuel subsidies are suicidal and leading the country toward its own fiscal cliff, says Suryo Bambang Sulisto, chairman of the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. To avoid such a catastrophe, he suggests eliminating the subsidies and reallocating the money to spur regional economic growth. 

Indonesia’s business community has been enjoying robust expansion over the past five years on the back of strong commodity prices and rising consumer spending. Aided by record levels of foreign direct investment, the nation’s gross domestic product is tipped to exceed the $1 trillion mark this year. 

Strong corporate earnings have also driven the Jakarta Composite Index to new highs and the bourse could cross the 5,000 level for the first time in history. Indonesia, it seems, could not be better placed to continue on this upward growth trajectory. 

Not so, argues Suryo. The country, in fact, is facing its own fiscal cliff he said, because of the ballooning costs of fuel subsidies and lack of infrastructure spending. 

In an exclusive interview with the Jakarta Globe, Suryo outlined three major challenges facing the country, and the solutions, which he said can save the economy from implosion and position it for sustainable long-term growth. 

His fixes are not only practical but also readily implementable. One of Suryo’s key suggestions is the elimination of costly fuel subsidies and the reallocation of funds to help spur regional economic growth. Others include investing in new energy sources and establishing large industrial food production bases. 

“If we are able to do these things, they will create stability and lead to better usage of our national resources,” he said. “Kadin [the chamber of commerce] does not agree with raising domestic fuel prices but supports the elimination of the fuel subsidies.” 

A new way of thinking 

As global fuel prices continue to rise, the government will have to allocate as much as $30 billion for fuel subsidies this year. Not only will this restrict the state’s ability to invest in new infrastructure, the subsidies create a false economy. 

Every regional governor, afraid of running short of subsidized fuel, is requesting an increase in his or her quota. This creates shortages in the national stockpile, causing prices to rise. Furthermore, the cheap fuel creates a false sense of comfort for consumers and businesses. 

“My solution is to eliminate the fuel subsidies and reallocate the money for more productive use,” Suryo said. “If, for example, the central government allocates the $500 million it saves from each of the country’s 33 provinces, it will accelerate regional growth and spread prosperity to the more underdeveloped regions of the country.” 

That will amount to $16.5 billion, which means the government will have enough left over to invest and spend in other areas such as education, health care and energy. 

He suggests that the remaining $13.5 billion be used to set up a sovereign wealth fund, which can acquire oil refineries and other assets in Europe and elsewhere to bolster the local economy. 

“If the government allocated $5 billion to this fund, it can start shopping for refineries overseas while at the same time building refineries within the country,” Suryo said. “In Spain and Italy, they will welcome us with open arms if we offer them such deals.” 

The third part of his solution is to invest heavily in agriculture given Indonesia’s fertile soil. “We need to promote industrial farming as Brazil has done. We can also buy wheat farms in South America and cattle farms in Australia so saving the billions we currently spend on importing food.” 

Kadin, Suryo added, has set up a team of economists to explore and study these ideas. This way, the organization hopes to play a constructive role in offering workable solutions to the government, rather than just relying on the government to come up with fast fixes. 

The chamber has also proposed a program which would better train Indonesian workers seeking jobs overseas and increase their earning power. Currently, Suryo said, Indonesian workers earn 30 percent less than Filipinos because of their lack of English skills and technical expertise. 

“Our workers who seek jobs abroad are an important source of foreign exchange. We need to train them to speak English and other basic skills so they can earn higher wages for themselves,” he said. “This is one issue I would like to tackle during my term as Kadin chairman.” 

“If we can fix these four key issues, Indonesia can be a global economic power,” he said. “The question we need to ask is not what we have, because that is a long list, but what we do not have, and in one word, that is economic wisdom.”-The Jakarta Globe (March 25, 2013)

Malaysia to move Borneo villagers after siege

Malaysia's government announced plans Monday to relocate villagers in parts of Borneo vulnerable to intruders from the restive southern Philippines.

The plan underscores a surge in fears about public safety following an armed intrusion by a Philippine clan last month that has left at least 75 people dead in Malaysia's eastern Sabah state. It also highlights concerns that the intruders received help from some Filipinos who resettled in Sabah over the decades and became Malaysian citizens.

