Saturday, June 29, 2013

US trains Philippines on how to use drones amid China fears

US troops trained their Philippine counterparts how to use surveillance drones Friday, as Manila seeks to boost military ties with Washington and counter what it perceives as a rising security threat from China.

The naval exercises are part of annual training operations between the two defense partners, but they have come under closer scrutiny this year due to simmering tensions between Manila and Beijing over rival claims to the South China Sea.

At a naval base around 13 kilometres (eight miles) southwest of the capital Manila, US Navy SEALs trained Filipino soldiers how to use small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, launching one from a boat out at sea after which it circled the base and landed in the water.

US maritime civil affairs officer Jeremy Eden said these were the smaller "Puma" drones used only for surveillance and not the more lethal, armed versions employed in Afghanistan.

"They (the Filipinos) are very interested and highly motivated to learn and if they acquire the systems, they will use them effectively," Eden said.

The drones would be useful for the poorly-equipped Philippine military which faces both internal insurgencies and potential external threats, said Lieutenant Jojit Fiscar, a senior coordinator of the naval exercises.

"This would be a very good instrument to use. This unmanned aerial vehicle can monitor the actual movement of the targets," he said.

The US and Philippine troops also practiced marksmanship and piloting small rubber boats which are frequently used by naval commandos.

Military officials from both sides stressed that the exercises had nothing to do with China's claim to the South China Sea.

But Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin reiterated Friday that the Philippines was looking to give the United States greater access to its military bases, saying this was needed to respond to China's threats.

"At this point in time, we cannot stand alone. We need allies. If we don't do this, we will be bullied by bigger powers and that is what is happening now: there is China, sitting on our territory," Gazmin said.

"What are we going to do? Wait till they get into our garage?"

On Thursday he said the Philippines wanted to give the United States and also Japan greater access to its military bases.

President Benigno Aquino's spokeswoman Abigail Valte said separately that any increased US presence would comply with the Philippine constitution.

She also said China should not object. "Whatever we do within our territory... is perfectly within our rights."

China claims nearly all of the strategically vital South China Sea, even waters close to the shores of its smaller neighbors.

Tensions between Beijing and other claimants to the sea, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, have escalated in recent years amid a series of Chinese political and military actions to assert its claims to the waters.-Interaksyon

Japan's military moves worry Beijing

Japan plans to deploy its self defense force (SDF) in remote areas and allow it to participate in military exercises with the US troops. 

A Japanese government white paper said SDF would work with US forces to recapture sovereign islands in a clear signal that it will protect the disputed Diaoyu Islands, which China claims to be its own. 

The announcement has alarmed Beijing. "The Japanese side has been advocating the 'China threat' and deliberately creating tensions in recent years," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chuying said in reference to the announcement. She said China is transparent in its military's strategic intent and poses no threat to any country. 

Japan has also offered help to Philippines in case it is unable to protect its islands, which China claims as well. - Times of India

ASEAN senior officials kick off meetings in Brunei

Southeast Asian senior officials on Friday started a series of meetings here to discuss a slew of issues and security challenges facing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as it transforms into a community by 2015.

Maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the fragile situation in the Korean Peninsula top the agenda during the series of meetings that will also be attended by ASEAN dialogue partners including the United States, Japan, China and South Korea.

The discussions are expected to focus on the roadmap for an ASEAN community, ASEAN's future direction and ASEAN's external relations, according to ASEAN officials.

In convening the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Commission, ASEAN foreign ministers are also expected to adopt a revised plan of action to strengthen the implementation of the treaty on the SEANWFZ. ASEAN has been trying to get France, Russia, Britain and the United States to sign the protocol to the treaty.

On Saturday, ASEAN foreign ministers will meet for dinner in preparation for their formal meeting on Sunday. Their counterparts from Japan, China and South Korea will also meet with them for the so-called ASEAN Plus Three meeting later Sunday.

The ASEAN foreign ministers are expected to issue a joint communique at the end of their meeting.

On Tuesday, the ministers will convene for the annual ASEAN Regional Forum Retreat, where they are expected to discuss the sources of tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, the officials said.

ARF, the Asia-Pacific region's premier multilateral security forum, will discuss how to manage regional sea disputes and how to convince North Korea to return to the six-party talks on its nuclear program. North Korea will be attending the ARF.

Brunei, the chair of this year's series of meetings, is expected to issue an ARF chairman's statement at the end of the ARF meet.

The ministers of the East Asia Summit will also meet on Tuesday next week, the last day of the meetings.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

The ARF comprises the 10 ASEAN members plus Australia, Canada, the European Union, New Zealand, the United States, Russia, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, Pakistan, North Korea, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Bangladesh, Japan, China and India.-Philippines News Agency

Friday, June 28, 2013

Japan willing to help Philippines defend territorial sea, remote islands

With Philippines and Japan being close neighbors, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera on Thursday expressed his government's willingness to cooperate in "defense of remote islands as well as the defense of territory or territorial sea."

Onodera made this statement during his courtesy call to Department of National Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin at the DND main building in Camp Emilio Aguinaldo, Quezon City Thursday.

The two-day visit, which started Thursday and will end Friday, is Onodera's first on the Philippines.

"We agreed that we will further cooperate in terms of defense of remote islands as well as the defense of territory, or territorial sea as well as protection of maritime interest and we also agreed that East China Sea and South China Sea, we both common are facing concerns and that the issues of those concerns should be solved based on the rules of law," Onodera said through his translators.

He added that as good neighbors, Japan and the Philippines, needs to further defense cooperation.

Onodera also said that during his talks with Gazmin, the Japanese Defense Minister expressed his country concerns over China's behavior in the South China Sea.

"I also said that Japan(ese) side is very concerned that this kind of situation in South China Sea (as it) could affect the situation in East China Sea," he added.

China's movement in the South China Sea has been aggressive for the past years and it is constantly feuding with other states with territories in said body of water.

This includes its claims over Panatag (Scarborough) and Ayungin Shoals which are well within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

While on the Japanese side, China has been aggressively claiming the Senkakus Islands which is under the jurisdiction of Japan.

"I heard Secretary Gazmin about various activities taken by the Philippine Armed Forces in this matter and I have told him that Japan, we will cooperate with the Philippine side in this matter and I also learned about the Philippine efforts for United Nations arbitration process (in the matter)," Onodera added.

"Japan is supporting this kind of efforts to resolve this problem," he stressed.

When queried for his side on the matter, Gazmin said that the Philippines is very happy with Japan's expression of support.

"We are very happy to note that the Japanese government is supportive of our peaceful resolution of the case through the arbitration and we have agreed to continue our exchanges of information, exchanges of technology to help each other come up with a, make the defense relations stronger," the DND chief added.

Despite this development, Onodera clarified that Japan is not aiming to keep in check as their stance is to keep their "territorial space, territorial air, and sea space well protected according to their activities."

"(But) this should done according to the rule of law and I would like to emphasize here that the current situation should not be changed with use of force but should be done through the rule of law and I think this the concept that is agreed upon in international communities these days," he concluded.-Philippines News Agency

War games tied to US pivot strategy in Asia

The joint naval exercises between the Philippines and the United States have nothing to do with the Philippines’ territorial dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), but these have to do with US President Barack Obama’s “pivot strategy” in Asia, a US Navy official said.

At the opening of the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (Carat) 2013 in this former American naval base on Thursday, US Navy Rear Adm. Thomas Carney said the exercises were “part of the rebalance that the US is looking to reinforce its relations, not only militarily but economically and politically with Asia.”

The exercises will run until July 2.

China said parties in the unresolved territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea should instead promote peace in the region, stopping short of calling the naval exercises provocative.

“We have seen the report and hope that relevant parties could do more to maintain regional peace and stability rather than the opposite,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said, referring to the US-Philippine naval exercises.
Asked about a report on supposed plans to put up another American military base in the Philippines, Carney said the idea was “highly speculative.”

“That’s certainly an issue for the Philippine government [to respond to]. I wouldn’t want to comment on that,” he said.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin denied the report, saying the Philippines had no plans to build new air and naval bases but would allow the United States and other allies access to its existing military bases.

Carney said the Carat was part of the “longstanding relationship and commitment we have with the Philippines.”