Prime Minister Najib Razak announced the plan as part of measures to bolster security that also include increasing military forces in Sabah.

Najib did not say how many people would be affected or when the relocation might occur. He said it would initially involve Sabah's eastern seaboard, which can be reached within an hour by boat from southern Philippine islands that have been wracked by a decades-long Muslim insurgency.

Sabah is home to more than 3 million people, about 800,000 of whom are Filipinos who came to Malaysia seeking jobs and stability. Border security has long been problematic, with illegal immigrants and criminal suspects repeatedly slipping past naval patrols and entering Sabah by sea.

The state suffered its worst security scare in decades when an estimated 200 armed Filipinos appeared at a remote coastal village in February and refused to leave, insisting that Sabah belonged to their royal clan. The territorial claim, rejected by Malaysia, triggered unprecedented gunbattles that killed eight Malaysian policemen, a soldier and scores of Filipino gunmen and their alleged sympathizers who provided them with shelter, food and information.

Some activists say decades-old flaws in Malaysia's immigration and security policies enabled the Filipinos to launch their siege with relative ease and elude security forces with the assistance of allies living in Sabah. The incursion has forced the government to take steps to convince the public that it is able to safeguard national sovereignty ahead of general elections that must be held before the end of June.

Dozens of the Filipino clansmen are believed to have fled back to the southern Philippines, but security forces are searching for some believed to be hiding on palm oil plantation land in Sabah.-The Philippine Star (March 25, 2013)

Japan to finance P467-B Philippines infra projects

The government of Japan will finance P466.52 billion worth of infrastructure projects in the Philippines.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and Japanese Ambassador to the Philippines, H.E. Toshinao Urabe, signed and exchanged notes on 4 projects on Monday, March 25.

Japan will help finance two yen loan projects -- a mass transit and an airport -- while the two grant aid projects are focused on mini-hydropower development in Northern Philippines. The projects are:

Capacity Enhancement of Mass Transit Systems in Metro Manila - P18.56 billion
New Bohol Airport Construction and Sustainable Environment Protection Project - P4.63 billion
Mini-Hydropower Development Project in the Province of Ifugao - P380.67 million
Mini-Hydropower Development Project in the Province of Isabela - P62.66 million
The Capacity Enhancement of Mass Transit Systems in Metro Manila includes the development of the Light Rail Transit (LRT) Line 1 South Extension and LRT Line 2 East Extension projects. The New Bohol Airport Project involves the construction of a new airport compliant with international standards in Panglao Island.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida earlier conveyed the Japanese government’s decision to extend yen loans for these projects during his visit in the Philippines last January 10. These projects will be implemented by the Department of Transportation and Communications.

The mini-hydropower development projects in the provinces of Ifugao and Isabela are part of the Department of Energy’s program to develop renewable energy resources for energy sustainability, stability and security. Hydropower is an attractive alternative source of electricity because of its minimal impact on the environment.

These official development assistance projects on infrastructure development form part of the economic pillar of the Philippines-Japan Strategic Partnership. Japan continues to be the country's top source of ODA loans.-Rappler (March 25, 2013)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Singapore's Tiger Airways looks to Philippines, Indonesia for future growth

Tiger Airways Holdings Ltd is looking at the Philippines and Indonesia for future growth despite stiff competition in these markets.

In a disclosure to the Singapore Stock Exchange, Joseph Yuvaraj Pillay, Tiger Airways chairman, said the Philippines' Southeast Asian Airlines (Seair) was a fledgling carrier of modest capability whereas Indonesia's Mandala was a resuscitated carrier that had seen two earlier incarnations.

"Reinvigorating those carriers in a competitive market is a daunting business. They have sustained losses, and we expect it will be some time before they are able to turn the corner," Pillay said.

"Indonesia and the Philippines are the largest two countries in Asean, where we believe our destiny lies. We have to expand beyond the shores of Singapore in order to safeguard the future of the Tiger Group," he added.

Tiger Airways' unit, Roar Aviation II Pte Ltd, earlier acquired a 40 percent stake in Seair for $7 million from the Philippine carrier's existing foreign shareholders.

Seair has a fleet of 2 A319s and 3 A320s, serving four international routes and one domestic route out of Clark, and seven domestic routes out of Manila

To grow its Philippine market, Tiger Airways had said it will leverage on its brand.