Combined operations

Rear Adm. Edgardo Tamayo, Philippine Navy vice commander, said the exercises would increase the level of “interoperability” between the Philippine Navy and the US Navy “in the conduct of combined naval operations.”
In a statement, the Philippine Navy said it would use the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, a Navy aircraft (Islander), the Special Boat Team, the diving team of the Naval Special Operations Group (Navsog) and the construction team from the Naval Engineers and the Philippine Marine Corps to test their readiness and capability.

The Philippine Coast Guard, meanwhile, will send the BRP Edsa, a helicopter, a diving team, and a search and seizure team.
The US Navy will use the guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald, USNS Safeguard and USNS Salvor.

The exercises will also include in-port and at-sea events, individual and unit training and engagement with the local community, among other activities.

Members of the US Marine Corps and other specialized personnel will also join the war games.

Impact on Panatag

Zambales Vice Gov. Ramon Lacbain II said that despite the statements of US and Philippine military officials, the Americans’ presence would have an impact on the Panatag Shoal dispute with China.

“This is a much-needed military exercise being undertaken by the Philippine and US military forces. I know that this exercise will definitely enhance the capability of our armed forces to protect our sovereignty, most especially on the part of Zambales where the disputed territory is located,” Lacbain said.

“We appreciate the show of support and the actual training being conducted by American forces for our Filipino soldiers,” he added.-Philippine Daily Inquirer

Myanmar awards lucrative mobile phone contracts

Roadside phone booth Burma, 26 June 2013

Myanmar has awarded lucrative mobile telecom licences to Norway's Telenor and the Qatari firm Ooredoo, a government committee in charge of bids has said.

The move opens up one of the world's last untapped mobile phone markets.

It is estimated that just 9% of Myanmar's 60 million people have mobile phones.

Eleven foreign companies were short-listed in their bid to supply telecommunications infrastructure in the country.

The winners overcame fierce competition from the likes of Singtel and Bharti Airtel, as well as a bid by the Digicel group involving one of Burma's richest men, Serge Pun, and the billionaire financier George Soros.

'Key role'

The successful firms will have to provide voice services across 75% of the country within five years and data services across half of it.

At the moment, few people in Myanmar can afford mobile phone handsets and call charges.

"We are looking forward to working with the government and people of Myanmar in developing the country's telecommunication industry, a sector that will play a key role in Myanmar's socioeconomic development," said Sigve Brekke, head of Telenor Asia.

Neither Telenor nor Ooredoo released figures on the value of their bids or how much money they will plough into establishing a mobile network across the country.

However, one bidder said it would cost more than £2bn to build an extensive mobile network in Burma, while Digicel said it was prepared to invest £6bn if it won.

Economic reforms

The government said it would finalise the 15-year licences by September and operators would need to launch services within nine months.

The process of opening up the mobile telecom sector is conditional on a telecommunications law that has yet to pass through Burma's parliament.

France's Telecom-Orange and Marubeni Corporation of Japan will be back-up options if either of the two successful firms fail to meet the selection criteria, the selection committee said.

Analysts said the licence-granting process was an indication of the progress of Burma's economic reform programme.

The country lags behind its neighbours in mobile coverage and wants to provide affordable services to help spur economic development.

Indonesia agrees to bring forward ASEAN haze meeting

Indonesia has agreed to bring forward the ASEAN trans-boundary haze pollution meeting from August to July.

The decision was made after talks between Indonesia's environment minister and his Malaysian counterpart in Jakarta.

Malaysia - supported by Singapore - had asked Jakarta to have the meeting earlier in Kuala Lumpur, after haze from forest fires in Sumatra blanketed the neighbours.

Brunei and Thailand, the two other ASEAN member states usually affected by the annual haze problem, will join the meeting - known officially as the Meeting of the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee on Transboundary Haze Pollution.

The five countries have met 14 times before to discuss collective action plans and strategies in tackling forest fires and haze.

Indonesia is also facing growing pressure to ratify the ASEAN Transboundary Haze Pollution Agreement established in 2002, following large-scale forest fires. It is the only ASEAN country that has yet to ratify the agreement.

Malaysia's Minister for Environment and Natural Resources, G Palanivel, said: "The haze treaty also has to be ratified. I spoke to the prime minister and he has given me a letter to be handed over to the Indonesian president.

"And I have handed over the letter to my counterpart, the environment minister, and he will be handing it over to the Indonesian president."

While the treaty will take time to be ratified by the Indonesian parliament, the immediate task is to put out the forest fires.

Both Malaysia and Singapore have offered to assist.

Mr Palanivel said: "We have ready assistance, including cloud seeding, our water-bombers, our fire fighters. So if Indonesia and Malaysia can cooperate, then we can control the haze situation quite rapidly."

Indonesia has said it can still manage the fire-fighting operations on its own as it can mobilise the private sector, if the need arises.

The head of Indonesia's Task Force, Agung Laksono, said operations in Riau would take up to a month. Mr Agung Laksono, who is also the Coordinating Minister for Welfare, was speaking to the media after chairing a coordinating meeting of the Task Force in Jakarta.

Jakarta has already deployed some 3,000 officers to Riau to fight the fires.

It is also verifying names of companies which allegedly torched their plantations to clear the land.

Earlier, the Environment Ministry had publicized names of companies, including those linked to Malaysia and Singapore. The companies, however, have denied the allegations.

Mr Palanivel said: "There are four Malaysian companies. They said they are zero-burning. They don't burn - zero burning. Sime Darby is one of them. KLK is another. Then we have two other companies - they all have denied it."

Indonesia's Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya said: "The number of companies still needs to be verified. There are numerous on the ground where the fire is taking place."

He added that the forestry ministry and the agriculture ministry have their own data. "And we have ours. At the moment, we are trying to verify the numbers, who they are, and are responsible before we eventually expose them," the environment minister said. -Channel News Asia

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Territorial disputes high on ASEAN agenda this week

The South China Sea issue will no doubt be on the table later this week when ministers from Southeast Asia and their allies meet in Brunei Darussalam, despite objections from Beijing.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to join the annual gathering, more proof that Washington is indeed pivoting its attention to the region, with a wary eye on China.

Kerry is likely to push for joint commitment to the principle of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a vital trade route for China, the US, India, Japan and Southeast Asia.

“The South China Sea dispute is no longer a conflict between China and Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations],” said Ralf Emmers, associate professor at Singapore’s Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“Because of the sea links across the South China Sea, there is now increased interest from other great powers, especially the US,” he told a recent seminar in Bangkok.

Asean has been trying to manage territorial disputes in the South China Sea for the past two decades, with decreasing success of late.

On May 9, for instance, Philippine Coast Guard personnel shot dead a Taiwanese fisherman in disputed waters.

“The tragic incident was not the first of its kind in the South China Sea nor, sadly, is it likely to be the last,” said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Tensions have arguably been on the rise in the area since 2009, when the Philippines enacted legislation claiming sovereignty over the disputed Huangyan Island, irking China.

In March of the same year, there was a standoff at sea between a US submarine doing surveillance in the area and five Chinese ships.

In June 2011 Vietnamese vessels chased Chinese fishing boats out of a disputed area.

In April last year China and the Philippines had another standoff when Chinese ships occupied a shoal claimed by Manila.

In January 22 this year the Philippines submitted the Sino-Manila South China Sea dispute for arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

China declared the Philippine submission was “factually flawed,” “contained false accusations” and violated the 2002 Asean-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), but Manila remained committed to the arbitration process.

Among the 10 members of Asean, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have territorial disputes with China in the area.

“So long as the actions of the principal actors continue to be motivated by nationalist rhetoric, an unwillingness to compromise sovereignty claims and competition over access to maritime resources, there is little prospect that this trend will be reversed any time soon,” Storey said.

The disputed area claims oil reserves of up to 30 billion tons and 20 trillion cubic metres of gas reserves, according to China’s Ministry of Land and Resources.

China has always insisted that the South China Sea disputes need to be handled bilaterally, and has so far refused to start negotiations with Asean on a Code of Conduct in the disputed zone, arguing that even the DOC signed in 2002 has yet to be respected.

China would not accept a Code of Conduct or the DOC as the definitive solution “no matter what they contain,” said Su Xiao-hui, deputy director of International and Strategic Studies at the Chinese Institute of International Studies.

“We believe the US plays a negative role in the South China Sea,” Su told a Bangkok seminar. “We have noticed the internationalization of the South China Sea issue ... we would like to stop this trend and to talk directly to the separate claimants.”