Seair earlier asked the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) for an endorsement to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), allowing the Philippine carrier to do business under the name and style of Tiger Airways.

Tiger Airways had announced plans to raise $297 million to finance its expansion in Asia including the Philippines.-Interaksyon (March 24, 2013)

Cambodia: Demining in the depths

In pitch-black waters, with only their hands to guide them, Cambodia’s salvage divers will soon start to recover thousands of tons of unexploded artillery shells and munitions that lie at the bottom of the country’s lakes and rivers.

Before they begin their perilous dives 100 feet below the water's surface, however, the divers must address first things first — learn to swim. On a recent weekday afternoon, 35 volunteer divers stood waist deep in a pool in the capital Phnom Penh, taking swimming lessons.

“There is no big tradition of recreational swimming in Cambodia, so we needed a course to teach 

them everything, from recreational swimming to snorkeling, scuba diving and then salvage diving,” said Allen Tan, a former US Army explosive ordnance disposal expert, who conducted the four-week-long training for US-based NGO Golden West Humanitarian Organization.

More than 20 years after the Khmer Rouge regime, under which 2 million Cambodians perished, and the following civil war left the country littered with mines and unexploded ordnance, it still remains one of the most heavily mined regions.

Tan estimates that a potential of 300 ships were sunk in Cambodia’s Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers in the 1960s and '70s, when the former regime received US supplies from South Vietnam before being toppled by the Khmer Rouge.

“These barges are filled with ordnance and are just sitting on the bottom of the river. It’s big security problem. If someone were to find them and take them out, no one will realize its missing — so it’s this big, unsecured stockpile,” Tan said.

Some of the American barges were filled with up to 1,000 tons of munitions, which, if recovered, could still be used today and sold by anyone hoping to make a profit.

“The ordnance could be used for illegal quarrying or dynamite fishing, or it could be transported through villages to sell it on the black market. It’s a regional security risk,” Tan said, adding that it could also be used for terrorism — part of the reason why the US office of Arms Removal and Abatement funded the project.

“Anything they are going to do with the ordnance — it is not good,” Tan said.

The training, which wrapped up recently, started with 35 volunteers from the Cambodian Mine Action Center, the country’s national demining unit.

For most of the volunteers, the incentives were the challenges of learning how to swim and dive, plus a pay rise for everyone who made it through the rigorous training.

Not much was required of the volunteers, besides good personal health, and the men who showed up for the first swimming classes ranged in age, shape and experience.

“Most of them had never put their faces under water,” Tan said, before the strict daily schedule began.

Former US Army explosive ordnance disposal specialists and divers trained the group in a boot camp style and the “correctional exercises” left students who didn’t follow instructions out of breath.

Medical conditions and a lack of strength and stamina forced some to give in, while others could not live up to what was expected academically.

But for 40-year-old deminer Tri Khun, one of the best in the class, this was not an option.

“Some things are very difficult, like the things we learn in the class rooms. But I actually enjoy the swimming, and I always wanted to know how to swim,” he said.

Only 20 could make it to the second phase of the training on the white sand beaches on the Gulf of Thailand, where the group learned snorkeling, scuba diving and, eventually, military diving.

“What I’m looking for in these guys is can they stay calm and can they be taught. This work can be extremely scary, especially because there will be zero visibility in the Mekong — everything’s done by touch,” said Robert Rice, a former US navy explosive ordnance disposal diver with more than 20 years experience and one of the lead instructors on the project.

By the third week of the course, the group of students — by this point cut back to 15 — was sitting on a double-decker boat a few miles off the coast of the southern Cambodian tourist destination Sihanoukville as they listened to instructions for their first military dive.

In the space of three weeks they had gone from novice swimmers to certified scuba divers.
Although the daily push-ups and the long swims in the Gulf of Thailand were strenuous, studying the laws of physics — knowledge needed for scuba diving — was the most difficult part, the soft-spoken Khun said.

"I am very old and my memory is not so good, so the lessons in the classroom were very difficult to understand and remember. I had to study really hard, sometimes even until 11 pm," he said.

For Gerard Leelan, director of Sihanoukville's Scuba Nation dive center and one of the program's diving instructors who usually teach American and European tourists, teaching this particular group came with its own set of challenges.