Given Beijing’s firm stance, no one expects a breakthrough on the South China Sea issue at the Brunei foreign ministers’ meeting.

More worrisome for Asean would be the possibility that the US and China might use the Brunei meeting for regional saber rattling.

“What the Asean countries want to avoid by all means is to have to choose between China and the US,” Emmers said. “That is their ultimate nightmare.”

“The more competition you see flaring up in the South China Sea, the more the Asean countries may be forced to choose between China and the US, and ultimately that would reduce Asean’s unity, centrality and neutrality.”-Business Mirror

Vietnamese President Sang to visit Indonesia to upgrade ties

Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang will arrive in Jakarta on Thursday for a two-day state visit to further cement strategic partnership between the two countries, a Vietnamese envoy has said.

“It will be our President’s first visit to Indonesia. It will be a historic visit and the main purpose of the visit will be to upgrade existing relations,” Vietnamese Ambassador to Indonesia Nguyen Xuan Thuy said at a press conference in Jakarta on Monday.

During his two-day trip, President Sang, who assumed his post in July 2011, will hold discussions with Yudhoyono on Thursday on a wide range of issues that will cover the entire gamut of bilateral ties as well as regional and global issues.

“During the visit, the leaders of both countries will witness the signing of several important bilateral agreements to further strengthen ties,” Ambassador Thuy said.

Among the agreements that are set to be signed, Thuy said, included the agreement on mutual assistance in law enforcement, a repatriation agreement, a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in finance, fisheries, agriculture and energy sectors.

Representatives from Vietnam’s top 20 companies, Thuy said, would be accompanying President Sang.

“Our president will have a direct meeting with 10 Indonesian CEOs on Friday,” Thuy said.

Both countries, which signed a Friendly and Comprehensive Partnership Agreement in 2003 and a Strategic Partnership Action Plan 2012-2015 in 2011, have set a bilateral trade target of US$5 billion by 2015.-The Jakarta Post

US, Philippines forces off Panatag Shoal

The Philippine Navy’s flagship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, is back in the waters near Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), this time not for a face-off with Chinese warships over disputed territory in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) but for five days of joint maneuvers with the United States Navy.

The Philippines’ first warship will be participating in war games with a fleet of American naval vessels led by the guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald.

Panatag Shoal is a reef in the Philippine Sea claimed by both the Philippines and China and was the site of a maritime standoff between the two countries that lasted more than two months last year.

Far from Panatag

But the war games will take place 108 kilometers away from the disputed shoal, Lt. Cmdr. Gregory Fabic, spokesman for the Philippine Navy, said last week.

With the joint maneuvers playing out that far from the shoal, reportedly still guarded by three Chinese coastal patrol vessels, the Philippines and the United States do not expect China to view the exercises as “intimidation,” Fabic said.

The war games, called Exercise Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (Carat) 2013, begin Thursday and will run up to July 2.

Fabic said holding Carat near Panatag Shoal and other areas off northern Luzon had been planned long before the standoff with China at the reef last year.

The Naval Forces Northern Luzon is the primary Philippine Navy unit responsible for the exercise.

“The Carat 2013 major objectives are to enhance the current Philippine Navy and US capabilities in naval operations … such as communication, naval gunnery, at-sea operations, maritime interdiction and humanitarian assistance and disaster response operations and  increase the level of interoperability between the Philippine Navy and the US Navy in the conduct of combined naval operations,” a statement from the Naval Forces Northern Luzon said Wednesday.

It said the exercises would include in-port and at-sea events, individual and unit training, and engagement with the local community, among other activities.

Aside from BRP Gregorio del Pilar (PF-15), a PN Aircraft (Islander), Special Boat Team, Diving Team of Naval Special Operations Group (NAVSOG), Construction Team from the Naval Engineers and Philippine Marine Corps company will participate in the military exercises “to test their readiness and capability,” the Navy said.

It added that the Philippine Coast Guard would have one of its flagships, the BRP Edsa, joining the war games, as well as a helicopter, its diving team, and a visit, board, search and seizure team.

Aside from the USS Fitzgerald, the US Navy will have its salvage ships, the USNS Safeguard and USNS Salvor in the waters off Zambales.

Members of the US Marine Corps and other specialized personnel will also participate in the war games.

The USS Fitzgerald was sent to the Korean Peninsula last April amid tensions between South and North Korea. It also participated in the joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea, rankling the North.

In arbitration

Technically, the Philippines and China remain in a standoff at Panatag Shoal.

Philippine ships withdrew from the shoal in mid-June last year at the height of a storm to ease tensions in the area.
But despite an agreement to withdraw, the Chinese ships never left and even cordoned off the mouth of the shoal’s lagoon to prevent the entry of fishing boats from other countries.

With nothing to match China’s military might, the Philippines took the dispute to the United Nations in January for arbitration.

The Philippines and China also have rival claims in the Spratly archipelago, a scattering of islets, reefs and atolls in the middle of the West Philippine Sea believed to be sitting atop vast deposits of oil and gas.

Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also claim parts of the Spratlys in rivalry with China, which claims nearly all of the sea as its territory.

Japan’s defense chief

China is also locked in a territorial dispute with Japan over a group of islands in the East China Sea known to the Japanese as the Senkakus but which the Chinese call Diaoyus.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin is meeting Thursday with Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, who is visiting the Philippines for two days.

Whether the meeting between Gazmin and Onodera has to do with their countries’ territorial dispute with China is unclear, as there was no word about it in the advisory issued by the Department of National Defense on Wednesday.

A recent news report from Japan Times ( said that Onodera “plans to discuss with Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin the current tensions in the region and to work out a coordinated response toward China.”
But even this was unofficial, as the Japanese report quoted an unnamed government source.

From Manila, Onodera will fly to Hawaii supposedly to discuss with US officials its territorial row with China.

Wednesday’s advisory said that Onodera will arrive at the defense department at 10 a.m. and will be given arrival honors.

Limited press con

Onodera will meet with journalists after his call and lunch with Gazmin.

The advisory said Onodera would entertain “a maximum of two questions each from the Japanese media (including members of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines) and Filipino defense reporters.-Philippine Daily Inquirer

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Indonesia president apologizes for Southeast Asia smog

Indonesia's president has apologized for the raging forest fires that have blanketed its neighbors Singapore and Malaysia with thick smog in Southeast Asia's worst air pollution crisis in 16 years.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said Indonesia was doing everything it could to contain the fires on the island of Sumatra, including the deployment of military aircraft to waterbomb the blazes, and has earmarked around 200 billion rupiah ($20 million) to handle the disaster.

The week-long environmental crisis, which has seen air pollution in Singapore and Malaysia reach hazardous levels, is damaging tourism and businesses in both countries and could result in a bigger economic impact than the 1997 haze crisis which cost an estimated $9 billion.

"As the president, I apologise and seek the understanding of our friends in Singapore and Malaysia," said President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in a news conference late Monday.

After a week of thick smog, air quality in Singapore's financial centre has significantly improved with the pollution index remaining under "unhealthy" levels since the weekend. It hit a record of 401 on Friday afternoon, a level considered potentially life-threatening for the ill and the elderly.

Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday was still shrouded in haze, while Singapore's skies were pretty clear with the pollution index reading in the low 40s.

Indonesian police on Monday arrested two farmers for illegally starting fires to clear land in Sumatra, the first detentions linked to the slash-and-burn blazes, but police said the farmers were not linked to any of the eight companies the government suspects are responsible for the fires.

The parent companies of those firms included Malaysia-listed Sime Darby, which has denied wrongdoing.

"We arrested two farmers in Riau who were clearing their land by burning. They were not working for anyone but just clearing their own land," said Agus Rianto, deputy spokesman for the national police.

Under Indonesian law, any company or person involved in an illegal forest fire faces up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to 5 billion rupiah ($503,800).-GMA News

Myanmar to preserve buildings of the British Raj

Before it was subjected to more than 40 years of military rule, Yangon was a cosmopolitan port city and one of the great trading posts of the British Empire. It prided itself on attracting the world’s leading intellectuals, artists, and writers. Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Noël Coward, Pablo Neruda, and George Orwell all penned verse and prose based on their experiences living there and the magnificent architecture that surrounded them.