Conveying the notions of density, weightlessness and pressure are complex concepts that had to be understood.

"Usually I say that diving is like being an astronaut because of the weightlessness. I'm a big guy, but if I'm under the water, that doesn't matter," Leelan said as an example of one of his classes.

"But then I found out that they don't know what an astronaut is, so the translator had to explain what astronaut means first," he laughed.

With days starting at 6 a.m. and ending at 11 p.m., students and instructors were pushed to their limits. Sometimes, they even conducted exercises in the middle of the night.

"But these guys, they volunteered to do this, and if they want to do it then we have to support them," he said. "They are worth it."

Indeed, the ordnance buried in Cambodia's waterways is a security risk to fishermen and can also be a burden to authorities hoping to build bridges.

The many hours spent in pools in Phnom Penh and in classrooms tying knot after knot were a necessary preparation for what awaits the divers, Tan said.

"This evening we will put them into black-out masks for the first time, and their mission will be to find something under water," Tan said ahead of one of the last classes.

A few days later, Khun was among the 10 men who graduated from the program.

"I'm so happy that I can be part of this first generation of divers. I wasn't sure if I could make it through each step of the program, some things were very difficult," Khun said after the graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh.

He is now capable of submerging himself in the pitch-black waters of Cambodia's rivers to find bombs, grenades and other munitions, but is still waiting to receive further training from US Army salvage divers.

Their first task will be in shallow waters, where locals are more prone to look for ordnance.

"We will pick the low-hanging fruits first because we are trying to get there before the scrapers and the scrapers are trying to do the same, so it's like a chess game," Tan said.

With more experience, the divers could then also demine deep and fast flowing parts of the Mekong such as in Prey Veng province's Neak Loeung, where heavy contamination by unexploded ordnance is a problem and hinders development of irrigation systems and bridges.

"It will get more difficult, but I'm looking forward to this and I think we will be ready,” Khun said.

"I became a deminer to make this country safe, and now I want to clear the rivers too," he said.-Global Post (March 24, 2013)

Xi Jinping: Russia-China ties 'guarantee world peace'

Vladimir Putin (R) and Xi Jinping (L) attend the opening ceremony of "The Year of Chinese Tourism in Russia" in Moscow, on March 22
Xi Jinping has said China's friendship with Russia guarantees "strategic balance and peace" in the world, on the second day of his trip to Moscow.

Mr Xi, on his first official overseas trip as leader, has already met President Vladimir Putin.

He described the Russian leader as a "good friend".

On Friday, Russia's state-owned energy firm Rosneft agreed to triple oil supplies to China in return for a $2bn (£1.3bn) loan.

The two countries also agreed a preliminary deal for a gas pipeline to be built, although analysts say they are still a long way from agreeing terms.

Russia is one of the world's biggest energy producers, and China is the world's top energy consumer.

Bilateral trade reached a record $88bn last year, but the figure is still a fraction of China's trade with the EU and the US.

'Graceful' first lady

In recent years, the two nations have also been closely aligned on global political issues.

They have vetoed attempts by other members of the UN Security Council to authorise tougher action against Syria's government.

And they have been largely in agreement over North Korea's nuclear programme.

Mr Xi told students at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations that China would continue to oppose interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

"We must respect the right of each country in the world to independently choose its path of development," he said.

"Strong high-level Chinese-Russian ties not only meet our interests, but serve as an important, reliable guarantee of international strategic balance and peace."

During the Cold War the two countries, while both nominally Communist, were bitter rivals.

But both sides have been full of praise for each other during Mr Xi's visit.

"We can already say this is a historic visit with positive results," Mr Putin said.

Mr Xi was confirmed as China's president last week, concluding a lengthy transition process that saw him assume the Communist Party leadership in November 2012.

Commentators say he is much more charismatic than his predecessor, Hu Jintao.

On the first day of his trip to Russia, Mr Xi stepped off the plane with his wife, well-known singer Peng Liyuan.

Ms Peng's appearance was widely reported in China's state media, and caused an outpouring of debate on microblogs.

One message on the Sina Weibo website said: "China's quest for a graceful first lady is over."-British Broadcasting Corporation (March 24, 2013)