Now, as the country opens up and the economy – stagnated by years of sanctions – rapidly recovers, the city’s historical sites are at risk of being bulldozed in the name of progress. But a flurry of interest in preserving and renovating some of the finest examples of colonial era architecture has won the support of the government, highlighting a growing readiness to reconnect the country to its past and the lure of potential financial gain from such projects.

While the campaign to protect historical sites has been widely praised and supported both inside Myanmar and abroad, real estate experts caution investors against rushing into large-scale restoration projects until planning and investment regulations are more firmly established.

“In Yangon transparency is still very low,” says Chris Fossick, managing director of Jones Lang LaSalle in Singapore and Southeast Asia. “The legal system is not totally clear, nor is the foreign investment law clear or finalized so to a certain extent investors are taking a step into the unknown.”

In January 2012, local historian and author Thant Myint-U set up the Yangon Heritage Trust to raise public awareness of the importance of the city’s architecture and persuade the government to introduce a law to protect it.

“Hundreds of buildings from the colonial era and earlier have already been destroyed,” due to rampant development he says. “If we don’t act now to save what’s left, Yangon could lose its connection to the past.”

He estimates there are between 40 and 50 buildings from the colonial era or earlier still standing in downtown Yangon. Skyrocketing land prices means the value of the plots the old buildings stand on rises every month, making them increasingly vulnerable to development.

Among the old buildings listed for protection is the Sofaer Building, designed by a Jewish émigré from Baghdad and once home to the cosmopolitan Vienna Cafe, where high society in Burma came to buy pastries and talk politics. Nearby is the Secretariat building, once the nerve center of British colonial rule and later the site upon which Gen. Aung San, father of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was gunned down with most of his cabinet in 1947. There’s also an Armenian Church built in the 1850s; the Currency Building, still scarred from being bombed in 1942; and the old Supreme Court, the seat of justice under British and Burmese rule.

Many of the buildings, owned by the government, were abandoned when the capital was moved from Yangon to Naypyidaw in 2005. They stand half dilapidated and empty or have become unofficial homes for squatters. Others are privately owned and leased out to businesses or turned into flats.

In February 2012, Thant Myint-U and his colleagues presented a proposal to the Burmese president to conserve the buildings under the Burmese law for tourism and for history.

“We told him Yangon is at a watershed in terms of its future. We said we have an opportunity now to do something very few cities in Asia have done.”

It was a gamble because of the country's record of suppressing the past. However, to their surprise President Thein Sein accepted it.

Since then, interest in conserving the buildings has risen sharply, with offers of support coming in from foreign governments, wealthy individuals, companies, and charitable foundations. Some like Philips – the electronics company – who offered to help light some of the buildings at night with LEDs, have commercial interests in moving into the market in Myanmar. Others, like the government of Switzerland, expressed an interest in leasing a building to renovate and to turn it into an embassy.

Most of these projects, says Mr. Thant Myint-U, are nothing more than proposals or are in very early stages of planning. They will depend heavily on city zoning plans and property and investment laws currently being drawn up by the government and could take years before they come to fruition.

The show of interest, however motivated, has sparked genuine hope among locals and internationals that Yangon could retain some of its historical charm and character while continuing to modernize.

“At first people were happy to see the back of colonial rule and didn’t want to preserve it but now there’s an understanding that the past is important,” says Thant Myint-U.

Financial returns on any such project won’t be clear, say analysts like Mr. Fossick, until the political and economic situation in Myanmar stabilizes.

“There are greater chances here [than in more developed economies in Asia] that things might change again quickly and that risk is going to have to be priced in,” says Fossick.

Luc de Waegh, managing partner of the Myanmar business advisory company West Indochina, agrees.

“People are right to get excited but they also need to be realistic," he says, explaining that investors need to consider factors including a stymied skilled work force inside Myanmar, a limited manufacturing sector, and poor telecommunications.

“Political change happened much faster than people thought it would but it’s going to take longer for the economy to mature, says Mr. Waegh. “At first we saw a lot of people coming here with unrealistic expectations – venture capitalist who thought they’d found the Wild West of the Far East. What we’re likely to see now is much more serious people who can afford to take a long term approach.”-Yahoo News

Monday, June 24, 2013

Thailand 'white mask' protesters rally in Bangkok

Hundreds of anti-government protesters -- many wearing white masks -- converged on Bangkok's shopping district, Thai police said Sunday, in a reminder of the kingdom's political divisions.

The demonstration by the 'V for Thailand' movement -- an enigmatic protest group spawned over social media whose supporters wear the masks of comic book hero 'V' -- was the fourth this month outside the CentralWorld complex in the heart of the city.

"There were about 1,500 white mask protesters attended a protest," Deputy Metropolitan police chief Parinya Jansuriya said, adding the protest -- which lasted several hours -- was "peaceful."

Thailand has been plagued by political divisions and sometimes violent street protests involving so-called 'Red Shirt' supporters of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra -- and her self-exiled brother Thaksin -- and 'Yellow Shirts' who support the pro-establishment opposition.

Several other protest groups have sprung up in recent months protesting against the government of Yingluck and the influence of her brother, who is seeking a return to the kingdom but faces jail over corruption.

Little is known about the leaders or political allegiances of V for Thailand, but the group has swiftly developed a major social media profile railing against the government and Thaksin.

The group's Facebook page says it represents "people power" urging peaceful opposition to "parliamentary monopoly and corruption".

In a film version of the comic strip called 'V for Vendetta', white masks are distributed to encourage people to rise against a fictional dictator.

Thailand is still recovering from street protests by Red Shirts in 2010 that culminated in a bloody crackdown by security forces.

About 90 people were killed and nearly 1,900 wounded in a series of clashes in May 2010 between demonstrators and security forces.

Courts have ruled that some protesters were killed by security forces, leading to charges of murder being laid against then-Prime Minister and current opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva -- accusations he strenuously denies.

A trial of 24 Red Shirt leaders on terrorism charges began in December but four of them enjoy immunity as they are now lawmakers, so the case is expected to take years to complete during breaks in the parliamentary session.-Channel News Asia

Malaysia declares state of emergency over smog in south

Petronas Towers shrouded in haze (23 June 2013)

Malaysia has declared a state of emergency in two southern districts after smog triggered by forest fires in Indonesia reached hazardous levels.

The coastal towns of Muar and Ledang are in shutdown, and residents have been advised to stay indoors.

Air pollution has also worsened in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, shrouding its landmark Petronas Towers in hazy smoke.

Malaysia's environment minister is to meet his Indonesian counterpart on Wednesday to discuss the problem.

Smog has become an annual problem in Malaysia, but this is the first time in eight years that a state of emergency has been called, the BBC's Jennifer Pak, in Kuala Lumpur, reports.

People are angry that the authorities have not been able to address the health hazard, our correspondent says.

Schools closed

Officials on Sunday confirmed the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) had exceeded 700 in two districts. A reading above 300 indicates that air pollution has reached dangerous levels.

Schools in the region have been ordered to remain closed. Local authorities have distributed face masks to residents.

Even in Kuala Lumpur, where smog levels have so far remained moderate, visibility is now strongly reduced and the smell of thick smoke hangs in the air, correspondents say.

Kuala Lumpur resident Raj Ahmed told the BBC: "You wake up in the morning and you can smell burnt wood - you look out the window and there is constant smog clouding the major landmarks that you would ordinarily see.

"If you go outside, it's like constantly standing close to a small barbecue."

The haze drifted across from Singapore, which has experienced record pollution levels as a result of the fumes originating in Indonesia's Riau province.

The smog is being blamed on illegal land-clearing fires burning near the provincial capital Pekanbaru.

Palm-oil firms - some of which are based in Malaysia and Singapore - have been accused of using slash-and-burn techniques to clear space for their plantations.

Environmental group Greenpeace International said its analysis of Nasa data between 11 and 21 June had "revealed hundreds of fire hotspots in palm oil concessions".

Firefighters in Sumatra are continuing to try to bring the blazes under control.

The issue is likely to feature prominently at a meeting of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) taking place in Brunei next week.

The South East Asia haze in 1997 and 1998 covered Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and the southern Philippines, causing environmental damage and, by some estimates, around $9.3bn (£5.9bn) in economic losses.

Tourist numbers to the region fell sharply, and reports said the smog made around 20 million people ill.

The smoke also contributed to collisions on the roads and at sea, and a number of air disasters were blamed on poor visibility.-British Broadcasting Corporation